Yesterday was Opening Day, and while NPI still be caught up in college basketball excitement, that doesn’t mean we can’t bring you the brilliant baseball analysis you’ve come to expect. Today John S will be breaking down the National League, so brace yourself for backhanded compliments, ill-informed generalizations, and an overall tone of condescension and derision!
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Colorado Rockies
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
Hey, remember when the Padres were in first place? What? When did that happen?
For most of last year, actually. Lies! Next you’ll be telling me that it was largely due to someone named Luke Gregerson…
Well, now that you mention it—Look, the Giants’ whole “underdog” thing was fun when they toppled the Phillies, but it sort of ignores the fact that San Francisco has great starters, including two of the best in baseball. And it’s not like any of the four had unsustainably great years—in fact, we can probably expect Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner to get better. After all, Lincecum had by far the worst year of his young career in 2010, and Bumgarner only pitched half a season.
But what about their atrocious offense? They couldn’t even hold on to their biggest postseason bats, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria! Ah, but they did manage to find the perfect analog in Miguel Tejada, right down to the indeterminable age. Another master stroke by Brian Sabean!
Will you lay off that guy? He just won a World Series! Well, sure, if that’s your standard for success… In actuality, Sabean deserves credit for trading Bengie Molina last year and giving the job to Buster Posey full-time. If he’s smart, he’ll probably end up doing the same thing this year with Aubrey Huff and going with Brandon Belt. You can never have too much youth…
So you’re not drinking the Colorado Kool-Aid? Is that a new flavor? It sounds good. The Rockies seem to be a trendy pick to win this division, but apart from Troy Tulowitzki, Ubaldo Jimenez, and the home half of Carlos Gonzalez’s splits, the team is pretty mediocre. While 2010 was a breakout year for Jimenez, it’s probably asking too much for him to be that great again (if you don’t believe me, check out how Zack Greinke followed up 2009). And even if he is, there’s nothing to suggest the team getting better around him.
And the rest of the division? I have no idea what to expect from the rest of the division. The Dodgers had a surprisingly mediocre year after consecutive NLCS appearances, but I don’t see them being that bad again. The aforementioned Padres traded their only decent hitter to Boston, and the Diamondbacks have been in a tailspin since their 2007 NLCS appearance (raise your hand if you remember that NLCS). All three teams seem to have the potential to finish anywhere from “surprisingly decent” to “embarrassingly awful.”
1. Milwaukee Brewers
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
No love for the Cincinnati Reds? The Reds were another surprise division winner last year, powered largely by Joey Votto’s amazing MVP season. Even so, they won only 90 games to take a weak division.
But isn’t the division just as weak in 2011? Well, that’s entirely possible. They certainly lucked out with injuries to the aces of both their biggest rivals. Adam Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in the National League for at least two seasons, but he’ll be out for at least a year, which more or less kills the Cardinals chances. While Chris Carpenter is a great pitcher and Jaime Garcia is coming off a very impressive season, they both have big caveats: It’s never really safe to bet on Carpenter to complete a season and Garcia’s far too young to rely on as a top of the rotation guy. Meanwhile, the lineup is, as usual, a lot of patchwork built around Albert Pujols: Outside of Matt Holliday, there’s not much to like about the offense. I don’t know how much confidence Cardinals fans have in Ryan Theriot, Jon Jay, Skip Schumaker, and Lance Berkman. The Cardinals will score runs, but not enough to make up for the loss they suffered on the mound.
So why are you picking Milwaukee? Well, the injury to Zack Greinke is not nearly as severe as the injury to Wainwright—he’ll only miss about a month. And while Greinke’s 2010 was disappointing, he seems motivated to be on a contender (and one that’s not necessarily a media hotspot, which is probably good for Greinke) and likely to benefit from moving to the NL. Plus, he’s not the only bright spot in that rotation: Yovani Gallardo is this year’s Joe Posnanski pick for Breakout Pitcher of the Year. In 2009, his pick was Greinke, and last year his pick was Jimenez, so Joe Poz has a pretty successful track record. Shaun Marcum is also likely to have a breakout year. Already underrated as a pitcher, his numbers should go up now that he’s escaped the AL East. With those three at the front of the rotation for most of the year, and Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun anchoring the lineup, I like the Brewers in this division.
Do you realize you’re picking a team that’s planning to start Carlos Gomez, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Mark Kotsay? Well, yes, I may live to regret that, but the Reds have holes as well. For one, their lineup is shockingly old: Scott Rolen, Jonny Gomes, Edgar Renteria, and Ramon Hernandez are a combined 582-years-old (don’t check that math). Nobody outside of Votto is very intimidating. And while there is a lot of talent in that rotation, none of their young starters—Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Mike Leake, Edinson Volquez—have ever thrown 200 innings in a season, and only Cueto has pitched a full year since 2008.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Florida Marlins
4. New York Mets
5. Washington Nationals
So, how good will the Phillies be, and how many games will they win this division by? Philadelphia added Cliff Lee (at the discount rate of $120 million) to a historic rotation (and a lineup that was second in the league in runs scored), leading many to wonder what the ceiling is for this team. I’ve actually been surprised by how moderate the expectations for this team have been (Sports Illustrated predicted 93 wins). The main caveats I’m hearing are about health and hitting.
The first worry seems totally misplaced to me. After all, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Lee, are not just four the best pitchers in baseball right now—they are four of the most consistent and durable. In the last three seasons, this quartet has combined for 180 wins, two Cy Youngs, over 2,600 innings, a perfect game, and only the second postseason no-hitter of all-time. There’s no serious history of injuries among the four—even with a DL-stint last year, Lee still threw 212 innings.
As for the offensive concerns, they seem largely overblown. Yes, the Phillies lost Jayson Werth, who was probably their best hitter in 2010, and Chase Utley’s knee may keep him out for a long time. Nevertheless, Philadelphia was second in the league in runs last year, and that was with down years from Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, and Ryan Howard. It’s certainly possible that age had a lot to do with those down years, but it’s hardly unreasonable to expect at least one of them to rebound. More importantly, this team doesn’t need to be a great offensive team. Halladay, Oswalt, and Lee have all had great seasons on teams with far worse offenses than the Phillies have this season. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect them to average over 20 wins apiece, which should make getting to 100 victories pretty easy for the team…
…Particularly in this division, am I right? Seriously, with the Mets, Marlins, and Nationals, the Phillies should get more than a couple easy wins. The Marlins, the best of those three, traded Dan Uggla, who was actually more productive than Hanley Ramirez in 2010, and don’t have much pitching behind Josh Johnson. The Nationals spent $137 million to add Jayson Werth, who is basically a right-handed Adam Dunn (who signed for $80 million less). Meanwhile, the Mets couldn’t spend any money, since they lost so much to Bernie Madoff, and the little they have left they owe to Bobby Bonilla. The most interesting thing about the Mets this season will be at what point they decide to trade Jose Reyes. After all, the Mets are unlikely to compete this year and Reyes will be a free agent this off-season. Some are saying Reyes could command $100 million on the open market.* Even if his contract is more reasonable, the Mets would likely have to sign him through his mid-30s, so it’s hard to see how he fits into the new rebuilding plan. Unlike the other veterans on the roster—Carlos Beltran, Jason Bay, Johan Santana—Reyes’ doesn’t have a contract that makes trading him difficult. At the same time, though, Reyes is a fan-favorite, and he’s the longest-tenured Met, so it’s hard to see the team voluntarily parting with him, even if it’s in the best interest of the franchise.
*Come on, he may be good, but is he really “Adrian Beltre good”?
Can Atlanta give Philadelphia a run for this division? It’s possible, but I don’t really see it being close. The Braves added Dan Uggla to their lineup, and they shed some dead weight by letting go of Melky Cabrera and Troy Glaus. This year’s lineup is younger and deeper, but the Braves’ success will ultimately hinge on the youth in the back of their rotation (this is kind of a theme in the National League): Will Jair Jurrjens pitch like he did in 2009, or like he did in 2010? Will Tommy Hanson put together a whole season like the second half of last year? And who the hell is Brandon Beachy? Atlanta knows what to expect from Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, and I think the young guys will give them enough to grab the Wild Card, but I don’t see Atlanta making the divisional race that close.
GIANTS over Braves: San Francisco takes a rematch of the classic 2010 NLDS in similar fashion. After dropping the first game at home, the Giants win three straight behind Cain, Bumgarner, and Sanchez.
BREWERS over Phillies: Milwaukee stuns the regular season juggernaut, beginning with a Zack Greinke no-hitter in Game 1. Cliff Lee pitches a gem in Game 2, but Brad Lidge blows it by surrendering a three-run homer to Prince Fielder in the ninth. The Phillies win Game 3 in a laugher, and everyone insists that Ron Roenicke start Greinke on short rest in Game 4 since “the Brewers absolutely cannot let this series go back to Philadelphia.” Roenicke, however, sticks with Randy Wolf, reminding everyone that Wolf’s “been here before” by citing his two decidedly mediocre postseason starts in 2009. Amazingly, Wolf pitches 6 1/3 scoreless innings by shutting down most of Philadelphia’s lefties, including three crucial strikeouts of Ryan Howard with men on base. Meanwhile, a Ryan Braun double in the sixth gives Milwaukee a 2-0 lead that John Axford holds onto by pitching two innings of relief.
GIANTS over Brewers: Milwaukee’s celebration is short-lived, as the Brewers are quickly swept by San Francisco, who holds them to three runs four games.