I was watching a Mets game in 2001 or 2002, I can't quite remember when, but it was late in the season, the Mets were languishing out of the race, and Tug McGraw was in the booth. I believe it was one of his last appearances before he passed away. But he was his usual loquacious self in the booth, and he said one thing in particular that stuck with me. It's a loose interpretation, not an exact quote, but it went something like this:
"I don't consider what they play in the AL Baseball. That's Commie Baseball. Who the hell can call that real Baseball?! There's no strategy! There's a DH! Commie Style Baseball."
I agree with Tug. A colleague of mine refers to the AL as "Fatboy Baseball," in reference to the stature of some of the gentlemen masquerading as ballplayers, calling themselves "Designated Hitters."
It's true, the AL lacks in strategy and pitching. Moreover, they still boast three teams that actually still play on carpet. It is for this reason, that this preview for the 2007 will consist of a preview for the National League, for that is the league that plays a pure style of baseball, where the grass is real, the pitchers bat, and the ballparks are spacious (unless you're Philadelphia, Houston or Cincinnati).
It should be another bizarre season in the NL. As per usual, a number of teams will present completely different looks than they had the season before. But last season, we saw a number of underdogs prevail, particularly the Mets, who came in as a contender and ended the season with the league's best record. San Diego seems to be forever undermanned, but they continued to win. LA shook off injuries and inconsistency. The Cardinals, it could be said, underperformed in '06, falling from 100 wins to 83, before a miraculous postseason run, culminating in a World Championship.
In the words of Joaquin Andujar, "Youneverknow."
1) New York Mets (94-68)
Would you expect any less from me? The Mets should and probably will repeat as the class of the NL East in '07. The league's best offense is more or less completely intact, Alou replacing Floyd and it should be only a matter of time before Milledge unseats Green in RF. But here's the wrinkle I think the Mets will have. With my Carlos Beltran inflection, "I do believe..." that the Mets Starting rotation will emerge as the team's strength. Glavine will be Glavine. El Duque will miss his share of starts, get shelled his share of times, and pitch well every other time. But it is the back end that has intrigued me for months. I think that the Mets have some bigtime emerging talent in Maine, Perez and Pelfrey, and I look for these three to step it up as the season progresses. Consistency will be the key for all three of them. Yes, they'll have their spotty moments, but they will prove themselves up to the challenge, and take the pressure off of the bullpen, which will once again be one of the league's most often used. Do their jobs, and the offense will take care of the rest.
2) Philadelphia Phillies (87-75)
Much has been made of the additions that Philadelphia made. Much has also been made of the flapping of the gums done by Jimmy Rollins. Rollins is great, no doubt, and with the thunder in the lineup behind him consisting of Utley, Howard, Rowand and Burrell, they're sure to light up the scoreboard in that tiny abomination of a ballpark.
But here's the problem.
Yes, they've added some skilled pitchers in Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, working in front of Hamels, Lieber and Moyer. But Garcia has had the benefit of pitching in a couple of the rare spacious pitcher's parks on the other side, and even then pitched to some high ERA's in front of some good hitting lineups. And Eaton is a talented mystery who has never quite put it together. And the bullpen isn't much to write home about at all. Closing is the ageless Flash Gordon, far from a lock. So the question is, can the Phillies hit enough to offset what should be some questionable pitching? Perhaps, but it will only take them so far.
3) Atlanty Braves (82-80)
They put a great deal of emphasis into restocking their bullpen in the offseason, and while that will prove to be better than it was last year (I believe they have a real closer now, since Wickman appears to have eaten most of his competition), I'm not sold that the rest of the team is any better. The pitching staff consists of a struggling Tim Hudson, the ageless John Smoltz, Mike Hampton coming off Tommy John surgery, Chuck James (who could surprise and break out) and most likely some combination of Kyle Davies or whoever else has a warm arm and can throw 5 innings. The offense is about as exciting as the latest Van Halen album. Wow. Larry and Andro Jones shall ride again. Jeff "Charboneau 2006" Francoeur and Brian McCann. Yay. Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans. Be still my heart. Best of all: Chris Woodward off the bench. Fun times in Dixieland!
4) Florida Marlins (75-87)
Contingent on the performance of Dontrelle, mainly, and how Miguel Cabrera will respond when some (and there will be some) of his teammates experience a sophomore slump. They are young, and talented and emerging, but not contenders. But the pitchers are good (particularly Johnson and Sanchez) and they can beat you if you catch them on the wrong day. But it will still be an uphill climb, and we don't know how they will respond to their new manager Fredi Gonzalez following the departure of the popular but embattled Joe Girardi.
5) Washington Nationals (70-92)
Funny thing about the Nationals. Have you ever noticed that they have all these guys with Jewish first names and Hispanic last names? Saul Rivera? Bernie Castro? And I think they have a rookie pitcher named Irving Sanchez, too.
1) St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
Yeah, I guess they'll ride again. But the bullpen is a shambles. I think Isringhausen's arm is in danger of flying off at any given moment, and his knees are completely shot. Their best relievers, Wainwright and The Jerk, are both in the starting rotation, backing Carpenter, injury prone Kip Wells and youngster Al Reyes. But they'll ride again, behind the wave of good buddy Poo-Holes and the geriatric ward of Rolen and Edmonds, and find their way into October yet again.
I will now go and vomit.
2) Houston Astros (88-74)
So, when's Clemens coming back this year? Or will Berkman have to shoulder the load by himself as per usual. Actually, with Carlos Lee now hitting behind him (although Lee, formerly the perfect fatboy ballplayer, is stuck in the field now), Berkman could conceivably better his lofty numbers of '06. He's an elite player, but he doesn't have the chips around him. Ensberg returning to his All Star form of '05 is key, as is the performance of pitchers Jennings, Woody and a couple of inconsistent rookies, pitching behind Oswalt, who will again be one of the game's best. There are a lot of variables that need to fall into place to make the Astros a success this season, but I have the feeling that they'll be able to do what's necessary and reel in the Wildcard.
3) Milwaukee Brewers (83-79)
I'd expect the Brewers to be a decent and thoroughly unexciting club to watch over the course of the season. Sheets should finally return to form and he's backed by some very solid pitchers in Capuano and Bush. The offense will miss Carlos Lee, but Bill Hall came out of nowhere to emerge as a star, and I've always been impressed by Johnny Estrada. But outside of that, a pretty ho hum bunch.
4) Chicago Cubs (81-81)
Spend, spend, spend! $136 million for a 50 HR guy...and they're batting him leadoff? The Cubs will certainly produce some major thunder on offense. Soriano is just the appetizer, hitting in front of a finally healthy Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Good friend Cliff Floyd will platoon in left with the emerging Matt Murton and we certainly wish him all the best.
And then there's the pitching...
It's Carlos Zambrano (the good Zambrano, in case you forgot) and who exactly? Ted Lilly is next, and I'd like to see who gets the better of the first fistfight between him and Piniella. Rich Hill could be good, and then there's Glendon Rusch, Jason Marquis and Mark Prior and his 83MPH heater. The bullpen is assembled mostly of castoffs from the 1999 Chicago White Sox.
5) Cincinnati Reds (76-86)
Out of all the teams that probably figure to be bad, I think Cincinnati has the best chance to "hang around and give those guys a great big shitburger," in the words of Cleveland manager Lou Brown. If Freel can lay off the booze, Griffey can stay healthy, Dunn can cut down his strikeouts, and guys like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang can prove last season wasn't a fluke, the Reds could surprise a few people.
Then again, their bullpen is anchored by a couple of familiar faces. David Weathers and Mike Stanton.
Probably another long season in Cincinnati.
6) Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94)
Blah, blah, blah, BAY, blah, blah, blah.
1) Los Angeles Dodgers (89-73)
The race in the west will probably come right down to the wire, with last season's culprits, the Dodgers and Padres doing battle once again. Last year, the Padres came up with the necessary pitching and clutch hitting to get the job done. I think the Dodgers have it in them this year. The pitching is suspect, with Penny always a mystery, Schmidt coming off a couple of injury plagued seasons, followed by Lowe, Randy Wolf also fresh off the operating table, and finally, mysteriously, Brett Tomko. Brett Tomko???
But, they'll hit in bunches, especially if they let some of their youngsters like Matt Kemp and James Loney play. The geriatric bunch of Nomar, Luis Gonzalez and Kent will also be there, and Pierre at the top of the lineup should be an improvement over Kenny Lofton. It seems a similar formula to the Cardinals recipe for success last year, with the exception of the breakaway talent of you-know-who. Might work, but not as well as it did for St. Louis.
2) San Diego Padres (86-76)
The Padres will, once again, field a team that looks to be low and leaky on paper, and yet somehow manages to produce and be competitive throughout the season. This year will be no different. They have a number of question marks on offense, especially in Left Field and Third Base, but they have solid options everywhere else. Similar to Milwaukee, nobody will light up the scoreboard, but they are a plucky bunch. The rotation is anchored by Peavy and Crybaby Jerkins in front of Chris Young who could really emerge as a star. The bullpen is strong up front with Linebrink and Hoffman, but weak after that, and that could very well spell their doom in the end.
3) San Francisco Giants (81-81)
I heard that the entire team is going to be doing the "Just for Men" ads this season, unseating Keith and Clyde. And they should be advertising for some sort of Men's health/appearance improvement product. One that's legal, that is.
4) Arizona Diamondbacks (79-83)
Randy Returns, but will it help much? The future has arrived in earnest for the D'Backs, replete with some hideous new uniforms. Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin and Chris B. Young round out a quartet of youngsters that will anchor the club's future. The pieces around them are good, albeit a middling bunch. Orlando Hudson is OK and so is Chad Tracy, but behind Brandon Webb and Mr. Unit, there's not much help to be had from the pitching staff.
5) Colorado Rockies (67-95)
Yawn. I'm tired. It's tough putting all these short team capsules together. You know, I thought about calling it a night by time I got to the NL West, but no, I kept on. And that is what a true winner does. When he's tired, he finishes what he started before he goes to bed. And he makes sure that we all have something to read in the morning with the coffee and the donuts and the New York Times in the staff lounge at work.
(Yeah, I thought this might be a little more interesting than hearing about the Rockies.)
And so your playoff teams are:
NL East Champ: New York Mets
NL Central Champ: St. Louis Cardinals
NL West Champ: Los Angeles Dodgers
NL Wildcard: Houston Astros
Mets over Astros (4)
Dodgers over Cardinals (5)
Mets over Dodgers (6)
And if you want to read an AL preview? Well, maybe El Guapo will write one. Don't look for one out of me.