1. New York Mets. Despite playing in this killer of a division, I truly do believe that they have a shot at baseball's best record, and are probably the most complete team top to bottom. Much like those Rivera-Wetteland Yankee teams, games have essentially been reduced to six or seven innings with J.J. Putz and K-Rod waiting in the bullpen. There's been much wringing of hands about Rodriguez's drop in velocity, as he's mostly hitting 90-92 nowadays, but you wouldn't have known it from watching him last year. Johan Santana will get his NL Cy Young one season late, and the remainder of the rotation is serviceable, if unspectacular. In terms of the lineup, the only truly weak link is Luis Castillo at second (Brian Schneider couldn't hit his way out of a wet paper bag, but is good defensively and handles pitchers well, and Daniel Murphy is going to be fine in left, as he hit .348 with 17 RBI during spring and then homered in the opener). The bench is presently a bit iffy, but look for Omar Minaya to recify that during the season via prying bats from financially-challenged bottom-feeders.
2. Florida Marlins. I think I love them, so what am I so afraid of? Their general scrappiness and pluck under the tutelage of manager Fredi Gonzalez caught my eye last year, but they're graduating to Wild Card status this season, mark my words. Hanley Ramirez is your 2009 National League MVP, Cameron Maybin will take top rookie honours, and expect to hear Ricky Nolasco's name in the Cy conversation. Nolasco finished fifth amongst starting pitchers last season in my beloved WHIP (1.10), and the remainder of the young rotation, which features anti-household-names Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibal Sanchez (okay, I think he had a no-no a couple of years back, so is marginally known) should be gangbusters. Buttressing Ramirez in the middle of the order is future Yankee/Red Sox/Mets second baseman Dan Uggla and a rejuvenated Jorge Cantu, who, aside from their cool uniforms, provided some of the only highlights for a disappointing Mexico team at the WBC. Owner Jeffrey Loria is a fucking scumbag (ask me about his ransacking of the Expos), plus Miami is a gawd-awful sports town, so it pains me to make this prediction in a way, but the 326 or so die-hards should start saving for playoff tickets.
3. Philadelphia Phillies. They're going to be good again, but I just don't see them keeping pace with the top two. Swapping Pat the Bat for Raul Ibanez is a wash offensively, but the latter is a comically bad fielder, regularly driving my M's-fan buddy Corey to forehead-slapping and expletive-spewing. Seriously, watching him from the outfield bleachers at Safeco gives you a genuine perception on how wonky he really is out there. Generating runs isn't going to be an issue, but after Cole Hamels and the wizened Jamie Moyer (who you just know is going to get his 10-15 wins), the rotation kind of alarms me. Joe Blanton looked good okay after being acquired during the stretch drive last year, but his early season numbers in Oakland's pitcher-haven of a park were awful, plus I don't trust Brett Myers. Key setup guy J.C. Romero is gone for the first 50 games for juicing, and the law of averages says that Brad Lidge can't pull off another perfect season as closer.
4. Atlanta Braves. There are many question marks on paper, but this is a solid team that has an opportunity to put on a decent performance in baseball's toughest division. Chipper Jones is only playing his usual 90-120 games, but will post the numbers he always manages to, Brian McCann is one of the better hitting catchers in the game, and I was a backer of young'un Jordan Schafer even before he hit one out and was later intentionally walked (!) in his first career game the other night. Pitching seems a bit dodgy: Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez will effectively chew innings, but Jair Jurrgens sounds like the name of a shampoo, and I don't know what the Jesus a Kenshin Kawakami is (after doing some research, he's a Japanese import who seems to have pitched his way into the rotation, but walked more than he struck out in spring). Never count out a Bobby Cox team, the cagey old bastard.
5. Washington Nationals. The most entertaining thing about this team is that both recently acquired Scott Olsen and lunatic outfielder Elijah Dukes are graduates of an anger-management program, so maybe they can bond over beating the shit out of teenaged ballboys they perceive as looking at them askance. Dukes seems to be getting a lot of love from fantasy columnists in the leadup to the season, but I'm more of a Lastings Milledge fan. With Dukes, Milledge, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, and Austin Kearns all active, this team has way too many outfielders, while largely bereft of talent at other positions. It kind of reminds me of playing franchise mode in video games with the 'computer teams can make trades' option selected. What always happens is that clubs end up with, say, both David Ortiz and Albert Pujols at first base while some stiff like Sal Fasano is the everyday catcher racking up 160 games played. Still, the simple departure of shady Jim Bowden is a step in the right direction for this team.
Oh, I just have to get this off of my chest: the Sporting News yearbook is listing the top three third basemen in team history for each club, and number one for the Nats is Tim Wallach. Um...no, he's an Expo, so spare us the defiling of my childhood. I've never been a supporter of transplanted teams maintaining histories of franchises over that of cities: fans in jilted towns are distraught enough without the indignity of having prized civic milestones and revered figures adopted ready-to-wear by a new group of backers that wouldn't know them from a hole in the ground. It reminds me of when the Winnipeg Jets were spirited to the Arizona desert (to Count Bettman's delight), and the 'Goals For Kids' jersey shoulder patch and fans doing the playoff 'whiteout' were adopted. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure fans in Phoenix thought they were doing the 'Peg a favour in maintaining those traditions, but it only served to keep old wounds open. In the interest of full disclosure, this burst of nationalist sentiment could have something to do with the fact that I'm spinning Stompin' Tom vinyl as I type this.
1. Chicago Cubs. Respect. The Z is a bit of a head-case, granted but the rotation is top notch overall, the bullpen's loaded, and, with the likes of Aaron Miles and Joey Gathright, the bench is strong and flexible. Apparently Milton Bradley has been behaving, and if Lou can keep him from being a distraction, he should have a monster year batting between Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. I love Geovany Soto, and gritty Reed Johnson is platooning in center field: he was one of the more underrated Jays during his time in Toronto, and a fan favourite due to his hustle. Easily the class of this division.
2. Cincinnati Reds. This is my backup sleeper behind the Marlins: unfortunately, I don't think they have quite enough to catch the Cubbies, but it should still be an overall enjoyable season in the Queen City. Start with the dynamite young rotation: Aaron Harang is going to bounce back, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto are exciting, Homer Bailey should improve, and Bronson Arroyo is decent. I could easily see four of the starters winning at least twelve games. I'm also impressed with the batting order that GM Walt Jocketty (which, by the way, is one of the best baseball names out there, along with Skip Schumaker of the Cards: somebody get these guys a snuff endorsement already) has put together. If Willy Taveras can stay healthy, he's an ideal leadoff guy, Brandon Phillips borders on five-tool, and there's adequate power with Edwin Encarnacion, Joey Votto, Ramon Hernandez, and phenom Jay Bruce in the mix. Ditching Adam Dunn's one-dimensionality should be addition by subtraction, as this is a lineup of useful multitaskers. Ninety wins isn't out of the question.
3. St Louis Cardinals. Average. Based on the sum parts of their talent alone, the Cards look pretty decent, but I just don't have a great feeling about them. If Pujols remains healthy, he'll take his usual run at MVP, Khalil Greene is an upgrade at short (though the idea Tony LaRussa was floating about batting him in the cleanup spot is ludicrous), plus Rick Ankiel should be good for thirty homers. That said, Troy Glaus is out for the forseeable future, and I have questions about starting pitching. Adam Wainwright is a serviceable number one, but journeyman Kyle Lohse was re-signed for over $10 million per year: I don't particularly want to live in a galaxy where Kyle Lohse is making lottery money. I'd love to see ex-Jay Chris Carpenter battle back, but that's a massive 'if.' Making matters worse, the team drafted Scott Boras' kid, which is just a total karma-killer.
4. Milwaukee Brewers. The major question mark for the Brew Crew concerns pitching, though CC Sabathia moving on means that the catering budget may have dropped sufficiently to free up money for pursuing an arm. Yovani Gallardo has fantastic stuff, but he's still fairly unproven, and the team did reach terms with Braden Looper, who should eat up quite a few innings. Offensively, this group should steam right along. I see Prince Fielder leading the National League in homers this time around, which would be one giant leap for maligned vegetarians such as myself. By the way, would it have killed someone to have snapped a photo of Prince and Sabathia sitting side-by-side on motorcycles during CC's brief time in Wisconsin? It will be interesting to see if Rickie Weeks can finally break out; he may need a change of scenery at this point. Ken Macha is the 'that guy' of managers, in Sports Guy parlance.
5. Houston Astros. People have been predicting the demise of this bunch for the past three or four years, yet they always seem to end up around the 85-win mark. Still, the run ends here: I see them being fairly dreadful this time around. It's a bad sign when the redoubtable old warhorse Doug Brocail is still kicking around in their bullpen. Roy Oswalt is Roy Oswalt, and Wandy Rodriguez should be a decent sleeper, but the bottom three rotation spots are seriously suspect. I figure that karma also feeds into their impending suckitude, as they play in a park named after juice (which is just weird, and I feel the same way about Tropicana Field), plus it has that fucking train and idiotic hill in center field that reeks of trying too hard. Moreover, it was originally corporately christened for oil company succubi.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates. First of all, I'm not exactly sure what happened to that Tom Gorzelanny guy: somehow he managed to win 14 games for a putrid team a couple of years back, yet people have figured out that he actually sucked like a bucket of ticks the entire time. Secondly, Nate McLouth is fantastic, though I don't see him duplicating his all-world season from a year ago. Third, their offensive fortunes largely rest on the shoulders of the brothers Laroche, so pardon my skepticism. Fourth, I freely admit that I know nothing about this team, and why would I? They're so forgettable that, before writing this, I undertook a crash course of sorts, yet actually did see them on WGN last season several times. This could seriously be the most anonymous team in pro sports of the past ten years, supplanting that New York Islanders team from a couple of years ago that Mike Comrie led in scoring. And the worst part is that there's not even really an excuse: yeah, they're a mid-to-small-market club, but their payroll is around $50 million. I have the Marlins going to the playoffs, and theirs is around $30 million! Sigh.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers. I'm not completely sold on the LAD, but they should essentially take this division by default. As far as offseason signings go, that Manny guy is okay, but they had me when they inked the O-Dog. Biases aside (he's a personal favourite), I think Hudson will fit in nicely with what's looking like a pretty solid infield also featuring Rafael Furcal, steady Casey Blake, and young gun James Loney. Also, I'm solidly on the Russell Martin bandwagon nowadays. While never doubting his talent, for some reason I believed that he was kind of a head-case, but seeing him grit it out for Canada in the WBC (seemingly #1 on the give-a-shit meter) disabused me of that idea. Jonathan Broxton should succeed at closer, but Hong-Chih Kuo is waiting in the wings should he falter. Though young, the starting pitching will be fine. Speaking of which, is Jason Schmidt still lurking around? If yes, it's kind of like a hobgoblin rattling chains in a manor attic at this point.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks. Their pitching depth is admirable, but a .251 team batting average last year? Sweet Jesus. The majority of the lineup is young and strikeout prone (Mark Reynolds in excelsis), plus the bench is pretty thin, with the only truly plausible options sitting at has-been Tony Clark and the heinously overpaid Eric Byrne. Still, they simply can't be worse offensively than they were last season. The aforementioned hurlers give the team an outside chance at a pennant: besides able veterans Webb, Haren, Garland, and Davis, phenom Max Scherzer, who was brought to my attention by workplace arch-nemesis Jason Li (check out his Hobbyboxco card store found in the 'Honourary Conjecturists' links above) has a chance to make a real impact. The bullpen is a bit iffy: Chad Qualls converted his first save opportunity today, but he and incoming setup man Jon Rauch rival a truckstop whore (my old job) in the blowing department. In other news, this blog has no class.
3. San Francisco Giants. I'm not quite as high on this bunch as a sleeper as many others, since obviously the offense reeks to high heaven. Bengie Molina is in the cleanup spot, and he couldn't even wrest Toronto's starting catching job from the immortal Gregg Zaun a couple of years back (though, admittedly, Zaun's unique ability to turn opposing players to stone with a single glare may have also played a role in maintaining that platoon situation). On that note, watching Bengie leg out his sole triple as a Jay was easily the most entertaining moment for T.O. fans since Joe Carter's 1993 round-tripper, and it actually gives that milestone a run for it's money. Digressions aside, I maintain that they'll finish behind the Arizona Dirty Snakes: the Tim Lincecum factor is essentially cancelled out by Brandon Webb's presence in Phoenix, and the remaining D-Back starters are better 2-5. If Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is ever made into a TV series (I smell a sitcom...), casting Barry Zito as The Albatross is a no-brainer. Apparently he had a good spring, and, to his credit, there was a bounceback of sorts during the second half last year. The 'pen is looking pretty decent with steady Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry setting the table for closer Brian Wilson. One sleeper worth keeping an eye on is young first baseman Travis Ishikawa, who hit over .300 with 7 HR in the spring.
4. Colorado Rockies. Downside: Good B.C. boy Jeff Francis is done for the year, the Matt Holliday trade has left an gaping crater in the lineup, Todd Helton will inevitably be injured within the calendar month, and no more Brian Fuentes. Upside: Clint Hurdle smacks gum like nobody's business. This is going to be a generally dreary summer in the Mile High City, but there are a few things worth watching. Foremost amongst the positives, Ubaldo Jimenez naturally possesses some of the best stuff in the National League, only he's presently afflicted with a bad case of Daniel Cabrera syndrome (meaning his control is roughly on par quality-wise with that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Secondly, although losing Fuentes is obviously a complete and total drag, it does give Manny Corpas an opportunity to regain the role he occupied during the Rocks' Series run a couple of years back. Huston Street has first crack at the stopper job, but even if Corpas has a nice year in the setup role, it could bode well for his future prospects as a ninth-inning guy. I've read nice things about this Ian Stewart kid as well, and he ended up starting at second base in the opener. Denver sports fans are really taking it on the chin at the moment, what with the middling Rocks, Cutlergate, and the suddenly lousy hockey team. My advice: take a deep breath and focus on the Nuggets instead, plus I just have a weird hunch that the Avs are going to win the NHL draft lottery and wind up with John Tavares.
5. San Diego Padres. Potentially one of the worst teams in my lifetime. Wasn't Chris Young, like, a super-prospect as recently as a year or so ago?
NL Wild Card: Florida.
NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez, Florida.
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana, New York.
NL Rookie of the Year: Cameron Maybin, Florida.
NL Manager of the Year: Fredi Gonzalez, Florida.
ALDS: Indians over BoSox, Rays over Angels.
NLDS: Cubs over Marlins, Mets over Dodgers.
ALCS: Rays over Indians in six.
NLCS: Mets over Cubs in four.
World Series: Mets over Rays in five.