As promised, today I'll give you the NL side of my MLB predictions (check out Saturday's blog entry for the AL side). I also picked my World Series champion at the end. Of course, I could just cut out the suspense right now and tell you it's the Red Sox.
Anyway, not a whole lot more to say, so let's get right into it.
1. New York Mets
I can't make an argument against them. People like to point to Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez at the top like they'll live and die by them, but what about John Maine? He was their ace last year, and I think he still has room to grow. And if Oliver Perez does only as well as he did last year, this team has the deepest rotation in the league, probably. They also have the best bullpen in the division and an obviously no-slouch lineup. Ring them up.
2. Atlanta Braves
Yeah, OK. A lot of people like the Phillies, but I think the Braves did more to improve themselves in the offseason. They certainly added depth to their rotation with the acquisitions of Tom Glavine, Jair Jurrjens and -- maybe it doesn't technically count, but -- Mike Hampton. And while I think the signing of Glavine is a bit overrated, who do we compare him to? Buddy Carlyle? The bullpen looks good. The lineup already looked good and now should see improvements from Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson. And don't even mention the loss of Andruw Jones. He hindered this team on offense last year.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
They have a killer offense. Killer -- I love it. But the back three of their rotation scares me to death. Maybe Jamie Moyer and Glavine compare more closely than I give credit for, but Moyer is older, and he did fare worse in 2007. I think Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick get bounced before season's end, and I don't see the poor bullpen having improved any in the offseason. The Phillies added Brad Lidge, sure, but they moved Brett Myers back to the rotation (as they should have). Based on the improvements the Mets and the Braves made, I don't think the Phillies can keep up this year, but they'll have one of the best third-place teams in baseball.
4. Washington Nationals
I really don't think the Nationals get enough credit. They went 73-89 last year -- the same as the Houston Astros -- but they started the year 9-25. They played .500 ball (64-64) the rest of the way. I don't know if they have any future All-Stars on their pitching staff, but Jason Bergman, Matt Chico and Tyler Clippard all have a decent amount of upside. I particularly like Bergmann to impress this year. The Nationals have some young outfielders with upside in Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, and they get the single best offensive upgrade of any team in the division with the return of Nick Johnson from a broken leg. No, I wouldn't call the Nationals a bad team.
5. Florida Marlins
They have Mark Hendrickson as their ace, OK? That should tell you everything you need to know. More people worry about their lineup, though -- particularly in terms of protection for Hanley Ramirez -- but I wouldn't exactly call Dan Uggla, Jeremy Hermida, Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs chopped liver. The Marlins will score a decent number of runs this year. Hermida in particular looks like he turned the corner last year, hitting .340 with a .956 OPS in the second half.
1. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers have a fearsome middle of the order, with all of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy having room to grow. They have an overloaded starting staff to account for the unexpected, such as Yovani Gallardo going down for the first two weeks of the season. And they have five former closers in their bullpen in Eric Gagne, Derrick Turnbow, Salomon Torres and Guillermo Mota -- and that's not even counting David Riske. They look like one of the best teams in the NL.
2. Chicago Cubs
I know they look like the favorites going into the season, but when trying to make such broad predictions involving so many uncertainties, you have to play a few hunches. I have a hunch Carlos Zambrano is going the wrong direction statistically. I don't think he pitches like an ace this season. I also have a hunch Ted Lilly takes a step back in his second year in the NL. So basically, I don't think the Cubs will have the pitching they need. I also think their middle of the order -- Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez -- is a tad overrated, particularly when compared to Fielder, Braun and Hart in Milwaukee.
3. Cincinnati Reds
Don't get me wrong: I don't trust Dusty Baker as a manager, but I can't help but love the talent the Reds have assembled. Between Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Matt Maloney, Josh Fogg and Matt Belisle, they should find a serviceable three to fill out the rotation after Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. And you have to appreciate Brandon Phillips, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey in the middle of the lineup. Just wait until Joey Votto and Jay Bruce start paying dividends.
4. Houston Astros
Oh, they have bats aplenty -- that much I can't deny. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee form one of the most underappreciated slugging duos in the majors, and now they have Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence with them -- not to mention Michael Bourn and Kaz Matsui tearing up the base paths up top. Unfortunately, the Astros' pitching staff consists of Roy Oswalt and, what, Wandy Rodriguez in his home starts? I'm not buying.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have overachieved for the last few years now, including when they won the World Series in 2006, so I can see them surprising me and finishing as high as second in the division. Then again, I can't. They simply don't have the talent. Troy Glaus adds some nice thump to go along with Rick Ankiel, and I guess you could stick Chris Duncan in the same category. Oh, and then there's Albert Pujols, but for how long? Even if he keeps his elbow together all season, I don't see this team having the offense it needs with no bats up the middle of the diamond. (Cards fans, pray for Colby Rasmus.) And the pitching staff? Forget it after Adam Wainwright. If not for my confidence in Tony La Russa, I might place the Cardinals last.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates finally switched out their front office, and any would be better than the one they had (except maybe for Chuck LaMar's reign of terror in Tampa Bay). I want to take a few moments here to interject just how much I love expected center fielder Nate McLouth. I know he wasn't the biggest prospect in the world, but he seems to have figured something out at the major-league level. Look at his stats last year and project them over a full season of at-bats. He's had a great spring and knows how to take a pitch, so I could see him having a 20-20 season -- if not this year, then eventually. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much help outside of Adam LaRoche and a possibly recovered Jason Bay. On the pitching staff, I think the Pirates have a developing ace in Ian Snell, and Tom Gorzelanny is good, I guess -- I guess. Otherwise, I'm not impressed. Too bad all those early draft picks didn't pan out.
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't point out that their actual record last year (90-72) far exceeded their Pythagorean win-loss record of 79-83. But the Diamondbacks have something the Mariners don't: upside. All across the diamond, from Stephen Drew at short to Conor Jackson at first to Chris Young in center -- really, everyone except for Eric Byrnes in left and Orlando Hudson at second -- I expect the Diamondbacks to improve. And now that they have an ace tandem atop their rotation with Dan Haren joining Brandon Webb, what weakness do they have, really? Oh, I didn't even mention I expect a few more starts from Randy Johnson and all-around improvement from Micah Owings. Trust me: This roster is loaded with talent.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
I don't buy the acquisition of Andruw Jones as a major improvement. However, I do buy full seasons from James Loney and Matt Kemp as something that'll help this team in the standings. Rafael Furcal should bounce back, and Russell Martin looks for real. The only reason I place the Diamondbacks ahead of the Dodgers is because of their starting rotation, where the Dodgers have plenty of depth but lack a legitimate ace (and the Diamondbacks have two). At least by having Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito in the bullpen, games end after seven innings.
3. Colorado Rockies
Plenty of offense, for sure. Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton can all slug and get on base -- and I didn't even mention Troy Tulowitzki, who everyone seems to love. I just don't like the Rockies' rotation. It's not a complete wasteland like it's been for much of the team's history, but ace Jeff Francis strikes me as a little overrated, looking at his strikeout rate and WHIP, and after the unrefined Ubaldo Jimenez, what is there? Aaron Cook -- seriously? Granted, Franklin Morales and Jason Hirsh have some potential, but I don't see it yet. This team got a little ahead of itself last year.
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres are my only projected fourth-place team that I could see winning their division. I perennially underrate them -- except for last year, when overrated them because I knew I perennially underrate them and overcompensated. Anyway, starting rotation -- Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux -- all fine. Offense? Boo. Other than Adrian Gonzalez, I can't see any of these guys representing the NL in the All-Star game. I think Kevin Kouzmanoff is solid, I think Chase Headley has upside, and I look forward to the arrival of Matt Antonelli. But for now, I have this team falling out of the race because of its lineup.
5. San Francisco Giants
What a sorry bunch. I know: How can a strikeout-and-WHIP-dominated guy like myself not love Tim Lincecum at Matt Cain? Rest assured, I do. But I don't love Bengie Molina batting cleanup. I don't like him batting higher than seventh. And unless you think Aaron Rowand or Randy Winn is a sufficiently better answer, you don't have a lot to love about the Giants either.
Wild Card: Los Angeles Dodgers
MVP: Prince Fielder
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie of Year: Chase Headley
League Champion: Arizona Diamondbacks
World Series: Red Sox over Diamondbacks in seven