NL approval ratings: Who's the best?
Editor's Note: We asked ESPN's baseball experts to offer their picks in eight different categories for the National League. ESPN.com writer Amy K. Nelson breaks down the final choices below. You can also click here to vote on your choice in each category.
BEST LINEUP: PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Let's see: The Phillies' lineup last year had two potential MVP candidates in Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins as well as former MVP Ryan Howard, and all they did was lead the league with 892 runs. Rollins won the MVP, and his two cohorts are back. But that's not all. Shane Victorino adds punch in the two-hole, and although Pat Burrell is hitting behind Howard, he should produce in his free-agent year. While Aaron Rowand is gone, the Phillies added Geoff Jenkins and Pedro Feliz, providing veteran bats and depth on the roster.
Honorable Mention: Brewers, Rockies, Braves
BEST ROTATION: ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Brandon Webb has already won the Cy Young, and for a while last season, Dan Haren's name was in the discussion in the American League. Despite a lackluster second half last year, Haren's addition to the staff is a huge boost and makes the D-backs the best in the minds of our voters. Of course, that also hinges on the health of Randy Johnson, just 16 wins away from 300. If Johnson's back can hold up, Doug Davis and Micah Owings will follow in the rotation. Davis had a 4.25 ERA last year, but the veteran left-hander threw 192 innings. Owings, 25, made 27 starts in his first major league season last year and rounds out a rotation that, if healthy, will keep its team in contention all season.
Honorable Mention: Mets, Padres
BEST BULLPEN: SAN DIEGO PADRES
General manager Kevin Towers has never made it a secret that, above all else, a great bullpen is what he most covets. And Towers consistently delivers; Trevor Hoffman may be the most recognizable, but Heath Bell was the superstar of last year's bullpen. Bell, acquired in a minor trade with Mets, had the highest VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) of any reliever in the NL (39.7) and was only a percentage point behind the leader in the AL (Rafael Betancourt, 39.8). Bell was the Padres' best reliever (2.02 ERA, 102 K's) but not their only solid performer in the 'pen. Joe Thatcher, traded for popular reliever Scott Linebrink, is the lefty and performed well despite the initial awkwardness of his arrival. He is joined by last year's Rule 5 pick, Kevin Cameron (2.79 ERA), and Cla Meredith (3.50 ERA). The Padres appear to be on their way to repeating as 'pen ERA champs this year.
Honorable Mention: Cubs, Dodgers
BEST DEFENSE: COLORADO ROCKIES
It's fair to think the Rockies are the pick since their .98925 fielding percentage set the all-time record last year. And while that's one reason why they're the defensive choice, the Rockies have changed much. The defensive discussion begins and ends with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, one of the league's best defenders. With Gold Glover Todd Helton at first base, balls rarely get away and almost always are picked out of the dirt. The biggest change is at second base, where rookie Jayson Nix replaces Kaz Matsui. That should do little to alter the makeup of the team's defense, easily the hardest tool to evaluate.
Honorable Mention: Mets, Phillies
BEST FARM SYSTEM: LOS ANGELES DODGERS
This should come as no surprise, since the Dodgers have been pulling from their system over the past couple of years (see Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp). But L.A. also has Clayton Kershaw, one of the most coveted players in trade talks all winter. Kershaw, who was born in 1988, was drafted sixth overall in 2006 out of high school. The left-hander made it to Double-A in his first pro season last year and is expected to hit the L.A. clubhouse sooner rather than later. But Kershaw is not the only one. Andy LaRoche was tabbed as the third baseman until a broken hand set him back this spring, and Tony Abreu and Chin-Lung Hu head a farm system considered one of the best.
Honorable Mention: Reds
BREAKOUT PLAYER: YUNEL ESCOBAR, Braves
Mention Escobar's name and you'll elicit flowery language out of the Braves' camp. That's because Escobar, a native of Cuba, impressed when he stepped in for an injured Edgar Renteria last year. In 94 games he hit .326 and proved he could play all around the infield. The Braves were convinced he would fit best at shortstop, so they traded Renteria, one of the most popular players to ever play in Atlanta, according to manager Bobby Cox. The 25-year-old infielder worked out with Renteria in Miami most of the winter and learned from his mentor about hard work and being a good teammate, intangibles Renteria has always been known for. Escobar has made his clubhouse and organization believers. The rest of the league will believe soon, as well.
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Hermida, Matt Kemp
UNDERRATED PLAYER: COREY HART, Brewers
All Hart needed was some regular playing time, and when he got it last year, he improved his home run total by 15, going from nine in 2006 to 24 in '07. The 26-year-old right fielder can steal 20-plus bases, and last year he had a higher VORP (39.2) than Adrian Gonzalez (38.4), Carl Crawford (38), Troy Tulowitzki (37.8) and Manny Ramirez (34.6).
Honorable Mention: Kelly Johnson
DARK HORSE TEAM: CINCINNATI REDS
We aren't just saying this because the Reds' new manager is a former ESPN employee. Change was needed in Cincinnati, and it began with Dusty Baker, but it did not end there. Baker inherited a team that went out and got Francisco Cordero as its closer and has appealing options in its farm system. Perhaps the headliner has been right-hander Johnny Cueto, one of the best spring stories, who's expected to be part of the rotation. Take Adam Dunn in a walk year, and the Reds will have a little offensive punch, too -- enough to keep your eye on them.
Honorable Mention: Braves
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
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