Major League Baseball preview 2011

Despite the winter weather we are still dealing with, Opening Day for Major League Baseball has come and gone and the season is in full swing. As warm weather is right around the corner — we hope — we take a look at the upcoming season by breaking down each division. This week we predict the National League and next week we will break down the American League.

National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies

After the acquisition of Cliff Lee over the offseason, many were anointing the Phils’ as National League champs. But age has seemingly caught up with the team that has racked up the most wins in the NL over the last four years with 371. Chase Utley is an enormous concern for Phils’ fans, as he will open up the season on the disabled list.

No one knows how serious his knee problems are and if he misses extended time, the Phillies will have a hard time getting production up and down the lineup. I believe that Jimmy Rollins is the key to the Phillies’ offense; as he goes, so goes Philadelphia’s run production. Rollins hit just .243 in 88 games last season for the Phillies and will need to have a full and healthy season in order for the Phillies to have a top-tier offense. While the offense is absolutely a concern, the pitching rotation is the best in baseball. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are all guys who are aces or number starters in the majors. Combined the four pitchers — counting only Oswalt’s numbers after he was traded from Houston last July — tallied a 51-31 record with a miniscule 2.61 ERA.

2. Atlanta Braves

If the injuries to the Phillies lineup hadn’t taken place this spring I don’t think there would be any doubt that Atlanta would finish a distant second behind the Phillies. But the door has been left slightly open for Atlanta, who made one of the most under-the-radar moves in the offseason when they acquired second-base slugger Dan Uggla. Their rotation is fantastic — led by dark horse Cy Young candidate Tommy Hanson — and the lineup is filled with young-talent with right-fielder Jason Heyward looking to continue his progression as a super-star and top prospect first-baseman Freddie Freeman making his major league debut this April. The Braves have an outside chance to challenge the Phillies, but they certainly seem to have the inside track at the National League wild-card bid.

3. New York Mets

Call me optimistic about the Mets but there is no doubt that — when healthy — they have as much fire power in the lineup as most other national league ball clubs. 2011 for the Mets is a year of “ifs.” If Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes can play full and productive seasons, if the starting rotation can hold up until Johan Santana is ready to return later in the summer, if Jason Bay can find his power-stroke again, if Ike Davis continues to progress as a legitimate power-threat at first base, if Brad Emaus can be the on-base machine the Mets think he can at second. See what I mean? If all those things are answered affirmatively, than David Wright will win the MVP and the Mets will earn a wild-card bid. Hey, a moderately insane Mets fan can dream can’t he?

4. Florida Marlins

The Marlins and Mets are interchangeable in my opinion. Both teams have a ton of question marks while the potential for success is there. Where I would give the Marlins the edge over the Mets is in the starting rotation. What was once a young and immature group has blossomed into a very consistent one. Josh Johnson has a chance to win the Cy Young and Anibal Sanchez appears to be ready to deliver his first consistent season. The addition of Omar Infante as a guy who can play multiple positions and hit for a high average helps, but the Marlins will need an MVP caliber season out of Hanley Ramirez and/or Mike Stanton in order to compete for a play-off spot.

5. Washington Nationals

Bottom line with Washington: The lineup has been vastly improved but the starting rotation is terrible. Jordan Zimmermann has the chance to be special but he isn’t ready to step up as a number one or two starter just yet. The run support will be there at times — and I really like Ian Desmond as a future all-star at shortstop — but the Nationals might be well on their way to the cellar once again.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers

Really close call between the Reds and the Brewers for the top spot in the division, but I had to give the edge to the Brewers because of their rotation. Zach Grienke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum anchor a rotation that is expected to be the best in the division. The move to the National League should help lower the ERA numbers — and in the process, win totals — for Grienke and Marcum. The line-up is equally as potent as the rotation; led by Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Casey McGehee.

2. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are going to hit, there is no doubt about that. The bullpen is solid but the rotation has serious question marks. The talent is there but the health is certainly up in the air for guys like Edison Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and — once highly touted prospect — Homer Bailey. If the rotation can mesh and stay healthy for the majority of the season the lineup should be good enough to win another NL Central title. But don’t count on it.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals entered the year with their eyes on recapturing the NL Central crown, but a season-ending injury to ace Adam Wainwright has put the Cardinals in a difficult position. Chris Carpenter is another year older and injuries in spring training has left his durability in question as well. They will hit to a certain degree with Pujols and Holliday anchoring the middle of the order, but players like Colby Rasmus and David Freese will really need to elevate their play in order for the Cards to have a shot at the postseason.

4. Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are a long way — unless they sign Pujols in the off-season like some think they might — from being contenders in the division again. The lineup is fair, the rotation is not very good and the bullpen is average. Last year’s rookie sensation Starlin Castro will need to continue his rapid progression in order for the Cubs to make any noise in the division.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

I almost put Pittsburgh ahead of Chicago and while they may not finish ahead of Chicago. Pittsburgh has a ton of young talent and finally looks like they have the ability to build a winning franchise. Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez all look like they will have productive futures in the majors. The Pirates will have moments where they shine and for Pittsburgh fans, what else can you really ask for at this point.

6. Houston Astros

Arguably the most boring team in the entire league, Houston doesn’t have the pitching, the bullpen or the lineup to do anything this season. Watching the progression of top prospects, Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson is the only reason to pay attention.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Am I the only person who thinks that the Giants aren’t that good? We will get to that in a minute. This division is wide open and could feasibly be won by the Dodgers, Rockies or Giants. I give the Dodgers the edge over the Giants because I think they have the starting rotation that overall is above average and because they have a better lineup. Some believe that Clayton Kershaw will win the NL Cy Young and the rest of the rotation — Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland — will put up good numbers. The lineup — if healthy — is better top-to-bottom than the Giants’ lineup, led by Matt Kemp, Andre Eithier and James Loney.

2. San Francisco Giants

I put San Francisco over Colorado solely because of the starting rotation. Behind Philadelphia, the Giants have the best starting five in the league with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner as the top four. As long as Buster Posey doesn’t have a sophomore slump type of year, the Giants will be right in the thick of the division crown.

3. Colorado Rockies

They don’t beat out the Giants and Dodgers because their lineup isn’t quite on the same level, and neither is their pitching. They have the potential to beat out the two teams ahead of them if they can get full seasons from Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa and production out of question marks like Dexter Fowler. Troy Tulowitszki will make a serious run at the MVP.

4. San Diego Padres

As interchangeable as the top three teams in the division are, the same holds even more true for the bottom two. The Padres have absolutely no pop in the lineup but have a strong starting rotation and an outstanding bullpen. The rebuilding process continues for San Diego.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks

There are two players I like on the Diamondbacks roster this season: Justin Upton and Daniel Hudson. At least they will have the Padres to compete with for the fourth place spot in the division.