1. Philadelphia Phillies – The city of brotherly love and eerily urine-like odor could have my two nephews, both younger than five, and 7 kids from their preschool on offense and still be a threat. Instead of that murderer’s row, their vaunted pitching staff will have to settle for Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, the underrated Shane Victorino, and the under-appreciated Placido Polanco for offense. Even though Howard has seen his average drop in recent seasons, Utley is a virtual lock for at least one DL stay, and the very good all-around Jayson Werth took his talents to DC, they figure to score enough to run away with this division. Polanco, even though he has precious little power to be playing 3rd base, is as consistent a hitter as you could want. And if Jimmy Rollins duplicates his form of a couple years back, the ceiling for this gang suddenly got way higher. But let’s talk about where the true focus of this team is going to be all season. Roy Halladay is… well, the best. Enough said. And then they pulled the rug out from under the Yankees by signing Cliff Lee to a discount (if a nine figure deal can ever be called a discount) long term deal. These guys could combine for 50 wins. And then you have potential future hall of famer Roy Oswalt and the underachieving but dynamic Cole Hamels. Those guys could combine for 40 wins. The only real weak spot is the closer situation. Brad Lidge’s days of 50 successful consecutive save streaks are a thing of the past and they don’t really have a deputy. Ryan Madson is okay, but not really a ninth inning guy. God only knows how old Jose Contreras is, but he thrived last year out of the pen. Color me shocked on that one too. I don’t really see any other team that has the ability or the weakness of their division to challenge the Phils for MLB’s best record.
2. Atlanta Braves – I still hate these guys from back in the day when they were in the NL West. That said, by default, they’re the second best team in this division. Starting with the offense, rookie stud Jason Heyward is really the only star of note, but he figures to improve by leaps and bounds this year. I don’t have any scientific reason to believe that he will avoid the sophomore slump, but he would scare me into having to change my shorts if he’s playing against my team and at bat with runners on. The rest of the gang is a bunch of good but unremarkable guys, no offense to all star catcher, Brian McCann. Martin Prado is very good, and versatile. Dan Uggla was a shrewd acquisition, even if it cost them Omar Infante, who if ever given a permanent position and regular playing time, could turn into a perennial all star instead of a one hit wonder. Chipper Jones is past his prime, but still a threat. Alex Gonzales is better than the average bear when it comes to slugging shortstops. The only real questions are whether Jordan Schafer will live up to the hype (you better believe it, more on him later) and if Nate McLouth can rediscover his Pittsburgh Pirates form. My opinion, no. But still, he could. And if he does, he can fill the one glaring void this offense has. Stolen bases. Heyward led them last year with 11 and that’s not enough. The pitching staff is formidable, if not Philadelphian. Tim Hudson showed he is still an ace, age has not horribly affected Derek Lowe, and the young Tommy Hanson/Kris Medlen duo has some serious upside. My favorite of the bunch, however, is Jair Jurrgens, even though he murdered the souls of three of my fantasy staffs last season. His stuff is legit. If he can get his confidence and health to follow suit, pen him in for 14-16 wins. The icing on the cake is the apparent decision of closer Billy Wagner not to retire. Even after crossing the 40 threshold, he is still one the games most dominant closers. They won’t catch Philly, but there’s reason for optimism in Atlanta. I know I’ve said this about like 30 teams already, but the wild card is not a stretch.
3. Florida Marlins – Stephania Bell, the injury guruess from ESPN predicts a significant injury to ace Josh Johnson, and if she’s right, this prediction goes in the toilet. She’s clearly an expert, but I have to question this call. He’s physically massive, and doesn’t seem to have to exert a ton of effort to get maximum effectiveness out of his stuff. After him, you have Javier Vasquez and Ricky Nolasco. Vasquez seems to thrive in small markets and Nolasco… well, he sucks. Inexplicably too, because his stuff is as good as anybody’s. Maybe this is the year he puts it all together? The Marlins are hoping so, because you could do worse than Anibal Sanchez, who owns a no-hitter (even though Eric Byrnes looked safe at first to me on the last out… just call me Torsten Joyce), as a number 4 guy. I’m not sold on Chris Volstad, but I wasn’t on Tampa’s Jeff Niemann either before last season and look how nice he turned out. Speaking of not sold on, closer Leo Nunez reminds me of Mitch Williams. Wild, oddly effective, but always seeming more likely to blow the save than actually get it. Then again, he notched 30 of them last year and throws in the high 90s. Who knows. Offensively, they lost their leader in homers, rbis, runs, and slugging percentage when they dealt Dan Uggla. Omar Infante won’t replace the power, but here’s hoping he slots into the vacant 2nd base spot. He deserves it. Hanley Ramirez remains one of the game’s most dynamic all around talents despite a down year in 2010. Who else can hit .300 with over 20 homers, 30 steals, and you can call it a down year… from a shortstop. Yeah, he’s that good. Mike Stanton is a star in waiting, and Chris Coughlan should recover from his diabolical sophomore season so there’s some reason for a few fans, emphasis on few, to come to the games. Unfortunately, everyone else appears pedestrian at best, although Gaby Sanchez is intriguing. They won’t embarrass themselves this year, but they’ve got a tough task ahead. Not as tough as these next two, though.
4. Washington Nationals – They’d be higher if not for Stephen Strasburg’s injury… actually, no they wouldn’t, and his absence is crushing to them. Switching gears, the Jayson Werth pickup showed a commitment to fielding a winner, even though they let Adam Dunn go. He may have been a defensive disaster anywhere but on the bench, but they’ll eventually have to get his 40 homers and 100 ribbies from somewhere if they want to contend. Adam Laroche will help, and Rick Ankiel could, but both of those guys are better suited to be complementary pieces on contenders… as we may see when the trading deadline approaches. Bryce Harper is the messiah, if you listen to the hype, but likely a year away, so the ancient Pudge Rodriguez will likely see the bulk of the duty behind home plate, his balky back permitting. Roger Bernardina is an interesting prospect in the outfield but they don’t figure to score enough to compensate for their dreadful pitching staff. Speaking of which, without Strasburg, they’re relying on John Lannan is not awful, and neither is Tom Gorzelanny, but can you really count on another 230 meritorious innings from Livan Hernandez? For goodness’ sake, Tyler Clippard led them out of the BULLPEN with 11 wins last season. Not exactly a harbinger of great success. And no, Jason Marquis is not worthy of mention here… unless you count emergency pinch hitter as something worth mentioning. As far as pitchers go, he can rake. I’m reaching now. Time to move on.
5. New York Mets – I thought I had money issues… On paper they seem mediocre, certainly better than a last place finish. I’m going to tread carefully on the financial stuff since I’m not a legal expert but let’s just say it can’t help their on field focus. So, David Wright is still a star, although you’d like a few more long balls from his bat. Jason Bay was an atrocious pickup for superstar money, but can still hit a little. Beyond that, you’re looking at guys like Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan, Ike Davis, Carlos Beltran and Luis Castillo who are injury prone, over acheived last year, figures to slump as pitchers adjust, are REALLY injury prone, and suck, in that order. For some reason, I like Ronny Paulino, but it’s probably because he pulls a ton of chicks with that name, rather than any real star ball playing qualities. Seriously, I’m Ronny Paulino, what’s your number. Best pick up line in sports. The staff would be better if Johan Santana was healthy… but he’s not. Mike Pelfrey showed some maturity early in 2010 before fading a bit, but he gives up more hits than innings pitched and doesn’t strike out enough guys. R.A. Dickey was easily my favorite success story of last season, but how often do guys have journeyman careers for a decade and then thrive in their mid 30s? Not often. He is a knuckle baller though, and they age well. Ladies and gentleman, your 2020 Cy Young winner, Charlie Haeger! Just kidding. Bobby Parnell is a nice bullpen piece and figures to do a nice job being a bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez, but how good is K-Rod going to be after serious legal troubles? Seriously, those kinds of things have a way of being a rain cloud that follows unlucky cartoon characters around. And there was nothing unlucky about him assaulting his father-in-law. Just stupidity. So everything he does is going to be under a microscope, add the aforementioned legal issues, general mediocrity, and you don’t have a recipe for a good season at all.
Rookie Pitcher of the Year – Drew Storen. Yeah, he’s that other young pitching prospect in the Capitol. And he’s already logged too many innings to be a rookie, so we can re-title this section “breakout pitcher of the year.” I just don’t see any rookie standing out this season so he gets the nod. He’s not a guy I’ve seen a ton of, but the glimpses I’ve gotten have been eye-opening. You can pencil in the same concerns you would have with any young pitcher, and add the fact that he’s going to perennially be in the shadow of Strasburg. That could either help him by motivating him to make a name for himself, or could hinder him by making him try too hard to escape from that shadow. He won’t have the luxury of anonymity as major leaguers have seen him now, but the Nats are going to go and stick with him as closer, and since they won’t contend this year, he can take some lumps and not worry about losing his job. By year’s end, he’ll be a household name.
Rookie Hitter of the Year – Jordan Schafer. Is it just me, or the Braves churn out an uncanny number of outfield prospects. Not just prospects, but bona fide blue chippers. A lot was made, and rightfully so, of Jason Heyward last year, but this kid has the tools to make Heyward the second best player in that outfield. He’s got every tool. I heard on some radio show that he doesn’t always take the best route to the ball. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and while you would like your center fielder to be Willie Mays incarnate, if that’s the biggest gripe against him I think he’ll be okay. Besides, remember the absolute calamity Matt Kemp was in center for the Dodgers? And remember how he transformed himself into a gold glover in one season? Never mind his befuddling regression last season, but this flaw, if it exists, can be worked on. And since Schafer isn’t dating Rihanna, I don’t think he’ll have a problem doing it.
Surprise Player of the Year – Ian Desmond. The Nats’ shortstop is big on talent. Maybe not like Bryce Harper, and maybe he doesn’t make scouts slobber like a healthy Strasburg, but he can hit. If they can stomach the growing pains defensively, they’ll have an emerging all star on their hands. And if you look at last year, his defense actually improved from brutal to merely awful. If this year he can improve from awful to mediocre, notice shall be taken. He won’t be the next Hanley Ramirez, but who is.
Random Thought – Everyone except his immediate family really dislikes Hank Steinbrenner, right? They kind of have to. And if they didn’t before, they really ought to after his thinly veiled shot at Derek Jeter. For those of you who don’t know, he intimated that the Yankees didn’t do better in 2010 because there was too much celebrating with certain players after 2009, and that they were “building mansions,” etc. Well, Jeter happened to be building a mansion, and yeah, his numbers last season weren’t great. But he is aging a bit and some deterioration is expected. Nonetheless, I can unabashedly say that even as a proud Yankee hater, I cannot believe that an owner would take such a blatant swipe at one guy who has not only been the face of the franchise, but handled himself with class through very contentious contract negotiations, and has left his blood, sweat and tears on the diamond and both Yankee Stadiums. Very few players can say that they have never taken a play off, never hot dogged it, never half-assed it to first base on a routine grounder, and always taken the high road when others around him have stooped to sophomoric media tactics, for example, a certain high profile teammate. If you ever need an example of someone who deserved a little better, you have it.
Random Thought #2 – It’s official, Carmelo Anthony is a Knick. Look, I’m not even a basketball fan. In fact, I quite dislike it. But being the blogger hack that I am, I pay enough attention to have an idea of what I’m talking about. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to put two of the biggest “me first, I gotta get mine” guys on the same team in Anthony and Amare Stoudamire but he might have been smoking something. This is not the Lakers bringing class act Pau Gasol in, or even LeButthead James going to Miami. He’s shown enough unselfishness on the court, as has Chris Bosh, that despite their weaknesses and lack of depth the team is thriving. Not like the Knicks have done anything wise in the personnel department (unless you count ditching Eddy Curry in this deal or canning Isaiah Thomas a billion years too late) but what in the heck were they thinking? Can someone help me with this?
Up next, our Triple A preview. Or not.