Thanks in large part to the foresight and creativity of a front office led by CEO David Montgomery, former GM and advisor Pat Gillick, and current GM Ruben Amaro, the Phillies have been to the playoffs in four straight years and, following an offseason which featured the surprise return of Cliff Lee, they are the prohibitive favorites in the National League once again.
However, they've had a rough spring. First, they lost the services of their promising rookie outfielder, Dominic Brown, to a wrist injury which will probably cost him at least half the season. Also, their brittle closer, Brad Lidge, has been sidelined for at least a few weeks. And, most importantly, the team's best hitter and defensive whiz, Chase Utley, is beleaguered by an injury for which there is, at this point, neither a confident diagnosis or a timetable for return, fueling speculation that the five-time All-Star may be out for the season, if not longer.
With Jayson Werth, the Phillies most productive hitter in 2010, now playing for a division rival, there are now some gaping holes in Philadelphia's lineup, which not so long ago was the best in all of baseball. They opened their season yesterday with Jimmy Rollins and his 737 OPS since 2007 hitting third, while the 38-year-old Raul Ibanez provided protection for Ryan Howard.
But, while the Phillies offense may be a shadow of its former glory, the rotation is being heralded as one of the greatest ever. That may be presumptuous, but the Phillies do have a quartet of Aces and arguably the two best starting pitchers in the game, Lee and Roy Halladay. Teams like San Francisco and San Diego proved only a year ago that a deep, dominating rotation can take you a long way, especially in the National League. And, despite its growing flaws, nobody's comparing the Phillies lineup to the Padres.
The Braves, who eeked into the playoffs as a Wild Card last season, have been a somewhat popular pick this preseason to upset Philadelphia. Their viability depends upon the progress of some very young players on whom they are depending heavily: Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor. Although I'm willing to admit this is a frightening collection of talent, I'm not sure we can expect it to avoid the inconsistency which is generally expected from young cores. If they are to do so, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Nate McClouth will need to be healthy and productive...
I would, in fact, observe that the Florida Marlins are a team composed very similarly to the Braves. They've got tons of talent on both sides of the ball, but much of it is not yet established at the major-league level. What the Marlins have that the Braves do not is a proven stud in his prime hitting in the middle of the lineup. I think this gives them a minor advantage, although I could see either team winning anywhere from 75 to 95 games with a few good breaks.
Philadelphia Phillies 91 W
Florida Marlins 86 W
Atlanta Braves 85 W
Washington Nationals 66 W
New York Mets 62 W
MVP Candidate: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Cy Young Candidate: Roy Halladay, Phillies
Rookie of the Year: Craig Kimbrel, Braves
Comeback of the Year: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
Breakout Candidates: Logan Morrison, Marlins; Anibal Sanchez, Marlins; Ian Desmond, Nationals
The Brewers are a "wild card" team in every sense of the word. They have an extremely high Narrative Likability Factor (for me, they are this year's version of the 2010 Rangers).
In last year's preview of the NL Central there were a few predictions on which I can hang my hat. First, while everybody else was picking the Cardinals to run away with the title, I noted that they were "not as complete as some would have you believe," lacked "a whole lot of compensatory depth," and that "the Cardinals lineup looks a little tepid." Correct on all counts. Thank you.
I also noted that "the real Wild Card here is the Cincinnati Reds" and that "they could become an NL version of the '08 Rays." Again, not terribly far off.
Unfortunately, the team I expected to outperform both the Cardinals and the Reds was the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished back of both, in third place.
The Brewers major problem was a familiar one: starting pitching. They addressed it in a major way this offseason by trading for both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. As I wrote a few months back, these trades signal Doug Melvin's intention to "go for it" after nearly a decade of patient building. Melvin mortgaged the farm for two front-line starters to slot in between Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf. Next offseason he faces the possibility of losing two of his offensive lynchpins, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart, potentially pressing the reset button on all his work and progressively raised expectations. To retain his job, I think Melvin needs a playoff appearance, at the very least.
Surmounting Cincinnati is, however, no mean task. The Reds were the NL's offensive powerhouse in 2010. There's no obvious reason why that should change. In addition, they seem to have an army of high-upside young pitchers. This is a team built to win not only now, but for many years to come. The Reds have pretty much their entire roster under control for at least the next two seasons, with several key players wrapped up into the middle of the decade.
Cincinnati Reds 97 W
Milwaukee Brewers 93 W
Chicago Cubs 82 W
St. Louis Cardinals 74 W
Pittsburgh Pirates 70 W
Houston Astros 63 W
MVP Candidate: Prince Fielder, Brewers & Ryan Braun, Brewers
Cy Young Candidate: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Rookie of the Year: Aroldis Chapman, Reds
Comeback of the Year: Carlos Zambrano, Cubs
Breakout Candidates: Jay Bruce, Reds; Johnny Cueto, Reds; Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
From my perspective, this is the toughest division to call in 2011. It's hard to argue with the reigning World Series Champs, who have a dynamic young core and the potential to get better via the resurgence of Pablo Sandoval and the ascendence of Brandon Belt.
That said, we should remember that prior to 2010, this division was considered a two horse race between the Rockies and the Dodgers. Each of those teams also possesses an impressive stable of young talent entering their primes. As such, the NL West features three teams with established identities, but who still have plenty of upside and who are hungry to prove themselves. The Giants will have a hard time shaking the label of "fluke," given their status as an extreme underdog going into the 2010 playoffs. The Dodgers, after getting to the NLCS two years in a row with basically the same team, are eager to shake off the bad taste of 2010, only their second losing season in the last 11 years, during which the McCourt Divorce dominated the headlines. And the Rockies, who always play with a chip on their shoulders, feel as though they have the makings of a dynasty, having locked up Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Ubaldo Jimenez through at least 2014.
Whatever I choose, I feel I've got a strong chance of being wrong.
Colorado Rockies 93 W
Los Angeles Dodgers 90 W
San Francisco Giants 87 W
Arizona D-Backs 76 W
San Diego Padres 63 W
MVP Candidate: Justin Upton, D-Backs
Cy Young Candidate: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants
Comeback of the Year: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
Breakout Candidates: Ian Kennedy, D-Backs; Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies; Dexter Fowler, Rockies; Brandon Allen, D-Backs