Having already explained away the American League, now let's look at the National League. In the interest of trying to provide some drama to what many will likely find to be a very obvious conclusion on my part...ummm, I mean, because I'm feeling whimsical, I've reversed the order. I'm starting with the West, and going from last to first in each division.
5. San Diego Padres: Two years ago the Padres had a great pitching staff. Now it looks like a disaster, even with Jake Peavy in the rotation (at least until they trade him). There doesn't seem to be much young talent and ownership is in flux. The Padres added David Eckstein, part of two World Series-winning teams (Angels 2002, Cardinals 2006), to play second base, but it's hard to see this team doing much.
4. San Francisco Giants: The Giants are finally getting younger in the post-Barry Bonds era. Unfortunately, they don't have much power. Maybe the Giants should get the NL to adapt the DH and bring back Barry? After Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, the rotation may be shaky. Randy Johnson was 20 wins away from 300 after the 2006 season. It's 2009 and he still is five short.
3. Colorado Rockies: 2008 was quite a comedown after winning the NL pennant the previous year. How much will the Rockies miss Matt Holliday? They'll need Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton to rebound and pick up the slack. How will the rotation fare, seeing as how one of their key starters, Jeff Francis, is out for the season? Huston Street won the closer's job, at least for now. Street is only 25 but he couldn't stay healthy last year and reports are his velocity is down.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers: Manny Ramirez eventually signed pretty much the same deal that the Dodgers had on the table for weeks, and joined the rest of the team for spring training. With Jeff Kent retired, the Dodgers picked up Orlando Hudson for second base. They should score runs, if Manny is motivated and stays healthy, but their pitching looks weaker than last year. They'll have to outscore teams to win.
1. Arizona Diamondbacks: At the All-Star break they had a losing record but were still in first place. The weak division was theirs for the taking until Manny Ramirez joined the Dodgers. The only major change in the lineup is at second, as Orlando Hudson signed with the Dodgers. I think the rotation will carry the D'backs in this weak division, but the bullpen lost Brandon Lyon and Juan Cruz. Their replacements: oft-injured Tom Gordon and Scott Schoeneweis...from the Mets' bullpen. Uh-oh...
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: Another losing season will make it 17 in a row for the Pirates, breaking the record they currently co-own with the 1933-48 Phillies. They have some potentially good young arms in the rotation, but it will be shocking if the Bucs don't wipe that woeful Phillies era right out of the record books.
5. Houston Astros: Manager Cecil Cooper has gone out on a limb, saying the Astros should win 90 games this year. I don't think so, unless Roy Oswalt wins 30 or 35 by himself. They're relying on Mike Hampton to somehow regain his past form. It's been way too long since he's been really good and really healthy. Houston can get run production from Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman if they bat with runners on base, but that's a question mark if Michael Bourn is batting either first or second. He can steal lots of bases but he has to actually get on base first.
4. Cincinnati Reds: With the Reds trading Adam Dunn and letting Junior Griffey leave after the season, they're looking like a team more dependent on good pitching and manufacturing runs. They need the Aaron Harang who won 16 games in 2006 and 2007, not the Harang who lost 17 last year. New leadoff hitter Willy Taveras stole 68 bases but his on-base percentage was a woeful .302. They have some young talent (like Rookie of the Year Joey Votto) but need more before they can show serious improvement.
3. St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards will need Chris Carpenter, who missed most of the last two years, to return to the 21-win form of 2005. The new closer is a rookie, Jason Motte. Skip Schumaker is moving from the outfield to second base, Khalil Greene is the new shortstop, and 3B Troy Glaus is sidelined until June, so the infield is in a state of flux except for Albert Pujols. There's not enough here to finish on top.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: So, was giving up potential future stars for CC Sabathia worth it in the long run? He got them into the playoffs but Brett Myers and Shane Victorino, among others, made sure his only NLDS appearance was brief, and he left for the Yankees' money. With Ben Sheets gone as well, the Brew Crew's pitching is weaker. They keep their same lineup as in 2008, so they'll have to slug their way back into the postseason.
1. Chicago Cubs: When Kerry Wood left in free agency, the expectation was that Carlos Marmol would graduate into the closer's role, but instead the job goes to ex-Marlins closer Kevin Gregg. I bet they switch roles before the season ends. Either way, assuming good health for starting pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, the Cubs are the class of the division.
5. Washington Nationals: What I previously wrote about the Julian Tavarez comment on signing with the Nats -- "When you go to a club at 4 in the morning, and you're just waiting, waiting, a 600-pounder looks like J-Lo. And to me this is Jennifer Lopez right here. It's 4 in the morning. Too much to drink. So, Nationals: Jennifer Lopez to me" -- says it all. FYI, Julian: to everyone else, Nationals: Roseanne Barr.
4. Atlanta Braves: The Braves are a team that could contend if everything breaks right. It's more likely, though, that Chipper Jones will break down. He just can't stay on the field for a full season, and he'll be 37 in a few weeks. Adding Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami to the starting rotation means that some of the young arms on last year's team will be in the minors this year, at least at first. Atlanta will have to look to the future.
3. Florida Marlins: Something unusual happened in Florida last year: Hanley Ramirez, instead of being traded, was signed to a 6-year, $70 million contract extension. He'll have to live up to it, batting third in the lineup now. The Marlins also need their pitching to excel and their defense to improve. But if they Marlins keep enough of their young stars for a change, the future is bright.
2. New York Mets: Instead of taking the lead only to (wait, don't use the "c" word, don't use the "c" word) finish out of the playoffs, the Mets might want to try coming from behind this year. (Phew.) Signing Francisco Rodriguez and trading for J.J. Putz, the Mets hope to have finally solved their bullpen problems. It will help if Johan Santana stays healthy and productive and the other starters improve. They'll also need the second-half rejuvenated Carlos Delgado and not the first-half aging flop, production out of left field (preferably from Daniel Murphy, because they won't get it from newly-signed Gary Sheffield), and no more Ryan Church concussions. Above all, they need to somehow forget about 2007 and 2008. Difficult enough on its face, but they'll get constant reminders from the New York media and fans. I used to take this stance on picking the NL East winner: "I'll keep picking the Braves until they finally lose." Now I have a new position: "I'll keep picking the Mets to choke until they finally don't." (D'oh! I used the "c" word!) And, at least this year, that leaves only one viable option...
1. Philadelphia Phillies: There are things that concern me about the defending World Champion Phillies (wow, I love saying that!), perhaps more than they concern the Phils themselves. For example: Can 46-year-old Jamie Moyer possibly keep it up? It's hard to believe he led the team in wins last year. Can Cole Hamels avoid breaking down for a second consecutive year? That little elbow issue that is causing his first regular season start to be in game 4 instead of on Opening Night has to be behind him in order for him to be the guy who was MVP in both the NLCS and World Series. Is replacing Pat Burrell with yet another lefthanded bat (Raul Ibanez) really such a good idea? Everyone says Ibanez will be more consistent and can hit lefthanded pitching, and he won't need to be taken out for defense or pinch-runners. Will the suspension of J.C. Romero for the first 50 games affect the rest of the bullpen, particularly Brad Lidge? Lidge can't be perfect in save situations again...can he?
Amazingly, the Phils won despite, among other things: getting a half-season of crap pitching from Brett Myers; Chase Utley struggling after a sensational start due to a hip that needed postseason surgery; Jimmy Rollins' ankle bothering him all year causing him to be less productive than during his 2007 MVP season; Ryan Howard striking out 199 times after getting off to another slow start that some blamed on his unhappiness with having to go to arbitration; Pedro Feliz providing less offense than expected because of a back problem that also required surgery after the season.
The flip side: Myers' minor league stint and subsequent success got his head straight, he's 30 pounds lighter and is pitching for a new contract. Utley returned ahead of most projections and will be ready for the start of the season. Rollins' ankle is okay and he excelled during the World Baseball Classic, the only USA representative named to the All-Tournament team. Howard still drove in 146 runs with 48 homers, also dropped a few pounds in the offseason and is now happy after signing a fat new contract that will take care of the rest of his arbitration eligibility. Feliz is also ready for the season and, even if he doesn't improve offensively, was defensively everything the Phils have needed in the post-Scott Rolen years.
There's more: a full season of Joe Blanton, Jayson Werth full-time in right instead of platooning, Carlos Ruiz' postseason offense after a weak regular season...but the biggest change is in the mindset of the team. The Phillies of the early part of this decade were a team that wasn't as willing to spend as other teams, got off to poor starts every year (and take offense when that point was mentioned), didn't like manager Larry Bowa very much (that may be an understatement), and came up short by a few games every year. That team is gone, replaced by a team with the mental toughness to bounce back, to start the year good enough to stay in the race so their late-season surge actually puts them over the top, with a manager they'll run through a wall for, and a front office that, instead of resting on their laurels, didn't hesitate to increase the payroll after finally winning a championship. It would have been easy to work out a deal to keep Pat Burrell; instead, they opted to pay even more for Raul Ibanez to take his place. With a young nucleus in place for a few more years, the Phillies are primed to be the first World Series-winning NL team in over 30 years to repeat.