Bad News Bear: Cubs’ Manager Lou Piniella to Retire at Season’s End.

Apparently Sweet Lou has had just about enough of sour Chicago and the calamity-stricken Cubs’ losing ways.

According to a statement from the veteran skipper, 2010 will be his final year as manager of the Cubs, as he plans to retire at the end of the season and pursue a role in the front office.

Piniella was brought to Chicago to do what hadn’t been done in over 100 years–win a World Series with the Cubs.

But like many others before him Piniella wasn’t able to climb that seemingly insurmountable peak, and it became apparent this season that Chicago wasn’t likely to contend with him at the helm. While announcing his decision before the season ends might seem strange, it gives the Cubs time to find a suitable replacement from among the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Joe Torre and Fredi Gonzalez.

Piniella’s time in Chicago wasn’t all bad. He has a 308-272 record (.531) with the Cubs and won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2008 when the North Siders won a league high 97 games. But back-to-back postseason flops and run-ins with Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano obscured the regular season success, and helped make it easy for Piniella to say goodbye to baseball’s most cursed and critiqued franchise.

While Piniella’s time in Chicago has been forgettable, his career as a manager was anything but. When Lou wasn’t busy entertaining fans with his memorable tirades, the cagy skipper was guiding the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Chicago Cubs to a record of 1827-1692 (.519). He led the Reds to a World Series title in his first year as manager (1990) and also steered the 2001 Seattle Mariners to a Major League record 116 wins. Whether his accomplishments as a manager are enough to secure Piniella a place in Cooperstown remains to be seen, but one thing is clear:

Baseball will never forget Sweet Lou.

Plugging a Leak(e): Rookie Pitcher Keeps the Reds’ Season Afloat.

Leake has seamlessly made the transition from college to the pros--and the Reds are benefiting in a big way.

Coming into Spring Training it was Aroldis Chapman, not Mike Leake, who was receiving all the attention in the Cincinnati Reds camp. The Cuban flamethrowers triple digit fastballs easily overshadowed the quiet consistency of the rookie out of Arizona State University. Yet, a quarter of the way through the season, Chapman is still toiling in Triple-A while Leake is doing is best to keep Jason Heyward from running away with the rookie of the year award—not to mention helping the Reds soar to first place in the NL Central.  

The 22-year-old right hander is among a small group of hurlers who went straight to the majors without ever having thrown a pitch in the minor leagues (including such household names as Darren Dreifort, Tim Conroy and David Clyde) and Leake is making it look easy. In eight starts on the year, Leake is 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 42 strikeouts against 22 walks, and has flashed more control with each passing start. Leake’s makeup on the mound and pitching repertoire reminds many of Greg Maddux and the Reds can only hope that their young star has the same kind of career as the “Mad Dog”. Leake also shares another similarity with Greg Maddux—he handles himself at the plate with aplomb (.353 in his first 23 at-bats).

Though most pitchers not named Tim Lincecum struggle initially in the major leagues, Leake has been able to thrive in spite of his size (5’10”) and less than stellar stuff (topping out in the low 90’s). Leake explains his quick success in the major leagues:  

“It’s tough for me to get intimidated. I’m more of a self-competitor rather than competing against people. For example, people worry about or ask questions about who you’re facing. Say it’s Pujols — I’m not really worried about facing him. I’m worried about hitting the glove.”

Cincinnati is 26-20 after a loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but still sit atop their division despite a slow start and inconsistent pitching outside of Leake. The Reds have built a strong nucleus to contend with St. Louis and Chicago for the next half decade, but few expected Cincinnati to be in contention this soon.

Of course, few expected Leake to become the team’s de facto ace less than a year after graduating from college…but that’s exactly what happened.

From King of the Court to Lord of the Diamond: Lebron James Signs 5-Year Contract with Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh fans were initially stunned by the LeBron signing, but most agreed the move was a slam dunk.

Apparently LeBron James really does want to be “like Mike“.   

In a move that sent shock waves through two sports and broke the heart of every New York Knicks’ fan, the Pittsburgh Pirates reported Thursday that they had reached a contract agreement with basketball superstar Lebron James. Though exact terms of the agreement have not yet been made available, sources close to the situation speculate the contract to be in the neighborhood of 5 years/$200 million dollars. Additional terms of the deal allow LeBron to finish the season with the Cavaliers before reporting to the Pirates Double-A affiliate at the beginning of July, with additional work scheduled in the Arizona Fall League.   

Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington released the following statement regarding LeBron to the AP:   

“Obviously we’re thrilled to have a player of LeBron’s caliber here in Pittsburgh and we really feel that he is going to be a difference maker for the Pirates. He’s got nothing left to prove on the basketball court and athletes with his skill set don’t come along often; it was a no-brainer for us as an organization. The plan is to have LeBron patrolling centerfield for us fulltime in 2011 with Andrew McCutchen shifting to left. With his size, speed and vertical leap it’s hard to imagine any homeruns leaving the yard against our pitching staff. We’ve been working him out over the past few months and he has shown the ability to hit for power to all fields and with his length it won’t take more than a few steps and a slide to steal bases. The Pittsburgh Pirates are turning over a new leaf as a franchise and it starts today with the signing of Lebron James…I just can’t wait to see him on the field.”   

Huntington has raised quite a few eyebrows as GM of the Pirates by trading away popular players like Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, but nothing could have prepared the sports world for this stunning move. Message boards and radio shows were quick to criticize the move, calling it a publicity stunt or simply an April Fools joke. Huntington also responded to those comments:   

Michael Jordan never panned out in baseball. Does LeBron have what it takes to save the Pirates?

“LeBron is a world-class athlete and we have no doubt that he will be an All-Star outfielder as soon as next season. Obviously we realized that this move would be met with some skepticism, and that’s fine, because it won’t be long before other teams discover what they missed out on. We would not have made this move unless we were 100% convinced as an organization that LeBron would help the Pirates win a World Series. Sometimes in sports it’s necessary to think outside of the box, and with 17 straight losing seasons, it was evident that our franchise needed a radical change to reverse our fortunes. LeBron was already the next Michael Jordan and now it’s time for him to become the next Ken Griffey Jr. He’s got the chance to be a very special player for a long, long time.”  

LeBron James could not immediately be reached for comment but tweeted to his followers that: “Cavs gonna take da Finals this year n its time 4 me to rule another sport. I already own football now its on 2 baseball” and also “@BillSimmons I ain’t like Mike cause I chose to leave da league, I didn’t gamble my way out. LOL!” 

While that may be the case, Pirates’ fans had better hope that LeBron has better luck in baseball than Jordan (career .202 hitter in the minors). With $200 million dollars invested in just one player, Pittsburgh is betting the farm on LeBron leading them out of the cellar and back into the World Series. Of course it he doesn’t, what’s one more losing season for the longest suffering franchise in sports?

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.

The Pujols Protection Plan: Cardinals Acquire Matt Holliday from Athletics

Matt Holliday has gone 6 for 9 in his first two games with the Cardinals.

Matt Holliday has gone 6 for 9 in his first two games with the Cardinals.

In a move that they hope will propel them to a second World Series title in four years, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired coveted slugger Matt Holliday from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for three minor league prospects. St. Louis had been rumored as a destination for Toronto’s star hurler Roy Halladay, but the team decided getting a proven hitter like Holliday to follow Albert Pujols in their lineup was a more pressing need in their playoff push. Despite a subpar supporting cast around Pujols the Cardinals still find themselves leading the NL Central by 1/2 game over the Chicago Cubs. Playing in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions, (the NL Central boasts four teams with records over .500) St. Louis’ addition of Holliday should make them the favorite to capture the Central.

At the time of the trade, 2007’s MVP runner-up was hitting .286 with 10 HRs, 54 RBIs and 12 SBs for the last place A’s. Holliday landed in Oakland during the off-season in a trade from the Colorado Rockies, a surprising move given Billy Beane’s track record for shying away from veterans with big contracts. Holliday struggled early in Oakland and the team quickly fell out of contention in the AL West. It wasn’t long before his name started to come up in baseball circles as a perfect complement to Pujols in the Cardinals’ lineup. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa has long been a fan of Holliday from his days in Colorado, and the Red Birds were in desperate need of some offensive firepower to support their stellar pitching staff (3.72 team ERA ranks 3rd in NL). Holliday offers a rare blend of speed and power and the Cardinals hope their new slugger will make teams pay for pitching around Pujols who leads the league with 75 walks. Holliday will man leftfield opposite Ryan Ludwick, who continues to heat up after a slow start (.392-5 HR-24 RBI in July), forming a potent heart of the heart with Pujols. While this move makes the Cardinals the most talented team on paper in the NL Central, the Dodgers still remain the team to beat in the National League.

Oakland hopes Wallace becomes a mainstay in their lineup starting in 2010.

Oakland hopes new addition Brett Wallace can become a mainstay in their lineup as soon as 2010.

On the flip side of the deal, the constantly rebuilding Athletics acquire one of the best third-base prospects in baseball, 22-year-old Brett Wallace. The left-handed slugger out of Arizona State was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft and had already reached Triple-A in the Cardinals organization. Wallace makes good contact at the plate, has plus-power for a corner infielder and hits left-handed pitching well. He is a below-average defensive third baseman and may be shifted to first base or DH, but his bat should have him playing full-time in Oakland by next season. The A’s also acquired Shane Peterson, a likely 4th outfielder in the majors unless he improves his plate discipline, and right-hander Clayton Mortenson, a groundball pitcher who projects as a fourth or fifth starter. On the surface it appears that Oakland  received a better haul of prospects than they gave up for Holliday, and the move probably saved the team a  bundle of money. Holliday is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and if Oakland had offered him arbitration and he accepted, it would have cost them in the neighborhood of $17-18 million. However, if they declined to offer Holliday arbitration they would not have recieved two first-round compensatory picks in the 2010 draft, leaving Billy Beane little choice but to deal the slugger. As always, the A’s keen GM made the best of the situation, stockpiling the Oakland farm system with talented young players who could make an impact as early as next season.

Baseball’s first big trade of 2009 should set off a domino effect as teams in both leagues to seek to keep pace with St. Louis’ acquisition of Matt Holliday. The move puts pressure on the Phillies to up their offer for Roy Halladay and the Cubs almost certainly need to do something if they want to recapture the NL Central crown. The most nerve-wracking week in baseball just got more interesting, as the Cardinals take a major step forward, and the trade deadline continues to bear down on general managers with each passing minute.

Cards are Stacked: Can Albert Pujols Capture the NL Triple Crown?

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is the game's best.

Man or Machine? Either way, Pujols is hands down the game's best hitter

Well, the secret is finally out. Albert Pujols is a machine. Although ESPN may have been first to officially break the news, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed baseball since 2001. After all, in 8+ seasons Pujols has been the best in the game, averaging a batting line of .334-43 HR-129 RBI-124 R; a feat unmatched in the history of baseball and an accomplishment unthinkable for any mere mortal. Even though Pujols is stuck in a rather pedestrian St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup (though the recent addition of Mark DeRosa should help), last year’s NL MVP continues to prove that he is the best hitter in the game today, and arguably one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the history of baseball (move over Greg Vaughn Jimmie Foxx). After going deep twice against Minnesota on Saturday, Pujols was hitting .328 with a league leading 28 HRs and 78 RBIs, despite already drawing 59 free passes.

As the season moves closer to the midway point, and Pujols continues to mash at the plate, is it time for the Triple Crown talk to begin? It seems every few seasons there’s a player in baseball who jumps out of the gates quickly only to fade in the dog days of summer (i.e. Derek Lee in 2005), but Pujols is clearly in a league of his own and shows no signs of slowing down (12 HRs in 88 ABs in June). It’s been 72 years since the last NL Triple Crown winner, and strangely enough it was another Cardinal. Joe “Ducky” Medwick had a season for the ages in 1937, hitting .374 with 31 HRs and 154 RBIs (numbers which, besides the HRs, would probably still lead the league today). So, is it in the cards for St. Louis to have another Triple Crown hitter in 2009, or will Pujols find leading the lead in the three major batting categories impossible even for a machine?

Pujols will have to stay on fire for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Pujols will have to stay on fire all season long for the NL's first Triple Crown since '37.

Let’s take a look at his current numbers, main competitors in each category, and Pujols’ chances of leading the league in HRs, RBIs, and batting average:

Homeruns (28-1st in NL): Believe it or not, Pujols has never led the league in HRs, although in his defense he did play in the NL during the peak of Barry Bonds’ accidental steroid usage power barrage. The closest Pujols has come is finishing tied for second in 2004, hitting 46 HRs to Adrian Beltre’s 48 (loud groan from Mariners’ fans). Pujols’ current HR rate puts him on pace for 59 longballs which would almost assuredly lead the NL. His closest competition at this point in the season are Padres 1B Adrian Gonzalez (24 HRs), Phillies OF Raul Ibanez (22 HRs), Diamondbacks 3B Mark Reynolds (21 HR) and Phillies 1B Ryan Howard (20 HRs). Ibanez has been on fire all season long but is currently stuck on the DL, and at the age of 37, is not likely to keep up with Pujols as the summer drags on. Reynolds definitely has some pop in his bat when he hits the ball (his 102 Ks lead the league by a wide margin) but is too inconsistent and will have too many slumps to lead the league in longballs. Gonzalez will probably set a career high in HRs this season but has little protection in the San Diego lineup (he leads the league in BBs) and has slowed considerably since hitting 20 HRs in the first two months. The player with the best shot out of this group to keep Pujols from topping the NL in HRs is Ryan Howard. Howard is one of the game’s best sluggers, averaging 51 HRs a season over the past three years, while leading the league in 2006 and 2008. He plays in a homerun friendly ballpark and hitting between Chase Utley and Ibanez sure doesn’t hurt, but like Reyolds he is prone to the punchout and is already 8 HRs behind Pujols.

Odds Pujols leads league: 75%

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Will the world's biggest vegetarian play spoiler this season?

Runs Batted In (74-1st in NL): RBIs are another statistical category that Pujols has never led the league in due in large part to the Cardinals lineup(s) and the fact that he draws so many walks (24 intentional walks already); he has finished 2nd three times (2002, 05, 06). His 74 RBIs have him on pace for 157 total, yet he leads Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder by just one RBI. Besides Fielder, no one in the league is within 15 RBIs of Pujols, with Ibanez (59) and Howard (59) the closest behind. It will likely be a two-horse race all season long and could come down to which player has more chances with runners in scoring position. As mentioned before, Pujols hits in an average Cardinals’ lineup, typically manning the #3 spot behind leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker (.358 OBP) and Colby Rasmus (.307 OBP). Fielder on the other hand hits in a solid Brewers’ lineup and is entrenched in the cleanup spot behind Craig Counsell (.368 OBP), JJ Hardy (.299 OBP) and Ryan “Brains &” Braun (.416 OBP). Neither hitter has great protection behind them in the order, leading to their inflated walk totals. This might be the most difficult leg of the Triple Crown for Pujols to capture but his chances have been bolstered thanks to the Redbirds addition of Derosa.

Odds Pujols leads league: 60%

Batting Average (.328-8th in NL): Despite the fact that he is currently behind 7 other players, Pujols will probably have the easiest time winning the batting average portion of the Triple Crown. Why? Well, for one thing Pujols’ career .334 average is the highest among all active players and he’s already captured a batting title (2003) and finished 2nd two other times. Additionally, despite the fact that he is hitting a robust .328 on the year, Pujols has suffered from bad luck so far. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is only .277 this season, which is 40 points lower than his career .317 BABIP meaning that Pujols should be due for an upswing in average soon. Most of the players ahead of him in batting average (Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Tejada, Cristian Guzman and Carlos Beltran) are hitting well above their career numbers, and are likely to regress in the coming months. Pujols’ primary challengers for the batting title are Mets 3B David Wright (.342) and Florida SS Hanley Ramirez (.333). While Wright has sacrified his power for contact this season (just 4 HRs), the results have paid off so far. However, a recent 0-11 slide has chopped 14 points off his average and he seems to be coming back down to earth after a torrid May and early June. Ramirez is no slouch either, a .311 career hitter who topped out at .332 in 2007. He has been hitting well since a slow start, but his .360 BABIP will be difficult to maintain throughout the course of the year.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

The NL's last Triple Crown winner, Ducky Medwick.

Odds Pujols leads league: 90%

Pujols definitely has the career numbers, positive statistical trends and talent to put him on pace for the NL’s first Triple Crown in 72 years. He’s proved season after season that he is a special talent and is virtually peerless at the plate in baseball. However, there is a reason that no one has captured the NL’s Triple Crown since 1937–it’s not easy. It will be an uphill battle all season long for Pujols, with heated competition in all three categories, but if any player in the game today can do it, it’s Pujols. Because, if a machine can’t do it, who can?

Overall odds Pujols wins Triple Crown: 40.5%

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!!