National League East
Despite their loss of John Smoltz for the season, we didn’t have any problem picking the Braves to finish atop the East again. The Mets have made a lot of changes over the offseason, and we don’t think they are in a strong position to make another run at Atlanta this year. In third are the Phillies, who have one of the most unpredictable squads in the majors this year. The Expos will ride their solid young pitching staff and offense to a fourth place finish in 2000, with better things to come. The forever-rebuilding Marlins are a good bet to be the East’s worst team this year.
Even without Smoltz, the Braves still have more pitching than anyone else (and
having Andruw Jones in CF is a considerable part of that), and their offense
is solidly in the upper half of the NL. Meanwhile, New York’s offense
collapses back to league average; Zeile for Olerud is a big loss, Bell for
Cedeno is a big loss, and look for some smaller losses as Ventura, Henderson,
and others fall back. Philadelphia will be close enough to smell a WC,
especially if Schilling can come back strong and soon. The Expos pitching
has great promise. And the less said about the Fish, the better.
I’m sure this will get me a ton of hate mail from the Mets fans, and
to be honest I could easily imagine any possible permutation of the
middle three, all within a few games of .500. The Braves should win the
division easily, with the Marlins way below everyone else. The Mets
lost too much offense from the departure of Olerud and Cedeno.
While Hampton will be a good pitcher he won’t be as good as he was
last year, especially without Dierker to guide him, and I think a lot
of the rest of the team is going to implode. If everything were to
break right for the Phillies, they might approach 90 wins and if goes
wrong they’ll be in the low 70s. 81 to 83 wins seems the most likely.
The Expos should be the latest team to prove that throwing lots of money
at mediocre players merely makes you mediocre.
The Braves are going to win this division, and no, Mets fans, it won’t be
close. Mike Hampton will only cushion the blow that Derek Bell provides,
and if they really do trade Rickey, they could struggle to reach .500.
The Expos are slowly developing young talent (or grabbing it from the Dodgers)
again, but there are already bad signs that the Loria era in Montreal won’t
be nearly as promising as hoped. The Phillies need Schilling healthy and
Burrell in the lineup, but may not have either, due to circumstances entirely
within their control. The Marlins’ rebuilding process is big on power arms,
but there really isn’t a potential franchise hitter (that can stay healthy,
Cliff) on the roster.
The order’s the same, but the win totals won’t be, as Atlanta and New York
are worse off than they were last year and Montreal is much better – good
enough to challenge Philly for third, at least. Atlanta will miss John
Smoltz, but if they put Bruce Chen in the rotation and leave him alone,
they’ll be fine; if they put Kevin McGlinchy in there, they’ll be even
better off. Ninety wins should take the division, because the Mets are
dismantling a really solid offense. With two of their top three OBA guys
gone (Olerud and Cedeno) and one half out the door (Henderson), plus the
dilutive effect of adding Todd Zeile, they’re going to score at least fifty
fewer runs this year. The rotation is full of question marks, more so after
Mike Hampton walked nine in his first start, and the defense can’t possibly
stay as good as it was last year. Still, the Phillies won’t catch them with
a patchwork rotation, the majors’ worst middle infield, and a horrible
bullpen. Montreal is finally showing signs of life thanks to a rejuvenated rotation that is poised to pass Pittsburgh as the home of the league’s top young
starters and an offense that will get its first legitimate leadoff hitter
(Peter Bergeron) since Tim Raines left town. Florida can’t be as bad as it
was last year, and they’ve got some talent in every department, but they’re
still in prep mode for a shot at .500 in 2001.
Braves again, even without John Smoltz, and even
as John Schuerholz makes all kinds of weird decisions in his absence.
They’re the favorite because the Mets did more backsliding this winter than
the Braves did, getting more expensive and older, and chipping away at the
strength of the team, its OBP-oriented offense. There are three other teams
in this division, and we should all work hard to remember who they are.
Starting in 2001, they’ll once again be interesting.
No surprises here. I think the Mets are going to be forced to make some
hard decisions about what to do with their rotation and their outfield when
their wild-card chances start to fade mid-season.
National League Central
This will clearly be one of the most interesting races in the majors; we like the Astros, and by a fairly wide margin, but the Cardinals and the Reds should be a classic behind the heroics of Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey. Fourth-place finisher Pittsburgh is depending on things breaking right with Chad Hermansen, Aramis Ramirez, and the pitching staff; they’ll all be good, but they may not all be good in 2000. The Cubs and the Brewers are consensus bottom-of-the-division finishers; at least Milwaukee has a new stadium to look forward to sooner or later.
When I plugged the Astros numbers, I came up with a runaway best offense in
the league, and overall pitching that challenges the Braves. This team may not
have a shortstop, but they are loaded everywhere else. The Reds, with Griffey
now leading the offense, are my wild-card pick. The Pirates have some good
pitching, but the offense will hold them back. I don’t see the Cardinals as a
real contender; the pitching staff is relying on pitchers who used to be good
all recapturing the magic together, and I don’t see Merlin in the clubhouse.
The Cubs and Brewers are pathetic, with bad hitting joining ludicrous pitching
It’s entirely possible that the winner of the West would wind up fifth
in this division. Adding Cedeno and Dotel should more than offset the
loss of Hampton for the Astros, and their system is so deep they should
repeat. While the Reds did add Junior, which will help, they also added
Fonzie and that’s gonna hurt. The Cardinals could easily finish higher,
but I no longer trust LaRussa to properly handle a pitching staff which
will doom them in this division. I don’t think the Pirates are quite
there this year, but they have enough good young players to have the
potential to surprise. Watch out for them next year, especially if the
proposed realignment happens. Then at the other extreme there are two
really bad teams. The Brewers have a strong player in Burnitz and a
couple more young solid players in Jenkins and Belliard, but they also
have way too many holes and with the exception of Woodard, the pitching
staff looks like an absolute nightmare. The Cubs have some similar
problems, but at least to begin with they have a little more pitching.
If Valdes really is out for the year, this could be a real race
The Astros are still the team to beat; Dotel could win 15 games this year, and
once they have Elarton back, they’ll still have the best rotation in the
division. With Hidalgo and Alou healthy, and the addition of Roger Cedeno,
this year’s outfield could be better than last year’s, even without Carl
Everett. The decision between Cincinnati and St. Louis was the most difficult
one for me to make, and it’s not any easier now that Jim Edmonds is in red. I
have faith that the Reds’ rotation will stick together – and the decision
to go with Rob Bell over Mark Portugal should pay off – and I remain skeptical
regarding LaRussa’s ability to ever piece together a strong rotation again, as
well as his willingness to just let J.D. Drew play. The Pirates need to
temper their expectations, because until Kris Benson really does win the Cy Young
Award, they’re just a .500 team. The Cubs are still the Cubs, handing out
3-year contracts to stiffs like Joe Girardi, which still makes them better than
the Brewers, who traded Jeff Cirillo for the remains of Jamey Wright’s right arm.
The NL Central has gotten some press lately as the majors’ deepest, most
competitive, et cetera, but it’s really home to two of the majors’ worst
teams and one of the best, with some interesting stuff in between. Houston
has to be the early pick for NL champion, with a deep pitching staff, an
outfield with four guys who would start on any team in the majors, and
Bagwell and Biggio still going strong. St. Louis underwent a needed reorg
this offseason, but the rotation is full of castoffs and retreads to go
with 20-year-old Rick Ankiel and the bullpen is shaky. Meanwhile, Tony
LaRussa is making noises about stiffing JD Drew, the team’s best outfielder
offensively and defensively. Cincinnati has a similar makeup to the Cards –
a good but not great offense and a subpar rotation, plus a bullpen full of
question marks, here derived from the team’s overuse of its main relievers
last year. Pittsburgh supposedly has the division’s best rotation, if the
pundits are to be believed, but beyond Kris Benson are two health questions
(Francisco Cordova and Jason Schmidt), a one-year wonder who’s been awful
all spring (Todd Ritchie), and non-prospect Jimmy Anderson. The team’s
strength could be its offense, which would mark the first time that’s been
the case in about eight years. Chicago and Milwaukee are both wandering in
the desert, fighting for the million-dollar jackpot annually awarded to the
team with the fewest walks.
This should be a pretty good race, as the Cardinals and
Astros reprise their 1996 battle. The Cardinals have the upside, with
Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew among the league’s best breakout
candidates, while the Astros have the stronger rotation and the better
depth. Whichever team loses out will be the NL wild card, and I think the
Astros’ pitching and the Cardinals’ potential for fragility swing the title
Houston’s way. Put it this way: I certainly don’t think they’ll finish
fourth. The Reds will attract huge crowds and significant hype, but there’s
no way they get back to 96 wins in 2000, not with an offense certain to
score fewer runs and a rotation with more health issues than a Gray
Panthers convention. The Pirates have developed some good talent, but
continue to squander money and playing time on bad players. Check back in
2001. The Cubs and Brewers? Well, how often can you get 11 of your
peers to agree completely on anything?
Griffey may be happy, but the Astros are too strong, too smart, and too
adaptable to lose the division.
National League West
Parity rears its head in the West this year; none of these teams are going to be very good. The Dodgers edge the Diamondbacks for first place in our predictions; Los Angeles has a shiny new right fielder to paper over their potentially serious rotation problems, and Arizona’s roster mimics their target demographic, with senior citizens abounding. The Giants have Barry Bonds, but we’re wary of that heavily abused rotation. The Rockies look nothing like they did last year, and we generally like the moves they’ve made, but they have a ways to go before they are ready for prime time. Our consensus last place Padres make no secret about playing for 2002.
The tightest race I see. Arizona’s players regress en masse, and if those 5000
pitches from a year ago knock out Johnson, they’re toast. Colorado’s total
rebuilding improved their offense and defense, and I think they’re a genuine
threat to win the division. The Dodgers have the money, but have paid so much
on colorful stars like Brown and Green that they’re stuck with Elsters and
Grudzielaneks and Hollandsworths in the supporting cast, and they’ll drag the
ship down. The Giants’ pitching staff is on the verge of melting down, and
their good offense won’t be enough to cope with it. And its hard to believe
that there’s a team worse than the Marlins, Cubs, and Brewers, but that’s
where I see the Padres.
Any of the top four teams could conceivably take this weak division.
The Giants should score some runs, but the real question is whether
their abused pitching staff will hold on long enough to win the
division. I suspect so, but they’ll go nowhere in the playoffs. The
Dodgers’ front office clearly has no idea what they’re doing but they
do still have some good players and Davey Johnson as manager. The loud
"thud" coming from the desert is Arizona falling back to earth this
year. They’ve got too many hitters who were above their head last year
and they’ve got too many players for who the fact that they’re a year
older is a bad thing. Colorado seems to be starting to get a clue, but
they’ve got too much of a hole to dig out of in one year. The Padres
are in rebuilding mode and it’ll show.
Not an impressive team in the bunch; none of them are locks to finish over
.500. Yes, the Diamondbacks got some incredible late-in-career performances last year, but you can’t just ignore 100 wins. It’s hard to predict more than a 13-game drop, even with Matt Williams out until June, as Lee should be improved, and they have Durazo for a full year. Shawn Green was a nice pickup for the
Dodgers, but they still have Carlos Perez in the rotation, and Kevin Elster –
Kevin Elster! – is their starting shortstop. The Giants’ rotation is already melting down – it must be Barry’s fault. The Rockies made a lot of moves and a little progress over the off-season; until they play Petrick everyday and ditch Tom Goodwin, though, it won’t be enough to get them into contention. The Padres are slowly moving in the right direction, and Matt Clement is this decade’s Kevin Brown. You read it here first.
Despite producing a 100-game winner last year, this is easily the worst
division in baseball. Los Angeles isn’t really a good team, but it has the
fewest problems and the best pitching staff. Arizona might be considered
the default choice, but their offense overachieved significantly last year
and the bullpen’s a mess. Colorado’s a bit of a wild card; their rotation
is good on paper, but how the new pitchers will react to the altitude is
anyone’s guess. In addition, they’ll have at least three holes in the
lineup with Tom Goodwin, Neifi Perez, and whoever’s catching (until Ben
Petrick is recalled). Betting against San Francisco is always dicey, but
Dusty has ridden his starters so hard of late that it’s not hard to see two
or three breaking down this season. And it’s hard to believe San Diego was
in the World Series 18 months ago, given the strong probability that
they’ll lose 95 games this year.
Now that Davey Johnson has the roster flexibility and
bullpen depth he so desperately wants, and no longer has to deal with
giving playing time to the contracts of Raul Mondesi and Eric
Young, he should be able to move the Dodgers to the top of an
unimpressive division. At least the AL Central has the Indians: it’s
possible that 85 or 86 wins will walk away with the title here. The Giants
return essentially the same cast as they’ve had the past few years, with
the same problems. Their chances depend on Dusty Baker’s ability to learn
from his mistakes the past few years, by not burning out the pitching staff
by August. The Diamondbacks will decline as their veteran core returns to a
more normal production level. The Rockies have the personnel to have their
best team in years, but questions of who won’t play (Ben Petrick)
and who will (Tom Goodwin) will hold them back. The Padres are just
holding on until their new park is built.
Is Davey Johnson out of Moriarty-esque intrigues and game management plots?
I’m betting on ‘no’.