Here are my NL picks. Special thanks again to Eric Gouldsberry and all of the folks at www.thisgreatgame.com.
After pulling one of the worst choke jobs in the history of baseball (’51 Brooklyn Dodgers, anyone?) the New York Mets are better for one reason: Johan Santana. It was a major move getting the all-star pitcher and the dividends should be immediate. If he wins 15 games, it will be a disappointment, let’s put it that way. There are still several question marks on this team, however. One is age. Moises Alou, Luis Castillo and Carlos Delgado aren’t spring chickens anymore. The other is catching. Newcomer Brian Schneider may not be the answer. And the third question is named Pedro. Can Pedro Martinez be the all-star pitcher he once was? Will he rebound from injury? If he can, the Mets will be tough to beat, with a starting rotation led by two of the finest hurlers in the game. Throw an improving John Maine and a tough bullpen led by Billy Wagner into the Big Apple’s picture, and what you have is a lot of opponents’ whiffing and whining. Manager Willie Randolph seemed surprised that he wasn’t fired by GM Omar Minaya after last season’s debacle. If he doesn’t win with this stellar squad, he might not get another chance. With Jose Reyes leading off and jumpstarting the offensive attack; David Wright holding down 3B and hitting taters; and Carlos Beltran doing what Beltran does – the Mets are the team to beat not just in the NL East, but in the entire league.
The Atlanta Braves have four future HOFer’s on their team (Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) if you also include Skipper Bobby Cox. It’s hard to believe that they won only one World Series after taking all those division titles. One of the problems is that Glavine is 42 and Smoltz is 40. Glavine didn’t have a great year last season (4.45 ERA) and Smoltz seems more hittable than ever, which isn’t surprising when you consider his age. The Braves have some solid bats throughout their lineup, including Jones, Mark Texeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Andrew Jones is gone to LA-LA Land, but the team picked up Mark Kotsay to replace him. The way A.J. was hitting, it might be an improvement. LF Matt Diaz is a top prospect and could contribute almost immediately. On the mound, the Braves are hoping that Tim Hudson can regain his old form, because their prospects for a decent fourth starter look dim. Mike Hampton, the guy who has made a career out of hauling in huge money while being injured, is slated for the spot, but he has proven to be more fragile than a porcelain China doll. Pitching prospect Jair Jurrjens has a live arm and could step in, as could either Jo-Jo Reyes and/or Chuck James. I like a lot about this team and with a few breaks they could make it to the postseason. But, it’s more likely that they’ll finish far behind the Mets and several games out of the wild card spot.
The Philadelphia Phillies made a great run last year, right up until they ran head-on into a surging Colorado Rockies squad. They won’t even make the playoffs this season, in my estimation. This team is loaded with top-tier talent, with names on their roster like MVP Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. But, the departure of Aaron Rowand to San Francisco will hurt the Phils more than they probably realize. This Pete Rose throwback never stops hustling and all his teammates love him, so that fact that he’s gone isn’t good news. Philly’s pitching rotation is a case of Cole Hamels and not much else. Brett Myers will go back into the starting five after being used as a closer late last season, but with names like Moyer, Eaton, Kendrick and possibly Benson after that, this team’s pitching is likely to be its Achilles Heel in 2008. GM Pat Gillick went out during the off-season and picked up reliever Brad Lidge, who is coming off a knee injury and may not be ready when the season starts. Trouble will reign if he isn’t ready to go. Manager Charlie Manuel may also run into problems if some of his marquee players start reading their press clippings. The City of Brotherly Love will flirt with the playoffs, but in the end I just don’t see them putting it together enough to make it happen this season.
The Florida Marlins traded their two best players to the Detroit Tigers, but they still have a ton of good, young kids on the field and in the pipeline. The Tigers gave the Big Fish a group of promising future stars who will be the nucleus of the team within the next few years. And now that the Marlins look like they’re going to get a new stadium, they can stockpile some good players and try to build another contending team. With an influx of cash (which a new ball park should bring) there’s no excuse for this team to trade away top players once they become too expensive. But, for now, the Florida Marlins (who will be changing their name to the Miami Marlins when their new park opens) are pretty atrocious. Dan Uggla, Jeremy Hermedia and Josh Willingham have proven they can hit. Cameron Maybin is a promising kid with many skills. The pitching staff is full of unknowns-NL teams will regularly feast on these arms-and the Marlins will hook themselves some victories here and there. But, they surely won’t contend-at least not anytime soon.
The Washington Nationals have a new stadium. That’s the good news. They have to field a team to fill the place. And that’s where the bad news begins. Manager Manny Acta has a team that is full of huge holes and big problems. Not one of his pitchers has ever won more than seven games. And he’s got two new guys who have three-and-a-half egos between them (Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes). If the Nats can be even slightly competitive, it will be close to miraculous. The fact that they won 73 games last year was amazing and a tribute to Acta. Don’t get me wrong. This squad has a few bright spots within an otherwise pretty dim-looking crew. Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone and Austin Kearns should provide a little pop at the plate and some much-needed leadership. Willy Mo Pena (if not injured) is a solid part to this confusing puzzle. And Chad Cordero will save some games if there are any that need saving. All in all, it will be a long season in a nice, new park for the Washington Nationals in 2008.
One hundred. That’s the number the Chicago Cubs are going to be forced to live with all season long. They’ve been hearing it all winter, and they’re going to hear it all spring and summer long. The Cubs have not won a World Series in 100 years, and just to get there, they’re going to have to make the postseason for the second straight year—something they also haven’t done in a century. Fortunately for the Cubs, little has changed in the inferior NL Central, with no divisional opponent spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players as Chicago did last year. Better yet, the Cubs are walking into the new campaign feeling more at ease, having proved they can win after burdening $300 million dollars worth of expectations upon their shoulders last season. If Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome is every bit the equal of, say, a Hideki Matsui, he’ll provide some terrific glue to an already potent offense that includes Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. A fine starting rotation is anchored by Carlos Zambrano, who not only brings 18 wins from last season but is feeling content to boot, having signed for five years and $90 million. The only mystery at Wrigley Field remains who will close; the sexy option is former starter Kerry Wood, but he’ll have to prove he can condense all that gas into his arm for one inning every couple nights without—all together, now—re-injuring himself. All in all, the Cubs will KO one century-old drought by returning to the postseason. Will they overcome the other, far more famous 100-year run? In today’s MLB, when even the Colorado Rockies can reach the World Series, anything is possible.
Dusty Baker is a fast starter. In his first year managing San Francisco, the Giants posted 103 wins. When he managed the Cubs for the first time, in 2003, they came within five outs of a World Series appearance. Now Baker brings his act to the Cincinnati Reds, a team with two hitting stars (Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.) each in the last year of their contracts, two upscale starters (Aaron Harang and Brandon Arroyo), promising stars of the future (Joey Votto and Homer Bailey) and a legitimate closer via free agency (Francisco Cordero). Put all of this together, and the Reds, in my opinion, will be the closest thing to a surprise in the NL. Then again, they’d better make an impression; if Baker can’t work his first-year magic and Dunn and Griffey bolt after the season, there will be a sense of starting over in 2009. So the future is more or less now for the Reds, and Baker is the perfect tonic to make the present a good thing.
The Milwaukee Brewers are getting a lot of attention from the pundits following a solid showing last year, and much of it is justified. It’s hard to argue against a team that has two under-25 sluggers (Prince Fielder and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun) who went nuts with the bat in 2007. But the Brewers are handcuffed with some major disabilities; the defense is atrocious, they carry two catchers (Johnny Estrada and Jason Kendall) who can’t throw any base stealers out, and closer Francisco Cordero (44 saves) has left town, replaced by Eric Gagne—whose 2007 went from good (Texas) to bad (Boston) to worse (the Mitchell Report). What ultimately may keep Milwaukee upright is its starting rotation, but only if Ben Sheets and Chris Capuano can stay healthy and effective.
I picked the Houston Astros to win the NL Central last year. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…well, the Astros are doing everything to try and cast shame on me and win now, but I doubt that’s going to happen. The team has cleaned house; there’s a new manager (Cecil Cooper), new GM (Ed Wade), new closer (Jose Valverde) and just two everyday position players (Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman) returning from Opening Day of last season. Yes, Houston also snagged Miguel Tejada, but his production isn’t what it used to be and will likely suffer further now that the Mitchell Report will dog his tail wherever he goes this year—not exactly the intangible the Astros are looking for. This team should hit; besides the vets, they have last year’s rookie sensation Hunter Pence (.322, 17 homers) and a potential A-list slugger in rookie catcher Justin Towles, but for all the production they put up, the Astros will pray that something good comes out of a weak rotation beyond premier ace Roy Oswalt. To be honest, this team is something of an enigma. I doubt I’ll get fooled again.
Next, we have the Pittsburgh Pirates who don’t do anything. After finishing with the NL’s worst record in 2007, the Pirates stood pat. Now, that’s okay if you’re the Boston Red Sox; they’re the champions. But Pittsburgh, a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992? Even some of the team’s better players (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady) are scratching their heads over the Bucs’ do-nothing philosophy, and they used the team’s winter funfest—an event designed as a feel-good mixing of players, fans and media—to air their complaints. The state of affairs in Pittsburgh has become almost criminal; the Bucs have the beautiful ballpark they told fans had to be built so the revenue can pour in and allow them to compete. The public certainly did its part by providing the funds to build PNC Park, but the Pirates have not carried out their end of the bargain. The team does hold promise—especially with a starting rotation that’s developing more slowly than anticipated—but “promise” has become a tiring word to Pirate fans, who would rather hear “results” instead. Not this year. Again.
But wait—I’m not picking the Pirates to finish last. I’m reserving that spot for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have tremendous potential to completely collapse in 2008. It’s all but assured if megastar Albert Pujols’ bad elbow finally gets the better of him and is forced to shut down sometime during the season. Beyond Pujols, there’s trouble everywhere with this team. Chris Carpenter will not pitch until late in the year if at all; Mark Mulder will be back sooner, but he needs to prove, for the first time since 2005, that he can pitch effectively; Juan Encarnacion is out all year, still recovering from that freak on-deck circle injury late last season; and boomers Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel have been fingered as steroid users and have not responded well to their accusations. Then there’s a clubhouse still drenched with the afterthoughts of Ryan Hancock’s drunk-driving death and the recent release of Scott Spiezio, who survived his own drunk-driving adventures but faces a scroll’s worth of misdemeanor charges back in California. Otherwise, the level of talent on this roster is approaching paper-thin. Tony LaRussa somehow signed on to all of this for two more years, but if he gets this team anywhere over .500, he’s Manager of the Year.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are a young, balanced and well-coached team that will win the NL West and with any luck could make it all the way to the Fall Classic. Manager Bob Melvin must be salivating like one of Pavlov’s mutts when he views this team on paper. When you look at their starting rotation, featuring stoppers like Brandon Webb, newcomer Danny Haren, Doug Davis and Mike Owings--not to mention future HOFer Randy Johnson—it’s hard to believe that this team won’t win 100 games. Offensively, the D-Bax are stacked as well--with names like Byrnes, Drew, Reynolds, Hudson and Upton. They lack power, but make up for it with smart play and enthusiasm. There are no prima donnas on this team, just hungry solid performers. Arizona got into the playoffs last season, even though their opponents outscored them by 20 runs. That won’t happen this year. The only big question with this group is—“Will Brandon Lyon be able to replace Jose Valverde’s 47 saves?” If he can, watch out. The D-Bax are ready to break out and this is the year they could do it.
Fans in Colorado rode a Rocky Mountain High last season when the Rockies came out of nowhere and nearly took the whole thing. That’s not going to happen this season. The team just has too many question marks and holes to fill. For one, the starting pitchers are very good, but there’s little depth. After Francis and Jimenez, you have a bunch of guys who have never put together anything more than a semi-successful season. The bats on the Rockies are formidable – Matt Holliday had an MVP season last year and should be one of the league’s toughest outs again this season. And Troy Tulowitzki is an amazingly poised player for being so green. But, guys like prospect Ian Stewart and up-and-down sluggers like Todd Helton and Garrett Atkins will have to have stellar seasons if this team is to repeat last year’s performance. Don’t bet the house on it. This team is more likely to get lost in the mountains than it is to climb to the pinnacle of the NL once more.
In the City of Angels, the Dodgers are looking forward to exiting Vero Beach as their Spring Training site and moving their camp to Arizona next year. Joe Torre is at the helm and ready to look good wearing Dodger Blue. But, unfortunately for the Hollywood Bums this team is full of more holes and question marks than they were last season. No one knows if Jason Schmidt will pitch effectively again. Juan Pierre is out-of-place and feels unwanted. And the team paid big bucks for Andruw Jones, who they hope can provide power. Sure, the team has some young studs (Kemp, Loney, Ethier, LaRoche and Billingsley), but they also have a lot of brittle oldsters (Garciaparra and Kent). Yes, the Dodgers’ staring rotation looks good with guys like Penny and Lowe leading the way. And with Saito in the pen, you’re bound to get 30 to 40 saves. But, to pick this crew to win any more than 75 games this season would be crazy when you look at the other dynamic teams in this division. Get your young kids some valuable experience this year, Torre. L.A. is at least a year away from getting into the playoff picture.
If pitching wins games, the San Diego Padres have a shot at winning this division. Unfortunately, you also have to score a few runs to be victorious on a consistent basis. The Pads’ starting rotation is awesome – lead by Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and followed by names like Maddux, Young and Wolf – but their bats are weaker than a Happy Hour drink at an airport bar. CF Jim Edmonds is old and tired, as is 2B Marcus Giles. Up-and-coming 3B Kevin Kouzamanoff is still a couple of years away from being a stud and rookie Chase Headley will need time to develop. There’s just no pop in this lineup. Playing in home run unfriendly Petco Park means they could set an all-time record for fewest dingers. Future HOFer and Trevor Hoffman (who choked big-time late in the season last year and showed he was merely mortal) definitely won’t be closing out as many games as he did last season. His team will rarely be ahead late in games. San Diego will drop a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 contests this year and will fade quickly in the NL West race.
The San Francisco Giants have a slogan this year that says something like “We’re going full out all season.” What it should say is “We’re going to be out of it all season.” If the Giants lose their first series this season, they won’t spend a single day atop the NL West. Everything on this team is suspect--from a young, pitching staff led by Cain, Lowery and Lincecum--to an aging lineup led (or misled) by names like Roberts, Vizquel, Durham and Aurilia. These guys might be going through a re-building stage, except for the fact that they don’t have enough to re-build with. The Giants are the midgets of the NL West and will dwell all alone in the cellar all season.
Ed’s playoff picks:
NL: New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs
NL Champion: New York Mets
AL: Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels
AL Champion: Detroit Tigers
World Series Champion: Detroit Tigers