Phillies, not a shoo-in for NL pennant

As opening day for Major League Baseball looms closer, don’t crown the Philadelphia Phillies as the National League pennant winner just yet. Last year’s World Series champion San Francisco Giants are in a good position to make another World Series run, while the NL Central should be an exciting divisional race down to game 162 of the regular season.

Here’s a full breakdown of the NL’s divisional races:

NL East

With the Phillies landing Cliff Lee in the offseason, they are the clear favorites to win the East division and the NL. Their rotation has four aces, and barring injury, Philly will win the division title. Losing Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals takes some punch out of the lineup, but Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley will be able to shoulder the offensive load.

The Atlanta Braves separated from longtime manager Bobby Cox when he retired after 24 years of managing service. The addition of Dan Uggla to the Braves’ lineup helps to fill the power void, but it is not enough to allow Atlanta to compete with the Phillies. The best hope for the Braves will be a wild card playoff spot.

The Florida Marlins have a Cy Young candidate in ace Josh Johnson, while the rest of the rotation should be strong if healthy. Hanley Ramirez is the lone star now that Uggla has left. The Marlins’ lineup, however, is too young to weather the strain of a 162-game season. The Marlins will be a long shot for a wild card spot.

The New York Mets and Nationals are both hampered by bad management. Mets’ ace Johan Santana is gone until at least July after shoulder surgery to repair a tear in his anterior capsule. The Mets owe $18 million on bad contracts to Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, and the team can only hope Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran return to all-star form after recovering from injuries.

The Nationals’ best hope is to wait a year for Stephen Strasburg to recover from Tommy John surgery. The addition of Werth should add some pop to the lineup for the Nats, but Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis at the top of the pitching rotation won’t be enough to even compete in this division. The Mets and Nats will fight to stay out of the cellar of the NL East this season.

NL Central

The Cincinnati Reds won the division last season and appear to be on the right path to doing it again. Their rotation is led by Edinson Volquez followed by inning-eaters like Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto. Potential MVP candidate Joey Votto leads a good, but not great, offense. The Reds should repeat as NL Central champs.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ main concern will be how can they afford to pay Albert Pujols at the end of the year. Pujols is a free agent at the end of the year, and he will be after an A-Rod-sized contract. The Cards’ other major problem is the loss of pitcher Adam Wainwright for the entire season. The Cardinals’ biggest strength is manager Tony La Russa. La Russa knows what it takes to get teams to the postseason, and the Cardinals are set to win the NL wild card.

The Milwaukee Brewers are going for it all this season. Management knows they won’t be able to afford Prince Fielder at the end of the season, so they decided to go for all the marbles by acquiring Zack Greinke from the Kansas City Royals and Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Greinke was injured and will be out until the end of April. The Brewers’ back end of the rotation and bullpen are not strong enough to sustain a playoff race, but they may compete for the wild card.

The Chicago Cubs’ rotation has a big question mark in the talented but hotheaded Carlos Zambrano. If Zambrano pitches well 8212; and stays composed 8212; and Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Pena can have above average seasons, the Cubs are at least a long shot to make it into October.

The Houston Astros are in a rebuilding phase after trading Roy Oswalt to the Phillies, and the farm system is still in the bottom tier of the MLB. If there is any solace for the Astros, fellow divisional bottom-feeders, the Pittsburgh Pirates, have been rebuilding since 1992 8212; their last winning season.

NL West

The World Series champion Giants have one of the best rotations in baseball. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain lead the strongest starting rotation in baseball outside the Philadelphia city limits. However, the Giants’ offense has questions. They maximized their performance at the right time in the World Series but struggled to score runs during the regular season and throughout the playoffs.

The Colorado Rockies have the best offense in the division, anchored by Troy Tulowitzki. Their pitching staff after Ubaldo Jimenez has some questions. The Rockies should fight for a wild card spot.

The San Diego Padres traded their best player, Adrian Gonzalez, to the Boston Red Sox. Without him, their offense could be pitiful. Padres fans can take comfort in a young developing pitching staff, at minimum.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff is strong with Highland Park product Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly. New manager Don Mattingly takes over for Joe Torre. Mattingly has some big shoes to fill, but if everything goes right for the Dodgers, they will be able to compete for a wild card spot.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are in rebuilding mode and don’t seem to have the assets to be competitive this season. The addition of Armando Galarraga won’t be near enough to shore up a woeful pitching staff.

Allen Kellogg is a sophomore journalism major from Alexandria, Virginia.