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NL Preview: The Phils are favorites, but are they snake bitten?

Chris Ruddick,
MLB Editor


Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - People were falling over themselves to pick the Seattle Mariners to win the American League West last season. The acquisition of Cliff Lee coupled with a few other moves and what was perceived as a very winnable division easily made then the trendy pick.

Of course things didn't go as planned for the Mariners. Lee started the season on the disabled list, the team never recovered, dealt him by the deadline, eventually fired their manager and lost an AL-high 101 games.

Now, I'm not saying there is a black cloud following Lee around, but no team has experienced more turmoil this spring than his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

After acquiring Lee, the Phils were picked by just about the entire planet to win at the very least a fifth straight division title. But since they've been down in Clearwater, the Phils have been bitten hard by the injury bug, as top rookie Domonic Brown broke his hamate bone early on, Chase Utley is experiencing knee pain that could force him to miss the season, and closer Brad Lidge could be out until the All-Star break with a shoulder injury.


The Phillies' rotation has a chance to be one of the all-time greats.
The one silver lining in all the Phillies troubles' though, is that of all the hard luck they have experienced, none of it has pertained to their starting rotation, which if remains healthy has a chance to be one of the all-time greats.

As the Mariners and countless other teams have found out, including this year's Phillies, championships are not won in the offseason. Anything can go wrong over the course of a grueling 162-game schedule..

So, let's see how things may pan out this year in the National League with a brief overview of the divisions. To check out the AL side of things click here

NL EAST

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

With the addition of Lee, the Phillies possess one of the most lethal starting rotations in recent memory. Lee combined with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels automatically makes them the favorites in the National League. The lineup could be a problem, though. It was probably going to be a trouble spot anyway with the loss of Jayson Werth, but with Utley expected to miss some significant time, it is even more of a concern. This was a lineup that had trouble scoring runs last year with those two. This year it could be downright ugly. Now over the course of 162 games that rotation should still allow the Phils to win more than they lose. But you are starting to get the feeling that it might be one of those years in Philadelphia where everything goes wrong.

ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves have a young nucleus that should keep them in title contention for years to come. The problem with this year, though, is that they are still counting on a lot of their veterans to contribute. Chipper Jones missed most of last year with an ACL injury and at the age of 38, just how much is left in the tank? The same can be said about starters Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson. Not to mention new manager Fredi Gonzalez is turning over the closer's role to neophyte Craig Kimbrel. Still, phenom Jason Heyward should continue to improve, newly-acquired Dan Uggla will add some pop and starter Tommy Hanson is about as good of a young pitcher that there is in the National League. If the Phillies falter the Braves will be right there to take their place atop the division.

NL CENTRAL

CINCINNATI REDS

A lot of people liked the Cincinnati Reds heading into last season, but most felt they were probably a year or two away from competing for a division title. The Reds, though, turned into the biggest surprise of the 2010 season and won their first division title since 1995. This year they return basically the same team led by reigning NL MVP Joey Votto. The rotation which was very underrated last season should be even better with a full season from Edinson Volquez, who missed most of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery. It may be tougher to repeat since they won't be sneaking up on anyone this year, but the Reds should be right in the mix in what is expected to be an improved division.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

The Milwaukee Brewers are definitely one of the trendy picks heading into this season. But is all the optimism warranted? Sure, on paper, their pitching looks great with the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, but injuries have already reared their ugly heads. Prince Fielder's production was way down last season, but most think that that was an aberration and he should be better in this his last year under contract to the Brewers. Still, there are some teams who need a lot of things to break their way if they are going to compete. The Brewers are not one of them. They are balanced from top to bottom and should battle for an NL Central title in a very winnable division.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals' chances this season took a huge hit early in spring training when ace Adam Wainwright went down with an elbow injury which required season- ending surgery. The Cards are still led by superstar Albert Pujols, but for how long? His contract is up at the end of the year and the two sides will not talk about a new deal until after the season. Both sides insist this won't be a lingering problem and Pujols has stated he will reject any trade. However, you have to think that if things do go south for the Cards, Pujols may be inclined to waive that no-trade clause. Without Wainwright the Cards still possess a decent staff, but it is paper thin with oft-Chris Carpenter at the top. Carpenter could be a Cy Young contender, but then again I could see him missing a lot of time with nagging injuries. It could be a very interesting year in St. Louis.

NL WEST

COLORADO ROCKIES

The Colorado Rockies were the odds-on favorites to come out of the NL West in 2010. Unlike past years when the team went on unbelievable runs to close the season, the Rockies struggled badly down the stretch, losing 13 of their final 14 games and missed the postseason altogether. The team did not do much this offseason, but did manage to get MVP candidates Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gomez to sign long-term. This season could hinge on Ubaldo Jimenez, who put together one of the best first halves as a starter in recent memory last year. He, though, like the rest of the team was merely mediocre in the second half. If Jimenez can maintain that dominance over 30 starts, the Rockies could be the best team in the West.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Has there been a World Series champion in recent history that has been less respected than the San Francisco Giants? Bruce Bochy's crew shocked the baseball world last year thanks to some terrific starting pitching to win their first title in 56 years. Still, a lot of people, including myself, have them missing the playoffs altogether this year, despite the fact that they return basically the same team. The fact is the Giants are still a pitch-heavy team. They addressed their offense a bit in the offseason with the addition of Miguel Tejada, but that won't be enough in a division that figures to be better. The Giants will probably spend some time here and there atop the division, as it figures to be tight all season long, but there won't be a repeat parade in the Bay Area this season.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Don Mattingly takes over the reins from future Hall of Famer Joe Torre at Chavez Ravine and inherits a pretty good team, one that could be on the verge of really breaking out. On the cusp of the World Series from 2008-09, the Dodgers took a step back thanks to down years from sluggers Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney, as well as starting pitcher Chad Billingsley. But, young Clayton Kershaw started to flash that potential that people have been talking about for years. If Kershaw continues to progress and the players mentioned above play to the back of their baseball cards, Mattingly could have a pretty dangerous team on his hands. One trouble spot could be the bullpen, where closer Jonathan Broxton was a problem a year ago.

BEST OF THE REST

NEW YORK METS: Can you think of a team that has had a worse offseason in recent memory than the Mets? Now Jason Bay is back on the DL. How long will it be before they start fielding offers for Jose Reyes?

FLORIDA MARLINS: This is a team who could surprise. Hanley Ramirez is an MVP candidate and that pitching staff is pretty solid. They are probably a year or two away from really making some noise in the NL East.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS: Jayson Werth or not, this was a team that was going to be built around Stephen Strasburg. With him not in the mix, expect nothing from this Nationals team.

CHICAGO CUBS: If Carlos Zambrano's head is on straight, the Cubs could be a surprise. But, the lineup is just full of broken down veterans.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES: Another losing season is right around the corner. Pedro Alvarez looks like a player, though.

HOUSTON ASTROS: Hopes can't be that high when Clint Barmes and Bill Hall are your two big offseason acquisitions.

SAN DIEGO PADRES: Half of the roster from last year's 90-win team is gone, including Adrian Gonzalez. In other words, it's a rebuilding year.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: The D'Backs should be better than they were last season. That is not saying much, as they dropped 97 games in 2010.

PREDICTIONS

NL EAST: ATLANTA BRAVES

NL CENTRAL: MILWAUKEE BREWERS

NL WEST: LOS ANGELES DODGERS

NL WILD CARD: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

NLDS: LOS ANGELES OVER ATLANTA; PHILADELPHIA OVER MILWAUKEE

NLCS: LOS ANGELES OVER PHILADELPHIA

WORLD SERIES: NY YANKEES OVER LOS ANGELES

NL MVP: MATT KEMP, LA DODGERS NL

CY YOUNG: ROY HALLADAY, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

NL ROOKIE: AROLDIS CHAPMAN, CINCINNATI REDS

NL MANAGER: DON MATTINGLY, LA DODGERS

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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