The three teams that concern me most are the Phillies, Reds and Rockies (the Red Sox are of concern, but I hadn't picked them back in February).
National League East: Braves, division; Phillies, wild card
Can the Phillies compete? That seems to be the $64,000 question. They have the pitching, both in the rotation and in the 'pen. The question is whether or not they have the offense. The infield is wounded. Without knowing when Ryan Howard will be back, can they compete? Without knowing what is wrong with Chase Utley, at least if they know they aren't saying, and when he will be back, can they compete? Without knowing if the health of Polanco and Rollins is solid and will hold up, can they compete? Jim Thome is proving to be an adequate fielder. Who knew? And young bats like John Mayberry, Jr. will surely have something to offer that lineup, but when you are led by the power of Utley and Howard, how do you compete without them? I don't think they do. I think they sneak into the postseason with a wild card spot that they wrestle away from the Miami Marlins by a couple of wins. Of course, all of this is assuming the Braves compete on the field the way they do on paper.
You're asking yourself why I felt the need to point out what I already had, right? Sure, I had the Braves winning the division and the Phillies the wild card, but I wasn't convinced. Do I want the Braves to win the division? Hell yes. Do I want the Phillies in the postseason? Of course not.
When I made my predictions I looked at the two teams on paper and compared Braves' pitching to Phillies' pitching (Braves have stronger 'pen, Phillies have stronger rotation) and I compared both lineups (with a healthy Heyward, McCann, Chipper, Freeman, Hinske, Prado, and Bourn, how can you say the Phillies are stronger than that?). It has taken Spring Training for me to see that what is on paper isn't on the field. Without Utley and Howard, the Phillies will struggle to score runs. With Heyward and Prado, the Braves aren't going to score boatloads of runs, but they won't struggle. With the big three, the Phillies can flat out pitch, but the Braves aren't far behind with Jurrjens, Hanson and Beachy, to say nothing of the great season Mike Minor may have ahead. There will be a greater spread between the Phillies and Braves than I ever imagined and you can bet it will all be on the shoulders of the health of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.
National League Central: St. Louis Cardinals, division; Reds, wild card
Let's start with the latter. Though the Reds went out and signed Joey Votto to an ungodly $225 million deal, they have neglected a few key holes in their lineup. Letting Juan Francisco go to the Braves, the only legitimate power bat they could have possibly promoted, was just just another odd move on the part of Walt Jocketty. What happens to the Reds down the road? If Votto gets hurt, the Reds don't have the kind of budget to absorb that kind of loss and go out and find someone to fill in adequately. Votto's health isn't likely to matter in 2012, but the health of Ryan Madson matters a great deal. If Mat Latos isn't healthy, that's going to matter as well. The lack of decisiveness on the part of Dusty Baker where Aroldis Chapman is concerned is enough to give most Reds' fans pause. Chapman's arm speaks for itself, but his track record thus far in the majors makes me wonder what he'll give the Reds this season. All of this is leading me to the conclusion that the Reds won't win the division. I do think they'll have a shot at one of the new wild card spots.
Do the Cardinals have what it takes in a post-Pujols world? They do, but in a very different way. Allen Craig, though currently recovering from knee surgery, and David Freese bring pop to the lineup that can replace some of what Pujols provided. Carlos Beltran is an interesting addition who can still provide some production, though not quite the way he did when younger and with better knees. A healthy Holliday can be the new Pujols and Berkman continuing along the path he began last season can produce. They may not have Carpenter to start the season, but he should be back. Wainwright will take some time to get back to form post-Tommy John surgery. But none of those things are long-term problems. Add to this scenario the fact that Motte will be the named starter from day one and the Cardinals may have a legitimate chance to defend their championship.
National League West: Diamondbacks, division; Dodgers, wild card
As much as I like the Rockies and as much as I thought they could win their division, I have watched them several times this spring and I am no longer convinced. When a guy like Jamie Moyer, god bless him, grabs the second spot in the starting rotation, that says something about Rockies pitching. Despite the fact that the Rockies went out and grabbed a ton of pitching in the offseason, they don't appear to be setup with starting pitching this season. They've got great young talent, but talent that is not yet developed. Tulowitzki and Gonzalez can only carry a team so far and I don't see it happening this season.
The oddity of the National League West is that the Dodgers might just sneak in. Some young guys on that team have a lot to prove and are more than ready to do so. Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen, for instance. Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw are no old men. They can carry the rotation easily. Add to the fairly solid pitching the talent of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney as well as the promise of Dee Gordon, and the Dodgers are in pretty good shape. Compare what the Dodgers have, youth included, to what the Rockies have and though the race will be tight, the Dodgers might just sneak into the postseason. Go figure.
Will my predictions hold? Probably not. Last year I thought the Twins were going to the postseason and they ended up dead last in their division. And how many people foresaw the Chicago White Sox being so terrible? Predictions are hardly ever correct, but that doesn't make them a waste of time. It just gets us baseball fans more jacked up for the season to arrive. Arrive it shall tomorrow night when the Marlins will welcome the Cardinals to their new stadium and the baseball season will be off to roaring start.