In the National League, I don’t think the phrase “Senior Circuit” is as applicable as it once was.
Sure, there are no designated hitters, stadiums are generally larger and more accommodating to pitchers, the double-switch is as common as a Wrigley Field seventh inning stretch sung to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” and yes the league does have Jamie Moyer.
Jokes aside, even with the exodus of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League, the talent is as young and hungry as ever.
A look out West will show you four teams with an average age of 28. That statistic is important because Matt Kemp (27), Tim Lincecum (27), Matt Cain (27), Troy Tulowitzki (27), Clayton Kershaw (24), Justin Upton (24), Chris Young (28) and Buster Posey (25) are just some of the names who reside in that division.
In the National League East, Atlanta suffered one of the worst late season collapses in baseball history after going 9-18 in the month of September that saw their once sizable Wild Card lead evaporate right before their eyes. Despite that collapse, and despite clamoring from fans and others suggesting they needed wholesale changes the Braves will bring back one of the most talented young teams in the National League. Since 2008 they’ve had at least one player finish in the top-3 for rookie of the year voting (Jurrjens 3rd in 2008, Hanson 3rd in 2009, Heyward 2nd in 2010, Freeman 2nd in 2011), with Craig Kimbrel winning the award a season ago. That doesn’t even include Jonny Venters (8th in 2010) who was an All-Star last season.
Their road to redemption, however, has been made substantially more difficult. The Phillies still run out the best top-3 in the National League every five days. Miami has a new identity, new stadium, new manager and new pieces (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell) to go along with Giancarlo Stanton, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. In Washington, the Nationals are also much improved after a third place finish a year ago. They continue to reap the rewards of a stadium that is just four years old, number one draft picks (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg) ready to blossom and with the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson they appear to be ready to take full advantage of that added Wild Card spot.
The National League Central is as wide open as its ever been. With the departures of Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa and Prince Fielder it seems teams are anxious to get things started.
Milwaukee, last years division champions, will hope Aramis Ramirez can fill some of the production vacated by Fielder. In Chicago, Theo Epstein now runs the show for the Cubs who are looking to get back on track. This offseason was spent making legitimate baseball moves to better the atmosphere in and around Wrigley. Cincinnati comes back with Votto, Bruce and Phillips anchoring their lineup and hoping that the addition of Mat Latos will finally stabilize the top of that rotation. In Pittsburgh, the Pirates look to break a streak of losing seasons dating back to Sid Bream’s slide in 1992. Houston, under new ownership and with their possible move to the American League, are just looking to stay afloat.
Spring has sprung, and with this season comes new challenges. Young talent and a shift in philosophy will determine who makes it to October glory.
- Philadelphia Phillies– The Phillies have Halladay, Hamels and Lee. That is enough to keep them at or near the top of this league. Unfortunately, should one of them go down, there will be trouble. Howard and Utley are both out to begin 2012 with Utley’s timetable even more uncertain. I think they keep the division flag one more year because of Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins. If Dominic Brown finally shows what he can do they will be hard to beat in ’12.
- Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)– Atlanta is one of the top four teams in baseball. Problem is they just don’t know it yet. Should the Phillies falter, even slightly, I feel the Braves will be right there to make them pay for it. Brian McCann is the undisputed leader of a team with more young talent than they know what to do with. Dan Uggla looked phenomenal this spring, and I expect him to put together two halves like his second in 2011 with a season under his belt under the contract that crushed him with pressure from April to June. Jason Heyward is the key to all of this. If he hits the way everyone knows he can, at 22, he will be just as good as any free agent acquisition this offseason.
- Miami Marlins (Wild Card)– Miami is abuzz because the Marlins have put together a great operation in South Beach. Unfortunately, looking past the glitz, questions still remain. Their biggest offseason fish (sorry) Jose Reyes still needs to prove he can turn the clock back to 2008 and show he can play a full season. Is Hanley Ramirez a slump away from becoming unhappy? Can Josh Johnson come back healthy and ready to carry this pitching staff? Logan Morrison will need to produce better than a .247 average (remember he was also demoted last season) in order to give this lineup a little more length. The moves they made this winter were good ones, but they come with a risk. You can’t deny their ability, though. I think they sneak in if things falter, and can be giants if they play to their potential.
- Washington Nationals– 2012 will be a great year for Washington. It will not be a playoff year. They have an offense that is capable of raking, and with Bryce Harper on the way look forward to more of it. They have good pitching, not great. Reason I say this is because I feel (with the exception of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson) the young guys (Strasburg and Zimmermann) need one more year before they are ready to take the next step. We have to remember Strasburg still hasn’t seen a full year of professional baseball as well.
- New York Mets– Not much to say about this club. Johan Santana is back, David Wright appears healthy and they still play in a great park. Too bad their payroll includes what is left of Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla.
- St Louis Cardinals– Very rarely can a defending champion lose the best player in baseball, their manager of 16 years and their pitching coach of the same length and come back to rave reviews. The Cardinals made moves this offseason that shows they are an organization that knows how to do things correctly. Berkman, Holliday and Beltran look ready for big seasons. Their pitching will be a question, but it was a question last season when they lost Adam Wainwright in spring training. This year, Chris Carpenter is out for an extended period, but they fill that void with Wainwright.
- Milwaukee Brewers– The Brewers loss of Prince Fielder will be bigger than they are leading on. Ryan Braun, last season’s NL MVP will miss the protection he was granted from Fielder’s presence. They will be good on the mound with Greinke and Gallardo leading the way. I am concerned too much by their lineup to place them ahead of the Cardinals as they are too many “outs” to be found.
- Cincinnati Reds– Most see this pick and scratch their heads. Some have the Reds no lower than second in the Central and possibly the favorites with the loss of Pujols and Fielder. Problem is, Cincinnati didn’t bring in much to offset their issues from a year ago. Their offense will again be led by Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. Their staff will add Mat Latos who, I feel, isn’t a number one answer in most baseball circles. I am high on Cueto, but not enough to give them an edge over Shaun Marcum of the Brewers. Sean Marshall steps in as closer for the recently injured Ryan Madson with Chapman setting him up. The Reds, for all their offensive exploits, won’t have the pitching to contend for the division.
- Chicago Cubs– Theo Epstein has brought optimism to a team that hasn’t won World Series since…well you get it. The changes being made by the Cubs are good ones. They’ve essentially said the culture needs to change and now. First order of business is to put the better talent on the field. While this isn’t a one year fix, new manager Dale Sveum brings great baseball instinct to the managerial role. Better still, as Epstein and Jed Hoyer build this team from the farm up he will be the perfect manager to lead them. I see them as a lower half team because they still have talent, just not enough.
- Pittsburgh Pirates– The Pirates goals are clear: finish above .500 and continue to develop talent. Pittsburgh has some good things going for them. Gerrit Cole will be a premier pitcher for them in the future and Josh Bell and Starling Marte could very well join McCutchen in a good outfield. They have issues now that will prevent me from pegging them as an 82-win team. Although they could change that feeling if Burnett shows up in the National League, if Bedard pitches as he’s capable and the rest of the rotation (McDonald, Karstens, Morton and Correia) can hold up their end as well. My favorite part about this team is their bullpen with Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek.
- Houston Astros– Houston is a team that can’t put it together. If there were a team harder than the Mets to find something to like about it is the Astros. Their rotation is atrocious and their lineup has no punch. In order to not further upset the Houston fan base, I will leave my assessment at that.
- Arizona Diamondbacks– Best young team in this division, possibly NL. This will be an interesting year in the National League West as I expect this race to come down to the wire. The fact that Arizona was able to win the West in 2011 and follow that up by drafting Trevor Bauer is unreal, but great for fans of the Diamondbacks. Jason Kubel brings more thump to the lineup from Minnesota. Trouble spots are the rotation after Ian Kennedy because of the lack of depth if Saunders or Cahill don’t pitch well. Also, with an infield of Aaron Hill, Ryan Roberts and Willie Bloomquist, that is cause for some concern as all rate below average at the plate in the categories of OBP/BA/OPS
- San Francisco Giants– They have the best staff in this division, Buster Posey is back, Pablo Sandoval is still a threat and Brandon Belt seems poised to resume his duties as the everyday first basemen. Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner have a top three that rivals anyone in the NL. Bumgarner in particular seems ready to step his game up after a great statistical spring and two seasons under his belt. I see the Giants as contenders because of their stability at this moment, and their large gap in pitching.
- Colorado Rockies– Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are two of the top players in this league. I like the addition of Cuddyer to an already good lineup. Dexter Folwer needs to step up his production. He has all the tools to be an elite leadoff man in baseball. Pitching is the issue as a rotation of Guthrie, Moyer and Chacin might not be able to get it done night after night.
- Los Angeles Dodgers- Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and everyone else. Not really, but it can feel that way when thinking about the Dodgers. Andre Ethier is back and hitting like an All-Star, Dee Gordon might be the most exciting player on the field starting the game off and playing shortstop. New ownership group could infuse new life once approved by Major League Baseball, but for now I see the Dodgers as competitive but flawed with such a disparity in their talent level.
- San Diego Padres– San Diego finds themselves in great position for the future. While Mat latos was traded, they received quite a return with Yonder Alonso and Edison Volquez. Alonso had a great spring and looks primed to be the next big thing in San Diego. I like this team in a few years, but for now they will take their lumps until they get there.