Conventional wisdom holds that the National League is inferior to the American League, and who are we to argue? But the NL did produce the World Series champions last year, and the Senior Circuit promises plenty of intriguing storylines heading into the 2009 Major League Baseball season.
Can the Phillies repeat as champs? Do the Cubs have what it takes to end their century-long title drought? Will the Mets stay strong enough down the stretch to get back into the playoffs? Are Manny and the Dodgers really a match made in heaven?
These questions and more are addressed in CBCSports.ca's National League preview.
THE POST-SEASON TEAMS
New York Mets (East)
Last year: 89-73, 2nd in East
Key arrivals: RP Francisco Rodriguez, RP J.J. Putz, SP Livan Hernandez, SP Freddy Garcia
Key departures: SP Pedro Martinez, RP Joe Smith, RP Aaron Heilman, RP Duaner Sanchez, RP Scott Schoeneweis, OF Endy Chavez, OF Moises Alou, 2B Damion Easley
What to like: The Mets can mash. Last year, they tied for second in the NL with 799 runs scored thanks to a meaty batting order featuring big boppers Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Carlos Beltran and dangerous leadoff man Jose Reyes. Plus, the top-end guys on the pitching staff might be the best in the world at what they do. Ace starter Johan Santana lived up to the hype in his first year in New York, exceeding 200 strikeouts for the fifth straight year and finishing third in NL Cy Young voting. New closer Rodriguez was a big free-agent catch after notching a record 62 saves with the Angels last year, and will anchor an improved bullpen that includes setup man J.J. Putz, an ex-closer.
What to sweat: After uneven play down the stretch cost them a playoff spot for the second-straight year, the Mets had no choice but to gut a bullpen that blew a whopping 29 saves in 72 chances and posted a bloated 4.27 ERA — fourth-worst in the NL. With change, though, comes uncertainty. Rodriguez was the best available replacement for injured closer Billy Wagner, who's rehabbing in hopes of returning for the final month, but it's doubtful that "K-Rod" will replicate last year's numbers as his strikeout rate has been on the decline for several years. The rotation is thin behind Santana, and ditto for the corner outfield spots, where right-fielder Ryan Church will try to show he's over his concussion problems while unproven Daniel Murphy attempts to hold down the job in left.
Los Angeles Dodgers (West)
Last year: 84-78, 1st in West (lost in NLCS)
Key arrivals: SP Randy Wolf, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, INF Mark Loretta
Key departures: SP Derek Lowe, SP Brad Penny, SP Greg Maddux, RP Chan Ho Park, RP Takashi Saito, RP Joe Beimel, 2B Jeff Kent, INF Nomar Garciaparra, OF Andruw Jones
What to like: He's baaaaaack. Manny Ramirez returns for his first full season with the Dodgers after finally agreeing to a two-year, $45-million US deal. The always-entertaining slugger joins Canadian catcher Russell Martin in the heart of an excellent order that should be able to lift manger Joe Torre's club to the top of its weak division for the second straight year.
What to sweat: Talk of the mercurial Ramirez being affected by his arduous contract negotiations has been overblown, but the dreadlocked left-fielder is unlikely to match his production from late last season, when he batted a ridiculous .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in just 53 games after forcing his way out of Boston. Also, the pitching staff comes with question marks: Chad Billingsley has the makings of an ace, but youngster Clayton Kershaw is unproven, and Jonathan Broxton is getting his first shot at being the full-time closer.
Chicago Cubs (Central)
Last year: 97-64, 1st in Central (lost in Division Series)
Key arrivals: OF Milton Bradley, OF Joey Gathright, RP Kevin Gregg, RP Aaron Heilman, RP Luiz Vizcaino
Key departures: RP Kerry Wood, SP Jason Marquis, RP Bobby Howry, 2B Mark DeRosa
What to like: The reigning division champs return most of a batting order that scored an NL-high 855 runs last year and helped the team win a league-best 97 games. This year's lineup could be even more dangerous with the acquisition of Bradley, whose patience and power can be great assets if the combustible outfielder keeps his head on straight and avoids injuries (no givens). The pitching staff is outstanding — Carlos Zambrano, Canadians Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster, and Ted Lilly making up perhaps the deepest rotation in the league, and manager Lou Piniella has plenty of power arms to choose from when he calls on the bullpen.
What to sweat: You're picking nits with a team that outscored opponents by a big-league-best 184 runs in 2008, but here goes: The closer situation is unsettled (Gregg has the job for now, but hard-throwing Carlos Marmol waits in the wings), DeRosa's pop will be missed … and, hey, they're the Cubs. They'll figure out a way to botch things, right? The wounds on the North Side are still fresh after a stunning playoff sweep at the hands of the underdog Dodgers, who outscored Chicago 20-6 in three games to extend the Cubs' championship drought to a painfully round 100 years.
Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
Last year: 89-73, 1st in East (won World Series)
Key arrivals: OF Raul Ibanez, RP Chan Ho Park
Key departures: OF Pat Burrell, OF So Taguchi, OF Greg Golson, RP Tom Gordon, RP Rudy Seanez.
What to like: The World Series champs boast, as always, a powerful lineup. Left-fielder Pat "The Bat" Burrell was lost to free agency, but the Phillies found a fine replacement in Seattle defector Raul Ibanez, who is one of five major league outfielders to drive in at least 100 runs in each of the past three seasons. Add Ibanez to an order featuring defending NL home run and RBI champ Ryan Howard, slugging second baseman Chase Utley, speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and emerging centre-fielder Shane Victorino, and you can expect Philly again to pile up the runs.
What to sweat: Injuries. Utley is coming off hip surgery that was supposed to keep him out until May. Incredibly, he's on track to play on Opening Day, but you've got to wonder about lingering effects. Ace Cole Hamels, the World Series MVP, is dealing with a sore elbow that will prevent him from starting on Opening Day. If the cool lefty doesn't get healthy, it could make for tough sledding in the hard-hitting NL East.
Atlanta Braves: If defending NL batting champion Chipper Jones can stay healthy, the Braves might be able to make a playoff push in the first season of the post-John Smoltz era.
Cincinnati Reds: They'll be hard-pressed to supplant the Cubs in the NL Central, but they have two of the game's best young sluggers in Jay Bruce and Canadian Joey Votto, plus an up-and-coming strikeout artist in righty Edinson Volquez.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They boast one of the best 1-2 starting punches in baseball with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, but the Dodgers overtook them as NL West favourites when they reupped with ManRam. Expect the young D-Backs to challenge for the Wild Card.
NL Division Series: Cubs over Phillies, Dodgers over Mets
NL Championship Series: Cubs over Dodgers
World Series: Yankees over Cubs