1. Los Angeles Dodgers 93-69
This might be a bad prediction, but I have to be a little bold, as the West is very hard to predict. San Francisco could surprise and so could Arizona. The point is that this division is wide open. The Dodgers could be a team nearly as bad as last year's if Nomar Garciaparra can't contribute and J.D. Drew spends the year hurt again. There are so many intangibles, its hard to name them all.
However, they have a lot of young talent and a great farm system, which makes it hard to bet against them. The problem is no real superstars are here. Jeff Kent isn't really much of a leader, just a great consistent hitter. Basically, the Dodgers win if 1) Eric Gagne is healthy at the back of the pen, 2) if they manage to have a healthy and contributing Drew and Garciaparra, and 3) the rest of the West remains just as inept as they were last year.
2. San Francisco Giants 85-77
I originally had the Giants winning more games, but upon second thought, the Giants just aren't that good. Sure, they have Barry Bonds, but honestly, we can't expect the kind of success he had in 2004 on that knee. If he manages to play 100 games, he'll probably hit close to 30 home runs, but that's not guaranteeing a playoff spot.
As in the past, the Giants' issue is, more or less, age. They do have young starters Matt Cain and Noah Lowry, but I don't believe either of those guys is ready to command this staff. And what about Jason Schmidt? He seems to be doing well this spring, but he lost a lot on his fastball last year and his command killed him. If he can get back near his 2003 form, this team could go somewhere. To me, Schmidt is just as important as Bonds, as this staff's success hinges on his performance. Its not as if Matt Morris is suddenly going to look like an ace again. He'll be lucky to turn in a 15-win, 4.00 ERA season.
As for the rest of the lineup, you can't expect too much. Moises Alou is still skillful, but he's almost 40. Lance Niekro, Pedro Feliz, and Mike Mathany all posted putrid .295 on-base percentages last year. And Steve Finley, who slid off completely last year with the Angels, is manning center field. About the only positive is that Randy Winn was re-signed in the offseason, after posting .359/.391/.680 numbers in 231 at-bats last year with the Giants, in which he had 14 homers and 26 RBI. Winn, however, has been fairly mediocre in his recent run in Seattle, so it's doubtful he'll repeat.
So, for the Giants, they'll probably get some good "Barry" numbers but not too much else from their lineup and they'll have a solid rotation supported by closer Armando Benitez (if the knee holds up) and an average bullpen.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 79-83
To me, Arizona is a lot like Milwaukee, except without three quality pitchers in the rotation. They have tons of talent just waiting to hit the big leagues with a bang. From Stephen Drew to Justin Upton to Carlos Quentin to Conor Jackson to Chris Young (acquired in the Javier Vazquez trade that will eventually favor the Diamondbacks) to Dustin Nippert, the list goes on. They also have some other solid players to go around, like Chad Tracy, Luis Gonzalez, Shawn Green, and Orlando Hudson, who they acquired from the Blue Jays for Troy Glaus this offseason.
Of course, this year, we can't really expect all the new guys to burst on the scene and hit Arizona to a championship. There will be adjustment. Plus, Arizona's pitching situation still needs help. Brandon Webb has been a good pitcher in the desert for three years now and with Hudson's arrival helping to provide improved defense behind him, the ERA will go down. Nippert may even make the cut, with his up-and-coming stuff. But beyond Webb, there is a large void. Russ Ortiz and Miguel Batista are the other two known starters, but Ortiz was atrocious last year and Batista was closing games for the Jays after an unspectacular starting pitcher career that begun with (guess who) the D-Backs.
Sure, the team will score plenty of runs and they'll be a blast to watch with all their young stars, but it will be another year or two before they really make a run. But when that time comes, you better watch out.
4. San Diego Padres 70-92
There just isn't much here to discuss. San Diego has an ace for its staff in Jake Peavy and traded this offseason for a good, young pitcher in Chris Young, but the rest of the rotation will have guys like Chan Ho Park (yes he looked good in the WBC, but he was closing), Woody Williams (too old), and Tim Redding. Those aren't great names to throw out there, unless Park actually keeps the fastball going and returns to decent form for the team, conceivably possible considering they are in a pitcher's park. And the bullpen does remain a positive point, with the re-signing of Trevor Hoffman (nice to see him close his career with the same team -- Hall of Famer all the way) this offseason and top set-up man Scott Linebrink sitting behind him.
However, even with some good pitching (and maybe great with Peavy), the hitting won't be much at Petco. Brian Giles was re-signed and he's a very good veteran hitter, but Petco kills his power totals and he isn't getting any younger. Ditto for Ryan Klesko. Otherwise, they'll be relying on the Vinny Castilla, who can't hit a loaf of bread outside of Coors, Khalil Greene, who's been a bit of a dissapointment, and Dave Roberts. The Padres were an awful offensive team last year, with a .257 team average and that doesn't look to change. And don't think they'll win the division with 82 wins again either.
5. Colorado Rockies 68-94
I'd love to believe Todd Helton and others and think these guys have a chance, but the dilemma in Denver remains the same: they have little or no pitching and tons of offense, partially due to their homepark. The rotation will probably consist of Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Byung-Hyung Kim, and Zach Day. While Cook and Kim were fine, albeit in less games, Francis was one of the worst pitchers last year in terms of ERA and Jennings hasn't done much since winning the Rookie of the Year in 2002. If he ever gets back to his sinker again, he may have that same success. That's a big if. But not nearly as big as the bullpen, whose only real stable reliever is Brian Fuentes, who is surrounded by mediocrity and journeymen most of us can't name.
The lineup will continue to produce without problems while the pitching struggles again. Helton will probably bounce back with a big, as he is healthy now after a down-year last year. He should hit .340 or so again with around 30 HRs and 100 RBI. And young sluggers Matt Holiday, Garrett Atkins, and Clint Barmes should have no problem producing big numbers at Coors. But it just won't be enough. Colorado will, sadly, continue to be a mess this year.
1. St. Louis Cardinals 94-68
Although the offseason wasn't very good for St. Louis -- as they missed out on AJ Burnett, lost Matt Morris, Larry Walker, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, and others and replaced them with mediocre players -- they remain the team to beat in the NL. That's because you simply don't bet against a team whose 3-4-5 hitters are Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds. Ok, I take that back. Rolen may be hurt and Edmonds may regress. Don't bet against Albert Pujols. Ever.
If last year's playoffs were a lesson to anyone, it's that this guy is a quiet leader with incredible skills who may get better. (Can you imagine that? Better? .340 average, 50 HRs, 20 SBs? Its in his set.) With that stability, as seen last year, when Walker, Rolen, and Sanders all spent time on the DL, Pujols kept producing with guys like So Taguchi hitting behind him. In other words, the offense probably won't be all that different this year, even if Junior Spivey replaces Mark Grudzielanek.
As for pitching, reigning Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and closer Jason Isringhausen remain the big guys. The season will really depend on whether or not guys like Mark Mulder (who has regressed since being acquired from Oakland), Jason Marquis, and Sidney Ponson can step up in the rotation. But when Tony LaRussa is your manager and Pujols is your franchise guy, there aren't that many question marks about whether they get to the playoffs. The question is what happens when they get there.
2. Milwaukee Brewers 86-76
This may be an outlandish pick for the second spot, but Milwaukee has a basin of young talent to put on the field. Prince Fielder, Bill Hall, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, and Brady Clark are all upcoming members of the team who could contribute in big ways. Fielder is a light-tower power first baseman, Hall a super-utility guy with power and Weeks is a big-hitting second baseman. Needless to say, they could surprise everyone this year. And they should, with a solid lineup pairing with a sneaky good pitching staff.
Although Ben Sheets will start the year on the DL, he should be back by April 15th. With that in mind, a rotation with Sheets, Doug Davis, and Chris Capuano at the top has potential to win a fair amount of games. And Derrick Turnbow turned into a 9th-inning monster last year. Of course, they could be outright mediocre with so many young guys, but if they fail this year, they'll take over the next year. Either way, the Brew Crew is a team on the rise.
3. Houston Astros 78-84
No Roger Clemens? No World Series, Houston. Clemens may return in May, but I'm not sure he'll even be enough for Houston to go the playoffs again. Craig Biggio is a year older and a year closer to the end. Jeff Bagwell may not even play. Sure, they have some talent there, centered around Lance Berkman, Willy Taveras, Jason Lane, and Morgan Ensberg. Preston Wilson is a fine piece to pick up, as he plays good defense and hits home runs, but overall, the offense may not be enough once again.
Beyond losing Clemens, Andy Pettitte may be hurt again, as he is nursing elbow soreness this spring. For that reason, do not expect to see last year's gaudy, career-high numbers (2.39 ERA, 17 wins) again this year. Beyond Pettite, Roy Oswalt is the last of the big three from last year but he should be just fine this year. He may even win 20 games for the third year in a row.
The face of the bullpen hasn't really changed, as Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dan Wheeler are all returning. Realistically, they do have a chance. And Clemens' return could change everything. But to me, it looks more like a time to start rebuilding then the beginnings of a championship run, as there just isn't enough offense to carry this team once again.
4. Chicago Cubs 74-88
Every year now, it's the same thing; will Mark Prior and Kerry Wood be healthy? The Answer again: No! Wood may never even start a game again and could become a complete burnout. His future just does not look good at all. And it's questionable whether the Cubs can ever get 200 innings out of Prior again. The worst part of that news is thats exactly what the Cubs need if they have any hopes of advancing.
Sorry, but acquiring outfielders Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones is not what I call a huge offseason. Pierre is a fine leadoff man, but his defense will probably be subpar in Wrigley. And we all know that Jones is a piece of work himself. To me, he'll essentially replace Jeremy Burnitz in the lineup and that's not good news. If they think Jones will show up and hit .300 with 25 HRs, they are terribly mistaken. Even if he gets more fastballs behind Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, it probably won't add up to much.
Of course, like most of these teams, the Cubs have some rays of hope. Lee has officially arrived. Sorry, but anyone who thinks last year was a fluke didn't watch Derrek hit last year. This isn't Brady Anderson, folks. Lee has had this kind of power since he came up, he just finally put it together. Increased patience, shortened stroke, confidence put together and that equaled a big season. And he'll do it again, along with Ramirez, who should be good hitting behind him.
And they still have surefire Hall of Fame veteran Greg Maddux and young stud Carlos Zambrano in the rotation. Things could happen for this team, it's just that knowing their past, they don't tend to.
4. Cincinnati Reds 72-90
Even with former Twins assistant GM Wayne Krisvky running things, that ship has not straightened. Sorry, but the recent Bronson Arroyo/Wily Mo Pena trade wasn't too good. You have to wonder if Krisvky considered Twins starter Kyle Lohse as an option, as he's a better pitcher than Arroyo with a better track record, which Krisvky would know about. Sure, the Reds have picked up a better starter than their others, but that isn't saying much when your ace of choice is Paul Wilson or Eric Milton.
That being said, we know the rotation is a disaster waiting to happen. And the bullpen isn't much better either, with the possibility of David Weathers closing. Their only saving grace is the lineup, which has monster hitters Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Felipe Lopez along with possible future mashers Edwin Encarnacion (who is absolutely creaming spring pitching, with 6 HRs and 18 RBI) and Austin Kearns. But with a pitching staff that is so suspect, you can't expect that much.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates 68-94
Pittsburgh is still going through lots of funks with young talent and they seem to have gone the road Kansas City has this year: bring in some mediocre veterans to get the fans in while the young guys learn to play. Sorry, but Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa don't really change games. And Burnitz's skill set is quickly fading. However, there is room for hope on the horizon.
Pittsburgh has an outstanding young pitching staff. From Zack Duke to Oliver Perez to Paul Maholm, they have potential staff aces ready to go. To be fair, Maholm won't really be a staff ace, but he'll be a solid major league starter. Duke, on the other hand, could very well be, as he had 8 wins and a 1.82 ERA after his call up in late July. He was, essentially, the NL's answer to Felix Hernandez, except he went unnoticed. (That's not to say he is skilled like the King. He isn't.) Perez could be an ace pitcher as well, but he hasn't looked too good this spring and was awful in an injury-plagued 2005 campaign. He'll start the year as their number one starter, but that could quickly change. If his fastball (which is clocking at 88 this spring) really has lost that much, he could be a huge bust.
In other words, there will be some nice talent to look at and Jim Tracy might motivate the team well, but I just don't seem them having success this year. They need more hitters now to build around Jason Bay or else they'll go nowhere.
1. New York Mets 90-72
The Mets had a pretty big offseason this year, so it's pretty natural to assume they'll have success. But there are plenty of reasons for them to fail as well. I have them on top for the simple reason that competition will be down in the NL this year, at least it seems. The Mets now have a potentially frightening lineup, with Jose Reyes up top and Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and Cliff Floyd making up the heart of the order.
Reyes may not necessarily be a good lead-off hitter, but the Mets have little choice. Their trading for Paul Lo Duca was silly, but it relates to the general overrating of Lo Duca's offense and leadership that stews from his stay in Dodgerland. They probably should have signed Bengie Molina or Ramon Hernandez, as they are both younger, with Molina being a much better defender. Also, failing to find a suitable replacement for Kaz Matsui, the highly unsucessful Japanese import at second, was bad.
But the main reason they may still fall to Atlanta (illustrated by the close records) is because their pitching staff just isn't that great. Omar Minaya made the bad choice of trading Jae Seo and Kris Benson away for relief help. Sure, their bullpen is better, but that's mainly because of signing Billy Wagner. But none of that matters if they don't have solid starting pitching. Instead of Seo and Benson, are they to rely on Victor "No-Control" Zambrano and Aaron Heilman, who is apparently a much better reliever? Pedro Martinez will likely start the season on the DL, and his health this year could be crucial to the team's chances.
Their season rests on whether or not Beltran improves on a disappointing first year in New York, whether Pedro is healthy or not, and whether or not the rest of the players hold up. One big injury could dismantle the squad.
2. Atlanta Braves 88-74
I like the Braves in the top as much as anybody and Bobby Cox is an amazing manager, but it's really hard to be completely sold on this squad yet. There is so much youth and the loss of Leo Mazzone, the wizard pitching coach, is hard to measure early on.
Last year's success relied on the contributions of tons of rookies and a career year by Andruw Jones. Jones may hit 50 homers again, but it's hard to think Jeff Francoeur will hit .300 with 30 HRs in his sophomore season. Most likely, the lineup will struggle a lot. They only staples at this point appear to be Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, and Marcus Giles up front. Adam LaRoche, Ryan Langerhans, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson could all end up doing great this year. Or they could fall on their faces.
And the pitching staff is a bigger worry. John Smoltz is an excellent ace, but he'll be 39 in May and has logged a lot of time on his arm. Will this year be more like 2005 was for Curt Schilling? It seems entirely possible. And Tim Hudson is a bigger question mark, as in recent years his K rate has gone down and his hit rate has gone up. He may not be a legitimate second starter any longer. From there, it doesn't get too much better. Mike Hampton is out for the year following surgery and Jorge Sosa will definitely not get that lucky again. And the Braves don't appear to have a lock for closer. Losing Kyle Farnsworth probably wasn't good but bullpens have always been a question for them. Mark Wohlers anyone? Lots of question marks, but still, they are the Braves and they do have Cox. That counts for a lot.
3. Philadelphia Phillies 80-82
A team that appears to be a mess. The Phillies could be great, if they got things together. But with a lineup of producers (Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Chase Utley, now Ryan Howard), they sure underachieve. It's hard to put a finger on, but a lot seems to be chemistry. Their offense was just fine last year (.270 team average, 167 HRs) and their pitching wasn't bad (4.21). The problem is now it will get worse.
Abreu is getting older and fell off bad in the second half last year. He could be great again, but he may also be a shell of his former self. Burrell is the NL's Paul Konerko, as he has had some good seasons but some awful ones too. You never know when he could revert. Howard probably won't be as great his sophmore campaign either. About the only guy poised for a huge season seem to be Utley.
Pitching-wise, they have issues. They lost Billy Wagner to the Mets and traded starter Vicente Padilla away. Their replacement for closer, Tom Gordon, is old and recent reports don't suggest too many positive things. The most they can hope for is having Brett Myers establish himself as a staff ace, with Jon Lieber in support, and get some production from former superprospect Gavin Floyd or Cole Hamels. Otherwise, it will be more dissapointment in Philadelphia.
4. Washington Nationals 65-97
Washington is not in a great situation, to say the least. They remain owned by Major League Baseball, so their moves are fairly limited. And their biggest offseason move, acquiring Alfonso Soriano, has been a flat-out mess. That being said, there isn't too much to say for Washington. They don't have a farm system to speak of, they have no pitching beyond Livan Hernandez and John Patterson, and they lost key set-up man Luis Ayala to injury in the WBC, leaving closer Chad Cordero without much support. And the offense will most likely be as inept as it was last year.
The only prayer for success is some more amazing management magic from Frank Robinson and a big season from Soriano in left field. But that's pretty unlikely. Robinson will do his best, but there simply isn't that much talent there. And Washington's big pitcher's park will hurt Soriano's numbers, not to mention he'll have no protection in the lineup. It may be a long season in Washington.
5. Florida Marlins 62-100
Florida is probably the least-watchable team in all of baseball. They have two superstars (Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera), but you couldn't name five other players if you researched it for hours. Well, you could, but regardless, it will be a team of rookies. Think the 2000 Twins, or for that matter, the 1998 Marlins.
There is tons of talent there (Hanley Ramirez, Jeremy Hermida, and former Twin Travis Bowyer to name a few), but nothing will come of it this year. They will have a chance at a run in a few years, but only if they keep cornerstone players Willis and Cabrera around. That may be hard, consider that both have been around for only competitive seasons. Willis will be killed by an uncompetitive atmosphere and Cabrera needs good veteran presence.
They may lose out on them pretty quickly and the team itself may not be around Florida for much longer. Don't be surpised if they lose 120 games. Its possible.