King Kaufman's Sports Daily

National League preview: Is anybody good enough to win this league?


Salon Staff
March 28, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Baseball's Opening Day, which these days is an Opening Night because of TV, is Sunday night, when the New York Mets visit the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

You'll be able to watch that game on ESPN if you'd like. Your ability to see hundreds of other games this year, next year and the five years after that has been the subject of much discussion this off-season, right up to a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill.

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Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has led a congressional mini-snit over Major League Baseball's proposed exclusive, seven-year deal with DirecTV for the Extra Innings package of out-of-town games, which would shut out many fans who have subscribed in the past.

Hard to believe, but the games will go on whether you can see them or not.

Barry Bonds will try to hit the 22 home runs he needs to break Hank Aaron's career record, and commissioner Bud Selig will be most prominent among the many trying to ignore the steroid-tainted slugger. Sammy Sosa, tainted in his own way, will try to become the fifth man to hit 600 home runs. Sosa, 38 and inactive since 2005, when he hit .221 with Baltimore, needs 12 in a comeback year with his original team, the Texas Rangers.

Tom Glavine, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez all have a shot at significant-round-number glory too. This list would look different if we had 11 fingers instead of 10, but there you go.

Last year was notable for a wave of impact rookies. Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins and Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers won the Rookie of the Year awards in 2006, but they were the tip of the kidberg. It was the kind of year when dynamite A.L. rooks Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver and Nick Markakis combined to get two first-place votes for Rookie of the Year, when Prince Fielder could hit 28 home runs and finish seventh in the N.L. voting.

This year doesn't appear to have that kind of rookie firepower -- no year will ever appear to have it -- but as always there are some kids to watch.

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Kansas City third baseman Alex Gordon is as sure a thing as a prospect can be, which is still less than a sure thing. Center fielder Chris Young and shortstop Stephen Drew -- in his first full year but not a rookie -- lead a youth brigade that has the Arizona Diamondbacks a chic pick in the National League West. Dustin Pedroia has been shown a thousand hours of David Eckstein video and handed the Boston Red Sox second-base job.

And then there's the 800-pound gorilla of a rookie, Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox, already a superstar before throwing his first American League pitch, gyroball or otherwise. The 26-year-old $103 million man, formerly an ace for the Seibu Lions of Japan's Pacific League, begins his American life as Boston's No. 2 man behind Curt Schilling, but if scouting reports and his first spring training are any indication, he'll be No. 1 before long.

Dice-K joins a wave of young talent in the big leagues that's created a feeling of generational shift. Established superstars like Manny Ramirez, Roy Oswalt, Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran are still going strong, of course, but some of the game's brightest names still have that new-star smell.

Joe Mauer, Grady Sizemore, Justin Morneau, Carl Crawford, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Brian McCann, Carlos Zambrano and Jake Peavy, just to pull half a dozen names out of each league's hat, all have at least one thing in common: They're younger than those grand old men, Johan Santana, 28, and Albert Pujols, 27. Ryan Howard is older than Pujols but younger than Santana. Grizzled veteran Francisco Rodriguez just turned 25, and he's older than Miguel Cabrera.

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These are good times on the field.

The Cardinals and Detroit Tigers will try to defend their pennants, each surprising in its own way, St. Louis one of the weakest teams ever to win a World Series and Detroit the Cinderella story of 2006. Repeats are unlikely, as usual. The last team to win a league two years running was the New York Yankees in 2000-01. Remember when the Yankees were in the World Series all the time?

Let's have a look. We'll raise the curtain with the National League today and get a load of the headliner, the much stronger American League, Thursday. As always, this column bravely moves west to east, against the tide of Manifest Destiny.

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WEST DIVISION

2006 finish: San Diego, Los Angeles (tie, wild card), San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado (Note: San Diego declared champion via tiebreakers)

The Arizona Diamondbacks went out and bought themselves a championship in 2001, their fourth year of existence, and they've staggered under the weight of their payroll since. Now, with a crop of exciting kids and the return of Randy Johnson, they're poised to become the team of 2007. Then again, the Cleveland Indians were poised to become the team of 2006, and they went 78-84.

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Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Carlos Quentin, not to mention Alberto Callaspo and Justin Upton among others who are coming, look like a nucleus that will carry this team for a good while. The D-Backs' fortunes will depend on how quickly they reach their potential, how much Johnson has left and whether the club can come up with enough effective pitching to complement R.J. and ace Brandon Webb. It's a weak division in a weak league. Might as well bet on 'em.

The Los Angeles Dodgers still have plenty of good young talent, but they spent the winter collecting not-so-good, not-so-young talent -- Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre. The middle of the lineup is those two plus aging Jeff Kent and walking injury Nomar Garciaparra. The starting rotation looks like a disabled-list waiting room. If everything goes right, the Dodgers could contend. But not many surprising things have to happen for them to sink.

The San Diego Padres won this division last year, technically, and didn't do much in the off-season. They traded promising second baseman Josh Barfield for promising third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and brought in Marcus Giles to play second and Greg Maddux and David Wells to pitch.

They're pretty much the same story as last year: They're not a thrilling bunch and they're not deep, but if the division is there for the taking, they just might take it. Then -- last year's loss to St. Louis notwithstanding -- they're dangerous in the playoffs, with Jake Peavy and the other Chris Young, the tall one, as their top two starters.

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The Colorado Rockies started well last year, then tanked. This club's been trying to figure out how to win at altitude since 1993. If Todd Helton's still got some miles on him and the promised resurgence of Kaz Matsui pans out, and Coors Field continues the recent trend of not playing quite so much like a video-game stadium, and the pitching holds up, well, the Rockies could have a nice year. That was a lot of ands.

I don't want to say the San Francisco Giants are old, but the most downloaded file on the clubhouse computer is a photo of Clara Bow.

Predicted finish: Arizona, San Diego, Los Angeles, Colorado, San Francisco

CENTRAL DIVISION

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2006 finish: St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Chicago

And if you thought the West was bad ...

Last year's Cardinals were arguably the worst team ever to win the World Series, though they played well in October. They didn't get any better in the off-season, may have gotten worse and can reasonably be called the favorites to win this division again. Eighty-three wins may not do the trick this time, but then again, it might.

The Chicago Cubs spent eleventy-six kadwillion dollars to try to go from last to first in one year, lavishing monster contracts on Alfonso Soriano, whom they want to play center field after one season as a left fielder, Mark DeRosa, a 32-year-old journeyman coming off a career year, and Jason Marquis, who was so bad last year he was only able to get $21 million over the winter.

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We are unconvinced. There will be good players romping around Wrigley Field this year, particularly if Soriano works out in center, Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd and Carlos Zambrano stay healthy and not too many balls are hit in the direction of Aramis Ramirez. But a whole lot of good things have to be done by a whole lot of guys like Marquis, DeRosa, Ted Lilly, Jacque Jones and Cesar Izturis for this team to really be good.

The good news is they may not have to be good. The Cardinals have cobbled together a rotation of Chris Carpenter and a lot of questions. Like: Can Adam Wainwright succeed as a starter? Will he be needed in the bullpen when Jason Isringhausen's hip gives out? Is Anthony Reyes ready? Can pitching coach/career resurrector Dave Duncan bring Kip Wells back? And: Braden? Looper?

More questions: Are Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein just struggling with injuries or nearing the end? Will Scott Rolen ever have another healthy year? That Chris Duncan slugging thing last year: Was that real? Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter are rocks. Otherwise, this is a club with a lot of questions and not much depth. But Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty has been adept over the years at getting in-season help when he needs it, so the Cardinals aren't out of it until they're out of it.

The Milwaukee Brewers always seem to be a year away. This year's as good as any to pick them to win the division, but then, so was last year, and they most assuredly didn't win the division. Bill Hall, coming off a breakout year at shortstop, moves to the outfield, where he becomes part of a glut. If Milwaukee can solve that logjam and get some quality players in trade, the Brewers could go places. The early returns: Brady Clark to the Dodgers for reliever Elmer Dessens. Meh.

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If Ben Sheets can stay healthy, he's an ace, and a nice 1-2 with Chris Capuano. Prince Fielder and Hall are big bats in the middle, Rickie Weeks is an exciting leadoff man and, unfortunately, an equally exciting second baseman.

The Brewers look like they're about a year away, except they look farther away than they did at this point last year, when they looked like they were about a year away. Then again, last year at this time I thought the Detroit Tigers were about a year away. So for no reason better than how confusing this paragraph is and the lack of quality in this division, I'm taking a flier on the Brewers.

The Houston Astros made a run at the Cardinals last September and actually finished with a winning record -- 82-80 -- but I think this team's headed south. Of course, I always think that about the Astros.

Way too many at-bats go to Craig Biggio, Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus, and distressingly few days go by before the rotation gets to Woody Williams, who had a nice year with the Padres last year, but only when he pitched at home. The Juice Box in Houston is sort of the anti-Petco Park. Wear helmets in the Crawford Boxes.

And Williams is still ahead of Wandy Rodriguez, and Wandy Rodriguez -- who is, not to belabor the point, Wandy Rodriguez -- is ahead of someone. I'm afraid to look who. I'm ducking. Closer Brad -- whoa! What was that? -- Lidge tries to bounce back from a terrible year.

The Cincinnati Reds finished third, three and a half games out last year, mostly an accident of history. The news in Cincy is that Ken Griffey Jr. moves from center field to right, about five years too late, and the story figures to be Josh Hamilton, who appears to have made the team as a reserve outfielder. The top pick in the 1999 draft has been in the wilderness for years, battling a drug problem, and the Reds got him in the Rule V draft, which means for free.

The rotation: Arroyo and Harang, then boom, crash, bang.

The Pittsburgh Pirates last finished as high as third in 1999, and you can win a bar bet with this one: How many times have they finished last in the seven years since? Only twice. The Pirates are consistently awful -- their last winning season was in 1992 -- but there's usually one team a little worse.

A nice goal would be to finish third again. Probably asking too much, but this is the N.L. Central. The Pirates brain trust, such as it is, seems to think standing pat after a 67-95 season is the way to get there, probably because the Pirates were respectable in the second half, going 41-42 after a 13-game losing streak in late June.

Well, good luck with that. There's been some tinkering, reliever Mike Gonzalez going to Atlanta for first baseman Adam LaRoche, that sort of thing, and almost by accident a corps of decent or potentially decent young starting pitchers has emerged. But this is still a bad team.

Predicted finish: Milwaukee, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh

EAST DIVISION

Even more than the Brewers, the Philadelphia Phillies always seem to be just about there. And they always end up not quite there. Three years in a row and four of the last six, the Phillies have finished second. The other two, they finished third. In all six of those years, they've won between 80 and 88 games. In four of them, they've won either 85 or 86.

The Phillies are like one of those days when it won't quite rain but won't quite stop drizzling either. Come on, you think, one way or the other, just do something.

This is roughly the same team it was a year ago, at least after it gave Bobby Abreu to the Yankees. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell -- Philadelphians' low opinion of the latter aside -- are a terrific middle of the order, Jimmy Rollins a fine top. The rotation is deep, if a little shaky, with the likes of injury-prone Adam Eaton and ancient junkballer Jamie Moyer.

The supposed depth of that six-strong rotation was called into question this week when, in the space of a few days, Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber both got hurt. They should be back, but not so fast with that idea of trading one of those starters to fill the void in right field.

Still, a team that keeps winning 86 games is only a few breaks from winning 90, which in this league is enough for a playoff spot. And general manager Pat Gillick is one of the sharpest minds in baseball, despite that Abreu trade. If the Phillies can hang close with the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves, and maybe the Florida Marlins, in what figures to be a tough race, Gillick might be able to swing a deal to tip the balance.

The Mets were the class of the league in the regular season last year, which isn't saying much. They look on paper more or less like the class of this year too, as long as you don't look too closely at that rickety starting rotation. Jose Reyes and David Wright are two of the most exciting young players in the game, and Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado are a formidable middle.

But overall this is an aging team that relies on a bunch of guys who haven't looked great lately, guys like Shawn Green and Oliver Perez. Orlando Hernandez has had his moments, both good and bad. Tom Glavine turned in another fine year, but he's 41, and at some point, it's going to be that time.

The Braves' streak of winning this division, which dated to its first completed season in 1995, finally ended last year. But the Braves didn't fall off a cliff and they haven't had to rebuild. They've tried to upgrade their bullpen and they're hoping Scott Thorman and Kelly Johnson will be adequate replacements for LaRoche and Giles on the right side of the infield.

With that, a bounce-back season from Tim Hudson, a big walk year from Andruw Jones and more ageless dominance from John Smoltz, they'll be right there.

The Marlins were the surprise of the National League, the senior-circuit Tigers, though without the postseason appearance. With a rosterful of babies, they hung around for most of the year before finishing 78-84. Manager Joe Girardi was jettisoned for the admirable trait of not getting along with owner Jeffrey Loria, but otherwise the Marlins are a similar bunch in 2007, just a year older, meaning a few of them are shaving now.

This team is built around Miguel Cabrera, who while widely praised is so good he may be underrated, and a deep, young pitching staff. With continued development of live arms like Anibal Sanchez and Scott Olsen, and the odd nice surprise like second baseman Dan Uggla last year, the Marlins could spend the year in the thick part of the wild-card or even the division standings. But it's not hard to imagine them losing 90 games either.

You won't have to imagine the Washington Nationals losing 90 games. They could take care of that by Labor Day. Just about the only reason to watch this team is third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals will have a significant number of games started this year by pitchers who wouldn't earn a single start with a single other team, including Pittsburgh.

But it's not all bad news in Washington.

Oh wait. Yes it is.

Predicted finish: Philadelphia, Atlanta (wild card), New York, Florida, Grand Canyon, Marianas Trench, Washington

Thursday: The American League

Previous column: That's not cricket

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