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03/25/08 8:27 PM ET
First pitch: Preseason NL staff rankings
How do the league's 16 teams rank heading into the '08 season?
Dan Haren is poised to form the NL's top 1-2 punch alongside 2006 Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. (AP)

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For most American adults, playing defense is the equivalent of what vegetables are to children: boring, but good for you.

Think about it.

Who wouldn't rather smash a ball 500 feet, steal three bases or hit for the cycle than prevent runs from scoring? Offense sells tickets, it's as simple as that.

It's only natural, then, that pitching is what wins championships. It's a hard pill to swallow, especially for the 2007 Rockies, '06 Tigers and '05 Astros -- the last three losing World Series teams. It also goes a long way in succeeding in the MLB.com 2008 Open, a head-to-head weekly fantasy game that features pitching staffs instead of individual pitchers, as weekly NFL fantasy games do with entire defenses.

With that in mind, here's a rundown of the National League's staffs, from best to worst, heading into the 2008 campaign.

1. Diamondbacks

Projected rotation
1. RHP Brandon Webb
2. RHP Dan Haren
3. LHP Randy Johnson
4. LHP Doug Davis
5. RHP Micah Owings

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Brandon Lyon
Setup men: RHP Tony Pena, RHP Chad Qualls
Middle relievers: RHP Juan Cruz, LHP Doug Slaten, RHP Edgar Gonzalez, RHP Dustin Nippert

Analysis: Quick -- name a more fearsome National League pitching duo than Webb and Haren. Jake Peavy and Chris Young? Nope. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson? Five years ago, sure. Arguably the league's top 1-2 punch, both Webb and Haren should figure prominently in the Cy Young race as they do their very best to conjure up memories of the dynamic Johnson/Curt Schilling duo that once dominated in the desert. If the Big Unit stays healthy and someone shows enough moxie to close out tight games, you're looking at a staff capable of carrying a team deep into October.

Sleeper candidates: Johnson, Pena, Qualls, Cruz
Potential bust: Lyon

2. Dodgers

Projected rotation
1. RHP Brad Penny
2. RHP Derek Lowe
3. RHP Chad Billingsley
4. RHP Hiroki Kuroda
5. RHP Esteban Loaiza

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Takashi Saito
Setup man: RHP Jonathan Broxton
Middle relievers: RHP Scott Proctor, LHP Joe Beimel, RHP Yhency Brazoban, Hong Chih Kuo, RHP Rudy Seanez

Analysis: After being struck by a slew of pitching injuries down the stretch last season, the Dodgers added Kuroda to solidify a rotation that posted a first-half ERA of 3.83. They also improved their defense significantly by replacing Juan Pierre with 10-time Gold Glove Award winner Andruw Jones in center field. That can only help Billingsley (who'll be settling into his first full season as a starter), Jason Schmidt (whenever he returns from injury) and the dominant Saito/Broxton tag team working out of the 'pen. This is a staff to fear.

Sleeper candidates: Billingsley
Potential bust: Penny

3. Cubs

Projected rotation
1. RHP Carlos Zambrano
2. LHP Ted Lilly
3. LHP Rich Hill
4. RHP Jason Marquis
5. RHP Ryan Dempster

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Kerry Wood
Setup man: RHP Carlos Marmol
Middle relievers: RHP Bob Howry, RHP Michael Wuertz, RHP Jon Lieber, LHP Scott Eyre, LHP Carmen Pignatiello

Analysis: In 2007, the Cubs led the Majors in strikeouts and placed second among NL teams in ERA. With their staff returning intact, there's no reason they can't match that success. It's hard to argue with a frontline of Zambrano, Lilly and Hill, all of whom could end up combining for more strikeouts than any other trio. And if Wood continues to be haunted by injuries, Marmol is waiting in the wings.

Sleeper candidate: Marmol
Potential busts: Zambrano, Wood

4. Mets

Projected rotation
1. LHP Johan Santana
2. RHP Pedro Martinez
3. RHP John Maine
4. LHP Oliver Perez
5. RHP Orlando Hernandez/RHP Mike Pelfrey

Projected bullpen
Closer: LHP Billy Wagner
Setup man: RHP Aaron Heilman
Middle relievers: RHP Duaner Sanchez, LHP Pedro Feliciano, RHP Matt Wise, RHP Joe Smith, RHP Jorge Sosa, LHP Scott Schoenweis

Analysis: Maine and Perez kept the Mets above water last season without Pedro. Now, with the three-time Cy Young Award winner back for good and two-time winner Santana leading the way, this may be their best staff since the days of Doc Gooden.

Sleeper candidates: Martinez, Heilman
Potential bust: Perez

5. Padres

Projected rotation
1. RHP Jake Peavy
2. RHP Chris Young
3. RHP Greg Maddux
4. LHP Randy Wolf
5. RHP Justin Germano

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Trevor Hoffman
Setup man: RHP Heath Bell
Middle relievers: RHP Cla Meredith, RHP Kevin Cameron, LHP Justin Hampson, LHP Wilfredo Ledezma

Analysis: The Padres were the proud owners of a shiny 3.70 ERA last season, good for the best mark in baseball. So why the drop in ranking? One name: Mike Cameron. Losing Cameron to Milwaukee leaves this group of high-strikeout fly-ball pitchers with a slower outfield behind them, as Scott Hairston, Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles will be patrolling the grounds. Sorry folks, Edmonds and Giles just don't run like they used to, and PETCO Park isn't helping their cause. On skills alone, this remains one the league's best overall staffs -- led by reigning Cy Young Award winner Peavy, a deep bullpen and the hope of a healthy season from Mark Prior.

Sleeper candidates: Wolf, Prior
Potential busts: Hoffman

6. Brewers

Projected rotation
1. RHP Ben Sheets
2. RHP Yovani Gallardo (injured)
3. RHP Jeff Suppan
4. RHP Carlos Villanueva
5. RHP Dave Bush/LHP Manny Parra

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Eric Gagne
Setup men: RHP David Riske, RHP Derrick Turnbow
Middle relievers: LHP Brian Shouse, RHP Salomon Torres, RHP Guillermo Mota (suspended), LHP Mitch Stetter

Analysis: Whatever this staff lacks in quality, it makes up for in depth, with eight pitchers capable of throwing a quality start on any given day. That should protect them against potential injuries to Sheets or Gagne. The degree to which golden arm Gallardo breaks through will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Brewers challenge the Cubs. If Gallardo becomes the ace many expect him to be, look out. But one thing's for sure -- they'll have a much better defensive unit behind them with Mike Cameron patrolling center field, Ryan Braun out of the way in left and Bill Hall manning third base.

Sleeper candidates: Parra, Riske, Bush
Potential bust: Gagne

7. Braves

Projected rotation
1. RHP John Smoltz
2. RHP Tim Hudson
3. LHP Tom Glavine
4. LHP Chuck James (injured)
5. RHP Jair Jurrjens/LHP Mike Hampton

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Rafael Soriano
Setup man: RHP Peter Moylan
Middle relievers: RHP Tyler Yates, RHP Manny Acosta, LHP Will Ohman, RHP Jeff Ridgway, LHP Mike Gonzalez (injured), LHP Royce Ring

Analysis: The Glavine signing does more to boost the Braves' ticket sales than improve their staff. Going from having Jose Reyes and David Wright behind you to Yunel Escobar and Chipper Jones is a pretty steep drop-off, especially for a finesse pitcher who relies so heavily on his defense. Still, with three proven starters capable of throwing 200 innings, along with the underrated bullpen duo of Soriano and Moylan, this is an above-average unit.

Sleeper candidates: Soriano, Jurrjens
Potential bust: Glavine

8. Giants

Projected rotation
1. RHP Tim Lincecum
2. RHP Matt Cain
3. LHP Barry Zito
4. RHP Kevin Correia
5. LHP Jonathan Sanchez

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Brian Wilson
Setup men: RHP Tyler Walker, RHP Brad Hennessey, RHP Vinnie Chulk
Middle relievers: LHP Steve Kline, LHP Jack Taschner, LHP Erick Threets

Analysis: While the offense still needs a makeover, the rotation features a pair of the most tantalizing young pitchers in recent memory -- Lincecum and Cain. The two phenoms, along with a quality No. 3 starter in Zito, should do enough damage control to keep the Giants out of 100-loss territory.

Sleeper candidate: Sanchez
Potential bust: Wilson

9. Reds

Projected rotation
1. RHP Aaron Harang
2. RHP Bronson Arroyo
3. RHP Josh Fogg
4. RHP Johnny Cueto
5. RHP Edinson Volquez

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Francisco Cordero
Setup man: RHP David Weathers
Middle relievers: RHP Jared Burton, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, LHP Mike Stanton, RHP Todd Coffey, LHP Bill Bray, LHP Kent Mercker

Analysis: Not the same tired bunch of veterans, hard-throwing youngsters Cueto and Volquez should inject new life into a rotation led by Harang and Arroyo. The bullpen also figures to improve, with Cordero shutting the door, Weathers serving as setup man and Bray, Coffey and Barton possibly returning to form. If you're looking for the 2008 version of the Rockies, feast your eyes on the new Reds arms.

Sleeper candidates: Cueto, Volquez
Potential bust: Fogg

10. Cardinals

Projected rotation
1. RHP Adam Wainwright
2. RHP Braden Looper
3. RHP Kyle Lohse
4. RHP Joel Pineiro
5. RHP Anthony Reyes

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Jason Isringhausen
Setup man: RHP Ryan Franklin
Middle relievers: RHP Russ Springer, LHP Ron Flores, RHP Josh Kinney, LHP Tyler Johnson, RHP Zach McClellan, RHP Kelvin Jimenez

Analysis: Can miracle worker/pitching coach Dave Duncan mold a bunch of average right-handers into a quality staff? The answer may decide whether the 2008 Cardinals are contenders or pretenders. Another significant factor will be how quickly Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Clement get off the disabled list. Either way, there's not a whole lot worth getting excited about here, except for the continued growth of Wainwright.

Sleeper candidates: Pineiro, Reyes
Potential bust: Looper

11. Rockies

Projected rotation
1. LHP Jeff Francis
2. RHP Aaron Cook
3. RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
4. RHP Jason Hirsh
5. LHP Franklin Morales

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Manny Corpas
Setup man: LHP Brian Fuentes
Middle relievers: RHP Luis Vizcaino, RHP Taylor Buchholz, RHP Kip Wells, LHP Micah Bowie, LHP Mark Redman

Analysis: Like any team coming off a World Series run, the Rockies enter 2008 with high hopes. Still, Jimenez, Hirsh and Corpas might not be past their growing pains just yet, so expect a collective step back from last year's Cinderella story.

Sleeper candidate: Morales
Potential bust: Jimenez

12. Pirates

Projected rotation
1. RHP Ian Snell
2. LHP Tom Gorzelanny
3. LHP Paul Maholm
4. RHP Matt Morris
5. LHP Zack Duke

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Matt Capps
Setup man: LHP Damaso Marte
Middle relievers: RHP Byung-Hyun Kim, LHP John Grabow, RHP Elmer Dessens, RHP Hector Carrasco, RHP Evan Meek

Analysis: Don't be so quick to dismiss this crew as the same ol' Bucs. With Snell and Gorzelanny coming into their own, and Capps more than ready to turn Salomon Torres into a distant memory, there's something brewing here. Now, if only Duke can rediscover his rookie magic ...

Sleeper candidate: Duke
Potential bust: Morris

13. Phillies

Projected rotation
1. LHP Cole Hamels
2. RHP Brett Myers
3. LHP Jamie Moyer
4. RHP Kyle Kendrick
5. RHP Adam Eaton

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Brad Lidge (injured)
Setup man: RHP Tom Gordon
Middle relievers: LHP J.C. Romero, RHP Ryan Madson, RHP Chad Durbin, RHP J.D. Durbin, LHP Vic Darensborg, RHP Clay Condrey

Analysis: Give the Phils credit for correcting their mistake. Moving Myers from staff ace to closer was ill-conceived, and his return to the rotation gives the team another arm it can rely upon every fifth day. Meanwhile, with Lidge hurting and Gordon aging, the bullpen remains something of a train wreck, and it'll probably take new blood to get it back on track.

Sleeper candidate: Myers
Potential bust: Kendrick

14. Astros

Projected rotation
1. RHP Roy Oswalt
2. LHP Wandy Rodriguez
3. RHP Brandon Backe
4. RHP Shawn Chacon
5. RHP Woody Williams/RHP Chris Sampson

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Jose Valverde
Setup man: RHP Geoff Geary
Middle relievers: RHP Oscar Villarreal, RHP Doug Brocail, RHP Dave Borkowski, LHP Wesley Wright

Analysis: Let's not beat around the bush. Developing arms isn't the Astros' forte, and they've yet to find anything close to a post-Roger Clemens/Andy Pettitte blueprint. Rodriguez is better than his stats show, but hitters will be licking their chops at the prospect of facing Chacon, Backe and especially Williams. Trading for Valverde and Geary helps some, but it'll take more than two arms to fix this staff.

Sleeper candidate: Rodriguez
Potential bust: Valverde

15. Nationals

Projected rotation
1. RHP Shawn Hill (injured)
2. RHP Jason Bergmann
3. LHP Odalis Perez
4. RHP Tim Redding
5. LHP John Lannan/LHP Matt Chico

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Chad Cordero
Setup man: RHP Jon Rauch
Middle relievers: RHP Luis Ayala, RHP Saul Rivera, RHP Jesus Colome, RHP Chris Schroder, LHP Ray King, RHP Joel Hanrahan

Analysis: Skipper Manny Acta made lemons out of lemonade last year, but it probably had more to do with pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium than any divine skill on his part. The switch to Nationals Park should be a rude awakening for Cordero and the gang.

Sleeper candidates: Rauch, Bergmann
Potential bust: Cordero

16. Marlins

Projected rotation
1. LHP Scott Olsen
2. LHP Mark Hendrickson
3. LHP Andrew Miller
4. RHP Rick Vandenhurk
5. RHP Sergio Mitre (injured)

Projected bullpen
Closer: RHP Kevin Gregg
Setup man: RHP Matt Lindstrom
Middle relievers: RHP Justin Miller, RHP Lee Gardner, LHP Taylor Tankersley, LHP Renyel Pinto, RHP Ricky Nolasco, RHP Logan Kensing

Analysis: From Anibal Sanchez to Josh Johnson to Sergio Mitre to Henry Owens, the Fish have filled out their fair share of medical reports over the last few years. That needs to change quickly; otherwise, the staff will feature more stopgap pitchers like Hendrickson and Mitre than promising arms.

Sleeper candidate: Lindstrom
Potential bust: Miller

Alex Cushing is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.