1. Atlanta Braves: This year’s team is as good, if not better, than the ’90s teams. Freddie Freeman has a bat at first base good enough to win Rookie of the Year, while Jason Heyward will follow his phenomenal rookie campaign with another strong season. The Dan Uggla signing immediately made this team a contender, and the pitching is as strong as it’s been in years.
2. Philadelphia Phillies: There is currently no return date for star second baseman Chase Utley, as the severity of his knee injury is still a mystery. Closer Brad Lidge is also going to start the season on the DL, and ditto for right fielder Dominic Brown, who took the place of D.C. bound Jayson Werth. A weak division is all that keeps Philly in second, but they will likely miss the playoffs.
3. Florida Marlins: Losing Dan Uggla hurts, but this is still a respectable team. The 2-3-4 spots are solid with Omar Infante (2B), Hanley Ramirez (SS) and Mike Stanton (RF), while the addition of John Buck behind the plate adds some pop to help recoup the loss of Uggla. Pitching outside of ace Josh Johnson is iffy, though, and will ultimately keep these guys out of contention.
4. Washington Nationals: If Strasburg were healthy, this team would be much higher. Bryce Harper’s likely September call-up will add some major pop in the outfield, while the signings of Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth immediately fill the gap created by Adam Dunn’s departure. However, until the pitching improves (Livan Hernandez and John Lannan are not the answer here), this team won’t be in contention.
5. New York Mets: There aren’t many good things to say about this team outside of the much-needed firing of GM Omar Minaya. Jose Reyes is only getting older and slower, while David Wright is nowhere near the powerhouse he used to be. Jason Bay is overpaid and underperforming in left field, and the bench is full of has-been’s and never-were’s. Pitcher R.A. Dickey is a nice glimmer of light in the rotation, but about all the Mets have to look forward to in 2011 is not being the Pirates.
1. Cincinnati Reds: Last year’s incredible run to the NL Central title showed the nation what NL Central fans already know: Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Edinson Volquez are all damn good players. There is nothing but upside with the offense, and the bullpen is sound with the hard throwing Aroldis Chapman (he reached 105 MPH last season) and closer Francisco Cordero. There’s no reason this team can’t win a second straight Central title.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: This year’s team is the best Milwaukee has had since 2008. Once Zack Greinke comes off the DL, the rotation will be stout, with Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum being solid 2-3 guys. John Axford looks to improve on a surprisingly strong rookie season at closer, and the lineup is nothing but production. Expect massive numbers out of Prince Fielder in a contract year, while Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee will look to add to their All-Star resumes. If Cincy stumbles, Milwaukee can win the division.
3. St. Louis Cardinals: Losing Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery is devastating for this team. While Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter are bright spots in the rotation, Carpenter’s health is a concern. Ryan Franklin has been mulling retirement, which leads some to question his motivation. If the Albert Pujols situation remains a distraction without a resolution, his production may not be enough. Numbers out of the top of the lineup (Ryan Theriot, Lance Berkman, Pujols, and Matt Holliday) will have to be titanic for this team to make any noise in a tough division.
4. Chicago Cubs: The same problems that plagued this team in 2010 (high contracts, low production) will be there in 2011, though the additions of Carlos Pena at first and Matt Garza to the rotation definitely help. Kosuke Fukudome and Alfonso Soriano continued to be paid too much for their middling production, and Aramis Ramirez is still a liability at third. The good news is second-year players Tyler Colvin and Starlin Castro should only improve on impressive rookie campaigns. The Cubs are getting there, but not this year.
5. Houston Astros: They’re making progress, but “competitive” is not a fair description yet for Houston. They have arguably the best leadoff man in the majors in centerfielder Michael Bourn, while the addition of Clint Barmes at shortstop helps a shaky infield. Pitching is finally what it needs to be, with Brett Myers and JA Happ, but there are too many other inconsistencies and simply not enough power in the lineup.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates: There is virtually nothing to look forward to with this team. A year after 2010, they just hope to avoid another 105-loss season. Andrew McCutchen is a bright spot at the top of the order in centerfield, but this is a team with no stars and little offense. The pitching is dismal, with number-one guy Paul Maholm just hoping to improve on a 9-15 season a year earlier. This squad is a disaster, and there are very few signs of improvement on the horizon.
1. San Francisco Giants: A year after winning the World Series, the Giants have a squad capable of a repeat. Tim Lincecum is one of the best pitchers in the game, and Matt Cain is a workhorse as well. There is nothing but upside in that offense, headed by last year’s Rookie of the Year, catcher Buster Posey. Andres Torres (CF) and Freddy Sanchez (2B) fit nicely at the top of the order, and closer Brian Wilson is the best in baseball right now, so they have a solid anchor in the bullpen.
2. Colorado Rockies: In any other division, the Rockies would win it easily. Ubaldo Jimenez heads a dominant rotation that includes Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin. Huston Street is not the answer at closer, but there will be plenty of offense out of recent re-signee Troy Tulowitski, powerful CF Carlos Gonzalez and the speedy Dexter Fowler. The team has the potential to win the wild card, and will be a lot of fun to watch in 2011.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers won’t compete this year. Casey Blake is fun to watch, and there will always be immediate production out of Andre Ethier and Marcus Thames. However, Rafael Furcal is a massive injury risk (and there is no immediate answer at SS if he goes down) and the rotation is a big question mark outside of Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. If they don’t make a move to firm up their starting pitching and add a bat, third place may even be wishful thinking.
4. San Diego Padres: This team is tough to predict, as they are often so Jekyll-and-Hyde. They have solid bats, but losing Adrian Gonzalez is a big blow. Pitching is solid with Mat Latos and Clayton Richard, but there is not much upside with the rest of their questionable rotation. Chase Headley has to start hitting for power for this team to compete, while Jason Bartlett needs to remind everyone why he was an All-Star in 2009. The 2010 campaign with 90 wins and a near Wild Card berth was a nice ride, but don’t expect a repeat performance this year.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks are the definition of a rebuilding team. They have some solid pieces in spots, but there is a lot to fix. Stephen Drew and Justin Upton are productive in the 3-4 holes, while Juan Miranda has upside at first base. There is plenty of potential in the rotation with Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders, but too many questions elsewhere.