In nearly every major publication and from most every prognosticator you will find that the 3-time defending NL East winning, 2-time defending National League champion, and back-to-back World Series participant Philadelphia Phillies are considered the odds-on favorites to repeat at least where that eastern crown is concerned.

In fact, many have them again winning the NL pennant and advancing back to the Series, some predicting they will win.

An admitted lifelong Phillies fan, this absolutely prejudiced observer is calling it that way. Phillies to win their 4th straight NL East crown, 3rd straight National League pennant, and then a 2nd World Series title in 3 years.

Did you expect anything else from me under the current circumstances? However, it will be a struggle, there will be highs and lows, they will be pushed. I will cover the Phillies specifically in detail in my next article here in the coming days.

In that NL East race, the team that will push the Phillies the most this year will be…the Atlanta Braves. In fact, some might even find a reason to pick Atlanta to Tomahawk Chop their way back to the top of the division and unseat the Fightin’s from their lofty perch.

Atlanta’s rotation of Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson & Kenshin Kawakami is talented and deep. The lineup is led by declining veteran and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones and perhaps the best offensive catcher in the NL in Brian McCann.

However, the biggest reason that the Braves will challenge the Phils will be the play of tremendous rookie right fielder Jason Heyward. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you will, and soon. Bobby Cox has a strong bullpen as well, and in his final season as manager he should push for a playoff spot.

The Florida Marlins have a superstar and NL MVP candidate in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a pair of exciting young outfielders in Chris Coghlan and Cameron Maybin, a slugging 2nd baseman in Dan Uggla, and a pair of strong starting pitchers in Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco. But they lack the overall roster depth to beat out either the Phils or the Braves. The New York Mets are not as deep or dangerous as in previous seasons, and are once again battling injury. The starting pitching behind Johan Santana is just not deep or talented enough either. They should be good enough to stay ahead of the Washington Nationals, but maybe just for one more season. Once Nats uber-prospect starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg arrives this summer, he may help vault them past New York.

In the NL Central the safe and sexy pick are the St. Louis Cardinals. The best hitter on the planet, Albert Pujols, will now be joined for a full season by the support of star outfielder Matt Holliday. Those two and the 1-2 rotation punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are formidable, but I don’t think it’s going to all be enough to repeat at the top of the division. I like the Cards to slip to 2nd place behind the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brew Crew will be led by a pair of genuine MVP candidates of their own in Ryan Braun (pictured) and Prince Fielder. Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf will give them a strong 1-2 rotation punch. I’m calling this a very close race, with an MVP season from Braun providing the difference for the Brewers.

Behind those two top central dogs, I’ll call the order: Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh. The Reds, like their AL Central and Ohio brothers in Cleveland, have ‘dark horse’ contender written all over them. If their rotation stays healthy, and if young bats Joey Votto and Jay Bruce produce to their potential, the Reds could surprise and push the top two. The Cubs look like aging underachievers to me, though ace Carlos Zambrano appears to be in shape and motivated. The Astros have talent, especially in it’s lineup with Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn, but it is fragile. The Pirates are still just too young, though outfielder Andrew McCutchen will prove one of baseball’s most exciting players.

In the NL West, I am looking at perhaps the closest 1-3 race in the league. The Rockies, Dodgers, and Giants (I’ll call the finish in that order, since I have to make a prediction) can all win the division here with the right answers to their respective questions. For Colorado, are the young bats at the top of the order in Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler for real? For the LA Dodgers, can Manny Ramirez still be a Hall of Fame offensive force in the middle of the order? In San Fran, can they manufacture enough offense to support what is perhaps the best pitching in the division? In fact, the Arizona Diamondbacks have the roster talent to join this group and make it a 4-team race, but only if they can get ace Brandon Webb healthy early and keep him healthy all year.

I think that the Rockies kids are indeed for real, and that the club will find enough pitching led by starter Ubaldo Jimenez to win the division. The Dodgers will find that Mannywood is shutting down, and that the star slugger will both decline in production and prove to be a disruptive presence in the clubhouse. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Brian Wilson lead a strong and deep Giants’ staff, but the ‘Kung Fu Panda’, Pablo Sandoval, will not have enough offensive help for the team to push past the top two clubs.

The health issue will prove to much for Arizona, despite the presence of one of the game’s emerging superstars in outfielder Justin Upton. The San Diego Padres will pull up the rear out west, with the biggest item there all season being when, to where, and for what will they trade stud 1st baseman and pending free agent Adrian Gonzalez.

In the playoffs, I think that the Phillies and Brewers will advance to meet one another in the NLCS, repeating their matchup from the 2008 Divisional playoff round which the Phils won by a 3 games to 1 count. I think that the Phils offense will wear down and overwhelm the Brewers pitching, putting Philly into the World Series for the 3rd consecutive season. This would mark the first time since the Stan Musial-led St. Louis Cardinals of 1942-44 that a team from the Senior Curcuit went to 3 straight World Series appearances.

In that World Series, I am going to pick, oh, I don’t know, how about those Phillies to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in a rematch of their 2008 battle. This one could be much closer. The Rays starting pitching is better now, but so is the Phillies. The Rays offense is more experienced now, but then so are the Phillies players. I am  going to give the World Series nod to the combination of Ray Halladay and Cole Hamels, with the Phillies taking it in the full 7-game limit. Another parade down Broad Street for the Fightin’ Phils and their fans in early November of 2010.

Picks for the National League award winners are Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers outfield stud, as the NL Most Valuable Player. The Cy Young Award will go to the Phillies big acquisition, ace righthander Roy Halladay. I will pick outfielder Jason Heyward of the Braves to begin a long and storied career with a Rookie of the Year Award in 2010. However, Heyward will be seriously pushed for that award by starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, taking the honor only because Strasburg will start out with a few weeks in the  minor leagues.