April 1, 2001
National League Predictions
Our best guess at 2001's winners and losers
National League East
Clay Davenport: The Braves still have the best pitching staff in the league, unless the new strike zone totally melts Tom Glavine down. I wish they'd kept Bruce Chen, though. The Mets have a wonderful core in Mike Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Al Leiter, but not enough support elsewhere. The Phillies look like a pretty average team to me. The Marlins have too many question marks in their pitching, as do the Expos, only worse.
Jeff Hildebrand: If there was a really strong team in this division I think the Braves could be taken, but I don't see one. The Mets will be solid, but the changes they've made will drop them a few games instead of raise them. All three of the bottom teams they could contend if enough things broke right, but counting on that would be foolish. I used the size of the ifs to rank them (with an admitted personal bias on one of the teams.)
Rany Jazayerli: Another tight division, as the Braves willingly come back to the pack (hey, no one forced them to sign Rico Brogna), but the Mets are too old to capitalize. Caveat: if they can get Jose Cruz soon without surrendering a key pitcher (i.e., Glendon Rusch), this race is too close to call. The Phillies remind me of the 1999 Royals: an excellent young offense, a rotation that has its moments, and a season ruined by the worst bullpen--by a landslide--in baseball.
Chris Kahrl: It's easy to pick on Rey Ordonez or Jay Payton or Timo Perez, but the Mets' offense frankly doesn't look as holey as the Braves, they have a bullpen that should be able to back up any problems in the rotation, and they've done a lot more to demonstrate that they know they have a problem offensively. The Braves haven't. The Braves have an interesting distribution of talent, but between last season's decision to punt Bruce Chen and this year's fascination with Wes Helms or Rico Brogna, they look like they're ripe. With a lot of reservations, I'll tab the Braves as the wild-card team, but they look more like a team that's going to fall into the low-80-wins range than set the world afire.
Keith Law: The Braves win 90 games and have a much better shot at the World Series this year if Smoltz is 100% by October. But the entire division shouldn't be separated by more than 15 games, since no one here is as awful as the bottom-dwellers in the Central. Montreal has a good rotation and enough punch and patience in the lineup that 85 wins looks possible for the first time in years. (And it should help revenues; Eric Cartman once pointed out that "more people will come if we have punch and patience!") The Mets seem a real longshot to win 90 again, especially if they give Glendon Rusch away for a sack of stale millet. The Marlins could break even under the old schedule, but I think too many games against divisional rivals will push them just under 80 wins. The Phillies have too many pitching problems to escape the cellar.
Joe Sheehan: This looks like the weakest Braves team in years, but it should still be enough to hold off a division in transition. The Mets have two of the six or seven best players in the league, but an incomplete lineup and an aging rotation. The Marlins should be able to catch them as a couple of their hitters take steps forward, backing a great young staff. The Phillies and Expos are actually on the right path, and need to keep developing the younger talent and pointing toward 2002.
Michael Wolverton: The Marlins start to see the benefits of their youth movement, but otherwise this division will look about the same as it has the past three years.
Derek Zumsteg: This division isn't going to be nearly as tough as some people think. I see Atlanta and New York both struggling to score runs this year, but still picking up 95 wins as they clean up against the rest of a bad division.
National League Central
Clay Davenport: I went down in flames picking the Astros last year, and maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment. I still think they've got the best offense in the league, and that's enough to win with even below-average pitching. A very strong bullpen leads the Reds to the wild card, as long they don't succumb to Deion Sanders's siren calls. The Cardinals are very close to the other two; I've got them down for 89-87-86 wins in this division. Will they really give Craig Paquette 300-400 at-bats?
The Brewers have good pitching, but not enough offense to contend. The Cubs are pretty close to average, but not in serious contention, while if the Pirates' rotation doesn't come back from spring injuries, we could be talking about historically ugly instead of just plain ugly.
Jeff Hildebrand: The Astros will be better than they were last year, while the Cardinals are edging towards the end of usefulness of their current generation of players, but I think they've got enough left for this season. The Reds lose points because of their manager, who will likely ride the pitching into the ground. Chicago and Milwaukee may be laying the groundwork for future improvements, but for now they're still out of range of contention. As for Pittsburgh, well I hear PNC Park is nice.
Rany Jazayerli: Make all the cracks you want about Tony LaRussa; he's won seven divisional titles, and with breakouts from Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew, he has a good shot at an eighth, although Rick Ankiel could certainly create havoc with that scenario. The Astros bounce back to win the wild card on the strength of a 1000-run offense. The Cubbies start to make their move up the standings despite Don Baylor's (and Oscar Acosta's) best efforts. The Pirates' pitching woes are only the opening chapter in what is shaping up to be a watershed first season at PNC Park, one that will likely end with Cam Bonifay out on his ass and the organization in complete chaos.
Chris Kahrl: Unlike last year, there's only one patsy in the division. Nevertheless, I think the division breaks into three groups, the Astros and Cardinals duking it out for the title, the Brewers, Reds and Cubs fighting for a shot at second place (if everything goes right for any one of them), and the Pirates showing off their new playpen.
Keith Law: The Cardinals are a much more flawed team this year without Fernando Tatis, Garrett Stephenson (don't kid yourselves), and perhaps Rick Ankiel. Still, Houston has problems of its own and will need a little bit of luck (for example, Scott Elarton's arm staying attached all year would help, but isn't likely) to take the top spot. Beating up on weak competition should give them the early bead on the wild card. I like what the Cubs have done to start to improve themselves ahead of the youth movement, and sending Corey Patterson down for early seasoning could pay off in a big contribution from him if he arrives in August having learned a little more plate discipline. The Pirates are the worst team in baseball, despite the presence of two superstars in their lineup.
Joe Sheehan: This is probably the toughest division to call, with both the Cardinals and Astros having more than enough talent to win 95 games. I'll go with the Cardinals because my confidence in their pitching outweighs my doubts about their ability to stay healthy. The second place team in this division should win the wild card. The Cubs have a pretty good rotation that will fuel a surprising run at .500 this season.
Despite some people's enthusiasm for the Reds' chances, the rotation is a work in progress, and will be all season. Even at that, look for Ken Griffey to have a season deserving of an MVP award. The Brewers and Pirates combine for a pretty good team, but as currently constituted, don't have the horses.
Michael Wolverton: I was all set to pick the Reds as the surprise winner of the NL Central. I like the Reds pitching staff for a lot of reasons, not least their underappreciated pitching coach Don Gullett, and I figured their offense could be average or better. But Tuesday's ill-advised decision to move Scott Williamson to middle relief jarred me back into reality by bringing back the memory I had been repressing: Bob Boone is in charge. So I'll go with the boring pick, the Cardinals. I'm not on the Astros bandwagon this year. It's true that their luck with injuries and close games won't be as bad as it was last year, but I have doubts about their starters, severe doubts in the case of Jose Lima.
Derek Zumsteg: Now this is where it gets interesting. Both the Astros and Cards have big question marks--Jose Lima and Craig Biggio, Rick Ankiel and Mark McGwire, and both have made some strange decisions lately, like trading Fernando Tatis and Mitch Meluskey. In the end, I think the Astros are smart enough to come back from their missteps, and the Cards will stick to their guns.
National League West
Clay Davenport: The Rockies have seriously good pitching, if Mile High Madness doesn't burn their arms by August. The Diamondbacks' offense is old, infirm, and failing, and will carry an equally old but still good pitching staff into the grave with them. Without Adrian Beltre, the Dodgers' infield is a total disaster area. I know the Giants won last year, but I just can't see this pitching staff working out very well. The Padres have a pile of pitching prospects on the way up who I really like, but they're not here yet, and the hitting won't support them very well.
Jeff Hildebrand: If the Great Changeup Experiment in Colorado doesn't work, this is going to be very wrong. Still, I think the Giants' moves haven't been beneficial and this will finally be the year that Livan Hernandez's arm disintegrates, and the Dodgers seem to be perpetually thrashing around without a master plan, which usually isn't that effective. The D'Backs looks to me like the current version of the 1998 Orioles, and that doesn't bode well for their future.
Rany Jazayerli: When I calculated my projected positional values for each team in the NL West and summed the totals, I found that the five teams were separated by just 45 runs, easily the tightest division I've ever had to sort out. The Giants get the nod, barely, but I was almost tempted to put the Rockies in first. Mike Hampton should finish with a 3.50 ERA, which means he might lead the league in wins, but Denny Neagle's contract has "Darryl Kile II" written all over it. Arizona's offense stalls this year before heading into a horrific tailspin. And if there's one team that could defy 100-to-1 odds and make the playoffs, it is the Padres, who have the most pitching depth in the division and have enough excess pitching to make a trade for an outfielder if they unexpectedly find themselves in the hunt come July.
Chris Kahrl: Much as I'm tempted to slot the Giants at the top, they have questions about the durability of their rotation, the depth of their bullpen, and what's going to happen in right field, at third base, and behind the plate. By comparison, the Rockies have few questions to resolve. They might need another reliever, but Dan O'Dowd got Gabe White cheaply last year, and is probably going to be able to swing another sweet deal if he wants one. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks could flip-flop pretty easily, but does it matter? For both teams, this year is going to be interpreted as a major disaster.
Keith Law: Baseball shouldn't lack for divisional races this year; the AL West seems like the only easy call. I could see any of the top three teams listed here taking the title, and my pick of Colorado is based on a hunch more than on any analysis. I don't think they're demonstrably better than the Giants. Heck, I even think the Padres could beat out the Diamondbacks, which will probably result in Jerry Colangelo crying poverty again, when he should be crying incompetence.
Joe Sheehan: Take the top four teams and throw them in a hat. OK, maybe not the Dodgers, who don't have the depth to lose one of their best players (Adrian Beltre) for at least a month. None of these teams will reach 90 wins, and picking the Rockies reflects the notion that they have the fewest holes as the season opens. With the GMs in this division not at all shy, that could change. Don't be surprised if the Padres move out of the cellar, either; there's a ton of pitching talent here.
Michael Wolverton: The mantra I have learned from predicting the NL West over the past few years: "The Giants will finish two places higher than you think, The Giants will finish two places higher than you think, The Giants..."
Derek Zumsteg: It'll be interesting to see if the giant pitching gamble pays out, and if Dusty Baker can continue to beat the odds and squeeze wins out of whatever's handy. I think any team as badly run as the Diamondbacks can't win, but I think that every year.