East Champion: Philadelphia Phillies
Central Champion: Cincinnati Reds
West Champion: Arizona Diamondbacks
Wildcard: Milwaukee Brewers
Wildcard: Atlanta Braves
The NL playoffs were harder to figure out. There look to be 4 strong teams in the East and three in the Central. The one that was easy was the West where I think the Diamondbacks will win their second straight division title. They have quality young hitters with a star in right (Justin Upton), a power/speed threat in center (Chris Young), a Gold Glove defender and veteran power bat platooning in left (Gerardo Parra and Jason Kubel respectively), and a core of young players with a lot of experience under their belts in the majors (Miguel Montero, Aaron Hill, and Stephen Drew). Add in young slugger Paul Goldschmidt and last year’s surprise at third Ryan Roberts, and there is not a single weak spot in this starting lineup. They have a solid bench as well with Geoff Blum, Willie Bloomquist, Lyle Overbay and whoever isn’t playing between Parra and Kubel. But what put the Diamondbacks over the top were their talented young pitching staff of Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Daniel Hudson. All of them had fantastic seasons last year, two of them for Arizona and Cahill for Oakland. Kennedy and Hudson have been touted as future stars for years, and finally put it together in 2011. And Cahill has been great every year he’s been in the majors. They were able to win without him last year, and the addition of him and Kubel makes this team my favorites to win the Weak Weak West. The Giants have good pitching but no hitting. The Dodgers have a few stars, but no supporting cast. The Padres are re-building. And the Rockies are going to make a run at things, but have a lineup of veterans taking their final shots and no pitching. This division is Arizona’s to lose, and I don’t think they’ll let it get away.
The Central division was tougher to figure out, as there are 3 solid teams. But the World Champs are trying to defend their title without Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa and offensive player of the decade Albert Pujols. While the return of Adam Wainwright and a full season of David Freese should give this team a shot in the arm, I don’t think they will have enough to win this division a second year in a row. The Brewers won the division last season, but lost big power hitting first baseman Prince Fielder to the Tigers. While Braun was able to avoid the 50 game suspension that would have put them out of the playoffs entirely (in my opinion), I still don’t think they have what it takes to win the division. The Cincinnati Reds do. They should have been a threat to the Central title last season, but they criminally underperformed and lacked an ace. They now have that ace in Mat Latos and great young arms behind him in Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Their offense is the only one that didn’t suffer a dramatic drop off and now first baseman and former MVP winner Joey Votto is arguably the best hitter in the division. His right side of the infield partner Brandon Phillips is a star and add to that an All Star outfield of Drew Stubbs, Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce and you have 5 players capable of 30 HR, and 3 capable of 30 steals. I think the Reds have the best offense in the division and while the Cardinals and Brewers may have superior pitching, I think the Reds’ is strong enough to get the job done and help the Reds win some close games against those two foes.
Those Eastern teams all think they have what it takes to win the division. The Phillies have won the division every year since 2007. They are the favorites with their strong offense of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence. The other key for the Phils is the supporting cast around them of Placido Polanco at the hot corner and Shane Victorino in center. While that offense is very strong (and what used to be the best part of this team) this pitching staff may be the best in the majors with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. In addition, they strengthened the bullpen with the addition of Jonathan Papelbon as the closer and there will be fierce competition for the last spots in that rotation between Kyle Kendrick, Vance Worley and Joe Blanton. They have to be considered the favorites to win the division again, even though Howard will miss some time and Polanco had a down year. If they can stay healthy and hit better this year the division should be theirs to win. Last year their primary competition was from the Atlanta Braves, who had the second best record in the NL for a long time and even after they lost that, they had the Wildcard sewn up until the last day of the season. Their epic collapse was a shock to the team, who decided to sit pat in the offseason, thinking that they were good enough to win the Wildcard until they squandered it away. It’s quite the risk to take, but they like what they have. They hope a full season of Michael Bourn and a bounce-back year from Jason Heyward can give this team the offensive burst it was missing from last year. They’ve had fantastic pitching for years and were the only team who could match pitchers with the Phillies. They hope their guys can continue to pitch well in 2012, even though Tim Hudson is due to miss the start of the season. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are expected to lead this staff, with Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor backing them up. They may even try to trade Jurrjens in the season for a big bat, as they have the talented duo of Randall Delgado and Juilo Teheran (a popular pick for Rookie of the Year) waiting in the wings. They have young pitchers out the ying yang and one of the best bullpens in the majors, led by last year’s rookie of the year Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. But if this offense can’t deliver, then they will continue to struggle and possibly get passed by one of the other teams that improved in their division this season. Dan Uggla had a miserable start, though he was on fire to end the season. Martin Prado missed most of the season with injury. And they have a rookie starting at short. But if Uggla can live up to his contract, and McCann and Heyward power this club to some victories, they have to be considered the front runners for second in this division, if only due to their recent successes. But if they don’t hit, this is the year the improved Marlins or Nationals will finally vault past them. The Marlins are moving into a new stadium this season and want to get there in style. So they’ve signed a new shortstop in Jose Reyes, a new closer in Heath Bell and a new starter in Mark Buehrle to join their new manager, Ozzie Guillen. They have a lot of room for improvement after finishing dead last in the division in 2011. They hope their ace, Josh Johnson, can stay healthy this season and lead a young pitching staff that features Ricky Nolasco, Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez and the newly acquired Carlos Zambrano. All of those guys are solid with plus potential. With that pitching staff, the Marlins may finally have what they need to jump into playoff contention. In addition, their offense got a major facelift with new leadoff man Jose Reyes at short. He’ll lead off for this team, Hanley Ramirez will bat third and Mike Stanton and Gaby Sanchez will try to knock the runners in. Stanton is expected to be a star and some people think he can be the slugger this team is lacking as soon as this year. I’m not convinced they have the necessary muscle to contend on offense, though a Ramirez/Reyes left side of the infield can provide plenty of runs. If Stanton isn’t ready to be the slugger everyone is picturing, then that just leaves Gaby Sanchez and John Buck to power this club and I think they will fall short. Without that strong offense, Nolasco and Sanchez could struggle and Beuhrle is good but not an ace. And you can only have so many divas on a team managed by a highly volatile individual before the clubhouse explodes and it affects the play on the field. This team is a lot better than they were a year ago. But I think they will fall short of the playoffs this year. The real threat to the Braves (again, in my opinion) comes from the Washington Nationals. Finishing near the bottom of the standings for years has ensured the Nationals high picks in the drafts and that has translated into great young players joining this organization. They have had the two most hyped players in the history of baseball in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Strasburg figures to be the ace of this rotation that features an All Star from last season in Gio Gonzalez, talented youngster Jordan Zimmerman and solid veterans John Lannan and Edwin Jackson. And the Nationals offense has been really good for the past few years with All Star Mike Morse in left field and All Star Ryan Zimmerman at third. They are backed up by talented youngsters Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos and veterans Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. And if Bryce Harper can make the major league club and perform to expectations, then this team could have the best offense in the division. They have been re-building for so long, that as long as they stay healthy, they have every reason to think they can make the playoffs. They expect to. With 4 great teams, this will be a great year for baseball in the Eastern division. But there can only be one winner, and I think it will again be the Phillies.
That brings us to the questions of which two teams take the Wildcards. I think there are two spots for 5 strong teams, 3 from the East and 2 from the Central. The Braves pitching should be good enough to net them the second spot in their division (again in my opinion). The Nationals have the talent on both sides of the ball to keep them in the running, surpassing the Marlins who will struggle to drive in runs and struggle to not kill each other in the clubhouse. The Braves, Marlins and Nationals should all play well, but unfortunately will all beat up on each other. I think that will keep two of those teams out. All are good enough to make the playoffs, but that almost guarantees that only one will. I think one of the strong Central teams will end up with a better record due to easier inter-divisional matchups. Between the two Central teams I considered, I think the Brewers offense of Braun, Hart, Aramis Ramirez and Weeks is superior to the Freese, Holliday and Berkman led offense of the Cardinals. By the same token, I do give the Wainwright, Carpenter, Garcia, Westbrook rotation of the Cards the nod over the Brewers Greinke, Marcum, Gallardo combo, though it’s close. In the end the bullpen of Milwaukee is superior and I think they have the offense to support those pitchers and get them into the playoffs. So my Wildcard picks are the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers.
That sets up a one game matchup between the two Wildcard teams, where I think the Brewers will be victorious. The Braves lack a true ace, and have the kind of pitching staff that makes them look good in a 3 game series. However unless they win the division, they won’t see that in the playoffs. After the Brewers beat the Braves, they will move on to play the Phillies. I think Philadelphia will be the victor in that series, while the Reds should dispatch the Diamondbacks. That gives us an NLCS of the Reds vs. the Phillies. It’s hard to bet against the Phillies, but I like the Reds a lot this season, and think they can psych themselves up to beat the Phillies in a big playoff series. That makes them the winners of the NL Pennant and I have them moving on to play the Los Angeles Angels in the World Series. And I believe the winner of the 2012 World Series will be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a strong 6 game performance against the Reds.