Yes, it's that time of year, when the opportunity to be oh, so very wrong about the upcoming baseball season presents itself.
Predictions are part of this gig, so here's my take on what we'll see in the next six months in the National League. Take these with a grain of salt, though. For all we do know about these teams, it's what we don't see coming–an Albert Pujols, a Bret Boone, a Dr. James Andrews–that makes all the difference.
New York Mets
And this is where we find out how much e-mail the BP server can handle.
Look, I have a lot of respect for the direction in which Steve Phillips headed this winter. He was at a crossroads, and rather than hedge his bets like, say, the Indians' Mark Shapiro did, Phillips went all-out to try and squeeze a title out of the Mike Piazza Era. He spent a lot of money, drained the last talent from the farm system, and basically made every move that he had a chance to make.
But does this Mets team look like anything more than the tenth anniversary of the Bobby Bonilla/Vince Coleman Mets of 1992? It's a group of aging stars and semi-stars, each a very good or great player at his peak, but in many cases two or even four seasons from their best work. And yes, if you get Roberto Alomar circa 2001, and Edgardo Alfonzo circa 2000, and Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz circa 1999, you have a hell of a team. That's a lot of wishcasting, though, and it's more likely that two of those guys will be well off their peak, while two others hang around their career norms.
The pitching has been glossed over, but we're talking about a rotation that needs Shawn Estes and Steve Trachsel to make 50 good starts between them just for the team to sniff contention. Can Pedro Astacio get away with not having surgery on a torn labrum?
Last place? Yeah, that looks weird, but there's a ridiculous amount of pressure on this team starting the season. Any kind of early slump is going to make that worse, and could create the kind of in-season chaos that leads to a managerial change, a trade-deadline exodus, and two months of bad baseball down the stretch. I can't see this team finishing third or fourth; they either stay in the race to the end, or they fall apart and win 69 games. The latter, I'm afraid, just seems more likely to me. Remember Vince Coleman.
There are no real surprises elsewhere in the division. I think Gary Sheffield, for whom Turner Field will be the best hitting environment of his career, is going to win the NL MVP Award in a walk. Jason Marquis could have Kevin Millwood's 1999 campaign, while Millwood bounces back to be a healthy innings-muncher. While the Marlins' pitching gets all the attention, the lineup drives a surprising run to 85 wins and a wild-card push.
The Phillies don't improve on last season, even with the return of Mike Lieberthal and a big leap forward by Pat Burrell (.290/.380/.550). Even the forced departure of Larry Bowa at midseason doesn't help them keep Scott Rolen, forcing Ed Wade to start over next winter. The Expos start slowly, then play .500 ball in the second half as the denizens of Montreal show up to say goodbye to 33 years of memories.
St. Louis Cardinals
The toughest division to call, because so little separates the top three teams that the differences among them will be injuries and what happens at the trade deadline. I believe that in whatever order the teams finish, the league wild card will come out of here, thanks to a bunch of games against the league's patsies, the Brewers and Pirates.
Taking the Cardinals ahead of the Astros is a vote for the Cards' pitching, particularly its depth. Even with the loss of Rick Ankiel, the Redbirds have six legitimate starters lying around, thanks to the apparent returns of Andy Benes and Garrett Stephenson. While weak offensively at the infield corners, they have only one really bad hitter (Mike Matheny), and a popular MVP candidate in J.D. Drew. If I had to bet a lot of money on one NL team to finish above .500, it would be the Cardinals. There just doesn't seem to be much potential for collapse here.
The Astros have more upside than the Cardinals, thanks to a younger roster, particularly guys like Morgan Ensberg and Daryle Ward getting their first opportunities. They are relying pretty heavily on a young rotation, including last year's phenom Roy Oswalt, who has had a ridiculous spring. If there's a concern, it's Jimy Williams's past predilection for glove men. If Ensberg or Ward loses playing time to Geoff Blum or Brian Hunter, that's going to hurt, especially with commitments in place to good-field, no-hit Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett.
The Cubs could win anywhere between 75 and 95 games, depending on how well aging veterans Moises Alou, Fred McGriff, Delino DeShields, and Todd Hundley play. Corey Patterson probably isn't ready offensively, but a team with Alou and Sammy Sosa on the corners can't really afford to add Roosevelt Brown to the outfield mix. Alex Gonzalez makes the All-Star team. The addition of Antonio Alfonseca helps shore up a shaky bullpen, but picking up Matt Clement in the same deal will have an even bigger impact. Clement ends up knocking a full run off of his ERA, and is the team's #2 starter by the end of the year.
The Reds are another team that could do almost anything this year. They should score runs, thanks to a lineup whose worst hitter is Jason LaRue and which features good power at six positions. Joey Hamilton is their Opening Day starter, though, and as much respect as I have for Don Gullett, that's a lot to demand of a reclamation project. As ever, the Reds have a deep bullpen, and would be well-served to trade Danny Graves while he still has a closer sheen.
The Brewers and Pirates continue to play in new parks, putting the lie to the idea that all that's required to compete is a big chunk of taxpayer dollars. Each shows signs of life this year, cutting dead weight through trade-deadline deals and overdue releases. Check back in 2004.
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
Los Angeles Dodgers
Ah, what the hell. I'm going to root for them all year, anyway, and since I was the first one on the bandwagon, I might as well keep my place now that it's starting to get a bit crowded.
What the Padres have is a lineup with no real holes, getting league-average OBPs or better from seven slots, and maybe eight if Tom Lampkin can get enough at-bats at catcher. The revamped infield–no one is in the same spot they were last year–will rival the Giants' as the best in the division.
While their pitching opens the year as the weak spot, there is significant organizational depth that could have an impact as early as July. Guys like Dennis Tankersley and Jacob Peavycould do for the Padres what Roy Oswalt did for the Astros last year: push the team over the top. They'll need to find some guys to pitch the seventh and eighth innings; don't be surprised to see Alan Embree have a big year if liberated from the one-batter role for which he's never been suited.
If the Padres don't win the division, it will be because the Diamondbacks' twin aces put on a repeat performance. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson were healthy and ridiculously effective in 2001. They'll need to bounce back from their largest workloads ever–remember, all those October innings–for the Snakes to have any chance. The offense won't score 800 runs, and their defense is best described as "declining."
As much as you have to respect the work Dusty Baker and Brian Sabean have done, it's hard to look at the Giants in March and think, "contender." If the 2001 Giants could have The Best Season Ever, and one of the greatest seasons ever by a shortstop, and still fall short, what chance does the year-after squad have? The team around the core of Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, and Rich Aurilia doesn't look to be much improved over last year's, even if Reggie Sanders plays the Ellis Burks role.
Two months ago, I liked the Rockies to win this division. I'm less optimistic today, because Mike Hampton (9.45 ERA, 16 walks, 13 strikeouts in 20 innings) just didn't seem right this spring. You have to wonder how well a small guy like him is going to hold up in the crucible at 5,280 feet. I love the Rockies' core talent, though, and believe that Dan O'Dowd now has the best framework in place he's had since his arrival.
I have 639 in the "Dodger runs" pool. Now, if the right iterations of Kevin Brown, Andy Ashby, Kazuhisa Ishii, and Hideo Nomo show up, that might even be enough. Fantasy players will be tearing their hair out playing, "guess the Dodger closer." I like Brian Holton, myself.
As we open the season, the differences between the teams in the NL West are small. Just about any ordering of the teams can be justified; all of them probably have at least a 12-13% chance of winning the division.
Tomorrow, the American League.
Thank you for reading
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