Last Season: 97-65, 1st in NL East, NL Championship Series
CHRIS PUMMER: A year ago the Phillies looked like they’d be the best team in the National League. This year they look like they could be, but it’s not so clear cut. That’s even with the re-addition of ace Cliff Lee to join Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in the all-time bestest best greatest top rotation of best time. Or at least the best rotation in the NL East.
Healthy could hinder these Phillies as Chase Utley looks like he’ll start the season on the disabled list. SS Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been particularly good or healthy of late. 1B Ryan Howard isn’t capable of carrying an offense, even at his homer-hitting best, while Jayson Werth took his talents to Washington for a boxcar full of $100 bills.
The outfield will still have some depth. CF Shane Victorino is good, LF Raul Ibanez is capable and Ben Francisco and Ross Gload can combine to form a capable platoon until top prospect Domonic Brown is ready to take over RF. C Carlos Ruiz and 3B Placido Polanco are also solid, as is the bullpen and fifth starter Joe Blanton.
It’s every team’s prerogative to cry poor or pretend that payroll is maxed out. But if a need truly arises, the Phillies probably won’t be hindered in making an upgrade.
That’s not to say enough can’t go wrong to sink their chances. They’re still not the Yankees or Red Sox. But Philadelphia is reaching for that stratosphere, and another run at the World Series could establish them on that plateau. This team that’s likely to win the NL East can do it.
HOWARD MEGDAL: That just doesn’t look like an elite offense to me. The pitchers better be.
Last Season: 56-105, Last in NL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: It might be easier to spot bright spots in a black hole with just the naked eye and an empty toilet paper tube. There’s some young talent here, for sure. But as has been the case for almost two decades, there’s just not enough of it.
CF Andrew McCutchen and LF Jose Tabata are the hopefuls in the outfield, while Garrett Jones will get a chance to prove he can hit like it’s 2009 and not the disaster on display last season. 3B Pedro Alvarez is still looking to prove his pedigree as a top draft pick, while 2B Neil Walker will try to keep hitting enough to keep questions about his defense at bay.
SS Ronny Cedeno is filler, and bad filler at that. Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit are both health concerns behind the plate with the Pirates probably just hoping one of them hits well enough to spin off near the trade deadline. Matt Diaz has a job as a reserve OF.
The rotation is bad, and was the primary reason the Pirates really, really earned all of those losses last year. James McDonald is probably the best in this bunch after coming over from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel last year. Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia could all be useful, but not all that useful for the Pirates.
We’ll get to learn the names of the bullpen pitchers when we watch them mopping up for this collection of fifth starters.
The Astros or even the Cubs might be a sexy surprise pick to finish last in the NL Central. I’m going with ol’ reliable and saying the Pirates make it five in a row and six of seven.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Enough of the young payers will step up to give Pittsburgh a run at a winning record, though I think they will fall short of that.
San Diego Padres
Last Season: 90-72, 2nd in AL West
NAME NAME: The Padres surprised almost everyone by leading the NL West for most of last season. They did it with a surprising ability to prevent runs beyond what Petco Park grants by virtue of being brutal for hitters.
Call me whatever names you want, but I don’t see it happening again.
Gone is every regular starter from the infield except young 3B Chase Headley. In their places, 2B Orlando Hudson, SS Jason Bartlett and C Nick Hundley could be all be upgrades on what was there a year ago, but even the best-case for 1B Brad Hawpe isn’t enough to compensate for the traded Adrian Gonzalez.
In the OF the Padres will again prioritize defense over offense with Ryan Ludwick, Cameron Maybin and Will Venable, though Ludwick could hit a little. The problem might be when Kyle Blanks comes back to play OF, or dispatches Hawpe to one of those corner spots. The defensive hit might mitigate those offensive gains.
The pitching staff will need to take every advantage of the defense and ballpark. Mat Latos is a very good young pitcher, as is Wade LeBlanc. LeBlanc’s ability should show up in the numbers if he can cut his HRs allowed. Clayton Richard is a solid No. 3 who could stand to cut his BB-rate and Aaron Harang will benefit greatly from the move to Petco Park, which should limit the HRs that have plagued him.
The Padres always have a deep bullpen, and this year won’t be different. But combined with some of the get-me-by solutions in the rotation, I don’t think San Diego has enough to make another serious run at the NL West title. I think third place is more likely.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Agreed, though I believe in Tim Stauffer.
San Francisco Giants
Last Season: 92-70, 1st in NL West, World Series Winner
NAME NAME: The Giants shook off all those jokes about how old you had to be to play for a Brian Sabean-run ballclub to win the World Series. They did it with four terrific starting pitchers all younger than 30, and they did it with one of their best young players, 3B Pablo Sandoval, having an absolutely miserable season.
Here they are again. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner are back. Barry Zito, who should have bought the champagne with his huge contract despite being left off the postseason roster, is back as the fifth starter. The bullpen remains deep, so pitching shouldn’t be problematic for the Giants.
The rest of the team might be. 1B Aubrey Huff and LF Pat Burrell will have to prove their resurgences by the bay can continue, while CF Andres Torres probably can’t shake his overachieving journeyman status until he posts a second full season with the same results as last year.
A full season of C Buster Posey will help the offense, and so will the solid contributions of Freddy Sanchez and even patchwork SS option Miguel Tejada. RF Cody Ross will get every chance to prove that his post-waiver-claim heroics are the new norm for his career, or Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand and Nate Schierholtz will be cobbled together into a solution. That’s if top prospect Brandon Belt doesn’t hit his way past Huff at 1B, pushing him into the OF mix.
Looking at this group, things look a lot brighter than they did a year ago, with even more options to shuffle around the diamond in case a contingency plan is necessary. The only place the Giants aren’t protected well is SS, where it looks like Tejada-or-bust. That’s an uncomfortable spot to find yourself, but as far as holes go, you could do worse.
If Sandoval can revive his hot corner career, there’s no reason the Giants shouldn’t win this division again. And a team with this kind of pitching is always dangerous in the playoffs.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Like the Giants here, though it has more to do with a weak rest-of-division.
Last Season: 61-101, last in AL West
CHRIS PUMMER: It’s hard to think of anything that didn’t go wrong for the Mariners last season. Felix Hernandez took another step forward in his dominance. Ichiro Suzuki did what he usually does. And the team got decent production from about 350 combined plate appearances by Mike Sweeney and Russ Branyan.
Everything else blew up in their faces.
Those problems have continuing consequences not just for how they shape our expectations of some of the bigger disappointments still hanging around (3B Chone Figgins, CF Franklin Gutierrez, DH Milton Bradley). It also changed the perception of where the Mariners should be — not as a contender, but as a rebuilding club. At least among most observers. Hopefully M’s ownership took the reality check for what it was, and not as an indictment of GM Jack Zduriencik.
Figgins and Gutierrez can still bounce back to be the defensive gems and capable offensive players that make them valuable. Justin Smoak — the big haul for Cliff Lee last season — has the pedigree to succeed if left alone at 1B. You’d like to see Michael Saunders establish himself in LF, and maybe top prospect Dustin Ackley prove he can stick at 2B, though Ackley will have to hit his way up from the minors first. Michael Pineda is another exciting young arm joining Hernandez in the rotation.
Most of the rest of the roster looks like filler. Brendan Ryan, Jack Wilson and Adam Kennedy are a trio of retreads who will man the middle infield. Miguel Olivo looks like an overpaid stopgap behind the plate until Mariners find a young catcher they actually like. It probably doesn’t matter that they gave Olivo two years and have an option since Seattle has soured on every young catcher they’ve had since, hell, Dan Wilson? That list of disappointments includes Olivo, in case you don’t remember his earlier stint with the team.
Jack Cust is the wrong DH in the wrong place. With some luck, Erik Bedard might finally be healthy, either making him a useful piece going forward, or possibly trade bait. That’s maybe the upside for almost the rest of this roster.
If absolutely everything went right for the Mariners, they could win a weak AL West. The odds of that seem remote, and the West might not be a soft as some think. That’s why Seattle will probably bring up the rear for the second straight year.
HOWARD MEGDAL: And poor Franklin Gutierrez. He was going to be a star before this mystery illness struck.