MLB Preview: National League

Baseball season is already underway, but John S didn’t let the first weekend alter his preseason predictions. You’ll just have to trust him on that…

NL West

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

2. San Francisco Giants*

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

4. Colorado Rockies

5. San Diego Padres

You really nailed this division last year, huh? It’s true that last year I had the Diamondbacks, who ultimately won the division, finishing last in my season preview. So in order to make up for it, I’ve picked them to repeat in 2012.

And it’s not like it’s a trendy pick, either, since nobody’s really expecting Arizona to make the playoffs again.

Psh, haters gonna hate. What’s not to like about this team? Last year’s team won six more games than their Pythagorean suggested they would. They made the playoffs largely due to career years from Ian Kennedy and Justin Upton.

Meanwhile, the Giants suffered pretty bad luck, with that Buster Posey injury and a huge dropoff by Aubrey Huff. Tim Lincecum had a pretty great year for a 13-14 record and Matt Cain earned that huge contract. In general, it’s hard to bet against that pitching, even if they had the worst offense in the National League last year.

So have you talked yourself out of your pick? Even if I had, I still wouldn’t pick the Giants, purely out of principled objection to the Melky Cabrera-Jonathan Sanchez trade.

Why do you hate Brian Sabean so much? That trade was a perfect example of pretty much everything a GM can do wrong in a trade: Sabean traded for someone coming off a career year, giving up an asset at the nadir of its value, in a clear desperate move to inadequately fill a need. I mean, does anyone really thing that Melky Cabrera is the answer to San Francisco’s offensive struggles? Or even a demonstrable improvement over Cody Ross/Pat Burrell?

If the Giants win this division, it’ll be thanks to Buster Posey and pitching, but I don’t know if that’ll be enough to match Arizona.

Your faith in Ian Kennedy is so misplaced. Is it just because he was a Yankee? It’s mostly that. But it’s also true that Kennedy doesn’t need to repeat his ’11 season for the Diamondbacks. Daniel Hudson’s going to get better, and Trevor Cahill, poised to get a boost from moving to the NL, gives them great depth in the rotation. That, along with young talent in the lineup—besides Upton, they have Paul Goldschmidt and Stephen Drew is returning—makes them slightly more intimidating than the Giants.

Is there a less intimidating baseball name than Paul Goldschmidt? I just wonder if he’s related to my old Hebrew school teacher, Mrs. Goldschmidt.

What about the rest of the division? I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dodgers make a push. In 2011, they had the best starter and the best position player in the NL, and managed to finish in third. They did that with Andre Ethier having a down year after his hot start, and the fracas surrounding the state of the franchise. Now, with the distraction of the McCourts removed, and a few peripheral pieces added (Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano for rotation depth, Dee Gordon for speed), they could make a run in a weak division.

But I don’t expect much from Colorado or San Diego.

Remember when the Padres almost won this division in 2010? Are you going to ask that every year?

I will ask until it stops sounding weird. So, never…

NL Central

1. Cincinnati Reds

2. Milwaukee Brewers

3. St. Louis Cardinals

4. Chicago Cubs

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

6. Houston Astros

Man, how many power hitting first basemen can one division lose in an off-season? Four!

Four? I assume you’re counting Lyle Overbay, right?

It’s really just a coincidence that I’m picking the one contender in the division whose marquee player didn’t sign somewhere else or get tainted by steroids. But in many ways Joey Votto’s ‘11 season was more impressive than his MVP year in ‘10—it proved that he could nearly duplicate the offensive production and, thanks to improved defense, his WAR was actually higher. It almost makes you understand why Cincinnati would offer him a contract that makes $30 million for a 41-year-old Albert Pujols look like a bargain…. Almost.

Sure, Joey Votto’s great, but what do the Reds have beyond him? Aren’t you banking a lot on Scott Rolen? Virtually everyone besides Votto took a step back for the Reds last year: Drew Stubbs was worse; Ryan Hanigan was worse; even Edgar Renteria was a disappointment in his first year. The rotation faced much the same issue, aside from Johnny Cueto: Travis Wood, Edinson Volquez, and Bronson Arroyo turned what was a very impressive staff, with a lot of room for growth, into the fourth worst in the league last year.

Still, with all that going wrong, the team had a positive run differential and wasn’t as bad as its record indicated last year. And there’s no way everyone has bad years again, right? Cueto and Mike Leake are all still very young and impressive. When you factor in the addition of Mat Latos, the pitching staff is better than you might think. The lineup might seem thin, but Votto and his sidekick Jay Bruce led the Reds to the second-best offense in the league last year, so there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again.

But the best thing the Reds have going for them is the absence of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the division. How can those teams recover? I’m not sure the Cardinals can.  At first glance it might seem like St. Louis is better equipped to handle Pujols’ departure than Milwaukee is to handle Fielder’s—after all, you could argue that Pujols was only the third-best hitter on his own team last year.

But it’s really hard for me to see Lance Berkman, who, at the age of 35, had arguably the best offensive season of his career last year*, doing it again. Similarly, Matt Holliday seems poised for a regression without the benefit of hitting behind Pujols. Signing Carlos Beltran was a shrewd move, but he’s passed the point where he can carry a lineup, and he’s been an injury risk the last few years.

*It is, admittedly, very tough to argue that Berkman was better last year than he was in, say, 2004, but it was his highest OPS+. At the very least, he had one of his best seasons after a couple of downward trending years.

The Cardinals don’t really need Beltran to carry their lineup. If he and David Freese just pick up some of the slack from Pujols’ absence, then they should be able to come close to last year’s best offense in the NL. Well, let’s not go too Freese-crazy. He had an amazing October, but he’s never played a full season and he’s 28. And it’s not just accounting for Pujols’ production, but the drops you’ll likely see across the rest of this old lineup. Not to mention the intangible (yes, I used that word) impact Pujols’ presence in the lineup had: There’s a security-blanket feeling to having someone that reliable on your team.

Even if the lineup does produce, there are so many questions around the rotation: Chris Carpenter is out indefinitely; Adam Wainwright is coming off Tommy John surgery; Lance Lynn has started two games in his young career; and Jake Westbrook is Jake Westbrook. And let’s not forget the precarious closer situation they had late last season. All of these questions are surrounding a team that was relatively mediocre during the regular season last year.

Oh, yeah, that’s right. Milwaukee won this division last year, huh? Yeah, there seems to be a tendency to overrate the Cardinals in retrospect. Probably because people tend to confuse the years they win (’11, ’06) with the years they were actually really good (’02, ’04). In the last five years they’ve missed the playoffs three times and won the division only once.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, was quite good last season. Losing Fielder hurts, obviously, but unlike the Cardinals, the Brewers were expecting the loss. Signing Aramis Ramirez was a great move. You probably don’t realize this—because he’s been toiling in Chicago for the last few years—but Ramirez is still pretty good when he’s healthy. His OPS+ was 136 last year—he’s no Fielder, but he’s an upgrade at third.

Even better, they return everyone from a solid rotation. The only real question marks surrounding the Brewers’ rotation if it can make the leap from “solid” to “good”: Will Zack Greinke ever get back to his dominant ’09 self? Will Yovani Gallardo become a true ace? Has Shaun Marcum hit his ceiling? If they can improve, then that might compensate for the loss of Fielder’s offense.

You’re kind of ignoring the elephant in the room w/r/t Milwaukee, aren’t you? What, that? You should know how I feel about steroids, even if Braun was using them. In all honesty, Braun’s production will go down more because of Fielder’s absence than the content of his urine.

Remember last season when the Pirates made a run in this division? That was really fun. I hope that happens again. I thought adding A.J. Burnett was a really smart move (though I have no idea why they offered to pay so much of his salary)—Burnett has a lot of talent, could have benefited from a change of scenery, and would have done well being the NL again. Of course, Burnett’s fluke injury pretty much ruined that hope, though they still have Erik Bedard in a similar role. This team’s still fun, since they still have Andrew McCutcheon, but they won’t be contending this year, obviously.

NL East

1. Miami Marlins

2. Atlanta Braves*

3. Philadelphia Phillies

4. Washington Nationals

5. New York Mets

You’re getting ridiculous. What?

Your predictions are losing credibility when you keep picking against common sense. I don’t see why common sense should be in favor of the Phillies, a team whose two best hitters are already on the DL. The rest of the offense, outside of John Mayberry Jr. and Hunter Pence, holds little promise, and they can’t expect Pence to play as well as he did for those 54 games last season. This team is going to have a LOT of trouble scoring runs.

But PITCHING! The Phillies staff is still good, though I think losing Roy Oswalt hurts more than it may seem: Even though Vance Worley outpitched Oswalt last year, there was an element of intimidation that came with having four guys who had been aces in the rotation.

More substantively, though, I’m not sure how reasonable it is to expect Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels all to do what they did last season. Each of them finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in ’11, and deservedly so. Is it reasonable to expect that to happen again? Even excellent pitchers have years that are only very good. Philadelphia’s great pitching compensated for a lot last year—they gave up 49 fewer runs than any other team. But with the injuries to Howard and Utley, they’re not much better than last year’s Giants, who missed the playoffs in a weaker division.

I mean, it’s not like Howard/Utley will miss the whole season. And even if this division is more competitive than last year, are the Phillies really going to fall to third? Perhaps not, but this Miami team really intrigues me. Hanley Ramirez, who has been such an enigma the last few years, could completely wilt now that Jose Reyes has taken his position and his spot as the face of the franchise (though Ramirez probably lost that role a while ago). But I suspect that this may finally be the situation he needs: He can now play with less scrutiny, and he has a manager, in Ozzie Guillen, who won’t be afraid to call him out, but who is also loyal to his players and has “played the game,” perhaps giving him the respect needed to deal with Ramirez. Similarly, Ramirez had his best season when the Marlins were in contention throughout the year, which they figure to be this season. If Ramirez can get back to ’09 form, then that alone is reason to be enthusiastic about the Marlins.

If you then factor in the addition of Jose Reyes, coming off his best season, and the continued maturation of Giancarlo Stanton*, the offense figures to be very potent, before you even get to the rest of the young talent (Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, Emilio Bonifacio). The rotation is equally promising, with a now healthy Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle about to get the NL-boost.

*I’m really glad Stanton is going by “Giancarlo” now. For one, I won’t keep confusing him with former Yankee set up man, Mike Stanton. Plus, now he reminds me of Gus Fring, which is obviously super intimidating.

I am, admittedly, being as optimistic about them—assuming the young talent develops, that Johnson stays healthy, that Ramirez doesn’t disappear again—as I was pessimistic about Philadelphia. But I’m going with my gut, just like Ozzie. After all, how can you bet against the home run machine?

God, don’t ever link to that again. But your ageism explains a lot. No wonder you have Atlanta beating Philly as well… I’d forgotten just how young this team is. It feels like Jason Heyward has been around forever, but he’s only 22. Freddie Freeman is also 22, Juan Francisco is 24, Brandon Beachy is 25, and Jair Jurrjens is 26. And I do always like to bet on youth.

Having said that, the injuries to Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson to start the season are, admittedly, somewhat ominous…

Just admit it: You’re making these picks so that, on the off chance they pan out, you can say, “I called it.” I have never been known to do that.

PLAYOFFS

GIANTS over Braves—Allow me to use this space to talk about how stupid the new playoff format is: The biggest complaint about the Division Series is that it’s too short. Now, the MLB has added a round that’s even shorter. And while the Wild Card is still controversial for some people, there is at least evidence that it helps make pennant races in September more interesting—just look at last season’s finish. There is no evidence, however, that adding another Wild Card would add more drama. The gap in the AL between first and second Wild Card teams has been 5.8 games. It’s less dramatic in the NL, but even there it’s over two games. Why is there a rush to add 88-win teams to the playoffs?

GIANTS over Reds—Cincinnati earns homefield advantage with 95 wins, but gets shut down by the Giants staff—much like the ’10 Series against the Phillies. The Reds combine to score just two runs in three games.

MARLINS over Diamondbacks—In an epic five-game series, the Marlins drop the first two. Justin Upton homers twice in Game 1, including a seventh-inning shot that breaks a 4-4 tie. In Game 2 the Marlins blow a three-run lead in the ninth thanks to a crucial Hanley Ramirez error. Ozzie Guillen goes on a tirade before the series goes back to Miami. In Game 3, Miami looks awful for eight innings, and trails 4-0 going into the ninth. Logan Morrison leads off the ninth with a home run, which sparks a comeback that is capped when Guillen orders a double steal with two outs. Miguel Montero’s errant throw to third ends up in the outfield. Jose Reyes scores while Emilio Bonfacio ends up on third. The next pitch gets away from Montero, and Bonifacio scores the winning run. The next day, with everyone praising Ozzie’s boldness, Ramirez homers and triples in an 8-3 Miami win. Josh Johnson throws a complete game in Game 5, and Miami’s playoff series win streak remains intact.

MARLINS over Giants—Though Tim Lincecum throws two shutouts, and Madison Bumgarner adds a third, Miami wins four close games to edge San Francisco in the NLCS. By the time the World Series starts, ESPN has already started production on its 30

for 30-style film on Guillen’s behavior during the playoffs.

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