King Kaufman's Sports Daily

National League preview: As the steroid cloud starts to lift, an unjuiced look at the senior circuit.

By King Kaufman

Published April 1, 2008 9:00AM (EDT)

Welcome to the first Salon baseball preview of the post-steroids era.

Yeah, I'm just declaring that, OK?

It's not that I think the juicers have stopped juicing to any significant degree, but it does feel like the worst of the hysteria is passing. Maybe it's the absence, for now, of Barry Bonds and all the hanky twisting over his breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record.

Roger Clemens, who only recently became a drug pariah, is also absent. Clemens doesn't appear likely to return. Bonds will be back when some team is willing to trade some rough P.R. for a big bat with an eye to the postseason and maybe it'll all start again.

Management and the players union are adjusting the testing program again and Congress is still stomping its feet around, but the season just seems to be getting underway without all that lamentation about the game being ruined and the children not being thought of.

Also, I'm off the juice myself, which explains why this season preview is appearing after the start of the season. We'll call it the midseason season preview. I admit it: I'm cheating. I already have some insights that fellow prognosticators didn't have in the preseason. For example, the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A's are both looking like .500 teams so far.

It's just something I'm doing once. Actually twice, because this is the first of two parts. But I really regret it.

Following recent habit, we'll start with the National League and move on to the big stuff Wednesday. And as always, we travel west to east.


2007 finish: Arizona, Colorado (wild card), San Diego (tie), Los Angeles, San Francisco (Note: Colorado beat San Diego in a wild-card playoff game)

Let's get the easy part out of the way: The Giants are going to be terrible. Their steadfast refusal to rebuild while Bonds was on the payroll has left them with an old, bad team and almost nobody in the farm system. Even with talented young pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, they could lose 100.

By Labor Day.

The Diamondbacks were the sexy pick last year and what do you know, they put out. They won 90 games and took the division despite being outscored. They're much the same this year, with a lot of room for improvement from future studs Chris Young in center field and Stephen Drew at shortstop, plus a full year from third baseman Mark Reynolds.

The D-Backs emptied their farm system to get Dan Haren from Oakland to pair with Brandon Webb at the top of the rotation. The Diamondbacks traded closer Jose Valverde to Houston in the offseason, but an excellent bullpen remains mostly intact. Arizona is sexy again.

But nobody was sexier than the Rockies at the end of last year. They went on one of the hottest hot streaks in the hot history of hot to force a wild-card playoff, win it and sweep two playoff series to get to the World Series. There, having won 10 straight and 21 of 22, they promptly got swept by the Boston Red Sox.

Proving what? That hot and cold streaks happen in baseball, is all. You can't say that the Rockies were somehow illegitimate because they had to win 14 of their last 15 just to squeeze into the playoffs. They won enough games, over the whole year, to get there. Doesn't matter what order they happened in.

Like the Padres and Dodgers, the Rockies are good enough to possibly cash in if the Diamondbacks falter. They got just enough pitching last year to go with the hitting that fits their ballpark, and that'll be the formula again. They're built around slugger Matt Holliday and sophomore shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, but they're going to ask for a lot from a staff headed by Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, who are not aces.

The Dodgers will hope their pitching stays healthy, that phenoms Chad Billingsley and, later in the year, Clayton Kershaw come through, that their veteran hitters stay on the field or the young talent coming up behind them is ready and that big-time free agent Andruw Jones bounces back to his 2006 form. And that Arizona's not that good.

The Padres look like they usually do: They'll struggle to score, so will their opponents, and they'll hang around in case the division's there to be taken.

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


2007 finish: Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh

The Cubs look like the best team in this weak division, but only because I hate to pick too many repeat winners, I'm going to go with the Brewers, who, as usual lately, look like they're almost good enough to win the division.

Chicago has a solid club, though they're hoping a lot of youngsters and newcomers -- Japanese veteran Kyosuke Fukudome in right and kids Felix Pie in center and Geovany Soto at catcher -- do a lot of damage. Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill top a rotation that gets real soft after them, and even if Kerry Wood can't stay healthy as the closer, the Cubs have Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry in reserve, which isn't bad.

I think the Cubs are better than the Brewers but I'm picking the Brewers because things happen. See what I'm doing there? I'll give the Cubs the wild card.

The Brewers have a ton of exciting young hitters -- Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy -- and a bullpen rebuilt with veterans, led by Eric Gagne. Like any rebuilt bullpen, it could be terrific or awful. It can be good even if Gagne is awful, which is a good bet.

The Brewers' season will come down to whether the starting rotation, topped by brittle veteran Ben Sheets and young 'un Yovani Gallardo, can be effective and healthy. Can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere: They'll need good starting pitching. The bet here is they'll get it.

Then there's everybody else. The Central Division is big enough and weak enough lately that there's usually a team that surprises everyone, and I think this year that team will be the much-maligned Dusty Baker's Reds.

Cincinnati's farm system is in the process of spitting out Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, the last of whom went from hot prospect to horrible bust in the space of nine starts last year. Cubs fans and the sabermetric crowd will tell you that Baker's just the guy to screw the whole thing up, but while I don't completely disagree, I have a feeling he's going to coax a roughly .500 season out of this not untalented team.

A lack of hitting will doom the Pirates, though the pitching won't exactly be stellar. Vice versa for the Cardinals and Astros. If I had to pick a team to emerge from that group and spend a little time in the wild-card race, I'd take the Astros, only because they always do better than I think they're going to.

Predicted finish: Milwaukee, Chicago (wild card), Cincinnati, Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh


2007 finish: Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Washington, Florida

All those years the Braves were winning their division every year, I refused to pick them, figuring I'd be damned if this would be the year they failed and I missed it. At long last in 2006 the Braves' streak came to an end and for the first time ever I was right about the N.L. East. I picked the Mets.

Last year, I went with the Phillies, who had an even longer streak going. They'd finished second for 267 years running. The last time they'd finished anywhere else, they'd ridden a Ben Franklin hot streak to the Colonial League pennant. Thanks to a collapse for the ages by the Mets, I was right again.

More because of voodoo and incantations than for what's on the field, I'm taking the Braves to return to the top this year. I'm essentially that guy making bad bets at the craps table at this point, but hey, that guy's having fun, isn't he?

I do like the Braves, who have quietly rebuilt themselves back into a contender after, like, three weeks in the wilderness. They've got a lot of thump in the middle of the order with Mark Teixeira and, for however many games he's healthy, Chipper Jones. I figure Brian McCann for a bounce-back and Jeffrey Francouer for continued improvement.

Of the Sunshine Boys, I've got John Smoltz and Tom Glavine healthy and effective, Mike Hampton not. Add in Tim Hudson and a bunch of candidates to replace Hampton, plus a solid-looking bullpen, and the Braves look like division winners to me.

A word on the science behind my Sunshine Boys projection: That word is "divination."

The Mets also look like division winners to me. They would have been last year if not for that epic pratfall -- which, see Colorado, still counts -- and then they added Johan Santana. But, boy, do they look fragile. They're counting on old and brittle Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez -- did you know Ben Franklin gave him the "El Duque" nickname? -- to take up two rotation spots, and inconsistent Oliver Perez to man a third.

And the lineup is likewise awfully brittle and old, which makes the lack of depth alarming. On the other hand, the Mets have third baseman David Wright, who may be taking over from sore-armed Albert Pujols as the best player in the league, plus exciting shortstop Jose Reyes and understatedly great center fielder Carlos Beltran -- as long as his knees hold out. The Mets will be in the wild-card race, as will about half the league, as usual, but I think the injuries and age will do them in.

The Phillies will score runs, and if they can get enough good starts out of the back of the rotation, they could make it two in a row. I think it's going to be Cole Hamels and Brett Myers and something that indicates how bad the rest of the rotation is and rhymes with Myers.

Bear with me. I said I was off the juice.

The bullpen will struggle too, even if Brad Lidge makes a comeback, which I don't think will happen.

The Nationals are in a new ballpark and they're off to a 2-0 start -- notice how I get the drop on honest prognosticators, who had no idea that would happen last week when they did their previews. I think good things are happening with this club.

The Nats have a ways to go, especially with the pitching -- sometime, really, they're going to get a starter who would be a starter with another team -- but they're getting there with the lineup. Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes have been added to Ryan Zimmerman and Wily Mo Pena, who's out with an oblique strain at the moment, and they're on the verge of making the Nationals a pretty interesting team.

The Marlins are in tear-down mode again, having traded away Miguel Cabrera and -- not that this hurts them -- Dontrelle Willis and trimmed the payroll to $21 million, which in baseball is peanuts.

On the one hand, it's shameful that a club that's getting more than $30 million in revenue sharing, plus more than a half-billion in stadium subsidies, is tossing a $21 million team out there and actually expecting fans to pay for it. On the other, the Cabrera-Willis trade, with Detroit, brought possible future stars Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to town, and the last time the Marlins pulled this trick, they ended up winning the World Series the next year.

Predicted finish: Atlanta, Philadelphia (where else?), New York, Washington, Florida

Wednesday: The American League, plus postseason predictions

Previous column: NCAA Tournament: The four tops

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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