Two of the last three World Series champions don't lie, the power shift from the American League to the National League is in full effect. Aside from the youth movement that has finally taken grasp, many of the game's great pitchers have moved to the Senior Circuit. And when you take into account the end of the steroid era, the DH dominance has been replaced by the shifty managers and station to station baseball of the NL. But who will be the best of this deep field? Hell if we know, this is just our best guess.
NL East predictions
1. Philadelphia Phillies
I hate this with every fiber of my being, but being a true baseball fan, I have to appreciate the Phillies pitching rotation. If there is one pitcher I could choose to build a team around, it has to be Roy Halliday, who is arguably one of the ten best pitchers to ever play the game (and will be recognized as such when his career is over). Now imagine how good he's going to be when teams can't match their ace up against him because they're worrying about Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt behind him. The only thing that will keep them from winning the NL East is injuries. This might seem obvious, but they have shown a propensity to lose important players over the years, and already look to be without Chase Utley for at least a couple months to start the season. That said, pitching will carry them to at least a wild card, and more likely, the division.
2. Atlanta Braves
I'm on board with the idea that the NL East will send two teams into the playoffs, and am oh-so-close to picking the Braves to take the division. They have one of the best young clubs in all of baseball, whose pitching staff will be amazing in two or three years. Tommy Hanson might be the best third pitcher in all of baseball, and oh yeah, they have Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe to help them make the transition to the young guns. Meanwhile they boast a lineup that includes Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. Look for the Braves to make a run for the division in 2011, the only thing holding me back from predicting them to win it outright is the huge loss of Bobby Cox. Ha! Cox.
3. NY Mets
You can call this a homer pick if you want, but regardless of how bad the Mets will be in 2011, I can't see the Nationals or a depleted Marlins team finish better than a team who still boasts a roster with David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana. And despite what will inevitably be a season middling around .500, fans have to like the new management who is cutting the waste and building a real farm system in Buffalo.
4. Washington Nationals
Yes, the Nats will climb out of the basement of the NL East to finish second to the bottom. They even have a murderer's row in the 2-5 spot, with the $126 million man Jayson Werth in the 2 spot, silver slugger Ryan Zimmerman in the 3 and Adam LaRoche cleaning up. Unfortunately they don't have much pitching, and Stephen Strasburg won't be back until 2012, so look for them to finish under .500. Still, their hitting should provide enough spark to get them moving in the right direction. Can't do worse than last, right?
5. Florida Marlins
The Marlins could finish as high as second place in the division, or as I'm predicting, last. Hanley Ramirez remains one of the top 5 players in the game, but he's lost some of his insurance when Dan Uggla was picked up by Atlanta. Ironically, the Fish got the Braves' second basemen in the ageless wonder Omar Infante, but he's clearly not the player Uggla is. The Marlins though, as always, have one of the best crops of rookies and players in the minors, so it is possible youngsters like John Buck, Gabby Sanchez, Donnie Murphy and a full season out of Mike Stanton in right field could propel them to great heights. But I still suspect it will take half the year for this team to gel, and that's just too long in this highly competitive division.
NL Central predictions
1. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds have been the team of the future for the past three or four years, and it finally looks like their time has come. They took the division last year, but their inexperience was exposed early in the post season. Look for them to repeat and build on last year's success with a dominant division win in '11. They return Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Jonny Gomes and potential breakout star Drew Stubbs to a lineup that led the league in runs, batting average, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. That will make up for their relative lack of an ace, and a good young staff featuring Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, and Aroldis Chapman on the backend should anchor a rotation that will carry them deep into the post season.
2. Chicago Cubs
This is as much an indictment of the Cards in 2011 as it is a testament to the Cubs, who should benefit from the lack of attention they'll be getting this year. Gone is their media hungry manager. In is Carlos Pena and and Matt Garza. And don't be surprised to see a big year out of Alfonso Soriano who had a great second half of 2010. Of course he doesn't have the legs anymore, but he doesn't even need to play everyday with Fukudome backing him up, and the emergence of Darwin Barney gives the Cubs some added pop out of the infield alongside Aramis Ramirez. Most importantly however, is their bullpen, who ranks among the best in all of the majors. Closer Carlos Marmol's coming off the second best k's-to-innings ratio of all time, and he's supported by a crew that should keep most games to six or seven inning affairs. And as any baseball fan will tell you, that will get you a lot of W's.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
Don't let any pundit tell you the status of Albert Pujols lingering contract is not a distraction to the team. When the best player of the last 50 years enters the season unsigned and is staring free agency in the face, it puts so much pressure on the Cardinals to have a productive season. It's hard to imagine Pujols leaving St. Louis, but it becomes easier to envision if the Cards fail to contend. Which is a distinct possibility after losing their ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery. They definitely have the bats to carry them if Pujols and Holliday remain the players they've been for the past decade, but a questionable bullpen at best, anchored by a 38-year-old closer, will see them lose more close ones than they'll pull out.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
I hate to put the Brewers this low, but the division that was once “the Cardinals then everyone else” has emerged as one of the better in all of baseball, and they just don't have the depth or finances to compete. Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum were nice additions in the off season, especially coming over from the AL, but both have been battling injuries and will be hardpressed to carry a rotation who needs help getting to their closer. Quietly, Prince Fielder remains the second most coveted first basemen in the final year of his contract, which could also prove to be a distraction for the Brew crew. Like I said, it would be nice if they contended in 2011, but I just don't see it happening.
5. Houston Astros
Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and a decent young pitching staff are the only reason they are above Pittsburgh.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
NL West predictions
1. Colorado Rockies
Don't hate me Giants fans, but I'm going with a gut feeling here. This could be the year Ubaldo Jimenez becomes a legitimate top 5 starter, and Troy Tuolwitzki and Carlos Gonzalez almost make you forget about that Todd Helton guy. Every year the Rockies make a late run, but in 2011 they boast a more stable roster than in years past and a rotation that is no longer a question mark. It will definitely be a two horse race in the NL West, and it's safe to say who you pick depends on where you live, but the great equalizer in every sport is the championship hangover, and I fully expect the Giants to slip just enough to leave the door open for Colorado.
2. San Francisco Giants
The sophomore slump won't seem like too big a drop off for the Giants, who still look to be one of the best NL teams. But in a year where both the Central and East are deep with talent, it's hard to imagine the wild card coming from the West, making the division title imperative to a post season run. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are the only one-two punch that can tread water with Halladay and Lee, but unlike the Phils, there's no offense to back them up. What was a group built on gumption in a weak division in '10 will find it difficult to repeat with an offense whose only addition was the non-steroid version of Miguel Tejada.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Who wouldn't love to see Donnie Baseball guide the Dodgers into the playoffs in 2011? It's entirely possible in a division with so many question marks, but it will depend on a lot of ifs—notably closer Jonathan Broxton who basically exploded at the end of 2010. Still, the bullpen remains one of the team's strengths, with Hong-Chih Kuo and a good group of young arms right behind him. Like the Giants, don't expect the Dodgers to win too many offensive battles. With no true homerun hitter at either corner, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier will need to carry the power-load for the Dodgers, which, like I said, is entirely possible. Still, that's a lot of ifs'.
4. San Diego Padres
I'm pissed. Not only did the Padres lose their best offensive player in Adrian Gonzalez, I lost him in my National League-only keeper league when he landed in the AL. An already power-starved offense losing their biggest threat will undoubtedly sink them to the bottom of the division. But don't worry Padres fans, the trade got you a lot of prospects that should have you competing sometime around the end of the Mayan calendar. Until then, sit back and enjoy the mediocrity.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
Perpetually rebuilding means perpetually bad.