Nate On Sports: The MLB Preview that YOU Demand (Part II)

So baseball season is underway, and my already half-empty glass of Cubs baseball is a little more empty, courtesy of the Atlanta Braves, Carlos Zambrano (although, in his defense, that first inning was a lot of bad luck), the Cubs bullpen (I’m looking at you Jeff Samardzija), and generally horrid defense. However, this column isn’t just about the Cubbies, so I digress. Without further ado, here is the National League preview for 2010.

NL East:

In my opinion, this is the easiest of the divisions to call. The Phillies are still ridiculously loaded, and are still my pick to come out of the National League for the third straight year. Pause for a moment and think how loaded this team would be if it hadn’t included Cliff Lee in the Roy Halladay trade. Instead of being ridiculously loaded, this team would be something closer to exponentially loaded. And it probably could have happened too, but kudos to the Phillies GM for thinking long-term and keeping some of the team’s top prospects.

With that being said, however, the Phillies are a no-brainer pick here. The offense is the best in all of baseball outside of the Yankees, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’d take the Yankees line-up over the Phils. There are two top-five MVP candidates on this team in Howard and Utley, and Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Jason Werth, and Shane Victorino aren’t exactly slouches either. The starting pitching is very good as well, with possibly the best one-two punch in all of the Major Leagues, assuming Hamels reverts back to 2008 form, along with the always consistent (and consistently great) Roy Halladay. The only area of concern I see with this team is its bullpen – and it’s not just closer Brad Lidge. The team’s middle relief doesn’t exactly stand out either. But the quality of the starting pitching and the depth of the offense should be able to mask the bullpen’s shortcomings rather well.

After the Phillies come the Atlanta Braves, who have some of the best pitching in the league. The starting rotation is especially solid, even with the trade of Javier Vazquez to the Yankees. The offense also looks to be solid, and the play of rookie Jason Heyward and veteran free agent signee Troy Glaus will determine how serious of a playoff contender this team is. It would not shock me in the least to see this team get the wild card berth.

The Marlins, Mets, and Nationals should round out the division, in that order. The Marlins are young and have some very high-end players (Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez, anyone?) but are likely to be inconsistent as a result – the lack of veteran presence may also hinder this team. The Mets are already injured and lack a starting rotation outside of Johan Santana, so it’s hard to take them too seriously. And the Nationals, well, they’re the Natinals. (Note: that spelling was incorrect on purpose… in perfect symbolism of how bad this franchise is, the Nationals wore misspelled uniforms during a game last year.)

Projected order of finish: Phillies-Braves-Marlins-Mets-Nationals.

NL Central:

As much as it pains me to say this as a Cubs fan, it’s hard to envision a scenario with the Cardinals not winning this division. The good news for me, I guess, is that the Cubs are probably the only team capable of winning it instead of the Cardinals, but I’d put these chances as pretty low.

The legend of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan continues to grow, as it seems year after year he turns a forgotten and seemingly worthless pitcher into Cy Young. Last year it was Joel Piniero. This year? My money’s on Brad Penny. The guy has always had great stuff, and assuming he can stay healthy, Duncan is the guy that will bring it out of him. If Penny or Kyle Lohse can step up and be an effective third starter behind Carpenter and Wainwright, this division race is over. Of course, you’re assuming that Carpenter stays healthy, which is never a certainty. On the offensive side, they have Albert Pujols. Heard of that guy? I hear he’s pretty good. They’ve also got legitimate protection for Pujols in Matt Holiday, and a seemingly endless supply of scrappy overachievers that always drive the opposition crazy. They also have Mark McGwire as hitting coach now, and as soon as he says (or lies) about something else, I’ll post a column on him. (Hint: I don’t think much of Mark McGwire, his “apology”, or his “logic.”)

The Cubs should finish second behind the Cardinals, given the perceived weakness in the division. But it’s hard to imagine this team being much more than average. Aging and/or overpaid players litter this roster. Let’s list the overpaid players, shall we? Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Dempster, and Carlos Silva. Now, I’m just going by memory here, but those five make a combined $75 million or so. To be fair, Fukudome and Dempster aren’t in line with the others, but for guys that make about $12M and $13M, respectively, they should be a lot better than they are. Thank you, Jim Hendry. Basically, this team needs to stay healthy and hope for Cardinals’ injuries to have a shot.

The Reds should be improved, but not to a point where they seriously contend yet. Plus, with Dusty Baker there, you know at least one starter will need Tommy John surgery or rotator cuff surgery – my money is on Johnny Cueto this year. Milwaukee has three very good to great players (Braun, Fielder, and Gallardo – and a potential fourth in Alcides Escobar) but much like the Mets, after their ace, the pitching is very questionable. The Astros are falling like an astroid (holy bad contracts galore, Batman!), and if it weren’t for the cheapest team in baseball – the Pittsburgh Pirates – they’d be last in the division.

Projected order of finish: Cardinals-Cubs-Reds-Brewers-Astros-Pirates

NL West:

The most exciting division race in baseball of the past two of the past three years looks to be primed for a third act. In 2007, it was the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Padres dueling it out. Last year, it was the Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants. This year, the Dodgers, Rockies, and Giants will duke it out again.

It’s really hard to pick out a favorite of the bunch. If you asked me who had the best pitching staff, I would say “Giants” without a second though. The rotation is great and the bullpen is good – good enough for me. Of course, the Dodgers pitching will probably overperform this year, like it does every other year. Forgive me for not trusting any team the starts Vicente Padilla on opening day, however. The Rockies pitchers, as a whole, look solid albeit unspectacular.

Regarding offense, however, the roles are reversed. San Francisco has one of the most uninspiring offenses in the league, especially among those expected to compete. The Dodgers and Rockies, on the other hand, have very good and potentially dynamic offenses, with the Dodgers led by Matt Kemp and the Rockies by Troy Tulowitzki. I’d probably give the edge to the Rockies, but it would be close.

Then you have everything else. The Dodgers have Joe Torre, who I think is still a top five manager in the game. Bruce Bochy has quietly always done a solid job wherever he’s at, whether it’s in San Diego or now, San Francisco. And Jim Tracy completely turned around the Rockies last season when he replaced Clint Hurdle back in June. So yeah, that’s pretty much a toss-up, from my perspective.

Today, if I had to pick (and for the sake of this blog, I do) I would pick San Francisco to win the division, followed by Colorado, and then followed by the Dodgers. If you know me, I will always take a pitching over offense, and it’s hard to get better than the Giants at pitching. These thoughts will undoubtedly change throughout the season, but that’s the way I see it right now. Arizona is in the process of redefining itself and should finish a distant fourth, although if Brandon Webb can return to form, they could be a factor as well. And speaking of redefining themselves, the Padres are taking it to an extreme… in an extremely bad way. They could very well be the worst team in baseball this year, especially if Adrian Gonzalez is shipped elsewhere at the trade deadline.

Projected order of finish: Giants-Rockies-Dodgers-Diamondbacks-Padres

Projected playoff teams: Phillies-Cardinals-Giants-Rockies

Projected NL Champion: Phillies

Projected World Series: Boston-Philadelphia, with Philly winning it all

If opening night is any indication, it should be a fun baseball season. That is, unless you’re an eternally pessimistic Cubs fan. And for that reason, God invented vodka. Cheers!

(Publisher’s Note: This columnist’s opinions do not represent the opinions of the publisher regarding the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will of course win the N.L. West again this year. Have a nice day!)