Sports

Getting to know the National League

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What a difference one week makes. Last week, this preview projected Scott Rolen for a huge year, making the difference in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup. Now, Rolen will be out of that Jays lineup until late Apr., at the very least. This still gives him five or so months to shine in the "centre of the Canadian universe." Sunday marked the beginning of a new era in the U.S. capital, with a brand-new national's park. The stadium might boost attendance in Washington D.C., which would in turn boost payroll. That payroll jump might, just maybe, alter the landscape in the National League in the future, but for now, the nationals are going to be playing mediocre baseball in their $611 million stadium.

There's other interesting news, if you're a Blue Jays fan. Despite the disappointment of the rainout yesterday, it might have given the Jays' brass more time to negotiate with budding young star Alex Rios on a new $65 million contract that would lock him up through to 2014. Despite the heftiness of the contract, it might not be enough if Rios continues to develop the way he has.

Now, the National League-or the "lesser" league, as some call it-is in a sad state of affairs that it can barely put up a fight against American League clubs when Oct. hits. This year will probably be no different, as the world championship will most certainly be won by one of the powerful AL clubs this year. The NL boasts some spectacular talent, and some of the best superstars in the game. The two most powerful first basemen play on NL clubs are both under the age of 30-Albert Pujols of St. Louis Cardinals and Ryan Howard with the Philadelphia Phillies, while one of the best young third basemen can be found in David Wright of the New York Mets, a player some general managers might choose to build a team around.

New York Mets: They are probably the team to beat in the NL after picking up Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins in the off-season and maybe the best left side of the infield in all of baseball with Wright and Jos� Reyes at third base and short stop, respectively. The Mets rotation is spectacular at the top with Santana and Pedro Martinez who is apparently healthy. After that, things get a little dicey. John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey are definitely not the three most would choose to round out their rotation and the bullpen is thin as well with Billy Wagner holding the clubs closing duties. The Mets, like their New York counterparts, the Yankees, will score a ton runs and they drew the lucky card of not having to play in the tough AL east, or even the AL for that matter.

Biggest surprise prediction of '08: John Maine wins 12 games or less.

No surprise prediction of '08: It's getting to that time where Carlos Delgado might need to think about donning an AL jersey so he can get off the field and focus on his role as designated hitter.

Philadelphia Phillies: The best team in the NL is the Phillies. From top to bottom, their batting lineup is littered with players who can hit the ball out of the park at any given time. They have the best first basemen in the league in Howard, the best second basemen with Chase Utley and last year's NL MVP at short in Jimmy Rollins. Shane Victorino and Pat Burrell offer good options for any team in the outfield, while Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins are a comparable platoon pairing in right field. The rotation has Cole Hamels and Brett Myers at the top as two young pitchers who might be on the verge of stardom, while bionic

45-year-old man Jamie Moyer rounds out the top three. The bullpen is thin and lost the services of Brad Lidge for the time being while he recovers from injury.

Biggest surprise prediction of '08: Howard strikes out less than 150 times during the season.

No surprise prediction of '08: Hamels wins 18 games and the Phillies win the NL east.

Those are the two teams that might pose any sort of threat to AL supremacy this year, but everything changes over a 162-game season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, with new skipper Joe Torre, could very well turn some heads this year and end their underachieving ways. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers are set to duke it out all summer for the NL central title and the last remaining playoff spot. At this point, the safe bet is on the Brewers, since the Cubs always seem to find a way to lose from either fan interference or player miscues. Last year's Cinderella teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, won't be able to sneak up on anyone this year. Out of the two, the Diamondbacks are the most likely to return to the post-season if they can halt any Dodger uprising. Luckily for NL west teams, the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies and Padres, they will have the pleasure of destroying the San Francisco Giants all season. The Giants are in for an awful year and might rival the Baltimore Orioles in losses.

The four NL playoff teams will be the Mets, Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks. Enjoy the season!

Individual and miscellaneous predictions

NL Cy Young: Johan Santana

NL MVP: Mark Teixeira

NL rookie of the year: Cameron Maybin

Surprise play-off pick: Atlanta Braves

NLCS champion: Milwaukee Brewers. No, seriously. Yeah, the Brewers.

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