After last year’s predictions of how each division would play out resulted in somewhat moderate success – at least they weren’t completely crap – I knew I had to bring the prognostications back for a return engagement. So let’s get to it as we bridge the space between Opening Days 1 and 2.
1. Braves. Last year, I thought I’d go on the record (along with hundreds of others) in calling the end of the Atlanta’s run. Instead, I learned what it means to be a Phillies fan – I was let down, yet again. So with Tim Hudson and John Smoltz now in the rotation, Chipper Jones back at third base and some young guys in other key spots, I do like the Braves’ chances in a stacked division. It won’t be as easy as some years, but they’re still the team to beat. As for what I expect from the Braves, I figure Smoltz will hit the DL at least once, perhaps for three or four weeks, as he tries to pitch 200 innings for the first time in seven years. I’m also not sold on Dan Kolb at the back of the bullpen. Something tells me he’s going to have his share of struggles. Offensively, Rafael Furcal will have a stellar season in his contract year and I see the fountain of youth at work again in one corner outfield spot – right field. Raul Mondesi will get back to 20-20 territory, while Brian Jordan will probably lose his job after further injury and may end up retiring after this season.
2. Marlins. Wild card. It’s not what I’m rooting for (more in a moment), but how can you go against this school of fish? I’m not with ESPN’s John Kruk, who calls this the best lineup in baseball (or at least the NL), because I think the Cardinals are still pretty damn good. Position-by-position, I can see the Marlins having an edge (Paul Lo Duca is better than Yadier Molina), but I think for consistency and overall firepower, St. Louis is still the measuring stick. Their pitching is impressive, but they need Carl Pavano-like emergences from Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett. Only Burnett, like Pavano last year, is in a contract year and has that motivation. Beckett needs to stay healthy and not develop eight blisters throughout the season. And if Juan Pierre struggles to stay healthy this season, well, then they won’t even be this good.
3. Mets. The bullpen scares me. Flat out, it could mean the difference not just between a wild card and fourth place for this team, but between the division title and fourth place. If the closers stayed the same but Mets had the Phillies’ bullpen, or the Yankees’, or the Angels’, they’d probably win this division. And then, on Opening Day, they get through the seventh and eighth innings with a 6-4 lead, turning it over to closer Braden Looper, a rather reliable stopper last year … and he gives up two home runs and loses the game. Omar Minaya needs to make a move before June 1 – maybe even before May 1 – to bulk up the ’pen, or it’s going to be another long summer.
4. Phillies. Fourth place in this division will be better than second in a lot of others. It won’t be like 1973, when nobody wanted to take first place and 82 wins was enough. But it could be like that year in that the fourth-place team is still within five games of first place. The lineup should be solid (but why is Placido Polanco playing over Chase Utley?) and the starters serviceable. The bullpen is potentially the best in the division. But they’ve had high expectations for a couple of years now and have been unable to perform under that pressure. Maybe the lowered expectations and the new, laid-back manager will allow this team to relax and play to its potential.
5. Nationals. The crowds will be there, and they will be an exciting team at times, but they just don’t have the horses to keep up with the thoroughbreds in this division. There could be some excitement down inside the Beltway. Ryan Church should finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting and a healthy full season from Nick Johnson would show us just what he can do. I also like the chances for Jose Guillen to turn things around. Again.
1. Cardinals. When you have a solid lineup that returns all the major components and a decent enough pitching staff that brings in one of the game’s best young lefties and remember that it’s on the team that represented the league in the World Series, you’ve got yourself a frontrunner. St. Louis is the team to beat, though there are a lot of things that could derail a division repeat. Among the internal concerns is the rotation: Can Matt Morris be an 18-game winner again? Can Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter pitch like front-of-the-rotation starters like they did in 2004? The Cards also can’t afford to lose any of their major hitters for an extended period. They’re lucky, in a sense, that Scott Rolen went down in September, when they had a big lead and he could afford to rest up for the postseason. But it all appeared to catch up to him in the World Series. If Rolen, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds or Larry Walker (now that they don’t have Edgar Renteria batting second) is out for a month, they’re in trouble. The other concern is …
2. Cubs. Suppose, for a moment, that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood return when expected (Wood next week, Prior once his 15 days are up) and pitch the rest of the season. Having those two healthy for a full season (or five and a half months) may be the difference between third place and first place. Even with their absences last summer, the Cubbies still only lost the wild card in the final few days. They got younger with the departures of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou; the problem is, they replaced them with Jeromy Burnitz and Todd Hollandsworth. That might not be enough. But this season could be where we see the true emergence of Corey Patterson, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. All three had strong seasons last year, but I think this year they all do it again, cementing their star status – or elevating it to the next level.
3. Astros. Like the Cubs, the Astros might make a run this season despite their off-season losses. Certainly, Houston is weaker without Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran, but they’ve got promising replacements in Jason Lane and Wily Taveras. And there’s also Andy Pettitte. Though his totals were low because of injury last season, the lefty’s peripherals (a 3.90 ERA, 2.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) were enough that a full, healthy season would make a big difference to the team. But they’ll also need a bullpen to get to Brad Lidge, who has to be strong enough to bounce back from a 94-inning season. In fact, Lidge has thrown 179 innings over the last two campaigns, more than any two-year coupling in his entire professional career – one that has been hampered by injuries that led to the Astros moving him from starting to relieving.
4. Reds. It could be that the NL Central is the easiest division to pick the correct order this early. These top four teams all have great potential, and it’s as if they’re ranking in descending “if” order. That is, the Cardinals have the fewest “ifs” needed to turn out their way in order to finish first; the Cubs have more than the Cards, but less than the Astros, etc. Cincinnati, with its offense and a stable of adequate pitchers with solid potential, could conceivable take the crown IF everyone stays healthy (I’m looking at you, Ken Griffey Jr.) and hits well and the pitchers fulfill all those visions so many scouts and pundits had for the likes of Paul Wilson (a former No. 1 overall pick), Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Brandon Claussen, et al. The Reds’ best bet is for Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena to play well, allowing the team to trade one for a pitcher down the stretch. That’s not out of the question, but I’m sure the division is. Too many “ifs.”
5. Brewers. The addition of Carlos Lee and the development of youngsters like Lyle Overbay and Junior Spivey give Milwaukee some more oomph in the order. With Ben Sheets, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano developing, this Crew has some promise. Not enough to end a streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons, tied with the Pirates as the longest active streaks in the majors, but enough to give fans reason to hope things could soon be changing. Sheets’ 12-14 record could become a 16-10 record, or better, just with the extra offense the lineup – a year older and wiser, and a veteran stronger – should provide.
6. Pirates. I want to like the Bucs. Actually, I do, and it’s not all that hard. They’re an historic franchise, they have classy throwback uniforms (when they’re not wearing the black jerseys) and they play in the best ballpark in the major leagues. Jason Bay, Craig Wilson, Jack Wilson and Matt Lawton are fun to watch, and every time Oliver Perez takes the mound, he’s fired up. You can’t help but like these guys. But you don’t sign a 40-year-old catcher (Benito Santiago) when you expect to contend for anything. They still have a long way to go. It’s a shame their classy manager, Lloyd McClendon, likely won’t be the one to get there with them.
1. Padres. They sure showed something last year, when few were expecting it and fewer were predicting it. A few insightful observers said, Keep an eye on San Diego, and they were right. This off-season, the Padres seemed to take into account the perceived characteristics of their new park; that is, after one season where it appeared to favor the pitchers and cut down on home runs, they went out and strengthened their staff and brought in some speed. It appears that only centerfielder Dave Roberts will be the change in the defensive alignment, but he’s on the shelf with yet another injury. Xavier Nady filled in with a couple of homers today, and with his ability to play third base as well, he might not make it back to the bench, filling in for Roberts and Sean Burroughs just to get his bat into the lineup. Woody Williams effectively replaces David Wells, so nothing is lost in terms of postseason experience. The bullpen is stacked, though age may be catching up to Trevor Hoffman, as his four-run meltdown in today’s loss showed. This could be another three-team race, but the two who don’t finish on top aren’t going to be playing for a wild card.
2. Dodgers. I don’t like either the Dodgers or Giants for second place, but one of them will get it because it won’t be Colorado or Arizona. LA has good starters (particularly Derek Lowe, Jeff Weaver and Odalis Perez) and a good bullpen, but the back of the rotation (Scott Erickson? Really??) and certain spots on the field (Jose Valentin at third?) leave a bit to be desired. Eric Gagne’s injury is bad news, and if he’s out too long, they may slide too much. But I do like these guys better than the alternative up the coast …
3. Giants. Everyone likes San Fran on paper, and so do I. Only this isn’t MVP Baseball 2005 or some other simulation game where you can turn off injuries. This team is OLD. Barry Bonds has already been sidelined, and it’s hard to see the other seven position players making it through this season at their ages without incident. I’m sorry, but I think it’s just too much to rely on when you’re trying to put together a championship team. As are Kirk Reuter and Brett Tomko in the front end of your rotation. I think the Giants will put up a fight (Barry always does, whether or not it’s warranted), but it won’t be enough.
4. Diamondbacks. Well, they tried. They made some moves this off-season, but how do you go from Randy Johnson to Javier Vazquez and Russ Ortiz and compete with what lies in front of you in this division? Troy Glaus is a great move … if he’s healthy. Luis Gonzalez is back after surgery, and I do expect him to have a good year, a 35-HR, 95-RBI kind of year. But what’s to his left in the outfield? What’s Chad Tracy bring at first base? And what do you get from a middle infield of Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell (as much as I love a fellow Domer)? I think you get a lot of 12-9 (or 16-6) losses and a fourth-place finish.
5. Rockies. If nothing else, I’m excited to see some of these guys. Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins, Clint Barmes, J.D. Closser. And Jeff Francis. I think Francis could be the pitcher who really solves Coors Field – at least as much as anyone can solve it. For one thing, he’s a science buff, and that trait may be what he needs to really learn and understand what it takes to pitch at 5,280 feet. If he can keep the ball in the park enough, his peers – along with Todd Helton and Preston Wilson – should send it out enough to help him pick up some 8-6 and even some 4-3 victories. If Jason Jennings can win the Rookie of the Year award in the Rockies, Jeff Francis can do it too.
Since it’s late and I write so much, this has now become a two-part preview. I’m sure most of you who have read this far wouldn’t look too kindly upon 14 more such paragraphs looking at the American League. So that comes tomorrow.