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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.

NL EAST

1. Braves
2. Marlins
3. Mets
4. Phillies
5. Expos

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.

NL CENTRAL

1. Cardinals
2. Astros
3. Cubs
4. Reds
5. Brewers
6. Pirates

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.

NL WEST

1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Diamondbacks
4. Dodgers
5. Padres

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
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