by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After our American League preview earlier this week, it’s time for our 2011 National League "futures" predictions; season win numbers in parentheses ( ). As always, our thanks to TGS baseball consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions and observations. And remember that TGS will be offering baseball selections on a daily basis beginning later this week; call 1-800-798-GOLD for more information.

NL EAST: Best recommendation...We know about all of the hype surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies (96 ½), whose tickets are now as hard to come by as they are for the hometown Eagles. And the locals are so whipped into a World Series frenzy that Howard Eskin, Angelo Cataldi and the rest at 610 WIP radio are even taking more baseball calls than football calls these days (which is rarely the case, even in April). We understand the reason for all of the excitement in the Delaware Valley, with Cliff Lee rejoining a staff that had already enlisted aces Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt within the past year. Along with Cole Hamels, no wonder they’re nicknaming the staff "The Four Aces." And we hardly think OF Jayson Werth’s departure will be a negative, with ex-Indian Ben Francisco ready to assume his role. But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, and point out the advancing age on the roster; Lee (who has had some physical problems in recent years), Halladay and Oswalt will all turn 33 or 34 by the end of this season, while Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, both 32, each began to show signs of breaking down physically a year ago when missing extensive action. Utley is already on the DL to start this season with knee woes, and throw in Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, and Raul Ibanez (who’s pushing 40), and all of the key elements are well past 30 years of age. Let’s not forget 34-year-old closer Brad Lidge, who like Utley will start the season on the DL with rotator cuff problems. An injury or two to the staff and another to one of the key everyday players will have the Phils scrambling to make the postseason, much less running away with this division. None of the locals in Ashburn Alley munching on a tasty Tony Luke’s roast beef sandwich (with broccoli rabe) seem to be concerned, but we have our doubts; it’s an "under" for us at Citizens Bank Park.

Others to watch... Remember Phil Bengston? Apparently the Atlanta Braves (87 ½) didn’t remember Vince Lombardi’s hand-picked successor, either, because they basically allowed Bobby Cox to pick his own replacement (always a risky move) in ex-Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez, whom many Marlins fans know is not the second coming of John McGraw. We think Atlanta could have done better with Cox’s successor, but unlike Bengston with an aging Green Bay Packers team in 1968, Fredi inherits a hot collection of talent at Turner Field. And not even his well-documented passivity and reluctance to remove tiring pitchers should impede a Braves team that we have a hard time envisioning being much if any worse than a year ago when winning 91 games and qualifying as the NL wild card. Spring work at Disney World could hardly have been more encouraging, with the main issues heading into camp, the knee of vet 3B Chipper Jones, and the psychology of CF Nate McLouth, both being answered favorably in March. The starting rotation looks very solid, featuring alternating pitching styles that match favorably with the Phils; are Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, and Jair Jurrjens really that inferior to the Phillies’ Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels? The Braves also have plenty of specialists in the pen with Scott Linebrink, Pete Moylan, and the versatile Kris Medlin (who is slated to return soon from Tommy John surgery) in case the young tag-team closer combo of lefty Jonny Venters & righty Craig Kimbrel should implode. LF Martin Prado & RF Jason Heyward are on the ascent, while 2B Dan Uggla, though shaky with the glove and on the basepaths, adds unquestioned power. Not even Gonzalez should be able to mess this up, so it figures to be a fun summer in our very favorite city, where we can’t wait to return to dig into a rib plate at our favorite Dreamland BBQ in delightful Roswell. It’s an "over" for us at Turner Field.

Yes, Florida Marlins (82 ½) owner Jeffrey Loria would make old tightwad owners like Branch Rickey, Judge Emil Fuchs of the Boston Braves, the Cardinals’ Sam Breadon, and the Senators’ Clark Griffith downright proud. But the steady stream of talent being developed in the Marlins farm system is making it difficult for Florida to put a subpar product on the field. As for Loria, he and GM Larry Beinfest and skipper Edwin Rodriguez have at least supposedly had it with SS Hanley Ramirez’ diva act; word from camp at Jupiter is that Ramirez either plays hard, or gets traded. Assuming it’s the former, it will likely be due to eliminating the silly errors in the field and displaying more patience at the plate; if Hanley is simply content to get on base, his speed will score runs, and Florida needs to sustain more rallies after leaving too many runners on base with the many whiff machines in the lineup. One of those, 2B Dan Uggla, has been traded to the Braves, but his departure will not be the disaster that rotisserie zealots fear, because his limited range, subpar glove, and poor baserunning hurt the team as much as his homers helped. Replacement Omar Infante will improve the defense and run scoring with his consistency in all phases, as with RF Mike Stanton swinging for the fences, the Marlins don’t need another strikeout machine like Uggla. Meanwhile, new C John Buck will add power, not to mention the first Florida backstop who can receive and throw since Pudge Rodriguez, and Gaby Sanchez appears to be a solid Chris Chambliss-type line-drive RBI type with a solid glove at first base. We have some concerns about durability in the pitching staff, where Ricky Nolasco had thumb problems in spring and Anibal Sanchez has an extensive injury history. But if healthy, each starter is an innings eater (relieving some of the pressure on a shaky bullpen), and Josh Johnson (NL-best 2.30 ERA in 2010) is Cy Young-caliber at the top of the rotation. With a few breaks, this bunch hangs in the playoff race and threatens 87-90 wins, so we’re looking "over" on the Dade-Broward County line.

Maybe the tough-guy approach it what’s needed for the New York Mets (76 ½), who have been operating with a pleasant GM (Omar Minaya) and a couple of easy-going managers (Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel) for the past several years. So much for the vacation, with ex-Marine Sandy Alderson (architect of the Oakland powerhouse teams in the late ‘80s) taking over the GM duties and non-nonsense drill sergeant Terry Collins, who was a my-way-or-the-highway kind of skipper in his last managerial gig with the Angels over a decade ago, now calling the shots in the dugout. And Alderson has thrown away the paring knife and instead utilized a machete to cut up the roster, swallowing huge contracts to get rid of the likes of P Oliver Perez and 2B Luis Castillo, who was a fan target ever since dropping that routine popup to cost a game against the Yankees two years ago. Still, the Mets do not have the look of a contender with a couple of other high-priced components both dealing with ailments (ace Johan Santana out until at least July after last September’s shoulder surgery, RF Carlos Beltran’s sore knees making him a DL risk from the outset), while both LF Jason Bay and SS Jose Reyes are acknowledged injury risks. And let’s not forget the hot potato that is closer Francisco Rodriguez and his off-field issues. There are a few green shoots of hope sprouting from the Citi Field turf in the forms of promising CF Angel Pagan and 1B Ike Davis, but there also appear to be too many weeds; it’s an "under" for us in Queens.

Tough to call...The Washington Nationals (72 ½) can’t seem to catch a break. Just when rookie fireballer Stephen Strasburg sets the league ablaze with his breathtaking debut last June, he’s suddenly out and undergoing Tommy John surgery; see you in 2012. Meanwhile, this past season’s number one draft choice, Henderson, NV outfielder Bryce Harper, is still a relative baby at only 18 years of age and likely spends much of the season learning the ropes at long-season Class A Hagerstown before perhaps moving up the minor chain sometime in the summer; don’t expect to see him at Nationals Park until 2012 at the earliest, either. The good news, however, is that the Nats seem to be placing more emphasizing on pitching, defense, and speed, all on display at Viera in March. New 3B coach Bo Porter has energized the club on the bathpaths with a new aggressive style, per the wishes of skipper Jim Riggleman, which should suit LF Michael Morse and SS Ian Desmond (provided he shows a bit more patience at the plate in his leadoff role) just fine. Meanwhile, vets such as OF Jayson Werth (FA Phils) and 1B Adam LaRoche (FA D-backs) add a combined 52 homers from a year ago to the lineup, and C Pudge Rodriguez remains a positive force. Of course, all of this might not mean anything if the Nats commit another 123 errors, or if a staff of sinkerball specialists led by vets Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis can’t keep the ball down. We think the Nats can improve from their 69 wins from last year, but we’re not sure how much, so we’ll simply pass in D.C. and instead look forward to a few chili smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl down the third base line when visiting the ballpark this summer.

NL CENTRAL: Best recommendation...Why are the Cincinnati Reds (86 ½) being discounted from last season’s 91 wins and NL Central crown? Perhaps it’s because the memories are still fresh of the offensive meltdown in the NLDS vs. the Phils, which included Roy Halladay imitating Don Larsen and tossing only the second no-hitter in postseason history at Cincy’s expense. After all, it wasn’t as if the offense was impotent in 2010; the Reds led the NL in scoring for much of the season and ended up tallying their most runs since 2005, with 1B Joey Votto enjoying an MVP campaign, while Cincy allowing its fewest runs over a full season since 1992. And for the most part, the team returns intact, although the rotation has a slightly different look with Aaron Harang departing for San Diego and both Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey opening the season on the DL with shoulder soreness (more a precautionary measure for both, each expected back by mid-April). But the fact Edinson Volquez has been named the opening day starter at least means that Dusty Baker feels the Dominican righty is all of the way back from his 2009 Tommy John surgery, and flamethrower Ardolis Chapman looms as the ultimate X-factor, potentially moving into the rotation or maybe assuming the closer’s role should Coco Cordero struggle. We do have a few concerns about advancing age in the everyday lineup; 3B Scott Rolen turns 36 in April, C Ramon Hernandez turns 35 in May, and newly-acquired SS Edgar Renteria, waiting in the wings should Paul Janish not be able to adequately fill Orlando Cabrera’s shoes, in now 35. Getting full and productive seasons from Rolen and Hernandez in particular are key, as they spearhead one of the league’s best defenses, which also includes CF Drew Stubbs and RF Jay Bruce covering lots of ground in the outfield. Still, more positives than negatives at Great American Ballpark, where we love to sit upstairs along the left field line, watch the barges float down the adjacent Ohio, listen to Marty Brennaman on the radio, and munch on a few Skyline coney dogs or a slice of pepperoni from LaRosa’s...can life get any better? Look "over" again in Cincy.

Others to watch...Let’s get serious for a minute about the Chicago Cubs (82); is there any reason to expect this team to improve more than 7 wins from last year’s 75-87 disappointment? We hope the optimism isn’t fueled by a belated late-season rally last September for then-interim manager Mike Quade, under whom the Cubbies finally began to execute some basic fundamentals and won 24 of their last 37. That earned Quade the full-time gig over expected Lou Piniella successor and former Wrigley Field hero Ryne Sandberg, but playing well with no pressure late in the season when no one is looking is one thing; doing it for 162 games is another. Until further notice, the parts still appear greater than the sum at Wrigley, because we are not thrilled with the addition of Tampa Bay 1B Carlos Pena, who hits for power but has a low OBP and strikes out as much as long-ago Cub Dave Kingman. The dysfunctional parade continues with the maddening LF Alfonso Soriano and 3B Aramis Ramirez, both trying to bounce back from disappointing campaigns while in their mid 30s. OFs Kosuke Fukudome and Marlon Byrd also both turn 34 this season in an aging lineup complemented only by young upstart SS Starlin Castro and solid C Geovany Soto. Quade will have to mix and match with no prototypical leadoff hitter and little speed with which to work, and a lot of potential rallies will die with Pena’s penchant for strikeouts. The addition of RHP Matt Garza from Tampa Bay is a positive for the staff, but counting upon anything from Carlos Zambrano is asking for trouble, and projected starter Carlos Silva was released this spring in Mesa. Again, why is this team being projected over .500? Did we miss something, or have the Cubs done anything lately? It’s an "under" for us at Wrigley.

No one is paying much attention to the Houston Astros (71 ½) these days. Indeed, it’s a wonder anyone paid attention to them at all after their dismal break from the gate last season had them behind the Pirates for the first month of the campaign and buried at 17-33 in late May. Even the fans stopped showing up at Minute Maid Park in what turned out to be the Astros’ lowest attendance since 1997. But those who did pay attention to the team after the slow start had to be impressed with the buttons pushed by manager Brad Mills, who effectively squeezed every ounce from the team and helped forge a rather remarkable turnaround as the team played over .500 for the last four months of the season. Unfortunately, Mills might have to reprise the magician act again because GM Ed Wade, hamstrung by money-bleeding owner Drayton McLane, added little in the offseason beyond journeyman utility player Bill Hall (penciled in to start at 2B) and SS Clint Barmes, who is out for a month with a broken hand. The lineup remains overloaded with right-handed bats such as Carlos Lee’s, which is why it is important for young left-handed hitting 1B Brett Wallace to mature in a hurry and move up from his projected No. 7 spot in the order. On the plus side, the staff posted the NL’s third-best ERA after the All-Star break, and a couple of ex-Phillies, Brett Myers and J.A. Happ (who arrived in the Roy Oswalt deal), combined with Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris, form a solid starting nucleus, with vet Brandon Lyon a serviceable closer out of the bullpen. We’re not projected the "Astronomicals" (as Marty Brennaman calls them) to make the playoffs, but we don’t think they’re going to lose 90 games, either. "Over" in Houston.

We admit, we’re fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates (67) , and enjoy no ballpark experience better than PNC Park, with its reasonable prices, unmatched sightlines, great views of downtown, the Clemente Bridge and the adjacent Allegheny River. Not to mention the best array of ballpark food in the bigs, from Manny Sanguillen’s BBQ beyond the right field wall to the Primanti Brothers sandwiches, plus a tasty array of dogs and sausages, Quaker Steak & Lube, Benkovitz Seafood, the Mrs. T’s pierogies (and the pierogi races featuring Oliver Onion and Cheese Chester). And, of course, the local beers such as Yuengling, Penn Pilsner, Rolling Rock, and Iron City. Notice we haven’t gotten around to talking about the Bucs, working on their 19th straight losing season and off what was, even by their reduced standards, a train wreck in 2010. Try 105 losses and a 17-64 mark on the road, a staggering -279 run differential, and only one complete game from a starting pitcher. Yikes! Not all was negative, however...the team reported an operating profit of $34.5 million (who says it doesn’t pay to lose). But a mutinous fan base, while not able to convince management to raid the FA market, at least prompted the team to spend money on its draft choices, and there is a bit of optimism with gregarious new manager Clint Hurdle in town. Yet the 4-year tenure of GM Neal Huntington has been nightmarish, as his insistence to load up on prospects in exchange for proven major league talent has been disastrous (several of Huntington’s discarded players have been flourishing, such as Toronto’s Jose Bautista and his 54 homers in 2010, or how about 2B Freddy Sanchez and RP Javier Lopez and their World Series rings with the Giants). Almost all of Huntington’s prospects have flopped in what is looking like an MLB equivalent of Matt Millen’s GM career with the Detroit Lions. Only ex-Padre Kevin Correia offers new blood to a staff that posted numbers similar to the ‘62 Mets a year ago and was MLB’s worst, and all were hit hard this spring in Bradenton. We’re also not sure about Hurdle’s decision to move one of the few offensive catalysts, speedy CF Andrew McCutchen, from leadoff down to the No. 3 spot in front of new 1B Lyle Overbay. Young LF Jose Tabata and 3B Pedro Alvarez offer hope for the future, but we’re not sure what they or any projected help from AAA Indianapolis can do about 2011, and if vets such as Overbay or SS Ronny Cedeno are having decent luck, Huntington is likely to trade them away for more prospects at the deadline. Sorry, but we’re compelled to look "under" in the Steel City.

We can understand why the St. Louis Cardinals (83) are being slightly discounted by the oddsmakers. After all, staff co-ace Adam Wainwright will miss the season with Tommy John surgery, and the Big Kahuna, 1B Albert Pujols, remains unsigned beyond 2011. Another worrying development is depth, as of the bench players, only C Gerald Laird has played a full season in the majors. That said, however, it is not impossible to envision the Redbirds contending with a few breaks and avoiding any further key injuries. Although starters Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia were having trouble keeping the ball down this spring, the other staff co-ace, Chris Carpenter, and Jake Westbrook looked fine in Jupiter, where former bullpen workhorse Kyle McClellan also impressed when given a chance to take Wainwright’s role in the rotation. McClellan’s absence from the bullpen, however, could weaken the relief corps, as the bridge to closer Ryan Franklin now becomes a bit of a dice roll for Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Still, there is plenty of pop in the lineup with Matt Holliday, Pujols, and newly-acquired Lance Berkman a pretty potent 3-4-5 in the order, although we wonder a bit about Berkman’s ability to handle the chores in right field spending the past few years at 1B (or briefly as a DH last year with the Yankees) and still just a year removed from knee surgery. Don’t be surprised to see Berkman and Holliday flip-flop between RF and LF, although whatever the combo, CF Colby Rasmus is going to have to cover a lot of ground. The edge the Cards had in this division (two No. 1 starters) has been lost with Wainwright’s injury, and we worry a bit about the defense and Pujols’ contract status becoming a distraction, but we are reluctant to underestimate the Cards, who have reached 83 wins in 4 of the last 5 seasons (and won the World Series in the year they won 83, in 2006). We’ll look "over" at Busch Stadium.

Tough to call...Frankly, we’re a bit worried about getting pulled into the whirlpool of hype surrounding the Milwaukee Brewers (86). Granted, the Brew Crew has made some significant upgrades in the offseason (we’ll get to those in a moment), but the team underachieved big time last year when stumbling home at 77-85, and with 1B Prince Fielder due for free agency after 2011, he could be a source of distraction and trade talk at midseason. Moreover, Ron Roenicke cuts his teeth as a big league manager with a clubhouse that turned on predecessors Ned Yost and Ken Macha. Spring work in Maryvale was also troublesome, with injuries to newly-acquired SP Zack Greinke (broken rib, suffered in a pick-up basketball game, of all things), RF Corey Hart (strained oblique, a bad injury for a power hitter), C Jonathan Lucroy (broken pinkie), and relievers Manny Parra (strained back) and LaTroy Hawkins (shoulder). If all hands are on deck, maybe Milwaukee can seriously contend, especially with Greinke and another newly-acquired potential ace, ex-Blue Jay Shaun Marcum, anchoring the staff along with Yovani Gallardo. But Greinke’s injury (which could keep him out until May) has thrown the rotation for a loop, and Roenicke was already looking for help at the back end of the rotation in Arizona; expect Milwaukee to go with only a 4-man rotation at the outset. Plenty of pop does remain in the lineup, and it’s worth noting that Hart, LF Ryan Braun, and 3B Casey McGehee gave Milwaukee the only trio of 100-RBI producers in the NL (Fielder, by the way, didn’t get there, with only 83). The Brewers could slug their way into playoff contention, but we see a few too many trip wires in Milwaukee, especially with the early injury bug. It’s a pass for us in Brew Town, although we won’t pass on the sausages, brats, and fried cheese curds (you heard us right) if we get back to Miller Park this summer.

NL WEST: Best recommendation...We have to admit, it was more entertaining keeping tabs of the divorce trial of Frank and Jamie McCourt (and word of Jamie’s ambitions to parlay her old Dodger gig into the Presidency...of the United States, that is) than watching the Los Angeles Dodgers (83 ½) struggle to an 80-82 finish last season. The problem with the McCourt’s ongoing battle is that it has hamstrung an organization that used to throw around the cash pretty freely in free-agency but has been a bit more reserved the past couple of offseasons as the ownership situation comically sorts itself out. All of it was too much for manager Joe Torre, who begged away from any contract extension and opted for temporary retirement instead, with sidekick Don Mattingly now getting his chance as the skipper. A quick look at the roster shows what we mean about the straitjacket GM Ned Colletti has had to wear the past couple of years; journeyman types not only fill the roster, they’re in the starting lineup, which at the outset includes well-traveled sorts as LF Tony Gwynn, Jr., C Rod Barajas, 2B Jamey Carroll, and SS Juan Uribe (albeit off a World Series with the hated Giants), as most of Colletti’s expenditures this offseason were not spent on Carl Crawford-like FAs, merely re-signing a handful of existing players and replacing various parts that had walked out the door. The farm system has dried up in recent years, and injuries to any among RF Andre Ethier, CF Matt Kemp (who went "Hollywood" last year), or 1B James Loney will expose the lack of depth at Mattingly’s disposal. About all the Blue can hope for is lights-out work from the rotation, but beyond Clayton Kershaw, we see no potential dominators, and with Vicente Padilla and newly-acquired Jon Garland both opening the season on the DL, Mattingly’s staff is thinned from the outset. Questions also surround heavyweight fireman Jonathan Broxton, who lost his confidence and his closer’s role for a time last season. When the most useful offseason acquisition appears to be a middle reliever (ex-Twin Matt Guerrier), and the magic touch of Torre now gone, Dodger fans might be reduced to simply savoring longtime play-by-play man Vin Scully (who decided to come back for another year) as long as they can. It’s an "under" for us at Chavez Ravine...and to Vinny, a very pleasant day to you, wherever you may be.

Others to watch...If we thought the Arizona Diamondbacks (72 ½) were going to resemble their dysfunctional selves from the past few seasons, we wouldn’t waste any time considering them as a team to watch. But a few developments in the offseason are reasons for encouragement in Phoenix. The hiring of GM Kevin Towers (ex-San Diego) finally puts a serious baseball man back in charge of the personnel department after the D-backs went on the cheap for the past several years. If nothing else, Towers will continue to fine-tune the roster as the season progresses. Meanwhile, manager Kirk Gibson, retained after his interim stint last season, is already stressing accountability and attitude, qualities that made him an invaluable player once upon a time, not to mention fundamentals lost on recent D-back editions such as holding enemy baserunners, situational hitting, moving runners along, etc. Towers also immediately began to reshape the roster, getting rid of wind-machine 3B Mark Reynolds and his penchant for strikeouts, and began to remake the bullpen with new closer J.J. Putz, who a few years ago was an elite fireman with the Mariners, plus set-up man David Hernandez from the Orioles in the Reynolds trade. Granted, much of the 100-K parade from a year ago remains (CF Chris Young, RF Justin Upton, SS Stephen Drew, and 2B Kelly Johnson), but all are capable producers if showing a bit of the Gibson discipline at the plate, and the addition of professional hitters such as 3B Melvin Mora, 1B Russell Branyan, and OF/1B Xavier Nady will provide good examples for the youngsters as well as more functionality in the lineup. And the staff has plenty of promise, with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, and Barry Enright flashing plenty of upside a year ago, and ex-Tiger Armando Galarraga an interesting late edition. Like the Astros, the D-backs don’t have to contend, they just have to avoid losing 90 game to make our "over" call at Chase Field come true.

Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us. A year ago, the San Diego Padres (75 ½) were the surprise package in the National League. We hate to ask Bud Black’s troops to do it again to make us believers...but we will, risking our own shame. We have our reasons, as exiting Peoria, San Diego is already a banged-up team, with six players opening the season on the DL, including projected opening day starting pitcher Mat Latos, suffering from shoulder bursitis. Latos is expected back before the end of April, but the staff as a whole endured a rugged spring, and the defense did not look nearly as sharp as it did in the Cactus League a year ago. Two other projected starting pitchers, Tim Stauffer and Clayton Richard, will both have to be monitored closely after their own nagging injuries this spring. Moreover, the anchor of the offense, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, left for the riches of the east coast and the Red Sox in the offseason, leaving a gaping hole in the lineup. Last summer’s supposed key pickup from the Cards, OF Ryan Ludwick, had a miserable run after arriving at Petco Park, and we are not convinced some of the various spare parts brought in by young GM Ed Hoyer (one of the stat freaks preferred by General Partner Jeff Moorad, who believes his days as an agent qualify him to be a personnel evaluator) such as CF Cameron Maybin (one of those opening the season on the DL), 1B Brad Hawpe, 2B Orlando Hudson, and SS Jason Bartlett are going to compensate for the loss of the invaluable Gonzalez. No surprises this season; San Diego doesn’t contend, and if the staff implodes, the Pads are likely bound for the cellar, so we’re looking "under" at Petco Park.

It’s going to be hard for the San Francisco Giants (88) to bottle what they had down the stretch last season and replicate the dynamics of the franchise’s first World Series since Willie Mays ran down Vic Wertz’ deep fly at the Polo Grounds in the sweep over the Indians back in 1954. But, maybe they can. After all, the starting rotation probably remains MLB’s best, with a pair of hard-throwing righties, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, split in the rotation by lefty Jonathan Sanchez, with still-serviceable lefty Barry Zito offering further change-of-pace as the No. 4 starter and last year’s rookie sensation Madison Bumgarner completing the lights-out staff. The eccentric, bearded closer Brian Wilson opens the season on the DL with a strained oblique, but is expected back within two weeks, and Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti have plenty of temporary options in a deep and varied bullpen. Meanwhile, the likes of LF Pat Burrell, RF Aubrey Huff, 2B Freddy Sanchez, and new SS Miguel Tejada (an offensive upgrade from predecessor Juan Uribe) are now firmly entrenched in the San Francisco lineup, with OF Cody Ross likely to join them soon when he comes off the DL with a strained right calf. A newcomer to watch is rookie 1B Brandon Belt, the former Texas Longhorn who zoomed up the minors in 2010 ago much like last year’s rookie sensation C Buster Posey did the year before. As long as the staff stays healthy, the Giants should at least get to 90 wins and have a chance to defend their title in the postseason. "Over" at AT&T Park.

Tough to call...Maybe the Colorado Rockies (87) were just following the lead of the Green Bay Packers, who also didn’t tamper too much with what they thought was a winning nucleus before last season, using personnel developed within the system to help form an eventual championship team. So the Rocks hope to do the same after mostly sitting pat in the offseason following a near-miss at back-to-back playoff berths when fading badly in the last two weeks of the campaign, losing 13 of their last 14 games. Only a bit of fine tuning was made in the offseason by GM Dan O’Dowd, acquiring versatile Ty Wigginton (who can play any infield position and hits from the right side, a nice complement to left-handed hitting corner infielders Todd Helton and Ian Stewart) and a couple of useful relievers from Houston, Matt Lindstrom and Felipe Paulino. Should fragile closer Huston Street get hurt once more, skipper Jim Tracy now at least has adequate cover in the bullpen. Meanwhile, the rotation has a solid look with Ubaldo Jimenez looking to pick up where he left off in 2010 (19-8, 2.88 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin exhibiting much better control of his fastball during spring. Sources say the lineup could be more productive as soon as speedy CF and leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler masters the bunt; he at lest seems to have heeded the message of getting on base no matter what. A breakout performer could be RF Seth Smith, who was hitting lefties better in the spring, while LF Carlos Gonzalez (.336, 34 HR & 117 RBI in 2010) could be poised for an MVP campaign. But the production from Stewart and the aging Helton dropped alarmingly last season, and while Wigginton could be a nice stop-gap for either, the Rocks desperately need some pop from those corner infield positions to contend. With that still a bit of a question mark, it’s enough to make us pause and instead simply take a pass in Denver.

Play ball!

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