Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Predictions Around the National League

With my associate's preview of the AL, I'm giving a preview of the NL for this year. Should be exciting in many different ways and expect some surprises.

1. San Fransisco Giants 93-69
This offseason was a big one for the Giants. They made a few impact signings, but from the looks of it, it's this year or no year. They signed Armando Benitez to replace Robb Nen, as he had a great year with the Marlins last year. It still remains to be seen if Benitez can handle intense games, as he has always broken down in the post-season. I see another good regular season, but a breakdown once again in the playoffs. They also signed Felipe Alou's son, Moises, away from the Cubs. Moises will help protect Bonds in the line-up much the way he protected Sosa in Chicago. It will give the Giants another threat in the offense, but Alou is 39, so don't have sky-high expectations. Bonds is still the leader and, for the most part, the line-up. He'll probably walk 200 times again, mostly intentionally, and hit around 40 HRs if the lack of steroids doens't become an issue. Pitching-wise, they have Jason Schmidt, an outstanding starter who should pick up a Cy Young one of these years. He should, if healthy, win 20 games, strike out 250, and have a sub-3.00 ERA. Beyond Schmidt, they have Brett Tomko, who ended last year with an amazing run, and prospect Noah Lowry, who looks great. Veterans Kirk Reuter and Jerome Robertson round out the rotation, but they aren't anything special. The bullpen is still a mess before Benitez gets to the mound, so that could also be a problem down the line for Felipe Alou and the Giants.

2. San Diego Padres 87-75
Beyond the Giants, I don't see the NL West being a hot-spot for great teams this year. The Padres should take over the West by 2006, but they still have a ways to go. They have a wonderful young pitching staff, lead by Brian Lawrence, Jake Peavy, and Adam Eaton. Peavy had a great year in 2004, with a league-leading 2.27 ERA. They round out their rotation with veteran Woody Williams returning after years with the Cardinals, and Royals cast-off Darrell May. They also have a good bullpen, with two of the game's best set-up men in Scott Linebrink and Akinori Otsuka, and signed veteran Chris Hammond in the offseason. That should give them a great bullpen to lead to the always reliable Trevor Hoffman in the 9th. Though Hoffman is 37, he still has that wonderful change-up that has made him one of baseball's best all-time closers. Offense-wise, they need to improve on last year. Mark Loretta had a break-out year last year and he needs to follow that up with consistency this year. Brian Giles, Phil Nevil, and Ryan Klesko all had sub-par seasons in 2004, so that will have to change. They need to have the type of seasons they are compable of for the Padres to do anything this year.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers 84-78
The Dodgers had an active offseason, but not the kind they had for. They lost sensational All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre to Seattle after his break-out year. They traded fading Shawn Green to the Arizona Diamondbacks. They signed J.D. Drew and Derek Lowe to huge contracts they never deserved by the numbers they put up (Scott Boras anyone??). Though they have the pitching, the Dodgers still won't see the playoffs this year. Drew has never had an outstanding season. Sure last year he was healthy all year, but was he really that great? He didn't cream 40 HRs or have 100 RBI or hit .330, so he didn't deserve a 5 year, $55 million contract. Same with Lowe, whose ERA was above 5.00, and granted he did good in the playoffs, but he's always been inconsistent. This will plague the Dodgers, who will lack an offense this year again. They did sign Jeff Kent, but he's getting older, and Milton Bradley has always been troublesome. Pitching-wise, they have a good rotation with Odalis Perez, Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Kazushi Ishii, and Jeff Weaver. But all these guys are still inconsistent. Perez and Penny should do well, but its hard to expect greatness from Lowe or Weaver and Ishii had a terrible year last year. The Dodgers bullpen is still great, with Gagne leading the way.

4. Colorado Rockies 72-90
The Rockies have the same problems coming into this year they always have. Plenty of hitting, not enough pitching. They are seemingly cursed by the ultimate batter's park that is Coors Field. Once again, like Jason Jennings before him, outstanding pitching prospect Jeff Francis is here to save the day. But as last year showed, a good season will be one were Francis holds onto a sub-5.00 ERA. That seems the most the Rockies can hope for. Beyond Francis, Jennings has been terrible since his Rookie of the Year season in 2002 and the Rockies need his great sinker again in the thin Colorado air. Joe Kennedy was a much needed surprise last year as a starter, so he'll need to repeat that success. The Rockies' other prized pitcher, Chin-Huo Tsao, also needs to step up for the Rockies to do anything. Their bullpen is still in shambles, led by closer Shawn Chacon, who's 7.11 ERA and 9 blown saves are a testament to how bad things are in Colorado. Offensively, they still have plenty of weapons, but like with the Rangers, without good pitching it doesn't matter. Todd Helton will continue to put up Hall of Fame numbers with no one to watch. Let's hope he gets traded so he can finally show his talent to America, much the same way Vladmir Guerrero did in 2004.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks 62-100
Expect some improvement from the Diamondbacks, but despite all the money they spent this offseason, they are still one of the worst teams in baseball. They traded the best left-hander of all time to the New York Yankees for Javier Vazquez, whose second half last year was hard to watch. They signed Russ Ortiz and Troy Glaus to huge-contracts that were big mistakes like the Dodger's Drew and Lowe signings. Ortiz is a decent starter, but he's no ace and he walks far too many to have success in Arizona without the great leadership of Bobby Cox in Atlanta. Glaus' long series of injuries lately point to the possibility of steroids use and he's never been a great hitter. The Diamondbacks would have been better off with Richie Sexson. They can't expect much more than a .240/30/100 season, which won't do much for their winning chances. Other than Ortiz and Vazquez, the Diamondbacks do have the sensational Brandon Webb, who should continue to be solid. Beyond him, they have Shawn Estes and no real 5th starter. Their bullpen is shattered and Jose Valverde should be only decent as their closer. Their offense is nothing special either. Lead by aging sluggers Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, you can't expect much from this team. Gonzalez may have a comeback year, but Green has been going downhill since 2002 and he's never been a consistent hitter. Otherwise, expect small improvements for this team from last year's 51-111 record, but not much more. Just a lot of money spent unwisely.

1. St. Louis Cardinals 101-61
Many believe that St. Louis lost a lot of their power this off-season, but I believe they'll be just as strong this year. Their line-up is not as all-around crushing as Boston's, but their 3-4-5 hitters are the best in baseball. Albert Pujols is going to go down as one of the best hitters of all time when all is said and done. He has set so many records in the four years he's been around that the only people he can be compared to have the names Williams, Mays, and Gehrig. Beyond him, they still have amazing Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Pitching-wise, they have to rely on many intangibles that may or may not go their way. Will Mark Mulder recover and pitch the way when have seen in the past and will Chris Carpenter finally be healthy? If so, a rotation with Mulder, Carpenter, and Marquis should be good with St. Louis' line-up. Their bullpen won't be as good, as they lost Steve Kline to free-agency and Jason Isringhausen is still a questionable closer as shown in the playoffs.

2. Chicago Cubs 95-67
The Chicago Cubs still have the best rotation in the National League and possibly the majors. With Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, and Greg Maddux healthy, they have an extremely intimadating starting rotation. However, that could be a problem this year, as Wood and Prior are already having troubles with injuries. Without them, the Cubs are vulnerable. Maddux has won over 300 games and has struck out nearly 3,000 hitters and serves as a de facto ace. Wood once struck out 20 hitters in a game. Prior has such a high ceiling he seems like the next Roger Clemens in the coming, with a great combination of control and phenomenal hard stuff. If they are healthy this year, that could mean 10-15 more wins for the Cubs. And then there's Zambrano, who last year finished with a 2.76 ERA to lead the club. Their bullpen is their question mark. They finally jetisoned Kyle Farnsworth and their closer situation is just ugly. Whether it's LaTroy Hawkins or Joe Borowski, it's unstable. Hitting-wise, they have many good young hitters. The Cubs need Aramis Ramariz to take the reins left by Moises Alou and take the next step as a hitter. Corey Patterson and Nomar Garciappara should have good comeback seasons and expect Derrek Lee to do better than last year as well.

3. Houston Astros 77-85
Houston is a big question mark this year. They lost many good players, from the incredible 5-tool Carlos Beltran to Lance Berkman's injuries, many problems lie ahead for Houston. First off, Houston has an even weaker bullpen to back up Brad Lidge this year. How long can the great Lidge hold out? However, if the starting rotation can get the ball to Lidge, the game is over. Lidge's 1.90 ERA and record 157 strikeouts along with a Rivera-like October showed what an incredible talent he is. That means the season rests on the starting rotation. Clemens will have to repeat his 7th Cy-Young season again and Roy Oswalt needs to finally come out as the ace we have long known him to be. From Clemens and Oswalt, expect 35-40 wins. Pettite has lingering injuries from last year that are continuing to be problem. Pettite's return could turn the tide of Houston's season. Beyond that, Houston will be starving for wins. Brandon Backe will have to repeat last October's success for Houston to go anywhere. Don't expect much offense, as Berkman will be out til' May and with Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell nearing the end of their careers.

4. Cincinnati Reds 75-87
Cincinnati looks foward also to another season of questions. Adam Dunn looks like he is finally putting it all together with his 46 HRs and 102 RBI last year, and thats a great thing. They need Austin Kearns to do the same thing, and they need Ken Griffey Jr. healthy. Hopefully for the Reds as well as for baseball, Griffey will finally be healthy and have another great season. Sean Casey balances out a pretty good lineup, but once again, the Reds are lacking good pitching. At closer, Danny Graves should be reliable, but he still gives up way too many home runs for him to be a great closer. They did sign help in the form of David Weathers and Ben Weber, but both are getting older and are no longer quite as effective. Resigning Paul Wilson was a good move, but I doubt that Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz will be effective in a hitter's park when they give up far too many home runs the way it is.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates 74-88
Pittsburg is a team much like the Padres who should be good in a few years. With such outstanding players as Oliver Perez and Jason Bay, they have a bright future. Perez showed last year just how good he can pitch, with a great fastball and slider. This year could be better than last year's Santana-like numbers of 239 strikeouts with a 2.98 ERA. The 2004 Rookie of the Year, Bay also should continue to improve and provide the offense with veterans Jack and Craig Wilson. However, beyond that, Pittsburg isn't ready to contend. Last year's trade with the Mets will show up as very smart within a few years, as now Pittsburg has a great up-and-coming prospect. Beyond that, Kip Wells needs to continue to improve, but its more than likely that Pittsburg won't be great for another few years.

6. Milwaukee Brewers 67-95
Milwaukee made a good move over the winter, trading with the White Sox for Carlos Lee. Lee will provided a good, established hitter. However, beyond Lee, Milwaukee still has an anemic line-up. They do have last year's star, Lyle Overbay, but Overbay was not consistent all of last year. He cannot carry with Lee a line-up made up of names like Helms, Spivey, and Branyan. The pitching is much better. Yes, they have Ben Sheets, who was amazing last year and who should only be better. Doug Davis was good last year, but its hard to expect such a year again. Other than that, they lack a full rotation, their bullpen is still a question and they have no closer, as they traded Dan Kolb to Atlanta this offseason.

1. Florida Marlins 94-68
This offseason was a great one for Florida. Sure, they lost Carl Pavano to New York, but thats a minor loss. Pavano had one great season and thats mainly due to Pro Player Stadium being a pitcher's park. They replaced him with Al Leiter, a great pitching veteran who was a member of the 1997 Florida World Series Team. Then they signed Carlos Delgado. Delgado's 32 HRs in 128 games last year is more than all Florida left-handers last year. With Delgado in the line-up hitting cleanup, Florida will have a 1-6 of Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, Delgado, Mike Lowell, Paul Lo Duca... rivaling St. Louis. Pierre is a flat-out amazing player who sets the stage along with Castillo for Florida's potent offense. Cabrera should be even better this year and project a .300/40/120 season for him and maybe Delgado. Pitching-wise, they still have Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett. When healthy, these guys can be unstoppable. They are supported by Leiter and Dontrelle Willis, who should bounce back this year after a disappointing sophomore effort in 2004. At closer, Florida lost Armando Benitez, but Guillermo Mota should be good with his incredible stuff.

2. Atlanta Braves 90-72
I believe that this year, Atlanta's long reign of pennants will end. Bobby Cox is amazing and Atlanta has been winning for so long, so how could they stop? Simple: Florida is a superior team this year. Cox will get Atlanta to play well, as they still have good veterans like Chipper and Andruw Jones around, but they just aren't playing as well as they once did. Both Jones' number were down last year. They lost J.D. Drew, who may have been last year's Sheffield for Atlanta. Marcus Giles will be great and Cox could get Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan to do well again, but it's unlikely. Atlanta will have to rely on pitching. They have Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, Jon Thomson, and Mike Hampton to lead their rotation and Horacio Ramirez will be back after missing last year with elbow problems. Thomson and Hampton both did fairly well last year and Hudson and Smoltz should be capable of winning 30-35 games for Atlanta. Their bullpen is still good, as it has veterans Chris Reitsma, Tom Martin, and Kevin Gryboski setting up new closer Danny Kolb.

3. Philadelphia Phillies 83-79
Philadelphia failed to make any great moves this offseason, and for that reason, its unlikely that this year is their year. Yes, they signed Jon Lieber, but Lieber may not be as good in the hitter-friendly Citizen Bank ballpark. Other than Lieber, they have Randy Wolf, who has yet to be as consistent and great as he should be. Same with Brett Myers and Cory Lidle. Both have inflated ERAs above 5.00 when they shouldn't with their stuff. The only guarantee to me is Vicente Padilla who has shown himself to be a good pitcher and consistent, but likely not an ace. Offensively, Philadelphia can be pretty intimidating. Their 3-4-5 hitters are Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome, and Pat Burrell. Those are some pretty powerful hitters, but are no guarantees like St. Louis' Pujols-Rolen-Edmonds. Burrell has been terribly inconsistent much the way Richard Hildago has been since his .314, 44 HR season of 2000. The young Chase Utley will someday be great, but he's not there yet. The Phillies should be right around .500 at the end of the season, but dont expect more. This team is filled with inconsistent players and lacks good leadership.

4. New York Mets 80-82
Some of this year's biggest signings this offeseason were by the Mets and GM Omar Minaya. However, those big signings will not be enough to take them to the playoffs. Pedro Martinez is 33 years old. His fastball isn't hitting 95 with the consistency it used to. It's hard to predict whether or not Martinez can become an ace again. Carlos Beltran is a bona fide superstar, but don't expect a huge impact. He's never been on the big stage of New York and his average is never consistent. Like Piazza years ago, he'll have great seasons, but it won't be enough. Otherwise, New York will have an overall good rotation of Martinez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Kris Benson, and Victor Zambrano. Benson was given far too much money on his contract and I doubt he'll ever be great. Zambrano has potential, but his control is erratic much of the time, almost like a young Randy Johnson was. Trachsel and Glavine should be solid and Pedro should have a good season, but most likely not a great one. Otherwise, their offense and defense are still weak. Piazza is not a great first baseman by any means, Matusui hasn't lived up to his potential, and they've replaced Cameron's excellent defense with Beltran, who is only a step down. If they are to do well, they need Pedro to step up and they need good seasons from guys like rookie David Wright, who is filled with potential.

5. Washington Nationals 69-93
Don't get too excited about their move to DC. They are still the Expos in my mind, and that means despite Frank Robinson's good managing, they won't go too far. Just look at some of their signings for proof. Take Vinny Castilla for instance. Castilla went .271 with 35 HRs and a league-leading 131 RBI. However, don't let that throw you. Most of that was caused by the thin-air of Coors Field. Outside of Coors, he was hitting with the same kinda weak numbers shown in Atlanta and other stops in the last years outside of Colorado. Outside of Castilla, the Nationals don't have much. They have veteran Jose Vidro, who is usually a good hitter, and prospering Tremmel Sledge. Defensively, they haven't improved much either. Just look at signings like that of former Twin Christian Guzman, who should be no less lackadaisical in the field then he was in Minnesota. Pitching-wise, they are led by Livan Hernandez. Livan is a good pitcher who shovels on the innings more than any other pitcher now. His nine complete games and 255 innings last year show that, but he can't hold the Nationals together himself. Beyond him lie scrapped pitchers like Esteban Loiza and Jon Rauch, guys who couldn't hold anything together for a very long time. Their bullpen is nothing great and they lack a true closer. Don't expect too much in the National's first season, as they have many inconsistent players and lack true leaders.

In Twins News:

- Johan Santana pitched four scoreless innings in a win against the Blue Jays today. He struck out two and gave up two hits while facing off against Roy Halladay.

- Yesterday, Jason Bartlett went 3 for 3, continuing his great spring at the plate

- Twins starters have an amazing 1.35 ERA through spring training and that's before Santana's performance today. Things continue to look good for the pitching staff and for the coming year.

- Scott Baker pitched two scoreless innings in relief today with three strikeouts, continuing his great spring as well.

-Nick M.