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Friday, April 04, 2008

Bold Predictions (NL)

We're five days into the regular season and it appears that the Kansas City Royals and the Washington Nationals are the best teams in baseball, Blake DeWitt is on pace to win a batting title, and Rich Harden is headed for that long-awaited Cy Young season. Perhaps it is unfair for to have waited this long to make my "preseason" predictions. Nonetheless, I hope you'll forgive me this small advantage and I'll promise not to pick Xavier Nady as MVP.

NL East:

1. New York Mets
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. Atlanta Braves
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins

Pedro Martinez's hamstring has many experts and at least as many Mets fans declaring a state of emergency in New York, as the Mets will have to rely on pitchers like Orlando Hernandez and Mike Pelfrey. While I understand that El Duque is not the pitcher he once was and that Pelfrey has yet to live up to his top-prospect billing, but the Mets primary competition, Philadelphia and Atlanta, aren't exactly famous for their rotation depth. The Phillies are relying on Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton, and Jamie Moyer at the back-end, while the Braves feature Jair Jurrjens and 42-year-old Tom Glavine, that is, after the return of Chuck James, Mike Hampton, and John Smoltz, who are all beginning the season on the D. L. as well. Atlanta has been getting a lot of love from Peter Gammons and the ESPN crew, but I see a team without a single establish bullpen arm, relying heavily on Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar in their sophomore seasons, and with only one legitimate offensive threat in the outfield (Jeff Francoeur). While the Phillies have a ton of offense, they also have serious bullpen issues (to go along with the shakiest rotation of any NL contender). Meanwhile, the Mets have Jorge Sosa, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano, Joe Smith, Aaron Heilman, and Billy Wagner, half-a-dozen arms, any of which would be regularly pitching in the eighth or ninth in Philadelphia or Atlanta. And, lest we forget, it isn't like the Mets are short on offense.

While Washington's hot start isn't likely to last (Do you see Tim Redding and Odalis Perez winning 15 games apiece?), they may be ready to make a serious run at .500. They won 73 games last year, without Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, Nick Johnson, Elijah Dukes, Christian Guzman, Paul Lo Duca, and Perez, all of whom represent at least modest upgrades over their predecessors. Young pitchers like Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, and Matt Chico have a full year of big-league experience, while cast-offs from other franchises (Perez, Dukes, Pena, Milledge, etc.) all have something to prove. The increased competitiveness of Washington will make it more difficult for their NL East foes making runs at the Wild Card.

Division MVP: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)
Division Cy Young: Johan Santana (Mets)
Division Rookie of the Year: Brandon Jones (Braves)
Division Comback Player of the Year: Nick Johnson (Nationals)
Sleepers: Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Francoeur, Nick Johnson, Pedro Feliz, Angel Pagan

NL Central:

1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers (Wild Card)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Houston Astros
6. St. Louis Cardinals

I previewed this division a few weeks ago and I don't see any reason to change my choices. I will admit that I am a bit worried about choosing the Cardinals to finish in the cellar. They haven't finished last during the Tony LaRussa era (1996-Present) and LaRussa and Duncan have a history of making something out of nothing, especially with pitchers like Matt Clement, Joel Pineiro, Braden Looper, and Kyle Lohse. And, when management comes to its senses and hands centerfield over to Colby Rasmus, the outfield of Rasmus, Rick Ankiel, and Chris Duncan/Brian Barton could develop into an offensive and defensive strength.

The Cubs and Brewers will benefit from beating up on the weak rotations in Houston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, which is why I think they might squeak past strong teams in the East and West (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Arizona, Colorado, etc.) which will spend a lot more time beating up on each other.

Division MVP: Derrek Lee (Cubs)
Division Cy Young: Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)
Division Rookie of the Year: Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Miguel Tejada (Astros)
Sleepers: Geo Soto, Manny Parra, Yadier Molian, Zach Duke, Steven Pearce, Colby Rasmus

NL West:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. San Diego Padres
5. San Francisco Giants

I've preached the importance of depth, particularly pitching depth, repeatedly over the last year, and depth is the primary reason I predict the Dodgers to surpass the three teams that finished (slightly) ahead of them in the West last season. They've got consistent and underrated top-of-the-rotation studs, Brad Penny and Derek Lowe, a probable future Ace, Chad Billingsley, and a bevy of talented arms fighting to be part of the back end of the rotation (Hiroki Koruda, Estaban Loaiza, Jason Schmidt, Chan Ho Park, Clayton Kershaw, James McDonald, and Hong-Chih Kuo). Whereas Colorado, Arizona, and San Diego can ill afford injuries to their starting pitchers, the Dodgers will never struggle to find somebody to fill-in. Similarly, as has already been demonstrated by Blake DeWitt's strong performance at third base and Andre Ethier's assumption of the starting job in left field, the Dodgers are sitting on several young players who, while not future stars, perhaps, are solid major-league regulars. Andy LaRoche, Chin-Long Hu, Tony Abreu, and Delwyn Young are all rookies who will give L.A. productive at-bats when needed sometime this season.

While both Arizona and Colorado will give L.A. good competition this year, I don't expect either of them to repeat their 90-win performances of a year ago. Colorado, especially, will have trouble filling out their starting rotation. And, while Troy "the Toolbox" Tulowitski is worthy of the future-star status being heaped upon him, expect some drop-off in his offense. Sophomores forced into leadership roles often suffer slight setbacks and Tulowitski (unlike, say, Ryan Braun) is not so supremely talented that he will make adjustments swiftly and almost unconsciously at the major-league level. If their pitching (including Randy Johnson) remains healthy throughout the season, the D-Backs have the best chance to upset the Dodgers. Arisona's offense really struggled last year, yet thanks to great pitching (especially from the back-end of the bullpen bullpen), they managed to win anyway. I wonder whether the won't feel the loss of Jose Valverde in the 9th. Arizona had the best save percentage in the NL last season. Will Brandon Lyon or Tony Pena handle the pressure as well without Big V finishing game out? The good news is it seems hard to believe that the D-Backs won't be better at scoring runs. Only Eric Byrnes seems likely to suffer and offensive set-back, while Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, Chris Young, and Chad Tracy all seem primed for breakout years. If Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton also develop quickly at the major-league level, Arizona could suddenly have a lineup which rivals L.A. and Colorado for depth.

At the bottom of the division, San Diego and San Francisco boast perhaps the two worst lineups in all of baseball (with S.F. taking the field with quite possible the worst starting lineup of my lifetime). However, neither will be an absolute patsy, because they have two the the league's best rotations. Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Chris Young, and Greg Maddux are all safe bets for around 15 wins. And, Barry Zito, Randy Wolf, Jonathan Sanchez, Noah Lowry, and Mark Prior are capable of dominating with some regularity as well. What that means is that San Diego and San Francisco will be taking a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games from the division's top teams, making it more difficult for them down the stretch. Perhaps, like Colorado last year, somebody will get hot and leave all other wild card competitors in the dust, but such seasons are very rare. Much like the 2005 Indians and the 2006 Tigers, I think Arizona and Colorado are going to need another year to improve upon their breakout seasons.

Division MVP: Matt Holliday (Rockies)
Division Cy Young: Brad Penny (Dodgers)
Division Rookie of the Year: Chase Headley (Padres)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Andruw Jones (Dodgers)
Sleepers: Matt Kemp, Chris B. Young, Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Jason Schmidt, Chad Tracy

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