Much like last week, I will be taking a closer look at the National League.  Pitching, pitching, and more pitching is what describes the National League race.  If you can’t go three deep with aces, you generally need not apply.  I will also be predicting the winners of the Cy Young and MVP awards.  Finally, I will be highlighting 3 players you may not have known, but will by season’s end.

 

6. Cincinnati Reds. Much is the same for the Reds this season. They have changed out a few minor pieces, but other than subtracting Aaron Harang, they are very similar to last season’s version.  There is cause for concern in regards to the pitching, as Cincinnati ranked 12 th in FIP in the NL in 2010.  Add the injury uncertainty surrounding Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, and I think it is reasonable to expect the Reds to be a few wins worse in 2011.  Couple this reasoning with the Brewers picking up at least 2 more wins head to head vs. the Reds with Greinke and Marcum starting, and I project only 86 wins and a spot out of the playoffs.

5. Atlanta Braves. The Braves ranked fifth in the NL in runs scored last season.  They could be even better with impact players McCann, Uggla, Heyward, and Chipper Jones.  Atlanta also has a good rotation anchored by Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, and Tommy Hanson.  While good, it is not as deep as the rotation of the Phillies, Giants, or Brewers.  In my opinion, the loss of two key bullpen contributors in Billy Wagner (1.43 ERA) and Takashi Saito (2.43 FIP) will hurt the Braves tremendously.  Despite being a playoff contender, the Braves will be forced to rely heavily on talented rookies Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, and Mike Minor as the season wears on.  For this reason, I predict the Braves to win 90 games and miss the playoffs in 2011.

Wild Card: San Francisco Giants. The World Champs still trot out Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Bumgarner as an imposing foursome.  Accordingly, they will once again be the favorites in the West.  The Giants lack left handed power and offensive punch in general.  Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff are part of the offensive core of this team and I believe these players, while excelling with timely hitting in the playoffs, will regress significantly in 2011.  Also, much like Pablo Sandoval suffered in 2010, Buster Posey could be in line for a sophomore slump .  These offensive question marks lead me to believe that the Giants will make the playoffs as the wildcard with 92 wins .  I project the Giants to come up short to the Phillies in an epic rematch of the NLDS from last season.

Division:  Milwaukee Brewers. There is great optimism in Milwaukee following an off season that brought much needed pitching help in the form of Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum.  Last season Milwaukee trotted out Gallardo, Wolf, Bush, Davis, and Suppan to start the season.  YUCK!  I have already gone on record and predicted 2011 will be the Year of the Narv Dog .  Thus, if healthy, this rotation is as complete as any out there.  Add this rotation to an offense that was fourth in runs scored in the NL, and the Brewers should be able to compete for a division title.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles standing in the way of the Brewers and a division title.  First, the Brewers have very little depth in many positions.  Any lingering injury to the top three starting pitchers, 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF could doom the prospects of a winning season.  Second, Milwaukee plays very poor team defense.  Having improved pitching can only help so much if the team is going to be giving away more than a ½ run per game.  The defense will drive Milwaukee fans and pitchers crazy this season.  Third, the bullpen scares me.  Whether it is the fragility of Hawkins and Saito, or the likely regression of Loe and Axford, the prospects of a consistent bullpen have me very worried.  Add the velocity issues this Spring Training with Braddock, and there could be giant red flags throughout the late innings.  Fourth, once Carlos Gomez plays his way out of the second spot in the lineup, the team is going to once again struggle mightily to score runs after Fielder and McGehee in the order.  I firmly believe the offense is in for some struggles this season with such a large talent void in lower part of the lineup.

Finally, I predict Milwaukee will be behind in the race and chasing Cincinnati all season.  The early injury losses of Greinke, Hart, and others have already put the team in a likely early season disadvantage in the standings.  While that alone is no cause for alarm, the June/ July schedule for this team is absolutely murderous. Here is the schedule from June 10 th though the All Star break:  vs. St. Louis (3), at Chicago Cubs (4), at Boston (3), vs. Tampa Bay (3), vs. Minnesota (3), at New York Yankees (3), at Minnesota (3), vs. Arizona (3), vs. Cincinnati (3).  That is a brutal stretch that will likely determine the depth of the hole the team will need to climb out of after the All Star break.

Ultimately, I think Milwaukee is 12 games better than they were last year.  Much of this is simply replacing the 60+ starts made by the team’s two worst starters and replacing them with Marcum and Greinke (hopefully).  With a solid defense and bench, I could see this team winning 95 games.  I like this Milwaukee team to win 89 games and defeat the Rockies in the playoffs. As the Giants showed last season, anything can happen in a seven games series with good pitching and timely hitting.

Division:  Colorado Rockies. I like the Rockies to win the West in 2011 for several reasons.  I believe Troy Tulowitzki is going to be the MVP and I state my reasons why below.  Second, I am also very bullish on a repeat performance from Carlos Gonzalez and a breakout season for Dexter Fowler.  Third, I really like the bullpen of Street, Lindstrom, Belisle, and Betancourt and I think that this group can make the Rockies very good in close games this season.  Finally, a look at Jason Hammel in 2009 (3.71 FIP) and 2010 (3.70 FIP) shows a consistent and solid third starter that will be needed to compete with the Giants.  I am drinking the Rockies Kool-Aid and predict Colorado will win 94 games .

World Champs:  Philadelphia Phillies .  The big news for the Phillies this off season was the addition of Cliff Lee.  Unbelievably, the Phillies now boast a Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels playoff rotation.  Not even the Giants are touching that. Despite the departure of overpaid Jason Werth, Philadelphia’s offense still is anchored by Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Howard.  I will freely admit that Chase Utley’s injured knee , some thin depth, and a soft bullpen are issues that could derail the season.  Despite these shortcomings, I ultimately project the Phillies to win 98 games and to defeat the Red Sox in 5 games to become World Champions.

 

Cy Young

2.  Tim Lincecum. In my opinion, it is a two man race.  In 2010, Tim regressed in walks, strikeouts, HR allowed, ERA, WHIP, and WAR.  I believe that sentence says more about his spectacular 2009 season than anything about a downward decline.  Lincecum is dominating and will once again have a terrific upcoming season.

Cy Young:   Roy Halladay. The no- hitter in the playoffs was incredible to watch.  It was as if the Cincinnati hitters knew they had no chance of success.  Halladay is the best pitcher on the best staff in baseball.  He should be the favorite and I expect him to have a dominating season and win the Cy Young award.

 

AL MVP

4.  Dan Uggla. Playing on the Marlins made it extremely tough for most fans to appreciate the type of consistency and durability Uggla has demonstrated.  In five seasons he averaged a .263/.349/.488 slash line with home run totals of 27, 31, 32, 31, and 33.  Moving into the heart of the Atlanta Braves lineup will give Uggla the chance to finally be recognized as a middle of the order power threat on a premier team.  It sets up to be a big year for Dan Uggla in 2011.

3.  Prince Fielder As I mentioned two weeks ago , the bad news is that, in all likelihood, this will be the last season for Prince in Milwaukee.  It has been a great run.  Fielder is unquestionably the emotional center of the team and will be missed for his leadership and durability in 2012.  The good news is that he is in a contract year and wants to cash in with a superior season.  Plus, Prince has a history of producing in odd numbered years, with ’07 and ’09 being his best seasons.  Couple these two factors together and he is due to have a tremendous offensive season.

2.  Albert Pujols In 2010, Albert had a 7.3 WAR.  It was his second lowest WAR of his career.  For some perspective, Prince Fielder has never achieved a 7.3 WAR in ANY season.  As long as Albert Pujols plays in the National League, he will be the odds on favorite to win the MVP.

MVP:  Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo missed some time in 2010, and it may have cost him an MVP award.  He was the best player on the planet during the 122 games he did play, still managing to achieve a 6.4 WAR . That would prorate out over 160 games to roughly a 8.5 WAR, which is Pujols-esque.  His .315/.381/.568 triple slash line shows that he is an offensive force playing a premium defensive position.  I predict Tulowitzki puts it all together in 2011 and has a season to remember.

 

3 Players You May Not Have Known, But Will by Season’s End.

There are obviously more players, but I am highlighting the Braves rookies.  Unbelievably, after making the playoffs, the Braves reloaded with stud rookies and will be depending on these youngsters throughout this upcoming season.  I would like to take a closer look at these three players.

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves. Losing Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito in the off season means that Atlanta will be short on veteran leadership in the closer’s role.  I believe Kimbrel will eventually step in and perform well in that role for the Braves.  While sometimes struggling with his control, he possesses a dominating fastball that sits in the 95-97 MPH range.  I predict he will learn to control that fastball and will be very effective in the late innings for the Braves.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves. Even if Minor starts the season in the minors, he is too talented to stay there for long.  Atlanta will begin the season with five right-handers in the starting rotation.  I believe it will make good sense to allow the left handed Minor to work in the rotation as the season wears on.  I predict that by the end of the season, there will be no question that Minor was the best rookie pitcher in the National League.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves. The 21 year old Freeman will be given the chance to hit seventh or eighth in the order this year for the Braves.  He has great size (6’5” 225lbs), but has not developed plus power as of yet.  I believe he can handle the job and will contribute positively for the Braves team this season.

 

Dates Appearing Closer on the Horizon

This Thursday!!! The Brewers open the regular season on the road versus the HATED division champs.

April 8-10. Cubs vs. Brewers, Act One.

 

Shameless Self Promotion

Please don’t forget to follow my Twitter account, @simplekindoffan.    If you aren’t following me, then you are missing out on useless posts such as this .

 

 

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