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NL Futures Preview

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As is customary this time each spring, it's time for previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the "futures" (over/under wins) recommendations.

First up is a look at the National League. Play ball!

NL EAST: BEST BET...Unlike a year ago, few these days are talking about the Miami Marlins (63 1/2), whose stadium is no longer brand new, whose roster was mostly stripped in an offseason fire sale, and whose manager is no longer Ozzie Guillen, who turned out to be as bad a fit in the dugout as a pair of cleats two sizes too small. At least new skipper Mike Redmond is unlikely to anger the local Cuban community as did Guillen. But before completely dismissing the Fish, note that starting pitching (even after sending Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to the Blue Jays) might be more serviceable than most Sunshine State critics want to admit, with Ricky Nolasco, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez, while ex-Twin Kevin Slowey has looked good enough in Jupiter to nail down a spot at the back of the rotation. If Miami can get some power production from the corners (1B Logan Morrison might not be ready until May as he continues knee injury rehab), and young Adeiny Hechavarria (the prize acquisition in the major offseason deal with Toronto) makes expected plays at SS, the infield could be passable, while Juan Pierre and a healthy Chris Coglan and Morrison can increase RF Giancarlo Stanton's RBI opportunities. Watch also for 21-year-old OF Chris Yelich, who starts the season in the minors but whose bat has scouts drooling and could be knocking balls toward Biscayne Bay by June. While no one is paying attention, the Marlins could exceed last year's 69 wins...at about one-third of the payroll (which might not make the fans too happy). It's an "over" for us at the site of the old Orange Bowl.

OTHERS: Last year at this time, we thought the delivery date for the Washington Nationals (92 1/2) would be 2013, not 2012. Turns out we were one year off. And now, after adding another proven power pitcher (Dan Haren) to a lights-out rotation that won't have Stephen Strasburg on such a tight innings count, plus signing the top closer (Rafael Soriano) on the FA market, things would seem even better in D.C., right? Well, we see a few potential potholes, especially if newly-added CF and projected leadoff hitter Denard Span endures some of the recurring injury woes that slowed him each of the last two seasons in Minnesota; there are no other comparable table-setters on the roster. The bottom half of the batting order was a bit spotty last season. Bryce Harper would also not be the first young star to endure a sophomore slump. And is 1B Adam LaRoche likely to replicate his career-best 33 homers? Sure, the chili-half smokes from Ben's Chili Bowl down the left field line, and the concrete chocolates from the Shake Shack in right field are still worth the Metro ride to the ballpark. But, remember, many maturing sides that burst upon the scene often take a step backward the following year before resuming the ascent (think Tampa Bay immediately after its 2008 World Series appearance), so we're playing a hunch that it's an "under" in D.C.

Last year, we thought the Philadelphia Phillies (84 1/2) were just too old and too overpriced, and we were rewarded with one of our easiest "under" calls in years as the Phils had to rally just to reach .500. But dynamics are a bit different this season. First of all, the win total is reduced. Second, 1B Ryan Howard and 2B Chase Utley are not going to be opening the season on the DL as they did a year ago. Third, the batting order would seem to have been bolstered by offseason additions OFs Ben Revere (via Twins, and likely a new and improved leadoff hitter) and Delmon Young (ex-Tigers), while ex-Ranger Michael Young is the new man at 3B. This year might also finally mark the long-awaited arrival of the ballyhooed Domonic Brown, who seems to have earned the LF job after belting the ball all over Clearwater and the rest of the Grapefruit League in March. And while Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee might not be quite as dominating as they were a few years ago, along with Cole Hamels they still comprise one of the top ends of a rotation in the NL. Plus, Jonathan Papelbon remains a capable closer. Not sure if Charlie Manuel can actually steer the Phils back to the playoffs, but if healthy (knock on wood) they look good enough to get close; it's an "over" for us at Citizens Bank Ballpark.

The Atlanta Braves (87 1/2) are being quoted at several wins fewer than the 94 they managed a year ago. Can Chipper Jones' retirement cause that sort of a downgrade? And if not, why aren't we jumping up and down and looking "over" that reduced win price? We still have the arrow pointing up in Atlanta, but call us a bit cautious after the Braves didn't re-sign CF Michael Bourn (now with Cleveland); yes, Bourn struck out too often last year for a proper leadoff hitter, but is rookie SS Andrelton Simmons (with just 49 MLB games under his belt) really a better alternative at the top of the order? The Braves also dealt solid contact hitter Martin Prado to the D-backs. Instead, offseason maneuvering saw Atlanta management reunite the Upton brothers, Justin and B.J., who along with RF Jason Heyward and 2B Dan Uggla might give the Braves more free swingers in their lineup than any team in the league. True, the staff looks solid and should be even stronger if Brandon Beachy (due back in June) has recovered from Tommy John surgery after leading all MLB starters in ERA when going down with his arm injury last June. But with all of that potential wind power in the lineup, we'd just rather wait and see what happens with Braves; it's a no call for us at Turner Field.

After years of misplaced hype, the New York Mets (74 1/2) are now an afterthought, more likely to make headlines because of owner Fred Wilpon's considerable financial woes due to peripheral involvement in the Bernie Madoff mess. Mostly for those reasons, the Mets have been a bystander lately in the FA sweepstakes in which they used to be a major component, and were forced to deal NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays in the offseason. One of the past investments gone bad, lefty Johan Santana, hasn't pitched at all in Port St. Lucie this spring and will begin the season on the DL instead of being the opening-day starter. And speaking of the DL, it's likely that 3B David Wright and 2B David Murphy (both with strained intercostal muscles) and reliever Frank Francisco start the campaign there as well; that's almost $46 million of salary likely unavailable at the outset. On the plus side, young arms Matt Harvey (who opens the season in the rotation) and Zack Wheeler (expected to be called up before the All-Star break) both have ace potential, while low-cost FA Shaun Marcum was a handy offseason addition to the staff. And once Wright (whom the Mets did open their checkbooks to sign to a long-term extension) is back in the lineup, skipper Terry Collins at least has one of the top run producers in the game at his disposal. The Mets' win ceiling is probably in the mid to-high 70s, but that's enough to for us to take a pass at Citi Field.

NL CENTRAL: BEST BET...Remember, Houston's move to the American League could have an impact upon NL Central teams in particular, as they won't have the same chance to beat up the lowly Astros as they did a year ago. Still, we're not quite sure why the Cincinnati Reds (91 1/2) should be so downgraded from last season's 97 wins. Especially since the Reds seem to have answered some of their most pressing questions in spring work at Goodyear. Specifically, the status of 1B Joey Votto's knees (good enough, judged by his boffo hitting numbers at the World Baseball Classic), new addition Shin-Soo Choo's ability to play CF (which he's handled flawlessly all spring), and what to do with flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, using him as a starter or reliever (it's going to be the latter, where he emerged as a dominating presence last season). Otherwise, spring work seemed all about fine-tuning and keeping the staff healthy (mission accomplished), and the lineup retains power throughout. We're looking "over" again for Dusty Baker's boys at Great American Ballpark while dreaming about a summer visit, munching on some Skyline coneys in the upper deck while watching the barges float by on the adjacent Ohio River.

OTHERS: There's an old saying in baseball that doing nothing to improve yourself in the offseason is almost as bad as making the wrong personnel moves. And if that's the case, it could be trouble for the Milwaukee Brewers (80 1/2), who did little over the winter except add some hopefully upgraded set-up pieces to a bullpen that was the worst in the majors last season (29 blown saves, 33 losses and a 4.66 ERA!) and saw closer John Axford's save total drop from 46 in 2011 to 35 a year ago. The staff also appears a huge question mark behind number one starter Yovani Gallardo, who has won 33 games the past two seasons; inexperienced righties Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada are all penciled into the rotation, while Chris Narveson made two only starts in 2012 before being lost to rotator-cuff surgery. The lineup also opens the season with some key injury woes, with 1B Corey Hart (out until perhaps the All-Star break) and Mat Gamel (perhaps done for the year) both sidelined with knee injuries, likely requiring utility infielder Alex Gonzalez as a fill-in until Hart returns at midseason. Given those issues, and no Houston to beat up this season, we doubt the Brew Crew gets to .500. We're going "under" at Miller Park.

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Why should the Chicago Cubs (73 1/2) be expected to win 20% more games than they did a year ago when careening to a 61-101 train wreck? Well, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were indeed active in the offseason, but mostly added a collection of complementary parts. One of those, FA pitcher Scott Baker, was penciled into the number two spot in the rotation but was shut down in Mesa in mid-March after suffering elbow soreness, perhaps an after-effect of last year's Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire season in Minnesota. He opens the season on the DL along with projected opening day starter Matt Garza, who didn't pitch after July a year ago because of elbow problems and is now probably out until May due to a strained lat. Not good to open the season with 40% of your starting rotation already on the DL! Moreover, 3B Ian Stewart will open the season on the DL as well due to strained left quadriceps that didn't allow him even one at bat during March in Arizona. The offense, which didn't provide enough baserunners or score enough runs last season, is counting heavily upon youngsters like 1B Anthony Rizzo, who wasn't even called up to the big club until last June, and SS Starlin Castro, with plenty of upside but only a .299 OBP last season, hardly appropriate for a batter in the 2 hole. So where are the 12-13 extra wins going to come from this season, especially with the Astros now in the AL? It's another "under" for us at Wrigley Field.

The St. Louis Cardinals (86 1/2) seem to enjoy being overlooked; while the likes of the Dodgers and Phils have been overhyped the past few years, the Redbirds keep flying under the radar to start every season, but manage to make the playoffs and even win the World Series, which they've done twice since 2006. The post-Tony LaRussa era at Busch Stadium is also off to a smooth start under Mike Matheny, the former catcher who pushed enough of the right buttons to get the Cards to the brink of another Fall Classic last October before faltering at the end of the NLCS vs. the Giants. And while spring injury news was not good for SP Chris Carpenter and SS Rafael Furcal (both done for the season due to injury), Matheny thinks he has proper cover with a collection of live young arms to take the place of Carpenter (who has missed considerable time the past couple of years anyway), while young SS Pete Kozma proved more than an adequate replacement for Furcal last September and into the postseason when he delivered several clutch hits, especially in the NLDS vs. the Nats. The same lineup that was good enough to get to the final game of the NLCS returns intact, and remember that St. Louis led the NL in runs scored last year. Five 20-homer men also return in RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, OF Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, and 3B David Freese. So why are the Cards quoted at fewer wins than last season, and the Cubs quoted 12 wins higher? We don't get it, either; it's an "over" for us at Busch Stadium.

We have been burned often by the Pittsburgh Pirates (77 1/2) in recent years, as the Bucs have tried in vain to record their first winning season since 1992, when Barry Bonds was still in town and Stan Belinda blew Game Seven of the NLCS vs. the Braves. And Pittsburgh has teased the past two years before post-All-Star game collapses doomed the Pirates to sub-.500 status again; last August, the Bucs were thinking playoffs when sitting at 64-48 before losing 35 of their last 50. In fact, Pittsburgh is 37-78 after August 1 each of the past two seasons combined. After adding aces A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez last season, the staff looked better able to weather the dog days, but that didn't happen, and the rotation looks no different this season. Why no upgrades or adjustments from GM Neal Huntington? While CF Andrew McCutchen is the franchise's first superstar since Bonds, and 2B Neil Walker looks like a future All-Star, too, the Bucs can only wait so long for 3B Pedro Alvarez, who struck out a Dave Kingman-like 180 times last season. Yet Alvarez has plenty of sock, as does RF Garrett Jones, and newly-added ex-Yankee C Russell Martin hit 21 dingers a year ago. Rather than commit one way or the other with the Bucs, we'll just plan another trip to PNC Park to enjoy the best sightlines in the league and the views of downtown and the adjacent Allegheny River from the upper deck. Yes, we admit we love Pittsburgh (we really do), but we're going to take a pass on the Pirates until they actually finish above .500.

NL WEST: BEST BET...Didn't the San Diego Padres (74 1/2) finish 56-45 last season after getting past a difficult first two months of the campaign? Only the eventual World Series champ Giants would do better in the division over the last four months of the 2012 season. Now, the new ownership group has moved in the fences at cavernous Petco Park (the left center-field gap is reduced by 12 feet, and the wall in right and right-center is 11 feet closer), although San Diego will still butter its bread on the basepaths with a rabbit-filled lineup (Cameron Maybin, Will Venable, Everth Cabrera) that ranked second in the bigs in steals last season. It's admittedly not good news for 3B Chase Headley (who has MVP potential) to be on the shelf for the first few weeks with a thumb injury, and C Yasmani Grandal is serving a 50-game MLB suspension to begin the campaign. Plus, 2B Logan Forsythe and LF Carlos Quentin could open April on the DL. But OF Chris Denorfia looked super in the WBC, and sooner or later manager Bud Black is going to have to find a spot for touted 2B Jedd Gyorko in the lineup. Moreover, starting pitching looked better than expected this March in Peoria, and potential ace Cory Luebke is due back before the All-Star break as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, closer Huston Street and set-up men Luke Gregerson and Anthony Bass continue to constitute a lights-out bullpen. With a healthy Headley and Grandal likely back into the lineup before the end of May, the Pads might even make their first playoff run in a few years, and certainly look good enough to threaten .500. It's a definite "over" for us at Petco...but don't ask us our opinion of play-by-play man Ted Leitner.

The new and very-wealthy Guggenheim Partners ownership group of the Los Angeles Dodgers (91 1/2) has already made its statements about how it is going to run the franchise: we have more money than anyone else and we are going to remind all at every opportunity. Which is why the Partners overbid by about $500 million for the franchise and why the Blue decided to lavish a huge FA deal on RHP Zack Greinke (despite the accompanying red flags) and open the season with the highest payroll (around $230 million!) in baseball history. But the lineup has no natural leadoff hitter, 3B could be as jumbled as it was for the franchise in the 1960s after Hanley Ramirez' thumb injury in the WBC threatens to sideline him into June, and LF Carl Crawford's return to his old Tampa Bay-like form (which deserted him in Boston) is no guarantee after a slow recovery from Tommy John surgery. And the Matt Kemp-Andre Ethier-Adrian Gonzalez middle of the order needs some runners on base so each can have a chance to pad his stats by swinging for the fences. Granted, there is plenty of depth in the rotation (especially if Hyun-Jin Ryu can be the first to make a successful jump direct from the Korean League to MLB), and some of that surplus could spill over to an already-solid bullpen. But the Dodgers hinted at dysfunction a year ago, and we're hardly convinced the many selfish pieces in the lineup can whip the Vin Scullys into the postseason. It's an "under" for us at Chavez Ravine.

Two years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks (81 1/2) admittedly overachieved on their way to the NL West crown; last year, Kirk Gibson's bunch had a bumpier ride as it dropped to .500. The good news for the D-backs this spring was that the outfield remake looked like a success, especially the way new CF Adam Eaton took to the leadoff position. The bad news: injuries eventually shelved both Eaton and new right fielder Cody Ross, so an evaluation of the winter moves to trade longtime starters Justin Upton (to Atlanta) and Chris Young (to Oakland) will not be immediately forthcoming. But all hands should be on deck by May, when Eaton, Ross and newly-added line drive hitter 3B Martin Prado (ex-Braves) give Gibson an opportunity to manufacture more runs when the homers are not flying out of Chase Field. Meanwhile, you could win some bar bets by knowing who leads NL pitchers in wins the last two seasons (it's Arizona's Ian Kennedy, with 35), and GM Kevin Towers added a former Oakland starter (Brandon McCarthy) to go along with another ex-A's ace, Trevor Cahill, in the rotation. Towers also likes to build his staffs from the back forward, so adding another potential closer in ex-Padre and Marlin Heath Bell to go along with J.J. Putz and lefty set-up men Tony Hipp and Matt Reynolds gives Gibby even more flexibility with his bullpen. If all goes well, the win upside for the D-backs is somewhere in the low 90s; we're definitely looking "over" in Phoenix.

The San Francisco Giants (87 1/2) faltered a bit in their recent previous year (2011) after a World Series win, and there were already some red flags popping up during spring in Scottsdale related to health issues that mostly didn't surface in 2012, especially regarding 3B Pablo Sandoval, who was shelved with ulnar nerve issues in his right elbow. Many other Giants were also absent for a stretch during spring due to WBC duties. But Bruce Bochy's team is still built on pitching (featuring the incomparable Matt Cain) and defense. And, most importantly, the staff and C Buster Posey have enjoyed an injury-free March. Moreover, 1B Brandon Belt hinted at a real power surge in spring when leading the Cactus League in homers (7) entering this week. All, however, might not be as peachy as it seems with the pitchers; after a puzzling drop-off in form, Tim Lincecum's return to prominence hadn't yet materialized in spring, and there is not a lot of depth in the rotation that saw five arms handle 160 of the 162 starts last season. Sure, almost all of the pieces that were good enough to win the World Series remain in place, and GM Brian Sabean has displayed an uncanny knack for adding important parts at the trade deadline if needed (last year it was RF Hunter Pence), but history and the law of averages suggest the Giants are more likely to experience the sort of bumpy ride they endured two years ago. No surprise if the Giants return to the playoffs, but, to be safe, we're simply going to pass at AT&T Park instead.

For those who were wondering, the Colorado Rockies (71 1/2) have junked the 70-pitch limit that resulted in their starters usually being pulled by the fifth inning a year ago. Not that it helped what was one of the MLB's worst staffs in 2012 and insanely overworked a bullpen that suffered from severe wear-and-tear last season. The recent signing of vet Jon Garland, who hasn't pitched since July of 2011 due to shoulder problems but has already won a spot in the rotation, confirms that starting pitching remains the Rockies' biggest question mark. On the plus side, Colorado has enjoyed a remarkably healthy spring at Talking Stick, and new manager Walt Weiss made it a priority to upgrade a shoddy defense, where a now-healthy SS Troy Tulowitzki (who didn't play after May 30 last year due to a groin injury) should at least prove an anchor for the left side of the infield, not to mention providing some protection in the batting order for LF Carlos Gonzalez, whose numbers dipped last season after Tulowitzki went down. Weiss also is said to be intrigued by the speed at the top of the order with OFs Dexter Fowler & Eric Young, Jr., and might want to do more running this year with vet 1B Todd Helton's contributions likely diminishing as he platoons with Michael Cuddyer and/or Tyler Colvin. With a lot of sock in the lineup (Gonzalez, Cuddyer, Tulowitzki, and C Wilin Rosario all capable of 25 or more homers), the Rocks appear better equipped to prevail in slugfests than last season, but we wonder how much upside there really is in Denver after the team lost a franchise-record 98 games a year ago, resulting in skipper Jim Tracy's dismissal. It's a no call for us at Coors Field.

Next up: American League preview!

  
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