East: 1. PHI 2. MIA (*) 3. WSH 4. ATL 5. NYM The window is obviously closing on the Phillies; after their brief run as a tremendous two-way team, they’re become a Giants-like all-pitching team. The one great position player of their dynasty, Chase Utley, is a shell of himself; Ryan Howard will miss a lot of time and even when he’s back is a quintessential old player skills guy coming off two mediocre seasons. They’re vulnerable, and in several other divisions they’d be in deep trouble. But I think their rotation will get them through another year through this division, especially since while they now lack front-line offensive talent they don’t have black holes at a lot of spots either, and while Pence isn’t the star he looked like in Philadelphia last year he’s certainly very good. I think they can score just enough. The Marlins are the opposite of the Phillies offensively — three outstanding players but mostly backed up by dreck, although on balance certainly better. A lot depends on whether Reyes can stay healthy, Ramirez can be adequate at third, and whether Stanton can take another step forward. Given their lack of depth, I think enough will go wrong to keep them from winning, although they could, and I like them to get one of the wildcards. I’m tempted to pick the Nationals — who have also improved their rotation a lot — second, but they have holes like the Marlins on offense without as much front-line talent, even if Harper comes up early and is ROY. Projection systems — which assume that young pitchers will be effective and healthy — seem to like the Braves, but I see the Braves year 2 after Cox as like the Orioles year 2 after Weaver, only since their collapse started early they don’t have a championship to show for year 1. With Hudson out I don’t see their rotation as clearly better than Miami or Washington (or of course Philly), and offensively they have one clearly good player. Maybe Uggla will recover from an off year at age 32 and maybe Hayward (319/389 last year) will emerge as a star, bit you can say the same kind of thing about almost any team. I think they could be in for their first really bad year since 1990. The Mets are a pretty bad team, but with at least a little upside. Adjusted for their brutal park, their offense last year was as good as any in the league except St. Louis, and while they lost Reyes and 400 PAs of Beltran, there’s also a lot of room for improvement — Wright should be better, full years from Davis and Duda, and…well, Bay can’t get much worse. Especially with Santana back, they could be surprisingly respectable. On the other hand, the flipside to their offense being better that it looked is that their pitching was even worse; the only starters who are even arguably good are a guy coming of a shoulder surgery and a 36-year-old journeyman kunckleballer. Frank Francisco is the closer. They could be OK…but they also have the best chance of anybody in the division of approaching 95 losses, especially given the grotesquely bad bench and the defense that involves a first baseman playing second, a DH in right, and minus defenders at third, short, and left.
CENTRAL: 1. STL 2. MIL (*) 3. CIN 4. PIT 5. CHI 6. HOU And of the top three can certainly win and should be in contention. I don’t see any reason that losing Pujols should be devastating to the Cardinals; if Beltran and Wainwright can be even vaguely healthy adding them would be a net improvement. LaRussa (with the now-departed Duncan,of course) is one of that rare echelon of managers with a demonstrable ability to improve performance for more than a year at the time, but while that might have long-term implications in the short-term it shouldn’t be an issue unless Matheny turns out to be inept. Even without Fielder, I still think the Brewers have an offensive core almost as good as Cincinatti’s with better table-setters, plus the back end of the Cincy rotation is ugly (Bronson Arroyo, third starter!) Then comes the gap. I’ll be rooting for the Pirates, but although headed in the right direction they still have little offense beyond McCutchen. If enough of the interesting gambles in the rotation come through they could approach .500, but hoping to get quality innings from Bedard and Burnett is not the sign of a contender. The Cubs are as bad as the Pirates but less interesting for now. The Astros should fight the Twins for the top draft pick again.
West: 1. SF 2. LA 3. ARI 4. SD 5. COL The old rivals are actually roughly analogous to Philly and Miami in the east; a one-way pitching team against a team with some impressive front-line talent on both sides of the diamond but more holes. I’ll pick the Giants assuming Belt can give them the extra hitter they need; we’ll see. Arizona is about as good as the California teams; I pick them third mainly because of the Plexiglass Principle, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a repeat. The other two I definitely see as less competitive, although I like San Diego’s pickups of Quentin and Volquez. The good-looking team that Colorado seemed to be putting together still has a decent core of talent, but it’s not backup by by much and the pitching has degenerated. Like the East, it’s a pretty compressed division but I can’t really see them winning.