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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...MLB "FUTURES" TO WATCH (NL)
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Daniel M. Gray, TGS Baseball Consultant


The umpire's shout of "Play ball!" will officially open the NL season Wednesday in Miami when the Marlins host the defending World Series champ Cardinals in the new stadium on the old Orange Bowl site! So, after previewing the American League in our last edition, we now turn our attention to the senior circuit and provide our best over/under projections for season "wins" for the 2012 campaign.

And remember, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on Top Choice and Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring the TC plus two other featured recommendations, available online at www.goldsheet.com.

Season wins in parentheses. Play ball!

NL EAST: BEST BET...The Philadelphia Phillies (93 ½) have made a habit of winning the East, doing it five times in a row. And perhaps the Phils make it six straight in late September. But this team is getting a bit long in the tooth, and there's trouble brewing already, with 1B Ryan Howard out until further notice as he rebabs the Achilles tendon he ruptured in the final at-bat of the NLDS vs. the Cards, and 2B Chase Utley begins the season on the shelf due to aching knees. Meanwhile, SS Jimmy Rollins' production has begin to wane in recent years, and the Phils considered not even re-signing him in the offseason; Rollins' career appears to be in a steep descent. Charlie Manuel is thus likely to have to squeeze some big seasons out of 3B Placido Polanco and RF Hunter Pence and hope that young John Mayberry (one of a succession of apparently overrated recent Phils farmhands) is able to handle duties in LF. The staff, led by Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, and with a new fireman in ex-Bosox closer Jonathan Papelbon, still might be the NL's best. Advancing age in the lineup reminds us of the 1964 Yankees. There might be one more playoff run left in the Phils, but it's not going to be easy. The noted Philly boo-birds, who have yet to make their first impact at Citizens Bank Park as they did for decades at Shibe Park and the Vet, could be ready to strike again and temporarily elbow aside the Eagles' calls on 610 WIP (at least until the Birds ready for training camp in July). We're looking "under" at CBP.

OTHERS...Maybe we're falling into a trap with the Miami Marlins (85 ½). But we've seen situations like this one before when the pieces all just seemed to fit. New team name, new stadium, new high-profile manager, new high-priced free agents...the old days of low-cost rosters and empty seats at the Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium are in the rear-view mirror. Starting with a new catalyst in the lineup with SS Jose Reyes (ex-Mets), a new ace for the rotation (ex-White Sox Mark Buehrle), and new top-flight closer (ex-Padre Heath Bell). Not to mention a now-healthy (knock on wood) Josh Johnson at the top of the rotation along with Buehrle, providing a combo to match the Phils. Also watch Reyes and underrated CF Emilio Bonifacio become perhaps the most-feared 1-2 punch at the top of the order in the NL. A trip-wire might be moody Hanley Ramirez and how he handles his move to 3B, but we suspect Ramirez will respond to Ozzie. And if he does, the Marlins might just be the team to end the Phils' five-year domination of the division. Too much upside to ignore; it's an "over" for us at the new retractable-roofed Marlins Stadium.

We understand some of the excitement surrounding the Washington Nationals (8 3½), who climbed as close as they have to .500 a year ago (80-81) since their first season in the nation's capital in 2005, when they finished at 81-81. Skipper Davey Johnson is even moved to uncharacteristic boasts, claiming his team is going to make the playoffs. Sure, there is potential galore, with former top pick Stephen Strasburg having sufficiently recovered from his Tommy John surgery to earn the opening-day start, and the rotation bolstered by offseason additions of Gio Gonzalez (ex-A's) and Edwin Jackson (ex-Cards and others), two good innings eaters. But there could be durability issues with projected starting pitchers Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, and Chien-Ming Wang all having injury problems in the past. Meanwhile, defense remains a question mark, and Johnson is still seeking a catalyst and proper leadoff hitter in the batting order, as neither OF Jayson "Wolfman" Werth nor 1B Adam LaRoche demonstrated they could deliver consistent power in the middle of the lineup last season. Maybe another recent top pick, OF Bryce Harper, eventually handles that role, but he opens the season at AAA Syracuse. We suspect this lot is a year away from making a serious move. Enjoy the chili half-smokes at Ben's Chili Bowl down the third base line, but don't get carried away by the hype; we're looking "under" in D.C.

The expectations are not quite as low for the New York Mets (73 ½) as they were in the early to mid 1960s, but after proving such a false alarm in recent years, nobody is paying much attention to what is going on in Queens these days. Indeed, the biggest offseason storyline from Citi Field involves beleaguered owner Fred Wilpon, who recently received a favorable court ruling for his involvement in the Bernie Madoff mess. But things are far from normal with the Mets, who slashed their payroll to below $100 million for the first time in recent memory and, from a personnel standpoint, endured a quiet offseason, which might not be a bad thing considering their many wild misses in the trade market and free agency in recent years. The loss of SS Jose Reyes is a negative, and keeping offensive catalysts Jason Bay, David Wright, and Ike Davis healthy (which already proved a challenge in spring at Port St. Lucie) has been a tall order in recent years. But remember that the team was 55-51 a year ago for first-year manager Terry Collins before the bottom fell out at Citi Field. And, at the outset, at least, one-time ace Johan Santana (who hasn't pitched since September of 2010) is back at the top of the rotation. There's not much reason for playoff optimism in Queens, yet with the win total so low, and the Phils not as likely to feast upon the Mets as they have in recent years, we're leaning "over" at Citi Field.

TOUGH TO CALL: Maybe the Atlanta Braves (86 ½) have had time to sufficiently recover from their September collapse that cost them a playoff berth. Or maybe they haven't. Whatever, GM Frank Wren seems to be counting upon much of the same roster that fell apart at the end of last season. Perhaps the "new" Jason Heyward resembles the Heyward of his Rookie of the Year 2010 instead of the .227 flop of 2011. Or maybe he doesn't. Perhaps rookie Tyler Pastornicki seamlessly takes over at SS. Or maybe he won't (as seems more likely from spring work at Lake Buena Vista), and Fredi Gonzalez turns to vet Jack Wilson instead. Chipper Jones opens the season on the DL, and while the likes of 2B Dan Uggla and 1B Freddie Freeman are good power sources, their plate discipline (like Heyward's) needs improvement. The staff could be solid, but Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson were both hurt in 2011, and Tim Hudson might not be ready for active duty until May as he recovers from back surgery. And then there is the matter of Gonzalez...yay, or nay? We're not sure, either. More "ifs" to this equation than anywhere else in the East, if not the whole NL, so it's a pass for us at Turner Field.

NL CENTRAL: BEST BET...While many expect the Milwaukee Brewers (85 ½) to drop precipitously because Prince Fielder has moved to Detroit, don't count us in that bunch. The Brew Crew still has a rotation featuring Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shawn Marcum that could rival the Phils' or the Giants' as the best in the league, while skipper Ron Roenicke has two capable closers in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. We're a bit concerned about a rebuilt infield with three new starters, but offensively, remember that OF Ryan Braun's 50-game suspension was rescinded, so the reigning NL MVP will be available from the outset. Roenicke also had the Brewers spending much of their spring emphasis in Maryvale working on more aggressive baserunning and manufacturing runs, which seems a good idea in Fielder's absence. Moreover, with the Cards seemingly regressing, the Reds only cautiously optimistic about rebounding from last year's 79-win season, and acknowledged weaknesses with the Cubs, Pirates, and Astros, Milwaukee doesn't figure to be overwhelmed in its own division. We'll go ahead and be recommending "over" for the Brewers while we look forward to our next visit to Miller Park for the polish sausages (which are better than the brats, if you ask us) and some fried cheese curds. Yes, friend cheese curds!

OTHERS: The Chicago Cubs (73 ½) made plenty of adjustments after last season. Mostly, those changes were made away from the field of play, with the front office restructured (Theo Epstein in from the Red Sox to oversee everything, and Jed Hoyer from the Padres as the new GM) and a change in the dugout (Mike Quade out, Dale Sveum in). The only problem is that the team looks a lot like the one that limped home 71-91 last season. The Cubs tried to get involved in the Prince Fielder bidding war but were rebuffed, and spent the rest of the offseason making minor personnel tweaks. The pitching staff has some depth, but we wonder about the quality if Matt Garza is the ace, and Sveum must revamp a lineup that has been hampered by poor OBP numbers in recent years and must also replace departed run producers at 3B (Aramis Ramirez) and 1B (Carlos Pena). Perhaps OF David DeJesus and 3B Ian Stewart will prove useful additions, but Sveum was searching for a leadoff man (DeJesus, perhaps?) this spring in Mesa after neither Alfonso Soriano nor Starlin Casto proved they could handle the job in the past. Unless Sveum is the second coming of John McGraw, however, we fail to see where the Cubs are going to improve with a roster so similar to the one that flopped last year. We also suspect the personnel housecleaning continues through the season as Epstein and Hoyer slowly remake the roster; improvements won't happen overnight. It's an "under" for us at Wrigley Field.

We understand why the St. Louis Cardinals (85 ½) are being dismissed by so many after last year's shock World Series triumph. After all, manager Tony LaRussa retired, as has longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan. And , oh yes, Albert Pujols left for the Angels in free agency. What's left behind isn't bad, however, with Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman (now back at his more comfy 1B) still capable of carrying the lineup, and Carlos Beltran not the worst replacement for Pujols' bat in the order. While the masses lamented Pujols' departure, we thought re-signing SS Rafael Furcal was pretty significant, especially since the infield defense tightened considerably after his trade-deadline addition from the Dodgers. Sure, we're a bit concerned about staff ace Chris Carpenter's neck injury, but most expect him to return to action relatively soon, and the rotation is deep. Something also tells us new skipper Mike Matheny, despite his lack of managerial experience, could be the latest ex-catcher (think Mike Scioscia, Bruce Bochy, and a few others) to flourish in the dugout. In a so-so division, this win total isn't asking much of the world champs; look "over" at Busch Stadium.

We don't recognize many of the names on the roster, as the Houston Astros (63 ½) prepare to exit the National League and enter the AL next year looking a lot like their expansion team of 50 years ago. There's also a new owner (Jack Crane) and a new GM (Jeff Lunhow), who have kept beleaguered skipper Brad Mills in the dugout for one more year. A promising core of young talent in the everyday lineup (watch 2B Jose Altuve, SS Jed Lowrie, and LF J.D. Martinez) surrounds vet 1B Carlos Lee, who will become one of hottest names at the trade deadline, as he's in the final season of a six-year, $100 million deal (he won't be re-signing with Houston). And the staff appears serviceable with Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, ex-Phil J.A. Happ, and vet Livan Hernandez, who made the squad as a non-roster invitee this spring in Kissimmee and should at least eat some innings. Brett Myers has also moved back to his old closer role. We know the Astros lost 106 games last season, and several of the remaining vets (including the pitchers as well as Lee) could be trade bait at the deadline. But if Houston loses only 98 this season, this one is an "over" at Minute Maid Park. That's not asking too much...is it?

TOUGH TO CALL...There's a lot of assuming that the Cincinnati Reds (87 ½) are going to bounce back strong to a 2010-like playoff level after last year's 79-83 slip back to mediocrity. Are GM Walt Jocketty's offseason moves contributing to the expectations? We like some of what Jocketty did, believing he got the best of the deal with Padres that brings starter Mat Latos to Cincy in exchange for Edinson Volquez, but the expected upgrade in the bullpen is now in question after new closer Ryan Madson (ex-Phils) damaged an arm ligament in spring and must endure season-ending Tommy John surgery. Now, the new expected set-up man, ex-Cub Sean Marshall, will have to prove he's a better closer alternative than the departed Coco Cordero. There is also lots of upside with fireballer Aroldis Chapman being moved into the starting rotation after flashing Randy Johnson-like stuff in Goodyear. For the Reds to contend again in 2012, however, they'll need 2B Brandon Phillips to prove he can handle the leadoff spot (something CF Drew Stubbs couldn't do a year ago), and they're relying on couple of youngsters up the middle (SS Zack Cozart & C Devin Mesoraco). It might work, but we're not ready to assume the Reds reclaim the Central crown, either. It's a no call for us at Great American Ballpark, where we look forward to visiting and downing a few Skyline coneys upstairs as we watch the barges float by on the adjacent Ohio River.

Before Clint Hurdle's Pittsburgh Pirates (73 ½) collapsed last season, they were actually talking playoffs, heady stuff for a franchise that was looking to end an American sports record string of losing seasons. That streak, however, has now reached 19 in a row after the collapse to 72-90 last season. The staff, such a revelation under new pitching coach Ray Searage for the first four months of the 2011 campaign, disappeared down the stretch, and many of those same arms (Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia) are being counted upon again in 2012. Moreover, key offseason rotation addition A.J. Burnett suffered a freak batting practice injury in Bradenton that will likely keep him out until the All-Star break. Perhaps signing CF Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal will stabilize the batting order for several years, and we suspect that FA C Rod Barajas (a good power source) will prove a very useful addition. What could really help the Bucs is for touted 3B Pedro Alvarez to at least hit his weight and begin to flash some of the homerun stroke many envisioned when he was drafted second overall out of Vanderbilt four years ago. The "win" total is within reason, and Pittsburgh at least appear beyond the days of being a seller at the trade deadline, but we've also been burned too many times by the Bucs in recent years to get too excited. Let's just give it a no call instead and simply look forward to the pierogi races on our next visit to PNC Park, one of our favorite places to spend a restful summer evening.

NL WEST: BEST BET...The last time the Arizona Diamondbacks (86 ½) made the playoffs, in 2007, they fell off the map in 2008. But they did so because of poor discipline at the plate and inattentive base running, dynamics that were completely altered in the desert last season by skipper Kirk Gibson in an unexpected dash to the division crown. Gibson, who used 118 different lineup combinations last season, obviously knows what he's doing, and we don't see the D'backs regressing just for regressing's sake. The staff remains vastly underrated, with ex-A's RHP Trevor Cahill likely the latest in a recent succession of top-line pitchers acquired in trades from the AL after Ian Kennedy (Yankees) and Daniel Hudson (White Sox) the past two years. We also like the addition of veteran former Twins OF Jason Kubel to the mix. Keep an eye on the rehab of SS Stephen Drew, mending a broken ankle, but if he's back on board by May, we see no reason the D-backs can't come close to last year's 94 wins. This is still the team to beat in the West, and we're going "over" at Chase Field.

OTHERS: First-year manager Don Mattingly remarkably held the Los Angeles Dodgers (80 ½) together down the stretch last August and September, as the Dodgers finished as one of the NL's hottest teams, even climbing above .500 in the last week of the season. And there's now a light at the end of the tunnel as despised owner Frank McCourt is being forced to sell, with a group that includes Magic Johnson and ex-Braves and Nats exec Stan Kasten ready to assume command. But the days of Branch Rickey's disciples in the front office are a distant memory, and the immediate impact of the new ownership group is likely to be Johnson's face in front of the TV cameras (and less time for Tommy Lasorda). The staff, beyond Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, looks awfully fragile with the history of injuries for both Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, both penciled into the rotation. GM Ned Colletti also let some useful pieces (SP Hiroki Kuroda, RP Jonathan Broxton, C Rod Barajas, INF Jamey Carroll, 3B Casey Blake) walk in the offseason. With his salary drive complete last season, OF Matt Kemp is more likely to regress somewhat rather than threaten a landmark 50-50 season, as he boasts, while RF Andre Ethier is recovering from knee surgery, and 1B James Loney is off of an inconsistent year. If you ask us, expecting Kershaw and Kemp to carry the load again this season is begging for trouble, and we can see Colletti having to keep the lines of communication very open with AAA affiliate Albuquerque if injuries hit the starting rotation. Pull up a chair, as longtime announcer Vin Scully likes to say, and watch the Blue go "under" at Chavez Ravine.

Unlike past seasons when rallying down the stretch, the Colorado Rockies (80 ½) instead went into a nosedive last August and September and forced GM Dan O'Dowd into some fast maneuvering in the offseason. Looking for some quick fixes, O'Dowd immediately infused the roster with a bevy of veterans that will hopefully add more presence in a clubhouse that was without enough leaders last season. That shoudln't be a problem any longer with RHP Jeremy Guthrie (via Baltimore), OF Michael Cuddyer (via Minnesota), 2B Marco Scutaro (via Boston), C Ramon Hernandez (via Cincy), and 3B Casey Blake (via the Dodgers) all in the fold to hopefully provide a collective steadying influence. But the Rockies need some of their young pitchers like Alex White and Drew Pomeranz (featured acquisitions in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal with the Indians last July) to deliver, or else Jim Tracy might have to opt for 49-year-old emergency option Jamie Moyer, who actually pitched well in spring and has made the opening-day roster. Still, runs should be no problem as long as SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez bounce back from mildly disappointing 2011 campaigns, while fleet CF Dexter Fowler looks to be a budding star. We have a hunch the Rocks get back into the playoff mix this season; it's an "over" for us at Coors Field.

TOUGH TO CALL: Maybe the San Diego Padres (73 ½) aren't going to be as bad as we think; they actually looked somewhat lively when we saw them this spring. But that was in Peoria; in the batter's graveyard known as Petco Park, the Padres simply don't have enough power to compensate for the big dimensions and heavy, water-influenced air that have completely negated the team's power numbers the past few years. We don't think much changes this season, as ex-White Sox OF Carlos Quentin will find out what others before him have endured in this pitcher's park. There is still no heir apparent to 1B Adrian Gonzalez, whose departure last year to the Red Sox created a crater in the Padre batting order that has yet to be filled. Bud Black is thus forced to manufacture runs and hope he gets yeoman's work from his staff, which is capable but not quite good enough to compensate for the lack of offensive pop. That's a lot to overcome as the Pads look to defend their title as the NL's most boring team. And if that weren't enough for Padres fans, they have to endure another year of Ted Leitner on the radio. Still, the offense seems to perk up on the road, and the modest win total in the low 70s doesn't look to provide any edge; we're simply passing at Petco Park instead.

That the San Francisco Giants (87 ½) got close to a return to the playoffs and a defense of their World Series crown last season with the lowest-scoring team in the league was really a credit to shrewd manager Bruce Bochy. But we're not sure how much longer Bochy can continue to push those same buttons and hope to win 3-2 and 2-1 games with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner anchoring the rotation without a lot of help from the offense. The additions of outfielders Melky Cabrera (from the Royals) and Angel Pagan (from the Mets) in themselves don't figure to improve the offense as much as the healthy return of C Buster Posey from last year's broken ankle suffered in mid-May and 2B Freddie Sanchez from shoulder surgery. Still, if the Giants are in the race in late summer, we suspect it will be with a different looking roster than what we see in April; remember, the Giants made their move two years ago after GM Brian Sabean swung some deals before the trade deadline. Don't be surprised for Sabean to do the same this summer, but without knowing yet what he might be doing in June and July, it's a no call for us at AT&T Park.


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