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March 31, 2008

Prospectus Today

NL Preview

by Joe Sheehan

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Usually, I don't run into many surprises when I put together my pre-season predictions. This year, there were a number, from how close the Yankees and Red Sox, and Tigers and Indians, are in the AL, to finding out that I've been picking the wrong wild-card team in the NL. I think it speaks to the parity at the top of the AL and throughout the first half of the NL. I'm running the NL rankings today, but without much confidence; any of five teams could finish with the best record in the league, and 10 teams could make the postseason without causing me to so much as blink.

Note: some NL records have been adjusted slightly to correct for rounding errors that cropped up during the process, so that my standings come out to 2430-2430.

  1. New York Mets (95-67, 801 RS, 675 RA). Even accounting for the injury problems they have had and will have all year, the Mets show up as the best team in the NL. This is entirely due to the best front four in the game. All the attention has gone to Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez, which overlooks the fact that John Maine and Oliver Perez are arguably the best 3-4 in baseball. How quickly can Fernando Martinez get to New York?
  2. Chicago Cubs (94-68, 795 RS, 677 RA). The Cubs don't have a leadoff hitter, so adding Brian Roberts would be worth a bit more than the models suggest. The switch-hitter with OBP would really help a lineup that lists to the right side. As good as the 2003 and 1998 teams were, this is the best Cubs team in a very long time. They'll score, they'll strike out a bunch of guys, and the defense is pretty good. The Cubs aren't just NL Central good; the Cubs are MLB good.
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks (90-72, 814 RS, 730 RA). Randy Johnson's health puts wide error bars on this prediction, which assumes that the Big Unit makes 12-18 starts. Remember that the D'backs were outscored last year, as a number of young hitters came up shy of expectations. It's the offense, led by Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero and Justin Upton, that should drive the team this year. Although having Dan Haren around won't hurt.
  4. Atlanta Braves (89-73, 854 RS, 776 RA). I didn't see this coming, as I expected the Brewers, Dodgers, and even the Phillies to rank ahead of the Braves this season. When you look at their offense, though, you see a team with very few weak spots in the lineup, and a lot of upside in Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, and a full year of Mark Teixeira. The key will be filling out the back end of the staff, something of a problem in recent years, and getting a full year from John Smoltz.
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74, 784 RS, 724 RA). A tough team to call, as they could win 92 if Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra never take any ABs from Matt Kemp and Andy LaRoche, or 84 if they get too much of the time. There are also rotation issues-do Brad Penny and Derek Lowe stay healthy? What will Hiroki Kuroda do?-that make it hard to peg them ahead of the Diamondbacks.
  6. Milwaukee Brewers (87-75, 851 RS, 794 RA). The trendy pick in the NL will take another step forward this season, upgrading the defense, having some hitters develop, and being the best Brewers team in at least 16 years. Unfortunately, the league has gotten better around them, so things like still having a below-average defense and being a bit righty-heavy at the plate hurt them in this crowd.

    There's just not very much separating the four teams from #3 through #6. Any two of the four-well, technically all four-could end up in the postseason. What will separate them are injuries and the stuff that we can't see coming. I can't argue with any ordering of the four, and I can't argue with any assignation of their playoff chances. I am fairly sure the Mets and Cubs are a little better than the group, and more certain that the four are, collectively, a few steps ahead of the next group down.

  7. Colorado Rockies (83-79, 837 RS, 822 RA). The Rockies are not a young team. The Rockies are not a young team. The Rockies are not a young team. The Rockies have a number of players at or near the typical peak age of 27, and just because the first few years of their careers occurred in anonymity doesn't mean their chronological clocks stopped. They weren't a fluke last year-they led the NL in run differential, and their defense was superior. With that said, the defense has to be just as good this year, because the staff puts a ton of balls in play, and those at-peak players can't lose much if they're to stick around. In a tough NL West, they fall a bit short.
  8. Cincinnati Reds (82-80, 838 RS, 826 RA). The offense begins the season hamstrung by a career .298 OBP guy in the leadoff spot, and given Corey Patterson's speed and defensive ability, it's likely to remain that way for a while. On the other hand, Joey Votto is the first baseman, Jeff Keppinger is the shortstop, and Mike Stanton is gone, so Dusty Baker's first spring wasn't a disaster. The team is one Jay Bruce and one starting pitcher from making a leap.
  9. San Diego Padres (82-80, 699 RS, 691 RA). This should be a transition year for the Padres, who have the wrong personnel for their park, are a mix of pretty old and pretty young guys, and are nowhere near the Diamondbacks and Dodgers at this point. The trick-and I have no doubt that Kevin Towers knows this-is to not worry so much about an individual season, and keep the focus on the years in which you can win. It's no crime to not compete for a season, and the Padres will still be respectable in a down year.
  10. Philadelphia Phillies (80-82, 849 RS, 870 RA). Here's what I can't figure out: in what ways will the Phillies be better in 2008 than they were in 2007? Defense at third base, an extra month of excellent play at second, and arguably at closer. That's it. They're likely to see offensive declines at most spots, and the rotation is a major problem, as is the bullpen in front of Brad Lidge. The idea that they're the favorite in the division is addled, and the possibility of a significant dropoff is better than the possibility of a repeat title.
  11. Washington Nationals (74-88, 726 RS, 805 RA). There should be a Manny Acta bonus here. Acta took 58-win talent to 73 wins last season, so if the underlying talent here is worth 70 wins, the Nats could push .500. Manny Acta is rapidly becoming to Prospectus Today what Ashley Judd is to Forde Minutes, and I don't care. He's just that good. Jim Bowden improved the talent base on offense, although the pitching staff-is Odalis Perez the worst home starter to ever christen a new park?-is bad.
  12. Houston Astros (73-89, 786 RS, 863 RA). There were 1546 runs scored in Astros games last season. That'll go up; the team has improved the offense through the addition of Miguel Tejada and by turning the catching over to J.R. Towles. They also have about four major-league pitchers on the roster. Well, the bullpen has a lot of major-league fodder, so we'll give them seven. In any case, they're going to lose a lot of 8-6 games, especially at home.
  13. Florida Marlins (71-91, 777 RS, 878 RA). Waiver bait Mark Hendrickson is the Opening Day starter. The only sad thing is that the Marlins couldn't have opened up against the Nationals, providing what would have to have been the worst Opening Day pairing ever. It's an honor, though; Hendrickson is better than Rick Vanden Hurk. The Marlins will play a bad defense-Luis Gonzalez in right field while Jeremy Hermida is hurt-behind a bad pitching staff, and could break 900 runs allowed without much of a sweat. That's one run for every season ticket holder.
  14. St. Louis Cardinals (69-93, 728 RS, 844 RA). Did you know that the Cards were outscored by 104 runs last season? I didn't realize it myself, remembering the six-week run they had to contention and not how bad they were otherwise. The bullpen was good last year, but there's no reason to think guys like Ryan Franklin and Russ Springer can do that again. The offense has two complete sinkholes and a Molina, and that's only if they find three legitimate outfielders. Remember: I only have them being outscored by an extra 12 runs this year. That actually seems generous.
  15. Pittsburgh Pirates (67-95, 660 RS, 781 RA). They can pitch a little, with two good starters fronting the rotation, and a decent set of starters overall for a bad team. It's a bad offense, though, and if Jason Bay doesn't bounce back, 660 runs could be a pipe dream. (Then again, space created for Steven Pearce wouldn't be a bad thing.) All that really matters is draft day, and the hope that the Nuttings will avoid the affordability trap again.
  16. San Francisco Giants (61-101, 582 RS, 745 RA). I was asked, earlier today, which of three teams (Orioles, Pirates, Marlins) would be the worst in baseball. I pointed out that my candidate wasn't even in that group-you can get a pretty good Orioles vs. Giants argument going. Or a pretty bad one, I guess. In any case, the Giants are hideous, a mix of players too old to play and players who are never going to get the chance to be too old to play. There's also Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, who will combine for 400 innings, 425 strikeouts, a 3.62 ERA, and nine wins.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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