Major League Preview

National League Preview

Our look at how the senior circuit shapes up




Predictions by BA staff, written by Jim Callis

NL EAST

1. NEW YORK METS

QUICK TAKE: They might be seeking their third straight division title if they hadn't blown so many games in the late innings over the last two years—hence the offseason acquisitions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Rodriguez. He was more hittable last season than his record 62 saves would suggest, and Mets fans aren't going to be patient if their $37 million man starts blowing games.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Oliver Perez. There aren't many lefties around with better stuff, though he could throw a few more strikes.

2. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

QUICK TAKE: They are seeking their third straight division title, and the defending World Series champs will be breathing down the Mets' necks again.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jimmy Rollins. Chase Utley is recovering from hip surgery quicker than expected but may not be at full strength for awhile, so the Phillies need the MVP version of Rollins (.296/.344/.531) rather than the 2008 edition (.277/.349/.437).

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Brett Myers. Outdueling C.C. Sabathia in the playoffs may have been a sign that he's becoming the frontline starter Philadelphia always has anticipated.

3. FLORIDA MARLINS

QUICK TAKE: Despite baseball's lowest payroll, they still have plenty of young talent and a farm system brimming with more. If their starting pitchers come together, they could win the NL East.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Cameron Maybin. If the prodigiously talented product of the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade with the Tigers is as ready as he looked in a brief September callup, he'll go a long way to helping the Marlins contend.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Josh Johnson. After coming back from Tommy John surgery, Johnson went 6-1, 3.39 in the final two months of last season.

4. ATLANTA BRAVES

QUICK TAKE: They've added Garret Anderson, Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez, but only after they couldn't swing deals for Ken Griffey Jr., A.J. Burnett and Jake Peavy—not to mention Rafael Furcal.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jeff Francoeur. He never has come close to duplicating the production of his rookie season (.300/.336/.549) and last season's performance was just dismal (.239/.294/.359). The Braves need a lot more out of him in their outfield, especially now that they'll be paying him $3.38 million this season.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Yunel Escobar. He's talented offensively and defensively, though with the shortstops in this league (and especially in this division), he may have to wait in line for All-Star recognition.

5. WASHINGTON NATIONALS

QUICK TAKE: They have a savvy manager in Manny Acta and a promising lineup, but the pitching staff is a mess.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals' hope for respectability on the mound starts with the second-round steal from the 2007 draft, who may be ready for the big leagues by midseason.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Ryan Zimmerman. He's became the franchise's best player soon after signing as a first-round pick in 2005, and he'll be an easy choice to represent the Nationals this summer.

NL CENTRAL

1. CHICAGO CUBS

QUICK TAKE: Their offseason moves, centered around re-signing Ryan Dempster and grabbing free agent Milton Bradley, may not make them significantly better. But the Cubs still may have the best team in the Senior Circuit.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Bradley. Chicago desperately wanted a strong lefthanded bat for its lineup, and while they got it in Bradley, he has a history of volatility and injuries. Only once in his career has he been healthy enough to play 100 games in the outfield in a season.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Rich Harden. Six of the Cubs' regulars, plus three of their starting pitchers and their closer, already have been all-stars. That doesn't leave a lot of candidates, but Harden is one of the game's top pitchers when healthy.

2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

QUICK TAKE: Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Co. will continue to produce a lot of runs, but a pitching staff without C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets won't be able to prevent enough for a return trip to the playoffs.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Yovani Gallardo. The Brewers need him to stay healthy and emerge as their ace now that Sabathia and Sheets are gone.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Gallardo. He has gone 9-4, 3.38 in 21 career starts, though he made just four last year because of knee problems.

3. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

QUICK TAKE: If they find enough pitching, they'll make life difficult for the Cubs.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Colby Rasmus. If the rookie center fielder lives up to his billing, he'll allow the Cardinals to bolster the rotation by trading Rick Ankiel or Ryan Ludwick.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Adam Wainwright. After excelling as the postseason closer for the 2006 World Series champions, he has turned in two strong seasons as a full-time starter.

4. CINCINNATI REDS

QUICK TAKE: They took a step in the right direction by breaking in Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Joey Votto last year. Now the Reds need to build on it.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Aaron Harang. He led the NL in wins and strikeouts in 2006, the second of three straight strong seasons, but fell off to 6-17, 4.78 a year ago. If he can recapture his past form as a legitimate ace, the Reds might have enough pitching to make a playoff run.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Jay Bruce. After he hit 21 homers in 108 games as a rookie, look for him to exceed 30 longballs in his first full season.

 5. HOUSTON ASTROS

QUICK TAKE: They played over their heads in 2008, and are much more likely to reverse their 86-75 record than to repeat it.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Miguel Tejada. Since the Astros gave up five players to get him from the Orioles, Tejada has appeared in the Mitchell Report; turned out to be two years older than he previously claimed he was; delivered his worst offensive season since his rookie year (including just three homers after the all-star break last year); and pleaded guilty to federal charges of lying to Congressional investigators. Not at all what Houston had in mind.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Hunter Pence. The Astros haven't drafted well in recent years, but bucking the consensus to pluck Pence in 2004's second round was a wise move.

6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

QUICK TAKE: Sole possession of the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons (this will be their 17th) in U.S. professional sports awaits them.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Pedro Alvarez. His holdout, renegotiation and eventual signing, then the extra poundage he brought to instructional league have amped up the pressure on the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft. His conditioning has improved this spring, and he has the bat to make a quick impact in Pittsburgh.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Ryan Doumit. He keeps getting better offensively, batting .318/.357/.501 in 2008, his first season as a full-time starter.

NL WEST

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

QUICK TAKE: Youngsters such as Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Russell Martin continue to take over the Dodgers, and the young guard should lead them to their first back-to-back division titles since 1977-78.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Manny Ramirez. He didn't come close to getting the nine-figure contract he sought, but he still commanded a healthy contract when he finally compromised and came back to L.A. Can he still be the happy, hustling Manny who energized the Dodgers after the trade deadline? The Dodgers have the advantage of still having him under the pressure of a short-term deal.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Chad Billingsley. In his first full season as a starter, he ranked fifth in the league in strikeouts (201 in 200 innings) and seventh in both wins (16) and ERA (3.14).

2. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

QUICK TAKE: If their offense doesn't collapse down the stretch again, they have plenty of pitching and should be in the thick of the playoff race.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Eric Byrnes. His first season after signing a $30 million contract extension was a disaster, as he hit just .209/.272/.369 before succumbing to hamstring injury in June. The Diamondbacks need the catalyst who spurred them to the playoffs in 2007.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Stephen Drew. He's becoming the power-hitting shortstop Arizona hoped for when they gave him a $5.5 million major league contract as a first-round pick in 2004.

3. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

QUICK TAKE: Though Edgar Renteria alone isn't close to enough to prop up an abysmal offense, they should be improved.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Barry Zito. As disappointing as his first season with the Giants was, his second year was even worse. San Francisco isn't asking him to be its ace with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain on hand, but is performing respectably in the No. 3 slot too much to expect?

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Cain. His 15-30 record over the last two seasons is much more indicative of a lack of run support than the quality of his pitching.

4. COLORADO ROCKIES

QUICK TAKE: Rocktober 2007 seems a lot longer than 17 months ago.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Troy Tulowitzki. Though injuries prevented him from duplicating his outstanding 2007 rookie season, he's still the player who makes the Rockies go.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Chris Iannetta. Tulowitzki has yet to make an all-star team either, but the NL is much more loaded at shortstop than catcher. Iannetta shook off a rough rookie season to smash 18 homers last year.

5. SAN DIEGO PADRES

QUICK TAKE: They're on the clock for the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jeff Moorad. The major league team is falling apart and the farm system doesn't offer much reason for optimism. Maybe Moorad's new ownership group can breathe new life into the Padres.

NEXT NEW ALL-STAR: Chase Headley. Don't be surprised if he winds up as the second-biggest threat in San Diego's lineup (after Adrian Gonzalez) in his first full big league season.