April 1, 2000
National League Predictions
Our best guess at 2000's winners and losers
Despite their loss of John Smoltz for the season, we didn't have any problem picking the Braves to finish atop the East again. The Mets have made a lot of changes over the offseason, and we don't think they are in a strong position to make another run at Atlanta this year. In third are the Phillies, who have one of the most unpredictable squads in the majors this year. The Expos will ride their solid young pitching staff and offense to a fourth place finish in 2000, with better things to come. The forever-rebuilding Marlins are a good bet to be the East's worst team this year.
Clay Davenport: Even without Smoltz, the Braves still have more pitching than anyone else (and having Andruw Jones in CF is a considerable part of that), and their offense is solidly in the upper half of the NL. Meanwhile, New York's offense collapses back to league average; Zeile for Olerud is a big loss, Bell for Cedeno is a big loss, and look for some smaller losses as Ventura, Henderson, and others fall back. Philadelphia will be close enough to smell a WC, especially if Schilling can come back strong and soon. The Expos pitching has great promise. And the less said about the Fish, the better.
Jeff Hildebrand: I'm sure this will get me a ton of hate mail from the Mets fans, and to be honest I could easily imagine any possible permutation of the middle three, all within a few games of .500. The Braves should win the division easily, with the Marlins way below everyone else. The Mets lost too much offense from the departure of Olerud and Cedeno. While Hampton will be a good pitcher he won't be as good as he was last year, especially without Dierker to guide him, and I think a lot of the rest of the team is going to implode. If everything were to break right for the Phillies, they might approach 90 wins and if goes wrong they'll be in the low 70s. 81 to 83 wins seems the most likely. The Expos should be the latest team to prove that throwing lots of money at mediocre players merely makes you mediocre.
Rany Jazayerli: The Braves are going to win this division, and no, Mets fans, it won't be close. Mike Hampton will only cushion the blow that Derek Bell provides, and if they really do trade Rickey, they could struggle to reach .500. The Expos are slowly developing young talent (or grabbing it from the Dodgers) again, but there are already bad signs that the Loria era in Montreal won't be nearly as promising as hoped. The Phillies need Schilling healthy and Burrell in the lineup, but may not have either, due to circumstances entirely within their control. The Marlins' rebuilding process is big on power arms, but there really isn't a potential franchise hitter (that can stay healthy, Cliff) on the roster.
Keith Law: The order's the same, but the win totals won't be, as Atlanta and New York are worse off than they were last year and Montreal is much better - good enough to challenge Philly for third, at least. Atlanta will miss John Smoltz, but if they put Bruce Chen in the rotation and leave him alone, they'll be fine; if they put Kevin McGlinchy in there, they'll be even better off. Ninety wins should take the division, because the Mets are dismantling a really solid offense. With two of their top three OBA guys gone (Olerud and Cedeno) and one half out the door (Henderson), plus the dilutive effect of adding Todd Zeile, they're going to score at least fifty fewer runs this year. The rotation is full of question marks, more so after Mike Hampton walked nine in his first start, and the defense can't possibly stay as good as it was last year. Still, the Phillies won't catch them with a patchwork rotation, the majors' worst middle infield, and a horrible bullpen. Montreal is finally showing signs of life thanks to a rejuvenated rotation that is poised to pass Pittsburgh as the home of the league's top young starters and an offense that will get its first legitimate leadoff hitter (Peter Bergeron) since Tim Raines left town. Florida can't be as bad as it was last year, and they've got some talent in every department, but they're still in prep mode for a shot at .500 in 2001.
Joe Sheehan: Braves again, even without John Smoltz, and even as John Schuerholz makes all kinds of weird decisions in his absence. They're the favorite because the Mets did more backsliding this winter than the Braves did, getting more expensive and older, and chipping away at the strength of the team, its OBP-oriented offense. There are three other teams in this division, and we should all work hard to remember who they are. Starting in 2001, they'll once again be interesting.
Derek Zumsteg: No surprises here. I think the Mets are going to be forced to make some hard decisions about what to do with their rotation and their outfield when their wild-card chances start to fade mid-season.
National League Central
This will clearly be one of the most interesting races in the majors; we like the Astros, and by a fairly wide margin, but the Cardinals and the Reds should be a classic behind the heroics of Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey. Fourth-place finisher Pittsburgh is depending on things breaking right with Chad Hermansen, Aramis Ramirez, and the pitching staff; they'll all be good, but they may not all be good in 2000. The Cubs and the Brewers are consensus bottom-of-the-division finishers; at least Milwaukee has a new stadium to look forward to sooner or later.
Clay Davenport: When I plugged the Astros numbers, I came up with a runaway best offense in the league, and overall pitching that challenges the Braves. This team may not have a shortstop, but they are loaded everywhere else. The Reds, with Griffey now leading the offense, are my wild-card pick. The Pirates have some good pitching, but the offense will hold them back. I don't see the Cardinals as a real contender; the pitching staff is relying on pitchers who used to be good all recapturing the magic together, and I don't see Merlin in the clubhouse. The Cubs and Brewers are pathetic, with bad hitting joining ludicrous pitching staffs.
Jeff Hildebrand: It's entirely possible that the winner of the West would wind up fifth in this division. Adding Cedeno and Dotel should more than offset the loss of Hampton for the Astros, and their system is so deep they should repeat. While the Reds did add Junior, which will help, they also added Fonzie and that's gonna hurt. The Cardinals could easily finish higher, but I no longer trust LaRussa to properly handle a pitching staff which will doom them in this division. I don't think the Pirates are quite there this year, but they have enough good young players to have the potential to surprise. Watch out for them next year, especially if the proposed realignment happens. Then at the other extreme there are two really bad teams. The Brewers have a strong player in Burnitz and a couple more young solid players in Jenkins and Belliard, but they also have way too many holes and with the exception of Woodard, the pitching staff looks like an absolute nightmare. The Cubs have some similar problems, but at least to begin with they have a little more pitching. If Valdes really is out for the year, this could be a real race for futility.
Rany Jazayerli: The Astros are still the team to beat; Dotel could win 15 games this year, and once they have Elarton back, they'll still have the best rotation in the division. With Hidalgo and Alou healthy, and the addition of Roger Cedeno, this year's outfield could be better than last year's, even without Carl Everett. The decision between Cincinnati and St. Louis was the most difficult one for me to make, and it's not any easier now that Jim Edmonds is in red. I have faith that the Reds' rotation will stick together - and the decision to go with Rob Bell over Mark Portugal should pay off - and I remain skeptical regarding LaRussa's ability to ever piece together a strong rotation again, as well as his willingness to just let J.D. Drew play. The Pirates need to temper their expectations, because until Kris Benson really does win the Cy Young Award, they're just a .500 team. The Cubs are still the Cubs, handing out 3-year contracts to stiffs like Joe Girardi, which still makes them better than the Brewers, who traded Jeff Cirillo for the remains of Jamey Wright's right arm.
Keith Law: The NL Central has gotten some press lately as the majors' deepest, most competitive, et cetera, but it's really home to two of the majors' worst teams and one of the best, with some interesting stuff in between. Houston has to be the early pick for NL champion, with a deep pitching staff, an outfield with four guys who would start on any team in the majors, and Bagwell and Biggio still going strong. St. Louis underwent a needed reorg this offseason, but the rotation is full of castoffs and retreads to go with 20-year-old Rick Ankiel and the bullpen is shaky. Meanwhile, Tony LaRussa is making noises about stiffing JD Drew, the team's best outfielder offensively and defensively. Cincinnati has a similar makeup to the Cards - a good but not great offense and a subpar rotation, plus a bullpen full of question marks, here derived from the team's overuse of its main relievers last year. Pittsburgh supposedly has the division's best rotation, if the pundits are to be believed, but beyond Kris Benson are two health questions (Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt), a one-year wonder who's been awful all spring (Todd Ritchie), and non-prospect Jimmy Anderson. The team's strength could be its offense, which would mark the first time that's been the case in about eight years. Chicago and Milwaukee are both wandering in the desert, fighting for the million-dollar jackpot annually awarded to the team with the fewest walks.
Joe Sheehan: This should be a pretty good race, as the Cardinals and Astros reprise their 1996 battle. The Cardinals have the upside, with Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew among the league's best breakout candidates, while the Astros have the stronger rotation and the better depth. Whichever team loses out will be the NL wild card, and I think the Astros' pitching and the Cardinals' potential for fragility swing the title Houston's way. Put it this way: I certainly don't think they'll finish fourth. The Reds will attract huge crowds and significant hype, but there's no way they get back to 96 wins in 2000, not with an offense certain to score fewer runs and a rotation with more health issues than a Gray Panthers convention. The Pirates have developed some good talent, but continue to squander money and playing time on bad players. Check back in 2001. The Cubs and Brewers? Well, how often can you get 11 of your peers to agree completely on anything?
Derek Zumsteg: Griffey may be happy, but the Astros are too strong, too smart, and too adaptable to lose the division.
National League West
Parity rears its head in the West this year; none of these teams are going to be very good. The Dodgers edge the Diamondbacks for first place in our predictions; Los Angeles has a shiny new right fielder to paper over their potentially serious rotation problems, and Arizona's roster mimics their target demographic, with senior citizens abounding. The Giants have Barry Bonds, but we're wary of that heavily abused rotation. The Rockies look nothing like they did last year, and we generally like the moves they've made, but they have a ways to go before they are ready for prime time. Our consensus last place Padres make no secret about playing for 2002.
Clay Davenport: The tightest race I see. Arizona's players regress en masse, and if those 5000 pitches from a year ago knock out Johnson, they're toast. Colorado's total rebuilding improved their offense and defense, and I think they're a genuine threat to win the division. The Dodgers have the money, but have paid so much on colorful stars like Brown and Green that they're stuck with Elsters and Grudzielaneks and Hollandsworths in the supporting cast, and they'll drag the ship down. The Giants' pitching staff is on the verge of melting down, and their good offense won't be enough to cope with it. And its hard to believe that there's a team worse than the Marlins, Cubs, and Brewers, but that's where I see the Padres.
Jeff Hildebrand: Any of the top four teams could conceivably take this weak division. The Giants should score some runs, but the real question is whether their abused pitching staff will hold on long enough to win the division. I suspect so, but they'll go nowhere in the playoffs. The Dodgers' front office clearly has no idea what they're doing but they do still have some good players and Davey Johnson as manager. The loud "thud" coming from the desert is Arizona falling back to earth this year. They've got too many hitters who were above their head last year and they've got too many players for who the fact that they're a year older is a bad thing. Colorado seems to be starting to get a clue, but they've got too much of a hole to dig out of in one year. The Padres are in rebuilding mode and it'll show.
Rany Jazayerli: Not an impressive team in the bunch; none of them are locks to finish over .500. Yes, the Diamondbacks got some incredible late-in-career performances last year, but you can't just ignore 100 wins. It's hard to predict more than a 13-game drop, even with Matt Williams out until June, as Lee should be improved, and they have Durazo for a full year. Shawn Green was a nice pickup for the Dodgers, but they still have Carlos Perez in the rotation, and Kevin Elster - Kevin Elster! - is their starting shortstop. The Giants' rotation is already melting down - it must be Barry's fault. The Rockies made a lot of moves and a little progress over the off-season; until they play Petrick everyday and ditch Tom Goodwin, though, it won't be enough to get them into contention. The Padres are slowly moving in the right direction, and Matt Clement is this decade's Kevin Brown. You read it here first.
Keith Law: Despite producing a 100-game winner last year, this is easily the worst division in baseball. Los Angeles isn't really a good team, but it has the fewest problems and the best pitching staff. Arizona might be considered the default choice, but their offense overachieved significantly last year and the bullpen's a mess. Colorado's a bit of a wild card; their rotation is good on paper, but how the new pitchers will react to the altitude is anyone's guess. In addition, they'll have at least three holes in the lineup with Tom Goodwin, Neifi Perez, and whoever's catching (until Ben Petrick is recalled). Betting against San Francisco is always dicey, but Dusty has ridden his starters so hard of late that it's not hard to see two or three breaking down this season. And it's hard to believe San Diego was in the World Series 18 months ago, given the strong probability that they'll lose 95 games this year.
Joe Sheehan: Now that Davey Johnson has the roster flexibility and bullpen depth he so desperately wants, and no longer has to deal with giving playing time to the contracts of Raul Mondesi and Eric Young, he should be able to move the Dodgers to the top of an unimpressive division. At least the AL Central has the Indians: it's possible that 85 or 86 wins will walk away with the title here. The Giants return essentially the same cast as they've had the past few years, with the same problems. Their chances depend on Dusty Baker's ability to learn from his mistakes the past few years, by not burning out the pitching staff by August. The Diamondbacks will decline as their veteran core returns to a more normal production level. The Rockies have the personnel to have their best team in years, but questions of who won't play (Ben Petrick) and who will (Tom Goodwin) will hold them back. The Padres are just holding on until their new park is built.
Derek Zumsteg: Is Davey Johnson out of Moriarty-esque intrigues and game management plots? I'm betting on 'no'.