Braves reap the benefits of the farewell tour.
Cardinals can survive even without Albert.
Giants receive a boost from Buster.
In the final installment of looking into Major League Baseball's crystal ball, proof is in the pitching in the National League.
Atlanta can't quite match Philadelphia's three studs of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, but the Braves bullpen trio of Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters is second to none and their lineup musters just enough offense to finally end the Phillies' string of five straight East Division titles.
The Braves give Chipper Jones the proper sendoff as the future Hall of Fame third baseman completes his 19th and final season with the organization.
Also in the East, Washington starts to show it is a contender for the future with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper now on board and Miami makes a serious run in its new stadium. That is until first-year skipper Ozzie Guillen and starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano reach their boiling point.
A lack of punch in the batting order leaves the Mets struggling to stay out of the cellar.
With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder absent from the field, the Central is ripe for the taking by someone like Cincinnati, which bolstered its pitching staff in the offseason. But with question marks hovering over Ryan Madson and now Nick Masset, the Reds have their work out out trying to leapfrog past Milwaukee and St. Louis.
The Cardinals' lineup remain potent even without Albert, and if Wainwright returns to form the Redbirds are the favorites to repeat their divisional title.
After a strong push for nearly two-thirds of the 2011 season, Pittsburgh takes it one step further. Behind veteran starters Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and A.J. Burnett, the Pirates end 19 years of futility and finish above .500. Even with the Theo Epstein-era in place, Chicago barely edges Houston for fifth place.
Out west, find a five-sided coin and there still won't be a clear-cut favorite. As many as four teams (San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado and Los Angeles) have a legitimate chance.
By a slimmer than slim margin, the Giants welcome the return of catcher Buster Posey and unseat the Diamondbacks. San Francisco's rotation of Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain rival that of Philadelphia's mighty three.
Don't buy into Arizona's choice of J.J. Putz as its closer and that may prove to be the Diamondbacks' downfall in a winner-take-all, one-game wild-card playoff with Philadelphia.
The Dodgers and Rockies should remain in contention heading into the final month. Not too shabby when both last year's Cy Young (Clayton Kershaw) and MVP runner-up (Matt Kemp) reside in the same dugout. Offense also is in full supply in Colorado, but as mentioned previously pitching rules in the N.L.
Spacious Petco Park in San Diego once again takes a toll on Padre hitters.
In the postseason, it all comes down to St. Louis and Atlanta for the pennant. While my heart says go with Braves, Cardinals seem to thrive on their fan base. As a result they advance to face Pujols and the Angels in the World Series.
Contact Kerry Patrick at email@example.com