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NEWS | April 17, 2009

How will the National League shake out?

By Airman 1st Class Patrick McKenna Capital Flyer sports writer

(Editor's note: This article is the second of a two part series).

National League East - New York Mets:
The Mets finished one game out of the playoffs, despite leading the Wild Card standings with five games to play. This "poor late season play" (loosely translated to "choking" in some languages) has been a common theme with the very talented Mets the past few seasons.

So how did they attempt to remedy their late season woes? By shoring up their most glaring weakness-the bullpen.

General Manager Omar Minaya made two bold moves in acquiring top of the line closers Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz this past offseason. Putz is slated to primarily handle the eighth inning duties while "K-Rod" will bring his record breaking capabilities to the ninth.

Their lineup has four potential all stars: Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran. With solid hitters such as Ryan Church and Daniel Murphy rounding out the lineup, the Mets offense should be even better than last year's.

The biggest question mark the Mets face is what starting pitcher will step up and provide a solid number two option after Johan Santana. Mike Pelfrey has the potential to be that guy, but it remains to be seen he's ready to take the next step.

National League Central - Chicago Cubs:
The Chicago Cubs had everything going for them last season. They finished with the best record in the National League and had an extremely deep starting rotation with four starters having more than 10 wins. They tied a National League record with eight players selected to the All-Star team, and even destiny seemed to be on their side as last year marked the 100 year anniversary of their last World Series title. But as the saying goes, "destiny is what you make of it." The Cubs couldn't get past the Dodgers, and their postseason never really got off the ground.

The Cubs have the most balanced National League team on paper. Their lineup is quite deep and has a nice mixture of youth and veteran leadership. The Cubs added troubled but talented outfielder Milton Bradley who will provide a sorely needed left handed bat in their lineup. With players like Geovany Soto and Kosuke Fukudome expected to improve in their second seasons with the Cubs, the team's offense will be very strong.

The biggest strength of the Cubs is their starting rotation. Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden all have the potential to win close to 20 games. With the bullpen anchored by both Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg, the Cubs won't need to overwork their starters in the regular season.

National League West - Los Angeles Dodgers:
The Dodgers, while a solid team, have the added benefit of playing in the worst division of the four major U.S. sports. Of all the National League predictions, L.A. winning the West is as close to a sure thing as there is.

For a lineup to be good, it needs two things: a leadoff hitter that can get on base (Rafael Furcal) and a power hitter that pitchers respect (Manny Ramirez). For that lineup to be great, other solid players are needed to step up and support those two hitters. The Dodgers have some of the best young hitters in all of baseball (James Loney, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and Matt Kemp). Expect Kemp to take a huge step this year and become one of the top 15 outfielders in baseball.

The biggest weakness the Dodgers have is starting pitching depth. Chad Billingsley burst onto the scene last year and is off to another fantastic start this year. For this team to be successful in the playoffs, someone is going to have to fill the void left when Derek Lowe departed via free agency. Is phenom Clayton Kershaw ready to be that guy? Only time will tell, but if the Dodgers hope to have any luck in October, they'll need someone other than Billingsley they can count on.

National League Wild Card - Philadelphia Phillies:

This was a toss up between the Phillies and the Cardinals. What gave the Phillies their edge was their incredible lineup (which is going to be even better than last year with the addition of Raul Ibanez) and the fact that they have a great closer in Brad Lidge.

The Phillies' lineup can go toe to toe with any team's in baseball. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley appear to be 100 percent healthy, which means both are immediate MVP candidate caliber players. Ryan Howard slimmed down in the offseason and is a lock to hit at least 45 home runs again. With solid hitters such as Ibanez and Jason Werth rounding out the lineup, this team will have no problem pounding teams into oblivion.

Philadelphia's starting rotation has a ton of question marks, none bigger than the status of star left-hander Cole Hamels pitching elbow. Even if Hamels is fine, the rest of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired.

National League Champion - Chicago Cubs:
Are there better lineups? Sure, both Philadelphia and the Dodgers have better lineups. Are there better ace pitchers? The Mets have Johan Santana, so that's all I have to say about that, but no team has the overall combination the Cubs do, and don't discount the fact that they also have the money to go out and make some moves at the deadline.

When October rolls around the Cubs starting pitching depth, solid overall lineup and veteran locker room will pay enormous dividends.