1. St. Louis. Carpenter and Wainwright on the mound, Pujols and Holliday at bat. The Cards have bullpen issues (not sold on Ryan Franklin) but playing in the Central can turn a very good team into a great one.
2. Colorado. Huston Street will start the season on the DL, though he’s not expected to miss much time. Assuming he doesn’t, the Rockies have fewer holes than any NL team. Great at nothing, above average at everything and only getting better.
3. Philadelphia. They can’t get by with that bullpen forever, but if Lidge reverts to 2008 form they’ll be the class of the NL.
4. The local nine. Like the Rockies, minus the speed but with better starting pitching. B-Mac is an under the radar MVP pick. Bet on 30 homers, 110 RBI and a .300-plus BA.
5. San Fran. Jonathan Sanchez will take a big step forward this season, a la Matt Cain in 2009. But can the Giants’ peerless rotation overcome a middling offense? It won’t be as captivating as the ’93 race, but the Giants could emerge as the Braves’ biggest rival in 2010. Their lack of depth will hurt.
6. Los Angeles. They should be atop this list, if not for the McCourts. Five words: Vincente Padilla, Opening Day starter — though he’s far from the Dodgers’ best hurler. Don’t be surprised if Clayton Kershaw wins the Cy Young.
7. Florida. Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco are studs. The rest of their rotation (welcome, Nate Robertson) sucks, though if Annibal Sanchez reaches his potential the Fish become contenders.
8. Cincy. My annual dark horse has become everyone’s dark horse in 2010. They have the talent to contend but are still a year away. Cincy’s 2011 rotation — Chapman, Cueto, Bailey and Volquez — will be the envy of baseball.
9. Milwaukee. The Brew Crew’s future may well depend on what they get for Prince Fielder when the inevitable trade occurs. Erecting a statue of Bud Selig in front of Miller Park is bad karma.
10. Arizona. If Brandon Webb, KJ and Chris Young bounce back, watch out. Too many ifs, but Justin Upton can overcome a lot of uncertainty.
11. Chicago. Plummeting fast. If Troy Glaus doesn’t pan out (and the Braves are in contention) expect to hear plenty of Derrek Lee (a FA after this season) to Atlanta rumors.
12. San Diego. No one thought they’d win 75 games last year. They have enough young talent to win five more this season, assuming they don’t trade Adrian Gonzalez. Watch out for Kyle Blanks.
13. Muts. Oliver Perez. Mike Pelfrey. Jeff Francoeur. A hobbled Carlos Beltran. Jose Reyes’ tricky thyroid. And now, Manny Acosta in the ‘pen. A .500 record would be an achievement for this bunch.
14. Houston. Getting old fast with little help on the farm. Only a team run by Ed Wade would re-sign Brian Moehler (8-12, 5.47 ERA in ’09).
15. Pittsburgh. How long ’til they trade Andrew McCutchen?
16. Washington. The baseball establishment has eagerly jumped on their bandwagon, but why? Strasburg will start the season in Double-A and their only additions of note are Jason Marquis and Pudge Rodriguez. Neither would make the 2010 Braves. Check back in two years.