Posted 03/30/2009 at 10:14 AM
Todayís previews are on a pair of teams that made the National League playoffs last season. One has a good chance to return, but the other figures to regress somewhat. First up, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending NL West champs. Unless a major surprise from the projected back of the division occurs, the Dodgers will be battling Arizona for the top spot in the sector and will also be in the hunt for the wild card should they trail the Diamondbacks. I think LA comes out on top and grabs the automatic spot in the playoffs. The reason for the optimism is what figures to be a solid lineup. Rafael Furcal is healthy again, and heís a tremendous catalyst. Iím not sure who manager Joe Torre will hit second, but Dodger fans should hope itís Russell Martin and not Orlando Hudson. Either way, theyíre okay but I prefer Martin toward the top of the order. Andre Ethier, Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp should be a very productive heart of the order, and I like the idea of hitting James Loney sixth. Add in Casey Blake and Hudson and weíre looking at one of the more balanced and top producing 1-8 lineups in the league. The bench is serviceable as well with savvy veteran Mark Loretta, plus Delwyn Young and Blake DeWitt. Doug Mientkiewicz and Brad Ausmus provide good defense when called upon. Iím assuming Juan Pierre will be moved at some point, if the Dodgers can find a taker. If Pierre stays, he can be an asset starting a game here and there. The pitching may not be great, but it certainly looks adequate. The top of the rotation is strong with Chad Billingsley. Hiroki Kuroda is reliable and Clayton Kershaw has immense potential. I like the Randy Wolf pickup, as he likes pitching at Dodger Stadium, and Wolf will make a decent fourth option. The fifth spot might go to Jason Schmidt if heís healthy, Eric Stults if heís not. Weíll see if Jonathan Broxton flourishes as the closer. Heís the prototype for the role to be sure, and should be fine. Hong-Chih Kuo was awesome last season, and Cory Wade also enjoyed a fine 2008 campaign. Watch for James McDonald to log some important innings for this team as well, and he could end up cracking the rotation at some point. The Dodgers are clearly among the best teams in the league, and Joe Torre manages the regular season about as well as anyone. I just donít see any major weaknesses on this team, and I will be surprised if they donít win close to 90 games, and perhaps even more than that. Arizona will be stiff competition, but I am on the Dodgers to win the NL West. óóĖ The Milwaukee Brewers ended a long run of mediocrity with 90 wins last season, and a spot in the National League playoffs. The Brewers took the big gamble when they rented high-priced CC Sabathia and the move paid off as the huge lefty keyed the Milwaukee run to the post-season. Sabathia is gone, and the Brewers will likely have a tough time making the post-season again. But donít look for this talented young team to come unhinged. Theyíre good enough to at least contend and with a good break or two, they could end up in playing in October for a second straight year. Thereís plenty of offense on hand. Rickie Weeks doesnít hit for much of an average, but his OBP isnít bad and heís a decent leadoff option. This is likely the last year at SS, at least in Milwaukee, for J.J. Hardy. Alcides Escobar is on the way, and heís going to take over that spot by next season. But there isnít a thing wrong with Hardy, and it would not surprise me if he eventually moves to the hot corner, as thatís not a strength for Milwaukee at present. Hard hitting Mat Gamel is the projected 3B moving up the chain, but Gamelís defense is so weak he may have to be moved to the outfield. The middle of the order is very strong. Ryan Braun is a huge offensive threat, as is Prince Fielder. Corey Hart is a virtual cinch for another 20/20 and heíll likely hit at least .280 as well. Mike Cameron and Bill Hall are about the same offensively. Cameron is an asset with his solid defense. Hall is a cut below average as a 3B and I would guess this will be his swan song as a starter for the Brewers. Jason Kendall wonít do much with his bat, but he was a rock behind the plate last season and seems to handle his staffs very well. The absence of Sabathia and Ben Sheets obviously impacts the rotation negatively. But Iím very high on Yovani Gallardo, and I expect him to win at least 15 games this season. The rest of the starters are average at best, however. The Brewers are hoping Manny Parra can break through this year. If he does, Milwaukeeís chances are clearly enhanced. Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan will eat up innings adequately, and Braden Looper is not the worst #5 in the world. The bullpen is a major concern. San Diego decided to reward Trevor Hoffman for all the great work over the years by making him an insulting offer, and it turns out to be a good break for Hoffman. At least now he has a chance to finish his career with a big league team, as opposed to whatever the Padres are right now. Hoffman has seen better days, though, and heís moving to a more hitter-friendly park than Petco. Hoffman is also hurt to start the season, which makes Seth McClung the likely closer early on. I like a couple of the Milwaukee bullpen residents. Carlos Villanueva seems well suited for relief and Mitch Stetter could be a very nice lefty specialist. The rest of the pen is shaky, although Mark DiFelice could be the guy who firms it up to some extent. The Brewers should flirt with another winning season. But I donít think they can catch the Cubs, and Iím expecting the Cardinals to move up this year. Milwaukee should be neck and neck with the Reds for third place, and Iíll give the Brewers the slight edge. Iíll tab Milwaukee for 82 wins, and with plenty of talent still on the way through the system, things are definitely looking better these days for this no longer mediocre franchise.