That’s a big if. Injuries turned 2005 into a disaster at Chavez Ravine. There’s a new general manager and a new manager in town, and a good chance at a similar result. But this division’s still so bad, a bad team can win it.
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1. St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals are still pretty clearly the class of this division, but they look like they’re ready to slip a little. They’ve lost Matt Morris, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker and Mark Grudzielanek. No one of these guys is a tragedy to lose, but these things add up, and the crowd brought in to replace them — led by Sidney Ponson and Juan Encarnacion — isn’t inspiring.
So they look like a 95-win team, maybe, instead of a 100- or 105-win team. They do have the best hitter in the league, Albert Pujols, plus Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, who need to get and/or stay healthy, and a solid if unspectacular rotation. It’s plenty to graduate to October.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: It’s funny how quickly things turned around in Milwaukee once the Seligs cleared out. Don’t look now but the Milwaukee Brewers now look like a good team, potentially a very good one in the near future.
Lyle Overbay was traded to make room for Prince Fielder, who’ll become part of a very young, high-upside infield with big bats and iron gloves. That infield, a decent starting rotation and outfield and a suspect bullpen all add up to a team that could overachieve its way to wild-card contention, though ace Ben Sheets starting the year on the disabled list isn’t a good sign.
3. Chicago Cubs: Ah, spring. The grass is growing, the flowers are blooming, love is in the air and the Cubs are opening the season with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the disabled list.
If those two don’t put together some semblance of a healthy season, and betting against that seems to be the way to go, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez aren’t going to supply enough offense to get this club back to the playoffs.
4. Houston Astros: I’ve been predicting the demise of the Astros for years, and they keep not demising. They even went to the World Series last year after starting 15-30. Just to make me look bad. But this looks like the year.
Roger Clemens is retired, for the moment, though he may come galloping in at midseason if the Astros are in the hunt. Houston won with pitching last year, but there’s actually quite a big difference between having Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in your rotation and just having Oswalt and Pettitte. The Astros brought in Preston Wilson to bolster the weak offense. Make of that what you will.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates hired former Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, who does seem to have a knack for getting the most out of a minimum of talent.
That, of course, comes in handy in Pittsburgh, where there are a very few nice players — outfielder Jason Bay and lefties Zach Duke and, based on an excellent 2004, not a hideous ’05, Oliver Perez — and a whole lot of guys who, if all but one of them are not literally Joe Randa, they might just as well be Joe Randa.
6. Cincinnati Reds: The Reds can hit, but, man, can they ever not pitch. They did a little something to address that problem last week by trading outfielder Wily Mo Pena to the Boston Red Sox for right-hander Bronson Arroyo, who goes from being a swingman at Fenway to the front of the rotation at Great American Ballpark. That should give you some idea.
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1. New York Mets: The Atlanta Braves are even more of a lock in the postseason than the New York Yankees are, having won their division the last 14 non-strike years. And just as it’s a pointless tradition in this column not to pick the Yankees to win the A.L. East, the Braves are never the pick in this division.
The Mets are the pick because I’m tired of picking the Phillies and being disappointed, though that’s too strong a word. I have no expectations of success here, you understand. Plus, the Mets have done more loading up on big, expensive names this offseason — Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner. And the team chemistry has to be better after subtracting Kris and Anna Benson and adding Paul “Periodic Table of the Elements” Lo Duca.
A little inside stuff for regular readers there.
2. Atlanta Braves: Pitching coach/guru Leo Mazzone is gone to Baltimore, and this is a year the Braves could really use him. The rotation looks like John Smoltz and Tim Hudson and pray for mud, son, unless Jorge Sosa can have another Mazzone-magic year without Leo and 22-year-old Kyle Davies is more like the guy who got the good start last year than the guy who had that rough finish.
Chris Reitsma is the closer again, which is just the start of the bullpen woes, and Edgar Renteria is a downgrade from Rafael Furcal at shortstop.
On the other hand, you know: horse puckies. The Braves famously won while playing 18 rookies last year — not all at once — and some of those guys can really play, especially Jeff Francoeur, though he might think about taking a pitch every few weeks. I’ll hedge by calling the Braves a wild-card team, but I realize I’m kidding myself.
3. Philadelphia Phillies: Seven of the last eight years, the Phillies have finished in second or third place in the East. It looks like another gentleman’s third in 2006.
The good news is that Pat Gillick is the new general manager, and he wasted no time making the kinds of smart moves that helped him build winners in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle, starting with the unloading of Jim Thome to make room for Ryan Howard at first base.
The Phillies have a strong lineup and they play in a bandbox, so they’ll be fun to watch, but they lack pitching. Still, at least the meandering, underachieving years seem to be over and good times appear to be on the way.
4. Washington Nationals: The Nationals, in their first year in D.C. after years of wandering from Montreal to San Juan and back, won six straight games to finish the first of last year at 50-31. They were in first place, five and a half games ahead of the Braves. Starting with a 5-2 loss to the Mets on the Fourth of July, they went 31-50 the rest of the way and finished in the cellar of baseball’s toughest division.
The truth probably lay somewhere in between, but closer to 31-50. This team still has no owner, and general manager Jim Bowden’s trade of Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano, he of the tantrum over moving to left field, speaks volumes. Soriano clearly had no leg to stand on, but that’s beside the point.
As a second baseman, Soriano’s a notable slugger. As a left fielder, he’s just another dude who strikes out a lot. And his fielding miscues go for two bases instead of one. Wilkerson apparently had to go, but why put up with the problems Soriano was sure to bring just to stick him in left field? On Florida spring days it rains outfielders who can post an .810 OPS in a hitter’s park like the one the Texas Rangers play in.
The splashy but ultimately useless trade is a hallmark of Bowden, architect of the consistently mediocre Cincinnati Reds of 1993-2003. This team needs a front office.
5. Florida Marlins: The Marlins will be running out Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera and a bunch of prospects, some of them pretty interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, especially shortstop Hanley Ramirez and a squad of live arms.
The offseason sale of the 2005 roster wasn’t quite the same as the 1998 fire sale, because the Marlins actually seem to have gotten some living beings in return, but it’s yet another slap in the face to those few stubborn South Floridians who insist on being fans of this club.
Hard to feel bad for the Marlins as they lose 100-plus games in front of an ocean of empty seats while owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson pout that nobody will build them a new stadium with taxpayer money.
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Here, for ease of ridicule, are this column’s National League predictions in one place.
Western Division champions: Los Angeles Dodgers
Central Division champions: St. Louis Cardinals
Eastern Division champions: New York Mets
Wild card: Atlanta Braves
National League champions: Atlanta Braves
Yeah, I know I said they have problems, but I picked them to win the wild card and I’m a believer in continuing wild-card mojo. The last four World Series have included at least one wild-card team.
World Series: Atlanta Braves over Oakland A’s
You have to give me this: If I’m right, I’ll be just about the only one.
Previous column: American League preview
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