March 30, 2002
National League Predictions
Our best guess at 2002's winners and losersNational League East
Gary Sheffield's presence papers over scars at the Braves' infield corners. The Marlins continue to improve on the field, and Jeffrey Loria salivates over the prospect of a second consecutive MLB buyout when Miami refuses to build him a new mallpark. Shades of Billy Martin in Philadelphia, where Larry Bowa is fired less than a year after being voted NL Manager of the Year.
Atlanta 90, New York 88, Philadelphia 83, Florida 81, Montreal 73
The Braves' pitchers are still the ones to beat, and Gary Sheffield should make a big difference in their attack. The Mets have totally retooled and look like my wild-card winner. The Phillies are within range, although I don't think they'll score enough. The Fish didn't do themselves any favors with the Antonio Alfonseca trade, and it worries me about what other moves they'll try. The Expos may have a pathetic offense, but several good starters could keep them within a respectable distance, if the empty seats they'll face don't distract them too much.
First place and last place are easy. For the middle teams I was tempted to predict a three-way tie for second, and any order of those three wouldn't surprise me in the least.
The Braves are slowing down; if they don't reload in the next couple of years, the end of their run might finally be at hand, but acquiring Gary Sheffield puts that off for at least a year. Much has been made of the Mets, but I see way too many players who have to match their production from two or three years ago as opposed to last year. Add in two gigantic out sinks in the form of Rey Ordonez and Jay Payton, and I see an offense that could be surprisingly weak.
A lot of people figure the Phillies will fall victim to the Plexiglass Principle will this year, but looking at the past few seasons, it's 2000 that was the exception to the general trend, not 2001. They had the youngest lineup in the NL last year, one which still has plenty of time to improve. They have a few too many holes that they didn't fill, and injuries to the pitching staff are a real concern, but I could see another year of the Phils hanging around. I think the new management is going to sabotage the Marlins and keep them from reaching their full potential, which is really unfortunate because there is some talent there if it's handled right. I just don't think it will be. As for the Expos (a.k.a. Les Boiteux Canards), they are continuing their tradition of demonstrating how not to run a team.
The Braves offense lights up, with a full season of Marcus Giles, a slightly improved Andruw Jones, and Gary Sheffield taking over for Brian Jordan. Julio Franco hits better than expected, but is still replaced when the Braves send Kelly Johnson to Cleveland for Jim Thome in June. The Braves run away with the division, with the Fish and Mets on the outskirts of the race for most of the season.
Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, and Brad Penny become the NL's version of the Oakland A's trio, but without the offensive onslaught behind it, the win totals don't match the ERAs. Matt Clement is missed, Alexander Gonzalez and Rey Ordonez battle it out for HACKING MASS supremacy, and the Mets invest heavily in prayer for the collective health of Edgardo Alfonzo, Mo Vaughn, and, surprisingly, John Valentin, who enters a sort of offense/defense platoon with Ordonez by midseason. Shawn Estes gives the sort of high-excitement, high-variance performance he's known for, and Jeff D'Amico doesn't disappoint, slowly suffering a performance drop as his arm deteriorates until he goes down for the season in the beginning of August.
The Phillies rotation takes them out of the race by mid-season, despite a significant bump in offense. Scott Rolen doesn't re-sign, and becomes the new Rockie third baseman, and the first free-agent signing, immediately after the players and owners announce a new one-year CBA extension in January. The Expos are purchased by a consortium of partners who have the fourth-highest bid in the process, but the best political contacts inside and outside of baseball. The consortium and MLB agree to pay Peter Angelos $140 million to allow the club to move to D.C., and the Expos move into KPMG Grounds in April of 2004, at which time the club has won 68 games in just over one full season of play.
The Braves are still the best team in the division, and it still isn't close. It's amazing what swapping Brian Jordan for Gary Sheffield, and getting full seasons out of Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles, can do to an offense. The Mets execute their starting outfield after the season for costing them a playoff spot. Scott Rolen ignores the chaos around him and the Phillies thump their way into wild-card contention. The Marlins seem more determined to keep a circus (or WWF) atmosphere in the clubhouse than in making a push for the postseason. Les Expos? Try Les Miserables.
The Mets ought to do better than this, but balancing their collection of risks in their rotation (as well as too-high expectations for Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz) against a Phillies lineup in its prime, I grudgingly picked the Phillies. The Marlins will be the best fourth-place team in baseball, within five games of second. The Braves win going away, and post the best record in the NL.
Atlanta Braves: Jason Marquis steps up the way Kevin Millwood did three years ago, while Gary Sheffield drives in 130 runs.
New York Mets: Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz are not quite as good as hoped, and there's not enough starting pitching behind Al Leiter.
Philadelphia Phillies: Vern Ruhle does it again as Brandon Duckworth and Vicente Padilla step up, but Randy Wolf gets hurt and Scott Rolen is a year-long distraction.
Florida Marlins: Brad Penny wins 17 games and Braden Looper saves 35, but Cliff Floyd gets hurt and Charles Johnson plays hurt.
Montreal Expos: Orlando Cabrera's back aches, and while Brandon Phillips plays shortstop in the second half and does all right, the pitching after Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas Jr. is a mess
The bottom line for this division will once again be the Braves' pitching. The staff isn't as strong as it once was, but it's still the best in the league, and the offense is going to be bounce back strongly after an awful 2001. The Mets did what they had to do in the offseason to maximize their chances at reaching the postseason, but the team is filled with gambles such as Mo Vaughn and Shawn Estes, gambles that could blow up in the team's face. There's an awful lot of talent on the Phillies, but their pitching is likely to be weaker than it was in 2001 and Larry Bowa is still too much of a time bomb as a manager to justify thinking that the Phillies will be a strong contender. The Marlins, meanwhile, will see the progress of its young team hindered by its mediocre new management. Meanwhile, a reincarnated Mahatma couldn't keep the Expos from last place this season.
Placing the Braves first and the Expos last isn't that tough, but places 2-4 are a crap shoot. I'll pick the Marlins to make some noise, the Mets to be a bust, and the Phillies to regress.
Hope and faith for those poor small-market fans in Philly. I think Atlanta's at the end of the road, and both teams will finish about 85 wins. This is also the end for the Phillies, too, though - Bowa's charm will be wearing off shortly, a la BillyBall, and he'll be put in charge of another team that needs a change of pace. Baltimore seems a likely candidate. Atlanta's got a big bat in the lineup but they're also going to get nothing from the infield corners, and they're going to be dependent on getting amazing, full-season performances from Maddux/Glavine and good years from everyone else in the rotation and bullpen. It's not going to happen. Meanwhile, the Phillies are going to have to find another catcher mid-season when theirs explodes, but their more balanced attack will win them their first division title since 1993. New York's offense isn't going to be all that good, and they're a thin, fragile team. Back at the ranch, the Loria salary-dumping incompetently-run Marlins beat out the wreckage of the Loria-destroyed no-OBP-liking Expos to avoid being the worst team in the division.
National League Central
A good two-team race sees the Redbirds hold off the Astros, with Houston accepting the consolation prize (a.k.a. wild card). Somehow, Don Baylor still isn't seen as a problem on the north side of Chicago--chalk it up to his menacing physical presence. The Brewers hole up in the cellar despite being one of baseball's most profitable teams. Karma.
Houston 86, Chicago 85, St Louis 82, Milwaukee 73, Pittsburgh 73, Cincinnati 70
The media seems to be anointing the Cardinals as runaways, but I just don't see it. The Astros and Cubs both have better hitting--by a lot, in my opinion--and that will put them in the race to the wire. I actually like the Reds, but with their so-called staff lighting up scoreboards all over North America they'll have to work very hard to beat the unimpressive Brewers and Pirates.
This one looks like the NL winner for largest spread between top and bottom teams. The top two teams are going to fight it out all season long, and the loser should be the wild card. The Cubbies have the lousy luck to be in the same division as the two best teams in the league. If they were in either of the other two divisions, they'd have a legitimate shot at a division title. Given the state of the farm systems in this division, this could be the source of a lot of three-way races over the next few years, which should be a lot of fun.
The Reds have all the hallmarks of a 77-to-82 win team. In the bottom reaches, the Brewers and Pirates should be wretched again. Don't believe any claims about it being due to their market size either. They've got the fancy new mallparks, but they're spending their money on Derek Bell and Eric Young instead of players who could actually help them.
The Cubs pitching holds up, bolstered by Matt Clement. It's supported by a surprising season from Bill Mueller, and workable seasons from the Sammy Sosa/Fred McGriff/Moises Alou center of the lineup. Kerry Wood gains one walk per game of command, and becomes a truly dominant starting pitcher. Mark Prior, in a mid-June callup, is a clear #2 starter by August, and the Cubs ride the young arms into the postseason.
In St. Louis, Darryl Kile, Matt Morris, and Albert Pujols slip just enough to keep the Cardinals out of the playoffs, despite a .328/.435/.620 season by J.D. Drew, who unfortunately can only play 127 games. The Astros finish a game back of the Cubs and win the wild card, despite foreboding signs of aging on the right side of the infield. Richard Hidalgo bounces back some, but not as much as the tender-armed pitching staff, which stays relatively healthy and leads the league in road ERA.
Jim Bowden wakes up on March 31, and, struck with the sudden realization that Elmer Dessens is his #1 starter, starts feeling around for what he can get for Griffey. By the end of the season, the Reds outfield is the best in baseball, and the infield, with a healthy Barry Larkin and Aaron Boone, is pretty impressive as well. Nevertheless, they're the lightweight Texas Rangers of the NL. The Brewers sputter along offensively, but get some pretty decent pitching performances from their young flamethrowers. They're still the Brewers, and they'll perseverate over their huge number of strikeouts, declaring their season an offensive success when strikeouts are down 15% and run scoring is unchanged. The Pirates enter year three of Operation Shutdown, with only Aramis Ramirez and Brian Giles as bright spots. Jason Kendall terrifies Pittsburgh fans by not returning to his previous level of performance.
The Astros finished well behind the Cubs and Cardinals in the offseason hype standings, but they'll finish first where it counts. The Cubs sneak into the playoffs when their rotation catches fire in the second half, and are the team that no one wants to see in the playoffs. The Cardinals miss out on the postseason, but Tony LaRussa is too busy adding to his all-time record for most multi-positional everyday players created to notice.
The Cardinals are counting on all sorts of the wrong kinds of people: Placido Polanco as a regular, Tino Martinez as an offensive centerpiece, Woody Williams from last August versus Woody Williams from the rest of his career, Andy Benes at all, so I expect a disappointing season with a win total in the mid- to low-80s. The Astros have the better talent on both sides of the ball, and a healthy Jeff Bagwell. Jimy Williams wins sympathy and hosannas for signing up with the right team at the right time, a great organization with young talent poised to do plenty.
The Cubs finish second in one of those heart-breaking flirtations with relevance. The Reds are going to surprise some people this year, and might even reach 75 wins. The Brewers will disappoint, but that's what you get for being the bad man's bad ballclub. Operation Shutdown becomes the centerpiece of the Pirates' marketing campaign by Memorial Day, as impassioned season ticket holders beg to be spared the agony and appeal to Dave Littlefield to let everyone skip ahead to 2003.
Houston Astros: Richard Hidalgo rebounds and Lance Berkman repeats. The Roy Oswalt/Wade Miller combination is unmatched. Morgan Ensberg hits 30 bombs.
St. Louis Cardinals: Rick Ankiel does nothing, Darryl Kile is off and the rotation suffers, but team wins wild-card battle over Cubs and Mets.
Chicago Cubs: The offense is as good as advertised but Kerry Wood and Jon Lieber are the only pitchers who meet expectations.
Cincinnati Reds: Adam Dunn hits 45 bombs and Ken Griffey hits 42, but there's no pitching.
Milwaukee Brewers: Despite a new trainer, injuries continue: Jeffrey Hammonds, Ruben Quevedo, and Jamey Wright.
Pittsburgh Pirates: No pitching.
New manager Jimy Williams won't be able to improve upon the generally good job Larry Dierker did managing the Astros over the past few years. He won't sabotage the team either, so the Astros deserve to be the frontrunner in the NL Central. The Houstonians should continue to receive solid pitching from their young starters, and Richard Hidalgo and Craig Biggio will probably both bounce back somewhat from off seasons.
The Cardinals are deservedly the co-frontrunner because of players like Matt Morris, J.D. Drew, and Albert Pujols, but their free-agent signings may very well backfire and the team could face some serious holes that need filling by midseason. The Cubs have gotten a lot of positive press and the organization is definitely riding a wave in the right direction. However, their pitching isn't contender quality and the lineup, while clearly improved, still has some holes. The Reds have assembled a potent offensive lineup but they don't have a major-league starting rotation. Meanwhile, the Pirates and Brewers each have their Operation Shutdown leaders in place: Derek and Bud, definitely two of a kind.
For the second year in a row, we'll have a thrilling pennant race between two fine teams, keeping baseball fans riveted to their TVs down to the last day of the regular season. Oh wait, no we won't. Thanks again, MLB.
It pains me to put the Cardinals up there, but though the Genius will find a way to shred arms, get Placido Polanco 400 at-bats, screw J.D. Drew out of more playing time and generally flail about ineffectually, his competition is Jimy Williams--not known for his lineup or pitching-staff acumen--and Don Baylor, who is a total moron who won't even find a way to get Roosevelt Brown into a lineup regularly (and would make him bunt even if he did). Now, Bob Boone is a well-known super genius (just ask him), but there's not enough for the Reds to make a run, even if their outfield could scorch opposing pitchers. The Pirates beat out the Brewers and a plague removes all Seligs from baseball to the delight of many.
National League West
A veritable dogfight, and with all teams finishing with between 78 and 86 wins, and the biggest dog the equivalent of a barkless Basenji. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling are enough to put the Snakes on the top of the heap and gain super-genius Bob Brenly a new ten-year contract. 2003 will be the beginning of a nice five-year stretch for the Padres.
San Francisco 85, Arizona 84, San Diego 83, Los Angeles 83, Colorado 78
The tightest division of all: any of these teams could be the division winner come October 1. The Diamondbacks' success depends on Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, again; an injury to either one and their chances go bye-bye. The Giants' pitching is unsteady, so they'll need Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, and Rich Aurilia to keep hitting like they did last year. The Dodgers have good pitching, but gaping holes all over their lineup; the Padres have a power-packed lineup, but not the pitching. If we put them together, we'd have a runaway division winner. I may have picked the Rockies last, but they are very much in it. Wouldn't it be great to have five teams within five games with two weeks to go?
This will be the division with the smallest spread between the top and the bottom. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see every team within the 78-to-88 win range. As a result, picking an order of finish is something of a fool's errand.
I almost picked the Padres to win it just to make the point. However, I think they're most likely a year away, so will finish somewhat further down in the pack this year. The Diamondbacks will have age and injuries start to catch up with them, although with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling at the top of the rotation, they can overcome an awful lot. I think the Giants will wind up piecing together just enough to go around the Barry Bonds/Jeff Kent/Rich Aurilia core to sneak out another division title. Whichever team wins this division is likely the be the weakest of the playoff teams.
Just like in 2001, the interesting races will be played without a DH. Every team in the NL West will be at least on the fringes of the battle until the All-Star break, with the Padres' top-to-bottom offense, bolstered by the surprising play of D'Angelo Jimenez, keeping them in the thick of it despite a rotation collapse. Jake Peavy and Dennis Tankersley both step in as starters late in the season, and improve on Bobby Jones's performance, leading the Padres to a divisional title in the season's final days.
Kazu Ishii performs as advertised, particularly early on, and the Dodger rotation posts a miraculous ERA of under 3.00 for the first half of the season; a number matched only by the rotation of Dodger opponents, who prevent the Dodgers from scoring even a run per game throughout the season. Kevin Brown's Cy Young is pre-empted by his 11-16 record, a historical oddity, considering his 2.19 ERA for the season. The Giants suffers minor declines from Jeff Kent, Rich Aurilia, and Barry Bonds, and can't make it up with either the pitching staff, or 130 games from Reggie Sanders, 85 of which are played while healthy.
The D'backs are a year older and 594 innings more tired where it counts. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson pitch great, but not well enough, and no one can pick up enough slack. Byung-Hyun Kim shows no signs of Schiraldi Syndrome, but the other declines due to age are too much to overcome. The Rockies find a way to get Jack Cust in the lineup for 110 games, and the young middle infield hits and fields better than expected. Todd Zeile has exactly the same season he had in 2001, and wins NL Comeback Player of the Year.
San Diego 84-78
The Padres will shock the world with the division's best offense, and a rotation that makes up for being very hittable by surrendering the fewest walks in baseball. The Giants will fall a game short as Livan Hernandez and Kirk Rueter combine for 35 losses. Everyone will blame Barry Bonds. The Diamondbacks will go down, and they will go down hard. If the Dodgers finish above .500, they should start working on Jim Tracy's Hall of Fame plaque right away.
This is baseball's tightest division; I wouldn't expect the last place team to finish more than 15 games behind the winner. The Padres are a reach pick, probably a year early, but I'm having fun wishcasting, and somebody has to finish first in a competitive group. They have tremendous balance in their lineup, a solid rotation, and some smart people running the organization. They'll be close, and I'm willing to bet that they'll exploit the opportunity.
The Snakes have all sorts of problems offensively, but they're better off than the Dodgers, and stronger in the front of the rotation. Both organizations lack depth, which will handicap their ability to acquire talent that will make a difference.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Luis Gonzalez doesn't repeat, but Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling do, which is enough to win a weak division.
San Francisco Giants: Jeff Kent gets off to slow start, so Barry Bonds extends his walks record.
San Diego Padres: A revamped infield performs well, but the starting pitchers are too mediocre.
Los Angeles Dodgers: No one gets on base for the middle of the order, and Brian Jordan disappoints.
Colorado Rockies: The best last-place team in baseball. John Thomson wins 14 games.
This is the hardest division in baseball to predict. I wouldn't be shocked if the final finish was in reverse order from my picks. The Rockies all by themselves are a projectionist's nightmare; Dan O'Dowd has definitely pushed this team in the right direction in terms of resource allocation, but unknowns abound when you have to deal with the thin air. The Giants would have been my pick for the top spot except that it's simply hard to believe that a team with the 2001 Barry Bonds on it could fail to win in the first place. I wouldn't want to make Bonds mad, and I did say the exact same thing after his 2000, but I'll take the risk anyway: there's no way Bonds can top last year. Given the possibility of Jeff Kent teaching Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Accidents to new teammate Mr. Oh-So-Fragile Reggie Sanders, and the reality that the Giants starting staff is a savvy but untalented group of pitchers whose success in the past few years has been achieved primarily by taking full advantage of the acres of room for mistake pitches in Pac Bell, I'd rather roll the dice and stick with the Rockies.
Another fearless prediction is that Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling will not combine on as much pitching production as they did in 2001, and as a result the Diamondbacks' multitude of weaknesses will make them very average overall. The Dodgers probably have more front-line talent than any team in this division but, unfortunately, they also have more bad players playing significant roles than any non-Operation Shutdown team in the league. As for the Padres, they're a team on the rise and they could end up being the biggest surprise in the league, but the organization will probably not rush players in a push to contend, and will likely makes fans wait a year or two longer to watch a real contender.
While anything could happen in this division, I'll stick with my old reliable rule: the Giants always finish two places higher than they should. The mini-hype-fest surrounding the Padres is at least a year early.
I don't know how Dusty Baker will get this lineup to keep scoring...but he will. I don't know how he'll keep the pitching together enough to win the division...but he will. The Rockies' new middle infield is going to be huge, and they have a stockpile of pitchers to rotate in and out of long relief. This will be the year the wheels fall off the Diamondbacks, as injuries and poor years by old players devastate the offense. The Padres catch and pass the Dodgers, who'll be looking up at them for the next decade or so.