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Published: 2011/04/14

Featured Column: Major League Baseball Preview (Head Games)

If you’re a Deadhead and a baseball fan then BL’s division by division baseball preview is for you…

NATIONAL LEAGUE

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National League East: Preview

It’s time to take a look at baseball’s National League East, set to the tune the Grateful Dead’s “Deal.” It’s a killer song fit for a division filled with deep seeded rivalry, ambitious plans and the unraveling of it all in New York. Let’s take a look . . . .

Since it cost a lot to win,
and even more to lose

In life and in baseball, fortunes can change fast. No where is that more clear than in the case of the New York Mets, who only five years ago looked to be a perennial power house with a penchant for free agent shopping sprees and the bank account to match. But, times change and in 2011, the Mets can only look forward to a summer competing with the Washington Nationals for the worst team in the National League East. For all of the Mets efforts to spend millions acquiring great players, there seems to be an equal and opposite force at work in the universe, a force determined to undermine their efforts with injury after injury to their stars– concussions, broken hands, bad knees, tired arms – the Mets have seen it all.

Battling the Mets for last place this summer, will be the Washington Nationals, a team that has lost more games than they have won since moving to the nation’s capitol from Montreal, Canada. This team isn’t particularly good, but, better days are ahead for the Nationals, as baseball’s most hyped pitcher, Stephen Strausberg, and most hyped hitter, Bryce Harper, will be on the team for years to come. Too bad neither will have any impact this season.

Wait until that deal come around
Don’t you let that deal go down

The Philadelphia Phillies have won the National League East three years in a row and will look to make it four this year. In the offseason, the Phillies signed pitching ace, Cliff Lee. As a result, the four best starting pitchers in the division are all on the Phillies – Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Plus, the Phillies lineup is still probably the best in the division, even if Chase Utley is injured and they are getting older and slower every year. By any analysis, the Phillies should win the division.

That leaves the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins in the hunt for second place. Atlanta and Florida both made some moves this offseason, even trading with each other for the rights to all-star second baseman, Dan Uggla. But for all of the moves the Braves and Marlins made this winter, it was their inability to prevent the Phillies from landing Cliff Lee that will doom their efforts to win the division. Had either of them signed Cliff Lee, this division would like a whole lot different.

Goes to show, you don’t ever know
Watch each card you play and play it slow

But who knows? It’s a long season, pitchers get hurt, bats get hot, and crazier things have happened. The way it looks now, this division belongs to the Phillies, with the Marlins and Braves playing for second best, and the Nationals and Mets preparing for an epic battle for division worst – a battle that threatens the sanity of millions of New Yorkers and promises to be entertaining at the same time.

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National League Central: Preview

The National League Central features some of baseball’s oldest teams and this year, most of these old teams will be facing imminent change. So let’s take a look at this division set to the tune of I Know You Rider, one of the oldest songs in the Grateful Dead’s repertoire. By most accounts, the “rider” in I Know You Rider refers to a woman, but as applied to each team in the National League Central, “rider” carries a unique meaning. Here it goes . . . .

I Know You Rider
Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone

The St. Louis Cardinals the “Rider” can only mean their first baseman, Albert Pujols. Albert is a free agent at the end of this season and is looking to be paid as though he is the greatest hitter of the 21st century, which he is, and by most accounts the Cardinals can’t afford it. Also unfortunate for the Cardinals is the news that their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, will be out all season with an arm injury, and All-Star hitter Matt Holiday just had an appendectomy that will keep him out indefinitely. The Cardinals would love to win it all in Albert’s last year, but it doesn’t look like this team is healthy enough to do it. The Cardinals will miss Albert when’s he’s gone.

The Milwaukee Brewers are in much the same position as the Cardinals, as their best power hitter, Prince Fielder, is also a free agent at the end of this season. The Brewers haven’t been great for awhile but seem to have all the pieces in place to do great things this year. This offseason, the Brewers traded for Cy Young winner, Zack Grienke, and may have the best lineup in the NL Central. The Brewers are acting like a team that is going for it. While they may miss Prince Fielder when he’s gone, the Brewers have an excellent chance of celebrating with him at the end of this year.

The Cincinnati Reds won the division last year, lead by NL MVP, Joey Votto. The Reds should be pretty good this year, but having made no significant offseason moves, the Reds will have a tough time battling Brewers for division best. Their lineup is solid but not spectacular and so is their pitching, thought Reds Heads will get to enjoy a full season of Cuban relief ace, Aroldis Chapman, who last year threw a 105 mph fastball. While this group was talented enough to win the NL Central last year, it’s likely the case that the rest of the division has caught up and passed them. In this case, the Rider to be missed is most certainly their successful 2010 season.

The Sun Will Shine In My Back Door Someday
March Winds Will Blow All My Troubles Away

While the top half of the division can only look forward to missing their respective Riders in the future, the bottom half of the division, only has sunnier days to look forward to. One of the most appealing themes of baseball is the promise, or at least the hope, that next year will be better. No matter how many games a team loses in a given year, they get to start over next year with 0 wins and 0 losses. Let’s take a look at a few teams getting accustomed to March winds blowing troubles away with the promise of clean records on Opening Day in April.

If anyone appreciates those March winds of change it is the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a world series in one thousand years. The Cubs had a pretty disappointing 2010 season and while they made some moves this offseason like acquiring Matt Garza and Carlos Pena, this is pretty much the same team as last year, only a little older and slower. There are very two bright spots for the Cubs, 21 year old shortstop Starlin Castro who will look to improve on a great rookie season, and strikeout machine Carlos Marmol, the Cubs’ closer. But, in all likelihood, the Cubs will go another year without winning the World Series.

The Houston Astros also had a disappointing 2010 season, but decided to do something about it – namely, break the team down and build it back up, by trading away their best pitcher, Roy Oswalt, and best hitter, Lance Berkman, to load up on younger talent and try to rebuild towards a championship team. The Astros may be decent this summer, but their lineup has many inexperienced players and their shaky bullpen needs a lot of help. Nevertheless, the wheels are in motion, and the sun may be shine on the Houston Astros sooner than later.

Finally, there are the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are technically speaking a major league baseball team, though they haven’t had a winning season since the Grateful Dead toured. The Pirates seem to be perpetually in the rebuilding phase of things. This year, the Pirates have put together a few good hitters and good bullpen, and things may be starting to turn around. But this team lost 105 games last season, and the only question for this team is whether or not they lose more than 95 games this year. My bet is they lose 90. Stay tuned Pirates fans.

This is probably the most competitively balanced division in baseball, and it’s going to be a close race at the top, with the meaningful games being played right up to the end of the season. The Brewers, Reds, Cubs and Cardinals can all finish in anyone of the first four spots, but it likely ends this way: Brewers, Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, Astros and Pirates.

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National League West: Preview

The National League West is loaded with the best young pitching aces in all of baseball. The NL West is also home to the World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this division set to the tune of the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.”

If I had a gun for every ace I’ve drawn
I could arm a town the size of Abeline

Any discussion of the best team in the National League West begins with the World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants. The Giants won the World Series, largely by assembling the best collection of dominant young aces in the game, lead by the “Freak,” Tim Lincecum and including Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. The Giants also have one of the best closers in the game in Brian Wilson. The Giants pitching staff remains the same this year, and their offense is improved. Look for the Giants to repeat as division winner.

The Los Angeles Dodgers also have a pretty great pitching staff, lead by lefty ace, Clayton Kershaw. Though not as dominating the San Francisco Giants’ staff, the Dodgers probably have a better lineup that includes great young hitters like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. The Dodgers also have a new manager, as Don Mattingly takes over for Joe Torre. If the Dodgers play up to their potential this season, they will be dangerous.

While the Colorado Rockies will have trouble matching the Giants and Dodgers, ace for ace, the Rockies unquestionably have the two best hitters in the National League West in shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, and outfielder, Carlos Gonzalez. Plus, the Rockies’ ace, Ubaldo Jiminez, can keep up with Lincecum and Kershaw on any given night. This Rockies team has a great foundation and should be a force in the NL West this season.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are a team in transition. The Diamondbacks have a tradition of aces in tandem, going back to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling at the beginning of the century, and and Brandon Webb and Dan Haren in more recent years. In 2011, the Diamondbacks will lean on potential future aces like Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. The bullpen looks weak and the lineup will have some trouble scoring runs. It will take a monster season from the Diamondbacks’ best hitter, Justin Upton, and the emergence of Kennedy and Hudson to make this team competitive.

Finally, there is the San Diego Padres, a team that was able to remain competitive last summer with only one good hitter, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and then proceeded to trade him away to the Boston Red Sox. The Padres pitching staff has an ace in Matt Latos, and an awesome closer in Heath Bell. But this Padres team has no recognizable offensive star and is going to have a lot of trouble scoring runs this summer. The Padres pitching is enough to keep them competitive, but their light hitting will prevent them from winning.

And you know I’m only in it for the gold

It’s going to take incredible pitching to emerge as the winner of this division and with pitching that good, there is a great chance that the winner of the NL West will play in the World Series. This division probably belongs to the San Francisco Giants followed by the Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Padres.

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