The Braves pulled off one of the more lopsided trades in the offseason, receiving from division rival Florida second baseman Dan Uggla in return for reliever Mike Dunn and utility man Omar Infante. The Braves immediately gave Uggla a contract extension to the tune of 5 years and $60 million. A solid team all around, with budding superstar Jason Heyward becoming the face of the team. However, legend Chipper Jones is getting more and more hurt and unproductive, and may retire soon. New manager Fredi Gonzalez has large shoes to fill after taking over for the legendary Bobby Cox. The Braves will battle with the Mets for second place.
As stated above, second baseman Dan Uggla was traded to division rival Atlanta for two mediocre players. The Fish’s modus operandi has always been to trade players that get too expensive through arbitration and are close to free agency. This is the latest instance of this trend. Florida also traded underachieving former top prospect Cameron Maybin to San Diego for two relievers. However, Florida still has one of the best shortstops in the game in Hanley Ramirez, and a top ace in Josh Johnson to make things interesting and to play spoiler, as usual.
New York Mets
Off-the-field issues stemming from a lawsuit against owner Fred Wilpon alleging that he profited from the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme have overshadowed the positive moves made during the Amazin’s’ offseason. Unpopular GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel were fired for years of underperformance, and GM Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins took over the reins. Signing low risk, high reward pitchers Chris Young and Chris Capuano, and extending knuckleballer R.A. Dickey bolsters a shaky rotation that is not getting ace Johan Santana back from a shoulder injury until the summer. The Spring Training releases of both Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez ridded the Mets of under-performing and overpaid malcontents that rubbed both fans and teammates alike the wrong way. The lineup is one of the better ones in the National League, and the team can prove to be an underrated Wild Card contender. However, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Jason Bay must stay healthy in order for the Mets to have playoff aspirations this year.
The Four Horsemen, the Four Headed Beast, or whatever you want to call the four aces of the Phillies (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels), this is the most dominant collection of starting pitchers since perhaps the Big Three (John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux) of the mid 90’s Braves. The re-addition of Cliff Lee to the mix more than compensates for the loss of outfielder Jayson Werth to free agency. However, Philly’s lineup is not as vaunted as it has been the past few years. Jimmy Rollins has turned in a second straight sub-par season, and all of the starting position players, with the exception of top prospect Dominic Brown, are all 30 and over. Chase Utley, the core of the lineup, is out indefinitely with a knee ailment, and Shane Victorino is also injured from a collision in a Spring Training game. Closer Brad Lidge will also miss Opening Day. Regardless, Philadelphia is the overwhelming favorite to win the NL East and go deep into the playoffs.
The perennial cellar-dweller in the division, the Nationals have been aggressive this offseason, but maybe a little too aggressive. GM Mike Rizzo signed former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven year, $126 million dollar contract, vastly overpaying for a player his age and caliber. The infusion of offense and run production Werth brings is offset by the loss of Adam Dunn to free agency and the trade of Josh Willingham to Oakland. A trade for pitcher Tom Gorzelanny does not significantly improve the team to contention level. With former top pick Stephen Strasburg recovering from Tommy John surgery for probably the whole year, the Nationals have not moved forward, but have simply treaded water.
The Cubs were taken over by the Ricketts family in 2009, and have inherited the Cubs overpaid and underperforming players, such as Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Carlos Zambrano. This offseason, GM Jim Hendry made an aggressive move in acquiring starter Matt Garza from Tampa Bay for a large haul of prospects, maybe a little bit too large. The trade of Tom Gorzelanny to the Nationals rebuilds somewhat the farm system depth the Cubs lost in the Garza trade. The Cubs will see another year of their World Series futility streak and hover around .500 for most of the year.
The 2010 NL Central winners will face a battle, mainly from the Brewers and the Cardinals, to reclaim the top spot in the division. Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto will have another outstanding campaign, and Jay Bruce is one of the most exciting young outfielders in the game. First baseman turned outfielder Yonder Alonso can make a showing for the Rookie of the Year. Their pitching is relatively strong, with Edinson Volquez coming back after Tommy John surgery and a PED suspension. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman made a impressive showing in the bullpen, and threw the fastest pitch ever recorded at 105 miles per hour last year. He should be available to start if one of the starters gets hurt or is ineffective. Their only major free agent signing this offseason was 2010 World Series MVP shortstop Edgar Renteria, but then again, the team did not have many needs to address. With an offense that ranked first in the National League last year, I’ll still say they are the favorites in the division, but by a slim margin.
After trading away Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, Houston has signaled that they are finally entering a rebuilding phase. However, the Astros do have good pieces to build around. Pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers were signed last year to contract extensions, and young players such as Hunter Pence, Chris Johnson, and recently acquired Brett Wallace give the team some cornerstones to build around. However, the albatross that is Carlos Lee’s contract limits what Houston can do for now.
The Brew Crew under GM Doug Melvin is in the textbook “win-now” situation. Prince Fielder’s contract expires at the end of the year, and agent Scott Boras will seek a massive deal for him in free agency, one that the Brewers most likely cannot afford. Their offseason haul included oft-injured but underrated pitcher Shaun Marcum from Toronto, and ace Zack Grienke from Kansas City to bolster their rotation, although Grienke is slated to miss his first few starts in April. Will challenge the Reds and the Cardinals for the NL Central crown.
Eighteen straight seasons of losing, and a nineteenth is extremely likely. GM Neil Huntington has done a decent job building the farm system, and the results are starting to show at the major league level with Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata. Budding star Andrew McCutchen is bound to take his game to the next level. Starter Kevin Correia was signed in free agency to a two-year deal. Respected manager Clint Hurdle was hired to turn things around. The Black and Yellow still don’t have the pieces to contend, but should be ready by 2013.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Albert Pujols saga has only begun, with the best player in the game not coming to terms with the Cards about a new contract, most likely hitting free agency at the end of the season. The contract negotiations can have a detrimental effect on the field. The Cardinals are in a tenuous position, with a lot of money tied up in several very good players like Matt Holliday, but very few money spent on role players. Ace starter Adam Wainwright went down with Tommy John surgery early in Spring Training, and it is doubtful that the Cardinals are playoff contenders with that serious blow.
The D-Backs over the past year have traded players deemed not part of their future plans, shipping ace Dan Haren to the Angels, third baseman Mark Reynolds (the current record holder of most times struck out in a single season) to Baltimore, and starter Edwin Jackson to the White Sox. GM Kevin Towers has his work cut out for him, but there is hope. Justin Upton will continue to grow into an elite player, and starter Daniel Hudson, acquired from the White Sox in return for Jackson, had impressive results with the D-Backs last year.
The Rockies were in the heat of a playoff race with San Francisco and San Diego, only to lose it to the Giants at the very end of the season. They have a very strong lineup and rotation, with superstars Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, and ace Ubaldo Jimenez leading the way. GM Dan O’Dowd locked up Tulowitzki and Gonzalez to long term deals, good moves considering they are young, have produced, and are approaching their prime years. A more questionable move was re-signing inconsistent starter Jorge De La Rosa to a three year deal, and signing low on base percentage hitter Jose Lopez for infield depth. Bottom line is, look for Colorado to contend for the division crown.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Owner Frank McCourt is embroiled in a divorce lawsuit that recently found that his ex-wife, Jamie, is entitled to an ownership stake. However, with ownership in flux, the on the field product, surprisingly, has not been affected. GM Ned Colletti signed durable, innings eating starter Jon Garland, and resigned quality starters Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly. However, the signing of Juan Uribe raises many eyebrows throughout the game, and the contract of 3 years/ 21 million seems excessive. If Matt Kemp and James Loney bounce back from a subpar 2010, and Casey Blake has one more good season left in him, the Dodgers will have a shot at the Wild Card at least.
San Diego Padres
In his second year at the helm, GM Jed Hoyer realized that the surprising contention of his team for the division crown in 2010 was a fluke, and traded star Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox for three top prospects. The 2011 club will be in a rebuilding mode, and San Diego has brought in Brad Hawpe to serve as a veteran presence on a young team. Matt Latos highlights a young and promising rotation, although as of this writing, Latos will miss Opening Day with a shoulder ailment. Not enough to compete in what is arguably baseball’s weakest division.
San Francisco Giants
The defending World Series champions are also the favorites to take the division again. Their pitching is stellar, even with Tim Lincecum experiencing an off-year by his Cy Young caliber standards in 2010. The offense has received a major boost with the arrival of Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, the late season addition of Cody Ross, and Aubrey Huff becoming more consistent. Andres Torres provided a surprise for this club last year. The only major worry that the Giants have is whether Pablo Sandoval, the Kung-Fu Panda, will regain his 2009 form, and lose weight in the process.
NL East Champion: Philadelphia Phillies
NL Central Champion: Cincinnati Reds
NL West Champion: San Francisco Giants
Wild Card Contenders: Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers
Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers
World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox
NL MVP- Albert Pujols, Cardinals
AL MVP-Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
NL Cy Young- Tim Lincecum, Giants
AL Cy Young- Jon Lester, Red Sox
NL Rookie of the Year- Brandon Belt, Giants
AL Rookie of the Year- Casper Wells, Tigers