Thursday, April 10, 2008

My belated National League preveiw


I've already seen two National League teams play in person, and neither of them is a contender.

Wednesday night, I checked out Washington's new ballpark. It was a beautiful night -- although a little chilly -- but because Washington's basketball and soccer teams also were playing at home, a sparse crowd turned out for just the second game at Nationals Park.

My $10 ticket was for the upper, upper deck, but I settled for a 10th row seat down the third-base line.

Unfortunately for me and the Nationals fans who turned out, the home team laid an egg. Jason Bergmann had his pitches rocketed all over the ballpark by a bunch of no-name Marlins. Errors were committed by both teams. In short, the baseball played during Florida's 10-4 victory wasn't very impressive.

Such might be the case in several National League stadiums this season. The N.L. is clearly inferior to the mighty American League, and it's hard to pin down who the big winners will be.

But I'll try. Here are the picks:


1. New York Mets 88-74: Don't think anything will come easy for the '08 Mets, especially with Pedro Martinez already down with a hamstring injury. But the addition of Johan Santana will be enough for them to avoid another September collapse. Here's a bold prediction: He won't lose consecutive starts all season.

2. Philadelphia Phillies 86-76: The Phils will be exciting to watch once again thanks to the trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but their pitching remains their weakness and don't think that the acquisition of closer Brad Lidge will help.

3. Atlanta Braves 83-79: The Braves will battle for the division well into September thanks to a solid starting rotation and middle lineup. Getting Mark Teixeira last season was a big-time move. Atlanta will win the division if its pitchers remain healthy the entire season, but I'm banking against that. John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton will each miss several starts.

4. Washington National 70-92: The new ballpark won't bring about wins for the Nats, who will fight every night under Manny Acta but simply lack the players to contend for anything more than staying out of the division's cellar. No name in the starting rotation jumps out as even a 10-game winner, and potential big-time hitters such as Lastings Milledge still have developing to do.

5. Florida Marlins 65-97: The new-look Marlins -- as usual -- will avoid losing 100 games ... barely. There will be bright spots, such as the play of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, but there will be many more empty seats in Pro Player Stadium than there will be highlights. The funny thing about this group of no-name youngsters is that they will probably win a World Series in 2009, following the pattern of winning in '97 and '03.


1. Chicago Cubs 87-75: Oh, the Cubs. It's hard predicting them to win their division because they're, well, the Cubs. However, by process of elimination, they're the last team standing. They'll do just enough and rely on enough losses by the division's other five teams. Their lineup is solid, bolstered by the addition of Kosuke Fukudome. So is their rotation, although we'll have to see how Ryan Dempster does in his transition from the bullpen. And a huge key will be how Kerry Wood fares in his closer well. I'm thinking he'll do just enough.

2. Milwaukee Brewers 85-77: Here's the team no one is talking about that could make some noise. Let us not forget that the Brewers had a hold on the division until a terrible August in '07. With Ryan Braun moving to left field and Bill Hall taking his place at third base, and with the addition of Mike Cameron in center field, the defense will be much improved. That will help. The rotation is solid, but not impressive. So what will kill the Brewers? Having over-the-hill Eric Gagne as their closer.

3. Cincinnati Reds 80-82: This is a squad with a lot of potential thanks to young pitchers such as Johnny Cuto, who impressed with his first start. However, there will be enough downs to offset the positives and keep this club out of the playoffs. Corey Patterson is far from an ideal leadoff hitter, and everyone in the lineup has am obvious flaw, such as Adam Dunn's high strikeout rate. There will be exciting times across the river from Kentucky, but no October baseball.

4. Houston Astros 77-85: The acquisitions of Kazuo Matsui and Miguel Tejada to bolster the middle of the infield will benefit the Astros, who need a reason to be optimistic. Both players, however, have flaws. Tejada is past his prime and doesn't have the defensive range he used to. Matsui benefited from playing at Coors Field last season, but his speed will still be an asset if he can get on base. If both players have good seasons, the lineup could be dangerous with Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee in its middle, but the pitching is suspect.

5. St. Louis Cardinals 74-88: The Cardinals are far-removed from their World Series championship two seasons ago. The big question is whether Albert Pujols will even play the whole season before getting his elbow fixed up. In this division, he probably will, because the Cards will never think they're out of the race. The lineup around Pujols is beyond mediocre and an average pitching staff won't throw well enough to give fans hope of another special season.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates 69-93:
There's no reason to expect the Pirates to climb out of last place. They didn't make any moves during the offseason, instead choosing to let their young talent continue to develop. Most of that talent can be found among Pittsburgh's pitchers. Tom Gorzellany is a promising 25-year-old lefty and closer Matt Capps does a good job finishing games. But the lineup won't scare any opposing pitcher, with only Freddy Sanchez hitting better than .300 last year.


1. Colorado Rockies 87-75: This might be the most competitive division in baseball, and the Rockies will do just enough to return to the postseason. There are no key additions, and they lost their second baseman Matsui, but don't downplay the effect last season's magic will have on this group. Everyone is confident and won't get flustered during sure-to-come nebulous parts of the season. It will be interesting to see how rookie Jayson Nix fares at second base alongside the sure glove of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks 86-76: Last season, the D-backs relied on their ability to win close ballgames. Then, during the offseason, they let closer Jose Valverde go. That could come back to bite them. Obviously, the acquisition of Danny Haren will bolster an already-strong starting rotation. The 'pen, however, will miss Valverde. The lineup is basically the same, which will mean another season of getting outscored by opponents. A precocious season by Justin Upton would be a huge lift.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers 84-78: Rule No. 184 when making baseball predictions: Never count out a Joe Torre-managed team. So I won't. Rather, I'll say Torre's new bunch falls just short at the end. Nothing about the lineup scares me, especially if new-guy-on-the-block Andrew Jones can't shake off his worst season as a pro. Leadoff hitter Juan Pierre has been a disappointment since helping the Marlins win the '03 Series. Hiroki Kuroda will help a starting rotation already led by the stalwart Brad Penny, and the bullpen is solid. But like the D-backs, a lack of run production will ultimately doom L.A.

4. San Diego Padres 79-83: If you sense a theme here, you are correct. Another team with solid pitching. Another team with no hitting. But the Padres are even worse at the plate than the aforementioned D-backs and Dodgers. No hitter in their lineup batted better than .285. They've got some power with Adrian Gonzalez (30 HRs) and Khalil Greene (27 HRs), but who are they going to drive in? It should be a frustrating year for starters Jake Peavy, Chris Young and company.

5. San Francisco Giants 63-99: The good news? Barry Bonds is gone. The bad news? Barry Bonds is gone. As nice as it will be to have the huge distraction out of the way, the Giants will miss Bonds' ability to get on base -- not to mention his power. Acquiring center field Aaron Rowand will help the lineup, but old guys Dave Roberts, Randy Winn and Ray Durham are not the "rebuilding" answer. Expect a lot of lineups during the season, decent pitching and plenty of losses.


Divisional round
-- No. 1 New York def. No. 3 Colorado (5 games): The Rockies' postseason magic will run out against a man named Santana, who wins two games for the surviving Mets.

-- No. 2 Chicago def. No. 4 Philadelphia (5 games): The Phillies weasel their way into the playoffs thanks to a one-game playoff win over Arizona. But again, they can't score enough runs to advance. The Cubs make the NLCS for the first time since 2003.

National league championship series
-- No. 2 Chicago def. No. 1 New York (6 games): Oh, what the heck. Let's go with the Cubs, for fun's sake. Expect their big right-handed hitters Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez to bother Santana, and Wood closes out Game 6 in front of a very nervous Wrigley Field crowd.

-- Boston def. Chicago (5 games): C'mon, you didn't expect me to actually pick the Cubs? No, the American League is much stronger than the N.L., and that will show during a World Series that isn't all that competitive. The Red Sox' rotation will shut down the Cubs' bats, with Beckett winning yet another MVP, and Jacoby Ellsbury will be a thorn in the side of the Cubs all series.

Boston's third championship in five seasons will only make Cubs fans more depressed.

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