by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Daniel M. Gray, TGS Baseball Consultant

Believe it or not, baseball season is just around the corner!

As we like to do at this time each spring, we're offering our previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the "futures" (over/under wins) recommendations. And remember that beginning next week, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on Top Choice and Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring our daily TC plus two other featured baseball releases, available online at www.goldsheet.com.

First up is our look at the NL; our next issue on Thursday will preview the AL. As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions. Play ball!

NL EAST: BEST BET...You'd think we were back in the early days of Ted Turner's ownership in the 1970s, when Chief Noc-A-Homa still roamed in center field at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and the team wore red pin-striped unis at home. We're talking about the Atlanta Braves (73 ½), who have been completely dismissed by many pundits and metrics sorts after last year's dip below .500 and losing lots of offense (Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis) in the offseason. We're not expecting a playoff push, but don't believe the Bravos are going to be as bad as their many critics suggest, either. True, there are still too many swing-and-miss guys in the lineup, but now that top FA addition RF Nick Markakis has returned to active duty after offseason neck surgery (herniated disc), Atlanta does possess one of the game's best kept secrets, a glue guy who will stabilize the batting order with consistent at bats and clutch hitting behind leadoff hitter Eric Young, Jr., as well as provide spirited defense in right. There are also some live young arms (Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and ex-Cardinal Shelby Miller) in what looks like a serviceable rotation, especially if journeyman Wandy Rodriguez (who earned a spot with an impressive spring at Disney World) fares as well as either of last year's vet arms, Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang (both since departed). And Craig Kimbrel remains an All-Star caliber closer. Braves fans are probably more excited about the new stadium going up north of town on the I-285 perimeter, but Atlanta is not likely to be road kill this season, so it's an "over" for us in the Showcase City of the South.

OTHERS: Everyone outside of the Delaware Valley has been wondering what has been taking GM Ruben Amaro so long to begin selling off assets while he could get something valuable in return for the Philadelphia Phillies (67 ½) , who have been in steep decline the past few years. The remnants of a once-powerful pitching staff contain some of the last chips Amaro can still use to net prospects in return and commence a full-scale rebuild. Though, in the short term, dealing away disgruntled ace Cole Hamels would seriously risk the Phils losing 100 games. Yet Hamels and closer Jonathan Papelbon are about the only marketable commodities left for Amaro, especially with one-time ace Cliff Lee (elbow) on the DL and possibly out for the entire season. Indeed, there is only so much manager Ryne Sandberg can do with this aging and poorly-constructed roster. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Grady Sizemore were formidable members of a batting order in 2008; in 2015, not as much. Meanwhile, the once-ballyhooed LF Domonic Brown faces a make-or-break campaign after faltering badly since the All-Star break...of 2013. And the new supposed phenom, 3B Maikel Franco, recently disappointed so much in Clearwater that he was sent to the minor-league camp midway in March. Expect Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, and others on 610 WIP to be Phillies-bashing for few weeks until the topic of discussion turns to the NFL Draft, and then the Eagles, until this time next year. It's going to be a long summer in Philly...look "under" at Citizen's Bank Park.

The Miami Marlins (82 ½) improved by 15 wins last season. Another similar jump (to 92 wins) would stop the locals from focusing all of their attention on the Dolphins, at least until August, maybe longer. The Heat, after all, are yesterday's news in South Beach. After a reckless quick rebuild three years ago, the Marlins have since added reinforcements more selectively, and this past offseason spent wisely on versatile everyday sorts such as 1B-OF Michael Morse and utility infielder Martin Prado. In addition, ex-Dodger 2B Dee Gordon (64 steals LY) adds more demon speed to the lineup, and OF Ichiro still has enough in his tank to contribute as a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. With Giancarlo Stanton fully recovered from last September's scary facial injury vs. the Brewers and now signed to a mega-deal, and Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich both stars-on-the-rise, Miami's outfield could also be the best in the division, if not the league. The wise offseason spending also added vets Mat Latos and Dan Haren to a rotation that is hopeful that 2013 Rookie of the year Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery by June. And the bullpen has plenty of bridges to fireballing closer Steve Cishek. If the Marlins hang in there until Fernandez returns, we expect they give the Nats a run in the East. It's an "over" for us in Miami.

The only thing Congress can apparently agree about these days in D.C. is the excitement surrounding the Washington Nationals (93 ½), who are on a short list of teams expected to make the World Series. And the Nats are even more loaded with arms since ex-Tiger Max Scherzer signed a FA mega-deal, giving skipper Matt Williams an embarrassment of riches in his rotation, one in which former All-Star Gio Gonzalez is the fifth starter. That, folks, is pitching depth. But we see some potential concerns in the bullpen, where the departed Tyler Clippard was not only one of the best set-up men in the league, but provided insurance for closer Drew Storen. Williams has also done some position-shifting, as Ryan Zimmerman has been moved from 3B, where he has spent virtually his entire career, to 1B to make room for Anthony Rendon at the hot corner, while journeyman Yunel Escobar, acquired from the A's in the Clippard trade, is now at 2B. The lineup still tends to have problems making contact, and is very reliant upon another big year from CF Denard Span, whose contact ability and speed to manufacture runs at the top of the order are invaluable. Mostly, however, we wonder if the big-bucks used on the deal for Scherzer could have perhaps been better spent elsewhere, and that mega-contract might limit the flexibility of GM Mike Rizzo to make deals if needed at midseason. This might anger number one fan Charles Krauthammer, who can be spotted at the top of the first deck behind the plate at most home games, but between munches on a chili half-smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl down the third base line, we're looking "under" at Nats Park.

Is this the year the New York Mets (81 ½) finally become relevant again? Maybe. The return of ace Matt Harvey, who started the 2013 All-Star Game for the NL before missing 17 months with Tommy John surgery, should be a plus for the staff. But we wonder about a rotation that already lost projected number three starter Zack Wheeler (another Tommy John surgery) during March in Port St. Lucie and has to cross its fingers not only regarding Harvey's return but also Jon Niese, who has battled shoulder problems the past two seasons. And how much more can skipper Terry Collins squeeze out of 41-year-old Bartolo Colon, the oldest opening day starter in the bigs since 2006, when Jamie Moyer (Mariners) and Randy Johnson (Yankees) both were tabbed? There is potential in the batting order if 3B David Wright (off of his worst-ever season in 2014) is beyond last year's shoulder problems and LF Curtis Granderson avoids last season's abysmally slow start. Vet RF Michael Cuddyer could also be a useful addition to a batting order that uncovered a new power source last season in 1B Lucas Duda (30 homers) and a potential future batting champ in 2B Daniel Murphy. Whatever, the Mets appear a tough read, with the potential to threaten 90 wins if all falls right, but fall back to the low 70s if things don't. So it's a no call for us at Citi Field.

NL CENTRAL: BEST BET...We'll say this about the Chicago Cubs (82 ½) ; their two-year old spring training home (Sloan Park) in Mesa is one of the best facilities among many superb ones in the Phoenix area. And getting a ticket was even harder than usual this March because of the excitement surrounding the Cubs' significant offseason upgrades (including new skipper Joe Maddon, heisted from Tampa Bay, and potential ace pitcher Jon Lester) and the hype of Cactus League phenom 3B Kris Bryant, who blasted one of his nine spring homers in front of us at the A's Hohokam Park last Tuesday. Bryant's agent Scott Boras and Cubs fans might disagree, but GM Theo Epstein, for reasons relating to future arbitration and free agency, is going to park Bryant at AAA Iowa at the outset of the campaign. And that might be one of the first disappointments this term for the win-starved fans at Wrigley Field, which continues to undergo renovation to the outfield seats that might not be completed until May (just to warn those who might wonder what they are looking at when tuning into WGN or Comcast next week). There are going to be several moving parts, including Bryant, in and out of Wrigley all season, as the lineup still has contact issues, the relief corps is relatively inexperienced, and the recent arm concerns of Lester (shut down for ten days in March) and erratic spring of fifth starter Edwin Jackson are concerns for the staff. The NL Central is also a tricky neighborhood. We're not buying the Wrigley P.R.-machine hype just yet; it's an "under" for us on the North side.

OTHERS: Nobody seems to remember that the Milwaukee Brewers (78 ½) spent 150 days in first place last season before a 9-17 September caused the Brew Crew to tumble out of the playoff picture. True, there was more roster outflow than inflow at Miller Park in the offseason, but we'd keep an eye on these guys regardless. The lineup should benefit from a healthy former MVP RF Ryan Braun, who was hampered by thumb injuries all of last season but looked closer to his old self this March in Maryvale, and 3B Aramis Ramirez, who was also ailing last September, and now appears back at 100%. Key offseason addition 1B Adam Lind is also expected to provide some needed left-handed pop in the batting order. The staff has a lot of fly-ball pitchers (which makes ground-covering CF Carlos Gomez an important asset), but even with former ace Yovani Gallardo moving to Texas, we kind of like the rotation, more so if fourth and fifth starters Mike Fiers and former minor league phenom Jimmy Nelson bolster the back end behind serviceable Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta. And if vet closer Francisco Rodriguez has some gas left in his tank, Milwaukee's bullpen might not be a liability, either. If the Brewers can forget about last September, they might even chase the Cards and Pirates. It's an "over" for us at Miller Park, and if you have a chance, try to tune into 81-year-old Bob Uecker, still as colorful as ever on the Brewers radio network.

The Cincinnati Reds (77 ½) had some valid reasons for falling out of contention around the All-Star break last season, with key bats 1B Joey Votto and RF Jay Bruce either sidelined or limited by injuries. But unless both bounce back in a big way, we're not sure where this season is going at Great American Ballpark after the Reds failed to score 600 runs in a season for the first time in more than 30 years. In a best-case offensive scenario, with a healthy Votto and Bruce, plus top offseason addition LF Marlon Byrd, and CF Billy Hamilton (56 SB in 2014) with the potential to lead the NL in steals, maybe the offense will be fine. But we have major concerns about skipper Bryan Price's pitching staff, especially since ace Johnny Cueto is coming up on free agency after this season and might be dealt before the deadline if Cincy is not in the playoff picture. Moreover, number two starter Homer Bailey had offseason arm surgery, and the back end of the rotation is suspect after trades of two of last year's starters, Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. An arson-squad bullpen also had no bridges a year ago to fireballer closer Aroldis Chapman, imploding on several occasions. With so many questions on the mound, we suspect crusty play-by-play man Marty Brennaman might be in a surly mood this summer. The food (Skyline Chili!) and ambiance are going to be the best things at GBP this season, because we're looking "under" with the Reds.

The Pittsburgh Pirates (84 ½) continue to be downgraded, and we don't know why. The Pirates appear to be built to sustain their recent success that has produced consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the early '90s, with the added bonus of CF Andrew McCutchen perhaps the best player in the game. Along with emerging LF Starling Marte and five-tool RF Gregory Polanco, the Bucs can challenge the Marlins for the best outfield in the NL. Moreover, Josh Harrison has finally found at home at 3B, which allows Pedro Alvarez to move to 1B and perhaps not have to worry as much about his defensive responsibilities. Spring work in Bradenton revealed that high-priced Korean SS Jung-Ho Kang might not be ready to replace Jordy Mercer at SS, though manager Clint Hurdle will keep Kang as a utility man and hope he finds his batting stroke during the season. The only issue we have with the offense is replacing C Russell Martin's clutch bat, which could be a problem for new featured backstop Francisco Cervelli. Re-acquiring vet starter A.J. Burnett, who flourished under pitching coach Ray Searage in 2012 & '13 before moving to the Phils a year ago, adds further depth to a staff that has been one of the NL's best the past two years. The only downside to the Bucs' recent success is that tickets are a bit harder to acquire at PNC Park, still our favorite venue in the bigs. It's another "over" for us in Pittsburgh.

One role of the St. Louis Cardinals (88 ½) the past two years has been that of Dodger-killer in the playoffs; we're not sure another team was going to beat the Blue in the postseason. And we would not be surprised to see the Redbirds have a chance for a hat trick against the Dodgers this October. We are not, however, as excited as some about the addition of FA RF Jason Heyward, who should provide some defensive help, but whose contact issues at the plate made him one of the wind machines that helped derail the Braves' offense last summer. Perhaps batting in the two spot ahead of Matt Holliday will help this season, but Heyward's addition also keeps the batting order a bit lefty-heavy. There are plenty of options in the rotation for manager Mike Matheny, who will hope that Adam Wainwright will avoid some of the recurring arm issues that hampered him a year ago. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, however, did have control issues last season, and a so-so bullpen is hoping that ex-Brave and Angel Jordan Walden can add a reliable set-up arm and perhaps act as insurance should Rosenthal not deliver. We believe the Redbirds probably get back to the playoffs, but getting to 90 wins is no guarantee, so it's a no-call for us at Busch Stadium.

NL WEST: The Los Angeles Dodgers (92 ½) got bold in the offseason in ways other than throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, luring on-the-rise GM Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay. Friedman immediately turned over nearly half of the roster from last year's 94-win NL West champs/playoff flop, in the process getting rid of some of the distractions (mainly Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp) that disrupted the clubhouse a year ago. Friedman hasn't completely discarded those potential trouble spots (more on that in a minute), but he also made a determined attempt to strengthen the team up the middle, renting a vet double-play combination (Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick) for 2015 while also upgrading at catcher with ex-Padre Yasmani Grandal. The result is an over-30 infield (along with 3B Juan Uribe and 1B Adrian Gonzalez) that makes the Blue a sort of baseball equivalent of George Allen's 1970s "Over The Hill Gang" Washington Redskins, but defense, leadership, and clubhouse presence now seem much improved. And then there is the staff, with the untouchable Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the modern-day equivalent of Koufax and Drysdale at Chavez Ravine. We do, however, have a few questions at the back of the rotation and in the bullpen that opens the season with closer Kenley Jansen (foot) on the DL. And, speaking of those distractions still on the roster, there are mercurial RF Yasiel Puig, relegated to a pinch-hitter in last October's NLDS, and OF Andre Ethier (still owed $56 mill for three more years), who will be an expensive ornament to keep on the bench if he can't beat out young CF Joc Pederson, and a difficult chip to move at the trade deadline unless Friedman wants to eat a lot of salary (as he is currently doing with Kemp, now in San Diego), who could become disruptive forces. Still, this is the NL's best threat to reach 100 wins and return to the playoffs...we'll speculate in October if Kershaw will finally begin to pitch, instead of simply throw hard, in another postseason. It's an "over" for us at the Ravine, where many Dodger fans will have to go to see their team in person while Time Warner's Dodger TV channel is still unavailable on many cable systems in the region.

The Arizona Diamondbacks (71 ½) commenced yet another reboot after last season, when the Kirk Gibson era finally ran aground and the D-backs threatened 100 losses. Can new manager Chip Hale really coax an additional 8-10 wins out of this dysfunctional roster? We're not convinced. A jerry-rigged pitching staff makes any significant progress unlikely, with plenty of questions in a rotation that is crossing its fingers that Trevor Cahill and Jeremy Hellickson both can rediscover lost form from past seasons, and that has both Bronson Arroyo and Patrick Corbin still on the mend from Tommy John surgery and perhaps not available until the All-Star break...if then. The lineup also has several questions beyond 1B Paul Goldschmidt, himself on the mend from a hand injury that ended his 2014 season in early August. Moreover, as Cactus League camp breaks at Talking Stick, there is still uncertainty what to do with high-priced Cuban signee Yasmany Tomas, projected at 3B, but just as likely to open the season at AAA Reno after an uncertain spring. The poor fits on the roster are reflected by sorts like Tomas and ex-Angel Mark Trumbo, whose best bets are to play 1B (not happening in Phoenix with Goldschmidt around) or at DH (except for a few interleague games, no help to Arizona, which plays in the wrong league), not in the outfield, where Hale likely starts Trumbo in right. This is an awfully big projected jump in wins for a team with so many question marks...it's an "under" for us at Chase Field.

Like the Diamondbacks, we don't think the Colorado Rockies (71 ½) contend for the playoffs, either. Especially after losing 96 times last season when they dropped 30 of their last 35 on the road, where their 3.15 runs pg as a visitor were MLB's worst, and where their .636 road OBPS was also last in the bigs. Moreover, the Rocks didn't make many significant offseason additions. So why any optimism? Well, just having a healthy SS Troy Tulowitzki (hip last season) is almost the equivalent of adding an MVP candidate to the lineup, which was without Tulo and star RF Carlos Gonzalez (knee in 2014) for a combined 163 games last season. While it's no guarantee that either of those injury-prone guys can stay healthy, if they do, it's a huge plus. The Rocks also changed direction in their front office, with 37-year-old dynamo Jeff Bridich replacing Dan O'Dowd as the GM, with manager Walt Weiss given more voice in personnel matters. The immediate result was a restructured roster with numerous apparent bargain additions. Several of those new faces will hopefully bolster a staff that a year ago had the highest ERA (4.84) in MLB and whose starters (4.89) and relievers (4.79) ranked last in the NL. After releasing Jhoulys Chacin in March and with lefty Jorge De La Rosa opening the season on the DL, it's time to see if young flamethrowers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler can anchor the back of a rotation that should get some benefit from ex-Phil Kyle Kendrick, who can eat innings and was the highest-profile offseason addition. Mostly, however, we bank upon a healthier Tulowitzki and Gonzalez to get the Rocks at least six more wins above their 2014 total...and cross our fingers if they're dealt before the deadline, and Colorado gets a treasure trove of young talent in return. It's a light "over" call for us at Coors Field.

For the first time in a long while, the San Diego Padres (84 ½) look kind of interesting entering the season. New GM A.J. Preller, tired of the Padres' popgun offense, went out and acquired a brand-new outfield that now features ex-Dodger Matt Kemp, ex-Ray Wil Myers, and ex-Brave Justin Upton, plus a new All-Star C in ex-A's Derek Norris, while also signing workhorse starter James Shields, the ace of the Royals' World Series rotation, to the most expensive contract ever awarded by the franchise. Such dramatic immediate makeovers, like the 2012 Marlins and 2013 Blue Jays, tend to derail. But we were thinking the Padres might be better in 2015 even before the flurry of offseason moves because of their underrated pitching staff that looked solid even before the addition of Shields, with Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross (an All-Star last season) both hinting at ace-like stuff, Ian Kennedy an effective innings-eater, and Odrisamer Despaigne flashing some upside a year ago. Still, we suggest pumping the brakes a bit, because Petco Park's big dimensions will suppress the power numbers of all of the new acquisitions, and the Padres are going to lose some defense in the outfield (not an insignificant development at Petco) if CF Cameron Maybin has to sit and Myers, not known for his glove, must patrol the biggest part of the expansive park. We are also not sure that 37-year-old Joaquin Benoit, a pleasant surprise in 2014 after Huston Street's trade to the Angels, is going to be able to handle closer duties for a contender. At least it's not same old same old in San Diego this season. Still, it's a no-call for us at Petco, though we highly suggest, while you can, buying the MLB TV package just to hear Dick Enberg (on his way to Cooperstown this July as winner of the Ford Frick Award, which might be worth a trip for us) call the games.

The last two times the San Francisco Giants (83 ½) won the World Series, in 2010 & 2012, the Bay Bombers disappointed the following campaign. After winning the Fall Classic for the third time in five seasons a year ago, can skipper Bruce Bochy prevent another backslide? We'll see. On the negative side, they have little momentum on the eve of Opening Day, having floundered at the plate almost the entire spring, resulting in the worst record in the Cactus League. They have two veteran pitchers in their rotation (Matt Cain and Tim Hudson) coming off surgeries, a third who began 2014 with one win in his first 23 starts (Jake Peavy), and a fourth who basically hasn't gotten anybody out since President Obama's first term (Tim Lincecum). But they have Bochy, who has taken three flawed rosters to World Series glory, and ace Madison Bumgarner, who almost single-handedly won the title for the Giants in the best October pitching performance since Mickey Lolich with the Tigers in 1968. Bumgarner is so dominant that even if the rest of staff can't get above .500, the Giants still might threaten the playoffs, with Bumgarner a threat to win 25 games. The first-rate bullpen returns almost intact as well. Still, many believe the Giants went on the cheap to replace key cogs Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse (both gone in free agency), with only Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki added in the offseason. And with RF Hunter Pence (broken arm) opening the season on the DL, there is little pop in the outfield. The reasons we are not downgrading the Giants completely are Bochy, Bumgarner, and shrewd GM Brian Sabean, who has had a magic touch with midseason moves in the past and is not likely to sit on his hands if the offense (OF in particular) isn't producing. The Giant lineup in August and September could thus have a much different look than it does in April. Given those considerations, along with all of the other mixed signals, we'd rather just sit back and watch what transpires with the Giants, enjoying the incomparable Jon Miller describe the action on blowtorch flagship station KNBR 680 with the colorful Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow doing the same on the TV side. Whatever, it's a no-call for us at AT&T Park.

Next issue: AL Preview!

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