Monday, March 17, 2008

Calculated to Prove Nothing In Particular (2008 National League Preview)

I wonder if writing a National League preview is even worth my time. If there's one thing that's been proven over the past few years, especially in the National League, it's that Parity Rules. I can make my picks to the best of my ability, and do a halfway decent job of it, but chances are I won't be anywhere close to correct.

Case in point: Last season, I picked the Mets, Cardinals, Astros and Dodgers as the NL Playoff teams. Of those 4 teams, only the Mets even had a sniff of a pennant race, and even they managed to cock it all up at the end. I laughed at the Cubs, scoffed at the D'Backs and basically treated the Colorado Rockies as if they didn't exist.

So, basically, it proves one thing: What the hell do I know?

After the season, I figured, well, you could just throw a bunch of teams in a hat, pull out some names and that would be as good a pick as any. In November, the Former El Guapo and I picked our 2008 Playoff teams.

His picks, the Mets, LA, Chicago and Philly, were pretty logical. I decided that I should pick like the NFL, and choose some obscure teams to win. So I said the Mets, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Florida.

I'm not going to stick by those picks now, but at the time, those teams seemed to be as good a pick as any.

At any rate, here's the Preview (Records are inexact and can be taken at a range of +/-5):

1) New York Mets (95-77)
The Mets are clearly still smarting from their collapse last season, but rather than let the bad feelings and negativity fester, the Mets went out and added a silver bullet in Johan Santana, basically tilting the power in the NL East, and likely the NL altogether back in their favor. The team still has its flaws. The Bullpen is far from perfect, and the offense is old, shaky or injury-prone at several positions. But there are certain instances where Starting Pitching, and very good starting pitching can carry a team for a large chunk of the season, and the Mets certainly boast the horses to do this. David Wright is pretty much All-World and Jose Reyes appears determined to correct his attitude problems. The questions have been addressed at various places in this blog and elsewhere. They're not going to walk away with the division like they did in 2006, and they're going to have to deal with a chippy Philadelphia team all season long. But this Mets team has come in pissed off and ready to take back what they believe was rightfully theirs. I wouldn't bet against them.

2) Philadelphia Phillies (92-70)
Once again, I'll go ahead and say Jimmy Rollins is out of his mind. He was out of his mind like a fox last season, when his cup runneth over and his preseason prediction came true. But the Phillies are nowhere close to a 100-win team. They might be a 1,000 run team, but not 100 wins. With Rollins, Utley, Howard and Burrell anchoring the offense in their piddling little bandbox of a ballpark, they will score, score and score some more. But can they pitch? Cole Hamels is clearly the ace, and for the moment, Brett Myers will be in the rotation with him, along with Adam Eaton, Jaime Moyer and Kyle Kendrick. Guys who are decent, but wholly unspectacular, and no pitcher can be guaranteed a great deal of success in Steroid Field #2. The bullpen is suspect as well. Yes, they brought in a flamethrower in Brad Lidge, but Brad Lidge, who has been susceptible to getting killed on pitches up, combined with the ballpark is likely bad news, and if he falters, the other options are Tom Gordon, who turns 50 this season, I believe, and Myers, which would leave a hole in the starting rotation.

Last season, the Phillies basically couldn't get out of their own way for most of the season. Except when they played the Mets. And when they finally got their act together, the Mets were falling apart. That won't happen again. But I think the Phillies will be able to do enough to hang around again, and although they might not top the Mets for the Division, they'll be good enough to win the Wildcard and return to the Playoffs.

3) Atlanta Braves (83-79)
The most ballyhooed offseason acquisition for the Braves involved bringing in a 41-year old pitcher whose last start involved him getting blasted for 7 runs in .1IP. They're throwing him in with another aging veteran pitcher, and an injury-prone headcase who hasn't pitched in two seasons. Then, there's Tim Hudson, who somehow turned into this generation's Bret Saberhagen, up one year, down the next.

On the other side, the offense should be only marginally exciting. Andruw Jones departs after 13 seasons, and will be replaced by Mark Kotsay, who boasts a great arm and a spotty bat. The thunder will come from Larry and Mark Teixeira, and Yunel Escobar looks like an All-Star in waiting. Francoeur and McCann will also return to round out a lineup that really doesn't jump off the page at you.

Overall, the Braves have some good individual players, and they might hang around into September, but a team can only be as good as the sum of its parts, and altogether I just don't see these parts adding up to much. They'll fade late.

4) Washington Nationals (77-85)
The Nationals open their new ballpark this year, and they will be better than last season. It will, again, be the offense that will be the strength on this team, and with Nick Johnson returning from his gruesome leg injury, there is a 1B controversy between Johnson and Dmitri Young. No longer in cavernous RFK Stadium, the Nationals ought to generate some more offense, good news for guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena. Their crowded Outfield also includes talented headcases Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. They're very young in the outfield, but old on the infield (save Zimmerman). But the pitching isn't quite there; even if John Patterson has indeed healed from injury problems that have limited him to 15 games over the past 2 seasons, they're still a few years away from seriously contending.

5) Florida Marlins (68-94)
Here we go again. After the Marlins finished strong and really kicked the Mets in the nuts at the end of last season, I thought the Marlins were a bat and a pitcher away from being a major player in the NL East. In fact, my November Wildcard pick for the NL was the Florida Marlins.

Then, they turned around and dealt Dontrelle and Miguel Cabrera for 6 prospects. So much for that thought.

The young nucleus of Willingham, Hermida, Jacobs and Uggla remain, and they will all be good. So will Cameron Maybin, if he ascends. But the pitching rotation is pretty much devoid of experienced Major League talent, and looks to consist of Josh Johnson off Elbow Reconstruction, Sweaty drunk Scott Olsen, Anibal Sanchez off a major shoulder injury, and someone out of a pool of names that includes guys like Henricus Vanden Hurk, Mark Hendrickson, Ricky Nolasco and Andrew Miller.

It's going to be a long season for the 14,000 or so fans who show up at that football stadium this Summer.

1) Milwaukee Brewers (88-74)
The NL Central is probably the most difficult division to predict. I'll pick the Brewers here, if only because they did start strong last season, but faded late when injuries and ineffectiveness hit their pitching staff. The rotation remains mostly the same, with Sheets, Capuano and Suppan leading the way, and the bullpen did take a hit losing Cordero and replacing him with a giant question mark in Eric Gagne. They are built similar to Philadelphia, with a great offense led by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and adding some pop with Mike Cameron will also be a boost. They'll have to peck and scratch at times, but I think they'll be able to hold off Chicago and win the Central, making their first appearance in the Postseason since 1982.

2) Chicago Cubs (87-75)
They hit an awful lot in the NL Central, but don't seem to be able to pitch much. This seems to be a recurring theme across the board. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and newcomer Kosuke Fukudome will lead this team that seemed to make the playoffs by accident last season and were swept away by Arizona. Outside of Carlos Zambrano, I don't see any pitcher who will really light anyone on fire this year, although Rich Hill could ascend and surprise a bit this season. Guys like Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Jason Marquis and Jon Lieber can only stem the tide so much and it'll be difficult for the offense to carry the load when the pitching across the board is such a big question mark. They'll keep it close, and for all I know they could win, since they do boast the most talented roster in the division. But I don't think they have enough, and the Cubs will successfully manage to go 100 years without winning a World Series.

3) Houston Astros (84-78)
Offense, offense, offense, once again. Assuming Miguel Tejada isn't suspended or indicted in the whole Steroid mess, he's going to be the new anchor of this offense, taking some of the pressure off of Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee in the middle of a lineup that will score runs in bunches, but outside of Roy Oswalt really won't pitch much. I mean, who are we kidding here? Wandy Rodriguez? Brandon Backe? Woody Williams? The deal to bring in Tejada certainly helped the offense, but they dealt several talented pitching prospects to Baltimore to get him, and basically left themselves very, very thin on pitching, and this is a case of, as I am apt to say, Bad Idea Jeans.

4) St. Louis Cardinals (81-81)
Getting Chris Carpenter back after missing just about all of the 2007 season will help, but the Cardinals are still a low, leaky team outside of Albert Pujols. They're pinning an awful lot on some major question marks like Mark Mulder and Matt Clement as far as their starting rotation is concerned, and that's puzzling because it blocks guys like Adam Wainwright to really have a solid chance to show what they can do. The offense is a muddled mishmash of aging veterans and fringe prospects once you get past Pujols, and it's conceivable that opponents could exploit this to the point of embarrassment. Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

5) Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
Wow, another team that hits and can't pitch. You could basically copy and paste the capsules I've just written for Milwaukee, Chicago or Houston and swap in the names Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips and Ken Griffey, Jr in for the offense, and Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang and Homer Bailey in for pitchers. Guys like Norris Hopper, Jeff Keppinger and Joey Votto will also contribute heavily to the cause at the plate.

The Reds are intriguing, however, if only because they seem to have a lot of young talent. They are very much in the vein of the Nationals, with a solid mix of young, upcoming players combined with their established veterans. They also added Francisco Cordero to shore up what was a truly awful bullpen last year, ensuring that they will have a real closer, not David Weathers at the end of games. The middle relief is still suspect. But I'd look for the Reds to surprise a few people. They're still a year or two off from challenging seriously, but they've got guys who can play and could be good with a little more experience.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87)
The Pirates are, in my opinion, the only team in this division that can pitch. They've got a pair of truly unheralded, un-noticed studs at the top of their rotation in Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, and Zach Duke is good too if he can stay healthy. But outside of Bay and Freddy Sanchez, they really can't hit at all. They're really the anomaly in the division, and given what the rest of the teams can throw at you, that's not going to work to their advantage. They have the beginnings of what could be a successful team at some point, but there are too many if-thens right now to take them seriously, and I knew that when I picked them to win the Central in November. They have a lot of hitters that are more nuisances than real threats, guys like Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche and Nyjer Morgan. But they're the kind of team that you could go to sleep on and then they'll bite you in the ass and you'll go into Pittsburgh, lose 2 of 3 and leave thinking, "How the hell did they beat us with guys like that?"

I'm intrigued by these "bottom feeders" in the NL Central if only because they're not as lousy as your typical last place teams. The Central as a whole is going to really be bunched up because of this, and, in all honesty, I'd call it any team's division right now. None of these teams would surprise me if they somehow won the Division.

1) Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69)
They're much more for real than I initially gave them credit for, especially now that they added Dan Haren behind Brandon Webb to lead an excellent pitching rotation. The offensive nucleus is still very young, but they've all got some pop, especially guys like Stephen Drew, Chris Young and Justin Upton, who could very well be the best of the bunch. A healthy Randy Johnson would only serve to bolster what is already perhaps the best starting rotation in the NL, mixed in with Doug Davis and Micah Owings. This is going to be a tough, tough team to play on most days, and they're easily the best team in the NL West.

2) Colorado Rockies (90-72)
Nobody thought the Rockies were going to do what they did last season. And now that they did, they're not going to sneak up on anybody this season. Teams are going to look at what they did last season, and gear up for them. True, much of the team remains, and guys like Holliday, Helton, Hawpe, Tulowitzki and Atkins are going to lead a very talented group that will score their share of runs. The pitching will also be good. I look, in particular, to guys like Ubaldo Jimemez and Franklin Morales to ascend and see some degree of success, even pitching in Colorado, to compliment Jeff Francis at the top of the rotation. But given that they rode a magical wave of success all the way down to the World Series last season when nobody thought it possible at all, they will find that it is just about impossible to do it again.

3) Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78)
Before he managed the Yankees, Casey Stengel was mostly unsuccessful as the manager of the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Moving to the AL, Stengel won 10 pennants, and 7 World Championships. Then, he returned to the NL, and, even though he was managing the expansion Mets, returned to losing regularly.

Casey Stengel, meet Joe Torre. Joe, welcome back to the National League, where strategy, not brute strength, is required to win.

4) San Diego Padres (80-82)
San Diego could conceivably bounce back from being 1 strike from a playoff berth and then losing it. But they didn't really do much to change their team, which didn't hit much, and outside of Peavy wasn't particularly exciting. They seem to be banking an awful lot on Mark Prior who hasn't pitched in 2 years, I believe, and replacing Mike Cameron with Jim Edmonds isn't going to help matters. The Padres have had a nice run over the past few seasons surviving with a nucleus of talented, unheralded players that ran out there day after day and played really hard, and won. But the rest of the division has caught up with them. Without a major change, this success won't continue.

5) San Francisco Giants (63-99)
The key comes down to whether or not Alex Smith can return from his separated shoulder and prove that he is indeed an NFL-caliber QB. Otherwise, this team is left having to re-build the team that they've been re-building for 3 years already. Frank Gore can only carry so much of the load, and he clearly wore down at the end of last season. On Defense, the revamped unit played well for much of the year last season, but also suffered from the league's most vanilla offensive unit. If Smith can play well, and preserve Gore's legs, and sustain drives, thereby keeping the Defense fresh, then this team will be good for 7, perhaps 8 wins. If they can be more opportunistic on defense and work in more big plays on offense (having Martz as the new offensive coordinator will certainly help), then 9 or 10 wins and perhaps, perhaps a playoff berth is a definite possibility.

(I thought it might be more interesting to write about the 2008 San Francisco 49ers than the 2008 San Francisco Giants. Just a thought.)

NL MVP: Prince Fielder, MIL
NL Cy Young: Johan Santana, NYM
NL Rookie of the Year: Joey Votto, CIN

NLDS: New York over Milwaukee, Arizona over Philadelphia
NLCS: New York over Arizona

So, there you have it. The National League in a nutshell. Now, let's go out there and play the games.

1 comment:

George said...

I'm with you on most counts. But with Capuano down for the year, I still gotta give the Central to the Cubbies.

You're probably right about Arizona, but I'll stick with LA just to keep a longshot pick.