Saturday, March 31, 2012

MLB 2012: National League

Pitching usually tells the tale for a baseball team, but this may be too much for even the best pitching to overcome


For the past five seasons, the Philadelphia Phillies have won the National League's Eastern Division crown. For the past four they have increased their regular season victory total every single year, culminating in a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011. They won the World Series in 2008. They lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009. They lost the NL Championship in an upset to a Giants team that went on to win the World Series in 2010. They barely lost in an upset in the Divisional Round to a Cardinals team that went on to win the World Series in 2011. The bottom line in Major League Baseball has been that for the past five seasons the road to a world championship has had to go through Philadelphia. Can that possibly continue despite what appear to be devastating losses?

I am going to hesitate, take a deep breath, acknowledge some serious red flags, and pick my beloved hometown Philadelphia Phillies to win their 6th consecutive Eastern Division crown in 2012. I am hesitating and taking a deep breath only because of the two players pictured above, and their likely absence from the Fightin's lineup for what appears to be a significant portion of the upcoming season. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley first took the field together at Citizens Bank Park in 2004, and since the following year of 2005 have been regulars in the lineup. For 7 seasons the fans have come out and watched these two play on the right side of the infield. A serious tendon injury suffered by Howard on the final at-bat of the 2011 playoffs is combining with Utley's rapidly deteriorating knees to put that streak in jeopardy.

With Howard likely out until at least mid-May and possibly into June, and with no timetable at all on Utley, that right-side infield is likely to be manned by a combination of the enigmatic John Mayberry Jr and beloved future Hall of Famer Jim Thome at 1st base and the shortstop-of-the-future Freddy Galvis at 2nd base. Prescient jack-of-all-trades pickup Ty Wigginton is also likely to see time at both spots, as well as sometimes spelling aging and injury-prone 3rd baseman Placido Polanco. Jimmy Rollins was re-signed in the off-season, and not only his veteran leadership but also his offensive production will be needed more than ever. The outfield features a pair of all-star caliber talents in Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, and the clutch bat and dependable catching of fan favorite Carlos Ruiz is always a plus for this team.

But it is on the mound where the Phillies remain the dominant team in the division, and one of the best in baseball. Specifically because of the first three starting pitchers: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Every time those three take the mound, the Phillies will be tough to beat. They also have returning Joe Blanton, last year's rookie sensation Vance Worley, and improving righty Kyle Kendrick giving the club enviable depth. In the bullpen, longtime Red Sox all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought in, and he should prove a fan favorite. He is supported by a solid mix of veterans and youth including Jose Contreras, Chad Qualls, Antonio Bastardo, and Michael Stutes.

It will not just be the injuries to Howard and Utley that make repeating tougher on the Phillies. The old Satchel Paige adage of "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you" applies here in the form of improving divisional competition from the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, and the new-name, new-look Miami Marlins. The New York Mets are still around, and appear to be resolving a financial mess that has virtually buried the franchise in the division basement, but they are no threat for now.

The Braves have the deepest young pitching in the game today with talented arms such as Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Craig Kimbrell, Jonny Venters, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, and more. They have strong veterans in Brian McCann, Michael Bourn, Dan Uggla, Martin Prado, and beginning in May a final season from future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. The key for Atlanta will be the performance of a pair of young bats: outfielder Jayson Heyward and 1st baseman Freddie Freeman. If these young bats and the young guys on the mound all come together at once, this team could dethrone the Phillies.

Both Washington and Florida have things to like. The Nats have phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg back and healthy, and he will lead a vastly improved rotation that includes Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is an all-star and franchise cornerstone, and the club has two of the best hitting prospects in the game in outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Anthony Rendon getting ready. They desperately need Jayson Werth to be a 25-25 player if they want to contend sooner rather than later. The Marlins move into a new ballpark, embrace the Miami identity, and have some stars in Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo "don't call me Mike" Stanton, and free agent stud shortstop Jose Reyes. If ace Josh Johnson can stay healthy at the front of the rotation, the Fish should hang around well into the summer.

In the Central Division, the Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series for an NL-record 11th time, but then lost perhaps the greatest hitter in the modern era when Albert Pujols left via free agency. They also have last year's post-season pitching hero and savior, Chris Carpenter, struggling with injuries in the spring. But the Cards may still be the team to beat here. A lineup featuring Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, David Freese, and Yadier Molina should remain productive. Adam Wainwright returns from injury to front the rotation. If Carpenter is healthy most of the year, they have the edge, but if not, the door is wide open.

Kicking in that door may be the team that won the division in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds. With a returning lineup that includes MVP-caliber 1st baseman Joey Votto, an emerging all-star in Jay Bruce, and talented 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips, the Reds simply have to prove that they have the pitching talent and depth to return to the top. Or the division could be won by the team that won it a year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite losing Prince Fielder, the Brewers retain MVP-caliber outfielder Ryan Braun, all-star caliber 2nd baseman Rickie Weeks, and an underrated pitching staff led by Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke in the rotation and by Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford in the pen. The Pirates, Cubs, and Astros are likely to pull up the rear in that order. It will be a basement goodbye for Houston in their final season before slinking off to the American League.

An extremely interesting season may be developing out in the West Division where the returning titlist Arizona Diamondbacks may face a stiff challenge from an improved San Francisco Giants squad. The DBacks won a somewhat surprising division crown a year ago and have an emerging MVP-caliber talent in Justin Upton leading the way in the lineup. Leftfielder Jason Kubel was an excellent pickup, catcher Miguel Montero is a possible all-star, 2nd baseman Aaron Hill appears legit, and young 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt has serious power. I am just simply not sold on this lineup yet, and need to see more. But manager Kirk Gibson has a solid rotation led by Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, and has super prospect arm Trevor Bauer almost ready in the minors.

I hate picking against the team that joyfully lept into their pool to celebrate the division crown a year ago, but I think the Giants can win it back. When you run out a rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner and return a true MVP-caliber player like Buster Posey to the lineup, you have to be considered a favorite. Add in a strong bullpen led by the bearded one, Brian Wilson, and a solid hitting lineup with Aubrey Huff, Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, and the 'Panda', Pablo Sandoval, I like the Giants chances. The Dodgers, Rockies, and Padres should again finish in that order, but the situation in Los Angeles looks like it is about to change for the better, and possibly quicker than anyone may realize.

The news emerged in the last couple of days that the Dodgers long-running ownership mess has finally been resolved. The new group is led by Stan Kasten on the baseball end, and by Magic Johnson on the publicity and recruiting side, and will take over formally in May. With the full financial backing of their Guggenheim group partners, I would expect the Los Angeles Dodgers to quickly return to contending status, perhaps as soon as this summer. Neither the Diamondbacks or Giants are so good that if LA stays in contention behind Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Dee Gordon, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and a strong, young bullpen it is not beyond the realm of possibility the new owners could open the pocketbooks to pursue talent via trade to push them past the others.

For now, I'm going to make the call that the division winners will be the Phillies, the Cardinals, and the Giants. The two Wildcard spots will go to the Braves and the Diamondbacks. For most of the summer, and maybe to the wire, someone from among the Marlins, Nationals, Brewers and Dodgers should be right there contending as well. I am going to be the ultimate homer and predict that Howard finally returns, gets into shape by July, and bashes. Utley manages the injury enough to be ready for the stretch run and post-season. Until then the offense is kept afloat by JRoll, Pence, the Flyin' Hawaiian, and Thome. The pitching is stellar, and Hamels is signed to a longterm extension. In the end, the Phillies return to the World Series. Unfortunately, Josh Hamilton bashes them into submission, and Texas takes home their first-ever championship.

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