You saw my American League picks yesterday, and I know I said that I'd write the NL preview next week, I just couldn't wait... and I'm sure neither could you. Anyway here are my guesses for the Senior Circuit. BTW, I have always been a fan of the National League arrogance when they refer to themselves as the “Senior Circuit”. For some reason it made me laugh because even though the NL is only about 20 years older than the AL and the AL has (arguably) had more success than the NL, the National League never seemed to let the American League forget that they were around first.
I can almost picture the logos of each league arguing with one another, with the NL eagle saying to the AL eagle, “Sure, you have your New York Yankees and their 26 World Championships and your Boston Red Sox with their besting us in the first ever World Series, but we've been around since the days of President James A. Garfield, so suck on that, American League.” Ok. Maybe I need some sort of a hallucinogenic to picture that, but you know what I mean.
I know that the New York Mets made a big acquisition over the winter (more on that in a bit), but I still think that the Phillies are the team to beat. The infield with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins is probably the best in the league. The front three pitchers of Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer (who played with Cap Anson, I believe) and Brett Myers are terrific. If Brad Lidge comes back from injuries (both mental and physical), they could have a very good bullpen. The only weaknesses I see are outfield and manager. I've never been a Charlie Manuel guy. He reminds me too much of Grady Little, but he did get these guys to play extremely well down the stretch. Of course, they crapped their pants against the Colorado Rockies in the playoffs.
They got Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins for a bag of used doorknobs. They added him to a nucleus of Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes, players who are all in their prime of their careers. Unfortunately for manager Willie Randolph, he better hope that a few other of his twilight stars like Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, and Moises Alou can stop father time for one more year. If that last group of guys come up empty, it's going to be a long year for the Metropolitans.
Tom Glavine is back. John Smoltz is still pitching, and Chipper Jones is manning the hot corner. It's like 1997 all over again, only we're not listening to Smashmouth and the Verve. The Braves do have some young talent in Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann (who is probably the best backstop in the division), but will that be enough? Mark Teixeira is set to have a monster year (he's a free agent after this season--and has agent Scott Boras chomping at the bit for another $20 million a year player) but will pitchers Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton also do well? That's the key for the Bravos; if Glavine, Smoltz, Hudson, and Hampton find some magic elixir then the team will probably do very well. Otherwise, it's third place. And come to think of it, that's exactly where they're going to end up, even if that foursome does find the Fountain of Youth. The bottom line is that they aren't as good as the Phillies and Mets, but they aren't as terrible as the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals. I don't think I've ever been more sure of a team's prediction as I am of this year's Atlanta squad.
Between the Marlins and the Nationals, who cares? One of them will end up in fourth while the other is in last. The Marlins have Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, and a bunch of kids they got from Detroit. It sucks to be Fredi Gonzalez and have to manage this dreck. The good news is that in about three years, the Marlins will have a new park, a new name (the MIAMI Marlins) and maybe some new players that owner Jeffrey Loria will hold onto for 20 minutes before deciding that a profit of $25 million isn't enough. After killing baseball in Montreal and slowly bleeding South Florida dry, I think that he could be the worst owner in Major League Baseball history. And that's saying something.
From what I read, they have a very good group of prospects who are about a year or two away; so, in 2010 they might be in the running for first place. However, it's still 2008, and I don't think that there is another Dmitri Young type surprise for the Nats. They did pick up Elijah Dukes from the Tampa Bay Rays during the winter and if Young can be some sort of a mentor to both him and Lastings Milledge (acquired from the Mets) then maybe the Nationals can hop over the Marlins and start year one of the rebuilding a bit early. They do have a brand new ball park, so that should excite the Washingtonians for a few months.
They faded down the stretch, but I think that this is the year that they go wire-to-wire for first place in the NL Central. I think that it may be time to admit that whatever Ben Sheets gives you is gravy, because I don't think that he'll ever stay healthy for an entire season. The Brew Crew pitching staff does have Yovani Gallardo and Jeff Suppan, plus a rebuilt bullpen, so they may be ok in the pitching department. Where Milwaukee excels is at the plate: Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, and Bill Hall make up the new Harvey Wallbangers. Lots of 10-8, 11-9 contests in the Brewers' favor this year.
2. Chicago Cubs
OK, I'm going to say it: Lou Piniella is overrated. He led the Cincinnati Reds to the 1990 World Series upset over the Oakland Athletics and skippered the Seattle Mariners to a 116-win season, but what has he done since then? Not a heck of a lot. The Cubs will probably be pretty good this year... much like last year where there were some periods of great play and periods of terrible play. Alfonso Soriano will be the offensive star while Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez try to help out. Kosuke Fukudome has been brought in from Japan to help in the outfield and Felix Pie may work out too. Aside from Carlos Zambrano, there is not a lot of pitching to speak of. Chicago is second here, but they could easily be fourth or fifth.
Speaking of overrated managers, Tony LaRussa is back for another year at the helm in St. Louis. This may be the worst team that he's had because, aside from Albert Pujols, there aren't a lot of guys who can score runs. And Pujols may need Tommy John surgery soon. Let me amend that: the Cards do have Mitchell boys Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel, and if they're taking their vitamins, maybe there will be some firepower in the midwest. Aside from that, it's going to be a long season pitching wise as Chris Carpenter, Joel Pineiro, and Mark Mulder are all starting the season on the shelf. It got so bad they had to sign Kyle Lohse.
This is going to be a very interesting year as baseball's Holy War may come to somewhat of a conclusion. I think that Cincinnati is just mediocre enough that going to one of baseball's dueling philosophy (stats vs. intangibles) may push the Reds to being something better than they are. On one hand we have the anti-stat guy managing the squad Dusty Baker. He's all about blood-and-guts, old school baseball. He thinks math is something that you learn and forget in high school and is certainly not to be used on the diamond. Baker has told his troops that he wants them hacking away and not trying to work walks, because walks "clog up the basepaths". Now, if the Reds do well and exceed expectations, it might be safe to say that Baker does know what he's talking about and that the number crunchers might be clueless. However, if the Reds suck, then it's Baker who's clueless. I'm putting my money on the latter scenario taking place.
I'm going to be honest, there's not a lot I can say about the Pittsburgh Pirates other than that their ball park looks awesome. I know that they're trying to sign Ian Snell long term and that their biggest off-season acquisition was Byung-Hyun Kim and they just released him yesterday. Freddy Sanchez is going to hit and play a decent second base, Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay are going to try and have bounce-back years. And other than the perfectly average Tom Gorzelanny, there's not much else in the Iron City. And that sucks. In retrospect, I guess that they should have signed Barry Bonds instead of Andy Van Slyke. Live and learn.
Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence, and Carlos Lee. In that order are the best the Astros have to offer, and that's not a lot. True, Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde are on the roster, but Tejada has had a really bad winter, and who knows just how good Valverde really is? What does this mean for manager Cecil Cooper? It means that they'll probably be the worst team in the National League Central, which is really saying something. With the size of their park and the quality of their pitchers, the Astros are going to get bludgeoned every game that Oswalt doesn't start.
Here's the deal: when the D'backs and the D'Rays came into the league about a decade ago, I hated everything about Arizona. I hated their goofy name, I hated their purple, teal, copper and black uniforms, I hated Buck Showalter and his 800-page Diamondback way book, I hated that they weren't trying to build anything from the ground up and were just signing free agents like crazy, to paraphrase Ugly Kid Joe, I hated everything about then. But then Josh Byrnes goes from Boston to the desert and starts making the Diamondbacks into a real, major league organization. He ditches their old uniforms, gets rid of their old broken-down players and sets the ground work for a solidly-run squad. With the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball (Brandon Webb and Dan Haren) and a pretty decent number three in Randy Johnson the D'Backs can do really well. Especially if Micah Owings fulfills his promise. The offense is young with Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, and Chris Young leading the charge. This is a fun team to watch and wouldn't surprise me if they went to the World Series.
The Dodgers have a bunch of young kids and that's how they're going to live and die this year: through youth. And I think that they're going to live, especially with another bonafide All Star year in catcher Russell Martin. Throw in Andy LaRoche, James Loney, and Matt Kemp and Los Angeles is going through a youth revival the likes of which Los Angelenos haven't seen since the mid 90s. As for the vets, Andruw Jones has something to prove and this might be the end of the line for Jeff Kent. New manager Joe Torre (you may have heard of him) still has to figure out the pitching staff, but should be ok with Derek Lowe, Brad Penny and Jason Schmidt. And he has Scott Proctor on board too, which means that we should see Proctor's arm completely falling off by mid-June.
I think that the Rockies are a decent team with a bunch of young stars that may have played very well last fall. That being said, I think that they got extremely lucky and I do not expect to see them in the post season this year. Outfielder Matt Holiday was huge last year, as was shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Brad Hawpe, and even Todd Helton rebounded with a nice year. I just don't think that they have the pitching this year, and God's squad maybe looking at a finish in the middle of the pack. Hopefully this kick starts baseball in Denver and for a generation of fans, last year could have been their Impossible Dream year.
The biggest problem for the Padres? No outfield defense. I know that might not be a big deal if you play in a bandbox, but when you play most of your games in Petco Park and have fly ball pitchers, outs that should be easy and turn into triples can really screw with your staff's collective heads. The pitching staff is more than solid with Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux, and a rehabbing Mark Prior looking to make a mid-season debut. And their bullpen is top notch too, with ageless wonder Trevor Hoffman waiting for “Hell's Bells” to ring so that he can nail down another save. However, Hoffman's mental state is one to watch. He did give up Tony Gwynn Jr.'s two-out, ninth inning game tying triple in the last game to ruin the Pad's post season chances. Then blew a save against the Rockies in a one-game winner goes to the NLDS game. But that's the least of their worries, the bats just aren't there. I envision lots of 2-1, 3-2 losses for the Pads this year.
Why did manager Bruce Bochy leave the Padres for this group? This could be the worst team in the major leagues as their veterans are way over the hill and their minor league system is scrap iron--and I don't mean Phil Garner. Put it this way: guess who is replacing Barry Bonds as the number four hitter in the lineup? Bengie Molina. They do have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain for starters, and Barry Zito has to be better than last year, but other than that, it's dead wood. I think that it'll be interesting for baseball fans on each coast to see what section is worse: the Bay Area (Giants and A's) or the Beltway (Nationals and Orioles). I think that the former is going to take the crown.