Houston pulled away to win the division (3rd title in 5 years) by 11 games last year eventually falling to the Phillies in the NLCS. They lost one of this year's top FA's in 2B Miguel Javier; can the Cardinals and Braves close in? Can Florida get it together?
Houston (94-68, 4th in runs, 7th in ERA) countered the Javier loss with FA's Fernando Rivera and Edgard Garrido - decent players but not HOF caliber like Javier. The Astros don't have any real stars on offense, preferring to get contributions from a large cast of role players. The staff has an effective rotation lead by R.J. Garrido, but the plan seems to be to bring in Bailey Mercedes (15 wins in relief last year) early and let Chip Bowles and Albie Padilla close things out. They also have some reinforcements ready in AAA with 3B Fernando Posada (Sea 15 IFA) and RP Pedro Rondon (Sea 12 IFA).
St. Louis (83-79, 11th in runs, 5th in ERA) had a couple of pretty big FA losses (SP Lew Cannon and 1B P.T. Oliva); Elijah Perkins (Sea 12 #44) moves in at first, and I don't think the very deep rotation will miss Cannon - the Cards had 6 pitchers start last year and only 1 (Calvin Langston's respectable 4.19) posted an ERA above 3.74. The bullpen has plenty of good arms, too: Andre Monahan (44 saves) closes, with Dante Little (1.33 ERA) and Hugh Taylor (2.53 ERA) setting up. Swingman Richie Lloyd (Sea 13's # 18 overall) starts in AAA but looks like he could step in if anyone falters.
Atlanta (82-80, 10th in runs, 4th in ERA) Jae Nakano's still the Braves' best hitter - he needs some help. RF Dioner Pettit has some potential but wasn't terribly impressive in his 9-game cup of coffee last season. AAA 2B B.J Colbert might bring a little pop, but their best hitting prospect, SS Jumbo Bravo, is at least a season away. Pitching they're hip-deep in. Hades McDermott (14-8, 3.45 last year) heads the rotation, while Alex Silva and Andrew Burnett lead the closer committee.
Florida (56-106, 16th in runs, 12th in ERA) Long mediocre (1 winning season), the Marlins got worse last year to try to get better. They're starting to bring up some decent young ML players (Michael Brown, Theodore Haney, Sammy Quevedo), and have some better ones in AAA (C Jim Fasano, SP Grover Thames, RP Esdra Moreno - all with 4 minor league seasons). I don't think anyone's raising eyebrows yet, but with a ML payroll of $13.5MM this year the Florida fans may start to question management's commitment to winning.
Forecast: Tough race to call - I don't think the Astros will run away with it, but it's hard to see the Cardinals or Braves scoring enough runs to make a big move. I'll go with the bold prediction and say the Cardinals' pitching is even better than last year, and they win it by a game over the 'Stros. I'd love to see the Marlins make a move up to competitive status (maybe 70-75 wins), which I think they can do if they promote their 3 big AAA prospects early.