View From the Bleachers: 2010 National League Preview

The Opening Day of the 2010 Major League Baseball season is finally here. This Sunday signals the start of the most glorious, nerve-wracking and exhausting six months of the year.

To help you prepare for the beautiful 162-game streak of men in tights just around the corner, here are my annual preseason predictions for each division, with some accessory categories for the hell of it.

1) National League West

With all apologies to local San Diegans, this is anybody’s division. Arguably the toughest group from which to choose a winner this season, the NL West is packing four different teams that could easily take first place — even if they don’t necessarily have what it takes to make a run at the World Series this year. Last year’s champs — the LA Dodgers — had a flop of an offseason: Team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt got divorced, overshadowing a starting rotation deficiency evidenced by the fact that Vicente Padilla is their Opening Day starter.

Coming off a successful 2009 Wild Card run, the Colorado Rockies are a young, fast and defensively sound team that could run away with the division if ace starting pitcher Jeff Francis rebounds well after missing all of last year due to Tommy John surgery.

The San Francisco Giants have the best pitching staff in the National League — and maybe even the majors — but will have to eek out enough offense from newly added hitters Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa. Still, with a rotation anchored by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — whose fourth starter threw a no-hitter last year — you can bet on the Giants to take the NL Wild Card.

Even the Arizona Diamondbacks have the firepower and youth to stay competitive. With a rotation anchored by Dan Haren and the unworldly athletic abilities of Justin Upton, you can never fully brush off the Babybacks.

My predictions

Division champ: Colorado Rockies

In the hunt: San Francisco Giants

Fantasy sleeper: Carlos González, Colorado rightfielder

Story to follow: If/when the Padres trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

2) National League Central

Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the same lineup for a whole season is a dangerous combination that makes the St. Louis Cardinals the odds-on favorites to win the Central. Surrounding the dynamic duo is a young offense headed by an emerging Ryan Ludwick and Brendan “I Have the Grossest Mustache on the Planet” Ryan. They’ll provide Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright with more than enough runs to top the table in the division all year. As the Chicago Cubs enter the 237th year of their World Series draught, the only serious competition the Cardinals will face all year will be from the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brew Crew boast Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun as a middle-of-the-order threat to match Pujols and Holliday, but even if they’ve got Randy Wolf from the Dodgers to help their pitching staff, the Brewers will struggle to keep pace in the six-team division.

The Cincinnati Reds are still a few years away from making a legitimate run at the top, and we can expect plenty more banality from the Pirates and Astros.

My predictions

Division champ: St. Louis Cardinals

In the hunt: Milwaukee Brewers

Fantasy sleeper: Wandy Rodríguez, Houston Astros starting pitcher

Story to follow: Will the Pirates have their 18th straight losing season?

National League East

After riding Cliff Lee’s coattails all the way to a second straight World Series appearance, the Philadelphia Phillies thanked their left-handed ace by shipping him off to the Seattle Mariners. Why on Earth would the Phil’s front office do such a thing? To make room for one of the few pitchers alive who might actually be better than Lee: Roy Halladay, of course. The health and sustainability of lefty starter Cole Hamels and closer Brad Lidge are the Phillies’ only question marks.

Even after throwing a New York-sized fist of cash at free-agent outfielder Jason Bay, the Mets will still find a way to choke with their A-List roster, so let’s not even worry about them.

And aside from the eventual promotion of rookie flame-thrower and San Diego State alum Stephen Strausburg from their AA affiliate this summer, the Washington Nationals will continue to be, well, the Washington Nationals.

That leaves the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins as two young, intriguing teams in the bubble that just might have enough to make things interesting in the East. Rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward and new closer Billy Wagner will help keep manager Bobby Cox’s face flushed red with excitement throughout his final season in Atlanta.

My predictions

Division champ: Philadelphia Phillies

In the hunt: Atlanta Braves

Fantasy sleeper: Chris Coghlan, Florida Marlins Outfielder

Story to follow: The battle for Rookie of the Year between Heyward and Strausbourg.

So there you have them: my foolproof picks for the upcoming 2010 MLB season. Go ahead, take your part-time coffee shop earnings to Vegas this weekend and bet it all on my predictions. And feel free to come talk to the Guardian if they don’t end up panning out.

This two-part column will continue Thursday with the Beerleague Softball Division (better known as the American League).

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