Thursday, March 24, 2011

MLB 2011: National League



Call them what you like, because they've had 'em all hung on them at one time or another over this past winter. The "Phab Four", the "Four Aces", the "Four Horsemen", whatever. Just as long as Charlie Manuel can call on them every fifth day, the Philadelphia Phillies will win their 5th straight N.L. East crown and their 3rd National League pennant in four years before falling in one of the best World Series in decades to the Boston Red Sox. At least that's the call here.

I'll cover the Fightin' Phils and all the specific reasons in my next article here in the coming days. Let's spend some time talking about who will be doing the chasing, and who can take their place should those injury woes become overwhelming. Last year I said that the Atlanta Braves might be the one team that could give the Phils a run for their money in the N.L. East, and I was right on there. In Bobby Cox' final season at the helm, Atlanta stayed with the Phils for most of the season, even leading the division for awhile, and made it into the playoffs as the N.L. Wildcard before bowing to the eventual pennant-winning Giants in a tough playoff series.

The Braves may have an intimidating lineup if everything goes right. If Chipper Jones stays healthy. If rookie 1st sacker Freddie Freeman is a Rookie of the Year contender. If their young rotation and bullpen arms all hold up and produce. With newcomer Dan Uggla and catcher Brian McCann joining last year's phenom Jason Heyward, the Braves should again contend for the division and playoff races.
I just don't believe that Jones can hold up, and that every single thing will go right in Atlanta. Behind the Braves, the dropoff to the Marlins is significant, and even more so to the sinking Mets and the growing Nats.

Last year in the N.L. Central, I said that Cincinnati was a "dark horse" contender. The Reds got more pitching than I thought they would, and put together a division-winning season before running into Roy Halladay and a veteran Phillies team in the playoffs. I also picked Milwaukee to win the division a year ago. I'm going to do it yet again. The Brewers will edge out Cincy in a final weekend battle for the division crown in what will be the best rest in all of baseball, with both the Cubs and the Cardinals staying in it into the final month. Milwaukee strengthened it's pitching rotation this off-season enough to make their lineup led by free agent-to-be Prince Fielder and all-star outfielder Ryan Braun the favorites. Houston and Pittsburgh will be after-thoughts here.

Out in the N.L. West is where the World Series champion San Francisco Giants reside. Led by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and closer Brian Wilson, the GMen overcame a mediocre offense to win it all. Last year, that is exactly the recipe that I said they would need if they wanted to do it, and it happened. It won't happen again. Last year I picked the Colorado Rockies to win this division, and as with the Brew Crew in the Central, I am going to do it yet again. The Rox have a legit MVP contender in Carlos Gonzalez and a ton of talent behind him. In fact, I even think that the Dodgers may have enough to beat out San Fran this time around. Those three should battle hard all season, into the final month, with both Arizona and San Diego lagging way in back of that contending pack.

So let's call it the Phillies, Brewers, and Rockies to win the divisional races. I see five clubs as serious N.L. Wildcard contenders here: the Braves, Reds, Cubs, Dodgers and Giants. I'll say that enough things do go right that Atlanta edges out Cincy for the Wildcard playoff spot. I'll take the Phils and Rockies to reach the NLCS, where Philly's "Four Whatevers" dominate the Rockie hitters and lead the Fightin's into another World Series appearance.

For the National League award winners, I'll go with my pick from a year ago to actually win the MVP race this time, and that would be Milwaukee's Ryan Braun. In the Cy Young race, I'm going to take Cole Hamels pitching out of that #4 spot for Philly. As the Rookie of the Year, let's go with Cincy's flame-throwing reliever (for now) Aroldis Chapman. And as the Manager of the Year, I'll take the Cubs Mike Quade for a surprise contending job. Just what specifically it is that I like about those Phillies, what I think can cause them trouble, and why I think they fall short to Boston in the Fall Classic are all topics for the next post.

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