Friday, April 1, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview: National League

National League East

Philadelphia Phillies

Strength: Four names come to mind when it comes to the 2011 Phillies: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. Anyone of these four would qualify as an ace on any other team, which make this rotation one, if not the, most dangerous in baseball. The bullpen is deep and can handle any lead that is handed to them by their exceptional starters.

Weakness: Although they have a potent offense, the end of last season illustrated a slide in production. Which begs the question: are most of their big name hitters on the decline? Chase Utley will be out for the start of the season and it’s unknown what he can bring when he’s back. Ryan Howard was nowhere to be seen during the playoffs. Jayson Werth is gone and Philadelphia will be searching all season long for his replacement. How far this team goes will be determined by how efficient their offense is.

Atlanta Braves

Strength: Atlanta is loaded with both potential and experience. The pitching rotation is lead by veterans Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, who are both complemented by their young hurlers Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. The bullpen has a stock pile of strong arms that can accompany any situation that arises. The addition of Dan Uggla helps to alleviate the stress off Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward to knock in runs constantly.

Weakness: The biggest question for the Braves is how they will handle losing the captain that manned the ship for 20 years, Bobby Cox? New manager Fredi Gonzalez is qualified to take over, but he will have a big shadow to overcome. The closer role will be handed to unknown 22-year-old Craig Krimbel, who’s only pitched in 21 games so far in his young career.

Florida Marlins

Strength: The heart of the team will rest on their young starting rotation. Josh Johnson, 27, was nearly unhittable last season. Ricky Nolasco, 28, had his third straight winning season. Anibal Sanchez, 27, was steady and Chris Volstad, 24, had his first year of double-digit wins in 2010. Hanley Ramirez is the leader of their offense, but Mike Stanton is on the very of becoming a superstar and will have a shot to be an All-Star.

Weakness: Outside of Ramirez and Stanton, this team is quite thin on the offensive side. Dan Uggla was their main source of power and run production, and it’ll be hard to configure who on the team will replace those statistics. Florida will hope that their young prospect, Logan Morrison, will be able to fill those numbers in the near future. The bullpen appears sketchy, with the erratic Leo Nunez as their closer.

New York Mets

Strength: David Wright will be the headliner for this team as the Mets hope to return to greatness. Getting Johan Santana back will be a big boost to reaching that plateau, especially if he recovers to his highly impressive form. Ike Davis had a 2010 and would be a big help if he can continue to improve. Jose Reyes showed flashes of his 2008 output last year, and building on that this year could go a long way for them in 2011.

Weakness: The success for the team is all predicated on potential and hope. Big questions remain hanging over them in 2011. What will Santana be when he recovers from his injury? Will Jason Bay ever solidify the big contract he signed before the 2010 season? Which Reyes will show up: the 2009 or 2010 version? Does Francisco Rodriguez have his head on straight? Too many questions, not enough answers.

Washington Nationals

Strength: Stealing away Jayson Werth from the Phillies will prove to be a big help for Ryan Zimmerman, one of the league’s best hitters . When the 2010 number one pick, Bryce Harper, joins them in the line up, the three of them will form one of the most powerful middle lineups in all of baseball. Closer Drew Storen has the potential to be a top notch pitcher.

Weakness: Even with Zimmerman, Werth, and (at some point) Harper, this team is still farther down the chain in the NL East. The pitching staff is deplorable and desperately needs 2009 number one pick, Stephen Strasburg, to return. Storen will hope to have plenty of opportunities to prove he can close games, but how many opportunities will he have with a sub-par offense and one of the worst pitching staffs in the league?

National League Central

Cincinnati Reds

Strength: First time All-Star Joey Votto and his Reds were the biggest surprise in 2010. Votto is a great hitter who can smack the ball anywhere, but it’s his great supporting cast (Drew Stubbs, Jonny Gomes, Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Phillips) that helped to propel him to last year’s MVP. Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo headline a good rotation with prospects, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman, ready to step up in 2011.

Weakness: Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey will start on the DL in 2011, which will be a big loss for a team that will require more from their pitching to move forward as a contender. Aside from Chapman and closer Francisco Cordero, it is unknown what the bullpen will produce this season. Their pitching will hold the key to where they end up this year.

Chicago Cubs

Strength: Chicago was able to pluck away two great players from Tampa Bay to improve their roster greatly. Matt Garza will be a reliable third pitcher with Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano. Carlos Pena adds more power to a roster that already has Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto. Tyler Colvin had a great first full year and will hope to be even more imposing in his second year. Starlin Castro has the potential to be a great SS.

Weakness: Health has been a problem historically for the Cubs, who always have potential but can never get their guys on the field at the same time. Pretty much all of their hitters have been missing in action at some point in the last three seasons. Similar to the Mets, the potential for Chicago is high and this is a sleeper team to win their division. Only question is, will injuries be their Achilles heel again in 2011?

Houston Astros

Strength: The power of the team will come from Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence, while the speed on the bases and range in the outfield will be put squarely on Michael Bourn’s shoulders. Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers are solid starters for Houston and will be counted on to keep the franchise afloat for most of the games this season.

Weakness: Outside of those few bright spots, the team is in total disarray. Outside of Rodriguez and Myers, the rest of the rotation is unproven. The bullpen is very inexperienced with a horde of rookies, sophomores and third year pitchers. The production in the offense has a big drop-off after Lee, Pence, and Bourn, with no other proven swinger in the line up.

Milwaukee Brewers

Strength: Usually a team known for their offense (with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart) the team addressed their most important need in the off season: pitching. Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke will join Yovanni Gallardo and Randy Wolf to create a mighty, impressive rotation that can hang with the best in the majors.

Weakness: While they are a team with great power in the heart of the lineup, their top of the line up is controversial. Nyjer Morgan was brought in to add more speed, but can he maintain focus on the field and keep his cool? They will also have to exercise better plate discipline and not strike out so much. John Axford was a great closer, but is he just a one year wonder?

Pittsburg Pirates

Strength: Andrew McCutchen is an all-around star with great potential. If he can continue to improve, as he has done in the past two seasons, this could be the year he becomes an All-Star. The Pirates will hope others follow suit (especially Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez) and provide McCutchen and Lyle Overbay help in making this a much-improved offense.

Weakness: Since it’s the Pirates, the cons outweigh the pros in the largest of margins. No starting pitcher on the team acquired double-digit wins last season and that trend may continue in 2011. Their closer situation is just as bleak, with Octavio Dotel gone and Joel Hanrahan entering the role. He will have tremendous pressure to take on a responsibility he has never had before.

St. Louis Cardinals

Strength: The Cardinals will be led by, arguably, the best player in baseball: Albert Pujols. A player that can hit the long ball and produce runs with great plate discipline, the three-time NL MVP is almost enough offense for one team. Luckily, he will be assisted by teammates Matt Holiday and Colby Rasmus to create offense. Chris Carpenter is a top-notch ace and Ryan Franklin can hold onto any game when he is handed the ball.

Weakness: While power and run production is a strong suit for the team, playing small ball and utilizing speed is not. Pujols was the team leader in steals last season, a category you don’t want your power hitter to lead. Aside from speed on the base paths, another problem for St. Louis is who will step up to fill Adam Wainwright’s production now that he is lost for the season?

National League West

Los Angeles Dodgers

Strength: The best asset for the Dodgers lies within their rotation, which is one of the best in baseball. Clayton Kershaw is on his way to becoming a big-time ace in the league, Chad Billingsley is always consistent, Ted Lilly was fantastic during his short 2010 Dodger tenure, and Hiroki Kuroda is an efficient fourth option. The offense will again center upon Andre Either, Matt Kemp, and James Loney for scoring.

Weakness: With Either, Kemp and Loney as the focal points of the offense, the biggest question is will they improve on their numbers from 2010. All three players saw their production digress from 2009 and it’ll be imperative to regain their old form in order to push Los Angeles. Jonathan Broxton will also try to regain what he once was, after pitching poorly in 2010. If he can’t improve, there will be a big hole at closer.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Strength: Chris Young was a bright spot for the Diamondbacks last year, making the All-Star team for the first time in his career. Combine that with the long ball capability of their offense (like Stephen Drew, Kelly Johnson, and newly acquired Russell Branyan) and a hopeful bounce back season for Justin Upton, and this offense can be a sleeper.

Weakness: Although the offense can be dangerous, their pitching is the total opposite. Anaheim didn’t have one pitcher who accumulated ten or more wins last season and that trend might be the same in 2011 with no big additions to the rotation. J.J. Putz will be called on to finish games, but can he ever recover being a dominant closer?

Colorado Rockies

Strength: Carlos Gonzales had a monster, breakout season and is now the face of the Rockies. He was helped by a strong group of swingers, such as Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Stewart, and new addition Ty Wigginton. On the mound, they feature hard-throwing pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Huston Street with a young core of pitchers that will only get better with time.

Weakness: While they are young, their pitching staff is still inexperienced and may have difficulty with the long season. Even Jimenez began to tail off towards the end of 2010. So the biggest issue will be what they will get from their youthful hurlers this season. They will also have a big dilemma at first base if Todd Helton cannot provide minimal production.

San Diego Padres

Strength: The Padres will be totally reliant on playing small ball and winning with their pitching. Clayton Richard and Tim Stauffer are competent enough to man the ship while Mat Latos recovers from his injury. They have a deep bullpen with Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, and Ernesto Frieri, who can then the ball to impressive Heath Bell to close.

Weakness: The reason San Diego will \ to resort to small ball is because they lost their big hitter, Adrian Gonzalez. His output and poise cannot be matched by anyone on their roster. It will be nearly impossible for anyone to hit more than twenty homeruns or drive in 70 runs on the team. If they don’t end up having more games in which they are within two runs, expect this to be a long year for the Padres.

San Francisco Giants

Strength: Last year’s champions have the luxury of bringing back one of the best rotations in all of baseball. Tim Lincecum was revived towards the end of the year, Matt Cain was outstanding in 2010, Jonathan Sanchez carried the team into the playoffs, and Madison Bumgarner was fantastic after he was called up. Buster Posey will have a full year to settle into the league and Brandon Belt is a Rookie of the Year candidate.

Weaknesses: The difficult part of watching the Giants last season was their inability to to hit. With 2010 over, can they help alleviate the pressure off the starters by outscoring opponents? Other concerns: Will Mark Derosa stay healthy? What does Miguel Tejada have left in the tank? Can Bruce Bochy shift their crowded outfield/first base situation well enough to maximize their production?

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