Between the time I submit this and the time you read it, Paul DePodesta may have made another half-dozen deals that move the Dodgers up from their current standing. Here’s what I’m going with for now:

  1. Philadelphia Phillies. The best team in the league, and not that far behind the Red Sox and Yankees for best-team-in-baseball honors. The pure talent edge that those squads have is in part mitigated by the Phillies’ much younger team age, which means a greater likelihood of health and top-of-range performance from their players.

    Team age is just one edge. The Phillies should have the NL’s best lineup, with a real possibility of average or better performance from every slot. Remember, this team was in the playoff mix in the last week of 2003, and other than Jim Thome, no one player had a big year, while third base and left field were black holes. It’s not optimistic to expect them to score more runs in ’04; it’s realistic.

    Their depth is another key. The Phillies may have the best bench in baseball, with quality bats in Todd Pratt, Shawn Wooten, Jason Michaels and Ricky Ledee, and a good utility infielder in Tomas Perez. That group was good enough that the Phillies could demote Chase Utley and never miss his bat.

    The Phils got a ton of attention this winter by trading for Billy Wagner. While so much of the blame for their missing the playoffs the past two years was laid at the feet of Jose Mesa, the actual difference between him and Wagner in the ninth inning the past couple of seasons has been small: four blown saves in two years. Wagner is a much better pitcher, but the difference between him and Mesa on the Phillies’ chances has been overstated. More critical will be whether Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez can join Rheal Cormier in providing strong seventh- and eighth-inning work. That was as big a problem for the Phillies in ’02 and ’03 as Mesa was.

    This team is good, mostly coming into its prime, deep enough to withstand injuries or poor performances, and likely to have money at the trade deadline if it wants to step on necks. My opinion of Larry Bowa is well known, and even I don’t think he’s going to be a factor this year. If the Phillies haven’t locked up a playoff spot by Labor Day, I’ll be shocked.

  2. Houston Astros. No team in baseball has a deeper rotation, not when you consider the health questions that currently dog the Cubs’ Mark Prior. Fifth starter Tim Redding is a legitimate mid-rotation guy, and should post an ERA in the mid-threes again this season. The Astros will get quality starts in two-thirds of their games this year, and that’s hard to beat.

    Their offense isn’t as exciting. I have a real problem with unbalanced teams, and the Astros are once again heavily right-handed. Given that their chief rival will be throwing nasty right-handed starters against them 19 times, and that they may face fewer than 30 southpaw starters all year long, their lack of left-handed hitting beyond Lance Berkman is a problem.

    Where to play a left-handed hitter would be a problem even if they could find one; at positions the Astros could stand to upgrade, they’ve made it clear their commitment to failing veterans of dubious value in Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus. Moreover, Jimy Williams may hurt the team in an attempt to address this by sitting one of his best players, Morgan Ensberg, to get Jose Vizcaino or Mike Lamb into the lineup.

    What separates the Astros and Cubs is largely the recent concerns over Prior. Both rely heavily on their rotation, neither plays very good defense (the Cubs are better) and both list heavily to the right side througout the roster. Until Prior takes the mound, the Astros have the edge.

  3. Chicago Cubs. The loss of Prior begs the question: what the hell were the Cubs thinking with the trade of Juan Cruz? There’s no way that the players acquired in that deal or the dubious value of not having to find a role for an unhappy Cruz outweigh the value of having a quality pitcher ready in Prior’s absence. Sergio Mitre? Jimmy Anderson?

    The rush to anoint the Cubs as the top team in the division was largely lost on me even before the Prior injury. I see an offense with good power and potential OBP issues at as many as six spots. The bench is going to be a typically Bakeresque collection of the unimpressive and the aged. The bullpen is going to be a critical component; as good as the Cubs’ starters are, none of them are innings guys, and they leave a lot of games in the seventh inning. The Cubs have to get another good year from Joe Borowski and Kyle Farnsworth, while hoping LaTroy Hawkins doesn’t go the way of so many free-agent relief signings.

    I know the Cubs are emphasizing Prior’s Achilles and not his elbow. However, the latter injury is also a problem, and it will be interesting to see not only how it affects Prior’s season, but whether any effect it does have is connected to Prior’s heavy workload as a 22-year-old.

    Unless the Cubs can get Prior back in early May and squeeze 29 starts from him, they’ll fall just short of the Astros in the division. They’re still the favorite for the wild card over the Cardinals, Giants and Expos; just not enough of one to justify the hype.

    You can throw the next seven, maybe even 10, teams in a hat. The National League has quietly stumbled into an era of tremendous parity, in which there’s precious little difference among the middle tier of franchises. In the short term, it’s going to make for some tremendous division and wild-card races.

    I don’t feel strongly about the order in which I have these teams listed.

  4. St. Louis Cardinals. No team in baseball, not even the Yankees, has four players as good as Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Scott Rolen.

    And no contending team in baseball has 21 other guys with less impressive credentials. The Cards are going to have a left fielder who hasn’t held a job since 2001 (Ray Lankford), a second baseman who has been one of the game’s worst players in almost every season of his career (Tony Womack), a catcher whose entire value is that his manager loves him (Mike Matheny), and a rotation that seems held together by good thoughts and grape jelly.

    To this, they added Roger Cedeno. If this is meant to set up an argument that the Cards need a new stadium to compete, someone should tell Walt Jocketty that there’s one on the way.

    Tony La Russa does a lot of weird things, and no one in my sphere thinks of him as a real good manager any longer. That said, he’s competing with Jimy Williams and Dusty Baker, which means that the Cards have an edge as long as La Russa avoids listening to the higher-pitched voices in his head. Womack starting over Marlon Anderson isn’t a good sign. Figure the Cardinals to be bounced from the wild-card chase in the last week, pending

  5. Montreal Expos. I’d like them better with a healthy Nick Johnson, which I imagine is a bit like saying I’d like my backyard better with a unicorn. Still, this is going to be a much better offensive team than it was last year as long as Tony Batista, Brian Schneider and Peter Bergeron are even average performers.

    The key for the Expos is going to be defense, which is another reason why a healthy Johnson is so important to them. Their pitching staff, especially their rotation, has very few strikeout guys and a number of flyball pitchers. They’ll be relying on their defense, especially their outfield defense, to turn batted balls into outs as much as any team in the league. They need Johnson back so that Brad Wilkerson can get back to left field, and give them two good defenders in the pasture. Bergeron coming out of 2001 to win the center-field job was huge for them, especially with Endy Chavez flopping. Terrmel Sledge probably deserves a job, just not for this team right now.

    For the third year under MLB, the Expos are going to be in the playoff mix in late summer, which wil once again raise the questions of integrity that have dogged the team since early 2002. As was the case last year, it’s hard to envision 29 other owners willingly financing the Expos’ attempts to beat their teams, which means the Expos will be at a disadvantage compared to the Cubs, Cardinals, Braves and Giants in securing a wild-card spot.

    I think the Expos’ ability to field contending teams in the face of complete abandonment by three different ownership groups and most of a city is one of the great baseball stories of the 21st century. Omar Minaya and his staff deserve a ton of credit for what they’ve done, although I imagine they’d settle for some payroll flexibility on July 31st. Get to it, Bud.

  6. San Diego Padres. Like the Twins in the AL Central, here as much because of the flaws of the competition than any potential for greatness. I like using this format because I can pick the Padres to win the West-for the third time in four years-without it standing out so much.

    This isn’t a young, up-and-coming team, the kind you think of moving into a new park and starting a run of success. In fact, this team doesn’t have much identity at all; it’s a mix of veterans from recent bad Padres teams, trade and free-agent additions over the past 18 months, and some good young players whose performance will be the difference between first place and third.

    Those players are the reasons to be excited. I can’t think of any batter/pitcher combination I’m more excited to watch this year than Sean Burroughs and Jake Peavy. Burroughs appears set to add power to his game, and will probably hit 40 doubles and 20 homers this year. He’ll be the second-best third baseman in the NL, a legitimate All-Star. Peavy was one of the game’s toughest pitchers to hit in the second half last year, and while he’ll be hampered by a questionable outfield defense, should approach 200 strikeouts and be one of the 15 best starters in the league.

    The Padres are here because they have no glaring flaws. The bullpen and defense could both use some work–few teams could have added Kerry Robinson and had the move make sense–and Kevin Towers has the organizational depth and new-park money to be a player at the trade deadline.

    Worth mentioning: Jay Payton really isn’t a solution in center field. Freddy Guzman could end up as the midseason call-up who has the greatest impact on a division race.

  7. Florida Marlins. No one is giving the Marlins much chance to be a factor in ’04, but how much worse is this year’s team as compared to last year’s? Ramon Castro replaces Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, and Castro has been ready for a major-league job for four years. Hee Seop Choi is a younger, more raw version of Derrek Lee, whose shoes he’ll fill at first base. While the Marlins have lost experience and gained risk, it’s possible that those two players will provide performance within two wins of the guys they’re replacing, and cost $18 million less.

    The Marlins’ 2003 bullpen wasn’t very good until the end of last season, and while one of the reasons for that–Ugueth Urbina–is gone, there’s really not much difference between him and Armando Benitez, brought in as a replacement.

    I’m pessimistic about Florida because I think they’re going to see a sharp decline in the rotation. I’ve never been a Brad Penny fan, and I think his ’03 season is about what you can expect from him in ’04. A big decline is nearly certain from Darren Oliver, not to mention Dontrelle Willis. Willis wasn’t a very good pitcher in his second time around the league, and will be hard-pressed to post an ERA below the league average this year.

    World Series hero Josh Beckett was a tremendous story, and he has more talent than the entire Brewers rotation put together. He’s also had problems staying in the rotation for a full season, and while the blister problems that have dogged him might be a good thing–sparing his elbow and shoulder work at a young age–he has yet to show that he’s a 32-start guy. The Marlins absolutely need him to pitch 200 innings this year.

    The Marlins will play very good defense, and they might even score as many runs as they did last year. The decline in their pitching will push them down to .500, however, and cost them a chance to defend their crown.

  8. Atlanta Braves. Adding 300 innings of avearge pitching doesn’t hurt, but take away the long streak and the belief in Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone, and would anyone pick this roster to be dangerous? The offense needs a bunch of things to go right to make up for offseason losses, and this isn’t a team that’s going to win by scoring 750 runs, so it needs those things to go very right. Has anyone noticed that Chipper Jones isn’t a star any longer?

    Mostly, it’s the pitching. The Braves have a handful of innings sponges without the front-of-the-rotation guy who makes that kind of staff work. They have John Smoltz in the bullpen, and I doubt more than six people north of Buckhead can name two other Braves’ relievers. This isn’t necessarily a death sentence–remember Chris Hammond and Darren Holmes?–just an indication of how far things have fallen under ^H^H^H Time Warner.

    The streak is dead. Long live the streak.

  9. San Francisco Giants. It’s like a reality-TV show: see how bad a roster can be assembled around Barry Bonds with the Giants still contending. This year, Michael Tucker and Edgardo Alfonzo will bracket the Hall of Famer in the lineup, moving the just-walk-him-every-time strategy ever closer to viability.

    As expected, the Giants will open the season still waiting on Robb Nen and Jason Schmidt, each rehabilitating from surgery. Schmidt is closer than Nen is to a return, which is good because he’s the less replaceable of the two. The Giants’ pitching staff outside of Schmidt and Jerome Williams is unimpressive, a fact that the Marlins brutally exposed last October.

    As with the Braves and the Cubs, the Giants get bonus points for having a manager the media loves. Felipe Alou doesn’t hurt the Giants, he just doesn’t do enough to make for a roster that is just hanging on in a weak division. More than ever, this team is 24 asteroids being held in orbit around one star. This is probably the year it all flies apart.

  10. Los Angeles Dodgers. Paul DePodesta has made six trades in the past week, capped by yesterday’s pickup of Milton Bradley from the Indians. Other than the Bradley swap, all the deals were for minor players, but they’re evidence that DePodesta is not going to let the Dodgers score fewer than 600 runs again. Adding Jason Grabowski and Antonio Perez and Jayson Werth won’t make the Dodgers a juggernaut; it will give Jim Tracy, a manager who knows what he’s doing, options in creating a viable lineup.

    The Dodgers shouldn’t be a factor this year. Last year’s team hung around on the basis of just not giving up runs, and the offensive improvements DePodesta has made aren’t keeping pace with the starting pitching that the team lost in the offseason or the declines you have to expect from key members of the bullpen. Judge this season by the net flow of talent, particularly hitting talent, into the organization, and watch the contender of ’05-’09 start to take shape.

  11. Cincinnati Reds. The talent on hand isn’t as bad as last year’s 69-93 record would indicate. Injuries decimated the roster and left the Reds fielding a Triple-A team by the end of the year.

    Given better health, this could be a .500 team. They’ll have contributors at most lineup spots, and should score close to 800 runs. No one likes the anonymous rotation, but they have four pitchers with innings-muncher credentials or aspirations, and Brandon Claussen waiting in the wings for Jimmy Haynes‘ back to go bad again. Their bullpen should be very good, with Ryan Wagner and John Reidling striking out batters in front of the durable Danny Graves.

    I picked the Reds to win a weaker Central last year, and if the rest of the division didn’t look so impressive, I might do it again this year. This will be a good baseball team, though, winning 80 games and setting the stage for a run in ’05. Watch for Edwin Encarnacion by the end of the year: he’s going to be a good one.

  12. New York Mets. I thought they’d look better after the offseason acquisitions. They don’t. There’s still a lack of offense beyond the core guys–I’m not on the Mike Cameron-minus-Safeco-equals-superstar bandwagon–and only a couple of players who can be counted on for 150 games. The pitching is just bad, especially with Lisa Guerrero’s husband in the rotation, and there’s not a reliever in sight I’d bet on for better than a 3.75 ERA.

    Can I craft a scenario in which they contend? Sure. It would probably be the worst thing that could happen to them, though. The Mets would be best served by a 15-28 start that killed expectations and allowed them to keep swapping contracts for players who will contribute in 2005 and beyond. Jim Duquette has done pretty well so far, and needs to stick to the plan.

  13. Arizona Diamondbacks. One key lesson I’ve learned in the past few years is to not be so dismissive of teams based on the age of their players. Older teams can win, and the peak-at-age-27 career path we use as a guideline can’t be treated as gospel.

    Nevertheless, the D’backs are toast. This isn’t a roster, it’s a retirement community. The offense is completely reliant on two players, one of whom, Luis Gonzalez, might blow out his elbow at any moment. The defense is aged, with a 39-year-old in center and a 36-year-old at second base, and the loss of Curt Schilling will mean more balls in play and a greater reliance on that defense.

    The ace starter is 40 years old and coming off his first season as a mortal since 1998. Nearly everyone is projecting a big comeback by Randy Johnson; I don’t see it. I can see him being effective for 150 innings or average for 220, and the Snakes go nowhere if either of those is true.

    Flags fly forever, so the price the D’backs–the price Jerry Colangelo–paid for his 2001 pennant was well worth the cost. That bill comes due now and over the next few seasons, however. It’s going to be a long couple of summers in the desert.

  14. Pittsburgh Pirates. Somewhere in here, there’s a baseball team just dying to get out. It’s just buried among guys like Jose Mesa, Chris Stynes, Raul Mondesi and Randall Simon. Regardless of who is to blame–Dave Littlefield, Kevin McClatchy or Lloyd McClendon–the constant signing of veteran stopgaps has to cease. It was one thing when there were no viable outfielders in camp, and when the prospect of midseason flipping existed. Now, players are being brought in who block better options, and who will likely have no trade value in three months.

    This franchise needs to start over with new management and new players before it replaces the Brewers as the butt of all baseball jokes. It may already be too late.

  15. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers might end up with the worst record in the NL this year, because they’ll play a tougher schedule than the Rockies will. However, their overall talent level is a bit above the Rox, and they’re the better team. There’s the makings of a decent rotation, and the Brew Crew could have a league-average offense if Scott Podsednik and the alien reach an accord. The bullpen and bench aren’t going to be very good, nor will the defense, especially in the infield.

    As much fun as it’s been picking on the Brewers for the past decade, things are about to change very dramatically in Milwaukee. There is a flood of position-player talent coming through this system, led by Rickie Weeks and including four or five legitimate hitting prospects. It’s not inconceivable that the Brewers will win a couple of division titles before the decade is out with a homegrown lineup that recalls the franchise’s Dalton/Bamberger heyday.

    The Brewers aren’t a punchline any longer. New ownership–a group or a person committed to winning more than to an ideology–would cement the deal. Someone is going to make a lot of money buying this team low and owning it through its 2008-12 peak.

  16. Colorado Rockies. Dan O’Dowd’s offseason emphasis on acquiring “character” is another indication that he’s never going to have the kind of success some people predicted for him. He’s tried a number of things in Colorado, and the failure of all of them appears to have beaten him down.

    The Rockies will open the season with Royce Clayton and Vinny Castilla in their starting lineup, and Shawn Estes, Jeff Fassero and Denny Hocking on the roster. Is someone, somewhere planning an intervention? This feels like the part in the Lifetime movie where Kate Jackson or Victoria Principal or Joan Van Ark breaks down and starts begging their husband to get help, that his addiction to painkillers/porn/gambling is wrecking their marriage.

    And just like that movie, no one’s watching the Rockies anymore, either.


MVP: Bobby Abreu
Cy Young: Roy Oswalt
Rookie of the Year: Kazuo Matsui
Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy

Playoffs: Phillies over Cubs, Astros over Padres. Phillies over Astros.

And my World Series prediction?

Red Sox over Phillies in six.

Thank you for reading

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