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2010 N.L. – What To Watch For

The Philadelphia Phillies the last couple of seasons have been good for the National League as a whole. For the last decade or so I think the senior circuit has been thought of as the inferior league, but when Philadelphia broke through and won the World Series in 2008, I think the cyclical nature of baseball was about to turn more towards the National League. Sure the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, but that team wasn’t sustainable and St. Louis hasn’t gotten back since. The Florida Marlins won the World Series in 2003, but it was the Marlins. You knew that team was breaking up.

But the Phillies got back to the World Series in 2009 although they didn’t have enough to finish the job the way they did the Tamp Bay Rays in 2008. The good part about the Phillies is that they are primed to get back to the World Series yet again (I’m predicting them to), but for the rest of the NL to compete, they have to rise up to the Phillies standards. Therefore there is a lot to watch in the National League this season! A whole lot to watch and don’t be surprised when the NL narrows the margin considerably when interleague play comes around.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Predicted 4th Place: N.L. West

Arizona is tough in that there isn’t a few storylines to really flesh out. It would be easy to say look at Dan Haren, but Haren is a known quantity. The expectations are for him to be great and the story only begins if Haren falters or gets injured. The same can be said for guys like Stephen Drew or Justin Upton although for them it would be looking at development, but we sort of know what we are getting with Drew and the story on Upton is watching just how great he can be after turning in a 26HR/20SB/126OPS+ at the tender age of 21. A couple of things stand out here about Arizona.

The first is the starting pitching after Haren. Arizona welcomes in two new starters in Ian Kennedy & Edwin Jackson. Kennedy really couldn’t catch on with New York, but has shown a dominance in AAA that he’s trying to parlay into major league success. He gets a break by leaving the AL, but goes to a team that plays in a launching pad. Jackson has some pretty good stuff, but a lot of people think his 2009 season was a product of great defense and his .281 BABIP would suggest some of that is true. On the other hand, Jackson did a great job keeping his walk rate down. Rodrigo Lopez is another starter that’s new. Lopez essentially missed 2007-2009 because of injury and he wasn’t that good before he went down. Notably missing is Brandon Webb who is still recovering from injury and it’s anyone’s guess as to when he’ll be back.

Arizona has enough offense to win games and their bullpen will be fine. The problem is that Haren at most can make 21% of the team’s starts. What about the other 79%? If Arizona can get any kind of starting pitching after Haren, then they are in the thick of things in what should be a very tight NL West race.

Atlanta Braves – Predicted 2nd Place: N.L. East (Wild Card Champs)

The first thing to really watch with Atlanta is a couple of young players. SP Tommy Hanson made his major league debut last season and went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA! His ratios speak for themselves: 8.2 K/9, 0.8 HR/9, 7.4 H/9 & 3.2 BB/9. Hanson will get even better with his control. He’s a #1 starter right now and has a chance to be a legit contender for a Cy Young if he can win 18-19 games for the Braves, leading them to a playoff spot. Incredibly enough, Hanson didn’t win the NL Rookie of the Year award, finishing 3rd behind Florida’s Chris Coughlin & Philadelphia’s J.A. Happ.

The ROY award won’t be denied to Hanson’s rookie teammate, RF Jason Heyward. As a 19-year old last season, Heyward hit 323/408/555 between A/AA/AAA including 17HR, 63RBI & 10SB. Heyward is the legit power prospect who likely won’t disappoint. On opening day this season, the 20-year old Heyward hit a HR and is already well on his way in accepting the torch that will inevitably pass from Chipper Jones. Heyward is a legitimate favorite to win the ROY and probably will garner some MVP votes if he comes through like a lot of people think. With Hanson gunning for a Cy Young award, this is probably the most complete young pitcher/hitter duo in the major leagues!

Unfortunately for Atlanta they are going to have to deal with health issues. I’ve been saying for a long time that as goes Chipper Jones, so goes the Braves. Guys like Heyward, Nate McLouth, Brian McCann and Troy Glaus can possibly lessen that truism, but it still applies. Lately in Jones’ career, it’s not a matter of if he gets hurt but when he gets hurt. This could also compound some problems because Atlanta has quite a few guys they can’t afford to get injured this season. Jones is obviously one of them, but Troy Glaus has a history of getting injured while their 8th-9th inning guys (Takashi Saito & Billy Wagner) aren’t exactly pictures of health either.

The Braves are poised to make a deep run in the playoffs in Bobby Cox’s last season on the bench, but they are looking at a couple of young guys to come through in the clutch and a few old guys to hold their bodies together for one more run. It’ll be interesting to see if the Braves can pull it off.

Chicago Cubs – Predicted 2nd Place: N.L. Central

The Cubs are basically an 84-win team masquerading as a contender. Their offense last season ranked 10th in the NL in runs scored. I’m not sure having Marlon Byrd play CF and Geovany Soto losing 15lbs is going to change that output much. I guess it could, but this team is beat offensively. I suppose if there is something to watch it would be the health & effectiveness of their big 3 starters of Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempter & Ted Lilly. None of them are legit #1 aces and I have a hard time believing Randy Wells can duplicate his 2009 when he strikes out less than 6 per 9IP.

The Cubs are essentially a made team. It’s about health & execution for them, but the team isn’t very good to begin with. To be completely honest, the Reds, Astros & Brewers are bigger threats to St. Louis, but those clubs need a lot to go right for that to happen. The Cubs are pretty much set. Their ceiling isn’t high at all, but their floor isn’t quite as bad as those other 3 teams if the bottom falls out. This is just an OK baseball team.

Cincinnati Reds – Predicted 4th Place: N.L. Central

The Reds are a lot like Baltimore in that they have a ton of young players to watch. The Reds don’t have the potential impact or young bats the Orioles have, but they have some solid contributors in their own right who could be just as good as the Orioles. The one negative for Cincinnati is that nobody really has any faith in Dusty Baker as a manager. If the Reds were a veteran group then it would be one thing, but Baker doesn’t have the best track record with youngsters, particularly young pitchers and that should make Reds fans very very afraid.

Offensively you need to know just 4 hitters. Joey Votto (1B), Jay Bruce (OF), Drew Stubbs (OF) & Yonder Alonso (1B). Votto is a beast and really took off last season cementing himself as one of the best hitters in the game. He posted a 155 OPS+ and now only needs to put that kind of production into 155 games. If Votto does that, then he almost becomes Albert Pujols light with the ability to go .330-35-110 over a full season with an OPS+ in the 160s! He might not be able to do it with the regularity of Pujols, but there are a couple of those seasons in Votto. Bruce is only 23-years old this season but I think he’s starting to get it. He made strides last season with this plate discipline and the kid has power to burn. Drew Stubbs is really really interesting. They are comparing his speed to Deion Sanders and Stubbs should be able to play a spectacular defensive CF. He’s 6’4/215lbs though so you’d think he’d have some power. The power would be nice, but Stubbs needs to get on base and steal about 50 bases. That would serve Cincinnati very well. Alonso is a name to keep in mind because he’s ready to help out, but he plays the same position as Votto. The Reds need a way to get both bats in the lineup and the easily solution is to shift one of them to LF. That should happen at some point. If these 3 guys produce offensively then the Reds should get enough help from Brandon Phillips, Ramon Hernandez and Jonny Gomes to field a pretty competitive offense.

The real bread & butter for Cincinnati is their rotation. This will be one of the more interesting aspects for the Reds. Homer Bailey is about to bust out. Johnny Cueto is at least a #2 starter that could easily turn into an ace if he can get a handle on his command issues. The Reds also have young starters in Travis Wood, Aroldis Chapman and Edinson Volquez. Nick Masset is the future at closer. How Dusty handles the youngsters could make all the difference.

A few older guys will be interesting to monitor. I think the Reds need Scott Rolen to stay healthy at the hot corner. Not only does he provide exceptional defense, but Rolen still carries a decent enough bat to be useful. The Reds need him in the lineup. The other two older guys to watch are Aaron Harang & Bronson Arroyo. They’ll be interesting to watch because to be honest, the Reds probably need to deal them at the deadline if they can get any takers and improve their minor league talent. The future of the rotation is set with the above younger players meaning there isn’t much room left for Harang & Arroyo. They are on their way out anyway and the Reds might as well flip them for something.

The only thing that could get in the way is Cincinnati being a big factor in the NL Central which would lead to the thought they needed both Harang & Arroyo to pitch. This is a big developmental year for Cincinnati who should be gearing up for a huge push in 2011 and beyond. They don’t have to worry about playing in a division like the AL East. As good as St. Louis might be, if everything where to break right for Cincinnati, they’d be right in the thick of it.

Colorado Rockies – Predicted 2nd Place: N.L. West

A complete team without any real weakness than I can discern. The team begins and ends with its starting pitching. Ubaldo Jimenez walks into 2010 as the unquestioned #1 starter. Jimenez was 15-12 with a 3.47 ERA last season. Jimenez could stand to work on his control a bit, but he already made massive strides with his BB/9 rate from 2008 to 2009. He’s a dominant pitcher and he’s only 26 in his 3rd full year of starting. The scary part is that Jimenez can get better.

Jorge de la Rosa spent last season in the rotation, his first as a full time starter. He spent the early part of his career in the bullpen and then switching back and forth from the pen to the rotation. The Brewers & Royals loss was Colorado’s gain as de la Rosa went crazy last season going 16-9 with a 4.38 ERA. His ratios portend to even greater things as he does a decent job at keeping the ball in the yard and he had a 9.4K/9 ratio! That means he can sustain this productivity. Like Jimenez he could stand to improve his control, but this will only be his 2nd season as a full time starter.

Jason Hammel couldn’t find this way into the Tampa Bay rotation but found a spot in Colorado and turned in a fantastic performance in his first full season. Hammel went 10-8 with a 4.33 ERA, but struckout 7 per 9 while walking just 2 and allowing less than a HR per 9IP.

The Rockies also get a healthy Aaron Cook who has been fantastic for Colorado and they also get once future ace Jeff Francis back in the fold. All you really need to worry about for Colorado is their starting pitching. If these 5 guys can produce, then Colorado wins the NL West going away and will be a huge threat to win the Wild Card if somehow Los Angeles or San Francisco play out of their minds. This could easily emerge as the best starting rotation from 1 thru 5 in the National League. The Rockies got the World Series in 2007, had a let down in 2008 but got right back into the postseason in 2009. If the rotation sets up, they could be a fixture in October.

Florida Marlins – Predicted 3rd Place: N.L. East

The Marlins a bit like the Rockies. They won 87 games last season and finished 5 games behind Colorado. They weren’t quite as good as Colorado offensively last season, but that’s splitting hairs as Colorado ranked 2nd in runs scored while Florida ranked 5th. There are a couple of things to look at with the Marlins offensively. I think it’ll be interesting to see how the Gaby Sanchez/Logan Morrison battle plays out at 1B. I also think it’ll be interesting of Cameron Maybin can harness some of his natural ability and completely take over an OF spot. I watched the opening day game between the Mets & Marlins and Sanchez didn’t look so hot.

Like Colorado though, the storyline of 2010 for the Marlins will probably be the starting pitching. Josh Johnson is a bonafide #1 ace starter and he’s not that far ahead of Ricky Nolasco. Nolasco had troubles early on that weren’t completely his fault. In his first 9 starts, Nolasco was 2-5 with a 9.07 ERA. In his defense, Nolasco’s BABIP was .402 meaning his defense wasn’t helping him. Florida shipped him to the minors and when he returned, Nolasco went on a tear finishing the season going 11-4 with a 3.82 ERA and a K/9 of 10.1.

The Marlins are also helped by getting a full year from Anibal Sanchez while Chris Volstad should only keep improving. They picked up lefty Nate Robertson late this spring after the Tigers let him go, but he’s nothing more than a stop gab until a guy like Sean West or Andrew Miller is ready. Like the Rockies, the Fish will depend on their starting rotation and see how far it takes him. The playoffs are very much within reach and then having Johnson, Nolasco & Sanchez up front will be difficult for any offense to tame.

Houston Astros – Predicted 5th Place: N.L. Central

I might be oversimplifying the Astros a bit, but as a team there isn’t much to really look for. From a developmental standpoint I think it’ll be interesting to see how Felipe Paulino & Bud Norris do in the rotation. Both have some incredible stuff if they can throw it, but both are pretty young with a couple of problems. For Norris it’s a quality 3rd pitch. For Paulino it’s staying healthy and keeping the ball in the park. Wandy Rodriguez was dominant last season and Roy Oswalt isn’t done just yet. Paulino, Norris & Rodriguez could very much represent a bright future for the Astros if they all develop and stay healthy.

Offensively the Astros are pretty much set. Hunter Pence is headlining but Houston needs Lance Berkman & Carlos Lee to stay healthy. Michael Bourn staying productive will help too. It’s not the easiest thing to believe when most people are picking Houston in the bottom half of the division, but they need to stay healthy & execute offensively while hoping some of the young arms come through.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Predicted 1st Place: N.L. West

How Russ Ortiz made this team over James McDonald I’ll never know. It’s almost enough to make me want to see the Dodgers completely implode but I love Joe Torre & Don Mattingly way too much to hope for that. This team is complete. I’m a big believer in Chad Billingsley & Clayton Kershaw so I like the Dodgers to win the West. They have a very good offense and the bullpen should be really good. Staying healthy & executing is the name of the game here.
Milwaukee Brewers – Predicted 3rd Place: N.L. Central

Milwaukee reminds me a little of Arizona in that the storylines aren’t obvious and rather than honing in on a couple of players or positions, the Brewers really needed to be looked at on the whole to be appreciated. They have three legitimate superstars in Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun & Yovani Gallardo, but how everyone else does around them will determine how far the Brewers go. Offensively they are set although it’d be nice to see Rickie Weeks consolidate. It’ll be interesting to see if Casey McGehee can build off his 2009 while Alcides Escobar steps in to replace JJ Hardy.

On the mound I really like the Randy Wolf acquisition. I think Dave Bush & Manny Parra are better than they’ve shown and those 3 combined with Gallardo give Milwaukee a pretty nice rotation if things work out. The bullpen should be good too which is to say this team is pretty much about execution and staying healthy although the parts all have to work well together. It’ll be tough to see what exactly happened in Milwaukee until season’s end unless somebody really busts out.

There are a couple of storylines to watch that might not have to do with wins & losses. Jimmy Edmonds is back in the big leagues and he’s always a great player to watch. He’s on the bench for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him possibly take RF away from Corey Hart. There will also be rumors around the possibility of Milwaukee dealing Prince Fielder. I don’t know. I guess it’s possible, but Milwaukee has the horses to be in a race. Trading Fielder kills that possibility.

New York Mets – Predicted 4th Place: N.L. East

In 2007 the Mets blow a 7 game lead over the last two weeks to miss the playoffs. In 2008 they blow a 3.5 game lead with two weeks to play to miss the playoffs. Last year the Mets went off the deep end with injuries. This season already they are starting off with Daniel Murphy, Jose Reyes & Carlos Beltran on the DL.

The Mets did go out and grab Francisco Rodriguez last season and Jason Bay this season, but Atlanta, Florida & Philadelphia have gotten a lot better too. The Mets really don’t know what they have as a team until they finally get it all healthy. One thing that’s interesting to me watching the Marlins/Mets opener was the announcers saying that guys like Jeff Francoeur, David Wright & Jason Bay have essentially taken over the clubhouse.

That’s a stark difference over the last few years when guys like Beltran, Reyes & Carlos Delgado had a big influence in the clubhouse. How that translate on the field will be interesting, but the announcers on SNY (Ron Darling & Keith Hernandez) kept going on and on about how much better the team chemistry was for New York coming into this season than it has in years past. The Mets have had a clubhouse in turmoil for the last few years with a lot accusations of racism.

I don’t know what that all means, but I find it interesting that the clubhouse was a mess and the team was in turmoil when Delgado, Reyes & Beltran ruled the clubhouse and how much people think team chemistry is better with Bay, Francoeur & Wright taking over leadership responsibilities. Either way, the Mets need to stay healthy.

Philadelphia Phillies – Predicted 1st Place: N.L. East

A veteran club who I predict will get back to the World Series. There is nothing here except health and playing baseball to their potential. The one story that will be interesting is seeing how a pennant race propels Roy Halladay forward. Halladay could argue he was the best pitcher in the game already, but not going to the NL from the torrid AL East and pitching in front of arguably the best offense in the NL all but locks up the Cy Young for Halladay as he has a legitimate shot at winning 25-27 games for the Phillies. Roy Halladay could be scary good.

The residual effect for Philly is that the pressure should be off Cole Hamels to be a #1 starter. He definitely will take a backseat to Halladay. If Hamels can get back to 2008 form rather than 2009 form, then Philly might actually be the favorite to take down the Yankees in the World Series.

It sounds crazy, but I think the All-Star game plays a HUGE role in this as Philadelphia sure would like to have the home field advantage if they face New York in a rematch.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Predicted 6th Place: N.L. Central

What a mess. The Pirates aren’t going to compete but they have a couple of youngsters that could help out. CF Andrew McCutchen is a stud. He finally got the majors last season as a 22-year old and playing 108 games for the Pirates. In those games McCutchen posted a 122 OPS+ including 12HR & 22SB. He also had 26 doubles and 9 triples. He plays fantastic defense, can run like the wind and has untapped power potential. I think McCutchen is a 30/30 guy waiting to happen. I think this year McCutchen cements himself as one of the best players in the game and is a 1st round fantasy baseball pick next season. He’s that good.

Another good name to know is RF Garrett Jones. Jones had sort of been a career minor league player in the Minnesota & Atlanta organizations. The Pirates called him up last season and in about a half of season, Jones hit 293/372/567 with 21HR, 44RBI, 10SB & 21-Doubles. He was 28-years old last season and it’s almost impossible to think he’ll recreate those numbers although he did homer twice on opening day.

The other guy to keep an eye on is 3B Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez didn’t make the roster out of Spring Training, but Andy LaRoche isn’t going to keep the kid from betting to PNC Park. Last year in his first season of professional baseball after being a 1st round selection in 2008, Alvarez hit 288/378/535 between AA/AAA including 27HR, 95RBI, 32-Doubles & 71BB in 465AB. He’ll be 23-years old this season so he’s more than ready to take over the hot corner for the Pirates. If that doesn’t work out, Alvarez could move to 1B although I think the Pirates would like to see what they have with Jeff Clement who is also worth watching.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have much in the pitching department to look forward to. If you are a Pirates homer it would be worth checking out guys like Brad Lincoln or Tim Alderson? They have to get some arms.

St. Louis Cardinals – Predicted 1st Place: N.L. Central

Pretty much a made team like Philadelphia but there are a couple of storylines here that I think will be interesting. The first is Brad Penny signing as a free agent. Penny isn’t going to dominante anyone the way he did early on in his career, but he’s not horrible either. Over the last three seasons, Penny has logged a 49-31 record with an ERA+ of 103. I think St. Louis can score some runs and don’t discount what Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan can do with pitchers. Remember too that Penny was 32-13 in his 2006-2007 seasons with the Dodgers. St. Louis already has Chris Carpenter & Adam Wainwright, but if Penny can reproduce what he did in Los Angeles with the Cardinals, then St. Louis is going to blow the doors off the NL Central. If Duncan can work wonders with guys like Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro, Todd Wellemeyer & Jason Marquis, he could do some serious damage with a guy like Brad Penny.

Another guy to keep an eye on is Colby Rasmus. Rasmus was typically thought of as the next Grady Sizemore, but last year in his first season at the major league level, Rasmus was very underwhelming hitting 251/307/407. He did manage 16HR and 22 doubles, but he didn’t walk very much and struck out 96 times. Rasmus lit up AA ball as a 20-year old in 2007 hitting 275/381/551 with 29HR, 72RBI, 18SB, 70BB & 37-Doubles in 472AB! He didn’t make the 2008 team but pretty much lost a year because of groin and ankle injuries. He made the squad as the starting CF for 2009 and now he’s ready for his sophomore campaign. It’s not a matter of if for Rasmus but when. That when might be here in 2010.

I don’t think Penny & Rasmus make or break St. Louis this season. They should win the NL Central comfortably, but if Penny finds the magic he had in LA and Rasmus comes through on his considerable potential, then St. Louis has every right to think they are the best team in the National League.

San Diego Padres – Predicted 5th Place: N.L. West

The easy answer here is watching for when San Diego starts fire selling all of their players. However, there are a couple of players worth watching here that could really help San Diego go in the right direction. The first is SP Mat Latos who profiles as a future #1 starter. As a 21-year old, Latos made his major league debut last season going 4-5 with a 4.62 ERA. He’s huge at 6’6/230lbs with a fastball sitting in the upper-90s. Although his major league numbers don’t look fantastic, Latos was 8-1 with a 1.37 ERA in the minor leagues last season. There is nothing for him to learn back there so it’s the majors for Latos and he’ll be sticking around. If you are a team looking to rebuild, the quickest way to contention is having dynamite starting pitching. Latos has the promise to be a legit #1 starter for San Diego.

The other guy to look at is RF Kyle Blanks. Blanks is a beast a 6’6/270lbs and is a power hitting outfielder that can change the dynamics of a game with one swing of his bat. He made his major league debut last season too and hit 250/355/514 including 10HR & 18BB in 148AB. He has some contact issues but they weren’t horrible in the minor leagues. If Adrian Gonzalez gets traded away, Blanks moves to 1B which might be his position in the future because he’s simply so big. The guy would be a project offensive tackle in the NFL! Still, having Latos as a #1 starter and Blanks as 30-40 HR guy in the middle of the lineup is something to build off.

San Francisco Giants: Predicted 3rd Place: N.L. West

This is pretty simple. Just watch the rotation. I think Tim Lincecum & Matt Cain are going to be awesome yet again, but keep an eye on Jonathan Sanchez. Sanchez threw a no-hitter last season and has the stuff to throw one every time he takes the mound. The knock on Sanchez is that his control is downright awful. He walked 4.8 men per 9 last season. If Sanchez has the ability to harness that control, he immediately becomes a #1 starter like Lincecum. Another guy to keep a watch on is prospect Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner didn’t make the rotation out of spring training, but he’s also a #1/#2 starter in the making. The Giants managed to win 88-games last season despite ranked 13th in runs scored. They finished 4 games behind Colorado for a playoff spot.

I’m not sure brining in Mark DeRosa & Aubrey Huff is going to make San Francisco’s offense that much better, but even if it improves incrementally, the Giants have the ability to make the playoffs. If they get there, it’ll be exceptionally scary if the front-4 look like Lincecum-Cain-Sanchez-Bumgarner. If only they had a couple of hitters, the Giants would threaten World Series dominance for the next 5-6 years if not longer. They are that close.

Washington Nationals – Predicted 5th Place: N.L. East

Sort of like the Diamondbacks in that you sort of have to watch everything. The big story of course will be when Stephen Strasburg finally gets up to the majors. Interestingly enough it looks like Washington can score some runs. I like the move to bring Ian Desmond up as the full time shortstop. I like Mike Morse getting a shot in the outfield. I think bringing in Adam Kennedy to play 2B gives the Nats a .300 hitter who should steal 15-20 bases for you. They already have Ryan Zimmerman & Adam Dunn in the lineup to go along with Nyjer Morgan. Overall the offense shouldn’t be too bad.

The rotation isn’t brutal. I sort of like John Lannan and while Jason Marquis is an average starter at best, the kid should be able to eat up quite a few innings for Washington. Craig Stammen & Garrett Mock are a couple of young guys who could turn out well. The bullpen isn’t in brutal shape. I’m not sure there is one thing to really watch with the Nationals outside of the appearance of Strasburg, but viewing the team as a whole could be really interesting.

And there you have it! The N.L. & A.L.

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April 7, 2010 - Posted by | Baseball, Previews

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