PHILADELPHIA -- Gloves are popping. Press conferences have begun and we are off and running on the 2011 Major League Baseball season. Now while we wait for the St. Louis Cardinals and Albert Pujols to come to a contract extension, let's take a look at 16 players in the National League who could be critical to their team's success this season.
ARIZONA - DANIEL HUDSON: There may not be a whole lot to look forward to if you are a baseball fan residing in the Arizona desert, but righty Daniel Hudson could be the silver lining in what may be another long season for the Diamondbacks. After being acquired from Chicago in late July for Edwin Jackson, Hudson went 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA in 11 starts. He gave up two runs or less in 10 of those starts and went at least seven innings nine times. Hudson could be Arizona's Opening Day starter and if the Diamondbacks are a surprise team out of the NL West this season, ala last year's San Diego Padres, he will undoubtedly be a big reason why.
ATLANTA - CRAIG KIMBREL: The Atlanta Braves were a playoff team last year thanks in large part to the stability of their bullpen, namely closer Billy Wagner. Well, Wagner has retired and the Braves are now hoping 22-year-old Craig Kimbrel can slide into that role seamlessly. The hard-throwing right- hander, though, has just 20 2/3 major league innings under his belt. However, he only allowed one run in his 21 appearances and struck out 40. Kimbrel certainly has the stuff to make him an elite closer, but is he ready to take over that role? That question alone could determine whether or not the Braves are playing once again in October.
CHICAGO - CARLOS ZAMBRANO: Last spring, Carlos Zambrano guaranteed he would not be a problem for the Cubs. Nobody really took him seriously and rightfully so, because after a wildly inconsistent first couple of months, Zambrano had a dugout blowup at U.S. Cellular Field that led to a suspension, anger management classes and a demotion to the bullpen. So much for not being a problem. Whether it was the anger classes or the calming influence of new manager Mike Quade, something clicked for the Big Z while he won his final eight decisions. If the Cubs are going to make any noise in what is now a very competitive NL Central, you can bet your bottom dollar that Zambrano has carried his late season success into 2011.
CINCINNATI - EDINSON VOLQUEZ: Last year was already going to be a lost season for Edinson Volquez, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. But, his campaign took a turn for the worse in April when he was suspended 50 games for using performance enhancing drugs. Volquez eventually returned in July and was 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA down the stretch for the NL Central champion Reds. The fact was Cincinnati won a division title without him. The Reds were on the periphery of the Zack Greinke trade discussions this winter. If they pulled that off, they would have been talked about as a real contender in the NL this season. A healthy Volquez, though, can be just as effective and have the same impact for the Reds.
COLORADO - UBALDO JIMENEZ: Ubaldo Jimenez put up one of the best first halves of baseball you will ever see last season, going 15-1 before the break with a 2.20 ERA. Not to mention he also tossed a no-hitter. But, he faded badly in the second half and struggled just to get to 19 wins, as he went 4-7 over his final 15 appearances and ended the year with a still impressive 2.88 ERA. So which Jimenez will enter 2011? The one who looked well on his way to a Cy Young Award in July, or the one whose shaky second half probably cost the Rox a playoff trip?
FLORIDA - HANLEY RAMIREZ: Hanley Ramirez may not be the No. 1 reason why Fredi Gonzalez is no longer managing the Florida Marlins, but I would be willing to guess he is partly to blame. Ramirez' reputation took a huge hit last year when Gonzalez openly called him out for not hustling on a play. HanRam went from being one of the best young players in the game to a sulky superstar. By all accounts, Ramirez has taken notice of the negative comments and appears to be motivated, really for the first time in his career. If Ramirez' head is right, he could be the NL MVP this season.
HOUSTON - CARLOS LEE: A popular story in Houston this offseason has been whether or not Carlos Lee is done. His home run totals have been on the decline since belting 37 in 2006 and after hitting just 24 last season and watching his streak of four consecutive .300-plus seasons come to an end, the questions are valid. Lee's poor season a year ago was accentuated by an abysmal April that saw him hit just .183. He has no protection in that lineup and that doesn't figure to change unless Brett Wallace blossoms into the slugger the team thinks he can be. Either way, Lee may not be the Astros' problem much longer as there have been talks about him heading to Texas in a deal for Michael Young. Of course, though, he is still owed $37 million through the end of next season.
LOS ANGELES - CHAD BILLINGSLEY: In case you haven't heard, the NL West is still a very winnable division. The Los Angeles Dodgers have the pieces to get the job done, especially if Chad Billingsley can put a full season together. Last year, Billingsley overcame some consistency problems and lowered his ERA nearly a half run to 3.57. If he can pitch at that level and approach or exceed his win total of 2008 (16), it could be an interesting summer at Chavez Ravine.
MILWAUKEE - SHAUN MARCUM: A lot of people are picking the Milwaukee Brewers as a sleeper team in the NL Central. We all know about the Zack Greinke acquisition, but a move that has seemingly slipped under the radar is the trade with Toronto for Shaun Marcum. While Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Marcum and Randy Wolf may not match up to the Phillies' staff, it's pretty darn good. Marcum could be the sleeper of the group. Last year, his first full season after sitting out 2009 because of elbow surgery, Marcum won 13 games for the Toronto Blue Jays and pitched to a 3.64 ERA. With a full offseason of no rehab under his belt, don't be surprised if he wins 18 games this season.
N.Y. METS - MIKE PELFREY: Expectations are at an all-time low for the baseball team in Flushing. As if the Mets didn't have enough problems with ace Johan Santana recovering from shoulder surgery, now comes word that the franchise could be in financial ruins. But, if you look at the lineup it's not that bad. There is some star power there with Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay. If those four can play to the back of their baseball cards and the Mets get contributions from other players like Angel Pagan and Ike Davis, they will score some runs. Without Santana, though, that pitching staff is a mess. Mike Pelfrey will be counted on to be the team's ace until Santana returns (hopefully at the All-Star break), but can he handle it? He showed signs of being a front-line starter last season, but also had times when he was just completely ineffective.
PHILADELPHIA - JIMMY ROLLINS: We all know how great this Phillies rotation has a chance to be. It was great last year, though. The Phillies ran into problems because their bats seemed to disappear at times. The bottom line is when Jimmy Rollins is firing on all cylinders, more often than not so is the Phillies' offense. The 2007 NL MVP, though, has battled through injuries the last two seasons and has never really gotten on track, and it has showed. If this offense is going to match what is expected to be an epic rotation, Rollins will need to be the catalyst. And, oh, by the way, Rollins may have some extra incentive, as he can become a free agent at the end of this season.
PITTSBURGH - PEDRO ALVAREZ: Let's be quite clear here: there is hardly anything to be happy about with regards to Pittsburgh baseball this coming season. Chances are the Pirates are headed for their major league-record 20th consecutive losing season. It may sound crazy, but they appear to be on the right track. Pedro Alvarez is proof of that. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft made his big league debut for the Bucs last season and swatted 16 home runs in 95 games. His continued progression will be the one thing to watch if you are a Pirates fan this season.
ST. LOUIS - ALBERT PUJOLS: Of course, it's Albert Pujols. This is a no- brainer, but it may not be why you might think. As it stands now, Pujols and the Cardinals will not be coming to a deal by the three-time NL MVP's self- imposed Wednesday deadline, meaning his pending free agency is going to be hanging over not only his head but the entire team's all season long. We have seen players crumble under similar situations. Will the same happen to El Hombre? Not to mention the added inconvenience in a locker room that is going to be peppered with Pujols' contract questions all season long.
SAN DIEGO - MAT LATOS: Mat Latos gave the San Diego Padres a taste of just how good he was going to be in 2009, but last year he showed the entire NL. Thanks to a tremendous pitching staff from top to bottom, the Padres surprisingly remained in the playoff mix right up until the final day of the regular season. Latos, despite being 22, was the leader of that group, as he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA. With Adrian Gonzalez now slugging away in Boston, San Diego's pitching staff will be counted on now more than ever if it wants to duplicate their successful 2010.
SAN FRANCISCO - BUSTER POSEY: Every year the story was the same with the San Francisco Giants. They had a tremendous pitching staff, but their lineup just wasn't up to snuff. Trade offers would always trickle in for a stopgap bat, but more often than not, top prospect Buster Posey's name would be the one leaving the Bay Area. General manager Brian Sabean always declined and when the same questions were raised early on last season and rumors started to swirl again. This time Sabean elevated Posey to the big league club and he responded. The 23-year-old catcher hit .305 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs to win the NL Rookie of the Year and was a big part of the Giants' first World Series title since 1954. Questions still linger about the Giants offense, but another strong year from Posey will ease those concerns.
WASHINGTON - JAYSON WERTH: There are still some people shaking their heads at the monstrous seven-year, $126 million contract that Jayson Werth received from Washington. Like I said at the time, Washington had to overpay if it was going to lure a player like Werth to the District. That deal, though, could become a huge albatross on the organization if Werth doesn't produce in a lineup that does not exactly include Ryan Howard. Year one will be especially telling with that deal, as phenom Stephen Strasburg will likely miss all of the coming season, recovering from elbow surgery.