Yesterday, we previewed the American League playoff teams.  Today, we look at the National League.

Philadelphia Phillies – National League East Champions (97-65)

How did they get here:
The Phillies were 7 games out of first place on July 22.  Going 47-17 from that date through the end of the season locked up the division for the reigning National League champions.

Strengths:

  • Rotation – Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt are a stunningly potent trio.  The 33 year old Halladay paced the National League in wins and innings pitched, and will pitch in the playoffs for the first time in his career.  While Cole Hamels never seems to rack up high win totals, it’s not due to lack of performance on his part.  He posted a 3.06 ERA – the third season of 3.40 or lower in the past 4 seasons.  Roy Oswalt is the new kid on the block.  After starting the season 6-12 with a stellar 3.42 ERA for Houston, he flourished in Philadelphia, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA.  All three guys pitched at least 200 innings.
  • The big bats – Ryan Howard had an off year and still managed 31 homers.  Jayson Werth hit 27 homers while leading the National League in doubles (46).  He’s also a free agent at the end of the year – so he has extra incentive to perform in front of a national audience.  I’m not exposed to the east coast media, and perhaps he gets more coverage there – but Werth seems like a very under-the-radar star.  Chase Utley slipped a bit, but still posted numbers that are strong for a second baseman.  Carlos Ruiz put up a .302 batting average at catcher.

Weaknesses:

  • Shortstop Jimmy Rollins fought injuries and saw his OPS decline for the 3rd straight season.  It’s probably too early to yell that the sky is falling … but there is reason for concern.
  • 3B Placido Polanco doesn’t hit with the power most team expect from their third baseman.
  • Paul Hoover sucks.

Player to watch:
Jamie Moyer.  There’s not really a young breakout player to keep an eye on, so let’s focus on the 47 year old 267 game winner.  Moyer won’t pitch in the first round, but might crack the roster later in the playoffs, as a lefty out of the pen.

San Francisco Giants – National League West Champions (92-70)

How did they get here:
The Giants finished the season strong – 45-29 in the second half and 19-10 in August and September. However, it would be prudent to give the Padres some credit. A stunning collapse by San Diego – including a 10 game losing streak – allowed the Giants to snatch the division from them. The Giants won a game against San Diego on the final day of the season – and clinched the division as a result.

Strengths:

  • Rotation – Reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum’s 3.43 ERA ranks 4th among Giants starters – Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez all posted ERAs of 3.14 or lower. This is the best rotation in the playoffs. However, it may be worth noting that Bumgarner is a 21 year old kid with a total of 19 career starts.
  • Hitters who rose to the occasion in limited roles. Rookie catcher Buster Posey made the most of his opportunity by batting .305 with 18 homers. Pat Burrell hit his 18 in just 289 at bats. Veteran players Aubrey Huff (26 homers) and Juan Uribe (24 homers) also had strong seasons.

Weaknesses:

  • 3B Pablo Sandoval saw his number drop dramatically across the board. He hit .330 with 25 homers in 2009, but just .268 with 13 homers this year.
  • An awful lot of players filled roles for the Giants this year. Only 1 outfielder (Andres Torres) got more than 500 at bats. Sure, some of the limited role players succeeded with their opportunities, but will the familiarity with teammates be there at critical junctures in the game?

Player to watch:
Buster Posey. 18 homers and a .305 average from a rookie CATCHER! Heck, he doesn’t even strike out very much. I was high on the kid when he was drafted, and I’m still a fan.

Cincinnati Reds – National League Central Champions (91-71)

How did they get here:
A 19-8 August, combined with an unexpectedly underperforming Cardinals team, allowed the Reds to claim the division title. They didn’t finish the season on a strong note, going 14-16 in their final 30 games.

Strengths:

  • Hitting, top to bottom. SS Orlando Cabrera was the only regular to finish the season with an OPS lower than .758. MVP candidate Joey Votto hit .324 with 37 homers.
  • Chemisty – This group should also have good cohesion, as everyone other than catcher Ramon Hernandez recording at least 494 at bats.

Weaknesses:

  • Rotation – Only Bronson Arroyo (17) and Johnny Cueto (12) won as many as 9 games. Edinson Volquez served a 50 game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, and wasn’t great after he returned – he’ll need to step up in the post-season in order to have this rotation match up with the other teams.
  • Closer – Francisco Cordero’s notched 40 saves, but his 3.84 ERA and 11 decisions (6-5) are indications that he wasn’t as dominant as the Reds would have liked.

Player to watch:
22 year old Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman touched 105 mph on the radar gun. He had a bit of an up-and-down season in the minors before his call-up, but there have been more ups than downs. Chappy was used exclusively out of the bullpen late in the season, pitching just 13 1/3 innings.

Atlanta Braves – National League Wild Card (91-71)

How did they get here:
The Braves were in first place by 7 games on July 22, before fading and finishing 7 games behind the Phillies. Had the Padres beaten the Giants on the final day of the season, the Braves would have ended up in a tie for the wild card – but the Giants prevailed and punched playoff tickets for themselves and the Braves. The Braves were 14-16 in their final 30 games.

Strengths:

  • Bullpen – Billy Wagner notched 37 saves and posted a 1.73 ERA. He led a bullpen corps that included 5 guys who pitched in at least 56 games and record an ERA below 3.00.
  • Emotion – this is the final year for Braves manager Bobby Cox. Cox won more than 2500 games during a managerial career that dates back to 1978 – and 2149 of those wins were for the Braves. He took the team to the World Series 5 times, winning one title. He also holds the distinction of being ejected more times than any other manager in history (yes, they track this stuff), earning him the appreciation of his players. The players want to send Cox out on a high note.

Weaknesses:

  • Hitting – there are some serious holes in this lineup. Chipper Jones, the heart and sole of the team for a decade and half, suffered a season ending injury. OF Nate McClouth was an All Star in 2008, but was the worst hitter on the team this year. Once promising SS Yunel Escobar was traded to the Blue Jays. Only one player, catcher Brian McCann, managed to hit 20 homers (he had 21). There are still some solid hitters in the lineup, but it’s not as scary as what other teams will put on he field.
  • Rotation – Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (3.33 ERA) should be able to hold their own with the other top guns, but the Braves lack the third elite arm that their opponents are going to be able to throw at them.

Player to watch:
21 year old outfielder Jason Heyward is one of the best prospects in the game and could become a household name with a strong performance.

Who is my choice? I’m going to go with the Phillies. They have the second best rotation of the 4 teams, and their offense is much better than the Giants.

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Kosmo is the founder of The Soap Boxers and writes on a variety of topics. Many of his short stories have been collected into Kindle books.

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