Posted by: mdegeorge | March 31, 2011

2011 National League Preseason Diagnosis

Birds are chirping, the sun is out, Derek Jeter’s idle thoughts are being featured on SportsCenter. It can be only one time of year: spring. And with spring comes the start of yet another baseball season.

It’s a time that everything seems so cut and dry on paper, and nothing can derail the best laid plans of mice, men, and general managers. In a 162-game marathon though, something invariably, inevitably, goes wrong. So before the festivities kick off Thursday, it’s time to take stock of the bigs with my preseason diagnosis with the one condition (real or imagined) that will define each team’s 2011.

The Phillies are the clear favorite in the National League as long as Chase Utley's knee stops acting up. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Here’s the senior circuit. (Picks in order of expected division finish).

East

Phillies: Chondromalacia. Injuries have been as much the Phils’ forte this summer as intimidating magazine covers. Brad Lidge, Domonic Brown, and Placido Polanco have all been banged up, and the prior two may not be back until May. But the runners knee belonging to Chase Utley, which could require surgery and shelve him for the year, is the biggest concern. Greatest rotation in the history of things that rotate aside, Philadelphia’s offense was a major weak spot last season. The absence of Utley for any extended period of time means the Phanatics had better get used to losing 2-1 games…again.

Braves: Chipper rejuvenation. The Braves are built to contend this season, as long as their iconic third baseman is in the middle of that lineup for one last go ’round. Chipper Jones recovered from a hideous injury last year and plans on being a regular in 2011. He’s had a tremendous spring and could be the difference in the Braves’ Wild Card hunt if he’s able to be out there for around 135 games. He provides extra pop and balance to that lineup alongside sluggers like Brian McCann and Jason Heyward.

Marlins: Complications of Hanley isolationism. The Marlins are turning into a pitching first team. Weird, I know. The reliance on Hanley Ramirez to carry a bevy of talented albeit still developing young outfielders might put too much pressure on the pitching staff. Josh Johnson is a genuine ace, but a lot will be asked of Javier Vazquez and a thin bullpen to step up.

Mets: Ponziitis. The Mets have never recovered from the financial hit delivered to the Wilpon family by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. They no longer have the financial wherewithal to make the kind of acquisitions that have sustained them the last decade and also have to contend with rumors swirling about finding new investors. It doesn’t help that of the last three holdovers from the big-spending era, Johan Santana and Jason Bay start the season on the disabled list and Frankie Rodriguez is on a short leash after last summer’s felonious exploits. It could be a long season in Flushing.

Nationals: HypoStrasburgitis. The hype seems to have abated in Washington. The light at the end of the tunnel was visible last year with Stephen Strasburg on the hill and the promise of Bryce Harper on the horizon. Neither will be part of the big league squad to start the season, and their returns are still to be determined. Jayson Werth is the big arrival this season, and Rick Ankiel looks poised for a revival. But the rotation can only be described as basement worthy.

Central

Reds: Playoff hangover. The Reds overachieved by most accounts last season. Joey Votto’s production may stay at the same level, but they can’t rely on guys like Scott Rolen to repeat their performance of a year ago. Couple that with injuries on the pitching staff to Johnny Cueto (again) and Homer Bailey and the indifferent spring by Edinson Volquez, and the Reds’ grip on the top spot in the Central could be tenuous.

Cardinals: Pujols distraction syndrome. Everyone says that Albert Pujols’ looming contract situation and impending free agency won’t affect his performance. That’s probably true for the consummate professional hitter. But it will cast a pall over everything the Cardinals do on the field and front office. They have a chance to make a playoff push, especially if Lance Berkman stops aging so rapidly and David Freese stays healthy all season, even in spite of the injury to Adam Wainwright. But there’s no way the Pujols situation doesn’t weigh heavily on the minds of all involved.

Brewers: Elevated expectations syncope. The Brewers are the chic pick in the Central for those believing in the imminent fall of the Reds and doubting the credentials of the Wainwright-less Cards. But Milwaukee might see a drastic fall from that perch. The exalted pitching staff will start the season without aces new ace Zach Grienke and old unreliable Manny Parra. The offense could take a hit if Corey Hart’s absence turns out to be a prolonged one, plus the there’s the looming specter of Prince Fielder’s free agency. It just looks like more disappointment for the Brew crew this year.

Cubs: Zambransanity. Questions abound for the Cubs. Can Matt Garza shake a bad spring? Can Blake DeWitt overcome a poor start to his career in LA? Is Tyler Colvin going to come closer to realizing his potential in season two? But the biggest question is if Carlos Zambrano can acclimatize to the third starter role after a tumultuous 2010. If he can’t be a positive, the least he can do is not be an overwhelming negative.

Astros: Perpetual rebuilding infirmity. The Astros extended rebuilding process isn’t going to reach its much awaited conclusion this season. They have a few pieces on which to build the future (Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, possibly Brett Wallace, Bud Norris, and J.A. Happ). The clock is ticking on the stays of Carlos Lee and Brett Myers, who have greater value elsewhere after the trade deadline than they do in the continued rebuilding process. Fifth in the division and more draft picks is the most success to expect this season.

Pirates: Chronic recurrent Buckoitis. The arrival of manager Clint Hurdle smacks of some confidence that the Pirates will get on the positive side of the ledger for the first time in almost two decades. The roster, though, doesn’t back up that assertion. Arrival of Lyle Overbay aside, this team will need absolutely astronomical improvement from just about everyone to touch 75 wins.

West

Giants: Developmental ceiling ailment. The youngsters that drove this team last October will be called upon to do so again this season. Buster Posey, Nate Schierholtz, and popular rookie-of-the-year pick Brandon Belt will need to provide enough offense to float one of the best pitching staffs in the league. Their potential is startling, but it could just as easily result in a letdown this season. Miguel Tejada provides extra veteran coverage, but the inconsistency of Pablo Sandoval and lack of pop elsewhere in the lineup gives pause to hopes of a repeat.

Rockies: Back-end rotation deficiency. The fact that the Rockies late-season slide last year coincided with the tiring of ace Ubaldo Jimenez shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The Cy Young candidate fronts a rotation of average pitchers who at best .500 guys. An above-average offense, strengthened by the arrival of super-bench player Ty Wiggington, and a strong bullpen remedy that to a degree

Dodgers: Collective identity disenfranchisement. I have a tough time pegging this team one way or the other. Their lineup is pretty good, but as it has for a while, lacks a guy who can carry them if need be (don’t think that’s Andre Ethier yet). The pitching staff is good, but certainly not bulletproof. In many ways, the lineup resembles the Giants of last season, only with fewer veterans who can step up in the clutch. Unfortunately the Dodgers’ staff bears little resemblance to the deep pitching threat the Giants offer. I could see them making the playoffs, but more likely they’ll struggle in the middle of the pack.

Padres: Gonzalez withdrawal syndrome. Adrian Gonzalez had the ability to gloss over a lot of the weaknesses in that lineup. His departure leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the Pads’ lineup that Brad Hawpe and Ryan Ludwick do not fill. The Padres do face the prospect of watching Cameron Maybin and Will Venables develop as a formidable outfield pair. But asking the Padres to make the playoffs this year would require asking the pitching staff to overachieve the way it did last season, something I don’t see happening.

Diamondbacks: Near total starting pitchectomy. Remember a couple years ago when the D’backs faced the prospect of a starting rotation led by Dan Haren and Brandon Webb? Haren has been replaced by Joe Saunders, Webb’s constant injury troubles have landed him on the D.L. in Texas, and Ian Kennedy with his 10-14 career record is being handed the ball on Opening Day. Meanwhile, the Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson experiments have ended unceremoniously. Can’t say I expect much more than reservations for the cellar for them this season.

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