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April 2, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
The season has started! The season has started!
OK, I'm a complete geek, but how can you help but be excited if you're a baseball nut? Yesterday's opener was the appetizer, and today brings about a half-schedule of games (including seven on TV in my area).
Without further ado, here are my NL predictions. Unlike the AL, there are some very difficult calls here, and a lot more teams who have a shot to make some noise. And then there's the Pirates.
This is the weakest Braves team in years, with a scar at first base and inadequate production in the outfield corners. The rotation questions are real as well, as John Smoltz's elbow is clearly not ready for prime time.
Fortunately for them, this is a transition year for the rest of the division. The Mets are not as good as they've been for the past couple of years, and will slip back from their wild-card-caliber performances of the last two seasons. The offense is a couple of bats shy, despite the presence of two of the league's best players in Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo. The pitching was old last year; much of the same cast returns, with Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel replacing Mike Hampton and Bobby J. Jones.
The other three teams are a year shy of being serious contenders, although the Marlins will end up being a pretty good story. Unlike most of my colleagues, I liked the Matt Clement trade. He's not far from stardom, while Mark Kotsay's upside looks more like B.J. Surhoff than Gary Sheffield. The Fish will get better years from Mike Lowell and Alex Gonzalez, and even with Charles Johnson returning to earth, will be much improved at catcher.
The Phillies have a great lineup core and a rotation with considerable upside, even if Terry Francona ruined Randy Wolf. The gap between their good players and the rest of their roster is wide, however, and represents Ed Wade's next challenge: building a great baseball team around a strong core. I'm supposed to be more excited about the Expos, but the pitching doesn't seem stable enough to me, and there are a number of problems in the lineup that will keep them from being a factor.
This will be the race that would have been special, except that the loser will pretty much have the wild card wrapped up, and therefore, the tension will be sucked from the stretch drive.
Picking the Cardinals over the Astros is a vote for the lesser of two risk factors: the Cardinals' ability to stay healthy versus the Astros' ability to rebuild their pitching staff. Even with a healthy Billy Wagner, the Houston bullpen doesn't inspire confidence, and their rotation has more question marks than "Scepticism, Inc." Jose Lima's recovery is no sure thing, nor is Scott Elarton's health or Kent Bottenfield's effectiveness.
On the other hand, the Cardinals' problems are that their best players--Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Fernando Vina--have injury histories that make it hard to count on them for a full season. Last year, they won despite missing McGwire for half the season and Fernando Tatis for two months and having other, lesser injuries throughout the year.
The scary thing is that even with all these worries, we're probably talking about the best two teams in the league. Each has a breakout candidate (Lance Berkman, Edgar Renteria) who should jump to All-Star status this year. Each has offensive depth and a pretty good manager, despite our frequent criticisms of each.
In the end, it comes down to trusting the Cards' health more than the Astros' pitching.
The Cubs are the non-standard pick, with most people having a clear delineation between the top three and bottom three teams in this division. I happen to think the Cubs have a vastly underrated rotation and a bullpen that will be better than most people think. Their offense isn't great, but the team gets OBP from places like third base (Bill Mueller) and shortstop (Ricky Gutierrez), and that gives them an edge. Rondell White should have one of his best seasons, as well.
The Reds' pitching is a mess, and will probably remain so throughout the season. I see them as being where the Cardinals were two seasons ago: what they need is two 35-start, 220-inning guys they can plug into the rotation and not worry about. As currently constituted, this is going to be a team that used a dozen starters and doesn't have anyone reach 200 innings, with a rotation that is never the same in consecutive months. Like those Cardinals, there is talent on this staff; it will just take a year before they pull it all together.
There are two other teams in the division, each playing in a new ballpark, each featuring a couple of stars, each with no real chance to be a factor in 2001. The difference is that the Brewers have done some positive things this winter, and can point to 2002 as a year in which they might be interesting. The Pirates have mostly wet themselves for six months, and have no reason to expect anything but a nice new environment in which to lose 95 games.
This will be the best race of the season, with as many as four teams, none good enough to catch the Astros for the wild-card, battling each other for one ticket to October.
I'm going with the Rockies to win, as much because I see fewer problems with their team than with the others as the season begins. They have the best rotation in their history (at great cost, to be sure) and a good bullpen. Other than possibly Juan Pierre, they have no starters who shouldn't have a job. Neifi Perez, a poor hitter, justifies his lineup spot with a good glove.
The Rockies could see significant improvement just by staying out of their own way; playing Todd Walker and Ben Petrick will be worth a bunch of runs, and a healthy Larry Walker is worth a ton of runs.
Michael Wolverton makes a great point in our BP predictions: the Giants always finish two places above where you expect them. This year's team is missing the third big bat that made last year's offense great, and despite its continued solid performance, the rotation inspires more fear than confidence. That said, Dusty Baker does a good job of using his bench and bullpen, which is a big part of why his teams seem to overachieve. Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent are still here as well, so you can expect the Giants to at least hang around the race.
The next two teams are certain to be labeled disappointments, but that's due to unrealistic expectations. The Diamondbacks simply cannot expect to sustain an offense without using any players with upside. They have almost no one who can be expected to improve on their 2000 performance, and a few players whose performance will be well below the league average for their position.
If the D'backs are to stay in the hunt, they'll have to do it with their pitching. Randy Johnson is great, and Curt Schilling and Brian Anderson can be good, although counting on them to be healthy and effective is no sure thing. The D'backs also have a very good bullpen, especially their setup duo of Greg Swindell and Byung-Hyun Kim.
A month ago, I thought the Dodgers were the favorite in the division, which tells you how important I believe Adrian Beltre is to this team. The loss of Beltre for at least a month--and the fact that he may not be himself for a while after that--was enough for me to push the Dodgers from first to fourth in this tightly-bunched division.
The big problem is that this is a brutal team up the middle. Chad Kreuter is a backup, while Alex Cora and Mark Grudzielanek might be the worst middle infield in baseball. Tom Goodwin can play defense in center field, but is a HACKING MASS All-Star, not a real one.
That's four positions at which the Dodgers have no hope of being average or better. Add in the adequate Eric Karros, and you have a team with a lineup that simply isn't championship-caliber. 1988 was a nice story, but it's not the way to build a team.
The team that gets lost in discussions of the NL West is the Padres, but there is some talent here. They have a good rotation, and a decent lineup core in Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin. Picking up Mark Kotsay isn't a terrible gamble, although I think they gave up more than Kotsay is worth. They'll need some of the disappointments of recent years, like Ben Davis and Damian Jackson, to play well if they're going to approach .500.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.