If you're like me, or you're a professional baseball player, Spring means only one thing: time to call our Dominican cousins and bust out the syringes. Or, it's time to play some baseball. One of the two. Being that it is only February, I expect my views to change at least 5 times before the season starts, but I've taken a good look around the MLB and have come up with I see to be a reasonable idea of this season is going to go. This post will have my National League Outlook, and I will be posting the AL in a few days. Well, here we go.
Author's Note: I guess I should have been more clear. When I placed two teams in the same "bracket," I am saying that they will finish next to each other in the standings, but in no particular order. For example, I don't necessarily think the Reds will finish 2nd, but that the Cards, Reds, and Brewers will in some order finish 2,3,4.
Winner: New York Mets- Look, the Mets have a tendency to choke as we all know, but going into camp I still see them as the most talented team in the East. I know the Phillies are the defending champs, and I'll explain in a second what I see for them, but I love the additions of K-Rod and Putz. You have to give them credit: they have a need, and they go fill it. With an improved bullpen and a potent lineup including Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran, and Johan Santana at the top of the rotation, give me the Mets, finally, in '09.
Just Missed: Philadelphia Phillies- The Phillies are the defending champs, and for good reason, and I still have them capturing the NL Wild Card. Having them finish second in the division has more to do with the Mets getting much better than the Phillies getting worse. Philadelphia will still be a factor, as long as Chase Utley's health holds up, but I think this team will miss Pat Burrell. Ibanez is getting older, and this lineup is too lefty-laden to be a huge factor in the late innings where lefty specialists control the game. Signing Hamels was a big step and that bullpen is still fierce. I see another postseason berth for the City of Brotherly Love.
Outside Chance: Atlanta Braves- The Braves did a great job in trading for Jake Peavy. Er, signing AJ Burnett. Wait, um, bringing Furcal back? The Braves really disappointed its fan base this offseason not making a big signing, or trade, and I don't see them finishing above third. Derek Lowe still has a lot in the tank, but makes for a better number 2. Same goes for Javier Vazquez. I really liked that they hung on to Yunel Escobar, he's going to be a great player. The problem with the Braves is that their best hitter hasn't played a full season in 5 years: Chipper Jones. If Jones stays healthy, and Lowe, Vazquez and Jair Jurrjens exceed expectations, then the Braves have a chance.
Maybe Next Year: Florida Marlins- You can never really count out the Florida Marlins because they seem to find talent anywhere and produce a workable product (though you wouldn't know it by looking at ticket sales). That being said, as much as I love Hanley Ramirez, and I think their lineup with him, Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu will be respectable, Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco as the dynamic duo really make this a 4th place team.
Maybe 5 Years From Now... Washington Nationals- The Nationals will once again be the NL's doormat. They did virtually nothing to improve one of the worst rotations in baseball, unless you consider Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen to be something, which I don't. Instead, they go out and get Adam Dunn. What does a team that is perennially rebuilding need to do? I know, sign a guy who bats .240 and strikes out more than makes contact to anchor the lineup. And, go ahead and stick him in left to bolster the outfield defense. I thought this was an awful signing for Dunn and Washington, and cannot see how this team doesn't finish last in this division this season....again.
Winner: Chicago Cubs- As much as it pains me to type it, the Chicago Cubs are far and away the best team in this division, and should clinch early, might even be the first to wrap up its division. Losing Kerry Wood will hurt, but it's almost impossible to argue against Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster as one of the best top 3's in the bigs, and Ted Lilly is no slouch...and he's the 4th starter! The lineup has hitters top to bottom and I love the addition of Milton Bradley. I think he brings a new spark to the team. Cubs run away with this one.
Just Missed: None
Outside Chance: Cincinnati Reds- The Reds are a team that could be very, very good this season. Or, very, very bad. There are a ton of question marks, way more than any answers. So why do I have them here instead of lower? Well, for one I'm a Reds fan. Kidding. Well, I am a Reds fan but that's not why I put them here. This is a team built completely on young talent, focusing on pitching, speed, and defense, a new twist for a team that usually leads the league in round-trippers. If all of the young stars maximize potential this season (Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and Edwin Encarnacion) and Aaron Harang bounces back , then the Reds could be a force. Or, the young guys may crack under the pressure of the big leagues and this team could fall flat. Time will tell.
St. Louis Cardinals- The Cardinals did almost nothing this offseason, but they still have Albert Pujols, and few guys in the league can carry a team like this guy. Ryan Ludwick emerged as a star last season, and they still have workable parts in Rick Ankiel, Yadier Molina and Chris Duncan. If Chris Carpenter can be dominant again, and Kyle Lohse can prove last season wasn't a fluke, then Cardinals could make a late run. But, like the Reds, a lot has to go right for the Cards to compete in '09.
Milwaukee Brewers- Rounding out the parade of NL Central teams who need EVERYTHING to go right to have a chance at a divsion title is the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers lost CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and are not even close to as good as last season's playoff team. However, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Mike Cameron lead an offense that could score the most runs in the NL this year. Problem is, only Yovani Gallardo can stop opponents from scoring runs and he's never thrown more than 180 innings in a season at any level of baseball. Once again, if this pitching staff can mold together into a functional unit, the Brewers could be a sleeper team. But, that's a big if.
Maybe Next Year: Houston Astros- Many people see the Astros as a team that should be in the above category, but not me. The Miguel Tejada debacle will continue to rear its ugly head this season, and outside of Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt, this team has mostly just spare parts on its roster. Very few players even have strong upside, with Wandy Rodriguez being one of them. It will be a long year for the 'Stros in '09, but they're not that far away and should be back in the hunt within a season or two.
Maybe 5 Years from Now... Pittsburgh Pirates- The most losing franchise, arguably in sports history, will get a chance to add to its illustrious history again this year, and once again not in a good way. They have a chance to set the record by having a 17th consecutive losing season, and I see no reason to think they won't. Oh well, Pittsburgh just got itself a Super Bowl trophy, so we'll go ahead and just call it even.
Winner: The NL West is so completely wide open, that I haven't selected a clear-cut front runner, but I've got three teams I think will make the most noise, in no particular order:
Los Angeles Dodgers- As entertaining and annoying as "Manny-Mania" is, it's time for it to end. The Dodgers need to get this deal done, and done now. This team has no chance without Manny Ramirez, none. Even with Manny, the Dodgers are just one of 3 contenders, in my eyes. Manny, combined with Andre Ethier, Rafeal Furcal, and Russell Martin will give the Dodgers a solid lineup and a chance at a division title. But, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw don't exactly strike fear in opposing hitters. They do, however, have a chance to be very good, and possibly top of the rotation guys this season, and if they are, LA will be tough to beat.
San Francisco Giants- Yes, the San Francisco Giants. It's hard to argue against really good pitching, and Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are great pitchers. Throw in a final year for big Randy Johnson, and possible big-breakout candidates Noah Lowry and Jonathan Sanchez and this team may actually have something here. Their lineup still lacks much needed power, but there's plenty of speed to go around. This team could steal some wins from teams by wearing them down, and could easily be a factor in this three-horse race, although they have the highest handicap.
Arizona Diamondbacks- As stated with the Giants' outlook, I love great pitching, and no one does pitching better than out in the desert. Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and Jon Garland seems almost unfair. Still, the lineup leaves a lot to be desired. This team will score runs thanks to some solid offensive players like Conor Jackson, Chris B. Young, and Justin Upton, but these are young players who can be very streaky. All signs point to the D-Backs having a pretty good season, and I believe they will. But, there's that lingering thought that the lineup has yet to turn that corner as a whole.
Just Missed: Two of the teams from above.
Maybe next Year: San Diego Padres- How hard could it be to trade one of the best pitchers in the league, who has a very reasonable contract? Harder than the Padres anticipated, so Peavy remains with the team. Well, at least he'll put fans in the seats every fifth day. Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez are very good players, so this team has some pieces, but this puzzle is too far from complete to compete this year.
Colorado Rockies- The fall from the top can be a long one, especially when you go from World Series runner-up with high expectations to likely division doormat. That's the 2009 Colorado Rockies in a nutshell. Garrett Atkins and Troy Tulowitzki make up a very good left side of the infield, but unfortuantely, there's not much else to look towards. The rotation is in shambles and Brian Fuentes is off to California with his unorthidox delivery. The Rockies aren't going to be a good team this season, but fortunately the future isn't too bleak up in the mountains.
How I see this whole thing playing out:
East: New York Mets
Central: Chicago Cubs
West: Los Angeles Dodgers
Wild Card: Philadelphia Phillies
Mets over Dodgers
Phillies over Cubs
NL Champion: The New York Mets
Feel free to disagree, that's the point of this site, right??