Viva La Vidro’s 2010 Baseball Forecast: Cloudy With a Chance of Mariners.

Say hey to Jason Heyward, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year and next Ken Griffey Jr.

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s Opening Day and Bud hasn’t even picked his award winners for the upcoming season yet. How am I supposed to know what’s going on and who’s taking home the hardware without his keen insight and witty commentary? Is it finally time for Sidney Ponson to capture a Cy Young? Does anyone like Derek Jeter? Can Casey Kotchman slug his way to an MVP? He doesn’t work fulltime, what’s his excuse this time–his computer died?”    

Well, my computer did pass away, and I would appreciate a little sensitivity during this difficult time (Bud’s computer was five-years-old). Despite this overwhelming obstacle that would cripple most bloggers, I realize my reader(s) would be ill prepared for the 2010 season without me, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. So before I get emotional thinking about my computer again, here are the players poised for greatness this year:    

NL Rookie of the Year–Jason Heyward (Atlanta Braves OF): If card sales are any indication (just take a gander at his stuff on eBay) Heyward is the real deal. The 20-year-old slugger has been compared to everyone from Ken Griffey Jr. to Fred McGriff, and the Braves would be more than happy if Heyward turned into a “Kred McGriffey Jr.” hybrid. It’s amazing that 13 other teams passed over him in the 2007 draft because Heyward has a once-every-decade skill set, including light-pole power and tremendous plate discipline (especially for such a young player). He’ll start the year in rightfield for the Braves after a strong spring and should run away with the award.    

The Orioles are confident that Matusz can lead them out of the AL East cellar.

AL Rookie of the Year–Brian Matusz (Baltimore Orioles SP): Matusz is set to become the most badass bird since Frightful of My Side of the Mountain fame. The 23-year-old lefty breezed through the minor leagues (11-2, 1.91 ERA, 0.906 WHIP) and showed plenty of talent in a brief stint with the Orioles (5-2, 4.63 ERA, 38 K’s in 44 innings) last season. Alongside Chris Tillman, David Hernandez and Brad Bergesen, Matusz is a major part of Baltimore’s rebuilding project, and despite his age will be counted on as a leader of the pitching staff. Matusz has a four pitch repertoire and a deceptive delivery that makes it difficult for hitters to track his fastball. He also shows a good command of the strike zone and has the ability and makeup to be a top of the rotation starter for the next decade. The Orioles will need Matusz to be as good as advertised if they hope to climb the treacherous mountain known as the AL East.   

NL Cy Young–Roy Halladay (Philadelphia Phillies): While there is no shortage of premier pitchers in the National League (Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, etc.), Halladay should have the best season of his career in 2010 after moving from the power packed AL East to the offensively challenged NL East (no offense Mets’ fans…okay plenty of offense actually). Supported by one of the game’s best lineups Doc Holliday should have no trouble winning games and posting a sub 2.50 ERA to go along with around 200 K’s–more than enough to wrestle the award away from Lincecum.    

AL Cy Young–Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners): King Felix was nearly unstoppable in 2009 (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K’s) and only missed out on the award because of an unreal season from Zack Grienke. With Cliff Lee backing him up (after he gets off the DL) and a slightly improved lineup, Hernandez should be even better in 2010 and has a solid chance to capture his first 20-win season. The key this year for Felix will be cutting down on his walks (71 free passes) and wild pitches (a league leading 17); if he can do that, the King might just be the best pitcher in all of baseball.   

Troy Tulowitzki and the Rockies are poised for big things in 2010.

NL MVP–Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado Rockies SS): Tulowitzki finished fifth in NL MVP voting last season, which is astounding considering how slowly he and the Rockies started in 2009 (.200 BA in April, .242 in May). The sweet swinging shortstop is a wiz in the field and has a desirable combination of power and speed at the plate (30 HR’s/20 SB’s in 2009). More importantly than his numbers though, is Tulo’s leadership in the Rockies clubhouse, where he is the unquestioned captain of the team. If the Rockies can build on their strong finish last year Colorado should have no trouble overtaking the weakened Dodgers in the NL West, and if Tulowitzki plays like he did from June until the end of the 2009 season, the MVP will be his to lose.   

AL MVP–Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays 3B): Despite the Rays’ struggles in 2009, Longoria put together a quietly solid season in his sophomore campaign, hitting .281 with 33 HR’s and 113 RBI’s while capturing the Gold Glove at third base. Still only 24-years-old, Longoria has plenty of room for improvement at the plate, and he’s certainly capable of smacking 40 HR’s if he can cut down on his strikeouts. Tampa Bay has one of the most talented rosters in baseball and have been picked by many baseball pundits to take the AL East or Wild Card, thanks in no small part to Longoria’s continued maturation as a player. Look for big numbers in 2010 from the Rays’ third baseman as Evan finally becomes America’s most popular Longoria.   

World Series: Seattle over Colorado (4-3)–It’s no crazier than a Duke-Butler final, and really, could it end any other way? Well it could, but I don’t want it to, and I think baseball takes my wants and needs very seriously.

Is the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl Berth a Harbringer of What’s to Come in Baseball this Season?

Sorry Nationals' fans, not even Drew Brees' magic touch can get you to the World Series in 2010 (or '11, '12, ad infinitum).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, watching Jersey Shore 24/7 or hanging out with Tiger Woods in a “Sex Rehab” center in Mississippi, you probably know by now that the New Orleans Saints will be playing the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on February 7th. Moreover, with all the hype and news coverage that comes with a game of such magnitude, you probably also know that this will be the first Super Bowl appearance ever for the New Orleans franchise (who no longer can be called the “Aint’s”). That leaves only four teams in the NFL that have never been to the big game; the Detroit Lions (shocker), Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. So, does the Saints magical run to the big game give hope to fans of long-suffering baseball teams as it does to the above football teams, or is it simply another painful reminder of how little they’ve accomplished in their pitiful existences?       

Entering their 39th season, the Rangers still have not made a World Series appearance.

Heading into the 2010 Major League Baseball season there are only three teams that have never reached a World Series; the Washington Nationals (including their time in Montreal), the Texas Rangers and, of course, my beloved Seattle Mariners. That’s right, even the four expansion teams created in the last 17 years (Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays) have all made World Series appearances, with the Marlins winning twice and the Diamondbacks once. How frustrating is that if you’re a Nationals, Rangers or Mariners fan? Heck, I’d assume those teams are even more embarrassed than that guy in Viagra commercials who tries to work up the courage to talk to his doctor about ED (though his real problem might not be ED, but the fact that his reflection talks to him).  The Montreal/Washington franchise has been in existence since 1969, the Texas Rangers since 1972 and the Seattle Mariners havecompeted in Major League Baseball since 1977 (these dates do not include the two separate Washington Senator franchises that spawned the Montreal and Texas teams). Even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally, but these teams somehow have not been able to reach a World Series in over 30 years of existence. Will that change in 2010?      

Now, before I go any further into depth about the three teams, let’s eliminate the Nationals from the conversation all together, because let’s face it—it’s going to take a lot more than a miracle for Washington to make the World Series next year (or ever for that case). They’re just like the little engine that could, except they can’t (also see: Royals, Kansas City and Pirates, Pittsburgh).      

The addition of Cliff Lee makes the Mariners a serious threat to capture the AL West this year.

The Mariners and Rangers, on the other hand, both had strong offseasons that could put them in contention to make a deep run in the playoffs in 2010. Texas had a solid 2009 season with the emergence of young pitchers like Scott Feldman and Matt Harrison and added a talented hurler in Rich Harden to their roster to complement an offense led by Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young. The Mariners were one of the biggest surprises in all of baseball last year, finishing 85-77, and reloaded their roster this offseason with Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley and 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The two teams will have their work cut out for them in an increasingly difficult AL West, but it’s not hard to believe that either Texas or Seattle could capture the division. Of course, having never reached a World Series, neither Texas or Seattle has a particularly strong postseason track record. Which one has the best chance to break through this year?     

The Rangers have been one of the sorriest organizations in baseball over the past 40 years (but no one’s blaming George Bush). Not only have they never reached a World Series, but the franchise has also never even won a single playoff series. Texas didn’t reach the postseason for the first time until 1996 and have a lifetime 1-9 record (all against the Yankees) in the playoffs. Quite simply, they stink.     

Expect plenty more dog-piles from the M's in 2010. The magic is back in Seattle.

Seattle had a similarly putrid start as a franchise, failing to post a winning record until 1991 and not making their first postseason appearance until 1995 (but what an appearance it was). However, whereas the Rangers have never won a playoff series, the Mariners have made three trips to the ALCS, falling to the Indians in 1995 and the Yankees in 2000 and 2001. Seattle’s overall record in the postseason is a respectable 15-19 (.440 winning percentage) which compares favorably to the New Orleans Saints 4-6 postseason record (.400 winning percentage). Like the Saints, the Mariners have enjoyed a modicum of postseason success, yet have been unable to get over the hump and reach their sport’s biggest stage. That is, until 2010 rolled around.  

The stars have aligned for Sodo Mojo in 2010. Bet it all on the Mariners to reach the World Series for the first time this season…my logic is infallible.

Handing Out the Hardware: Baseball’s Best & Brightest of 2009

Joe Mauer, and his sideburns, are runaway winners for the 2009 AL MVP.

Joe Mauer, and his sideburns, are runaway winners for the 2009 AL MVP.

AL MVP–Joe Mauer (C-Minnesota): No matter what millions of Derek Jeter apologists may say, the AL MVP is a no brainer. Joe Mauer missed the first month of the season with a bad back, but from May on was the best hitter in all of baseball. The Twins’ All-Star catcher captured his third AL batting title in four years, finishing the season with a .365 average.  Mauer also enjoyed a tremendous spike in his power numbers with a career high 28 HR’s and 98 RBI’s, leading to an AL-best .587 slugging percentage. He walked more times than he struck out (76 BB’s vs. 63 K’s) and lead the league by a country mile in both OBP (.444) and OPS (1.031). As if that wasn’t enough, Mauer continued to play Gold Glove caliber defense behind the plate and led a depleted Twins team to a surprising AL Central title. Without Joltin’ Joe, Minnesota is likely a sub .500 team; without Jeter the Yankees are still one of the AL’s elite clubs. Quite simply, Mauer was more valuable to his team than any other player in the American League. If that doesn’t make him the MVP, what does?

NL MVP–Albert Pujols (1B-St. Louis): While he might not have captured the first Triple Crown since 1967, Pujols was still dominant from start to finish and continued to prove why he will go down in history as one of the game’s greatest sluggers. Phat Albert led the NL is HR’s (47), runs, slugging, OBP and OPS, while finishing third in the league in both RBI’s (135) and batting (.327). He spent the majority of the season getting pitched around (115 BB’s) but always seemed to come through with a clutch hit when St. Louis need it, and his numbers with the bases loaded were simply mind boggling (.588-5 HR-35 RBI-2.171 OPS). Pujols’ third MVP in five years showed once again that it’s Albert’s world and we’re all just living in it.

Zach Grienke overcame pitching for Kansas City and became baseball's best pitcher in 2009.

Zach Grienke overcame pitching for Kansas City and became baseball's best pitcher in 2009.

AL Cy Young–Zack Greinke (SP-Kansas City): Despite being tormented throughout his childhood for having a last named that rhymed with stinky (helping us understand his issues with social anxiety disorder), Zack Grienke was anything but in 2009, pitching brilliantly for one of baseball’s worst teams. The 25-year-old righty had one of the best opening months in history (5-0, 0.50 ERA, 44 K’s) and never looked back, finishing the year 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA and 242 K’s. Don’t let the win-loss record fool you, Grienke was the best pitcher in the majors all year and was reminiscent of a young Pedro Martinez circa 1998. The sky is the limit for Grienke after finally living up to his enormous potential in 2009 (and fulfilling the propechy set forth in the Book of Mary); what will he do for an encore next season?

NL Cy Young–Chris Carpenter (SP-St. Louis): The race for the NL Cy Young was probably the closest in all of baseball, with three pitchers who could make a strong argument for the award. Tim Lincecum was his usual dominant self for the Giants, but winning only 15 games really hurt his chances at back-to-back awards. Adam Wainwright was outstanding in leading the Cardinals to the postseason, but he was outshined by his own teammate, the revitalized Chris Carpenter. Carpenter, who hadn’t pitched a full season since 2006 because of arm troubles, looked better than ever in 2009, going 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. The right-hander already captured the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award, but Carpenter will need more room in his trophy case after the best season of his career–and the finest of any NL hurler in ’09.

AL Rookie of the Year–Andrew Bailey (RP-Oakland): Although hidden out in the West Coast on a mediocre Oakland team, Andrew Bailey proved that Billy Beane hasn’t completely lost his marbles by setting a rookie record for saves with 26, good for 9th in the AL. The former Wagner Seahawk soared all season long, striking out more than a batter per inning and finishing the year with an impressive 1.84 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. At only 25-years-old, it appears that Oakland has found a long term solution in the back of their bullpen with “Rich & Creamy” Bailey.

Tommy Hanson baffled NL hitters all season long.

Tommy Hanson baffled National League hitters all season long.

NL Rookie of the Year–Tommy Hanson (SP-Atlanta): The National League had a trio of talented rookie hurlers as Randy Wells, J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson all turned in stellar freshman campaigns. Despite a late start, Hanson deserves the award after showing why he was regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball. The Braves next staff ace wasn’t called up until June 7th, but made the best of his time in bigs, with an 11-4 record, 2.89 ERA and 116 K’s in 127 innings. Although only 23-years-old, Hanson demonstrated the poise of bomb squad technician and was instrumental in Atlanta’s last season push for a playoff berth. Look for continued improvement from John Smoltz version 2.0 in 2010 as he teams up with Jair Jurrjens to form one of the National League’s best 1-2 punches.

New York Sinks to New Depths: Beloved Mascot Mr. Met Dealt to Cleveland

Once the happiest mascot in baseball, Mr. Met was a shell of his former self as the Mets' losses mounted.

Once the happiest mascot in baseball, Mr. Met was a shell of his former self as the Mets' losses continued to mount.

In a move that sent shockwaves throughout the world of baseball, the New York Mets sent longtime mascot Mr. Met to the Cleveland Indians in return for a pair of minor league mascots. Mr. Met, a part of the organization since 1963, had a closed-door meeting with GM Omar Minaya over the weekend in which the upset mascot revealed his frustrations with the team’s lack of direction, questionable off-season moves, hotdog prices at Citi Field, and David Wright’s mysterious lack of extra-base hits. Mr. Met then proceeded to call Minaya “less competent than the captain of the Titantic” and “quite possibly the worst GM since Isaiah Thomas”. After insulting the rest of the Mets organization and destroying Minaya’s prized ceramic egg collection, the mascot demanded a trade, stating that he “had a better shot of winning a World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates”. Minaya, already on the hotseat for New York’s mediocre play, saw no choice but to deal the face of the franchise. The team inquired about Colorado’s Dinger and the Mariner Moose before ultimately settling for a package from Cleveland that included the Akron Aeros mascot, Orbit the Cat, and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers dog-like mascot, Scrappy.

Can Orbit replace Mr. Met as the face of the franchise?

Can Orbit replace Mr. Met as the face of the franchise? Fans hope so, but he sure has a big head to fill.

At the time of the trade the Mets were 44-49 and mired in a long losing stretch that left them 10 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East. Injuries to key players had decimated the team, the pitching staff was in shambles and the Phillies 10-game winning streak had all but eliminated New York from contention; Mr. Met clearly was not amused. Fans had noticed a change in Mr. Met as the season progressed, the once omnipresent smile had been replaced with frowns, grimaces and looks of utter bewilderment. The mascot ignored requests to hold babies, stopped throwing t-shirts to fans and even refused to celebrate when the Mets captured a rare win. Queens resident Joseph Dahmer said he had seen a different Mr. Met then in season’s past. “Yeah, that big-headed doofus just wasn’t the same after Jose Reyes went to the DL,” commented Dahmer, “he seemed depressed all the time, but I can’t really blame him, the Mets stink”. Another long-time Mets’ fan, Cindy Goriglia, agreed with Dahmer saying that “he really looked like a mascot on the edge…he didn’t seem to enjoy what he was doing, and I even heard rumors of a suicide attempt.” Mr. Met recently failed a random drug test, but denied the rumors of a suicide attempt through his publicist, stating the the copious amounts of narcotics in his system helped to numb the pain of working for a dead-in-the-water franchise.

Hernandez was hit hard by the loss of his best friend.

Hernandez was hit hard by the loss of his only friend on the Mets.

Reaction to the move throughout the Mets organization was mixed. Star 3B David Wright seemed glad to be rid of Mr. Met, saying “that (bleeping) mascot wore out his welcome in the Big Apple a long time ago…he had been riding me all season long for not hitting homeruns and wouldn’t stop making passes at my girlfriend…I hope that (bleep) rots in Cleveland.” Starting pitcher Livan Hernandez was seen leaving the stadium in tears upon hearing the news, but between sobs mentioned that “Mr. Met was my best friend on the team. He was the only one who really got me, and he was always there to comfort me after another bad outing.” The Mets’ minor league mascots, including the Buffalo Bison and Savannah Sand Gnat, were sad to see their mentor leave, but excited to have a chance to perform at the major league level. It is unclear at the time whether the Mets plan to call up a mascot from their farm system or use one of the newly acquired ones to fill the void left by the departure of Mr. Met.

When confronted by reporters, Omar Minaya refused to comment about his tumultuous relationship with Mr. Met but did release the following statement about the mascots acquired in the trade:

       “We are really excited about what Orbit and Scrappy bring to this organization. They are two of the most talented mascots in all of minor league baseball and we feel that they both have the ability to contribute at the the big league level. Scrappy is full of energy, great with kids and loves being scratched behind the ears. Orbit has tremendous potential, is great with a T-shirt gun and can even do cartwheels! The city of New York has plenty of stray dogs and cats, you’ve all seen Oliver and Company haven’t you, so it makes sense to bring them here to the Big Apple. I can’t wait to see Orbit and Scrappy in action, this is an exciting day for the Mets’ franchise.”

With the trade of their mascot, Mr. Met, a strange season has gotten even stranger for the New York Mets. A team that came into the year with World Series aspirations finds itself unlikely to make the playoffs and forced to move on without one of the city’s biggest icons. The organization was clearly in need of some change, but critics of the move wonder if it should have been Minaya or Jerry Manuel who got the boot, not Mr. Met. Many loyal fans are already calling this the darkest day in New York since the blackout of 2003. The difference between the blackout and the trade of their beloved mascot? While the power came back the next day, Mr. Met may never return to the city he called home for over 45 years. The Mets continue to play limbo as a franchise, and after this latest move, many wonder: how low can they go?

Rocky Mountain High: Surging Colorado Back in NL Playoff Hunt

Tulowitzki's resurgence in the field and at the plate are a big reason why the Rockies are back in the hunt.

Tulowitzki's resurgence is a big reason why the Rockies are back in the NL playoff picture.

When the Colorado Rockies took the field against the Houston Astros on June 4th, they were 12 games under .500 and mired at the bottom of the NL West. They couldn’t hit, they couldn’t pitch and their defense was more porous than Nick Nolte’s face. The Rockies could have easily given up and mailed in the rest of the season, after all the Dodgers were running away with the division and Colorado looked dead in the water. But as they had already shown in their incredible finish to the  2007 season, the Rockies are a team that can never truly be counted out. Since a loss to the Astros on June 3rd, Colorado has been absolutely incendiary, winning 17 of their last 18 games on the way to a 37-33 record that has them tied with Milwaukee atop the Wild Card standings.

So what flipped the switch for the Rockies and turned them from afterthoughts to serious playoff contenders? Well, a lot of the credit has to go to interim manager Jim Tracey who took over after Clint Hurdle was fired on May 30. Tracey has revitalized Colorado with his positive attitude and, more importantly, got the offense back on track by shaking up an underperforming lineup. The new manager has made sure to get playing time for third baseman Ian Stewart (13 HRs in only 180 ABs) who has replaced the struggling Garrett Atkins (.207 BA). Second baseman Clint Barmes has thrived since Tracey cemented him in the #2 hole (.349 BA in June) and his decision to move Troy Tulowitzki up in the lineup has done wonders for the young shortstop’s confidence (.909 SLG since June 8). With Brad Hawpe likely to set career highs across the board, Todd Helton once again looking like one of the best hitters in baseball and Chris Ianetta rounding into form, the Rockies suddenly have one of the best offenses in the National League.

Street has dominant over the past two months.

Street has dominant over the past two months (0.82 ERA in May).

Just as important to Colorado’s turnaround has been the success of their pitching staff. The Rockies looked to have a solid bullpen heading into the season, with Manny Corpas and the newly acquired Huston Street battling for the closer’s role. However, both struggled in the early going and late game implosions cost the team numerous games. While Corpas has continued to pitch poorly, Street has turned the corner and given the Rockies some much needed stability in end game situations. Since a terrible April (6.10 ERA), Street has been lights out, converting 16 of 17 saves and striking out more than a batter per inning. He finally looks to have regained the form that made him the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year, and continues to emerge as one of the elite closers in the NL with each outing. Just as impressive as the bullpen has been the starting pitching of the Rockies. Long criticized for having a great offense but little pitching (see: the Blake Street Bombers) this year’s Colorado staff features three starting pitchers with ERAs of 4.00 or below. Aaron Cook, Jason Marquis and Ubaldo Jimenez have combined to give the Rockies a solid rotation, and if they can get any a little more consistency out of Jorge De La Rosa (82 Ks in 75 innings but a 5.85 ERA) the team might conceivably have one of the top 5 rotations (2nd in the NL in quality starts) in the league to match their potent offense (1st in runs).

One of the worst teams in all of baseball coming into June, the Rockies are suddenly looking like a dangerous matchup for the playoffs (they have risen from #28 to #15 in ESPN’s Power Rankings over the past three weeks). With a prolific offense and a solid pitching staff, Colorado has made a statement to the rest of baseball that they need to be taken for real. If the Rockies can keep up this torrid pace, the front office may soon remove the interim from Jim Tracey’s manager title (18-5 since he took over for Hurdle), and the LA Dodgers might have to start looking over their shoulders. Once again, the Colorado Rockies have shown why the MLB season is 162 games long…because no team (besides the Pittsburgh Pirates of course) is ever a winning streak away from contention.

Can the Rockies repeat their ’07 run to the World Series, or are they destined for a return to earth? Regardless, it should make for a fun summer in the Mile High City as the team continues to make Rockies’ fans forget about their slow start.

Division by Division Breakdown: NL Style

Don't despair D-Backs, you're the best of the worst.

Don't despair D-Backs, you're the best of the worst.

Though long regarded as the little brother of the American League, the NL has quietly improved over the past few years and captured last year’s World Series thanks to the dominating Philadelphia Phillies. Though they still can’t win an All-Star game (apparently they count for something now), the National League has more quality teams than the AL and will look to go back-to-back in the 2009 Fall Classic.

NL West: Yikes! Winning this division is a lot like winning VH1’s Tool Academy–it doesn’t count for much. Three-and-out in the first round of the playoffs for whichever one of these teams sucks the least.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (86-76): Flush with young talent, the D-Backs should capture this weak division with continued growth from Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton. Also boasting one of the best pitching staffs in the NL, including the 1-2 punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the snakes should slither in the playoffs after faltering down the stretch last season.

2. LA Dodgers (84-78): The Dodgers could move up or down in this division, depending on where Manny Ramirez ends up. The team lost starters Derek Lowe and Brad Penny to free agency and were so desperate for pitching that they invited Jeff Weaver to spring training (yes Mariner’s fans, that Jeff Weaver). Joe Torre may be a magician, but he just doesn’t have enough cards up his sleeve to pull this one off.

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83): Arguably the most improved team in the NL West, the Giants have all the pitching (Tim Lincecum-Randy Johnson-Matt Cain) to win, but with the heart of the lineup consisting of such fearsome sluggers as Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina might have a difficult time scoring enough runs to support their staff. Rumor has it Barry Bonds is still available…

4. Colorado Rockies (74-88): This team isn’t particularly bad, but they aren’t particularly good either. They traded away their most consistent offensive threat, Matt Holliday, for some pieces off  Billy Beane’s scrap heap in Oakland, and mostly treaded water in the off-season. Expect consistent mediocrity throughout the year. Sorry Dave.

5. San Diego Padres (64-98): Will challenge for the worst team in baseball but little else. The Padres should trade Jake Peavy before the season is over, leaving the pitching staff in the capable hands of Chris Young, Josh Banks, Cha Seung Baek, Mark Prior? Don’t feel too bad for San Diego fans, they can always console themselves with a cold one on the beach soaking up the sunshine…KC Royals fans, not so much.

NL Central: This division has more teams than any other, so that’s something. Three of these teams could compete for a playoff spot, but it is unlikely that anyone will challenge the Cubs for the division.

1. Chicago Cubs (96-66): Sure the Cubbies will win the division, but everyone knows that they will choke in the postseason, so does it even really matter? This team is better than last years squad which won 97 games, thanks to the addition of Milton Bradley and a full healthy year from Rich Harden (why does everyone laugh when I say that?) Lou Piniella’s team is the class of the National League, but have yet to prove it in October. Will this be the year the curse ends? No.

Can Ankiel lead the Cards to the playoffs?

Can Ankiel lead the Cards to the playoffs?

2. St. Louis Cardinals (87-75): Any team with Albert Pujols has a chance to contend, as proved by last year’s overachieving Cardinals. The offense will be one of the better top-to-bottom in the NL with A-Pu, Ryan Ludwick and Rick “The Natural” Ankiel. The pitching staff is the real question mark, and counting on a full season from Chris Carpenter is kind of liking counting on John Rocker and Jesse Jackson collaborating on a book–unlikely.

3. Houston Astros (85-77): Houston was making a strong push for the playoffs last year before hurricane weather forced them to play their home games in Milwaukee (I looked it up, it’s not in the state of Texas). The Astros should be a solid squad once again, assuming the weather holds up and Miguel Tejada doesn’t end up in jail. Mike Hampton returns to the home of his 22-win season, but his year should be considered a success if he manages to throw 22 pitches.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (79-83): The Brew Crew were the surprise of the NL last year, making it to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Don’t expect them to go back-to-back though, after losing ace pitchers CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency. Prince Fielder and Ryan “Brains and” Braun are the meat (or tofu in the case of Fielder, a vegan) of a good offense, but it won’t be enough for them to repeat last year’s success.

5. Cincinnati Reds (78-84): The Cincinnati Reds have the look of a team that will be good in a few years, chock full of young talent like Jay Bruce and Edison Volquez, but they also have the look of a team that will struggle mightily this year. Granted they will be better than the Bengals, but not by much.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94): The Pirates, currently in year 15 of a 30-year rebuilding plan, will stink worse than two-month-old milk. At least it’s a scenic town…

NL East: Probably the best division in the the National League, the NL East has four teams with a shot at making the playoffs. Problem is, only two of them will get in…let the fighting commence! (* denotes wildcard winner)

1. New York Mets (95-67): No really, they won’t collapse down the stretch this season. Thanks to the additions of JJ Putz and Francisco Rodriguez, New York should have just enough talent to eek out a win in this tough division.  With potential Cy Young winner Johan Santana and the dynamic duo of Jose Reyes and David Wright the Metropolitans will be a handfull come playoff time. Do I smell a Subway Series brewing?

Can the Phillies remain top dog in the East?

Can the Phillies remain top dog in the NL East?

2. Philadelphia Phillies* (93-69): The defending champs bring back the bulk of last year’s team and should be considered a serious threat to win it all again. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard lead the offense, while Cole Hamels and septuagenarian Jamie Moyer key the pitching staff. This division race should go down to the end of the season and will decided by the bullpens (hint: don’t expect another perfect year from Brad Lidge).

3. Florida Marlins (91-71): Despite selling off their top talent seemingly every year, the Marlins are still a darkhorse to win the division. Lots of young talent on both sides of the ball–led by the pitching staff of Josh Johnson-Anibal Sanchez-Ricky Nolasco and the keystone combination of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, will power the fish to a surprising record. Keep on eye on young centerfielder Cameron Maybin, 2009 may be his coming out party–of the baseball variety that is.

4. Atlanta Braves (84-78): The Braves had a difficult off-season, losing out on free agents Rafael Furcal and Ken Griffey Jr. and allowing John Smoltz to jump to Boston. The pitching staff was bolstered by the additions of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami and Atlanta signed fan favorite Tom Glavine hoping that he still has something to offer (besides a startlingly resemblance to Bob Saget). Not a whole lot to get excited about on the offense, besides Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Look for Bobby Cox to increase the all-time record for ejections substantially this season.

5. Washington Nationals (70-92): The NL version of the Mariners, the Nats have a bigger collection of washed up stars than the Surreal Life. The addition of Adam Dunn was a pleasant surprise (who joins a growing list of Cincinnati Reds’ castoffs including Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, Cory Patterson and Dmitri Young–who, if they aren’t good enough for the Reds, well, somethings are better left unsaid) but their “big” pitching acquisition of Daniel Cabrera (8-10, 5.25 ERA in 2008) leaves a little something to be desired. It’s hard to tell which is worse: the relationship between Democrats and Conservatives on Capitol Hill or the Washington Nationals. Cover your eyes Nationals’ fans, it’s going to be a long year.

Coming Soon: Playoff Previews and World Series Winner!!