Best Team in NL – Chicago Cubs
Despite their embarrassing exit in the first round of the 2008 NLDS, the Cubs are still, on paper at least, the best team in the NL. Paced by one of the most balanced lineups, the Cubs should again run away with the Central Division. With Derek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramírez, resurgent Kosuke Fukudome and the addition of RF Milton Bradley, the Cubs lineup is more potent than ever.
Add their balanced lineup with a talented pitching staff that features starters Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster, combined with a strong, young bullpen and the Chicago Cubs should be on top of the NL when all of the dust clears. All they have to do is find a way to stay healthy, which could be a tough task. After all, this is the Chicago Cubs.
Worst Team in NL – Pittsburgh Pirates
Frankly, this teams stinks the stench of a rotten banana peel left in a hot car for weeks. Led by opening-day starter Paul Maholm, look for the Pirates to again finish at the cellar of their division. Their strategy of developing young talent like Jason Bey and then trading them away when they become just good enough to make decent money, doesn’t seem to aid their desire to win a lot of games. That is, If that’s actually their desire in the first place.
Biggest Turnaround Team – St. Louis Cardinals
Despite being without pitching-ace Chris Carpenter still found a way to win 86 games last season. If Carpenter and the rest of their pitching staff can somehow find a way to stay healthy and RHP Adam Wainwright can get used to the more than 200 innings that usually comes with being a starting pitchers in the MLB, the Cardinals could be a very dangerous contender in the Central Division. If you add 1B Albert Pujols and emerging SS Khalil Greene to the mix, the Cardinals could give the Cubs a run for their money this season.
Team To Watch – Cincinnati Reds
Exit hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr., and enter a very good, young nucleus. With the speed of CF Willy Taveras (68 stolen bases in 2008) at the top of their lineup and the expected improvement of young stars Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the Reds could give the other teams in the Central Division plenty of fits. Also, if Aaron Harang can find a way to recapture his form from 2006 and 2007, where he won 16 games, Bronson Arroyo and Edinson Volquez could have a much needed third member of their pitching rotation, with dominating ability. The Reds may not contend for a division, but they will certainly open plenty of eyes in 2009.
Top 5 Young Players To Watch:
Yovani Gallardo, RHP – Milwaukee Bewers
The top pitching prospect in the Brewers organization, Gallardo has the talent to be dominant in the NL. With a dominant fastball and what is considered the best curve ball in all of baseball, look for him to gain a lot of attention in 2009. Gallardo will start 2009 in the minors, but will not be there for very long.
Khalil Greene, SS – St. Louis Cardinals
Already considered a solid defensive player, Greene seems primed to have a breakout season as a hitter. Greene, who struck out 100 times in 389 at-bats last year, struck out only three times in his first 60 at-bats during spring training and hit .417.
Homer Bailey, RHP – Cincinnati Reds
The top prospect in a very nicely-formed farm system for the Reds, this could be Bailey’s year. After a terrible time adjusting to the talent and rigors of the MLB, Bailey should be able to make the transition from minor-leagues prospect to major-leagues success in 2009. Bailey had terrific spring training with a 2.61 ERA in six spring appearances, giving up six runs and 18 hits in 20 2/3 innings. He walked four and struck out 20.
Jeff Samardzija, RHP – Chicago Cubs
With an often injured starting staff, the former Notre Dame star may have his chance to shine in 2009. With a dominant fastball and a change-up that can fool even the best hitters around, look for Samardzija to emerge as one of the Cubs brightest young stars.
Jhoulys Chacin, RHP – Colorado Rockies
Given the award for the Top Minor Pitcher in 2008, Chacin has the promise to be a big time pitcher. Chacin has mastered his fastball and changeup and is fully capable of throwing either pitch in any situation. His fastball has been clocked at 94 mph, with heavy sinking action. He uses the same arm action for his change as he does for his fastball, making those two pitches a very nasty combination.
Best Manager- Tony La Russa, St. Louis Cardinals
While La Russa can seem a tad-bit odd with his insistence on changing the pitcher’s spot in the lineup, there is no questioning La Russa’s experience and expertise. With a much healthier Cardinals team going into 2009, La Russa could lead the Cardinals to an unexpected playoff berth.
Manager On The Molten Lava- Hot Seat: Jerry Manuel – NY Mets
After shoring up their bullpen and opening up that sparkly new stadium, the Mets come into 2009 with a mound of expectations following a mountain of disappointments from 2007 and 2008. This season, there are simply no more excuses that the Mets can offer that will be acceptable to their fans, who are already feeling the pinch of buying over-priced tickets during the middle of a recession. Anything short of a 5-0 start is going to have Mets fans calling for Manuel’s head and anything short of a World Series will have them calling for his job. For Jerry Manuel’s sake, they had better win, now.
April 6, 2009
Greg Coleman is the founder and Senior Editor of ThinkPhillySports.com.