Unlike the American League, which I covered in yesterday’s entry and which is dominated by three teams, the National League pennant race in MLB is wide open. This is both good news and bad for our own Phillies. The bad news is that there are a lot of pretty good teams in the NL that the Phils will have to battle if they want to repeat as National League champions. The good news is that the Phils are one of them, and there is no team that is clearly superior to our defending World Series champs. Tomorrow will be devoted specifically to covering those Phils, but in starting out with the NL East race, let’s just say that the Phils match up well with every team, and are better than most. They and the Mets are fairly even, though I still like the Phillies top-to-bottom lineup, their bench, and the depth in their bullpen better than New York. Those Mets will be a strong contender with a lineup that features one of the best young players and leaders in the game in 3rd baseman David Wright and one of the game’s most exciting players in speedy shortstop Jose Reyes. Veteran bats like the two Carlos’, Delgado and Beltran, provide run-producing pop as well. The rotation is headed by all-world lefty Johan Santana, but has a bunch of question marks after him. The Mets arguably would have won the division the past two years, and possibly a World Series of their own, if they just were able to finish out close games with their bullpen. They finally met that need this off-season by signing record-setting closer Francisco ‘KRod’ Rodriguez, and yet another closer to back him up in J.J. Putz. If they stay healthy, the Mets will not blow many 9th inning leads this time around. But this time the race will not stop at just the Phils and Mets. It seems like every 5-6 years or so the Florida Marlins accumulate enough strong young talent to become serious contenders, and this is possibly one of those years. Their middle infield of 2nd baseman Dan Uggla and shortstop Hanley Ramirez rivals the Phils’ own middle of Utley-Rollins as the best in baseball. They have a future all-star in Cameron Maybin about to burst on the scene in their outfield. And their young pitching has depth and talent that is the envy of every team outside of Tampa. The Fish are a couple bats short, and their bullpen is not good enough to overtake the Phils and Mets. But they will make it interesting much of the year, as will the Atlanta Braves. Perhaps no team but the Yankees improved their starting pitching rotation more than the Bravos this off-season. Atlanta added four solid veterans in Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami, and future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. They team with youngster Jair Jurrjens to give the Braves the best rotation in the east, assuming these guys stay healthy. The Braves lineup has good young parts led by catcher Brian McCann, but the key to contending will be the health of veteran leader Chipper Jones (pictured). If the Braves get a full season out of him, and if both outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Garret Anderson produce, the Braves could seriously challenge the top two teams. I am going to call it in this order: Phils, Mets, Braves, Marlins, Nationals. In the NL Central, most prognosticators are picking the Chicago Cubs, as well as installing the Cubbies as favorites for the NL pennant and a trip to the World Series. There are plenty of reasons to like them starting with a talented and varied offense that includes Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Geovanny Soto. In the off-season the Cubs signed mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley. I am going to install him as a dark-horse MVP candidate, because if he can stay healthy he has the talent to be a difference-maker for this team. The Cubs have depth and talent in both their rotation and bullpen, but that rotation could easily be set back by injuries. If Rich Harden and Carlos Zambrano hold up, the Cubs should win the NL Central. But hot on their heels could well be either or both of the Milwaukee Brewers, whose offense led by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun matches up with anyone, or the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards have the mighty Albert Pujols back and at full strength, and that is truly scary since he won the NL MVP a year ago during a season in which he was injured. They also get back from injury a pair of arms in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and these guys staying healthy all year will be the key to the Cards staying with the Cubbies. Out in the NL West we can just refer to this as ‘Manny Land’, because the Dodgers’ superstar and future Hall of Famer will be the key to this race. If his head is on straight and he is at full health, Manny will be Manny, and he will lead Joe Torre’s troops to another division title. With a vastly improved middle infield of Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal, and with returning young bats in Russ Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, this lineup could contend even without Ramirez. Beyond young ace Chad Billingsley, who still has to prove he can carry that mantle, and strong closer Jonathan Broxton, the Dodgers pitching staff is uncharacteristically full of question marks. Right on their heels will be the Arizona Diamondbacks led by the pitching troika of Brandon Webb-Dan Haren-Randy Johnson. With strong young bats like Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, and Conor Jackson, and a deep pitching staff, this team could very well unseat the Dodgers. The pick here is for those Dodgers bats to hold off the DBacks pitching edge, but it could be very close. Behind the division-winning Phillies, Cubs, and Dodgers the other contenders in New York, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Arizona should lead the Wildcard charge, and I like the DBacks to take that race. The playoff battles are going to come down to the same keys as they do every year: who is healthy and who is pitching well come October. This is just too close to call right now, but since I went this far already I’ll call it a rematch of Phillies-Dodgers for the pennant, and why not pick our Phils to win it again and advance to a World Series rematch with the Rays? They have just as good a shot as anyone else, better than most. Tomorrow’s article will be devoted entirely to our World Series champions.