Despite losing ace Adam Wainwright for the entire 2011 season, the St. Louis Cardinals persevered to win their second World Series in six years. The American League may have the reputation of having the better players every year, but the pitching in the NL has helped the World Series trophy come to its league three times in the last four years.

Just like the Boston Red Sox bought their team, the Philadelphia Phillies did the same to put themselves as the immediate favorite leading into the 2011 season. But once again, we saw a cohesive unit knock off the favorite. Even without Wainwright, the Cardinals used a solid dose of pitching, led by Chris Carpenter, and of course hitting, led by Albert Pujols, to win the World
Series.

Things have changed in St. Louis, as Pujols is now wearing red and white in Los Angeles, and Carpenter is experiencing a nerve issue in his right (throwing) shoulder. Wainwright is back in full strength, but without Carpenter and Pujols, the NL is wide open for the taking. It should be a very intriguing season.

Here are my predictions for 2012….

NL EAST

Philadelphia Phillies

Who’s new: RP Jonathan Papelbon, 1B Jim Thome, IF Ty Wigginton, OF Juan Pierre, RP Chad Qualls

Who’s out: RP Ryan Madson, SP Roy Oswalt

The big three are back and will be back with a vengeance in 2012. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels may be together for the final year, as Hamels is in his last year before he becomes a free agent. Rumors are already swirling that Hamels will be paired with 2011 Cy
Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. Before that happens, there is business to take care of in the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia led the majors with 102 wins last year, but failed to win the World Series. This season might be even more difficult because of injuries. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are both expected to start the season on the disabled list, which means there will be a lot of pressure on Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to produce big numbers. Howard is a major concern, coming off of a torn Achilles suffered on the final play of the 2011 NLCS. He isn’t expected back until May or June, while Utley has missed 109 games in the last two seasons and will not be in the Opening Day lineup. Utley has bad knees and is just getting older. This lineup will be solid, but won’t strike as much fear as it would with Howard and Utley.

The rotation may have lost Roy Oswalt, but the Phillies still have the three aces. In 2011, the Phillies compiled a 3.02 team ERA, tops in the majors. Vance Worley will move from the #5 starter to the #4 starter, and if Spring Training is any indication (2.81 ERA in 4 starts), Worley should be just fine. Joe Blanton is back healthy to round out the starting five, while Jonathan Papelbon should be an excellent addition to the bullpen.

Losing Ryan Madson will definitely hurt, but with Jose Contreras, Chad Qualls and Antonio Bastardo in town, the bullpen should still be solid. The Phillies should still be a force in the division, but with Hamels possibly on his way out and Utley/Howard hurting, the Phillies
might be looking over their shoulder in the very near future.

2012 prediction: 97-65

Miami Marlins

Who’s new: SS Jose Reyes, RP Heath Bell, SP Mark Buehrle, SP Carlos Zambrano, MGR Ozzie Guillen

Who’s out: No one important

The Marlins have a new look both in their name and lineup. In an interesting marketing move, the Marlins changed their name from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins. The major moves didn’t stop there, as Miami added a new manager in Ozzie Guillen, a new shortstop, Jose Reyes that just happens to be a 4-time All Star and a new closer, Heath Bell. The rotation also got bolstered with the additions of Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano. If anyone can turn Crazy Carlos into normal Carlos, it is Guillen.

The Marlins turned into one the biggest spenders this offseason, but whiffed on a potential signing of Albert Pujols. However, the Marlins acquired a key piece in Jose Reyes that will drastically improve the lineup. In 2011, the Marlins finished 23rd out of 30 teams in runs scored and 20th in stolen bases. Both of those numbers are way too low for a team to contend, but the addition of Reyes will be huge in both categories. A potential top four in the lineup of Bonifacio, Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton will cause fits on the bases. Expect more speed, more runs scored and as a result, more wins.

We know the Marlins will score some runs, but will they be able to improve on its 3.95 era (10th of 16 in the NL)? The answer will depend on the health of Josh Johnson. Johnson made only nine starts in 2011, going 3-1 with a dazzling 1.64 ERA. Johnson is fully recovered from a right shoulder injury, but he has had trouble staying healthy in his career. If Johnson can give the Marlins 30-32 starts, they should be a playoff team, but if he gets hurt, the Marlins don’t stand a chance. The rest of the rotation is solid with Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Zambrano, but there isn’t an ace amongst those four that can truly carry a rotation like Johnson. Heath Bell is a major upgrade over Juan Carlos Oviedo (aka Leo Nunez), and another year of experience for Ryan Webb, Mike Dunn, Edward Mujica and the rest of the bullpen, can only help. I expect the Marlins to make a splash and be one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2012.

2012 prediction: 86-76

Atlanta Braves

Who’s new: SS Jack Wilson

Who’s out: SS Alex Gonzalez, SP Derek Lowe, OF Nate McLouth

If there is any team that didn’t need to make changes during the offseason, it was the Atlanta Braves. The Braves farm system continues to be one of the best in the majors, and as of late, is providing the big club with a slew of talent. Guys like Freddie Freeman, Mike Minor,
Brandon Beachy, Jason Heyward and Tommy Hanson are young and capable of being stars. Taylor Pastornicky is the next minor league talent to hit the majors, as the Florida native will patrol shortstop in place of the departed Alex Gonzalez. The Braves finished just one game back of St. Louis in the wild card race, and with another wild card spot, the Braves should be in good shape.

The Braves have always been a team that relied on strong pitching, going all the way back to the days of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. This year should be no different, but the Braves will be relying on a very young group of arms. Hanson, Beachy, Minor are all 25 years old or younger, while Jair Jurrjens is looking to be the Jurrjens of 2011 that had a 2.96 ERA and not the one that finished with a 4.64 ERA in 2010. If the three kids can mature rapidly, the Braves will be a major force this year; however, if the three youngsters struggle then the Braves will have a hard time competing in 2012. You also cannot forget that Tim Hudson will start the year on the disabled list, which means that a rookie named Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran will step into the rotation for a few weeks. The bullpen is young as well, but Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters tore through lineups last year. The two combined to pitch an astounding 165 innings. If the two can carry the same workload this year, the bullpen should once again be lights out, but if the innings catch up to them, then there will be some major struggles in Atlanta.

While the Braves staff is extremely young, their lineup isn’t far behind in youth. Freddie Freeman, Martin Prado, Brian McCann, Pastornicky and Jason Heyward are all 27 years old or younger, while Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla provide some nice experience to the lineup. There is a nice balance of power and speed in this group, but there are a couple major question marks. Will Heyward bounce back from his miserable 2011 campaign, in which he hit .227 and only 14 HRs in 128 games? Can Uggla avoid his horrendous first half that saw him hit .185 and be more like the guy that rebounded to hit .296 after the break? In August, he hit .340 with 10 home runs, so there is no doubt that the man can hit with the best of them. The Braves will need McCann to stay healthy and will need a nice progression from Freeman. Michael Bourn should provide a nice, steady leadoff presence to help everyone around him. Just like every time has question marks, the Braves are no different. This is a young, but explosive team that has the potential to win the NL pennant.

2012 prediction: 84-78

Washington Nationals

Who’s new: SP Gio Gonzalez, SP Edwin Jackson, RP Brad Lidge

Who’s out:

It took a few years, but the Nationals are finally relevant for the first time since the move from Montreal. The team in Montreal was young and exciting, and the same can be said about the team that will take the field this summer in the nation’s capitol. Led by phenom Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are filled with youth and excitement all over the field.

On the mound, the Nationals are led by Strasburg, but Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman won’t let you forget about them. Gonzalez was acquired in the offseason, and comes from the A’s, where he had a 3.12 ERA in 2011. Zimmerman had his innings capped last year, but still finished with a 3.18 ERA. This is a very solid top three for Washington, and with veterans Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang in the back of the rotation, this pitching could be solid. Jackson and Wang are huge question marks, while Strasburg is already showing that his hard-throwing violent pitching motion can cause injuries.

The Nationals need one more starter, but their bullpen should be able to help out quite a bit. Drew Storen may need to start the season on the disabled list, but the forgotten 1st round pick in the Strasburg draft has the potential to be one of the best closers in the league. Tyler Clippard and Brad Lidge should be excellent in the 7th and 8th innings, which means less pressure on the rotation. I expect a solid pitching season from the Nationals. The health on the mound needs to carry over to the Nationals lineup. Ryan Zimmerman can be one of two players: the one who hit .292 with 33 HRs and 106 RBIs in 2009 or the injury- plagued 3B that played in only 101 games last year, finishing with just 12 HRs and 49 RBIs. Zimmerman could be just as important to the Nationals success as Strasburg. Michael Morse burst onto the scene in 2011, crushing 31 HRs with a .303 batting average. Morse is currently recovering from a strained lat muscle, which could be a huge issue for his production. If Morse comes back healthy, then Zimmerman and Morse will be monsters at the plate, but if those two, along with Adam LaRoche struggle with injuries, the Nationals will be in big trouble. Jayson Werth felt the pressure of his new contract last year, hitting a puzzling .232 with just 20 HRs. He hit close to .270 with 25 HRs or more in the last three years before his miserable 2011 campaign. If Werth can rebound, it could mean good things for this lineup. Lastly, when discussing the Nationals outfield, you must discuss Bryce Harper. Harper will start the year in the minors after struggling in Spring Training, but you can bet that Nationals fans will be anxiously awaiting his arrival. The 19-year old phenom could replace Roger Bernardina in June or the Nationals could elect to wait until September to give him his first taste of the big leagues.

No matter what happens this year, the Nationals have a very bright future, and just like the Kansas City Royals, could be very good in three or four years. It is an election year in Washington, but expect both Republicans and Democrats to fall in love with these Nationals.

2012 prediction: 82-82

New York Mets

Who’s new: OF Andres Torres, RP Jon Rauch, RP Frank Francisco

Who’s out: SS Jose Reyes, RP Jason Isringhausen, OF Angel Pagan, SP Chris Capuano

Where do we even start with this team? To say that the Mets are in trouble is an understatement. The front office is an absolute mess and the team is in almost as much trouble as Bernie Madoff. I can spend a day discussing the issues with ownership and the front office, but let’s focus on the baseball. The Mets had Jose Reyes last year and still finished 77-85. Jose Reyes departed this offseason and the Mets did not add anyone to replace him. This team will be lucky to finish with 70 wins, and in order to accomplish that number the Mets must have a healthy Johan Santana.

Santana missed the entire 2011 season, but he looks healthy in Spring Training, which is an excellent sign for Mets fans. If Santana can come even close to the 2.98 ERA he had in 2010, then this Mets team could be in business; however, if Santana gets hurt again or can’t produce like a major league pitcher, then guys like Jon Niese and Mike Pelfrey will have a huge load on their shoulders. I love the potential that Niese has, especially considering his horrendous luck last year. He had a ground-ball rate of more than 50 percent, walked only 2.5 per 9 innings and struck out almost a guy an inning. With those numbers, it doesn’t make much sense that his BABIP (Batting Average Balls in Play) was .333. Pelfrey is an innings eater, but makes Mets fans crazy with his inconsistency. R.A. Dickey is a knuckleballer, but still seems to get the job done, which is just fine for a #4 starter. Dillon Gee should round out the rotation, and Gee has some major potential. The problem with Gee is that he struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark. If the Mets can get a healthy Santana, an improved Niese, a consistent Pelfrey and solid numbers from Gee and Dickey, then they could be competitive. However, asking for all of those things is a tad too much.

The bullpen for the Mets is a tad improved with Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, who both have experience in the closer’s role. Both have also struggled at times with their command, and Francisco was especially hittable last year, allowing batters to slug a cool .412 average against him. Rauch stands tall, but he can give up the long ball. The Mets bullpen can’t get much worse than the 4.33 ERA and 24 blown saves it posted last year, so expect a nice improvement.

The Mets lineup looks pretty bad at first glance without Jose Reyes, but there are some solid pieces in place. David Wright has the capability to be an all-star at 3B, but his power numbers have taken a major hit since moving to Citi Field. Ike Davis is coming back from an ankle injury that sidelined him in 2011 and Valley Fever that he picked up before Spring Training. When healthy, he hit over .300 in 2011, so he has the potential to be a stud at first base. Lucas Duda, Jason Bay and Andres Torres are all question marks in the outfield, as all three have the capability to hit for power and in Torres’s case, can hit for a high average and steal bases. He is a major injury risk, as is Bay. Daniel Murphy is solid at second base, but won’t wow you with his numbers.

It will take a completely healthy Mets team to compete in 2012. If Santana goes, then the Mets are cooked. Even if Santana makes 30 starts, the Mets will need everyone to stay in their lineup, which means guys like Davis, Wright and Torres need to avoid the disabled list and produce at the plate.

2012 prediction: 72-90

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers

Who’s new: 3B Aramis Ramirez, SS Alex Gonzalez

Who’s out: 1B Prince Fielder, 3B Casey McGehee, SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RP Takashi Saito, RP LaTroy Hawkins

Last year’s NL Central champion is going to have a tough road back to the top, as Prince Fielder decided life in Detroit was worth leaving Milwaukee behind. Normally one player leaving wouldn’t have a huge impact on a team, but the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have some big shoes to fill with their first basemen leaving. Fielder had a monster season in 2011, hitting a career-best .299 with an impressive 38 HRs. Mat Gamel will get a chance to take over at first base, but Gamel may be more of a “AAAA” player, instead of a major leaguer. Ryan Braun avoided a 50-game suspension, which could have been catastrophic for the Brew Crew. All in all, this team is still extremely solid.

This team may sink or swim based on the production of Braun. If last year’s MVP has another MVP season, then the Brewers will find themselves back in the postseason. Unfortunately, Aramis Ramirez is a bit of a question mark because of his health. When healthy,
a lineup of Weeks, Hart, Braun, Ramirez has some major pop. Nyjer Morgan is a head-case, but he can fly when he gets on base. Alex Gonzalez is a nice upgrade at shortstop, Jonathan Lucroy was solid in 2011 and Gamel could be very good. This lineup is easily one of the best in baseball, even without Fielder.

The Brewers starting pitching should be in for another good year in a division that lacks a lot of big bats. Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke are easily the best 1-2 in the division, and with Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf behind them, the rotation is pretty much set. All four starters had an ERA under 3.85 last year, but Chris Narveson, the #5 starter struggled to the tune of a 4.45 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. Luckily for the Brewers, Wily Peralta is waiting anxiously for his chance in the big leagues. The Brewers top pitching prospect had an impressive 2.03 ERA last year in AAA Nashville, so he seems ready for his chance to impress the big club. Lastly, the bullpen won’t blow you off your seat, but Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford might be the best setup man-closer combo in the league. The rest of the bullpen isn’t too impressive, but it gets the job done. I expect the starters to throw a lot of innings anyways, so the bullpen apart from K-Rod and Axford shouldn’t be a huge factor.

2012 prediction: 88-74

Cincinnati Reds

Who’s new: SP Mat Latos, RP Ryan Madson, RP Sean Marshall, OF Ryan Ludwick

Who’s out: RP Francisco Cordero, 1B Yonder Alonso, SP Edison Volquez, C Ramon Hernandez, SS Edgar Renteria

To say that 2011 was a disappointment for Dusty Baker and the Reds would be an
understatement. After an impressive 2010 campaign, that saw the Reds finish 91-71, no one
expected this kind of drop off. What went wrong? The starting pitching was a mess, finishing
with a 4.47 ERA, which was in the bottom half of the league, and it surrendered a NL-worst 138
home runs . The offense is there for Cincinnati with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay
Bruce, but this team will need the pitching to improve in order to compete against the Brewers
and Cardinals.

The pitching in 2011 was miserable, but the Reds recognized that, trading for Padres ace Mat Latos. Will that bring the Reds win total closer to the 91 from 2010? Not so fast. Latos is only one pitcher and is moving from a pitcher’s park in San Diego to an absolute hitter’s park in Cincinnati. I expect the numbers to increase for Latos, but not enough to lose his ace-caliber numbers. The issue is not with Latos moving parks, but with the rest of the rotation. Johnny Cueto exceeded all expectations with his 2.34 ERA last year, but all fantasy experts are quick to point out that Cueto got lucky on his BABIP. An ERA closer to 3.20 would be reasonable for Cueto, but even that might be a little too low. Mike Leake was a stud at Arizona State and has made a nice transition to the majors. He lowered his ERA from 4.23 to 3.86 and he struck out more batters. Leake did give up 23 HRs, so if he can somehow lower that to 15 or 16, he could
finish the season with an ERA near 3.30. Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey are mediocre, but with the Reds offense, they can afford a few bad starts.

While the pitching is average, the offense is one of the best in the NL. In 2011, the Reds finished second in the league in runs and HRs. No one has left the lineup, which means we should expect similar results in 2012. The scary part about this offense is that it actually has a lot of room to improve. Jay Bruce has the ability to be an all-star and Drew Stubbs could be a 25-40 guy. Stubbs struck out 205 times last year, which was tops in the NL. If Stubbs can lower his K numbers, then the Reds could find themselves with all-stars at four different positions. Stubbs, Votto and Bruce have been discussed, but Brandon Phillips is another stud. He is in his contract year, which can only mean good things for his production. Expect another high- powered offense that will provide enough runs to make up for the lackluster pitching.

The Reds did themselves a favor in the offseason, picking up Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall to bolster the bullpen. Unfortunately, Madson is out for the season and will undergo Tommy John surgery. That means Marshall will close, while prized southpaw Aroldis Chapman is expected to end his campaign to be a starter and come back into the bullpen. Chapman could eventually close, but hopefully Marshall can take care of business on his own. The only problem is the lack of solid right-handers in the bullpen, but that can easily be addressed at the trade deadline if it becomes an issue.

2012 prediction: 84-78

St. Louis Cardinals

Who’s new: OF Carlos Beltran, MGR Mike Matheny

Who’s out: 1B Albert Pujols, SP Edwin Jackson, MGR Tony La Russa

The 2011 World Series champions will look for their third ring in seven years, but unfortunately, the path will be even more difficult in 2012. The Cardinals are without their best hitter, their ace and maybe more importantly, their manager. Albert Pujols is in Anaheim, Chris Carpenter is having some major issues with his pitching shoulder and Tony La Russa decided to retire after winning a ring. The Cardinals do get Adam Wainwright back in the rotation, but Wainwright is coming off Tommy John surgery and is also a huge injury risk. Let’s just say that if the Cardinals can’t get their rotation healthy for 2012, this could be a disastrous season.

With Pujols gone, the Cardinals are going to lean heavily on Matt Holliday. Holliday is another guy who has struggled with injuries, missing 38 games in 2011 and a combined 168 games from 2009-10. If Holliday struggles, then the oft-injured Carlos Beltran, the aging Lance Berkman and the fragile Rafael Furcal will pick up the slack. Are you sensing a theme here? Health, health, health.

Carpenter will probably begin the season on the disabled list, which means a lot of pressure will be put on Wainwright. The former closer looks phenomenal in Spring Training, but coming back from Tommy John is not going to be easy. Jaime Garcia regressed from 2010 to 2011, falling almost a full point in the ERA column (2.70 to 3.56). If that regression continues in 2012, then this rotation is in big trouble. Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are veterans, but with Lohse having only one season (2011) with an ERA under 4.70 since 2008 and Westbrook failing to finish with an ERA under 4.2 in the last two years, this could get ugly quickly.

The best part of this Cardinals team might be their bullpen. Jason Motte look like a stud in the closer’s role in the run to the World Series last year, but one thing is different this season: Motte was officially named the closer. La Russa did not name a closer during the entire 2011 season after Ryan Franklin’s struggles, having a closer-by-committee of Motte, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs and Kyle McClellan. These are four excellent relievers who will make life much easier for a rotation that logged a ridiculous 1,000 innings in 2011. If the bullpen can shorten games, then the Cardinals could be better than expected.

2012 prediction: 82-80

Pittsburgh Pirates

Who’s new: SP AJ Burnett, SP Erik Bedard, OF Nate McLouth, 3B Casey McGehee, IF Clint Barmes

Who’s out: SP Paul Maholm, 1B Derrek Lee, OF Ryan Ludwick

The Pirates may not be the most impressive team this season, but they will be a very interesting team to follow. This is an extremely young team that will be solid at the plate, but will also have its ups and downs on the mound. Luckily for Pittsburgh, it is in a division with the lowly Cubs and Astros, which should help the Pirates out in the win column.

Andrew McCutchen leads a Pirates offense that finished with the third fewest runs in the league last year. I expect that to change as McCutchen, Neil Walker, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have the capability to hit the ball and run the bases. This team needs to be active on the base paths, so it makes things easier on guys like Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez to drive their teammates in. This offense will all depend on McCutchen. He struggled in the second half last year, hitting only .216. If he can keep his average close to .300, then this team should score some runs and win a decent amount of games.

While the lineup is young and full of potential, the rotation is young, but not very impressive. The Pirates did themselves a favor in the offseason, trading for AJ Burnett and signing Erik Bedard. If both Burnett and Bedard can stay healthy, then this rotation won’t be too
bad. The Pirates competed early in 2011 thanks to hot starts from Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia. Karstens had an ERA of 2.55 in the first half of the season, while Correia actually was an all-star. Let’s be honest, though. There is a reason why the Yankees never kept Karstens and why the Padres let go of Correia. These guys are not all-stars and would be a #5 starter on practically every other team. If Burnett and Bedard fall apart, then don’t look for these two to pick up the slack. I do expect solid seasons from the two B’s, which means less pressure on the young pitchers.

Watch out for James McDonald. The former Dodgers top pitching prospect hasn’t finished with an ERA over 4.25, which means you can expect a solid season from the youngster. He has the potential to be a solid #2, but he will need to keep the ball in the yard, after
surrendering 24 HRs in 2011. This rotation won’t be great, but it won’t be awful, either. The bullpen is actually better than you think, but just like the rotation, is a tad too inconsistent. Joel Hanrahan is an excellent closer, while Evan Meek will look to rebound after an awful 2011 season. Meek’s ERA jumped from 2.14 to 3.48, but I expect him to be an excellent set-up guy. His spring numbers from this year actually look extremely similar to his numbers from 2010, which could be a nice sign- either that or I am just reading into his numbers way too much. This team will be fun to watch, and needs some pitchers to step up in its farm system to help this team become relevant in the future.

2012 prediction: 77-85

Chicago Cubs

Who’s new: 1B Anthony Rizzo, OF David DeJesus, 3B Ian Stewart, SP Paul Maholm, MGR Dale Sveum

Who’s out: 3B Aramis Ramirez, SP Carlos Zambrano, RP Sean Marshall, OF Tyler Colvin, RP Andrew Cashner, 1B Carlos Pena

A lot has changed in Chicago since the end of the 2011 season, most notably in the frontoffice. Theo Epstein left Boston to help rebuild Chicago, and he brought in former San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer to help him out. Unfortunately, it takes more than a new front office to win ball games. This is going to be a major re-building process and it is already starting. The Cubs are trying to get younger, but it will take a few years to see the results on the field.

The Cubs starting pitching was absolutely horrendous last year, finishing with a league-worst 4.79 ERA. The only addition in the offseason was Paul Maholm, who is coming off a 3.66 ERA (it’s too bad his ERA in 2010 was 5.10). Maholm is a question mark and normally would be a serviceable #4 or #5 starter, but he will be asked to be the Cubs #3 this year. Matt Garza has all the qualities to be an ace and Ryan Dempster will give you innings, but Dempster finished with a 4.80 ERA in 2011, so he clearly isn’t a good #2 starter. Travis Wood and Randy Wells shouldn’t be major league starters, so once again it seems like this pitching will finish in the bottom of the league.

If the rotation is expected to be awful, then the lineup must do its part to score a bunch of runs. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in this lineup that will stop opposing pitchers. Starlin Castro is only 22 years old and will be a fixture in the All-Star game for years to come. The issue is that Castro doesn’t have many guys to drive him in since Aramis Ramirez has left town. Alfonso Soriano still has some pop, but is getting old, David DeJesus is a solid leadoff man, and Marlon Byrd is a mediocre hitter. Besides for those three, the Cubs don’t have anyone that will scare you or frankly that will get on base.

The bullpen won’t be able to help anyone out if Carlos Marmol struggles. Marmol is expected to start the season as the closer, but I would be shocked if Kerry Wood doesn’t replace him by June. Marmol lacks the control to be reliable in a pressure situation, which means Wood and Jeff Samardzija will need to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, Sean Marshall is now the closer in Cincinnati, which means that the Cubs don’t have anyone else that can be relied upon, especially as a lefty reliever. Turn away, because there will be nothing pretty in Chicago this summer.

2012 prediction: 67-95

Houston Astros

Who’s new: IF Jed Lowrie, OF Jack Cust, C Chris Snyder

Who’s out: IF Clint Barmes, RP Mark Melancon

As if a 56-106 record wasn’t bad enough, the Astros didn’t make a single notable change this offseason to help bolster this horrendous squad. The only good news is that Houston will get a change of scenery in 2013 when it moves to the AL West. Let’s go ahead and discuss the best part of this team, the youth.

The youngest part of this team is the lineup. The outfield of J.D. Martinez, Brian Bogusevic and Jordan Schafer is one of the youngest in the majors, with Schafer only 25 and Martinez at the young age of 24. Add in Jose Altuve, 21, Jason Castro, 24, Jed Lowrie, 27, Chris
Johnson, 27, and the only starter above the age of 27 is Carlos Lee. There is a ton of youth that has potential, but unfortunately these guys aren’t top prospects like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, etc. This team should score some runs, but there isn’t a whole lot of power. I like Lowrie a lot, while Altuve, Bogusevic and Martinez caught my eye last year. This lineup just isn’t very scary.

Unlike the Pirates, the Astros did not make any additional moves to its pitching staff over the offseason. It actually lost Brett Myers to the closer’s role, which means Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris will carry the load. Both of these guys would be a #3 or #4 on a normal roster, which shows you how ugly this staff looks on paper. J.A. Happ looked like he could be a great #3 after his surprising performance in Philadelphia, but last year he was horrendous. He walked way too many guys and struggled to throw five innings. Add in Jordan Lyles and Kyle Weiland and this staff might be the worst in the majors.

This bullpen is so bad that Brett Myers had to leave the rotation to take over at closer. Mark Melancon was decent last year as closer, but he is now in Boston. That leaves a bullpen of Myers and a bunch of scrubs. Good luck getting to Myers. Expect another bad season in Houston as this team is already packing its bags for the American League.

2012 prediction: 60-102

NL West

San Francisco Giants

Who’s new: OF Melky Cabrera, OF Angel Pagan, SS Ryan Theriot

Who’s out: OF Carlos Beltran, OF Pat Burrell, SP Jonathan Sanchez, SS Orlando Cabrera, OF Cody Ross

The 2010 NL Champion Giants finished 86-76 last season, despite losing Buster Posey very early on in the season. What also went unnoticed besides to Giants fans was the lack of production from the lineup. The Giants won 86 games, even though they scored the fewest runs in the National League. This just goes to show how dang good this pitching was in 2011.

The rotation was great in 2011 and I expect more of the same in 2012. The starters finished with a 3.28 ERA, which was good for second in the majors. Tim Lincecum wasn’t fantastic, but even on his off days he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Matt Cain is a
phenomenal #2 starter and Madison Bumgarner is easily one of the best young pitchers in the game. Bumgarner finished with a 2.52 ERA after the All-Star break, and if he can continue his consistency, he should be a monster this season. Ryan Vogelsong pitched out of his mind in 2011 and a huge drop off would not shock me one bit. However, he and Barry Zito should be just fine as the final two in the rotation.

I mentioned that the Giants offense was awful in 2011, but the addition of a healthy Posey and a legit 20-20 threat in Melky Cabrera could provide wonders to this lineup. Pablo Sandoval can crush the ball, while Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz aren’t too bad themselves. Freddy Sanchez was a great top of the order hitter a few years ago and if he can show why the Giants traded for him, this lineup could be very impressive.

The bullpen is solid with guys like Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo nearly un-hittable in the 8th and 9th innings, when the two are healthy. Health will be a huge key for these two, because if they can’t stay healthy, the bullpen will struggle. Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Guillermo Mota and the rest of the bullpen have some nice arms, but don’t have the finishing ability of a Wilson or a Romo. It is very possible we can have a rematch of the 2002 World Series.

2012 prediction: 91-71

Arizona Diamondbacks

Who’s new: SP Trevor Cahill, OF Jason Kubel, RP Craig Breslow, RP Takashi Saito

Who’s out: SP Jason Marquis

The Diamondbacks proved in 2011 that predictions are absolutely worthless and you play the games for a reason. Absolutely no one expected Arizona to be a contender last year with a brand new manager and a pitching staff filled with a bunch of nobodies, but that rapidly changed as spring became summer.

Ian Kennedy turned into a Cy Young candidate, finishing 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA. Kennedy’s impressive season was not a fluke, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish with an ERA closer to 3.25 or so this season. The D-Backs also made a great move in the offseason, acquiring Trevor Cahill from Oakland. Cahill will slide behind Kennedy and Daniel Hudson in the rotation. Hudson was a top prospect a few years ago, so his 16 wins with a 3.49 ERA shouldn’t surprise you if they are duplicated in 2012. The only question mark in the rotation is Josh Collmenter, who excelled when he entered the rotation last year. However, once teams saw Collmenter for a second and third time, they picked up on his awkward delivery and destroyed him. I would expect to see Trevor Bauer or Tyler Skaggs in the rotation by mid-June.

The bullpen is solid in Arizona, as J.J. Putz has done a good job finishing off ballgames. The bullpen was decent in 2012, but the additions of Takashi Saito and Craig Breslow should help it out even more. David Hernandez has the potential to take over at closer in the next few years and Brad Ziegler closed a few games in Oakland. Overall this is a solid group that could shorten games.

While the pitching is stacked, I am not so sure about the Diamondbacks lineup. The number that scares me is .250, which was the team batting average in 2011. I love Justin Upton and his potential to win MVP, but there are some random parts around him that will need to have impressive seasons if the D-Backs want to make a deep run. Aaron Hill, Ryan Roberts and Stephen Drew (once he comes back from injury) will get on base for guys like Upton, Miguel Montero and Chris Young. It would be nice to see these guys improve their contact a bit and get on base more often. Paul Goldschmidt will be someone to watch, as he has a ton of pop in his bat. The pitching will slow down the NL West, but will the hitting get the best of guys like Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, etc? Stay tuned.

2012 prediction: 89-73

Colorado Rockies

Who’s new: SP Jeremy Guthrie, OF Michael Cuddyer, OF Tyler Colvin, C Ramon Hernandez, 2B Marco Scutaro, SP Tyler Chatwood

Who’s out: OF Seth Smith, 2B Mark Ellis, SP Kevin Millwood, SP Jason Hammel, SP Aaron Cook, RP Huston Street, C Chris Iannetta, 3B Ian Stewart

It seems like ever year the Rockies are being called a contender, but can we say that for this year’s team? In any other division, I would say no, but because the Rockies can hit the ball and this division lacks hitting, I think you have to keep the Rockies in the conversation.
This team won’t impress you on the mound, and that is exactly why I am hesitant to add the Rockies with the Giants and D-Backs. Jeremy Guthrie was a great addition, as the former Orioles ace should provide a nice arm at the top of the rotation. Jhoulys Chacin is a solid starter, but after Guthrie and Chacin, this rotation is lacking experience. There is a ton of talent in Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Tyler Chatwood and Guillermo Moscoso, but no one knows how each of the four will perform. Pomeranz and White were the two main prospects in the trade that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland, so a lot is expected out of the two youngsters. There will be bumps and bruises when it comes to this rotation.

Being in Coors Field has its advantages for a lineup as powerful as the one that the Rockies send out every night. Troy Tulowitzki, when healthy, is one of the best hitters in baseball, while Carlos Gonzalez is right with Tulo when it comes to talent. Michael Cuddyer has
some pop, while Dexter Fowler could be a solid leadoff batter, but apart from those guys, I am not too impressed. I would be shocked if prospect Nolan Arenado is not up by July, because of either an injury or just to add some pop to the lineup. Either way, the combination of mediocre pitching and solid hitting should keep the Rockies competitive.

2012 prediction: 78-84

Los Angeles Dodgers

Who’s new: SP Aaron Harang, SP Chris Capuano, 2B Mark Ellis, 2B Adam Kennedy

Who’s out: SP Hiroki Kuroda, SP Jon Garland, RP Jonathan Broxton

The good news with the Dodgers is that Frank McCourt is no longer the owner of the Dodgers. As of Tuesday evening, there is a new man in Dodgertown by the name of Magic Johnson. Johnson is loved by thousands in LA, so the move should be very well received by the team and its fans. Johnson and his other investors take over a team with very good young talent. Unfortunately, the group can’t start signing free agents until 2013. Prince Fielder thought about coming to LA, but the Dodgers just didn’t have the money to pay him. I would be shocked if the Dodgers didn’t make a few splashes, a la the Angels, during next offseason.

As for this year, the Dodgers will once again rely on Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Kemp leads a lineup that doesn’t have a lot of talent outside of Andre Ethier and Dee Gordon. Ethier was a monster in 2009, smashing 31 HRs and driving in 106, but he has taken a step backward the last two years. In 2011, he struggled to the tune of 11 HRs and 62 RBIs. The Dodgers will need a better season from Ethier if they want to win some games. Gordon has the potential to steal 60 bases and hit near .300, but that won’t matter if Kemp is the only one that is getting on base and driving guys in. Juan Rivera, Juan Uribe, James Loney and company are mediocre and the offseason cannot come soon enough.

The Dodgers won 82 games last year and that was thanks in part to some great pitching. Kershaw led the staff with a 21-5 record, to go along with a 2.28 ERA and 248 K’s in 233 innings. Kershaw won’t have Hiroki Kuroda next to him in the rotation, but he does have Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. All four of those guys are solid, but will have their fair share of bad outings. Dodger Stadium is usually very kind to pitchers, so I would expect another solid season from this rotation.

This bullpen might be the best in the division. Javy Guerra finished with 21 saves after taking over for Jonathan Broxton, but he will have Kenley Jansen nipping at his heels if he struggles out of the gate. This is a great 1-2 punch in the bullpen, and with Matt Guerrier, Scott Elbert and other solid relievers, this should be a good bullpen.

2012 prediction: 76-86

San Diego Padres

Who’s new: OF Carlos Quentin, 1B Yonder Alonso, SP Edison Volquez, RP Huston Street, SP Andrew Cashner, RP Brad Boxberger, C Yasmani Grandal

Who’s out: SP Mat Latos, RP Heath Bell, SP Aaron Harang, 1B Anthony Rizzo, RP Chad Qualls

The Padres suffered a major drop off last year, going from 90-72 in 2010 to 71-91 in 2011. The major reason was the subtraction of Adrian Gonzalez from the lineup, which meant a pathetic lineup that was put out by Bud Black. This year might be a little different as the Padres added Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso to help out (Quentin is out for a few weeks, but should be back sometime in late-April or early-May). The pitching doesn’t need to be great because of the pitcher’s park that is Petco Park. Either way, the future looks bright in San Diego because it has the best farm system in the majors.

Mat Latos and Aaron Harang may be gone, but the Padres have some solid alternatives ready to step in. Tim Stauffer, Cory Luebke and Clayton Richard are solid young arms that should all produce an ERA under 4.00. Edison Volquez is a major question mark because of his horrendous control. He struggled so mightily last year that he was sent to the minors and put in the bullpen. I would expect some improvement because of where he is pitching, but the ballpark has nothing to do with walking batters. If Volquez keeps his wildness under control, he could be a phenomenal #4 starter. The rotation shouldn’t be an issue with this team, and neither should the bullpen. Heath Bell and Mike Adams are enormous losses, but Huston Street, when healthy, has the capability to save over 40 games. Andrew Cashner is apparently hitting 100 MPH with consistency this spring, while Luke Gregerson has always had the ability to close games. ThePadres should once again have a solid bullpen.

This lineup shouldn’t struggle as much as it did last year, because of two main reasons: first of all, it has one full year of experience together, and secondly, Quentin should provide a major boost in the middle of the lineup. In 2011, Cameron Maybin showed flashes of why he was traded from the Tigers to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. The speedy outfielder hit .264 with only 9 HRs, but he did steal 40 bases. He has legit 20-40 potential and if he can get there in the next few years, the Padres could be dangerous. Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett will get on base, while Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso should provide some pop to the lineup. I expect a minor improvement in the hitting department, but if the pitching can be solid, then the Padres might be an average team.

2012 prediction: 73-89