Archive for March, 2011

MLB Power Poll – Week 1:

Posted: March 31, 2011 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
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I see a bunch of these everywhere, but I think it needs a definitive approach (which of course is mine), so here’s how it’s gonna go.

I’m doing a weekly Power Poll to drop each Monday to reflect where the Major Leagues are at. I’ll try to present an accurate mixture of Standings, streaks & statistical placement. But division leaders aren’t guaranteed to dominate the top 6 spots, because in a lot of instances Wild Card leaders are better teams (i.e. The ’10 Yanks vs Twins). Also, I’ll do bi-weekly updates on how I see the MVP, Cy Young & Rookie of the Year races going as well.

Keep sitting in the CHEAP SEATS, you’ll never get to far away from all the action.

POWER POLL #1

1. Red Sox: The weight of the world is in their expectations, but with the diversity of their lineup & the deepest overall pitching in the game, they can get it done.

2. Phillies: Injuries will keep the lineup from being at full strength for a while, but with Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels on the rubber, they won’t need a lot of runs to win.

3. Yankees: The game’s best lineup still makes them a force to be reckoned with despite uncertain starting pitching. In the end, Mariano is still lurking, so everything that’s well WILL end well.

4. White Sox: Adam Dunn brings even more power to town & should feast on AL pitching in his first bat-only season.

5. Giants: The unlikely champs will have to battle all summer with a target on their backs, but with Lincecum, Cain & company on the hill, they’ll still be a world of trouble to crack.

6. Rangers: The pitching worsened with Cliff Lee’s departure, but the lineup in improved with Adrian Beltre in the mix. I say they offset & break even.

7. Reds: The Reds youth will improve overall, and they still have a deep well of young arms to pull on to fight off multiple contenders in the NL Central.

8. Brewers: Once Zack Greinke is back healthy & joins Yovani Gallardo & Shaun Marcum, the Brewers will finally have a rotation that matches their dangerous lineup in potential.

9. Braves: An intriguing mixture of veterans, youth & guys at new positions make Atlanta a high risk, yet high reward club.

10. Twins: How effective Joe Nathan & Justin Morneau can be will tell a lot about if the Twins can make a run to hold off the White Sox & Tigers in the Central.

11. A’s: They boast the deepest pitching staff in all of baseball, and could be prone to upset both the AL West race & the Wild Card scenario.

12. Rockies: A team that underachieved last season, but could make up for it this summer if consistency they couldn’t find last year stills around this year.

13. Tigers: Victor Martinez gives the offense a spark, and if Max Scherzer can perform for a whole season like he did in the second half along with Justin Verlander, the Tigers have two top notch arms to work with.

14. Rays: They lost a lot from their lineup, but MVP candidate Evan Longoria is still in tow, as is Cy Young runner up David Price, so they are from an after thought.

15. Cardinals: They are hoping the defensive sacrifices they made to boost the offense (Lance Berkman, Ryan Theriot) are enough to change their fortunes. However, it looks like a much bigger risk now that ace Adam Wainwright is sidelined to til next April.

16. Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw may be the the best young arm in baseball, but how Matt Kemp & Jonathan Broxton perform on a nightly basis means everything to the Dodgers potential.

17. Angels: Their full potential for a rebound campaign won’t be clear until slugger Kendrys Morales finally returns from a broken leg suffered last summer.

18. Cubs: The Northsiders boast an impressive collection of pitching, but stll have no semblance of a leadoff hitter to set the table for their big contract hitters.

19. Blue Jays: Travis Snider, Adam Lind & Aaron Hill all are primed for rebound seasons, and they have a solid group of pitchers. However they still suffer from being in a division with two of the top 5 teams in the AL.

20. Orioles: Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee & Mark Reynolds give this young club new experience & should raise production, but their pitching is still questionable.

21. Mets: Johan Santana, Jason Bay & Carlos Beltran could all miss Opening Day. The Mets only hope is at least a few of them make a rare trip off of it soon to help in Citi Field.

22. Marlins: They made a lot of smart veteran additions, but their defense didn’t improve along the way to help out the strength of their attack: pitching.

23. Padres: The departure of Adrian Gonzalez makes last year’s surprise out west a lot more vulnerable. They still have a strong pitching group to keep games close & not demand a lot from the offense to pull off a win.

24. Astros: The Houston rebuilding process in underway, but a good year from a few of the hold overs, such as Carlos Lee & Hunter Pence, would make the process a lot easier to go along with.

25. D’Backs: Another rebuilding project, however Zona has a solid offense intact that just needs to make more contact to find quick success.

26. Mariners: Ichiro & Felix are about all there is to get guatanteed excited about, but youngsters Michael Pineda & Dustin Ackley could provide reason to believe in a Mariner reboot soon.

27. Nationals: They spent big money to land Jayson Werth to ignite a change in DC, but watching the progress of Bryce Harper in the minors may give more hope than anything in the Majors.

28. Indians: If (once again) Grady Sizemore can get back on the field, and join Shin-Soo Choo & Carlos Santana, the Indians may put on a few interesting performances. But not enough to be a threat.

29. Royals: They are on the verge of something big, with many of the top prospects in baseball a step away from doning the Royals cap, but right now the verge doesn’t forecast for many wins in the time being.

30. Pirates:
They haven’t had a winning season since the first year of the Clinton Administration. The “Curse of the Bambino” got the most headlines, but the “Curse of the Ghost of Barry Bonds” sure is being more brutal in Pittsburgh.

See the final MLB Preview from yesterday for my current MVP, Cy Young & top rook nods.

Over the past few weeks here in the CHEAP SEATS I’ve broken u each division in baseball, and shown who I think  is the best of the best from each division,  winners, player ranks and everything I could possibly think of in-between. However, with Opening Day less than 24 hours away, it’s time to bring it all home, with MVPs, injury red flags, playoff scenarios and finally, who I think is taking home the World Series this year. That, and a bit more fodder, in my final lap (hopefully of the victory variety, we’ll see about that come October) around the baseball prediction bases.

A DECK OF WILD CARDS…

National League: Braves, Brewers, Cardinals & Rockies

American League: Yankees, Twins & Athletics

Who does it? The Yanks and Brewers. The AL East traditionally supplies the Wild Card in the AL, and despite an impressive playoff streak by the Twins and an up and coming A’s squad, they aren’t better than the Yanks overall, and will have much better luck attempting to either dethrone the champs in the West or holding off the Sox in the Central. The Yanks will not take down the Red Sox, but won’t have trouble still winning 90 games, and being the second-to-third best club in the AL.

Their rivals may have reloaded, but A-Rod and the Yanks still have too much firepower to miss October.

In the NL, the Braves are a trendy pick to repeat as Wild Card reps, but they’ll have to face that revamped Phillies rotation a lot, and they don’t hold a distinct advantage over them in any match up. The Rockies are primed for revival after a disappointing 2010, but still have a four deep division that will make every night tough. The Brewers and Cardinals on the other hand play in the Central with the Astros and Pirates to beat up on, and a the most narrow talent margin between the top the four clubs of any other group in baseball. They’ll ride their new AL imported arms in Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, along with a contract year Prince Fielder, back to the postseason.

The addition of arms to their power will place the Brewers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

World Series words later….

M.V.P

N.L.: Albert Pujols: It’s a safe pick to take a three-time winner who could easily have about six if not for Barry Bonds at the beginning of his career, but it’s a simple equation here. He’s probably going to be in (at least) the top 3 in home runs and RBI, and he’s playing before the most epic contract year of all-time. You think he won’t want to both punish the Cards for not getting this deal done early AND drive his solar system-level value up as hight as possible? Me either. He’ll take the honors despite being on a third place club. RUNNERS UP: Ryan Howard, Troy Tulowitzki

A motivated monster will man first base in St. Louis this summer. A scary thought for N.L. pitchers.

A.L: Josh Hamilton: What’s most amazing about him is that he won the award last season while a) winning with his second most valuable ability (average over power), b) he did it while being hurt for a month & c) he’s played in a lineup not as good as the one he’ll be in this year. I’m going with him to be the first back-to-back winner in the AL since Roger Maris in 1960-61. RUNNERS UP: Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez

Cy Young

N.L.: Roy Halladay: Look, there hasn’t be a guy this much better than everybody else that throws the ball for a living since the Randy Johnson of the mid-2000’s. The guy is coming off of one of the best season’s in the history of the game last year (A perfect game, a no-hitter, 21 wins, 219 strikeouts against 30 walks). All in his first year in the National League. Now in his second go around, he could somehow be even more deadly. Scary. RUNNERS UP: Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw

A.L.: Jon Lester: For as dominant as Felix Hernandez was a year ago, this guy was nearly just as deadly. This season with the improved and healthy Red Sox lineup behind him, he’ll do even more than last year’s 19-9, 225 strikeout season. He could easily turn 4 of those losses into wins and lead baseball in victories this time around. RUNNERS UP: CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez

Lester's improved cast will move him to the forefront of all lefties in the game this year.

 

ROOKIES OF THE YEAR

N.L.: Freddie Freeman: This young Braves slugger is in the perfect scenario. Unlike teammate, and 2010 ROY frontrunner, Jason Heyward, he isn’t being counted on to produce at the top of the lineup. He’ll be able to sit back and hit around 6th or 7th and rake with members of the Braves impressive lineup on base in front of him. And also unlikely Heyward, he’ll take home the hardware at the end of the year. Whether he gets voted into the All-Star game this summer like Jason was in his first year…well that’s a whole different matter.RUNNERS UP: Craig Kimbrel (Braves), Brandon Belt (Giants)

A.L.: Jeremy Hellickson: He doesn’t throw the hardest, but also what he doesn’t do is throw anything straight. He threw nasty enough stuff to win multiple Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors last year, and even went 4-0 in brief stint in the majors last year. This kid was good enough for the Rays to trade away Matt Garza (who tossed a n0-hitter last summer) to make room for him, so that’s good for him to become the the third consecutive pitcher to win ROY honors in the A.L. RUNNERS UP: Dustin Ackley (Mariners), Desmond Jennings (Rays)

The Rays won't skip a beat adding Hellickson's nasty change-up to their rotation.

MILESTONE MARKERS

Derek Jeter-3,000 hits: While he’s built his legend in baseball played after September, he’s accumulated a pretty decent body of work in the first 162 of the season as well, to say the least. In the ultimate testament to that, with his 74th hit this summer he’ll become the 28th player ever to get 3,000 hits. He’ll join Honus Wagner and Robin Yount as the only shortstops to achieve this. In a bigger “Wow fact”, he’ll also become the first Yankee to ever surpass the mark. Pretty good. ETA: End of May

Jeter will add yet another honor to his prestigious career with hit 3,000 this summer.

Jim Thome-600 home runs: There are a select few that have eclipsed the this level of power production, but this summer the durable Twins slugger will join that group. Last summer he turned it up again & popped 25, which leaves him 11 short of the mark headed into this year. While he won’t be a full-time starter, he’ll still get swings & should topple the mark by mid-season. ETA: July

Mariano Rivera-600 saves: The game’s greatest finisher has a chance to become the second member of the 600 saves club this season. He is 41 short of joining Trevor Hoffman in this group, and if he reaches 43 he will become the all-time leader. If the Yanks keep enough games close enough to need him, he’ll have no trouble getting this done. Either way it’s just a matter of time. ETA: Late September

CLUB COOPERSTOWN

Barry Larkin: In a down year, usually a player may slide in that would have trouble otherwise. However, Larkin isn’t one of those guys & deserves the honor regardless. He’ll be helped by little competition, but he rose up to over 60% & all signs point towards the 1995 MVP joins the most select group in all the game. As one of the top 5 overall shortstops ever, he deserves it.

And finally….

FALL BALL and Winning It All

N.L.: Phillies vs. Brewers & Giants vs. Reds = NLCS: Phillies vs. Giants: The Phils have too much pitching to drop a best of 5 series, especially since they could drop Halladay & Lee twice if it goes 5 games. That’s too much for even the Brewers balanced offering.

The Giants have the experience here & like the Phils, have the ability to dominate the match ups on the mound, to take the W a series.

As for the NLCS, the tables turn in a rematch of 2010’s pairing, and the Phils return to the World Series for the third time in the last four years.

A.L.: Red Sox vs. Rangers & White Sox vs. Yankees = ALCS: Red Sox vs. White Sox: The Sox have too much balance for the Rangers to overcome. Their lineup can throw too many different looks at the Rangers, and have a strong enough rotation to withstand the Texas blitz on offense.

In what may seem like a shocker, the White Sox have what it takes to knock off the Yanks. They don’t have a better lineup, but have enough offense to last. The advantage goes to them on the mound, where they can throw a deeper rotation that could beat out the Yanks in a close series.

In the ALCS, the Red Sox can do what the Yankees can’t against the White Sox: pitch, especially late in games. When it comes down to the clutch, both teams have been here before, but the Red Sox have more talent & make a return to the Series.

WORLD SERIES: RED SOX VS. PHILLIES

The Red Sox looked to get better everywhere this wineter, and they rebuilt the offense to matchup with the Yankees. However, the winter of ’09 they planted they focused on starting pitching. John Lackey & Josh Beckett are two of the most prominent big game pitchers in the game, while Lester & Buchholz are among the most talented.

The new faces will pay off and the Sox will have to expand their jewelry collections even this fall.

Needless to say they’ll need them all against Philly, and both have dynamic offenses that will test them all series. The difference will come from the other side of the pitching mix, where Jonathan Papelbon & company are superior to the Philly pen & take the edge in bringing Boston a third World Series in eight years.


The Sweet 16 is in the books & there are even more brackets that have caught the Watergate treatment. The last two nights have shattered dreams & put those “point & pick” brackets in better position than anything logical. The mighty are falling fast, from top seeds to top stars, this tourney is headed to an interesting finish fast….but not quite as fast as those brackets are headed to paper shredders around the nation.

The #1 seeds are getting ate alive, with only one left. Ohio State fell to a Kentucky club that’s looking a lot more like what last year’s John Wall club was supposed to look like than this year’s edition. Duke got kicked around by a one-man gang in Derrick Williams, who has Arizona pulling a major Bibby/Simon move all of a sudden.

In other news, North Carolina is cruising along & was the most recent benefactor of a matchup with a Big LEast club, which is looking more & more like an automatic advance (unless the Iron Men of college basketball, the UConn Huskies, are your opponent). Butler won the matchup of what looked like an intrasquad scrimage of Gene Hackman’s Hickory squad from “Hoosiers” against Wisconsin.


Jimmer Jammed

Florida hurt a few brackets (and CBS’s ratings) knocking Jimmer out of the tournament. However, I feel they should be applauded for ending the potential for any more showings of those awkward Jimmer/Hip Hop montage commercial cut-ins they were showing. Those were about as Utah as actually having fun in college. Oh, wait.

And by the why VCU beat Florida State. In March. On national television. Still. Moving right along…

The top of the leaderboard in “DUNKS AND DRANK” has been looking like a four corner tag team match. With a lot of championship picks gone, there’s a lot of lingering going on from brackets with early points, but those Duke & Ohio State brackets (such as mine) dropping quick. North Carolina & Kansas brackets are looking Halle Berry good right now, and by the end of the weekend they should be dominating the leaderboard (such as Halle on Billy Bob. Salutes). But as for now, here how it’s looking….

1) Wayne’s Bracket (Wayne): 38 out of 56/59 points/83 pts possible

Well for now, here’s the top of the pops…for at least another day or so. He’s lost 3 Final Four clubs in total now & can only win one more game for the entire tournament. If you wanna see an example of how these upsets can sink the mightiest early bracket, take a look here. (And then look at mine too, because it’s about identical now. I’m gonna go join Wayne at the paper shredder now too)

2) Bugg-A-Boo (Mark): 37 out of 56/58 pts/138 points possible

If the last bracket was an example of everything that could go wrong from the Sweet 16 happening, well here is the absolute opposite. Kentucky knocking out OSU threw him some much needed padding points, which despite being eliminated from two entire divisions, his Championship game is still alive in Carolina vs. Kansas and he’s in the best shape of anybody.

The lesson to me here: ALWAYS GO WITH YOUR HEART!!! – signed Carolina fan since ’95. *Kicks trash can with bracket in it over*

3)MZSDOT (Rashida): 36 out of 56/58 points/82 possible points

Remember what I said about the ladies in the bracket? Well, we nearly had perhaps the biggest gate crasher since George Mason in the mix here. The VCU of our little our little party here, she was in the mix to get it done until Brandon Knight knocked off the Buckeyes last night. Now she’s got Kansas left, but it’s the party is all but over here. Standing ovation though, especially for her letting me know myself that she is ahead of even me in the standings. Believe me my friend….I know. *Burns all the brackets in the trash can*

QOTD

“Hey man, remember when Dook didn’t win last night? That was funny as f**k.” – DragonFlyJonez via Twitter

“Marquette needs to give up. This is embarrassing.” – @MilesFan79 via Twitter

“Marquette should have been allowed to use Dwyane Wade for the last 10 minutes. Just for honor’s sake.” – @CheapSeatFan via Twitter

“I’m coming off the top rope if Arizona wins this…” – @AsianMaven via Twitter

And in conclusion, the “Descent To Madness” equals a “Return to Sanity” for one bracketeer….

“Yeah, if San Diego State doesn’t win tonight my new hobby will be shot to s**t.” – @LumberJackNupe via Twitter

Which was shortly followed by…

“Well, that’s the end of being a sports fan.” – @LumberJackNupe via Twitter

Hilarious. The Madness is overwhelming.

In 2010, the NL West was the greatest drama in all of baseball. From the very beginning, everything went upside down in the division. The Rockies and Dodgers were pegged to be the season long favorites to take the crown, but after several rounds of injuries and drama (namely Manny being Manny and Manny leaving town in LA), the division was flipped on its head. In the end, the Padres and Giants fought until the final month of the season for the crown, with the Giants flipped from a one game difference into reaching the pinnacle of the game, bringing the first World Series title to San Francisco, and the franchise’s first since Willie Mays roamed the outfields for the New York Giants in 1954. If you bet the odds on this one last spring, I’d imagine you’d still be lighting fresh victory cigars even now.

Lincecum led the Giants to their first title in over 50 years. Can the unlikely champs hold down the fort again?

2010 Final Standings

1. San Francisco Giants (92-70)
2. San Diego Padres (90-72)
3. Colorado Rockies (83-79)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (80-82)
5. Arizona Diamondbacks (65-97)

While the Giants held it down and played some of the most clutch baseball in recent memory down the stretch last year, this is a new spring with a lot of questions to be addressed about each team. The Giants had a lot of timely hitting and still feature a dominant pitching staff, but if Colorado has a world of talent that is a legit threat to take the fight to the entire NL all summer. The Dodgers also made some very specific adjustments to their team this off season; a rebound from them should be expected. What about the Padres, who were perhaps the biggest overachievers of last summer? They lost their best player, but still have a lot of live arms and solid veteran led club that knows what it takes to compete. Even Arizona is under aggressive new management focused on putting someone beside s them in cellar of the division very soon. All things considered, it’s always easier to get to top than stay there, and the Giants have a serious target on their chest from everywhere. Can they defend the highest throne in all of baseball, or will they be taken out before even getting away from their home division?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Buster Posey-San Francisco Giants

First Base: Aubrey Huff-San Francisco Giants

Second Base: Kelly Johnson-Arizona Diamondbacks

Third Base: Chase Headley-San Diego Padres

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki-Colorado Rockies

Left Field: Carlos Gonzalez-Colorado Rockies

Center Field: Matt Kemp-Los Angeles Dodgers

Right Field: Justin Upton-Arizona Diamondbacks

Kemp is one of the great overall talents in the game, and is now the #1 guy in Dodger Stadium, post-Manny.

Starting Pitcher: Tim Lincecum-San Francisco Giants

Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw-Los Angeles Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Ubaldo Jimenez-Colorado Rockies

Starting Pitcher: Mat Latos-San Diego Padres

 

Bullpen Righty: Mike Adams-San Diego Padres

Bullpen Lefty: Hong-Chih Kuo-Los Angeles Dodgers

Closer: Brian Wilson-San Francisco Giants

There is no more intimidating closer than Wilson and his two pitch approach. (Fastball, hard & harder)

 

BEST PLAYERS

1. Tim Lincecum-Giants
2. Troy Tulowitzki-Rockies
3. Carlos Gonzalez-Rockies
4. Clayton Kershaw-Dodgers
5. Brian Wilson-Giants
6. Ubaldo Jimenez-Rockies
7. Mat Latos-Padres
8. Matt Cain-Giants
9. Matt Kemp-Dodgers
10. Buster Posey-Giants

Nothing Jimenez throws is anywhere close to straight...nor is it soft (96 mph AVERAGE fastball).

Pitching is the name of the game in the West, with nearly every team having at least 2 two high quality guys. None of them surpasses the two-time Cy Young Winner Lincecum, however for the first half of last year Jimenez did a great Sandy Koufax impression, and Kershaw one in the second half. Tulowitzki made a legit MVP push last year despite nearly two months on the DL, with a 15 home run, 40 RBI MONTH in September. His teammate Gonzalez made a push for the Triple Crown last year, and took home the NL batting title. Posey’s May promotion last year, the Giants took off towards their title, and he landed Rookie of the Year along the way.

LINEUP

1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Dodgers
4. Padres
5. Diamondbacks

This is a close one, as they are a very high risk/reward club, but the Rockies have the edge in the division’s best 3-4 combo in Gonzalez & Tulowitzki, and round it out with Ian Stewart, who is improving slower than expected, but is headed upwards. This combo is capable of 75+ homers alone. The Giants have a deep and balanced attack with plenty of veteran bats that will be consistent all summer. If the Dodgers get big years from Kemp and Andre Either, watch out.

ROTATION

1. Giants
2. Dodgers
3. Padres
4. Rockies
5. Diamondbacks

Rotation depth is a strength for each West club. Giants have as talented of a rotation in baseball has anyone, including Philly. Lincecum and Cain are top talents in the game, and they have three talented lefties to mix in around their 1-2 in Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito. The Dodgers and Rockies have a viable Cy Young candidate at the top of their rotations, and couple them with solid, winning arms throughout the rest of their rotation. Mat Latos is one of the best young arms in baseball in San Diego.

Latos had his breakout season last year (189 K's, 2.92 ERA) and is the biggest building block left in SD.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Giants (Lincecum & Cain)
2. Dodgers (Kershaw & Billingsley)
3. Rockies (Jimenez & De La Rosa)
4. Padres (Latos & Richards)
5. Diamondbacks (Kennedy & Hudson)

The Giants are splitting Sanchez in-between Lincecum and Cain for matchup purposes, but they are still the best duo in the division. Despite just turning 23 earlier this month Kershaw has averaged 198 strikeouts over the past two seasons. They are buried at the bottom of this impressive group, but Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy have a world of potential for the rebuilding D’Backs as well.

BULLPEN

1. Giants
2. Padres
3. Rockies
4. Dodgers
5. Diamondbacks

The Giants bullpen led all of baseball in ERA a year ago, and are led by “Wild Thing” Rick Vaughn clone Brian Wilson, who may have a little bit of Charlie Sheen in him as well. He led the NL with 48 saves a year ago, and has the confidence of closing out a World Series now as well. Heath Bell would be the best closer in any other division, and leads a low profile, yet high impact group in San Diego. In LA, Jonathan Broxton’s inconsistencies have dropped him down a notch, but if he straightens up again, he can be better than both Wilson and Bell.

3-4-5 HITTERS

1. Rockies (Gonzalez/Tulowitzki/Stewart)
2. Dodgers (Either/Kemp/Loney)
3. Giants (Huff/Posey/Sandoval)
4. Diamondbacks (Upton/Young/Montero)
5. Padres (Hudson/Ludwick/ Hawpe)

Tulowitzki (27 HR, 95 RBI) is the best offensive shortstop in the game, and got numbers added to his bank account ($189 million) to prove it.

As mentioned earlier, the heart of the Rockies order can get it all over the field and over the fence. However, the Giants and Diamondbacks mid-lineups have the most to gain, from more and less. If Pablo Sandoval becomes closer to his .329/24/89 form of ’09, instead of the .268/13/63 year he had last year, the Giants get a huge boost in their run scoring potential. In Phoenix, if Upton and Young put cut down on the strikeouts (297 in ’10) and put more balls in play, the D’Backs as a whole will get much better.

TABLESETTERS

1. Diamondbacks (Drew & Johnson)
2. Giants (Torres & Sanchez)
3. Dodgers (Furcal & Blake)
4. Rockies (Fowler & Smith)
5. Padres (Venable & Bartlett)

Furcal and Fowler are the only traditional leadoff men, but both have injury tags attached to them. Andres Torres broke out and was another timely spark for the Giants last year, but he was a journeyman before midway of last year, so I need to see more to believe it. The D’Backs coupling is one of the most powerful in baseball, but suffers from the same contact woes as the rest of their lineup.

BENCH

1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Diamondbacks
4. Dodgers
5. Padres

A 2010 All-Star for Baltimore, Ty Wigginton will become a super sub for the Rockies, and will contribute all across the infield and add a strong bat. Ryan Spilborghs and Jason Giambi round a solid group of reserves in Denver. The Giants have Aaron Rowland ($12 million per) stashed on their bench, for better or worse, along with Mark DeRosa to in a very experienced bench group.

DEFENSE

1. Padres
2. Dodgers
3. Giants
4. Rockies
5. Diamondbacks

For everything they lost in their offensive capabilities when Adrian Gonzalez jumped town, the Pads still have a good defense, and it may have gotten better, former Gold Glover Orlando Hudson in the mix. Kemp and Either are Gold Glove caliber outfielders in LA, while the Giants have a solid group that supports their great pitching troops nicely.

SPEED

1. Padres
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers
4. Diamondbacks
5. Giants

With Cameron Maybin & Jason Bartlett coming to town this year, the NL’s second best lineup at base theft will get even quicker, which is good since they’ll be needing to win many more games inside the outfield walls now. The rest of the division is very much an American League, “get em on and hit em in” style division, but Fowler brings a speed burst to Colorado that will become much more evident when his batting average improves.

MANAGER

1. Bud Black (Padres)
2. Bruce Bochy (Giants)
3. Jim Tracy (Rockies)
4. Don Mattingly (Dodgers)
5. Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks)

Black and Bochy are two of the best minds in baseball, as Bochy’s two trips to the World Series and Black’s 2010 Manager of the Year Award, speak to. They are among the select few managers who make a legit difference in the potential of their team every year with the tactics and pitching usage. Mattingly and Gibson bring big names from their playing days into their managerial debuts in ’11, but now have to prove their chops without bats in their hands anymore.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. *Brandon Belt (OF/1B, Giants)
2. Kenley Jansen (Pitcher, Dodgers)
3. *Jarrod Parker (Pitcher, Diamondbacks)
4. *Wilin Rosario (Catcher, Rockies)
5. *Corey Luebke (Pitcher, Padres)

Belt was one of the biggest rising prospect in all of baseball last year, hitting a combined .352 and 23 homers in his first season of pro ball while rising from single A, all the way to AAA by the season’s end. He can play both first base and leftfield, but with Huff at 1B, Pat Burrell and DeRosa may be keeping left warm for his debut this year. Jansen is being groomed for late inning work in LA, and could be tried in the ninth inning this season if Broxton doesn’t turn it around soon.

FINANCES

1. Diamondbacks
2. Giants
3. Rockies
4. Dodgers
5. Padres

Adding some more support for Upton would could definitely speed up the D'Back resurrection.

The Diamondbacks have given new GM Kevin Towers creative control on the club’s roster to raise them out of the dungeon again, and they have the finances to help him attack this mission. He is aggressively taking apart the team’s core, and won’t to use his financial benefit, but only in a smart way. Giants seem to be set now, but if the need arises they could spring, and afford, a bat later in the year.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Juan Uribe (Dodgers from Giants)
2. JJ Putz (Diamondbacks from White Sox)
3. Cameron Maybin (Padres from Marlins)
4. Orlando Hudson (Padres from Twins)
5. Miguel Tejada (Giants from Padres)

This division wasn’t characterized by any of the huge deals every other division in baseball was this offseason, but each team made small, yet meaningful moves to better themselves. The Dodgers boosted their production by taking Uribe from their rivals in San Francisco, and his ability to play the entire infield gives them important depth and an everyday presence. Maybin is either on the verge of being a big time talent or a big time bust, either way the Pads didn’t have to give up much to get him and find out. Putz gives Arizona a much needed stopper at the end of games, something they haven’t had in years.

PREDICTION

1. GIANTS
2. ROCKIES
3. DODGERS
4. PADRES
5. DIAMONDBACKS

Look familiar? Well it should, because in a division of very similar teams that rely on the same strengths to win games, winning pitching matchups early and late, solid defense and a few key batters making the difference, the Giants have the edge in each of these areas. In addition to that, they win on intangibles such as experience together under the gun. This is what happens when you return a World Series champ nearly completely intact, and where you do lose experience, you acquire a former MVP (Tejada) to fill in the blank. Both the Rockies and the Dodgers will be better and closer to the teams they were supposed to be last year, while the Padres will feel the loss of Gonzalez and will take time to come together in their new approach. The Diamondbacks are being rebuilt to compete, but this isn’t a division where reconstruction will lead to much success. Factor in all of these elements from the other clubs beside the Giants, and you’ll see level of talent is not what wins out here. I’d say a few of them are more talented on paper than Frisco, but they don’t have the advantage of chemistry they have, and more so than for any other team, that makes a world of difference for the Giants, and it will land them another title in the West.

 

In a year characterized by the unexpected in the National League, the Central was home to the biggest and most enduring example. It was a division where if you had predicted its final act to play out as it did last March, your conversation would have resembled more of an SNL skit than a legit sports conversation. However, what went down on the field was no laughing matter anywhere outside of the Cincinnati area, as the Reds resurrected themselves to a form they hadn’t seen since the mid-90’s, and knocked off all the usual suspects in the division title race in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago. They were led by a perfect storm of veteran resurgence, quick impact rookies and coming of age from the incumbents, most notably first baseman Joey Votto’s MVP season.

2010 Final Standings

1. Cincinnati Reds (91-71)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
4. Houston Astros (76-86)
5. Chicago Cubs (75-87)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105)

Behind Votto's huge season, the Reds sprung the surprise division title of the year. Is it the first of many?

The Reds consistency and season long hunger were responsible for them rising above 3rd place for the first time since 1999, but also disappointing efforts from the rest of the division played a role in this picture as well. Each team in the division has taken steps to change their approach from last season to narrow the gap on the Reds’ five game margin of victory. The Cardinals put a premium on adding more offense to a mix that depended almost entirely on Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday a year ago. The Brewers completely rebuilt their pitching staff, which often made sure no lead was too safe last summer. On the bottom half of the division, the Cubs made few moves, but the ones they did were big impact ones. The Astros and Pirates got in on the act slightly, adding in vets to bring some hope of consistency and turnaround to their clubs. But in the end, is it enough? Did everything just work out right for the Reds for the moment, or is the beginning of a long term new pecking order in the Central?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Yadier Molina-St. Louis Cardinals

First Base: Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals

Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Cincinnati Reds

Third Base: Scott Rolen-Cincinnati Reds

Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Chicago Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun-Milwaukee Brewers

Center Field: Colby Rasmus-St. Louis Cardinals

Right Field: Corey Hart-Milwaukee Brewers

Braun's .304/25 HR/103 RBI season was a down year by his standards, but he is still is the class of NL Left fielders.

Starting Pitcher: Chris Carpenter-St. Louis Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke-Milwaukee Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Carlos Zambrano-Chicago Cubs

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Milwaukee Brewers

Bullpen Righty: Evan Meek-Pittsburgh Pirates

Bullpen Lefty: Sean Marshall-Chicago Cubs

Closer: Carlos Marmol-Chicago Cubs

BEST PLAYERS

1. Albert Pujols-Cardinals
2. Joey Votto-Reds
3. Ryan Braun-Brewers
4. Matt Holliday-Cardinals
5. Chris Carpenter-Cardinals
6. Prince Fielder-Brewers
7. Zack Greinke-Brewers
8. Brandon Phillips-Reds
9. Yovani Gallardo-Brewers
10. Carlos Zambrano-Cubs

Pujols led the NL in home runs and RBI a year ago, proving once again in baseball, there's Albert & then everyone else.

If there’s any sport that doesn’t need a “Who’s the best player” debate, its baseball. Albert Pujols makes sure that discussion starts at #2. His future may be in question, but what he will do this summer is definitely not. In history, Votto’s 2010 MVP will look even more impressive due to the fact he took it home in the face of one of Pujols’ best campaigns. Picking who’s better between Braun and Holliday is so close it almost depends on what either of them did in their last at-bat. Carpenter is a force on his own, and he finished in the top 3 in the Cy Young race again, but is the top pitcher once more in the Central due to teammate Adam Wainwright’s season ending elbow surgery.

LINEUP

1. Brewers
2. Cincinnati
3. Cardinals
4. Cubs
5. Astros
6. Pirates

For years the Brewers have been able to club the ball all over the place, but last season they finally got production from everyone at once, with Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart both joining the party with 30 home run seasons, in addition to Braun and Fielder’s usual great years and Casey McGehee having a great year as well. The Reds get production from literally everywhere, and have seven regulars capable of having 20 homer seasons. The Cardinals’ lineup potential lies very much on the shoulders of Rasmus’ consistency in front of Pujols/Holliday.

ROTATION

  1. Brewers
  2. Reds
  3. Cubs
  4. Cardinals
  5. Astros
  6. Pirates

No team turned a weakness into strength more aggressively than the Brewers did with their pitching. Yovani Gallardo was on an island much of the time in years past, but with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum now joining him to become the division’s foremost rotation. The Reds run out someone who can win every day, and have a too many arms for slots, but not the top tier guys that are in Milwaukee. The Cubs boosted their staff in the same way, by adding Matt Garza, while the Cardinals lost their grasp on best rotation when Wainwright hit the surgeon’s table.

Zambrano heads a deep Cub pitching staff...when his temper lets him display his talents freely.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Brewers (Greinke & Gallardo)
2. Cubs (Zambrano & Dempster)
3. Cardinals (Carpenter & Garcia)
4. Reds (Arroyo & Volquez)
5. Astros (Myers & Rodriguez)
6. Pirates (McDonald & Correia)

As before, the Brewers jump in matchup difficulty is clear. Matter of fact, it would have challenged even the Cardinals healthy 1-2 combo for supremacy. Having strong top of the rotation is strength for nearly the entire division, with even the Myers/Rodriguez fifth place combo combining for a 25-20 record a year ago, that was often marked by a lack of run support. A full season of a healthy Edison Volquez for the Reds could be yet another plus for the Reds.

BULLPEN

  1. 1. Reds
  2. 2. Cubs
  3. 3. Cardinals
  4. 4. Brewers
  5. 5. Pirates
  6. 6. Astros

The Reds throw a lot at opponents in the pen, and have the biggest non-closer (for now) matchup concern in perhaps all of baseball in Aroldis Chapman and his 103 miles per hour fastball. He’s complimented by the division’s best closer in Francisco Cordero and a group of solid situational guys. The Cubs boast a ton of solid arms, and the return of Kerry Wood, in addition to Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol gives them three hard throwing late inning arms. In Pittsburgh, in the event they have a late lead, their Evan Meek/Joel Hanrahan combo combined for 170 strikeouts in 2010, most of any reliever combo.

3-4-5 HITTERS

  1. 1. Cardinals (Pujols/Holliday/Berkman)
  2. 2. Brewers (Braun/Fielder/McGehee)
  3. 3. Reds (Votto/Rolen/Bruce)
  4. 4. Cubs (Byrd/Ramirez/Pena)
  5. 5. Pirates (McCutchen/Alvarez/Overbay)
  6. 6. Astros (Pence/Lee/Johnson)

Holliday brought another Silver Slugger award to St. Louis during his first full season under the Arch.

Pujols and Holliday is the best 3-4 combo in baseball on their own, and could nearly support this claim on their own. However, if Berkman can give the Cardinals even 75% of what he has done in the past; this could become the most dangerous heart of any lineup in the NL. The Cubs may have scored the biggest boost to any Central lineup in Carlos Pena, who still managed to hit 28 home runs last year, despite a .196 average ( which was a down year, not a fall off).

TABLESETTERS

1. Brewers (Weeks & Hart)
2. Reds (Stubbs & Phillips)
3. Cardinals (Schumaker & Rasmus)
4. Houston (Bourn & Hall)
5. Pirates (Tabaka & Walker)
6. Cubs (Fukodome & Castro)

The Brewers have a ridiculous amount of pop & speed at the top of their order, but the Reds have a guy that had a quietly major season last year in Drew Stubbs, who totaled 22 home runs, 77 RBI and 30 steals. While his .255 average will have to improve, especially in front of Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, he could be poised for a major breakout this summer. The Cubs are reluctant to lead off with Starlin Castro yet, but Fukodome is the worst leadoff hitter in the NL, so they would be smart to pull the swap.

BENCH

1. Reds
2. Cubs
3. Cardinals
4. Pirates
5. Brewers
6. Astros

They had no need to make a lot of aggressive moves this summer to their core, so instead they built up their bench with Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis, who add even more depth to their attack. The Cubs have a lot of potential power on their bench in Tyler Colvin, who’s 22 homers led all rookies a year ago. One of the Pirates rare strengths is their reserve bats, which feature Matt Diaz and Ryan Doumit.

DEFENSE

1. Reds
2. Brewers
3. Cubs
4. Cardinals
5. Astros
6. Pirates

The Reds boast one of the best infield defenses in the game, and Phillips and Scott Rolen took home Gold Gloves for their performances last year, in addition to pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s GG as well. The Cardinals also feature two Gold Glovers in Pujols and Molina, and Rasmus can cover a ton of ground in the outfield as well. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have centerfielders with plus range in Marlon Byrd, Carlos Gomez and Gold Glover Michael Bourn, respectively.

SPEED

1. Reds
2. Astros
3. Brewers
4. Pirates
5. Cardinals
6. Cubs

Bourn looks to lead the NL in steals for the 3rd consecutive season in '11.

Phillips, Stubbs and Jay Bruce all give the Reds lineup 20 steal potential. In Houston, Michael Bourn has led the NL in steals for the last two years, with 61 in ’09 and 52 last year. Jose Tabaka and Andrew McCutchen give the Pirates two real stolen base threats that can also stretch hits into the gap into extra bases.

MANAGER

1. Tony LaRussa (Cardinals)
2. Dusty Baker (Reds)
3. Clint Hurdle (Pirates)
4. Mike Quade (Cubs)
5. Brad Mills (Astros)
6. Ron Roenicke (Brewers)

Both LaRussa and Baker are master strategists who constantly get the most out of their entire roster on a nightly basis. Much of the battle between the Cardinals and Reds will come down to the game of managerial chess between the two. Veteran manager Clint Hurdle was the most important offseason move for the Pirates, as they continue to move more young talent into the mix. Ron Roenicke will be expected to produce immediate results in his first year as a manager in Beer Town.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. Aroldis Chapman (Pitcher, Reds)
2. *Jordan Lyles (Pitcher, Astros)
3. *Devin Mesoraco (Catcher, Reds)
4. Mark Rogers (Pitcher, Brewers)
5. Matt Carpenter (Third basemen, Cardinals)

Whether it is as a starter, setup man, closer or mixture of all these roles, Chapman will be one of the biggest impact players in the game in his first full season in Cincy. He was clocked as high as 105 miles per hour at times last year, so the sky (or his breaking ball) may truly be the limit for him. Lyles and Rogers will make some spot starts throughout the year, with Lyles having a clearer path towards a Major League rotation.

FINANCES

1. Cubs
2. Cardinals
3. Brewers
4. Reds
5. Pirates
6. Astros

The Cubs have a lot of bad contracts on deck still (Soriano, Ramirez, Fukodome), but still have a lot of financial freedom to make a move if they find themselves in the mix in what will be a tight division. The Cardinals may be forced to look into the market for pitchers if they sense a repeat from last year, but may be hamstrung in how big of a contract they can take on with Pujols’ day at the bank looming in the winter. The Astros are being shopped by owner Drayton McLane, so they won’t be spending much.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Zack Greinke (Brewers from Royals)
2. Matt Garza (Cubs from Rays)
3. Kerry Wood (Cubs from Yankees)
4. Shawn Marcum (Brewers from Blue Jays)
5. Lance Berkman (Cardinals from Yankees)

Greinke could be the focus of a lot of attention all summer if he brings his '09 Cy Young form to the NL with him.

If Greinke follows the mold of other recent AL Cy Young winners that matriculated over to the NL (Sabathia, Lee, Halladay), then he could become a force in a major way once he returns from injury in May. Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter last season, and was among the best in the AL for years. Berkman gives the Cardinals a much needed presence in their lineup that they’ve lacked since moving Ryan Ludwick last summer.

PREDICTION

1. REDS
2. BREWERS
3. CARDINALS
4. CUBS
5. ASTROS
6. PIRATES

This will be the most competitive division in the National League all summer. The Reds will repeat at taking the crown, although it’s far from the beginning of an uncontested dynasty. Last year, they had a lot of things come together at the right time and it paid off. This year all of those same elements won’t produce on the same level, but the youngsters such as Votto, Bruce, Chapman, Stubbs Mike Leake and Travis Wood will continue their upswing with more experience, and the veterans will provide more of a supporting than featured role. However, it won’t be by another five game margin like 2010, as the Brewers and Cardinals will mount significant attacks all summer, and the Cubs will be improved as well. In the end, the Brewers lack of depth won’t let them overtake the champs, and the Cardinals without Wainwright will lose some tough games he would have been the difference in. Both clubs will stay within striking range of the Wild Card and could also make a legit push for the division title if the Reds succumb to injury or a prolonged.

The National League East has been, to put it plainly, predictable over the last few years. Everything basically starts in Philadelphia, and ends in D.C. The space between is left to be filled in by some order of the other three squads. For the fourth consecutive summer, the Phillies took home the NL East title, and nearly took landed the NL Pennant for the third year in a row as well. In a totally opposite showing, the Nationals lived in the cellar again….for the third year in a row as well. The prime suspects in the “others” of the division were the Atlanta Braves, who landed a surprising Wild Card nod and returned to the postseason for the first time since 2002. The seasons in the Florida and New York were marred by internal issues and managerial/executive strife, and neither could rally together enough to crack .500 for the year.

2010 Final Standings

1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
2. Atlanta Braves (91-71)
3. Florida Marlins (80-82)
4. New York Mets (79-83)
5. Washington Nationals (69-93)

So, is there to be more of the same in the East? The Phillies are the talk of baseball, after adding another former Cy Young winner to their pitching staff for the second year in a row, in Cliff Lee. His joining a staff that features Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and 2010 Cy Young winner Roy Halladay has the Phils pitchers being hailed as one of the greatest collections of arms in the history of the game. However, last year’s Phillies were supposed to be foolproof as well, but struggled early and only came together late to seal another division title. Will this year’s team be able to deliver from start to finish, even with their best everyday player’s health a complete mystery? We’ll see. The Braves and Nationals reloaded with big bats designed to push their lineups to the next level, but will they be enough for a legit run at the division? The Marlins redesigned their club, and the Mets are just hoping to have more of their players of the field instead of the disabled list, finally. But in the end, is anything really enough to even mount a legit shot at the throne? We’ll see….

Halladay was completely dominant, even perfect once, in his NL debut. What does his encore hold?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Brian McCann-Atlanta Braves

First Base: Ryan Howard-Philadelphia Phillies

Second Base: Chase Utley-Philadelphia Phillies

Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman-Washington Nationals

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez-Florida Marlins

Left Field: Jason Bay-New York Mets

Center Field: Shane Victorino-Philadelphia Phillies

Right Field: Jason Werth-Washington Nationals

More time on the field will lead to a lot more impact from Bay in the Big Apple.

Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay-Philadelphia Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee-Philadelphia Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson-Florida Marlins

Starting Pitcher: Tim Hudson-Atlanta Braves

 

Bullpen Righty: Ryan Madson-Philadelphia Phillies

Bullpen Lefty: Sean Burnett-Washington Nationals

Closer: Francisco Rodriguez-New York Mets

 

BEST PLAYERS

1. Roy Halladay-Phillies
2. Hanley Ramirez-Marlins
3. Cliff Lee-Phillies
4. Chase Utley-Phillies
5. Ryan Zimmerman-Nationals
6. Ryan Howard-Phillies
7. David Wright-Mets
8. Josh Johnson-Marlins
9. Jason Werth-Nationals
10. Jason Heyward-Braves

Halladay is at the head of the class of pitchers in baseball. His NL debut featured a perfect game, a no-hitter in his career playoff debut and a Cy Young to cap it off with. Ramirez is annually a threat to toss in 30 home runs to go with his 30 steals, and maybe another batting title as well. Utley and Howard had down years in 2010, but they are the featured acts in the NL’s best lineup. Zimmerman and Wright are among the top three at the hot corner in all of baseball. Youngsters Heyward and Johnson will be among the best talents in baseball for a long time.

LINEUP

1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Mets
4. Marlins
5. Nationals

Chase Utley’s knee injury has kept him off the field all spring, and Jason Werth left for Washington, but the Phillies lineup is still the best in the NL. Ryan Howard may have more raw power than any hitter in baseball and Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez have all made All-Star appearances. The Braves addition of Dan Uggla and the continual growth of Jason Heyward make them a viable contender for best lineup as well however, and they have far less question marks currently. The differential is all on shoulders, and knee, of Utley.

Heyward should eclipse the 30 home run mark for the first of many times this year.

ROTATION

  1. Phillies
  2. Braves
  3. Marlins
  4. Nationals
  5. Mets

Three of baseball’s best rotations are here. While it is too early to declare the Phillies rotation as among the best of all-time, the evidence for such a claim is there. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels and Joe Blanton have won 128 games combined over the past two years.It is the first time since the Braves 90’s dynasty that a team has a pitcher that makes them the favorite on his own six days a week. The Braves and Marlins both boast rotations with a clear ace (Hudson and Johnson, respectively) and a mixture of young power arms and proven vets behind them.

The addition of Lee on the heels of Oswalt makes the Phils armory the best by far.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Phillies (Halladay & Lee)
2. Marlins (Johnson & Nolasco)
3. Braves (Hudson & Lowe)
4. Mets (Pelfrey & Dickey)
5. Nationals (Hernandez & Marquis)

In Halladay & Lee, the Phillies have two of the annual favorites for the Cy Young award, regardless of league they play in. Matter of fact, their 3-4 punch of Oswalt and Hamels would also be number one on this list. The two biggest injuries in the division make their presence felt here, as both Johan Santana of the Mets and Stephen Strasberg of the Nationals would greatly boost the impact of their team’s bottom feeding rotations.

BULLPEN

1. Phillies
2. Marlins
3. Braves
4. Nationals
5. Mets

The Phillies have veteran power arms in Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge and Danys Baez, in addition to highly effective lefty J.C. Romero, in what could be a consistently well-rested bullpen. The Marlins have quietly built up a nice pen as well, adding Clay Hensley and Randy Choate to the mix in front of Leo Nunez. Francisco Rodriguez is the division’s best closer, but there isn’t a lot to get excited about in front of him in NY.

3-4-5 HITTERS

1. Phillies (Utley?/Howard/Ibanez)
2. Braves (Jones/Uggla/McCann)
3. Nationals (Zimmerman/Werth/LaRoche)
4. Mets (Wright/Bay/Beltran)
5. Marlins (Ramirez/Stanton/Sanchez)

If Utley is not in the mix, the Phillies group takes a huge hit. In Atlanta however, this isn’t the case with their #3 hitter, has if (or when) Chipper Jones struggles to stay healthy; they have Jason Heyward to drop down from the #2 spot. Jason Werth and Adam LaRoche give Zimmerman some much needed protection to replace the departed Adam Dunn. The heart of the Mets order could be huge, but as usual, it’s all about how often they actually are healthy and play together.

TABLESETTERS

1. Mets
2. Braves
3. Phillies
4. Marlins
5. Nationals

The Mets order led the NL in steals last year, which put crucial runners in scoring position to make it in without the long ball, since the majority of their power hitters spent more time on the disabled list than the actual lineup. The Braves have hit machine Martin Prado leading off, and follow it with Heyward’s prodigious power, so they are capable of scoring early before the heart of their lineup ever reaches the plate.

The return of Reyes, perhaps the game's fastest player, returned a needed spark to the Mets attack.

BENCH

1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Mets
4. Nationals
5. Marlins

Russ Gload, Ben Francisco and Wilson Valdez give the Phils solid depth off the bench, although Francisco will be starting to lead off the season. Eric Hinske is one of the best pinch hitters in baseball, and gives the Braves needed depth in both the infield and outfield. David Murphy is a versatile hitter for the Mets, which could start in many other situations around the league.

DEFENSE

1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Braves
5. Nationals

David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Jose Reyes are all plus gloves who can cover a lot of ground for the Mets (who need all the help they can get considering their pitcher’s performances last year). On the flipside, the Braves have a lot of questions on defense, with a mixture of players on injury rebound and some guys that are just plain there for offense only.

SPEED

1. Mets
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Nationals
5. Braves

Jose Reyes and Angel Pagan were the only set of NL teammates to each steal at least 30 bases a year ago and David Wright added in 19. Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins can both move around the bases and Domonic Brown will be yet another boost to the Philly speed around the diamond.

Ramirez's speed, in addition to his power and average, make him one of the game's most diverse talents.

MANAGER

1. Charlie Manuel (Phillies)
2. Freddi Gonzalez (Braves)
3. Jack McKeon (Marlins)
4. Jim Riggleman (Nationals)
5. Terry Collins (Mets)

Manuel has been to two of the last three World Series, bringing home the title in 2008. Now he is armed with his most talented team to date and will be able to attack opponents in a variety of different ways. Gonzalez is taking over for a future Hall of Famer in Bobby Cox in Atlanta, but he is user of talent, and he inherits his most talented roster to date in his new gig. Terry Collins first year on the job in New York will be ripe with expectations, but his no-nonsense approach could be just what the Mets need.

The cupboard has some nice ingredients, and huge shoes to fill, for Gonzalez in the A.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. Domonic Brown (Right fielder, Phillies)
2. Craig Kimbrel (Pitcher, Braves)
3. Freddie Freeman (First baseman, Braves)
4. Mike Minor (Pitcher, Braves)
5. *Julio Teheran (Pitcher, Braves)

The Braves feature more major league ready talent than any other team in baseball, and they will each be counted on in major roles to the club’s 2011 success. Kimbrel will be taking over for retired All-Star closer Billy Wagner, and will be expected to shut the door from Opening Day on. Brown will take over for Jason Werth in right field once he returns from a wrist injury that will sideline him for the first month of the season. He is a top 10 prospect in the game, and is the best all-around rookie talent in the Show this year.

FINANCES

1. Nationals
2. Phillies
3. Braves
4. Marlins
5. Mets

The Nats are looking to spend money anywhere they can to improve this core, and even after luring Werth and LaRoche to the rebuilding project in D.C.; they still have funds to spare. The Marlins have the least to work with in the division, but spend wisely. The Mets take the cellar here due to the fact their owner Fred Wilpon is in a serious financial trouble right now (even looking to sell part of the club), and the club had to take a loan from Major League baseball this winter while things are straightened out.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Cliff Lee (Phillies from Rangers)
2. Dan Uggla (Braves from Marlins)
3. Jason Werth (Nationals from Phillies)
4. Javier Vazquez (Marlins from Yankees)
5. John Buck (Marlins from Blue Jays)

Lee shocked the baseball world when he spurned both the Yankees and the Rangers to return to Philly and form the most potent rotation in baseball. The addition of Werth to the Nationals inspired similar shock, albeit for a different reason, with his massive 7 year/$126 million contract raising some eyebrows as to if he was worth it (I feel if you agree to suffer in DC all summer, you deserve that much at least). The Marlins made several smart, low payout/high return signings to add veteran, All-Star caliber players to their young club.

Back-to-back All-Star spots landed Werth a massive contract, and expectations, in D.C.

PREDICTION

1. PHILLIES
2. BRAVES
3. METS
4. MARLINS
5. NATIONALS

This should once again be the biggest margin of divisional victory in the NL. While they have some crucial health issues in their everyday lineup, the Phillies simply have fewer concerns than nearly any team in baseball, and definitely the National League. Their pitching staff has two legit aces that could be in a race to 20 wins all summer, and the lineup, even without Utley to start the year, is a top 3 group in the league. As for Atlanta, if their youngsters learn on the job quickly and their vets stay healthy, another run towards the Wild Card is definitely in play. The Marlins didn’t get worse, but I think this is the year where the Mets work it, a bit, and show some progress (unless they trade off their big contracts mid-season, a real possibility). As for the Nats…well, they future looks bright with phenom top pick Bryce Harper starting his path towards Washington and Strasberg rehabbing his post Tommy John elbow, but the day for them to thrive is still far off.

 

Butler's at it again...

“I’m glad I gamble for the thrill and not the money, because I would have to rob a cat after this bracket BS” – Brennan Duvall

If there is any statement that shows the Descent to Madness is well underway, this is it. And there’s not like a #1 seed falling in weekend one to push a few folks off a few ledges.

There have been a select few times in my life when I’ve looked at a scenario play out on any court, diamond, field, etc where I’ve legitimately looked at a play/moment & completely been in awe at the stupidity of it. Robby Alomar spitting in John Hirschbeck grill, Brad Miller pushing Shaq in the back, Chris Webber’s TO, Mike Tyson’s entire career. This list could go on, but these are at the pinnacle of “Mount Stupiditous”.

Well, Nasir Robinson, welcome to immortality. You felt the need to drop the hammer on Matt Howard while he heaved a shot from basically the upper deck of the Verizon Center with under ONE SECOND LEFT, you both knocked Pitt from the tournament, cause the first top 3 seed in any bracket to fall & may have got your house burned down back in Pitt.

Once again, Pittsburgh takes the early dive out the dance, and this year burns the most. They were in the easiest bracket in the tourney for a number one. It also continues the free fall of the lust affair with the Big East, once again, in the March spotlight (6 of 11 teams eliminated in the first 3 days, including their only #1 seed). Pitt has officially become the dance partner every school wants. They skeezers of the brackets that will spread the winnings early & often to the underdog who wasn’t supposed to get a win that night, so he didn’t bring any gum or a glove.

At any rate, very few brackets went uneffected by the stroke of genius that Mr. Robinson showed last night, but the top tier still is basically the same as yesterday still in the pool:

1. “@Milesfan79” (Bleek) – 32 out of 40/32 points/170 points possible left

Took it on the chin with an upset pick gone wrong in West Virginia over Kentucky, but continues to ride the Richmond train into the Sweet 16. He’s ahead by a comfortable 3 point margin, the biggest of the dance so far. He also inspired one of the funniest turns of opinion thus far in the whole tournament, but we’ll get to that in QOTD’s.

2. “Wayne’s Bracket” (Wayne) – 30 out of 40/ 30 points/ 167 points possible left

Still riding clean & went undefeated in games he had predicted yesterday. Perfect East bracket in play & the West is still in great shape. This is the Tim Duncan of brackets basically, no thrilling picks or drama, but highly effective and will be in the mix the whole way. It’s gonna be hard to overtake this one honestly without something happening that hurts every other bracket at the same time.

3. Two teams are tied here, but most importantly, I’m still posted up here in 3rd place. So all of those on Team “Let Matt Drink his own Drank in the Final Four”, stand up (but don’t bring cups).

As a sidenote, there’s some trouble lingering right outside the top 3 in the form of Mr. Nielson Chapman of the Kansas City area & his “Konz Donz”. He’s pulled 28 of 40 right so far, but most importantly has 177 points possible left, so he can make a run because of the top contenders, he is the only one who had Wisconsin in the Final Four. Yep, he benefited more from the boneheaded play of the year more than anybody & the longer the Badgers live on, the more he profits. A black guy that doesn’t play for the Packers benefitting from a Wisconsin win. Don’t see that every day.

QOTD’s

“I think Pitt goes out & recruits the biggest, ugliest cats. So they’ll be hungry out there because bad basketball will definitely = no heauxs.” – Oates via Twitter

“Bracket busted like a $2 hooker!” – Brennan via Twitter

As for my favorite showing of the Madness setting in yesterday, we turn to our leader in the clubhouse headed into Sunday….

“Shoutout to everyone who had all #1 seeds in Final Four, that’s only happened once you silly rabbits”…..

Which was quickly followed by….

“Everyone’s Southeast bracket is destroyed.”

Which was THEN followed by….

“Damn, I spoke too soon the bracket I did at last minute had Pitt coming out of SE….” 

All quotes by our leader headed into the end of the weekend, so if anything proves the madness is real & it’s spreading, I don’t know what does.

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