The National League East is loaded with four of the five teams capable of contending for the Playoffs.
Philadelphia remains the team to beat with its outstanding pitching rotation headed by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee with third and fourth starters Cole Hamels and young Vance Worley capable of being aces on most other staffs.
The offense was not as productive as expected last season and may be similarly challenged this season with both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley sidelined as the season starts. Atlanta will be challenged for second place by both Washington and Miami (nee Florida ).
The Nationals and Marlins both strengthened their rosters in the off season and each capable of making a run at a Wild Card, if not challenging the Phillies for the Division title. Only the New York Mets appear totally outclassed although an effective return by lefty ace Johan Santana could determine if the Mets will lose just 90 rather than 100 games.
The NL Central should be a three team race involving Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Cardinals won the World Series last season despite finishing six games behind Division winner Milwaukee. Changes with St Louis were mentioned above but Milwaukee has also suffered a major loss with Prince Fielder having signed with Detroit.
Cincinnati seeks to rebound from what was a disappointing 79-83 season in 2011 and may be the best balanced team in the Division in terms of offense and pitching.
There should be a considerable gap between those three teams and the rest of the Division with the Chicago Cubs, Houston and Pittsburgh struggling to achieve a .500 record. That mark would be a major accomplishment for Pittsburgh as the Pirates have had 19 consecutive losing seasons.
The situation in Chicago will be interesting to monitor as Theo Epstein, the architect of Boston’s World Series teams, now runs the show at Wrigley and if he can end the more than a century World Series drought in the Second City, Epstein will be accorded even more accolades by those long suffering Cubs fans than he was by the similarly long suffering Red Sox fans.
The San Francisco Giants appear to be the team to beat in the NL West with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain forming one of the best starting pitcher tandems in all of MLB. Their limited offense resulted in their second place finish behind Arizona in 2011.
The Diamondbacks improved from 69 wins in 2010 to win 94 games in 2011 so it would not be a surprise if Arizona declined this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers are also poised to make a run at the Playoffs behind Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The young lefty is only 23 and it’s scary to think how much better he may become over the next few seasons.
Matt Kemp arguably could, or should, have won the MVP last season. And the Dodgers will not have the distractions that surrounded them all of last season beginning with the ugly parking lot incident on Opening Day and the financial turmoil created by the McCourt circus. Colorado and San Diego should be also-rans by midseason.
The call is for Philadelphia, Cincinnati and San Francisco to be Division winners in the National League with the LA Dodgers and Miami earning the Wild Card with the Dodgers surviving the one game playoff. In a rematch of the 2012 NLCS look for a different result as Philadelphia gets by San Francisco to advance to the World Series.