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Kahrl's NL picks: Marlins to win wild card

4/7/2011
Slugging right fielder Mike Stanton could lead the Marlins to the playoffs. Matt A. Brown/Icon SMI

It has been said that the Romans rioted the first time they listened to a Greek philosopher who argued first one side of an argument, and then the other. Since I advanced an argument for why the Cardinals are still favored to win the NL Central by one line of analysis, hopefully you won't riot if I put my own postseason picks for the 2011 season through their paces. Since I threw that Cardinals projection for division-winning tally in the mid-80s as far as wins, let's start with the National League, and then turn to the American League tomorrow.

The thing to keep in mind about the Senior Circuit's playoff slate is that it doesn't suffer from anything like the static American League's expectation that two teams from the AL East will be at the dance in October every year. Fourteen of the league's 16 have made it to the playoffs at least once in the last decade -- the exceptions being the hapless Pirates and Nationals -- and eight different teams have won the wild card, while 11 different teams have won a division title. Every stretch drive seems to involve a half-dozen clubs with a shot at the wild card at the very least, and that's without the long odds of late-season runs as incredible as the Rockies' to earn a one-game play-in against the Padres in September 2007. So putting all of that out there, you can see how an off-the-wall pick might have legs.

Starting with the NL East, I've picked the Phillies to repeat. That isn't a choice made with nearly as much unquestioning faith as you might think -- it's a matter of picking an all-world rotation over an aging and perhaps increasingly fragile lineup. The everyday lineup is made up almost entirely of thirtysomethings, and in the post-PED landscape, age isn't something you can turn a blind eye to that easily. Anyone else notice that Jimmy Rollins is now four years removed from his peak campaign in 2007? Of course you did.

Losing Chase Utley to the DL for the third time in five years is something they might have been able to work around in the past, and Charlie Manuel's imperturbable dexterity went a long way towards managing his club's way through last year's staggered losses of six different lineup regulars. Depth represents an obvious issue, especially if the Phillies lose any of the up-the-middle regulars to a season-ending injury. Even if Brad Lidge was healthy, the bullpen was cause for concern, again, because of depth. I say that as one of Jose Contreras' biggest fans, as well as being a believer in Ryan Madson's ability to get the job done after four straight seasons of being worth a couple of wins above replacement -- one of the very few non-closers with any sort of lasting claim to reliability.

In the NL West, picking the Giants to successfully defend their divisional flag may seem unsurprising and equally reflexive, but if there was a decision I agonized over for an extended stretch in picking my field, it was this one. That's because I still think the Rockies with a full-season dose of Tulo ought to be the team to beat, because if health wasn't a factor Troy Tulowitzki would be my choice for the player most likely to step into Albert Pujols' spot as the league's best player. Unfortunately, that's not an entirely reliable reed to rely upon.

Back by the Bay, the Giants -- like the Phillies -- boast their own, almost equally tremendous rotation, one now armed with a full season of contributions from Madison Bumgarner, which will more than make up for any more of Barry Zito's implosion potential. As much as Aubrey Huff might be expected to regress from a career year (with 5.7 WAR, per B-Ref), the decision to make room for Brandon Belt -- just like last year's decision to swap out Bengie Molina and run with Buster Posey -- deserves respect. Some farm systems crank out depth, while others can get by with blue-chip stars in the making; you can argue with how they did it, but Belt's the latest addition to a luxury prospect production line that gave them Bumgarner, Posey, and Tim Lincecum within a five-year stretch.

If there's cause for concern, it may be the defense. Miguel Tejada makes for a tough proposition as an everyday shortstop in his age-37 season, which also makes him the oldest player in a lineup with more than its share of thirtysomethings. Add Tejada to Huff's return to the outfield and Pat Burrell's questionable mobility in the other corner, and you might get really worried about the state of Giants fielding. But I think we need to give Bruce Bochy his props for zagging where so many teams have zigged by getting far too concerned with defense. Less defense is much more affordable today than ever before because strikeouts are up -- meaning fewer balls in play for the defense -- and the Giants were baseball's best at overpowering people at home plate, posting an MLB-leading 21.6 percent strikeout rate last year. As I wrote in February for Baseball Prospectus, when Bochy made the decision last year to move Huff into the outfield and create what looked like an unwieldy multi-positional platoon between Travis Ishikawa and Aaron Rowand, it contributed to a spike on offense and a division-winning 27-12 run. Belt's going to be a whole lot more productive than an Ishiwand platoon, giving that rotation the run support that should provide a handy margin over the Rockies and Dodgers.

Over in the Central, I've pegged the Reds as yet another repeater. The reasons for this are perhaps even more transparent -- they have a fine combination of depth and problems they can use that depth to correct. Take the lineup: If you're dissatisfied with Jonny Gomes (and they should be), they have Juan Francisco and Chris Heisey and even Fred Lewis to fall back on. Problems at short? Zack Cozart's not a bad fall-back option behind Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria. Joey Votto gets kidnapped by aliens? You can do a lot worse than Yonder Alonso.

Things get even better in the rotaiton. Even with the early-season injuries to Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, that's a transient problem for a rotation with at least six good options -- or seven if you want to fire up the Rhineland's version of the Neftali Feliz close-or-start debate and focus it on Aroldis Chapman. Endorsing a Dusty Baker-managed rotation might seem like an unnatural act for a stathead, but it seems as if the lesson of 2003 has long since been learned, and pairing Baker with pitching coach Bryan Price leaves me sanguine about the outcome.

Which leaves that wild card, always the source of a full-season scrum in the league. Here, I'm going with a surprise of sorts, picking the Florida Marlins to return to the postseason in the only slot they've ever earned. If you've noticed my preference for teams with correctable problems, you'll understand my faith that the Fish can fix their decision to make Chris Coghlan a center fielder -- moving him back to the infield (second and third were his positions in the minors) and exploiting Omar Infante's positional flexibility looks like a natural solution to a problem of their own making. That done, they can enjoy the benefits of employing some of the best young players in the game. This will be Josh Johnson's year to shine, Hanley Ramirez will put himself back in the firmament of the game's superstar performers, and a mid-80s win total should get the Marlins to the top of another big pack of rivals.

Who's been overlooked? I think the Braves' combination of defensive issues and my doubt over how well the pitching staff works out with Fredi Gonzalez pulling the levers instead of Bobby Cox will provide some disappointment in Atlanta. The Brewers' lineup isn't quite as fearsome as it has been made out to be, and Zack Greinke's unpredictability makes me think a disappointment in Prince Fielder's last season in Milwaukee is what's in the cards. The Dodgers would be a much stronger pick for the wild card if they could add a premium bat to a lineup undermined by James Loney's weak batsmanship and Casey Blake's decline, but as things now stand they're a(nother) Rafael Furcal injury away from a third- or fourth-place finish.

So, these arguments advanced, let me know if it's all Greek to you, or whether you, friends, Romans, and countrymen, have lent me your ears.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.