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2006 National League Preview

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by user Davis21wylie

Baseball Prospectus update: Hey, Borders? I went to Amazon, dorks. Thanks for nothing. Now, to continue the preview...

NL East

1. Atlanta Braves (89-73) 828 RS, 744 RA

The Braves winning the NL East? No way! Yep, the beat goes on, though it will be a tighter-than-usual race this year after a busy offseason by their opponents. While the rest of the division upgraded, Atlanta arguably lost a step: über-pitching coach Leo Mazzone departed to the Baltimore Orioles over the winter; and despite Chipper Jones' unselfishness, SS Rafael Furcal bolted for L.A., leaving John Schuerholz to make a panic-induced trade for Edgar Renteria, who hasn't even been a league-average player since his monster 2003 season. No matter, though, the Braves have been pulling division titles out of their... um, hats, since MC Hammer was a star, and they'll keep at it this season. Despite replacing Furcal with Renteria, the offense is still a cut above, thanks to a projected six regulars with EqA's of .280 or better: Marcus Giles, the Jones Bros., Adam LaRoche, Jeff Francoeur, and Kelly Johnson. What's more, John Smoltz should again be among the most valuable pitchers in baseball, and he leads a good rotation. Now, if only they could find a bullpen: Lance Cormier? Please. Seriously. So, once again, pencil them in for the East title, but don't expect any postseason success if they can't resolve their relief-pitching situation.

2. Philadelphia Phillies (89-73) 843 RS, 762 RA *Wild Card*

Philly almost closed the gap on the Braves last year, and though they didn't do much in the offseason (adding Arthur Rhodes is nice, but Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome? Ouch.), they can contend for the division. The 2006 Phillies will score a lot of runs, largely due to the fearsome foursome of Chase Utley (projected .289 EqA), Bobby Abreu (.309), Pat Burrell (.284), and Ryan Howard (.339!!??). Despite acquiring Rhodes, though, this staff is still the definition of average, and they'll have to cobble together something at their 4th- and 5th-starter slots to outduel Atlanta for the East (Ryan Franklin or Ryan Madson? Does it matter?). Our bet is that they lock up the Wild Card instead, then exit in the first round thanks to suspect pitching.

3. New York Mets (87-75) 784 RS, 723 RA

Well, they're slowly but surely climbing out of the enormous hole that Steve Phillips left them in three years ago, and while many were disappointed by last year's Mets, 83 wins while rebuilding on the fly ain't bad. Prize FA-turned-scapegoat Carlos Beltran had about as disappointing a year as somebody not named 'Cristian Guzman' could have, and they were six wins below their pythagorean expectation last year as well. So something's got to give in 2006: a full year of the Carlos Delgado/David Wright/ Carlos Beltran (the real Beltran, that is)/Cliff Floyd's murderer's row should help this offense get out of neutral, while the pitching should be very good once again, especially with the addition of closer Billy Wagner. Will it be enough to win the East, though? Probably not, but they might have a better shot if they didn't give Jose Reyes so damned many PA's. Anyway, look for third place, but this time with some respectability.

4. Florida Marlins (83-79) 848 RS, 832 RA

"Shortly after winning a World Series, Marlins management implodes the team, relying on rookies and other teams' castoffs instead of championship-caliber veterans..." Haven't I seen this movie before? Don't look now, but the sequel may have a happier ending. While it's true that Florida cleaned house again, the prospects the Fish reeled in could surprise some people. Rookies Jeremy Hermida, Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs, and Eric Reed could all have great seasons, and I project Hermida to be one of the best players in the NL, rookie or otherwise, with a .322 EqA (which, coincidentally, is the same figure I project for teammate Miguel Cabrera). The pitching staff will feel most of the effects from the fire sale, though, as Dontrelle Willis stands as the only proven starter on the roster. So while their punchless pitching will prevent Florida from truly contending, this is one hell of a rebuilding job on offense. See you in a few years, Marlins.

5. Washington Nationals (70-92) 686 RS, 793 RA

One of the feel-good stories of 2005 was how the Nats, formerly that "Montreal Expos" team that had to play home games in Puerto Rico, were leading the NL East as late as July, defying their bigger-budget foes and winning those crucial one-run ball games, and bringing baseball excitement back to the nation's capital. In fact, I feel warm and fuzzy inside just writing that. Sadly, though, the Natspos—or is it Exionals? -- crashed back to Earth in the second half like so many fuel-less planes, all because they couldn't score. To save their lives. Expect a repeat performance this year, Washington fans, because this lineup + that ballpark = a lot of this: 000 000 000 - 0. Newcomers Ryan Zimmerman and Alfonso Soriano (who pairs with Cristian Guzman to form the most overrated middle infield since Kaz Matsui-Jose Reyes) will rake, but I see a lot of EqA's in the .230's and below. Add in a mediocre pitching staff (Livan Hernandez throws a lot of innings, okay? We get it.), and welcome to the cellar. Hope you brought a torch or something.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs (86-76) 767 RS, 722 RA

Chicago's Northsiders fell on hard times last year: not only did their Cubs finish 4th (behind... Milwaukee. God.), and Derrek Lee's MVP-caliber season got totally ignored, but the hated White Sox copped the World Series, creating a veritable hell-on-earth situation for Cubs fans. Not for long, though, as the Cubs are poised to return to their winning ways in 2006. Leading the way will be the pitching staff, whose mediocrity last season can be chalked up to massive amounts of injuries. If this group stays healthy (we just want 140 IP, Kerry... It's not that hard.), the Cubs will be a force in the Central. Of course, the hitters must provide enough offense to stay afloat as well, which will be easier said than done. Aside from Lee and Aramis Ramirez, there are few threats here, though youngsters Felix Pie (proj. EqA: .290) and Matt Murton (.295) will pick up the slack. As it stands, healthy arms will propel them into the playoffs... but if last season's injury issues resurface, it could be a long summer at Wrigley.

2. St. Louis Cardinals (84-78) 793 RS, 759 RA

The Cardinals managed 100 wins for the second straight season a year ago, thanks to some great performances by Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, and the league's most effective overall pitching staff. However, St. Louis lost a lot over the winter, parting with Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders, Matt Morris, Ray King, and Julian Tavarez. This is also one of baseball's oldest teams; their average age in 2005 was well over 30. All signs point to a collapse, then, though it will only mean a return to their 2003 level of play (when they went 85-77). Aside from Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen (perhaps the most potent hitting triumvirate in the game), the offense looks below-average. Replacing Walker (though he was oft-injured) with Juan Encarnacion is not a winning proposition in any universe, and nor is leading off with punchless David Eckstein (projected .246 EqA). At least the pitching is still solid, and it was bolstered with additions of Sidney Ponson, Braden Looper, and Ricardo Rincon. Still, I hope St. Louis fans enjoyed the last two seasons. The wheels are about to fall off, sending the team crashing out of the playoff picture.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (79-83) 744 RS, 767 RA

The Pirates flat-out sucked last year. They couldn't score, thanks to only two regulars (Matt Lawton and Jason Bay) with AOPS's over 100. The pitching was suspect as well, thanks to injuries, plain old bad luck, and a gypsy curse that was placed on Lloyd McLendon during Spring Training (Oliver Perez's ERA soared up by nearly 3 runs even though his BABIP wasn't that bad). Thankfully, GM Dave Littlefield added some pop to the lineup in the offseason, picking up Sean Casey and Jeromy Burnitz; hopefully, Craig Wilson will also return to action after a campaign marred by various hand injuries, as he can only help the offense. In terms of pitching, the Pirates should return to being at least average, after a bizarre 2005. Zach Duke should emerge as staff ace, and Perez will bounce back as well. In the end, none of this will be enough to contend for the playoffs, but they're not in as bad a shape as some of the other teams at the bottom of the Central.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (78-84) 755 RS, 788 RA

The Brewers made a huge turnaround last year, jumping to 81 wins on the heels of four straight sub-70 win campaigns. Was this a fluke, or was it a rare encouraging sign for this franchise? Well, I have good and bad news: the Brewers will finish ahead of the Astros, the defending NL champs... but that'll only be good enough for 4th place in the division. Sorry. Ripping off the White Sox in the Scott Podsednik-Carlos Lee trade was nice, and Lee will once again be the cornerstone of an okay-ish offense that also features .280 EqA-plus performers Rickie Weeks, Prince "Too fat for the Oakland A's" Fielder, and Geoff Jenkins. Like the hitting, the pitching is average at best, with a patched-together rotation behind ace Ben Sheets. The sum of the Brewers' parts will be average (maybe even a decline from last year), but in Milwaukee, that's considered pretty good. The team is on the young side as well, so they'll be back in the near future.

5. Houston Astros (76-86) 724 RS, 776 RA

Ah, yes, another year, another 85-90-win season for the Astros, who will—Whaa??!! 5th place? Out of the playoffs? "Well, that's it, this guy's crazy, let's not read any more." But for those of you who stuck around: The Astros just aren't that good. They were the oldest team in the league last year. As in, not getting any younger in 2006. Craig Biggio (age: 40; proj. EqA: .248) needs to retire, post-haste. Willy Taveras (.241) may have usurped Alfonso Soriano's mantle of "Most Overrated Player in Baseball" after just one year. Jeff Bagwell can still play (.291), but injuries may force him to retire before the season is through. And the Adam Everett/Brad Ausmus/Eric Bruntlett triad couldn't hit their way out of a wet paper bag. Suffice it to say, then, that this offense will be bad, to the tune of 2nd-worst in the NL. Pitching will be a strength again, thanks to Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and Brad Lidge, but this group took a huge hit with the loss (maybe?) of Roger Clemens. If the Rocket returns, they might have a chance at the division, but without him, this staff won't save enough runs for this offense. Sorry, Houston, but it's over.

6. Cincinnati Reds (74-88) 785 RS, 855 RA

The Reds are entering Year 11 since their last playoff appearance, and hopes are not high. While Ken Griffey Jr. staying in the lineup long enough to pick up over 500 PA's was a breath of fresh air, the franchise is moribund. Despite the top offense in the NL a year ago, Cincy's pitchers allowed a staggering 5.45 RPG—more than the Rockies' staff! In 2006, things won't change much; the bats of Griffey, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, and kids like Edwin Encarnacion and Chris Denorfia will provide the Reds with a good offense. But, say it with me, the pitching still sucks. And aside from trading for lefty Dave Williams (projected ERA of 4.46—lofty stuff), management did nothing to address the need for competent arms. After vastly overpaying for Eric Milton a year ago (and even we didn't expect him to post a 6.47 ERA!), they may have been gun-shy about acquiring starters, but c'mon... In other words, nothing has changed since a year ago. But there are plenty of empty seats available at the Great American Ballpark, so it's not all bad. You could come with a book, and read... You could add three hours of precious sleep to your schedule... Who couldn't use more sleep? And if you have a laptop, you could read more of this blog! Aw, screw it... Just stay home, Reds fans, you'll be a lot happier.

NL West

1. San Francisco Giants (84-78) 751 RS, 723 RA

Re-enter Barry. After basically a lost season in which he made more noise off of the diamond than on, baseball's best player is back for (at least) one more season. And while the odds are heavily stacked against Bonds passing Hank Aaron as the all-time HR leader (at least this season), he will almost certainly pass Babe Ruth's 714 and move into second place in the record books, a great accomplishment with or without steroids. But, you ask, can he help the Giants win? Without him for most of 2005, Frisco dropped to 75-87, a 16-game decline from 2004, and the offense truly struggled. Thanks to Barry's projected league-leading .387 EqA, though, expect an offensive output close to average—which should help a solid group of pitchers put a decent number of wins up on the board. Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, and Matt Cain may have come together to form the most underrated 1-4 starters in baseball, and the Armando Benitez-led bullpen should be more than competent. In baseball's weakest division, all of this means a return to the playoffs for the most dominant player in the game, and it will probably be his last chance to finally cop a ring.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (83-79) 784 RS, 764 RA

What the hell happened last year? L.A. was supposed to contend for the crown in an easy West, but instead their play went straight to hell, finishing a full 22 games worse in 2005 than they had the year before. A pittance of extra-base hits led to the NL's 5th-worst offense, and a Gagne-less pen hurt the pitching to the tune of the 5th-worst team ERA in the league. In typical Dodgers style, they threw money at the problems over the winter, hoping to make them just go away. They signed Nomar Garciaparra to play first base, Bill Mueller to play 3rd, Rafael Furcal to play short, and Kenny Lofton to play center, and acquired closer Danys Baez from the D-Rays to bolster the weak relieving corps. Will the wild dealing under new GM Ned Colletti pay off? Well, the offense will be much better, though more due to bounce-back years from Dodgers who slumped in '05 (cough, J.D. Drew!) than anything the new guy did. The pitching will be better as well, and it may well be enough to win this division, but anything more than a first-round exit from the playoffs is seriously pushing it.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (80-82) 748 RS, 757 RA

The rebuilding effort continues... After an awful 111-loss campaign in 2004, the D-Backs bounced back quite well with a 77-85 2005, and they could progress even further in '06. This pitching staff had a bit of a rough year in '05, but look for them to rebound nicely despite the rarified air of Bank One; Brandon Webb leads a decent rotation, and Jose Valverde may be the best closer you've never heard of. Losing Troy Glaus may hurt the offense, but penciling Craig Counsell (EqA: .236) in at leadoff will really damage the team's scoring chances... it's a good thing that Conor Jackson (.289) and Chad Tracy (.287) are around to pick up the pieces, not to mention stalwarts Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez. When the dust settles, they might just contend for the West, but a better bet is for the breakthrough to happen in 2007, if and when Barry Bonds retires.

4. San Diego Padres (78-84) 721 RS, 748 RA

Thanks to the cavernous new digs of Petco Park, San Diego rode decent pitching to the NL West crown in 2005, despite winning only 82 games. Not surprisingly, though, they were unceremoniously bumped from the playoffs by the Cardinals in a first round sweep, and they spent most of the offseason pursuing stiffs like Mike Cameron and Vinny Castilla. They added "catcher" Mike Piazza as well, but I have a feeling that nothing short of the '27 Yankees' lineup could succeed in scoring runs at Petco... A 90 park factor? Yikes! Couple that with Dave Roberts, a suddenly-awful Khalil Greene, and the newcomers, and this is not a very good offense. Once again, this staff (led by the all-world Jake Peavy) will do well, but they just will not be able to score, plain and simple. The other teams in this division improved greatly since last season, so 82 wins will not be enough again, assuming they can even muster that many.

5. Colorado Rockies (76-86) 829 RS, 878 RA

Todd and the Heltonettes may be breaking up. After nine long years, most of which were "rebuilding seasons," Todd Helton, the least-appreciated star of the last decade, may finally lace them up for a real contender. It's odd that a hitter would want to escape Coors, but Helton has proved he's more than just another Bichette, hitting well on the road throughout his career. And while he ain't much of a defender, what are DH's for if not for guys like this? So long, Todd; it's been a good run. Oh, you want to know about the team, do you? Well, they're young, the hitters are nice (in a way that may or may not be influenced by Coors Field—just like your girlfriend is hot in a way that may or may not be influenced by the lighting of the room), and the pitchers are... well, young. But old enough to know that the stadium will always be allowed to excuse giving up 5-and-a-half runs per game (we're looking at you, Jeff Francis—a 4.74 park-adjusted ERA still ain't great)... Expect more of the same, then a Helton trade, then it'll be Broncos season again and we'll all stop caring.

See also


Sun 03/12/06, 11:54 pm EST

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