1. St Louis Cardinals – Skip Schumaker is trying to make the transition from OF to 2B this season, Schumaker who played all 3 OF positions last year is trying to replace Aaron Miles and give the Cardinals a .300 hitter in the middle infield. RF Ryan Ludwick and CF Rick Ankiel both had breakout seasons last year and I don’t see any decline from either of them this season. Albert Pujols played all last season with an elbow injury that limited him at times but off season surgery has taken care of any pain he was having. If the Cardinals can get 60 starts out of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright instead of the 23 they got last year the Cardinals will be playing in October, expect 92-94 wins.
2. Chicago Cubs – The Cubs added RF Milton Bradley in the off season to help bolster their predominately right handed lineup that was exposed by the Dodgers in last years NLDS. When healthy Bradley is an extremly productive hitter and should provide a spark hitting after Derrick Lee and before Aramis Ramirez. The pitching staff is good but Carlos Zambrano was terrible in the 2nd half last season and Rich Harden is only good for 15 starts before he finds himself on the DL. Kevin Gregg has recently been named the closer but I think the key to the bullpen is 7th and 8th inning guy Carlos Marmol. I think the lack of a good left hander in the bullpen will cause the Cubs to finish a couple games behind the surprising St. Louis Cardinals. Expect 89-91 wins.
3. Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers have a great young lineup with Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart, but I think the problem lies within the pitching staff. Yovani Gallardo is coming off of an ACL tear that caused him to miss most of last season but he was strong in the last month of the season and should be solid this year. After Gallardo though the rotation has a big drop off. Trevor Hoffman will close out games for the Brewers but with the much maligned pitching staff I don’t see a lot of chances for him this year, expect 85-87 wins.
4. Cincinnati Reds – The Reds will rely a lot on Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to lead the team back into contention this year I expect both to have 30 HR 100 RBI seasons. CF Willy Taveras will steal 60+ bases but he won’t bat higher than .250. Brando Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion should both hit 20 HRs but they probably won’t bat much higher than .250. Aaron Harang struggled mightily last season meaning he can’t be worse this season. Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo should keep the Reds in a lot of games this season but I think they are too young to contend this season. Expect them to challenge Milwaukee for 3rd in the division with 84-86 wins.
5. Houston Astros – The Astros have two of the best hitters in the NL in Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee but there is a big dropoff after them. CF Michael Bourn could steal 50+ bases this year but he batted just .229 last season. Pudge Rodriguez should be a solid catcher this year and help keep a much maligned pitching staff cohesive this season. Roy Oswalt is a stud but after him the pitching staff has a lot of injury concerns. Wandy Rodriguez struggled to stay healthy last season and Mike Hampton has struggled to stay healthy his entire career. If Way-Rod and Hampton can stay healthy the Astros could contend for 3rd in the division but I don’t see that happening. Expect 79-81 wins.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates – Will the 17th year be the charm? The Pirates have finished below .500 for 16 straight seasons and this season will be no different. The young rotation has showed promise at times but never all at the same time, couple that with a lineup that has no pop and you’re looking at a possible 100 loss season. Nate McLouth is one of the best OF in the NL and was rewarded with a $15.75 million 3 year deal this off season. The Pirates would be better off watching McLouth play elsewhere while they get some prospects in return. The Braves have some young pitchers and if anyone struggles in the OF for them this season I expect to see McLouth in a Braves uniform in exchange for pitching prospects. Expect no more than 65 wins this year.