Thursday, March 31, 2011

Friday Preview

After a great first day of the 2011 season, the 18 teams who didn't play on Thursday open their seasons on Friday.  Four teams will play their second games of the season (Angels at Royals and Giants at Dodgers).  Here are the match-ups for tomorrow, with each pitcher's 2010 win-loss record and ERA.  Look for the best pitching duel to be between Mariner's ace Felix Hernandez versus young A's stud Trevor Cahill.

Houston Astros at Philadelphia Phillies, 1:05 PM (ET) on ESPN
Pitching match-up: Brett Myers (14-8, 3.14 ERA) vs. Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44 ERA)

Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs, 2:20 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40 ERA) vs. Ryan Dempster (15-12, 3.85 ERA)

Chicago White Sox at Indians, 3:05 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Mark Buehrle (13-13, 4.28 ERA) vs. Fausto Carmona (13-14, 3.77 ERA)

Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers, 4:05 PM (ET) on ESPN
Pitching match-up: Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) vs. C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35 ERA)

Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies, 4:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Ian Kennedy (9-10, 3.80 ERA) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez (19-8, 2.88 ERA)

Minnesota Twins at Toronto Blue Jays, 7:07 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA) vs. Ricky Romero (14-9, 3.73)

New York Mets at Florida Marlins, 7:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Mike Pelfrey (15-9, 3.66 ERA) vs. Josh Johnson (11-6, 2.30 ERA)

Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays, 7:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Jeremy Guthrie (11-14, 3.83 ERA) v. David Price (19-6, 2.72 ERA)

Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City, 8:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Dan Haren (12-12, 3.91 ERA) v. Jeff Francis (4-6, 5.00 ERA)

Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics, 10:05 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Felix Hernandez (13-12, 2.27 ERA) vs. Trevor Cahill (18-8, 2.97 ERA)

San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers, 10:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Jonathan Sanchez (13-9, 3.07 ERA) vs. Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA)

Braves Win First Game of 2011

The Braves blanked the Nationals 2-0 to win the first game of the regular season.  Braves starter Derek Lowe pitched 5.2 shutout innings of three hit baseball, striking out six.  Nationals starter Livan Hernandez didn't pitch poorly, only giving up two runs in 6.1 innings.  Craig Kimbrel recorded the save for the Braves, who are expected to push the Phillies for the top spot in the NL East.

The Braves two runs came on a first inning single by catcher Brian McCann, which scored Chipper Jones, and a second inning home run by Jason Heyward.  Just like last season, Heyward started off his season with big fly.  Highly touted rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman went 0-3 in his season debut for the Braves.  The Nationals offense was anemic, as they managed only five hits, only one of which was an extra-base hit.

The Yankees just finished off the Tigers 6-3 in the Bronx.  Starters CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander both pitched six innings, giving up three runs apiece.  Along with Mark Teixeira, who hit a three-run homer for the Yanks, centerfielder Curtis Granderson was the Opening Day hero.  He went 1-3 with the game winning home run, to go along with a few highlight reel plays in center.  Joba Chamberlain picked up the win, while Mariano Rivera recorded his first save of the season.  Phil Coke took the loss for Detroit.

The Brewers jumped on the board early as Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez went deep back-to-back off Reds starter Edinson Volquez.  They currently hold a 6-2 lead over Cincinnati and they batting with two outs in the top of the seventh.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Opening Day Preview

Baseball fans have been waiting for Thursday ever since the Giants finished off the Rangers in the World Series.  Here is a look at the six games being played tomorrow.

Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals, 1:05 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Derek Lowe v. Livan Hernandez
Players to watch: For the Nationals, will outfielder Michael Morse continue hitting the way he did during spring training?  The 6'5", 230 pounder hit .364 with 9 homers in 66 at-bats this spring.  For the Braves, will phenom and new starting first baseman Freddie Freeman (age 21) start out with a bang just like Jason Heyward did last season?

Detroit at New York Yankees, 1:05 PM (ET) on ESPN 
Pitching match-up: Justin Verlander v. CC Sabathia
Players to watch:  This should be a great pitching matchup, as two of the best starters in the American League face off.  Last season, Verlander went 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA, while Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA.

Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds, 2:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Yovani Gallardo v. Edinson Volquez
Players to watch:  Newcomer Zack Greinke has gotten the most press in Milwaukee, but Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo may be just as good.  Last season, he went 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA and 200 strikeouts.  For Cincinnati, when will flamethrower Aroldis Chapman be used out of the bullpen, and just how hard will he throw when it is only supposed to 46 degrees at Great American Ballpark?

Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City Royals, 4:10 PM (ET)
Pitching match-up: Jered Weaver v. Luke Hochevar
Players to watch:  For the Angels, will young centerfielder Peter Bourjos continue his hot hitting on his 24th birthday, and begin to make himself a fan favorite in Anaheim?  For the Royals, will Alex Gordon, now 27 and the second overall pick in the 2005 draft, ever live up to the hype?

San Diego Padres at St. Louis Cardinals, 4:15 PM (ET) on ESPN
Pitching match-up: Tim Stauffer v. Chris Carpenter
Players to watch: Can Padres' centerfielder Cameron Maybin, who has been on everyone's radar for a long time but is still only turning 24 on Monday, finally become 5-tool star that he was predicted to be?  For St. Louis, attention will, of course, be on Albert Pujols.  Just how long will it take Prince Albert to hit his first dinger of the season.

San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers, 8:00 PM (ET) on ESPN
Pitching match-up: Tim Lincecum vs. Clayton Kershaw
Players to watch: This should be the best pitching match-up of the day (yes, better than Verlander v. Sabathia).  Lincecum already has two Cy Young awards, and Kershaw showed last season that it wouldn't really be surprise if he took home the Cy Young award at the end of this season.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lester vs. Halladay Could Have Been World Series Preview

While yesterday's match-up between the Red Sox and Phillies in Clearwater, Florida was only a spring training game, it's not hard to imagine that it also could have been a preview of this year's World Series.  It was a great pitching match-up for a spring training game: the best pitcher in baseball (Halladay) vs. one of the best lefties in the game and the ace of what is being heralded as the best team in baseball (Lester).  The Phillies have the best rotation in baseball this season, with four pitchers who would be he ace of almost any other team in baseball.  The Red Sox have the best combination of rotation and lineup, and the only question they really have at this point during spring training is where the hell they position all of their stars in the Opening Day lineup (manager Terry Francona is a lucky man).  In FOX Sports' preseason power rankings, the Phillies are ranked first and the Red Sox are ranked second.  In CBS Sports' preseason power rankings, the teams are flip flopped, as the Red Sox are ranked first and the Phillies are ranked second.  You get the point.  Both teams have massive expectations.

Obviously, we can't get too ahead of ourselves.  Yesterday's game was merely a spring training match-up which has no bearing on the regular season.  Both teams have their weaknesses.  The Phillies have major holes in their lineup, with Chase Utley injured and Jayson Werth now playing in Washington.  Even during the National League Championship Series last season against the Giants, the Phils offense looked terrible against good pitching.  The Red Sox, on the other hand, have some minor pitching problems that could derail a potentially spectacular season.  If Josh Beckett and John Lackey can't bounce back from off-years, then even the Red Sox great offense might not be able to save the team from missing the playoffs (especially in the AL East).

Even with the problems that both teams have, it's hard not to be optimistic when you see a great pitching performance from the aces of potential World Series contenders.  Roy Halladay was lights out, pitching 7.2 innings of five hit baseball, striking out six.  Lester was spectacular through the first five innings, before struggling in the sixth.  He did give up a hit until the fifth inning and his off-speed pitches looked to be ready for Opening Day.  It was both Halladay and Lester's last real tune-up before the season starts.

FOX will be hoping for a match-up of more popular teams in this year's World Series, as the hype for last year's World Series between the Giants and the Rangers was lower than in recent years.  The ratings for a Red Sox-Phillies World Series would be through the roof, but of course, it's still only March.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Barry Bonds' Trial Begins

Jury selection began this morning in Barry Bonds' perjury trial, roughly three years after he was originally indicted for lying to a grand jury about his steroid use.  While Bonds did not deny that he took steroids, he denied that he knowingly took steroids.  He is facing four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice for lying to a federal grand jury in 2003 (he was testifying in connection with an investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, otherwise known as BALCO).

The jury pool for the trial started with a little more than a hundred people, but has been cut down by 40 already. US District Judge Susan Illston called a recess to consider the prosecutors' request to dismiss another 10 jurors.  After the slight break, she returned to tell the court that she expects to have just enough people to fill the jury.

There are mixed reactions over whether or not the government should be taking Bonds to trial.  Some people believe that the trial is a waste of federal funds, as Bonds is disgraced already and many people presume his guilt.  Others feel as though he should be punished for breaking federal laws.  I agree with the latter.  He broke a law and he deserves to be punished for it.  Now let's get Bonds' name erased from the record books.  Long live the rightful home run king, Henry Aaron.

Check out these Sports Illustrated articles to see how the prosecution and the defense will approach Bonds' trial:

The Barry Bonds trial: Laying out the case for the prosecution

The Barry Bonds trial: Laying out the case for the defense

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Peavy Shut Down: Believed To Have Tendinitis

The White Sox shut down starting pitcher Jake Peavy today, who has what is believed to be rotator cuff tendinitis.  He will be re-evaluated in the next 48 hours, but is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list to start the season.  So far this Spring, Peavy has a 4.11 ERA in 15.1 innings.  On Saturday, Peavy pitched 5.2 innings against the A's, allowing three runs on seven hits and 83 pitches.

Hopefully, this is just a minor setback in Peavy's comeback from a torn lat muscle he suffered last season.  He only made 17 starts before injuring himself on July 6th.  He was diagnosed with a detached latissimus dorsi muscle, an injury which no pitcher had ever come back from.  In fact, his surgeon had never even performed the surgery needed to repair a completely torn lat muscle.  He was supposed to miss one year, if he even made it back at all.  Before the new diagnosis of tendinitis, he had been on track to open the season on the White Sox 25-man roster.  Hopefully, this injury isn't too significant, as it would be a great story to see Peavy come back strong after his injury in 2010.  The White Sox would love to see him stay healthy for most of the season as well, as Peavy could be a key piece in their possible playoff run.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Castillo Fits in Philly

The Mets have finally released second baseman Luis Castillo, and there are a few teams that could use his services at second base.  Castillo, coming off of a poor 2010 season in which he batted .235 in 86 games, can still contribute on a major league team.  In 2009, Castillo batted .302 in 486 at-bats.  He doesn't have much power, having hit only 28 homers in 15 seasons, but he does hold a .290 career batting average and a .368 career on-base percentage.

While the Marlins may currently have the upper hand when it comes to signing Castillo, the Phillies should try and make a push to acquire the second baseman's services.  As I wrote yesterday, Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley's health may keep him out of the lineup for an extended period of time.  As of now, the Phillies will start Wilson Valdez at second base.  He did have a better season than Castillo did last season (hitting .258 in 111 games), but he has not shown the same long-term consistency.  In 263 career games, Valdez only has a .240 batting average and a .289 on-base percentage.  Castillo's production should bounce back this season, as he only had a .259 average on balls in play last season (BABIP).  That denotes a certain amount of bad luck for Castillo, who has had a BABIP above .300 in 10 of the past 12 seasons.  Castillo walks more than Valdez, and is projected by many to have a better OBP than Valdez.

Obviously, Luis Castillo is no Chase Utley.  However, with the possibility of Utley being out for a decent amount of time, the Phillies should jump at an opportunity to pick up a second baseman who is better than the backup that they already have (Valdez).  There is no financial risk, as the Mets will pick up almost all of Castillo's $6 million salary this season.  The Phillies need to act quickly, however, as the Marlins already seem to be making headway in their pursuit of Castillo.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fantasy Friday: Is Utley Worth a Pick?

The Phillies have a lot to be excited about this Spring, as they boast the best rotation in the big leagues and are favored by many to win the National League pennant.  However, not all is well in Clearwater, Florida as spring training begins to wind down.  Chase Utley, expected to hit third in the Phillies lineup and one of the leaders of the team, has yet to record a spring training at-bat and he will not be ready for Opening Day.  So, if you need a second baseman, is Utley worth your pick?

In the preseason fantasy rankings of second basemen, ESPN  ranked Utley sixth and YahooSports! ranked Utley seventh.  He would undoubtedly be higher, except for his long-term injury possibilities.  Unlike Utley's past freak injuries, his knee problems so far this Spring stem from wear and tear.  He has been diagnosed with patellar tendinitis, with no structural damage, but the Phillies are wondering why the injury hasn't gotten much better.  The Phillies are currenting looking for new medical opinions.  It's obvious that Utley will miss Opening Day, but no one really knows how long he will have to stay off the field.

Let's not forget that as recently as 2009, Utley was one of the top two or three second basemen in the game.  In '09, Utley hit .282/.397/.508 (avg/obp/slg) with 31 homers, 93 RBI and 23 stolen bases.  He holds a career .293 average and, when healthy, he may be the most valuable hitter in the Phillies lineup (even more valuable than Ryan Howard).  If you know you can get most of a full season out of Utley, he would be worth drafting over Brandon Phillips, Ian Kinsler, and maybe even Dan Uggla (who are all ranked ahead of Utley in ESPN's 2011 fantasy season projections).  However, with all the uncertainty surrounding Utley's health, and the fact that this injury could hold Utley back in the long term, it makes sense to find another second baseman.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fantasy Friday: Who Should be the First Pick in your Fantasy Draft?

This is the first installment of Fantasy Friday, which will become a weekly occurrence here at COTB.  Now that the regular season is just around the corner, fantasy drafts have begun.  Most people would say that Albert Pujols should be the first player off the board, and there is obvious consensus that he is the best player in baseball.  However, if you have the first pick in your fantasy draft, should you take Pujols or can you draft a better all-around team by taking Hanley Ramirez with your first pick?

Pujols and Ramirez and ranked as the first and second best fantasy options by ESPN, respectively.  For Pujols, ESPN projects a slash line of .325/.430/.628 (avg/obp/slg) with 43 home runs, 123 RBI and 118 runs.  That's insane, and obviously shows that Pujols is the overall best player.  For Ramirez, ESPN projects a slash line of .314/.392/.518 with 26 home runs, 98 RBI, 106 runs, and 33 stolen bases.  Obviously not the overall numbers that Pujols is expected to have, but still among the upper echelon of MLB players and easily the best statistics for a shortstop (and he can pick you up a lot of steals, a very underrated category if you play with it).

The argument for Pujols is obvious (he's the best player in baseball), but the argument for Ramirez has more to do with what position both of them play.  Pujols plays first base, which is a much deeper position than shortstop.  If you take Ramirez first overall, and miss out on Pujols, there are many other options that can give you great production at first base.  Even if you miss out on the first baseman ranked 2-5 by ESPN (Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis), Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and others should still, theoretically, be on the board.  The tenth best first baseman, as ranked by ESPN, is Buster Posey (who holds dual membership as both a catcher and first baseman), who is projected to hit .294 with 21 home runs and 78 RBI in 2011.  That is almost a worst case scenario, because unless everyone in your league drafts a first baseman in the first round, you should have a better first base option available during your next few picks.

However, the tenth best shortstop, as ranked by ESPN, is Dodger Rafael Furcal.  He is projected to hit .287 with 10 home runs, 50 RBI and 26 steals.  Not bad, but nowhere near Hanley's production.  After the second best shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, is off the board, there are significant questions about every other shortstop left available.  Can Jose Reyes be consistent?  Is Derek Jeter too old to perform well for a full season?  Will Jimmy Rollins ever be close to his 2007 self again?  You get the point.  Hanley provides a lot more security at the shortstop position than almost anyone else, except maybe Tulo.  Pujols is easily the best and most consistent player in the bigs, but there are other first baseman who can give you spectacular production in 2011.

Either way, you get great production.  However, there are very few shortstops that have the all-around talent that Hanley Ramirez possesses.  If you have the first pick in your upcoming fantasy draft, it is definitely worth pondering which pick will make your overall team better.  However, if I have the first pick when my draft comes around, it would be extremely hard to pass up the consistent production of Pujols, the best player of his generation.  The choice is yours.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Strasburg's Mechanics: Is There Risk for More Injuries?

In his article from March 8 entitled Mechanical Flaw Will be Red Flag for Strasburg Even After Return, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci examines whether or not the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg is at risk for more injuries after he comes back from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals have decided not to change Strasburg's mechanics, which Verducci and the doctors he talked to believe could be an issue.  In the words of Verducci...

"When Strasburg gets his elbows above his shoulders and the baseball is below or about even with his right shoulder, his stride foot is hitting the ground. The ball should be in the loaded position at that point, but because Strasburg uses the funky "high elbow" raise, he still has to rotate his arm above his shoulder to get it there. The energy from landing on his stride foot has passed too early to the shoulder and elbow -- before the joints are ready to use it." (

Hopefully, Strasburg can come back and be close to as good as was last season.  However, his career could go downhill.  Being a Cubs fan, I can't help but think of another phenom who was spectacular very early on and had injuries derail his career: Mark Prior.  While Prior never had to undergo Tommy John surgery, he went from a bona fide ace to out of Major League Baseball in only three years.  Both Prior and Strasburg were supposed to have great mechanics, but both suffered injuries while utilizing the "high elbow raise" that Verducci references.  As a Cubs fan, watching Prior sustain injury after injury and go from one of the best pitchers in the National League to an afterthought was painful.

Prior went 18-6 in 2003, his first full big league season, when he was only 22.  He finished with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings.  Last season as a rookie at age 21, Strasburg went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 68 innings.  Prior was out of the big leagues by 2006, having suffered a string of injuries.  Hopefully, Strasburg is not destined for the same fate.  If he comes back healthy, he could help make baseball in Washington relevant.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Greinke to Miss 4-6 Weeks

A pickup game of basketball will sideline new Brewers' ace Zack Greinke for four to six weeks.  On Tuesday, Greinke was diagnosed with a hairline fracture between the seventh and eighth ribs on his left side.  Apparently, he broke the rib while playing a game of basketball a couple of weeks ago.  He is now expected to begin the regular season on the 15-day disabled list.

Luckily for the Brewers, this shouldn't cause a major setback.  Before he knew the extent of the injury, Greinke had already pitched in two spring training games.  In 3.1 innings, Greinke allowed six hits and struck out three, while allowing one run.  Clearly, the injury did not hinder Greinke to a severe extent.  The time off may not allow Greinke to be as ready as he normally is by the end of spring training, so his first few starts during the regular season may act as an extension of spring training.  However, the broken rib and missed time should in no way derail Greinke's season, which is expected to be a good one. 

Here is ESPN's 2011 fantasy baseball outlook for Greinke...

"Will a change of scenery help Greinke regain his focus? Might the shift to the more pitching-oriented National League help rejuvenate him? The odds are good that the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." Think about it: How much fun would you find it if you threw quality starts in eight of your first 11 outings, as Greinke did in 2010, but had only one win to show for them? Another frustration: Greinke made 15 of his 33 starts against the top 10 teams in baseball in terms of runs per game, and was 4-9 with a 4.77 ERA in them. The competition shouldn't be so steep in the NL Central, and looking closer at his indicators, his xFIP went 3.76-3.15-3.76 the past three seasons, a sign that his expected performance should've been similar from 2008-10, even if not quite up to his 2009 Cy Young standards in 2008 and 2010. There's so much bounce-back potential here, and the Brewers are clearly going for it. Invest with confidence." (

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An Early Look at Possible Rookie of the Year Candidates

Now that spring training has started, fans can get a glimpse of the young talent for their favorite teams.  In 2010, the rookie class performed well, with players such as Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, and Neftali Feliz playing like seasoned veterans.  Here is a look a possible Rookie of the Candidates from both leagues in 2011:

Braves' prospect Freddie Freeman
 National League

Freddie Freeman (Braves)
Braves fans know what it's like to have a talented young rookie starting on Opening Day.  Last year, Jason Heyward hit a 463 foot homer in his first major league at-bat.  Freeman, age 21, can only hope for the same start.  He doesn't have the same natural talent that Heyward possesses, but he has a similar build at 6'5" and 225 pounds.  Last season, for the AAA Gwinnett Braves, Freeman hit .319 with 18 homers and 87 RBI.  So far this spring he is 7-17 at the plate, good for a .412 average.

Aroldis Chapman (Reds)
Wait, didn't he pitch for the Reds last season?  Chapman, age 23, finished the 2010 season in the Reds bullpen, but still has his rookie eligibility for the 2011 season.  In 13.1 innings last season, Chapman went 2-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 19 strikeouts.  He also hit 105 mph on the radar gun.  Not bad for a lefty.  So far this spring, Chapman has only thrown two innings for Cincinnati.  He has struck out four and walked three without giving up a run.

Dominic Brown (Phillies)
With Jayson Werth in Washington, Brown (age 23) was going to have the opportunity to win the starting job in right field.  However, Brown is now expected to miss up to six weeks with a broken hand and may need surgery.  Even with the missed time and the lost Opening Day starting spot (most likely to Ben Francisco), Brown will still have the opportunity to play a a decent amount of the season if he comes back healthy.  He definitely has the talent to succeed, having batted .327 with 20 home runs between AA and AAA last season.

Royals' prospect Mike Moustakas
American League

Jeremy Hellickson (Rays)
Now that Matt Garza is playing for the Cubs, Hellickson (23) will be given an opportunity to prove that he can hold down a rotation spot.  Last year at AAA Durham, Hellickson went 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 117.2 innings.  If the Rays still want to compete in the AL East, a good season from Hellickson would be a big boost.

Mike Moustakas (Royals)
Moustakas was the Royals first round pick in the 2007, but had underperformed expectations going into the 2010 season.  However, last season he went off, combining for a total of 36 home runs between AA and AAA.  He also compiled a .322 batting average and 124 RBIs.  Right now, Wilson Betemit is penciled in as the starter for the Royals, but don't expect that to last long.  So far this spring, Moustakas is 3-13 with 1 home run.

J.P. Arencibia (Blue Jays)
The Blue Jays did not resign All-Star catcher John Buck after last season, so Arencibia (25) is penciled in as the Opening Day starter for Toronto.  In 2010, Arencibia hit .301 with 32 home runs and 85 RBIs at AAA.  The Jays need all the help they can get in the AL East, and Arencibia should be a hit in Toronto if he can hit like he did in the minors.

Of course, there could, and probably will, be other rookies who perform well during the 2011 season.  Unexpected performances are rookies are exciting and can have a major impact on the season.  Maybe another Buster Posey-esque performance will lead an underdog team to the playoffs.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NL West Preview

Last year, the Giants came from behind to beat out the Padres for the NL West title.  This year could be another close race, with more teams in the hunt for a division championship.  Here's a look at each team.

The Diamondbacks only won 65 games last season and fans in Phoenix shouldn't be expecting much more from the D-backs this season.  The highest batting average on the team last season was only .284 (2B Kelly Johnson) and as a team the Diamondbacks only batted .250.  Their team ERA of 4.81 was also pitiful, ranking third worst in all of baseball in 2010.  Based on the rotation that the D-backs should use during the season, don't expect a substantial drop in ERA in 2011.  Two potential bright spots, however, could be starter Daniel Hudson and emerging star Justin Upton.  Last season as a rookie, Hudson compiled an 8-2 record with a 2.45 ERA.  Was his success a fluke, or can he sustain it into his sophomore campaign, when more is expected of him.  Upton had a breakout season in 2009, but struggled last season and saw his average decrease by 27 points, his homers decrease by nine, and his RBI decrease by 17.  If he can bounce back, he can establish himself as one of the best young outfielders in the game.

The Dodgers struggled to an 80-82 record last season and a fourth place finish, but they could be a surprise contender this season.  Don Mattingly is the new manager, and if the battle between owner Frank McCourt and ex-wife Jamie McCourt isn't too much of a distraction, Chavez Ravine could once again be home to a team with playoff aspirations.  The rotation should be strong, with Clayton Kershaw anchoring a group that should also include Chad Billingsley, Jon Garland, Ted Lilly, and Hiroki Kuroda.  None of those starters had an ERA above 3.62 last season.  The Dodgers are hoping to see closer Jonathan Broxton rebound from his disappointing year in 2010 and return to the elite status he held in 2009.  The key factor for a Dodgers turn around, however, is centerfielder Matt Kemp.  Expect him to be one of the best outfielders in the game this season, after he struggled to live up to the hype last year.

The 2010 World Series Champions did not make many changes to last year's roster, and we'll see if that is a good thing or a bad thing.  The Giants obviously have one the best rotations in baseball, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.  In 2010, they finished first in the majors with a 3.36 team ERA.  If Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner can continue their success from last season, the Giants could be well on the way to repeating as ERA champs in 2011 (it also helps that they have crazy, yet spectacular closer Brian Wilson at the back end of the bullpen).  The big question for the Giants will be their offense.  They only hit .257 as a team last year, but they got hot at the right time.  They have almost the same lineup back this season, the only difference being that Miguel Tejada is the new shortstop.  Obviously, catcher Buster Posey needs to hit the way he did last year (when he won the NL Rookie of the Year) for the Giants offense to click, but if third baseman Pablo Sandoval returns to his 2009 form, the Giants may not need their pitching to carry them quite as much.

The Padres are a tough team to predict.  Nobody thought they would be good last season, and they almost won the division.  They finished right behind the Giants in team ERA at 3.39, but they only compiled a .246 team batting average.  This year, they've lost their best hitter in Adrian Gonzalez, but they upgraded at shortstop (Jason Bartlett), second base (Orlando Hudson), and have the potential for good production in center field (longtime prospect Cameron Maybin).  They still have budding ace Mat Latos and their bullpen is still anchored by closer Heath Bell.  So can they repeat last year's magic?  I think it's highly unlikely.  They shouldn't be anywhere close to as bad as the D-backs, but don't expect a run at the division.

The Rockies should give the Giants the most competition for the division title.  However, that will involve a few factors.  Besides Ubaldo Jimenez, the rest of the Rockies' pitching staff needs to pitch better than they did last season when they finished with a 4.18 team ERA (placing in the lower half of that category among MLB teams).  Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez have to live up to the expectations that come with their new long term contracts and continue to come up big in the middle of the lineup.  If they can do that, then the offense should continue to hit around the .263 average they posted last year (ninth in the bigs), when they also hit .270 with runners in scoring position (tied for 5th in the majors).

1. Giants
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers
4. Padres
5. Diamondbacks