RHP Brandon Webb and RHP Dan Haren are the dominating front-end-of-the-rotation starters they were in 2008. SS Stephen Drew handles the No. 3 spot in the order the way he handled the leadoff spot last season. OF Justin Upton plays the whole season the way he played in April 2008, when he .340 with five homers and 15 RBIs. He finished the season with 15 homers. RHP Chad Qualls can handle the closer's job. He has never held the job at the start of a season before.
Their rotation doesn't become a major liability, as easily could happen. RHPs Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez should capably fill the top two spots, but behind them there are serious question marks in RHP Jason Marquis, LHP Jorge De La Rosa and whoever emerges as the fifth starter. In the absence of Matt Holliday, 3B Garrett Atkins dramatically improves his .225 average with runners in scoring position and .328 on-base percentage last year. C Chris Iannetta and SS Troy Tulowitzki, young players with high ceilings, continue to grow as major-leaguers. CF Ryan Spilborghs provides the pop and ability to get on base as a leadoff hitter that former CF Willy Taveras, despite his exceptional speed, lacked. And special young talents such as INF/OF Ian Stewart and CF Dexter Fowler, both potential impact players, end up contributing.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Their front four starters not only stay healthy, but pitch better than their own track records suggest they will. RHP Hiroki Kuroda had shoulder problems last year that now appear to be behind him. LHP Randy Wolf is a year further removed from Tommy John surgery than he was in his last stint with the Dodgers in 2007. RHP Chad Billingsley led the team with 16 wins last year and has to continue to throw strikes and pitch deep into games.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
RHPs Jake Peavy and Chris Young both win 20 games, Adrian Gonzalez hits about .340 with runners in scoring position and the deplorable state of the bullpen turns out to be a spring mirage.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
The rotation emerges, as expected, as the deepest in the division. They get just enough hitting after adding just one new bat from the end of last season, SS Edgar Renteria. New relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry prove to be an upgrade over last year's setup men.
Everybody stays healthy. RHPs Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden had cranky shoulders last year (Harden's problems are chronic), and RF Milton Bradley has a long history of disabled-list stints; he also hasn't played much outfield in recent years in the American League. The Cubs are the deepest team, both offensively and pitching-wise, in the NL Central. An injury or two to a key player is the only thing that seemingly can derail this team because there isn't a whole lot of depth.
RHP Aaron Harang reverts to his 16-win form of 2006 and 2007 and avoids his 17-loss form of last year.
RHP Roy Oswalt maintains his excellence, LHP Mike Hampton remains healthy and RHP Russ Ortiz contributes. If Hampton and Ortiz can each give the Astros at least 25 starts, this will be a good season. The Astros also need for SS Miguel Tejada and 2B Kaz Matsui to remain healthy and fresh, which is why manager Cecil Cooper plans to rest those players often.
RHP Trevor Hoffman proves he has gas left in his tank as a closer and the rest of the bullpen chips in to give him save opportunities. RHP Braden Looper does more than just fill innings as the newcomer to the rotation. LF Ryan Braun gets past the intercostal tightness that plagued him during spring training, a recurrence of the problem that rendered him ineffective toward the end of last season. If the Brewers are in a contending position at midseason, they'll be tempted to try a repeat of the CC Sabathia trade of 2008.
The pitching staff comes up big after finishing last in the National League with a 5.08 ERA last season. The Pirates have a potentially good young rotation with LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Ian Snell, LHP Zach Duke and RHP Ross Ohlendorf, while the back end of the bullpen should be solid with RHP Matt Capps as the closer and LHP John Grabow and RHP Tyler Yates as the setup men.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
RHP Chris Carpenter can make 30 to 35 starts. 2B Skip Schumaker doesn't embarrass himself at his new position. Either RHP Jason Motte or RHP Chris Perez emerges as a hard-throwing closer. If 1B Albert Pujols or C Yadier Molina would miss considerable time due to injury, then the dream is over.
3B Chipper Jones plays 150 games. If they can manufacture runs with speed and consistent hitting throughout the lineup. If the starting pitchers each work 200 innings. If closer Mike Gonzalez doesn't have to finish consecutive games on a regular basis and doesn't have to make four-out appearances.
RHP Matt Lindstrom's sore right rotator cuff heals when the season starts and doesn't act up. RHP Anibal Sanchez and LHP Andrew Miller can pitch as well as the top three right-handers have looked this spring. SS Hanley Ramirez and 2B Dan Uggla improve their defense, which looked shaky this spring (nine combined errors through March 26). There's talent here, but the postseason might be one more year away.
NEW YORK METS
They don't gag in September again. More seriously, if 1B Carlos Delgado has a season comparable to the second half of last year, and not the first half. Delgado was hitting just .228 entering July, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Mets would not pick up his $12 million option. Then he exploded at the plate. During the second half, Delgado hit .303 with 21 homers and 63 RBIs in 251 at-bats.
RHP Brett Myers performs more as he did after the All-Star break last season when he was among the NL's best pitchers. But that only happened after he was so wretched during the first three months that he landed in the minors. Myers is the No. 2 starter behind ace LHP Cole Hamels, and he's in the final year of a three-year, $25.75 million contract. A strong season would help both the Phillies and Myers' bank account.
A dozen or so things break their way. Among them: Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes continue to develop into legitimate outfielders, Ryan Zimmerman becomes a solid No. 3 hitter, Jordan Zimmermann and Shairon Martis jump to the majors without a hitch, and the team's bullpen stays in one piece.