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Aging Phillies Still NL's Best

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While you were sleeping, Major League Baseball started its 2012 season in Tokyo last week.

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics split a pair of games and proved that if two teams play in the middle of the night, in the middle of the week, thousands of miles away, it does not make a sound in America.

It also does not qualify as Opening Day.

For that matter, neither does this week’s opener between the revamped Miami Marlins and defending champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Wednesday’s game between the Marlins and Cardinals will feature the first look at the Albert Pujols-less Cardinals and the debut of the hideous home-run sculpture/monstrosity in the Marlins’ new stadium. But that’s not Opening Day either.

Neither is Thursday or Friday, when only seven games will be played each day.

Since the first full slate of games doesn’t take place until Saturday, there’s still plenty of time for my 2012 predictions.

Here’s what you can expect in the National League this season:

The Marlins have a new name, new uniforms, new stadiums and an inflated payroll. Miami added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and manager Ozzie Guillen in hopes of knocking the Philadelphia Phillies from the top of the East Division for the first time in six years.

But not this season. Not with the Phillies’ dominant pitching staff and the health of Miami’s Josh Johnson still a question mark.

The aging Phillies will make one last run at a World Series crown and cruise to their sixth straight NL East title while the Atlanta Braves and the upstart Washington Nationals battle for one of the two wild-card spots.

Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward will improve enough to give the Braves just enough offense to make the playoffs.

The news of a Magic Johnson-led group shelling out more than $2 billion to buy the Dodgers created plenty of excitement in L.A. But even Magic’s smile and Stan Kasten’s baseball acumen can’t brighten the immediate future for the Dodgers.

Kirk Gibson, another L.A. legend, has his Arizona Diamondbacks poised to repeat as NL West champs after guiding last season’s surprising turnaround.

While the D-Backs run away with the West, the downtrodden Colorado Rockies will be this year’s bounce-back team. Behind Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and the elderly, yet surprisingly effective Jamie Moyer, Colorado captures the second wild card.

The NL Central lost a lot of star power with the defections of Pujols, Prince Fielder and Tony La Russa, which opens the door for Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds to win the division.

Milwaukee and St. Louis will use stellar pitching to challenge the Reds but eventually fall short. As the Cubs and Astros battle for the worst record in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be the story in this division. While they aren’t yet good enough to contend for a division title, the Pirates’ miserable 19-year span without a winning record finally comes to an end in 2012.

Colorado will top the Braves in the wild-card game and oust the Reds in the NLDS.

Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee will shut down the Diamondbacks and the Rockies as the Phillies reach the World Series for the third time in the last five years.

(Coming Monday: American League predictions)
— This article appeared on page D3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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