Tag Archives: San Francisco Giants

NLCS: Cardinals over Giants

Managers Bruce Bochy & Mike Matheny meet again in NLCS

For the last four years, either the Saint Louis Cardinals (2011, 2013) or the San Francisco Giants (2010, 2012) have won the National League pennant.

The Giants in both their winning years, and the Cards in 2011, would ultimately also win the World series.

During these last four years in which the two franchise’ have dominated the NL postseason, they met just once. The Giants edged out the Cardinals in 7 games in the 2012 NLCS, rallying after falling behind 3-1 in games.

The two clubs took different paths to this 2014 rematch. The Cards again won the NL Central Division crown for the 2nd straight season, and for the 8th time in the last 15 years. The Giants got in as an NL Wildcard team after finishing 6 games behind the LA Dodgers in the NL West race.

Despite their different methods of reaching the NLCS, both are here again, and that can likely be attributed to their previous recent playoff experience. Both of these teams, their managers, and many of the individual players are used to competing in the increased glare and under the added pressure of October baseball.

The teams met twice during the regular season. Back at the end of May, the Giants took 3 of 4 at Busch Stadium. Then at the very beginning of July, the Cards travelled to AT&T Park and took 2 of 3. So the GMen owned a 4-3 edge in the regular season series. It’s my pick here that this series will be decided by that same margin, just as their 2012 NLCS. But this time, Saint Louis comes out on top.

The Cardinals finished as the 3rd best team in the National League, and at #9 overall, in the final Power Ranking back at the beginning of October. The Giants meanwhile finished just 17th overall in MLB. The belief here is that the holes causing San Fran to finish that low will ultimately prove the difference between these battled-tested squads.

Cards’ ace Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball today

The difference makers between the teams are team pitching and defense. While the Cards were the 5th-ranked team in all of baseball in the Fangraphs WAR team defensive rankings, the GMen finished just 16th. Now especially missing injured outfielder Angel Pagan, the Giants lineup is even more challenged.

On the mound, the Cards staff rated out at #18, not an impressive finish at all. However, the Giants at #28 had some of MLB’s worst-performing overall pitching. Saint Louis should be able to parlay those pitching and defensive edges to a victory in the series.

As for the offense, the Giants 6th-rated offense gives them the old “puncher’s chance” against a Cardinals offensive group that finished as MLB’s 11th-rated WAR group. But again, injuries have weakened San Fran on offense as well. Not just the loss of Pagan, but an oblique strain has made slugger Mike Morse’ ability to contribute questionable at best, sapping the Giants of some clout.

Historically, these are two of the most storied, successful teams in all of Major League Baseball, and in the National League in particular. The Cardinals have won 19 NL Pennants and 11 World Series crowns, most in NL history and 2nd only to the Yankees overall. The Giants have won 22 NL Pennants, a league record, and 7 World Series crowns.

There is star power to be had here, with the Giants led by the hitting trio of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence, and the Cardinals hitters by Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter.

“The Big Panda”, Pablo Sandoval, is a proven postseason clutch performer

On the mound, the Giants rotation has a true young ace in lefty Madison Bumgarner, and they also rely on unflappable veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Yusmeiro Petit has developed into a reliable option as well. For the Cards, it’s righty Adam Wainwright as the ace, with Lance Lynn a solid #2, Carlos Martinez emerging as a strong 3rd option, and either John Lackey or Shelby Miller also likely to see work.

The bullpens of both clubs can be schizophrenic, with the Giants having changed from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla in the closer role, and with Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal alternating between dominant and erratic. The Cards have a tremendous arm in Pat Neshek in reserve. He may be the best reliever on either team. Both clubs have an assortment of options that run hot and cold.

The best chance for the Giants would be for Bumgarner, Peavy, and Hudson to all be at their best through the series, giving their veteran bats a chance to win it with clutch hits. For the Cards, it should be simply about playing to their full potential as an overall team.

Posey (L) and Molina (R) may be two best catchers in baseball today

Perhaps the biggest highlight of this series will be the showdown between two of the best all-around catchers in the game. Posey led the Giants to titles when he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2010 and the NL MVP in 2012. Molina, widely considered the best defensive catcher in the game, is a 6-time Gold Glover and All-Star.

The Cardinals will have the home field advantage here. While I don’t think that is necessarily a very big factor in the playoffs, I do think that in the end it will be those Saint Louis fans at Busch Stadium who are witnessing their team in a victorious pileup after a win in that ultimate Game 7 next weekend.

MLB Postseason Pitching: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As with the regular season, the 2014 MLB postseason is likely to hinge on pitching

When pitching began to dominate Major League Baseball in the late-1960’s, the game responded with a number of concrete moves designed to change the game and bring back offense. When hitting began to dominate Major League baseball in the late-1990’s, the game responded by finally addressing the PED issue. Now, runs are down about 1 per game, and batting averages are down about 20 points since 2000.

Baseball has ebbed and flowed over it’s century and a half existence, alternating “dead ball” eras with “live ball” eras, allowing hurlers their day, and then propping up batters for a bit. In the last few years, there has been a steady decline in offense and a rise in pitching influence. Now here in the 2014 postseason, as in the regular season, it is likely to be the best pitching that wins it.

Which playoff team is best positioned for a deep October run this time around? Here are some thoughts, with a nod to an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, on which pitching staffs will give their club the best chance at lifting a World Series trophy at the end of the month.


THE GOOD

Washington Nationals
Owners of not only the best pitching staff in all of baseball, but also the deepest, Washington sits at the very top of the Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The Nats had five (5) starters with double-digit Wins totals this season, and in the post-season will send out perhaps the best front four in Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. They have two experienced closers, each of whom registered double-digits in Saves. The bullpen features not only those two right-handed closers in Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano, but a trio of left-handers as well in Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, and Ross Detwiler. The righty relief core of Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, and the under-appreciated Aaron Barrett will be supplemented in post-season by the usual 5th/6th starters, Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen. This team isn’t really just “good” on the mound, they are elite. This group has the best chance, the most options, to get their team all the way through to the Promised Land.

Underrated Doug Fister a Nats rotation key

Detroit Tigers
The best pitching staff that the American League has to offer, Detroit is 3rd in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and one of only a couple that could matchup well with Washington in a World Series. Four (4) starters won in double-digits: Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. A fifth would have were it not for injury, and that pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, may give them a strong bullpen option in post-season play. They have a bunch of lefty options out of the pen with Phil Coke, Ian Kroll, Blaine Hardy and Kyle Lobstein. They have veteran righty options in Evan Reed, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Alburquerque. But it all may hinge on the effectiveness of closer Joe Nathan. One of the best in the business for the last decade, Nathan had a poor season overall. But in September, the veteran registered 7 Saves and 1 Win across 10 appearances, with just a single blown Save opportunity. His last three appearances were all “clean” – and that is the kind of consistency this club needs for him to carry over into October.

Kansas City Royals
It has been well-publicized that KC is back in the post-season for the first time in nearly three decades. That return was largely predicated on pitching and defense. The Royals have the best ‘D’ in baseball to help out a staff that doesn’t really need much help to begin with. The Fangraphs 5th-ranked WAR staff had four (4) starters with double-digit Wins totals, and a fifth just miss out in Danny Duffy. He will likely give them a strong southpaw option out of the bullpen in post-season. The front four of ‘Big Game’ James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas all logged over 180 IP this season. In addition to Duffy, they have Bruce Chen as another lefty with starting experience who could help in the pen. That bullpen is baseball’s best and deepest. Righties Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and perhaps the best non-closer in the game in Wade Davis, and lefties Tim Collins, Scott Downs, and young Brandon Finnegan join Duffy and Chen as options to setup elite closer Greg Holland. 

Oakland Athletics
The big additions during the season of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and to a lesser extent Jason Hammel to the rotation joining Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez took a weakness and turned it into an Oakland strength. This post-season was the reason that the now 8th-rated Fangraphs Pitching WAR club made those moves. Hammel and Chavez become righty bullpen options now. The Lester-Gray-Samardzija-Kazmir front four give the A’s strong matchups every time out. Lefties Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz have starter experience, and at least one could be a key if Eric O’Flaherty continues with recent physical troubles. Chavez and Hammel join Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook, and Dan Otero in an embarrassment of righty bullpen riches. They all setup one of the game’s best, most under-appreciated closers in Sean Doolittle. All this pitching depth only helps either Kansas City or Oakland, as they meet in the AL Wildcard. The winner will move into an ALDS with a pitching staff superior to the team they will meet, a division champ that is the next club on the list below.


THE BAD

Los Angeles Angels
It didn’t hurt them one bit in the regular season. On the contrary, the loss of young frontline starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs seemed to galvanize the Angels. But despite their excellence and the late, strong burst, the Halos were just 12th in MLB at Fangraphs in Pitching WAR. In Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the Angels have a pair of veterans who are capable of matching up with anyone, but also are capable of the odd blowup start as well. Matt Shoemaker has been excellent down the stretch, but is trying to battle back from a rib cage injury in time to help. Hector Santiago, a lefty, has been the 4th starter, with Cory Rasmus stretched out from the pen for a handful of short emergency starts down the stretch. I said at mid-season that the Angels needed to add not one, but a couple of proven starters if they wanted to win this season. They proved me wrong in the regular season, but I believe that I will be proven correct now in post-season. The Angels simply do not have enough, or good enough, starting pitching to win this thing. Huston Street is an elite closer. He is setup by strong righties in Ernesto Frieri, Jason Grilli, Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Kevin Jepsen, and Joe Smith. The main, possibly only, lefty out of the pen is Wade Leblanc.

Closer Huston Street was a key Halos pickup

Los Angeles Dodgers
Whaaat? Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Kenley Jansen bad? No, of course not. But there is a reason that the Dodgers ranked just 13th in MLB in Pitching WAR at Fangraphs. Beyond their elite guys, there are tons of injuries and under-performers. If Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy, a big “if” since he has been battling a shoulder issue for a while now, then LA has a 4th strong SP option. They absolutely must win on days that Kershaw and Greinke pitch. Losses on any of those days could be devastating. The bullpen has experienced arms in righties Jamey Wright, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson, and Roberto Hernandez, the latter of whom may be called on to start a game or two if Ryu cannot go. The lefties out of the pen are likely to be J.P. Howell and some combo of Paco Rodriguez and Scott Elbert. Most of the bullpen options have been inconsistent, to say the least. That bullpen could prove an Achilles’ Heel…or the vets could get their acts together and turn a weakness into a difference-making strength. That is probably what will be needed if they want to go all the way.

Baltimore Orioles
Ranked one spot below the Dodgers at Fangraphs Pitching WAR, the O’s pitching has been masterfully handled by manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace. Rookie Kevin Gausman and perennially injured Miguel Gonzalez emerged in the 2nd half to give a major boost to the rotation, bumping veteran Ubaldo Jimenez to the pen. Gausman is likely to join Jimenez in the post-season bullpen, with Gonzalez joining Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris in the rotation. They have all pitched well at times and struggled at times. It’s hard to imagine them all suddenly turning it on together. Even if they don’t, Buck goes to the pen and trots out righties Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb or the impressive lefty trio of Andrew Miller, T.J. McFarland, and Brian Matusz to get him to young closer Zach Britton. If the rotation guys don’t absolutely blow up, the Orioles always have a chance, as their regular season record demonstrates.

Saint Louis Cardinals
The rotation is led by one of the best in the business, Adam Wainwright, and the other options are all talented in John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha. The bullpen has a big strikeout guy in closer Trevor Rosenthal, but he also is wild at times. He is setup by a strong righty trio of Pat Neshek, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez with the experienced Jason Motte around as well. Lefty options include Randy Choate, Sam Freeman, and Kevin Seigrist. The Cards staff ranks just 18th in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and a great deal of that is the inconsistency shown by almost everyone except Wainwright and Neshek. They could really use Wacha returning to his magical post-season performance level of a year ago.


THE UGLY

San Francisco Giants
Hard to believe that a San Fran playoff team pitching staff is being called “ugly”, but they are here. Much as with the Cardinals, the Giants rotation is led by one of the best in Madison Bumgarner. The season-ending injury to Matt Cain and continued deterioration of Tim Lincecum were off-set by the solid free agent signing of Tim Hudson and the trade acquisition of Jake Peavy. Hudson and Peavy are proven veterans with post-season experience that could be invaluable this October. The Bumgarner-Peavy-Hudson troika should be joined by Yusmeiro Petit, with both Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong heading to the pen, joining Jean Machi and J.C. Gutierrez as righty options. Javy Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt give the GMen a pair of veteran lefties in the pen. Santiago Casilla has supplanted Sergio Romo as the closer, but both are capable veterans who have shown they can shut the door at the back end of that bullpen. Despite pitching half their games in a pitcher’s haven, the San Fran staff was near the bottom, 28th overall of 30 MLB teams, in Fangraphs Pitching WAR. Aside from Bumgarner, they don’t overpower people. That should open up more opportunities for opposition hitters than most of the other staffs they will faceoff against in post-season play.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Only the Mets kept the Giants and the 29th-ranked Pirates from the bottom of Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The individual pieces don’t look all that bad. Gerrit Cole was an exciting 2nd year starter who is one of the game’s rising star pitchers. Veterans Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano pitched well. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke were solid, if unspectacular, 4th and 5th starter options. Mark Melancon emerged as a solid closer, and he is setup by spectacular righty rookie John Holdzcomb, righties Jared Hughes, John Axford, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, and Brandon Cumpton, and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson. Overall, the group tends towards inconsistency, walking too many while striking out too few, and giving up too many longballs. Like the Giants, they have enough talent to put it all together. But to do so against stronger, deeper, more consistent, proven staffs over the next month is asking a lot. The Bucs and GMen should enjoy the NL Wildcard Game, since the winner has to face Washington, and likely won’t last too long.

MLB June 2014 Power Ranking

Josh Donaldson and the A’s atop first Power Ranking

We are now two full months into the 2014 Major League Baseball season, and teams have had more than ample time to separate themselves based on their results and ability to overcome adversity, such as debilitating injuries.

So now is the time that a relevant Power Ranking of the game’s top clubs can begin to sort out the contenders from the pretenders. There are 16 teams in MLB with .500 or better records. If your favorite is not one of them, your favorite is not likely going to the post-season.

POWER RANKING – JUNE

1. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The 2-time defending A.L. West champion A’s not only have the top record in the American League at 35-22 for a .614 win percentage, they are also ranked 1st in all of MLB in Pitching and Hitting. Their 20th-rated Defense is currently their only weakness, but at least at this stage it is not a separator that is hurting their results on the field. Manager Bob Melvin is using his entire roster. A full dozen players have more than 100 plate appearances. Three players are in double-digits for homeruns, led by the MLB leader in oWAR, Josh Donaldson. On the mound, the A’s have four starters who have been extremely effective, led by young ace Sonny Gray. Now they appear to have found a legit longterm closer option in Sean Doolittle. The staff overall ERA is below 3, incredible for an A.L. team. If they stay healthy, they are again both A.L. West and World Series contenders.

2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
There is perhaps no bigger surprise team in all of baseball than the Brew Crew. Though they possess just the National League’s 2nd best record, they may be MLB’s most complete team to this stage of the season. Milwaukee is 11th in Hitting, 7th in Pitching, and 8th in Defense. Not at the top of any category, but they have so far demonstrated no major weakness. Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez are both legit NL MVP candidates right now, and may be the league’s top 1-2 punch at the plate.

3. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The scary thing about the Halos is that they just might be about to get measurably better as Josh Hamilton comes off the DL this week. He will join Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in giving LA’s “other team” a true 3-headed monster on offense, where they are already the game’s 4th-ranked club. With the 7th-ranked Defense, it is only the Angels 15th-ranked Pitching that keeps them from making a big run at Oakland in the A.L. West right now. Young starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are keys, but this is a “buy” team for a veteran arm.

4. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The top team in the National League standings is also baseball’s overall #3 in Pitching and #7 in Hitting. Much like Oakland, they have a weakness on ‘D’, where they are ranked down at #21, just below the A’s. But like their by-the-bay cousins, it isn’t hurting them at this point. Tim Hudson has easily been the best off-season free agent signing in the sport, and he teams with Madison Bumgarner to give the G-Men a dynamic 1-2 punch atop their rotation. Outfielder Mike Morse may be the 2nd best off-season signing, giving them a true impact power bat to this point.

5. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Rounding out the Top 5 to this point in the season, this is about where everyone thought the Jays would be a year ago. That disappointing season is being quickly forgotten in a barrage of homeruns being launched  by the game’s #2 Offense. A half-dozen players have at least 8 longballs, led by the dynamic 1-2 punch of Edwin Encarnacion (19) and Jose Bautista (14), but they are not one dimensional. The Jays are fundamentally sound, with baseball’s 6th-ranked Defense. Only their 22nd-rated mediocre pitching keeps them from the top, that despite a Cy Young-caliber season from 10-win veteran Mark Buehrle.

6. SAINT LOUIS CARDINALS

7. DETROIT TIGERS

8. BALTIMORE ORIOLES

9. SEATTLE MARINERS

10. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Best of the rest: 
Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox,
Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies

My call: 
Too soon for Divisional, Wildcard, Pennant, or World Series picks. But here is the first call – if you’re not mentioned somewhere in the above, you’re not going to the playoffs. Period. Take that to the bank. Tell your team to start selling now.

MLB 2014: National League West

The N.L. version of the “Wild West” has been ceded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their deep-pocketed ownership group that appears willing to spend what it takes to keep the team on top.

But the Dodgers have enough problems when you put them under a microscope, and there is enough talent on a couple of their rivals, that a repeat as division champs is not the slam dunk that some appear willing to call it at this point.

LA has two potentially big problems that could derail any celebrations as the season moves along. First and foremost are injuries, which continue to plague a number of key players such as MVP-caliber outfielder Matt Kemp, speedy outfielder Carl Crawford, and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley.

The second problem is defense: the Dodgers just are not very good at it, and if they cannot stay fully healthy and keep their high-priced talent on the field most of the season, the defensive lapses and holes will take their toll over a long regular season.

Not a problem for LA, at least right now, and the reason to pick them to win this division again? The top of the rotation and the multi-faceted, experienced bullpen. Strong pitching can cover a lot of woes, including some bad defense and some injury troubles, and the Dodgers have that pitching, at least going in, led by the current best pitcher on the planet, lefty starter Clayton Kershaw.

Here are my predictions for the National League West in 2014:

1) Los Angeles Dodgers
One of the oldest franchises in Major League Baseball history, the Dodgers were founded in 1883 and joined the National League in 1890, winning the NL pennant that very first season. They have since added 20 more pennants and 6 World Series, the most recent back in 1988. The club has also won a dozen NL West crowns in the divisional era, four in the last ten years, including last season. Playing for over six decades in the New York borough of Brooklyn, the franchise moved west to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. If you were listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio in the 1950 season, a dozen seasons before I was even born, you heard the voice of Vin Scully calling their games. If you listen to the club today, you will still hear his distinctive voice, as the now 86-year old Scully is the dean of baseball broadcasters and a cherished icon to not only the Dodgers but the entire sport. A new ownership group took over the club in 2012, and with NBA legend Magic Johnson as it’s public face, has injected new financial life into the franchise. On the field, the team’s success begins with a trio of starting pitchers and back-end bullpen arms. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is simply the current best starting pitcher in baseball, winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Their 2-3 starters, righty Zack Greinke and lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, give LA a trio of Ace-quality pitchers at the front of the rotation. At the back of the bullpen, a pair of experienced closers in Chris Perez and Brian Wilson act as setup men for filthy closer Kenley Jansen. That pen also includes tough lefties in Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell, and another former closer in righty Brandon League. The starting rotation has depth with veterans Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, and Paul Maholm when each is healthy. In the starting lineup, 1st baseman Adrian Gonzalez is one of the best hitters in baseball, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez gives the club rare MVP-caliber offensive production from the position. 3rd base is handled by veteran clutch hitter Juan Uribe, and the catching by the steady A.J. Elllis. 2nd base is a question mark, with speedy Dee Gordon the preferred option. He has never been able to win a full-time job, however, and will be supported by veteran Chone Figgins and utility man Justin Turner. The outfield can be one of the most talented, deepest in baseball. I say “can be”, because centerfielder Matt Kemp and leftfielder Carl Crawford, two of baseball’s best players, have been frequently injured over the last couple of seasons. Last year’s rookie sensation, Cuban-import rightfielder Yasiel Puig, has breathtaking talent. He also makes enough mistakes in the field and on the bases, and has shown to be somewhat of a clubhouse and off-field problem, that it is reasonable to question whether he may ultimately prove more trouble than he is worth. Andre Ethier was believed to possibly be trade bait, but with the others troubles, he has become pivotal to their success. Scott Van Slyke and Mike Baxter provide depth. Their is every chance that off-field and injury problems could derail this club. But the overall talent, especially the pitching, is just too good to ignore and to not pick them to successfully defend their division crown. Their health entering the post-season should tell the story of how far they eventually go, which could be an early exit or a World Series title.

2) San Francisco Giants
The GMen won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, so here in 2014 they should be continuing that “every other year” contending status, right? Well something tells me to watch out for them again, so in what I think will be a dogfight for 2nd place with Arizona, I’ll take the Giants by a nose, with both teams in the Wildcard mix. The main reason to like San Fran is the usual reason to like them when things are going well, their pitching. Veteran Tim Hudson was signed to add another quality arm to the trio of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum. Toss in Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit for depth, and if all are healthy this rotation can compete with any in the league. The bullpen is solid as well, with Sergio Romo closing and arms such as Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Javier Lopez setting him up. When at their best, the Giants always seem to come up with an eclectic group of hitters to give them just enough offense, and that appears to again be the case. The biggest key is that catcher Buster Posey is healthy, giving them one of the 2-3 best all-around backstops in the game. 3rd baseman Pablo ‘the Panda’ Sandoval, 1st baseman Brandon Belt, and the outfield of Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and Michael Morse are all solid, professional hitters. The middle infield will be manned by the underrated pair of shortstop Brandon Crawford and 2nd baseman Marco Scutaro, with Joaquin Arias possibly spelling each when needed. Gregor Blanco and Tyler Colvin head a somewhat thin bench right now that may prove the team’s biggest weakness. The Giants can win the division too, but I think they are more likely to fall short while fighting for a Wildcard.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks
I can envision a scenario in which the DBacks win this division. I can also see them finishing right here, in 3rd place. I don’t see them slipping any further, at least not without some major injuries derailing them. At the plate, 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt became an MVP contender a year ago. 2nd baseman Aaron Hill has developed into one of the more reliable producers at the position, as has catcher Miguel Montero at his. 3rd baseman Martin Prado and outfielder Gerardo Parra are underrated performers. Mark Trumbo’s power bat was brought in to bolster the offense, and it would be nice if he can at least prove passable in leftfield. A.J. Pollock has to show that he is ready-for-prime-time in center for this team to really click on all cylinders. Eric Chavez, Cliff Pennington, and Tony Campana give the infield nice depth. A real key will be figuring out who starts at shortstop between homegrown Chris Owings and elite defender Didi Gregorius, who arrived in a trade last season. Both appear ready to play in MLB, and one or the other is likely to become trade bait. On the mound, Arizona has a number of decent options, but no real Aces among the group of Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo, Randall Delgado, and Josh Collmenter. The bullpen is strong and has plenty of options as well. New closer Addison Reed will be setup by J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Will Harris, and Brad Ziegler. If the rotation overachieves, they can contend at the top. I think they are more likely to battle for 2nd in the division, and for a Wildcard playoff berth.

4) San Diego Padres
The Padres, one of only two MLB teams to actually originate in California (the Angels are the other) were formed in 1969. They are also one of the 8 clubs to never have won a World Series, though they have won 5 division crowns and a pair of National League pennants. They were in contention as recently as 2010 when they won 90 games and finished in 2nd place. But aside from that one season, 5 of the last 6 have been losing campaigns. The club has some talent, but it is anyone’s guess as to how or if it will all come together. The infield of Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, and Chase Headley may be one of the most underrated in the game. Sticking with that underrated theme in the outfield, Will Venable fits that description perfectly. The others getting time will be Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia, Seth Smith, and Kyle Blanks. Alexi Amarista provides infield depth, with the catching done by Nick Hundley and Yamani Grandal. On the mound, San Diego could surprise some people. Andrew Cashner has the stuff to become a front line starter, if he can stay healthy. Tyson Ross may be ready to emerge as a legitimate solid option, and Ian Kennedy should benefit greatly from his new home ballpark. Josh Johnson was signed to give them depth, has as much talent as any pitcher in baseball, but just cannot stay healthy. He has had injury issues again this spring. A group of kids that includes Robbie Erlin, Donn Roach, and Matt Wisler should battle Tim Stauffer for any opportunities there. Huston Street remains the closer for one more year, with Joaquin Benoit bought in to set him up. Dale Thayer and Alex Torres are good bullpen arms as well. If manager Bud Black pushes enough of the right buttons, he could surprise one of the top three, moving them into that position.

5) Colorado Rockies
I am extremely prejudiced against Coors Field, and it’s hard for me to envision a scenario where any Colorado team ever gets enough elite pitching to truly become a World Series contender. Formed in 1993, they have been to the playoffs three times, and even advanced to the World Series once in 2007 before being swept by Boston. But 2/3 of their seasons have been losing ones, including the last three, and I can’t envision 2014 improving that recent history. They have a pair of legitimate NL MVP candidates when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez are healthy. Rightfielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Wilin Rosario are outstanding players, and they also have former AL MVP Justin Morneau now at 1st base. Big keys to lengthening their offense will be new centerfielder Drew Stubbs and kid 3rd baseman Nolan Arenado. If both perform to their capabilities, and the Cargo/Tulo/Morneau trio stay largely healthy, the Rox will give every pitching staff fits. 2nd base should be manned by some combo of D.J. Lemaheiu and Josh Rutledge, and the bench will be Charles Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Jordan Pacheco. The starting rotation has some talent, but not enough to overcome the Mile High conditions at Coors. The starters will come from the grouping of Joge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, and Jordan Lyles. Veteran LaTroy Hawkins is likely to close, setup by Rex Brothers, Boone Logan, Matt Belisle, and Wilton Lopez. The hope in Colorado is that they get all the right answers in health, production, and emergence from the offense, and that the starting pitching overachieves.

There appears to be not only too much talent in LA for the rest of the division to keep up, but also the resources and competitiveness from ownership to fill in any holes that may develop as the season unfolds. Both Arizona and San Francisco are solid teams and playoff contenders behind them. San Diego is still building, but getting better, while Colorado has talent, but still has to subject it’s pitching staff to half their games at altitude. Anyone but the Dodgers winning this division would surprise me. Having no teams, one, or even two teams reach the Wildcard behind them? None of those scenarios would surprise me.

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.