Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Baseball Season Preview - Part 1

So, I said I would take a run at a season preview and I'm gonna do it. Let's start with the NL East:

Atlanta Braves: Yet again the class of the NL East, but they're going to face stiffer competition this year. The Braves have always been recognized as a well-managed organization, acquiring top-drawer talent through smart trades while avoiding spending Yankee- or Met-sized dollars on free agents. This season is no exception, as the Braves made a smart deal shipping Jose Capellan and a couple of other minor leaguers to Milwaukee to land Dan Kolb while Charles Thomas and others were packaged to Oakland to deliver Tim Hudson. The Kolb deal allowed John Smoltz to return to his happy place, the starting rotation and, along with Hudson, create a pretty fair starting rotation. Hudson and Smoltz lead the way and Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez fill out the back nicely. The Braves should have little trouble getting the ball to Kolb, but I sense a lot of low-scoring games. The Braves offense is iffy, especially with senior citizen Brian Jordan and perpetual headcase Raul Mondesi starting in the corners between Andruw Jones. If one or the other fails to perform, rookies Ryan Langerhans and Jeff Francouer are next in line. Both have raw talent, but no real MLB experience, which could cause problems in the pressure cooker of the stretch drive. GM John Schuerholz may need to make a deal for a proven outfielder. Marcus Giles and Chipper Jones provide solid performance on both sides of the field and Rafael Furcal should rebound from an underwhelming 2004. Adam LaRoche MUST perform this year and Johnny Estrada's solid behind the plate. Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone are in the business of winning, and this year should be no exception. 94-68.

Florida Marlins: A number of folks seem to think the free-agent signing of Carlos Delgado will move this team over the top, but I see Al Leiter as just as important, as he brings veteran stability to a rotation seemingly knocked wobbly by their World Series win in 2003. Recurring injuries to starter Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett's return from Tommy John surgery seemed to combine to keep Florida just off-balance enough. The deadline deal with L.A. last year will pay full dividends this year, as the staff will benefit from a full year of Paul LoDuca behind the dish and Guillermo Mota has all the tools to be an awesome closer. There is a lot to like about this offense, which still sports two serious jackrabbits atop the order in Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, and big pop in the middle from Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera (a major star in the making) and Delgado. They won the 2003 Series as a wild card and I like them to be in the hunt this year. 92-70.

New York Mets: Well, they made the splash of the offseason, shelling out a bundle to land Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Victor Zambrano is still hurt and may well be a villain at Shea if Scott Kazmir (who the Mets traded for Zambrano) lights it up in T-Bay, as is Steve Trachsel. That leaves the rotation in disarray after Martinez, Kris Benson and Tom Glavine, although the acquisition last week of Kaz Ishii from LA for catcher Jason Phillips (talk about overpaying) gives the Mets a much-needed innings eater. Braden Looper is a good-not-yet-great closer and the bullpen is iffy. The Mets' signing of Beltran created a shmozz in the outfield as Mike Cameron balked at moving to right field, but he's hurt and the Mets are trying to move him before he comes off the DL. That move almost seems more motivated by a desire to see Victor Diaz join Beltran and Cliff Floyd in the outfield. The infield is better defensively with Doug Mientkiewicz at first and Mike Piazza behind the plate, but the big boost should come from Kaz Matsui (now with a season under his belt) and future stud David Wright. Lots to like here, but still some holes. I think the Mets are going to be active this offseason gearing up for a serious run at the top in 2006. 83-79.

Philadelphia Phillies: MLB's most schizophrenic team. This lot should have done much better last year. Instead, they were a dog's breakfast during the second half and manager Larry Bowa (deservedly) took the fall. Now the laid-back Charlie Manuel is in charge and he inherits a collection of challenges. First is sorting out the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation. After Jon Lieber (who's going to have a MONSTER year), Randy Wolf and Cory Lidle, it all gets muddy. Vicente Padilla has nearly played himself out of the rotation and Brett Myers hangs on only because nobody better is stepping up. Lots to like offensively, as Kenny Lofton will provide, along with Jimmy Rollins, a lot of go and you can't go much better than a 3-4-5 of Bob Abreu, Jim Thome and Pat Burrell (assuming Burrell has head on straight). If the bullpen holds together, Billy Wagner waits (and he's healthy, too). I think time's running out for this organization and they're either going to do well or push too hard from desperation and Ed Wade will break them up at the trading deadline. I choose the latter. 88-74.

Washington Nationals: I think it's somewhat cool that I have this division picked to finish in alphabetical order, which tells you where I think the ex-Expos will land. Things are still not settled in the land of lies and deceit, and there are just too many holes and what-ifs in the Nationals' lineup. Livan Hernandez is a good, reliable starter who would be a good #4 almost anywhere else. In Washington, he's the ace. Zach Day has, for all intents and purposes, been banished from the rotation, Esteban Loaiza crashed back to earth in 2004 after a miraculous 2003 and Tony Armas and Tomo Ohka both battled through major injuries last year. The offense is a little thin, as they have only three significant power threats in Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson. This of course assumes that Johnson stays physically healthy and Guillen doesn't go postal. Chad Cordero is a goody in the closer role and he'll get more than his share of save opportunities, since the Nats will win a lot of 2-1, 3-1, 3-2 games. Sadly, I see a lot of abuse in the Nats' future but better days are likely ahead. 70-92.

Tomorrow (or whenever): NL Central.