The big off-season acquisition in this division – strike that, in this league is Johan Santana’s move to the Mets. The team’s strength is its pitching: Santana and Martinez might be the best pair of starters in baseball; Oliver Perez is a good #3 even if he slips a little; Maine will contribute; and anything Hernandez adds is luscious, luscious gravy. There’s not much depth after that, but there’s more depth in those five than on any other team. The bullpen is another strength. The team fields well and but has a few holes at the plate. They have no real catcher (but who does?), no good option at second base, and Delgado is aging into an average first baseman. The left infield is all-star quality. The outfield may not improve on last year’s, but it has more potential. Pagan is a capable back-up, although I bet there’s at least one day that the Mets will send out an all ex-Expo outfield of Alou, Chavez, and Church. It’s a great team, but one with holes.
Can the Phillies squeak through those holes, again? Last year, the Phillies had the worst third-base production in the NL. Second worst was the Giants, whose third baseman, Pedro Feliz, moves in. to suck a tiny bit less. A platoon of Jenkins/Werth capably replaces Aaron Rowand’s fluke year, but Shane Victorino is a below average bat masked by the park. The team continues to run on the rest of the infield, which is stupendous. The big problem is the pitching. Cole Hamels is a legit ace and Brett Myers should adjust well to the move back to the rotation, but after that the cupboard is bare. Kendrick had a fluke year and won’t come near a sub-4.00 ERA ever again. I like the Brad Lidge pick-up, but he won’t throw 400 innings. Someone has to.
Atlanta is an enigma. The team can absolutely mash the ball everywhere but SS and CF. The bullpen is solid. The questions lie in the rotation. Hudson is a good pitcher, but he’s no longer automatic money. Smoltz is, if he’s healthy. James gives the team enough, if he’s healthy. Glavine will eat innings and usually give the Braves a chance to win. Hampton and Jurrjens are unknown values. If they help, the Braves can take the division – but I wouldn’t bet on that.
The Nationals move to a new park, and the hitters will look better while the pitchers will look more like what they are: a collection of rejects. The team is a collection of young prospects and old spare parts, with Ryan Zimmerman poised for a break-out year. I’ll be following Lastings Milledge as well. The Nationals should finish ahead of the Marlins, who inexplicably dealt possibly the hottest baseball property over the off-season. Miguel Cabrera has a lifetime average of .313 and he’s hit 138 home runs – before the age of 24!
As you can tell, I’m going with the Mets.
I told you Milwaukee was going to be good. They’ll be good again. The acquisition of Mike Cameron moves Bill Hall to third and sticks Ryan Braun where his glove can do the least damage, in left field. Weeks should bounce back to semi-stardom. It’s possible that every regular except catcher hits 20 homers – Harvey’s Wallbangers live! But where’s Pete Vuckovich when you need him? Sheets is money, as long as he can pitch, and Gallardo looks good, but the rest of the pitchers are pedestrian. How many leads will Gagne get to protect?
The Cubs, on the other hand, are so deep in pitching that they have potential fourth starters in the bullpen. Zambrano won’t win 18, but you know he’ll give an ERA south of 4.00. Hill and Lilly are both tremendous assets. Dempster and Marquis are not, but Lieber and Marshall can step in and, well, do pretty much the same thing. The bullpen is a plus. DeRosa at second is average, which is better than half the teams out there. Soto, the new guy at catcher, isn’t that good, but he’s above average. Shortstop is weak. I do like the outfield. Fukudome, Pie, and Murton could join Soriano and take this team to first. And I think they will.
Cincinnati is the third team with a chance – with a different manager. If the team ran out Jay Bruce in CF every day… but he’s in AAA for now. Joey Votto will split time at first base with veteran Scott Hatteberg. Yes, folks, Dusty Baker’s at the wheel. He has no choice but to send out young starting pitching. A lot of scouts and prognosticators like Bailey, Cueto, and Volquez, but I’m not convinced. Harang and Arroyo can’t win a division without help. I like the hitters, but it’s just not enough – it’s Milwaukee light.
Take Houston’s hitters and Pittsburgh’s pitching and you’d have at least a .500 ball club. Combine Houston’s pitchers and the Pirate hitters and you have 100 losses easy.
Excepting the Mets, the Astros made the biggest moves this off-season. They snagged Miguel Tejada, which could have been a coup. But instead of sticking him at third so that glove-man extraordinaire Adam Everett could keep the score down, the team traded Everett away and kept Tejada at SS. Who would you rather have out there every day: Everett or Wigginton? The pitching is terrible. Oswalt is no longer elite and the other starters wouldn’t smell elite if you shove funnels in their nostrils and poured in new and improved elite powder now with extra elite scent. They’d still smell crap.
PIttsburgh’s Snell and Gorzelanny can sniff goodness, maybe greatness. Maholm and Duke aren’t too terrible. But the hitting? It’s a collection of cast-offs. The career stats at 2B, 3B, and SS are 70 HRs in about 6,500 ABs. There’s no one on this team who can hit average stats for their position except Paulino (or Doumit) at catcher.
I nearly forgot about the Cardinals. So will you, although I expect them to top the Astros and Pirates. I get a bit excited over Pujols, Wainwright, and Ankiel (there’s going to be a movie about him some day) but, at the end of the day, there’s no bigness to that whup.
Pitching leads me to take the Cubs over the Brewers.
This is going to be a great division to follow. The D’backs should improve. How do you improve over first place? Well, you can score more runs than you give up, for a start. They will. Chris Young will take a big step up. The pitching got even better with the departure of Livan Hernandez and the appearance of Dan Haren. That’s a nice exchange, although Haren is merely good, not Cy Young quality. I love the Valverde trade and Chad Qualls should slot into the bullpen nicely. The big question is Randy Johnson. Does he have another good and reasonably full season in him or is he hanging on with false hope?
The Dodgers are moving up to the high-rent district. Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez are out, Matt Kemp and Andruw Jones are in – and that’s good for a few wins all by itself. The front end of the excellent starting pitching stays the same and the back end gets an upgrade with the imported Kuroda replacing Tomko and Hendrickson. Although injuries have hurt the Dodgers at 3B for now, these are the sorts of moves that should have been made before last year. Jason Schmidt remains a potential boon – but I doubt that will happen. Look for league-average returns from him.
San Diego, a team I’ve appreciated for a few years, seems to have lost its way. Jim Edmonds? McAnulty? Randy Wolf? Scott Hairston is a handy part, but the home field won’t help his strengths. The Padres remind me of last year’s Dodgers and I think they will take a step back from the finish line.
Colorado was in the World Series last year. Remember that when you watch them bounce back to .500 this year. There’s a great core of players: Atkins, Tulowitzki, Holliday, Hawpe, and sometimes Helton, but the rest of the position players are below average. Same for the pitching. Francis and Corpas, and to a lesser extent Cook and Fuentes, make up a good base of pitching, but the rest of it leaves room for improvement. The two hot rookies, Morales and Jim
enez, will not match their rate-based stats from last year.
Allow me to mix quotes. The coldest winter of discontent will be this summer in San Francisco. Wow, is this team bad. These hitters will make the Pirates look like winners. At least the Giants can play defense, which will help relieve the strain on the young arms upon which any hope of victory rests. Lincecum and Cain, then prepare for pain. Zito won’t be as bad as he was last year. Or maybe he will be. I warned you, didn’t I? Giants fans, plan to spend another summer buoyed only by Dodger hatred.
I’m going to have to choose Arizona for the division win here, but the Mets will go to the World Series.