April 1, 1998
Projected 1998 National League Standings
We guesstimate the season's winners and losers
Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' predictions for 1998. We'll go division by division and each of our staff members will tell you what they think about the races. Remember, there's a reason we don't print this stuff in the book; there is no good way we know of to predict what a team will do before the season begins. Consider these teamwide WFGs, take them with a grain of salt, and enjoy.
Clay Davenport: For the season standings, I used estimates of playing time and production, with a player's three-year average being the primary (but not only) consideration for production. Then I summed all the batters and pitchers for each team, normalized them all to league average, turned that into expected runs scored and allowed, to get a won-loss record. If last year's try was normal, then I'll get 2/3 of the teams within six games. The other ten, though, could be off by 15-20 games, like the Pirates were last year.
GB Hitting Pitching 1. Atlanta 93-69 -- 6 1 2. New York 81-81 12 12 4 3. Florida 73-89 20 9 15 4. Montreal 69-93 24 16 13 5. Philadelphia 64-98 29 14 16
Three of the league's four worst teams. Florida had the greatest fire sale since Connie Mack, Montreal won't keep a good player and now has no offense beyond White and Guerrero, and Philadelphia wouldn't know a good player from a good donut. The Mets offense will essentially feature three pitchers, as Ordonez and whoever fills in for Hundley sabotage the attack. The Braves' offense will be down, but the pitching is still enough to carry them easily through this division.
Gary Huckabay: Atlanta's got that rotation, and despite potential collapses from Neagle and Glavine, they're still the team to beat, even with the colossally ignorant signings of Andres Galarraga and Walt Weiss. Their offense will still be pretty darn good, buoyed by better years from Klesko, Andruw, and Chipper. Who's in that Philadelphia outfield? The Mets had a lot of things break their way last year, and a few of them likely won't this year. Les Expos will lose Rondell White for at least part of the season, and he's likely to be massively overrated if they don't. Felipe will manage to pull another great starter or two out of his hat, but it won't be enough. The Marlins could be the favorites in the 1999 season. Notice that they kept Sheffield. Smart lad, that Dombrowski.
Rany Jazayerli: Predicting the Braves to win the division is about as bold a statement as claiming the Mideast Peace Process is going to hit another roadblock. Despite John Schuerholz' best attempt to sabotage his team by signing two Rockies hitters, their pitching staff, a young outfield led by Andruw Jones, and the decimation of the two other quality teams in the division means that the regular season, at least, should be a cakewalk for Atlanta, to the tune of about 93 wins.
That the Marlins have traded away their `97 championship core is undeniable; that they are doomed to a horrible season in `98 is not. The Marlins' offense, once the Marlins send Josh's Booty to AAA, is every bit as good - and younger - than Atlanta's. Charles Johnson and Edgar Renteria are on the cusp of stardom; Derrek Lee, Mark Kotsay, and Cliff Floyd are not far behind. If Sheffield keeps his head up and puts together a monster season, this team could surprise everyone by contending for a wild-card spot. It's doubtful they'll make it, of course, because behind Livan Hernandez, their rotation has the shelf life of the Spice Girls, albeit with a little more talent. But they could finish a little over .500 - and give this team two years, and uppity journalists may stop whining about what a crime has been perpetuated on fans of this franchise.
Give the Mets back Todd Hundley, and they could fight for a playoff spot all season. Give them Todd Pratt, or worse, let them select Tim Spehr and Alberto Castillo, and they'll be hard-pressed to break even for the year. If Hundley comes back mid-season and Paul Wilson shows even a hint of his former self, they should remain comfortably ahead of the Expos and Phillies. Expect 80-82 wins, but if they replace Ordonez with anyone, you can tack on a few more.
Montreal has the makings of a good rotation in Hermanson, Pavano, Carlos Perez, and Javier Vasquez. But too many of their players are still developing, and they really only have two above-average hitters in Rondell White and Vlad Guerrero. If they can sign Guerrero to a long-term deal and guys like Fullmer and Bocachica develop, they might actually contend in 2000 or 2001 - if they're not in Northern Virginia by then.
The Phillies' impressive second-half surge is unlikely to mean playoff contention this year. Behind Schilling, the starting pitching is a melange of mediocre (Mark Leiter) or perpetually injured (Tyler Green) hurlers, and their second-best starter, Garrett Stephenson, barely earned a job in spring training. Scott Rolen may be the best third baseman in the game, but like Schmidt before him, he may have to showcase his talents on a brutal team for a while.
Chris Kahrl: Its tempting to put Florida second, because you can almost envision a future that has "Genius Leyland does more with less" headlines that are already scanned and ready for future use at most newspapers, and because so many things worked out for the Mets last year. That's just the fan in me: I'd love to see another reason why we should consider believing a talking turnip's take on the game before Peter Jennings' sanctimonious vacuousness from his "investigation" of what happened in Florida. Even so, Bobby Valentine will do more with less, using a talented bench and a solid pen to keep close. I'd call the Phillies finishing ahead of the Expos as a sort of Indian Summer for the franchise, that may lead to a new round of ill-considered acquisitions by an organization laboring with the unjustified belief that Doug Glanville is progress. And in other news, the Braves win.
Keith Law: Atlanta wins the division by 15 games, with Florida finishing another 5-8 ahead of New York and hanging in the wild-card race into September. The Braves are the best team in baseball right now, despite the Galarraga and Weiss signings. They can live without Smoltz for a few weeks, and that pretty much says it all for their outlook.
The Marlins are obviously taking a lot of heat for their offseason purge, but the offensive changes have made room for better, cheaper players from the farm - a maneuver more teams should learn. The rotation isn't likely to make this more than an 85-win team, but that's probably enough to play in October this year.
The Mets get third on the strength of their pitching staff, despite the lack of any offensive threat more powerful than Butch Huskey. The Expos will fight the Devil Rays for the title of worst offense in baseball, and will be lucky to draw 500 walks as a team. The Phils and Expos are interchangeable and equally irrelevant for 1998, although both teams acknowledge that they're building for longer-term competitiveness.
Dave Pease: Tough call, but I think Atlanta will take home the gold. Talk about an embarassment of riches; John Schuerholz has made plenty of not-so-great moves in his career as Braves GM, but the team just keeps plugging along. That may come to an end soon, with the minors drying up, and Dre Galarraga and Walt Weiss were terrible ideas, but the Bravos win it again anyway.
They'll win it by double digits, because the rest of the teams in the division are subpar. I'll pick New York for second, on the strength of a somewhat established pitching staff, John Olerud, and Edgardo Alfonzo. Todd Hundley would really help here, but he'll be out most of the year and be unHundleylike when he returns. Bernard Gilkey rebounds, and Butch Huskey hits a bunch of HR.
Florida will be close, but their staff is full of unknowns. Livan Hernandez and Rafael Medina are both moderately successful, but don't fit anyone's definition of a good team's top two starters. Derrek Lee hits 25 HR and Cliff Floyd and Gary Sheffield both rebound from last year. Bonilla falls off, and Castillo and Renteria both show their youth in the infield.
Philadelphia rides Curt Schilling's arm to finish fourth. Mark Portugal is as healthy as he ever is, and Bobby Abreu shows why he was considered a top OF prospect with Houston, hitting for doubles power and playing good defense. Scott Rolen has one of the top three seasons for a third baseman in the NL. Gregg Jeffries keeps Billy McMillion in the minors by hitting like he did in 1995.
Montreal is running out of prospects. The rotation is weak after Perez and Hermanson; Carl Pavano has a rough first year in the majors. Vlad Guerrero, Rondell White, and Shane Andrews combine for 75 HR, but all have their problems getting on base. Brad Fullmer bombs at first base, and Mark Grudzielanek again hits for an empty high average.
Steven Rubio: Philosophically, I'd prefer this list was different. I think Montreal has done a good job in the past of deflating the "small market" crap, think Florida did well to dump some of those hitters, and believe Atlanta's signing of The Big Cat was very, very stupid. But Montreal let Pedro go, Florida didn't stop with those hitters, and the Braves are still real good. I pick the Mets for the wild card.
Joe Sheehan: John Scheurholz' efforts to end the Braves' dynasty will go for naught, at least this year. Continued development from Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Andruw Jones, Tony Graffanino and Ryan Klesko helps cover the Walt Weiss and Andres Galarraga signings. And besides, who's going to catch them? Expect the Marlins to improve on last year's offense (740 runs) by 10-15%, but even that won't be enough to make up for what should be a brutal pitching staff. The loss of Todd Hundley is much more devastating for the Mets than they realize, even if Bernard Gilkey rebounds somewhat. The Phillies and Expos are expected to play 162 games. Stay tuned.
GB Hitting Pitching 1. St Louis 94-68 -- 4 2 2. Houston 88-74 6 1 14 3. Cincinnati 82-80 12 7 8 4. Milwaukee 80-82 14 11 7 5. Chicago 79-83 15 10 11 6. Pittsburgh 71-91 23 15 8
I was so surprised by this that I had to go back and check the numbers again, but, yes, I'm calling for St Louis to lead the NL in wins. Call me crazy. Realize that I'm counting on McGwire to get 550 PAs, for Jordan and Gant to return to productivity, and for Morris and Benes to pitch often and well. Houston's pitching, especially the bullpen (except for Wagner), will be too much for the B-boys to overcome. Reds, Brewers, Cubs...the word "average" doesn't quite convey how unimpressed I am. Last year's darlings, the Pirates, will have to watch their infield do nothing all year, as Womack et al. fall back towards their real hitting levels.
Gary Huckabay: Those top five teams could finish within three games of each other. It's going to come down to health. Some teams are betting on health, others on improvement. The rapidly aging Cardinals are counting on 420 healthy and productive games from Jordan, Gant, and McGwire. Pittsburgh's hoping for continued success from the pitching staff and an uncharacteristically good season from the likes of Al Martin -- they won't get it. Houston still can't understand why they're not getting big run totals with Derek Bell in Harris County, but a healthy Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton puts them in the playoffs. Milwaukee's got a surprisingly strong team, and if Jaha, Nilsson, Cirillo, Valentin, and Newfield all play like they're capable of, they could win the division. The Cubs... made some Cub-like decisions, and they're going to be wearing that Sammy Sosa albatross contract for a very long time. No OBP, no pennant.
Rany Jazayerli: In what should be the majors' tightest race, the Astros have arguably the two best players in the division in Bagwell and Biggio. Alou is a huge upgrade in left field, and even with the defection of Darryl Kile, the Astros have two fine starters in Shane Reynolds and Mike Hampton, and Scott Elarton should be ready by June. They also have the division's best closer in Billy Wagner, and manager Larry Dierker showed an uncanny knack for getting the most out of his pitchers last year (how else can you explain Mike Magante?). In a division where 88 wins may be enough for the title and 82 wins puts you in 4th, the Astros should have just enough for 89 and first place.
The Cardinals are a dollar short and an hour late to win this division. That hour, of course, is the one they spent sitting on their thumbs instead of finishing the deal for Andy Benes, and with Benes now in Phoenix, the Cardinals' rotation isn't dominant enough to compensate for an offense that - even with Mark McGwire - isn't as good as Houston's. Throw in Eli Marrero's unfortunate bout with thyroid cancer, which may give the bulk of the catching duties to Tom Pagnozzi, and the uncertainty around the return of Jeff Brantley, and you have a team with too many holes to win more than 86 games and finish higher than second.
The Cubs, finally deciding that it doesn't take much to contend in this division, made moves in the off-season with an eye to win this year. Jeff Blauser was an excellent pickup, and while veteran pickups Morandini and Henry Rodriguez are not stars by any stretch, they may actually represent improvement over the husk of Ryne Sandberg's body and the semi-prospects that have been fighting over left field the last three years. Throw in a power surge from Kevin Orie, and the Cubs could improve their offense by 80 runs this year. The pitching staff, while it may not be better than last year's, with a full season of Tapani and Rod Beck in the fold, shouldn't be any worse. If Kerry Wood were ready, the Cubs could contend, but he isn't and the Cubs look to finish third, with 83-85 wins.
For the Cincinnati Reds, the difference between the postseason and the second division is the difference between Barry Larkin and Pokey Reese. If Larkin can play all season at his vintage 1995-96 form, the Reds, with hitters like Willie Greene, Jon Nunnally, and Reggie Sanders, could have the best offense in the division. But if Larkin can't play at full strength, the Reds add Pokey Reese to the bottom of a lineup that is also trying to hide Bret Boone. Throw in Jack McKeon's misplaced affection for Eduardo Perez (over Roberto Petagine?), and suddenly that offense doesn't look nearly as impressive. The rotation lacks a true ace, but Tomko, Burba, and Mercker are all serviceable #2-#3 starters, and the bullpen, with Shaw, Belinda, and Sullivan, may be the division's best. Until we know whether Larkin can play true to form, the Reds are unlikely to rise above .500 and 4th place - but if Larkin and Sanders stay healthy, and Bret Boone finds his missing bat, the Reds could stay in the race to the very end.
The Pirates, Cinderellas that they were last year, have more where that came from this year. The rotation, minus Steve Cooke but soon to add Kris Benson, is young and talented. The offense should get improvement from Kendall and Jose Guillen, but pinning their hopes on Freddy Garcia at third is a bit of a stretch, and until Chad Hermansen arrives, Tony Womack may continue to be one of the most overrated players in baseball. If the pitching staff stays healthy, they could make things interesting in September, but more likely expect much the same as last year, with 76-79 wins. Unlike last year, that may only be good enough for 5th place.
The Brewers think Marquis Grissom is their savior, don't have a single top-quality starter, and have to rely on 41-year-old Doug Jones to be their closer. For all the talk about the excitement of moving to the NL this year, the Brewers seem to forget that fans rarely get excited about 73-89 teams. Which, on a team where Mike Matheny has been the main catcher for three straight seasons while Kelly Stinnett is let go, is about as much as the Brewers can expect this year.
Chris Kahrl: I'm perhaps overly optimistic that Larry Dierker can get the most out of whatever assembly of pitching talent he throws together to paper over the Holt and Garcia injuries, but keep in mind that both were last year's solutions to problems, which is indicative that the Astros will be nothing if not flexible. That, on top of great offense, a solid bench, and an adequate pen, should handily win. The Cardinals are easily the most volatile team in the game: if all three of Morris, Stottlemyre, and Alan Benes get or stay hurt (no need for a caveat with Osborne), they may finish fifth, even with the Lankford-McGwire duo. They're carrying too many weak or overrated hitters. The Reds will surprise, and although McKeon will get a good year from his pitching staff, diddling around with guys like Pokey Reese, Brook Fordyce, and Bret Boone spells disappointment for those of us who'd like to see Jim Bowden earn a feather to put in his cap. The Cubs will save the jobs of Ed Lynch and Jim Riggleman, which means they'll get to reap their just desserts for the Viva Sammy! franchise. The Brewers struggle with a lineup rife with bad hitters, to the point that Garner's newfound skill handling his pitching staff will be besides the point. The Pirates disappoint dramatically, setting up for a big `99 built around the organization's real young talent, not these Womackers.
Keith Law: Another tight race here, probably one that will not be decided until the last week of the season, with the loser(s) going home and not to the wild card berth. All four teams that might challenge for the title have gaping holes. The Astros have a weakened rotation until May 1st due to injuries, and still have little offense outside of Bagwell & Biggio, although that was enough last year. If Ramon Garcia and Chris Holt return at full strength, the Astros then have a pitching staff to match up with Pittsburgh's but can still field a better offense. Here's hoping they rid themselves of Derek Bell this year to make room for Darryl Ward or Lance Berkman.
The Reds, a consensus last-place pick among conventional media "experts," have most of the right pieces on the team, but need to make tough decisions to play talent over popularity and salary: Dmitri Young instead of Eduardo Perez, Melvin Nieves instead of Chris Stynes, Damian Jackson instead of Bret Boone, and Gabe White instead of Pete Harnisch. They're also riding on the edge with Jeff Shaw, a potential victim of heavy workloads the past two seasons.
The Bucs still have the NL's third-best rotation and one of its weakest offenses and defenses. Improvement from hitters Jose Guillen, Jason Kendall, and Jermaine Allensworth plus a full year of Kevin Young will be partially offset by slippage from Tony Womack and Al Martin, while Freddy Garcia remains something of an enigma at third. Womack, Garcia, and Martin give the team a horrific defensive profile that does not bode well for a pitching staff that keeps the ball in play.
The Cardinals have a good team on paper ... and in the recovery room. With Alan Benes and Donovan Osborne on the shelf, Matt Morris suffering shoulder pain, and Jeff Brantley apparently less ready than widely believed, the team's pitching situation is in a shambles. If Ron Gant's rumored "comeback" year turns out to be much ado about nothing and the likes of Pagnozzi, Lampkin, Mabry, and Gaetti see much playing time, the offense will be little better. The team has too many outstanding questions to pick them for higher than fourth, as the odds are that some of the questions will be answered less than satisfactorily.
The Brewers are somewhat overrated, as their juggernaut offense has been partially a product of the ballpark and their rotation lost its shining star, Jeff D'Amico, for at least half the season. The team has isolated standouts like Jose Valentin, but not enough for more than 70-73 wins.
The Cubs are dismal and getting worse every year. Eventually the faithful will wise up and stop going until they put a real team on the field. 70 wins would be a very successful year in Wrigley.
Dave Pease: I'll go with Houston's dynamic duo over anything else in this division. Look for Shane Reynolds to come back strong, Mike Hampton to continue to pitch effectively, and a bunch of dreck in the bottom of the rotation to hold together for the efficient bullpen. The outfield is still bad, but Moises Alou, overrated player that he is, is more likely to be effective than anyone the Astros were running out there last year.
The top three teams in this division will all be close. Cincinnati made many unpopular moves in the offseason, but I liked most of them. Jim Bowden may be the smartest man in baseball; the success this team has had with a limited budget and meddling idiot owner is really fairly remarkable. That said, this is not a good team; with the state of the NL Central, though, that's all it takes to compete. The Reds have a weak rotation and some good young hitters, but that probably won't be enough. Look for Reggie Sanders to enjoy something of a comeback and Willie Greene to hit 30 HR, or they won't even get this far.
St. Louis really hurt itself with the the Andy Benes non-deal. Their rotation isn't bad, but Alan Benes isn't healthy and may not be for a while, and who knows what ailment Donovan Osborne is going to come up with? Brian Jordan will rebound with a solid season, and Big Mac McGwire will be as awesome as ever, but Ron Gant is finished and the Cards just don't have the horses to finish it off.
The Brewers have an entertaining team. Jeromy Burnitz is an excellent player, and guys like John Jaha, Dave Nilsson, and Bobby Hamelin are all fun to watch at the plate. They've got a reasonable left side, with Jose Valentin an underrated SS and Jeff Cirillo a workable 3B, but they've also got Fernando Vina and Marquis Grissom. The pitching staff is full of questions; Cal Eldred's arm has been mistreated for years, and Jeff D'Amico is out for the season. Scott Karl will build on his strong second half last year, and be the team's top starter.
At the bottom we have two teams moving in opposite directions. Chicago is a joke--and a bad one, at that. Sammy Sosa is the most useless ten million dollar man in baseball, Henry Rodriguez was a really bad idea, and Lance Johnson, Mark Grace, and Jeff Blauser will all show their age. Lots of lofty fly balls will go for HR in Wrigley against Rod Beck, and the rotation has some good young players, but is heavily depending on Kevin Tapani and Terry Mulholland. That might have been a good idea about seven years ago, but...
Pittsburgh has a solid rotation, and when they get dead weight like Tony Womack and Jose Guillen out of their lineup, they'll be formidable. Ron Wright will hit 20 HR this year, and Chad Hermansen, Kris Bensen, and Aramis Ramirez are nearing readiness in the minors. They won't be seeing much action this year, but look for a jump of several places in the standings in 1999.
Steven Rubio: This division stinks. The primary tool I use as a starting point for these predictions is the team's "Pythagorean W-L" record from last season. Based solely on those calculations, Houston is at least 15 games better than every team in the newly-aligned division. Cincinnati wins the "most surprising NL team" award.
Joe Sheehan: It's possible, even probable, that this will be the most entertaining race in baseball history. Every one of these teams should be between 75 and 87 wins; the above listing is just a best guess. Houston returns the best teammates in the game, and surrounds them with mediocre right-handed hitters at the other six positions. The Reds have enough talent available to win the division, but have shown a tendency to play the wrong players. The Cardinals have the showy veteran names, but are a two-man offense in search of some help, and have enormous rotation questions. The Brewers have the deepest middle of the order, and a Marquis Grissom-Fernando Vina top two that will render it meaningless. Wrigley Field is a wonderful place to be if you don't mind mediocre baseball. While the Pirates have a nasty rotation, unless they get serious and bring up the baseball players, their time is 1999. Only Jason Kendall is a good bet to post an .800 OPS.
GB Hitting Pitching 1. Los Angeles 93-69 -- 3 3 2. San Diego 90-72 3 2 5 *wild card* 3. San Francisco 86-76 7 5 6 4. Colorado 81-81 12 7 10 5. Arizona 75-87 18 13 12
The best race in all baseball in my forecast. So long as Piazza and Valdes/Nomo/Park hold up, I'll stick with the Dodgers. The Padre pitching forecast looks awfully optimistic, given how bad they were last year, but Brown will help and I think a couple of starters will bounce back to their normal selves. The Giants are very much in it. I don't think the Rockies are, and I'm pretty sure the Diamondbacks aren't, spin notwithstanding.
When I rolled the dice, the Cardinals beat the Padres and the Braves beat the Dodgers, and then the Braves beat the Cardinals. That's as good a selection as I'm likely to make by analyzing, so I'll stick with it.
Gary Huckabay: The Dodger rotation is just too nasty for anyone in this division to catch up. Even after consideration of Chavez' offense damping, a rotation of Valdes, Park, Martinez, Dreifort, and Nomo has a better than 50% chance to be even better than Atlanta's. The bullpen has depth and quality, and even the pedestrian Dodger offense will be able to score enough to blow this division away. San Diego's aged offense won't be enough to keep pace with the Dodgers, but a big step forward by Joey Hamilton will keep them in wild card hunt throughout the season. Their offense, precariously balanced on the aged core of Gwynn, Joyner, Caminiti, and Finley, is almost certain to decline, and even if Greg Vaughn rebounds to his normal league-average form, there's just not enough juice with the bats. 500 PA of Mark Sweeney would probably help, as would a healthy and circumspect Quilvio Veras.
Colorado's in a pretty good place. Everybody wants pitching, particularly in the rotation, and the Rockies' rotation could be one of the top 5 in baseball if things break their way. Their offense should be comparable to last year, depending on how quickly Todd Helton starts ripping balls around the park, but their pitching has a chance to be outstanding. Behind Kile and Astacio, John Thomson looks like he could develop into a very solid starting pitcher (in Coors, that means an ERA in the 5 neighborhood), and the bullpen's got a collection of solid veterans, but the loss of Steve Reed to the Giants will undoubtedly hurt. The Rockies could be the most volatile team in baseball; I can see them winning 70 games, and I can see them winning 90.
Arizona's defense is enough to make the pitching staff look fairly decent, and they'll avoid the cellar thanks to the plummeting Giants, who suffer a 5% decrease in the quality of their offense and defense, and don't get lucky. The press blames Barry Bonds, but in reality, the Giants just won't get the same sorts of career years and breaks they got in 1997 -- when they allowed more runs than they scored, and won about 10 more games than one could reasonably expect. Bill Mueller's development and Barry Bonds' excellence won't be enough to overcome the ponderous mediocrity of players like Hayes, Hamilton, Javier, Snow, Sanchez, Hershiser, Darwin, and pretty much everyone else on the team. 73-78 wins, a lot of confused fans, and a lot of bad press for Barry Bonds, who wouldn't be loved by the local media if he saved Baby Jessica while strangling the spawn of Hitler and Jim Jones.
Rany Jazayerli: In what should be the best pennant race all year, the Padres should nip the Dodgers at the wire because the Padres have Kevin Brown and the Dodgers are, well, the Dodgers. The Padres also have Joey Hamilton and Andy Ashby, both of whom should improve on their 1997 seasons, and with Trevor Hoffman in the pen, the Padres may have the best pitching in the NL outside of Atlanta or LA. If Kevin Brown's forkball - and his spring training numbers - are for real, he could actually be better than he was in 1996. The offense isn't any different than last year's aging squad, but Caminiti isn't coming back from arm surgery and Greg Vaughn can't possibly be any worse. Quilvio Veras needs to make the leadoff spot his own, with 90 walks and a .400 OBP. If he can, the Padres should win 92-94 games and the division.
The Dodgers might not win the division, but they should hold on to the wild card, making this a repeat of 1996 in southern California. Karros' injury may, in the long run, be the best thing that happens to the Dodgers; Konerko has his foot in the door, and I don't think he's going to be pushed out. The starting pitching, with the addition of Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park's continued improvement, is outstanding, and the bullpen, now that Osuna has finally been handed the job of closer, shouldn't blow nearly as many 9th-inning leads. But the Dodgers have a vastly overrated middle infield, and aside from Mondesi, they don't have the offense in the outfield to compensate. A late swoon despite Mike Piazza's best efforts leaves LA with 89-92 wins and an easy coast to the wild card.
The Giants' luck may not be enough to save them this year. Aside from Barry Bonds, the entire lineup is composed of average players, from J.T. Snow to Stan Javier to Bill Mueller. And the rotation is much the same; after ace Shawn Estes, starters like Kirk Rueter and an aged Orel Hershiser are solid pitchers but aren't going to help propel the Giants up the standings. The lack of any major holes should keep the Giants comfortably in 3rd place, with 84-87 wins.
The Rockies aren't a bad team, and the additions of Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio give them arguably their best rotation ever. But until they understand how to interpret their players in the light of Coors Field, and get rid of Dante Bichette while keeping players like Steve Reed, they're in trouble. Their bullpen, just three years ago the core of the franchise, is now just average. And their offense is caught between the old veterans - Bichette, Burks, Castilla - who haven't been shown the door yet, and young talents like Todd Helton, who is a fine player but still years from his peak. The offense is just too dysfunctional to expect more than 77-81 wins and 4th place.
The Diamondbacks talk big and sign big, but they play Jorge Fabregas and spend big bucks on one-year wonders like Willie Blair, so don't expect them to win big just yet. The offense, backed by a hitter-friendly Bank One Ballpark, could be among the NL's best, but the pitching staff, aside from Andy Benes and Jeff Suppan, lacks the talent to succeed. Brian Anderson and Blair don't strike out enough hitters to last in the long run, and the bullpen is young, unproven, or both. When your closer (Felix Rodriguez) has 57 innings in his major league career and has never - at any level - had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2 to 1, you're in trouble. The Diamondbacks should be better than their expansion counterparts, but in the NL West, 73-75 wins puts you in the cellar.
Chris Kahrl: I have to confess, I'm probably congenitally incapable of putting the Dodgers in first. Sure, they have the talent, the rotation, and... Bill Russell and Fred Claire calling the shots. That means that players like Konerko and Cedeno sitting for Thomas Howard or Todd Hollandsworth, that they goof off with a month-long experiment of batting Jose Vizcaino leadoff if they get irritated that Eric Young just isn't the same at sea level, and that they've still got Eric Karros playing every day in September. Okay, that's probably not enough to overcome the pitching staff and Mike Piazza, but I can see one last charge from the Grey Padres, with the Rockies even surprising people. The Giants will surprise some of us by fending off a challenge from the D-backs, but the difference between the basement and Dustiny this year will be what it always is: Barry Bonds.
Keith Law: The Padres' acquisition of Kevin Brown may have come at a high price, but it probably will propel them back into first place in 1998, although they may have to settle for the wild card. The team's incumbent aces, Andy Ashby and Joey Hamilton, are good bets to rebound; the bullpen remains a minor strength; and the lineup should benefit from a healthy Quilvio Veras and the excision of John Flaherty. The Pads are hardly a match for the Braves, but they've got enough to win 90 games and this division.
Writing my annual prediction for the Dodgers is liking working with Java: write once, use every year. The Dodgers' chances certainly improve if they enter June with Paul Konerko and Roger Cedeno in the lineup, but you and I know that's as likely as Candace Gingrich winning the presidency of the Christian Coalition. They will continue to pitch well, continue to post acceptable newspaper-numbers (average, HR, RBI, SB), and will wonder why they're not scoring any runs.
The Rockies have finally gotten a clue, even though it took a super-prospect and a $27MM threat to give it to them. The departure of Andres Galarraga and arrival of Todd Helton threatens such hallowed marks as the .400 barrier, while allowing the team to realize that guys like Dante Bichette aren't really any good. Still, Helton's arrival and the improvements to the rotation make this more than a .500 team and a more legitimate threat for the future.
The D-backs aren't quite the laughingstock that their aquatic brethren in Tampa Bay appear to be, but they're not a very good team on their own. By stocking their lineup with veterans already on the decline, they've squandered an opportunity to put a .500 team on the field - and to give Willie Blair another 16 wins he may or may not deserve.
The Giants' luck has run out. Predicting a last-place finish may seem harsh, but they're as unlikely to win half their games as Arizona is - and, if Shawn Estes' workload catches up with him, they're pretty likely to only win around 70.
Dave Pease: In a world where everything worked the way it was supposed to, the Dodgers would be the clear favorites; their major-league team is strong, and their farm system is awesome, with useful players all over the place. Unfortunately, the Dodgers are this way every year, and every year someone else wins the title. Their misallocation of resources (and inexplicable infatuation with Eric Karros) are drawbacks that their perenially strong pitching must overcome. It probably will, but you never know with this organization.
This is the last gasp for the Padres, and again that's the way it has been for years now. Look for a big rebound by the pitching staff, and a Cy Young for Kevin Brown. The offense has got to slip following last year's banner season, and with all the old guys on this team, one or two of them are going to go in the toilet (or stay there, in Greg Vaughn's case). Matt Clement wins three games down the stretch, and Ruben Rivera takes over for Vaughn full-time by August.
The Rockies finally have some pitchers. Kevin Ritz is plainly overextended as your ace, but when he's a member of the bottom of your rotation, you aren't in bad shape. Unfortunately, the offense can't say the same. It remains underperforming, with gaudy numbers all around at home, and mediocre ones on the road. Look for Dante Bichette to break something while waddling around the outfield, and Ellis Burks to miss 80 games. Todd Helton will win the RoY with an NL top ten batting average.
San Francisco used up all its luck last year. Shawn Estes isn't an ace, and he won't pitch like one in 1998. J.T. Snow regresses with a season where he performs at the midpoint between his excellent 1997 and his horrid 1996, and both Stan Javier and Darryl Hamilton put up .330 OBPs with little power in the OF. Barry Bonds has another great season, and Bill Mueller posts a .400 OBP with power at 3B. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think Robb Nen will be wild.
Arizona is spending its money in all the wrong places. Fabregas? Williams for $45M? Jay Bell for almost as much? Ugh. Andy Benes and Willie Blair never settle in and pitch well, setting the stage for a disappointing season. The Diamondbacks still clean the floor with the Devil Rays, but they aren't near contention with the guys they have. Travis Lee hits the heck out of the ball all year, and Karim Garcia hits 30 HR and plays comically bad defense in the OF. They aren't terrible, but in baseball's best division, there's no hope for them.
Steven Rubio: I hate picking the Dodgers, but as long as their luck continues (that is, if guys like Karros get hurt, allowing better players to surface), they'll be fine. Another prediction: when the Dodgers win, 83% of all major-media commentators will credit an improved clubhouse atmosphere. I disagree with those who think this is a weak division. Look for four teams to finish above .500.
NL Champs: Los Angeles
Joe Sheehan: The Dodgers have dramatically improved their clubhouse chemistry, which will be an invaluable asset down the stretch when they need to do the little things in the clutch that win ball games.
Oh, you are still here...
They're the best team, as long as they play one of Paul Konerko or Roger Cedeno. If both play--not bloody likely--it may not be close. San Diego's pitching makeover amounts to a shuffling of bullpen bodies--not for the better--and the addition of Kevin Brown. It should be enough for the wild card, assuming the whole lineup doesn't go down with Alzheimer's or gout or something. Arizona should finish third, but remember, Jay Bell and Matt Williams are only going to get older. The Rockies still don't get it--it's the hitters, stupid--and won't be a significant threat until they do. The horror film of the year will be set in the Bay Area: Dustiny Meets the Johnson Effect!
Thanks for reading.