23 March 2006

2006 National League

NL EAST
________________________________GB
  1. ATLANTA BRAVES
  2. NEW YORK METS________________2
  3. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES________5
  4. WASHINGTON NATIONALS________18
  5. FLORIDA MARLINS_____________28


There's a running joke in these predictions things that people tend to do over recent years that says, "I'll stop picking the Braves when they stop winning." It sounds silly- but it's actually true. Until the Braves show a demonstrable inability to address their needs in an offseason, and fall precipitously roster-wise, there's no need to pick against them (especially considering the quality of GMs Schuerholz is battling in the division). The thing is- they always address their concerns, and always do it economically and without giving up too much in trade chips. In fact, I think Schuerholz is probably the first GM to actually "win" a trade with Billy Beane, giving up two decent relievers (Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer), a 5th OF (Charles Thomas) for an ace (albeit an aging and increasingly brittle one) in Tim Hudson. Impressive.

But we know we can't hand the division to the team on reputation. So looking at their roster, the immediate reaction is that their pitching staff is not as deep as it's been in years past (an understatement, considering the Schuerholz staffs). The rotation looks like Hudson/ Smoltz/ Hampton/ Sosa/ Thomson. The big question mark will likely be Sosa who, in 134 IP last year, had a 2.55 ERA. Going into his age 29 season, Sosa's a little bit old to be following a steady development curve, and while he could be in the middle of a series of peak seasons that show him bearing decent value, it's hard to imagine him replicating 2005's numbers over another 134 IP, much less something close to 200. His peripherals are odd- a slight improvement in his BB rates, and a nice downturn in his opponent's batting average. At the same time, however, his K/9 rate went from 8.5 to 5.7- a pretty serious dip. Not being familiar with Leo Mazzone's specific philosophies, this could have had to do with some level of instruction leading him to pitch to contact. Either way- no more Mazzone in Atlanta.

And what of that? I would guess that 99.9% of the time, the pitching coach rarely has a significant positive effect. Once in a while, you have a Mel Stottlemyre, who ruins someone like Doc Gooden by forcing him to suppliment his brilliance with a level of mediocrity (insisting he throw a changeup a year after his Cy season), and then hanging on with a nice guy rep to muddle a bunch of veterans' mechanics and results. But never have we had as extensive a positive correlation between a pitcher joining a pitching coach, improving, and then even regressing after departing him. It's uncanny. So this may be the test- do the Braves simply promote someone who is going to basically copy Leo's style and practices? Warrants mentioning, I think. Jorge Sosa, Mike Hampton and John Thomson are all pitchers that specifically could use the Mazzone touch at this point in their careers. Obviously, so much of the Braves' season rides on the health of Hudson and Smoltz.

Offensively, they're deep- not a lot unlike Cleveland in that regard, though not as good. The Braves have solid young players at catcher, first base and the corner OF spots- Laroche at 1B has nice power, but will have to show a bit more plate discipline. With a full season in LF, Ryan Langerhans could have a great season- he has some nice power and a rapidly developing ability to get on base. Jeff Francoeur, the RF, is the one that everyone remembers from last year- a lot was made at his near total inability to work a bae on balls. This is definitely an issue as he gets extended to a full season in the MLB, but SLG .549 at 21 in ~260 ABs is something to be extremely excited about. If he can raise his BA even a bit next year, and take a few more walks, he could easily put out something like a 355/ 520 line in 600 ABs, if healthy. In that case, at 22, you've got a franchise player on your hands.

I have a personal affinity for small, scrappy 2B- no idea why- and for that reason, naturally Marcus Giles is close to my heart. The Braves dealt away a sparkling prospect in Andy Marte to get Edgar Renteria at SS (filling the big hole left by the excellent Rafael Furcal), and while that wasn't much of a trade on the surface, it's hard to argue with a guy dealing prospects for glaring need when he's never had a shortage of new young talent at any point. Edgar will probably be a solid veteran stopgap until Elvis Andrus can make the leap to the majors at SS- but there's no doubt he'll have to improve his defense to provide much value.

Brad McCann made the leap last year, rendering previous young catcher Johnny Estrada expendable (traded to the Diamondbacks for young reliever Oscar Villareal). McCann will have to battle a couple things- his slightly underwhelming power (only 12 xBH in 180 ABs last year) and the presence of the Braves' number one prospect, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia. McCann's got a really good eye- walking 18 times in 180 ABs at 21 is a great start- but at some point, based largely on McCann's performance, the Braves are going to assess that option. Saltalamacchia is still a couple years away, but barring the organization looking to change either's position, one may evenetually dealt for a great return. It's a solid position to be in.

Of course, Chipper and Andruw are Chipper and Andruw. Andruw's 2005 season was WAY overrated- he wasn't in the top 20 in the MLB for VORP, and most of that value was power. But considering that early expectations were so out of whack for Jones, it's worth considering that this guy is a premium defender at a premium position, gets on base reasonably well, has tremendous power, and is in the middle of his traditional peak years. He's been around for a while- but he's only 29. Chipper may begin to erode a bit, but something close to 2005 for Jones isn't a long shot.

Schuerholz, many have claimed, has dropped the ball in the offseason by not bringing back Kyle Farnsworth (acquired in an excellent midseason pickup), and not replacing him in the closer role. A while ago in a thing I did on the 1997 Braves, I listed out all the cheap, relatively unknown options Schuerholz handed the closer role to. One thing Schuerholz has always been brilliant at is avoiding (with the limited exception of Mark Wohlers) big payouts for closers. Without getting into the reasons why any quality pitcher will look exceptionally so pitching an inning at the end of games, this is a sound strategy, and has worked for a while. Last year was different, however- picking up Danny Kolb from the Brewers, the Braves looked past his flukey season to make him their closer, and from day one they had a comedy of errors late in games. Eventually settling on Chris Reitsma before getting Farnsworth, Reitsma had a career year in ~75 IP, and even racked up 15 SVs (yawn). They'll likely give a few tryouts, but Reitsma looks to be the closer in what seems to be a fairly thin bullpen. This is Atlanta's weakness- but don't doubt that if there is a decent relief arm on the market and Atlanta needs one- they have the flexibility to acquire him.

In another offseason of torrential activity, Omar Minaya has, at the very least, been proactive. A man that was perilously bad as Montreal GM for many years has been able to, at the very least, keep his head above water with a chest full of cash to work with. It's often really hard to tell what's motivating some of his moves- on-field performance, or big splashy noises made to attract eyes to the Mets' new cable network. Either way, it bears noting that the Mets finally made a concerted effort to spend and win as soon as Minaya came aboard- which he's benefitted from greatly. Steve Phillips and Jim Duquette are not great baseball minds, I don't think- but they dealt with a lack of financial fecundity Minaya's never lost sleep over.

So there have been two kinds of deals Minaya's made this offseason- good and bad. How's that for analysis? It is, however, true- showing a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde nature, Minaya showed smarts (Billy Wagner signing, giving Jose Valentin a minor league deal, redundant Mike Cameron for Xavier Nady), and some real stupidity (giving Julio Franco a 2-yr contract, Duaner Sanchez for Jae Seo, picking up the phone call from Jose Lima's agent, Paul LoDuca for Gaby Hernandez). Minaya probably can do a lot more with Seo in his bullpen than Sanchez, Franco is a fun story, but not a great roster option (TWO YEARS?!). He also went into the offseason needing a catcher, and had Ramon Hernandez, Bengie Molina, and Paul LoDuca to choose from. Two of them were of more or less equal value, good defensively, cost only the money to sign them, and were younger than the other, third option. That said third option would cost players, wasn't as a good a hitter or defender, and was the oldest of the bunch. Guess which one Minaya picked?

The Delgado trade is tough to judge. On the one hand, it represented the last and final raping of the Met farm system- trading top pitching prospect Yusmeiro Petit, top power prospect C/1B Mike Jacobs and a low A baller. Basically, the Met farm system is now Lastings Milledge and Anderson Hernandez and... that's it. However, Carlos Delgado is an excellent hitter- there were also some concerns with Petit's weight and future development (he doesn't have overpowering "stuff" and relies on a deceptive motion to get a lot of strikeouts- seems OK to me). It was a lot to give up, but I can understand it. The Mets are getting older, and they want to make a run/ get viewers. Whatever.

So now's the part of the article where I express my man-crush for David Wright. Watching/ attending a lot of Met games last year, I can tell you, unequivocally- David Wright will be a Derek Jeter type superstar (who can actually play defense, though) in NY for years to come- he'll win MVPs. He'll be the best player in baseball for a couple seasons. He'll be a monster. Of course, he already IS a monster, ranking 17th in MLB in VORP last year, tying Pedro for the best VORP on the Mets. He can hit for average, for power (raw SLG of .523 playing half his games at Shea at TWENTY TWO!), get on base, has a great arm, slightly above average range and quickness, and seems to run the bases well and smart. He had an 8.5 WARP3 last year at the age of 22. Seriously, the sky isn't even the limit for this guy. He's stratospheric.

Then there's Jose Reyes. Jose does a lot of things well- he has a cannon for an arm at SS, solid range, runs the bases well, and is a fast little fucker. But beyond that- there's not much here yet. Nearly all his power numbers in SLG come from his speed-generated 3Bs. He can't get on base. He's still really raw. And, in 2005, despite his racking up an almost historic number of outs on the season, Willie Randolph insisted on hitting him leadoff, simply because he's "fast." It remained arguably the dumbest season-long managerial gaffe in baseball, I think. Just ponderous. 27 walks in nearly 700 ABs. That said, they shouldn't give up on him- he still represents a ton of value- just put him where he can actually HELP the team instead of HURT them. Like, say, 7th in the batting order. Further, any regression from Cliff Floyd's great season in 2005 will probably be picked up by Carlos Beltran's playing healthy in 2006. The Diaz/ Nady platoon in RF is a promising idea.

The Met bullpen is vastly improved- word is Billy Wagner's finger is causing some issues, but barring that being really bad, he's the shutdown reliever the Mets have needed for years, closer or otherwise. Duaner Sanchez will be a decent setup option, but beyond that, expecting much out of Jorge Julio, Chad Bradford, Juan Padilla, et al is probably fantasy. This is a top heavy bullpen- sort of like the Yankees'. The rotation is pretty underwhelming as well- Glavine will keep rolling along, 200+ IP, 1.2-ish WHIP, ERA around 4. The huge issue for the Mets will, obviously, be Pedro's toe. He's already copping to an inability to start Opening Day. They need to be REALLY careful here, as sending him out earlier could easily exacerbate Pedro's much documented shoulder "issues," which have seemed in remission now for a few years. Pedro is still very much Pedro- 6th in MLB SP VORP last year. Trachsel and Zambrano are simply innings eating filler- I know if I were a Met fan, every time I saw Victor Zambrano I'd want to hit someone, for various reasons. Aaron Heilman will be a story- a GREAT season last year largely in relief, posting strong K rates, very good control, and, in a strong sign, very good GB/ FB ratio.

The thought of giving Ryan Howard a full season healthy hitting in Citizen's Bank Ballpark gives me chills. I watched him hit an absolute BOMB at Shea off of Pedro last year, and seeing him routinely launch HRs to all fields since being brought up, it's hard not to like a big, burly, defense-last power hitter like Howard. His ceiling this year could be in the 50s HR-wise.

Pat Gillick inherited a team weighed down by some atrocious contracts (Bell, Burrell, Thome, Liberthal), but some decent talent. He wisely traded Thome to clear the roadblock for Howard (essentially the same player with slightly less plate discipline and even less defense), getting defensive giant Aaron Rowand for CF to replace the Jason Michaels/ Kenny Lofton platoon. The Rowand trade was a good one- far from an offensive force, Rowand can, however patroll the cavernous CBB CF, while providing some decent power towards the bottom of a lineup that is stacked with it to begin with. With the exception of Burrell, Howard and Lieberthal, the Phillies now have some decent defense. Chase Utley, still young, could be MVP-level good this year, and with a lineup like Rollins/ Abreu/ Utley/ Howard/ Burrell, this team's going to score a lot of runs in that ballpark (no, Rollins breaking the hit streak with a winter off in the middle doesn't count- sorry).

The issue for the Phillies, as they expressed all winter in trade proposals (but never addressed)- is pitching. After Brett Myers- a promising, hardthrowing ace- it's a pretty slippery slope down to mediocrity and beyond. Jon Lieber's decent, and a good option as a groundball pitcher at a park known as a launching pad. Corey Lidle, Ryan Franklin, however, aren't the answer to any question. They're going to have to hope Madson can make a solid step forward as a starter after a decent year last year out of the pen.

Tom Gordon was a decent option as a closer (though that's a lot of years for a guy pushing 40 with a history of arm trouble)- the Phillies pen won't kill them, but it's nothing special, either. They may need to deal for a starter at some point with their prodigious lineup.

The Nationals have some things to be excited about- the mountain men holding down 1B (Nick Johnson, Matt LeCroy); the nice 1/2 punch of Livan Hernandez and John Patterson (another even bigger breakout candidate- not that last year wasn't one); Ryan Zimmerman; the emergence of Chad Cordero; Ryan Zimmerman; the possibility that maybe someone will get so upset with Cristian Guzman; they'll attack him with a billy club; Ryan Zimmerman.

Other than that, it's a ton of crap in a shit-house of a stadium. And, prediction- Alfonso Soriano (if he's not a Met by he time I type this) will be altogether atrocious in Washington. Just a hunch.

It's debatable, but I think the Florida Marlins may end up being the most interesting team in baseball this year. Essentially, with a casual exception here or there, they're a minor league team. Hanley Ramirez will lead off. Jeremy Hermida, Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs, Dan Uggla and Reggie Abercrombie are all guaranteed starting spots. Sergio Mitre is the number two starter. The average age of their 25 man roster is 25.3 years old.

They also, however, have two legitimate superstars in Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Dontrelle followed his sub-par sophomore 2004 season with a Cy Young quality 2005- improving his K rate, cutting his BB rate and dramatically decreasing his HR rate. 263 IP is a lot, but if he's carving out a reputation as a horse, that may not be entirely too much. That said- I'd bet he tops out at around 220 this season. Then, there's Miguel Cabrera, a player who, at 23, is already making designs on being one of the ten best players in baseball. His three season OPS+ numbers look like this:

2003 (20)- 109
2004 (21)- 130
2005 (22)- 151

I'm assuming they won't trade him- but this is the Marlins. No way he finishes his career there. Ditto that Dontrelle.

NL CENTRAL
_________________________________GB
  1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  2. MILWAUKEE BREWERS_____________6
  3. HOUSTON ASTROS________________7
  4. CHICAGO CUBS__________________9
  5. CINCINNATI REDS______________20
  6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES___________25


So, here's my whacky out-of-nowhere team prediction. The Brewers. I've expanded elsewhere on the site on this, but they're a team I'm pretty excited about, and I've actually taken them as my "NL team" this year, so you can check the blog here for updates on them.

Anyway- the Cardinals. They have the best hitter in baseball (maybe player), in Pujols. They have a legitimate, late blooming ace in Chris Carpenter. They have one of the more underrated superstars in baseball playing CF- coming off a 9.6 WARP3 season where he was a career best (by BP's ratings) 20 fielding runs above average in CF. He is a dominating presence. They have a solid bullpen with Braden Looper setting up Jason Isringhausen (Looper was pretty bad last year, but in a more reduced role, he could provide some decent lower-leverage setup innings for them), Ricardo Rincon getting out lefties. Scott Rolen needs to stay healthy, at which point he could be the reason the Cardinals run away with the Central.

That said, there are some somewhat troubling things going down with the Cardinals. Up the middle (with the exception of Edmonds) they're pretty weak- Eckstein is a decent leadoff man, but is only average defensively. Junior Spivey isn't either of those things at 2B- he'll be a liability to the Cardinals. The Cardinals also let Reggie Sanders go, only replacing him with Juan Encarnacion. They had identical WARP3 seasons last year- 3.7- however, Encarnacion had a uncharacteristically patient season, which he's not likely to replicate. He also lacks Sanders' power. Additionally, they were only able to replace Larry Walker with Larry Bigbie. As it stands now, the Cardinal lineup has some hefty holes in it, albeit preternaturally strong near the top.

The more troubling thing is their continued lack of confidence in top pitching prospect Anthony Reyes. Reports out of Spring Training have his 5th rotation spot being taken over (perhaps by eating contest?) by Sidney Ponson. There's really no sane explanation to this. Believe me, I'm trying. Meanwhile, trouble looms on the horizon for Marquis and Mulder, both declining in their peripheral stats, and in their raw stats as well. Beane truly took Jocketty to the cleaners on the Mulder trade (getting Danny Haren, Kiki Calero, and Daric Barton- yikes!). Suppan will give you the same thing every year it appears, so sticking him 3rd in the rotation shouldn't kill them too much.

We've also come to the review of the last of the Molina brother teams, so it's worth noting that Mrs. Molina will find three of her sons starting at catcher on three different major league teams (Bengie in Toronto, Yadier in St. Louis, Jose in Los Angeles). Yadier, in St. Louis looks to be the best of the three to me, although still very young and needing development. Not much more in detail to say about the Cardinals. I think they'll skate by on the relative weakness of their division.

There's just so damn much to like about the Brewers. There is one thing, however, to be very worried about- Ben Sheets' health. His back muscle issue- keeping him on the DL to start the season- worries me a lot. But, we're gonna evaluate the team for now assuming he comes back OK, as that's still up in the air.

The Ben Sheets/ Doug Davis/ Chris Capuano/ Tomo Ohka/ Dave Bush rotation is solid at the top and decent in depth in the 4/5 slots. Sheets, Davis and Capuano all are capable of well exceeding the 200 IP mark, and providing really great production. Davis and Capuano in particular have come a long way recently, improving their strikeout rates and keeping the ball in the ballpark. GM Doug Melvin was also able to provide some decent rotation insurance in Rick Helling, who was excellent in ~50 IP last year. Tomo Ohka seems the kind of innings eating back-rotation starter that the Brewers are good at picking up.

A lot was made of the Podsednik-for-Lee trade last offseason, and a lot of chuckles- Lee is almost definitely the better player, but he almost definitely had nearly a career-worst season last year, and actually matched Podsednik in WARP3 and WARP1. Carlos is an asset, though- and if he can inch back a bit towards his 2003/4 numbers, the Brewers would have a true middle of the lineup thumper. As much as we want Prince Fielder to be that this year- he's only 22. He did SLG .458 last year in limited time though, so he will show some power. He'll be fun to watch for. Even more fun to watch- Rickie Weeks, who I think will have a huge year. Rickie struggled some in nearly 400 ABs last year, but he's the definite starting 2B this year, and as he develops even more, that .333 OBP will go up (the BB rate is already superb) and he'll start to hit with a lot more power. I think it's reasonable to expect him, with health, to be the best 2B (along with Chase Utley) in MLB for a few years running.

Milwaukee is going to struggle to hit for power, however. Lee and the promise of Fielder are all they have for legitimate threat- Geoff Jenkins shows flashes, but is often injury- prone. Brady Clark had an underalded great year in 2005, but he's also going to be 33 this season. That may have represented the crest of his wave, so to speak. One promising note for the OF was picking up Gabe Gross along with Dave Bush in the Lyle Overbay trade. Gross, once a top Blue Jay draft pick, hasn't done much to improve his reputation, but as a 4th OF, he may be perfectly suited in Milwaukee. Supersub Bill Hall is easily one of more entertaining players in the game- a 26 year old supersub, he's Chone Figgins without as much speed or the funny name. He's also got a bit more power. The Brewers actually have a very good bench.

Their bullpen is centered around Derrick Turnbow, who has the name of a Confederate General (or a Civil War battleground- same difference) and the sublime face of a lobotomy patient. Either way, the kid throws damn hard, and Melvin swiping him off waivers from LAA was a masterstroke. It remains to be seen if he can keep the BBs low and keep the ball in the ballpark, but young enough to be able to replicate (relatively) his 2005 season. Jose Capellan, Matt Wise, Danny Kolb, Jorge de la Rosa and Justin Lehr are all quality arms that add to a surprisingly deep Milwaukee pen. So yea- I think they'll surprise this season.

So since Milwaukee is surprising, I guess that would mean Houston and Chicago are going to be underwhelming. I'll be the first to admit that I see very little difference in the quality of the rosters between the two. I picked the Astros- it could easily have been Chicago to finish third. Does it matter?

Both teams are critically flawed in a couple areas, but I'll start with Houston. Simply put, when a guy with 211 IP at 1.87 ERA ups and leaves, it's going to be tough to replace him. Unfortunately, I can't count Roger in for Boston, Houston, Texas, or New York because really, that's stupid of me to guess when it seems obvious that he's going to go with whichever he thinks is the best team in June. So essentially, the Astros have supplanted Roger's rotation spot by moving everyone up a notch, and making Ezequiel Astacio- the ugliest human being that ever lived- a SP. Neither of Houston's 4/5 slots in the rotation are particularly good- Wandy Rodriguez or Astacio. Add to that the fact that Brandon Backe, a barely league average pitcher, will be the team's third starter. Roy Oswalt is still one of the two or three best pitchers in the NL, but Pettitte will have a tough time replicating at 34 what was easily the greatest season of his career- especially given his arm issues in the past.

Their bullpen is still good- Brad Lidge, playoff troubles aside, can still pitch for me any day, coming off his third straight 95 K plus season, he is a dominant relief ace. Not as dominant as 2004- but he was ridden like a horse that year, and his tiring in October may be at least partially attributable to that. His Slider of Death may be the most mouth-gaping pitch to simply watch in all of baseball. Besides Lidge, they also have Qualls and Wheeler, young power arms that should be able to progress again.

But first of all, GM Tim Purpura actually signed Brad Ausmus to a TWO YEAR, $7.5 MILLION DOLLAR DEAL. Brad Ausmus. Come on- there are other ways to lure Clemens back. At the very least, Ausmus is still a defensive asset. The Astros also had, in their outfield, blossoming stars in Jason Lane and Chris Burke, with a likely plan to move Berkman to 1B to preserve his knees. Then, Bagwell refused to retire, they signed Preston Wilson (wha?) to play LF, and Lane/ Burke are superfluous now. With any luck, they can deal one for some SP depth- they currently don't have anyone outside of Russ Springer and their AAA club to make spot starts in the inevitable Oswalt/ Pettitte bump or elbow explosion.

The Astros have been notoriously misty-eyed with roster decisions (take note, Boston fans wanting to "keep the gang together"). As a result, they're stuck with Jeff Bagwell and renewing Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus' contracts into virtual perpetuity. I love Craig Biggio- LOVE him- but he's going to be 40 this year. He gets a nice power boost from Minute Maid, but he doesn't get on base like he used to, is a defensive liability, and would be better suited finding contracts elsewhere. There was no shortage of 2B on the market this offseason, and the Astros should certainly have looked to upgrade. At SS, they're buoyed by the best defensive SS in baseball- Adam Everett, who unfortunately looks and hits like he's a leukemia patient. With their loss of pitching depth, and their inability to generate a ton of runs (though Berkman's still a stud), Houston's going to have a rough time of it.

But so go the Cubs. Top-flight ace (Oswalt/ Zambrano), brittle but excellent #2 (Pettitte/ Prior), and absentee what-could-have-been-and-actually-still-may-be (Clemens/ Wood). The Cubs actually have a better back end of their rotation in Maddux and Rusch/ Williams, but their closer isn't as dependable (though very valuable) in Ryan Dempster. They do have depth there, however- Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry, while given ENTIRELY too much money, were good pickups. Either can step in for Dempster is he's moved to the rotation or hurt, and the Cubs have some decent pieces backing the trio up- Matt Wuertz being a key.

So they're going to give the SS to Ronny Cedeno finally, and have revamped their outfield to include Matt Murton (picked up in the Nomar deal), Juan Pierre (eh) and Jacque Jones (cooked, can't hit lefties, and no platoon partner). Nothing particularly exciting, although Murton looks like he could be a steady contributor if given the starting role. Pierre has no power and most of his value tied up in batting average and stolen bases. He's a decent player, nothing special. The Jones signing was odd for Chicago, to say the least. Jones just isn't much of a player.

Of course, I skipped over the best parts for a Cub fan- Derrek Lee, Michael Barrett and Aramis Ramirez. Lee- by nearly every measure- was actually better than Pujols last year. WARP3, VORP, OPS+, OPS- you name it. Pujols may have won it simply as a "Lifetime-Behind-Barry Achievement," but that shouldn't temper the fact that Lee was probably the best player in baseball last year, leading A-Rod in VORP, 106.0 to 99.7. Lee is going to be 30 this year, and in a contract year. An excellent defensive player who has always been able to hit for power, work walks, run the bases well- Lee is tremendous with a capital "T." It seems doubtful that he has another 177 OPS+ up his sleeve, but he'll approach it and coax some team (probably the Cubs) into overpaying for him to play out his 30's for them. Not a bad racket, this baseball.

Aramis Ramirez continues to be an epically bad defensive 3B, but an excellent young hitter. Aramis is further walking proof of Pirates GM Dave Littlefield's general ineptitude: trading a 25 year old 3B with his power potential in the middle of a rebound from a rough 24 age season, along with Kenny Lofton for Bobby Hill, Jose Hernandez and Matt Bruback. That is getting seriously bent over, and for a player now that's coming into his prime as a great power hitter. He's had OPS+ numbers of 136, 137 in his two full seasons as a Cub. Just brutal.

Finally, Michael Barrett is a steady, good defensive catcher that can get on base fairly well and has some power. Nothing special, but one of Chicago's better players. Also- the sooner the Chicago Cubs stop paying Dusty Baker to destroy his young pitchers' arms, the better. I was ready for countless years of Mark Prior domination. Instead, Baker rides him like a horse in 2003, leading the majors in pitcher abuse points, and he hasn't had a full season in the two since. He's again having elbow issues. The guy came billed as the mechanically immaculate workhorse that had developed a strong system to keep himself healthy- and Dusty sends him out on 140 pitch outings at 22 years old. I'd love to stomp on that old bastard's toe or something.

The Reds actually have a couple things kinda/ sorta going for them. First is 25 year old Felipe Lopez, who put up a fine 291/ 352/ 486 line in his first full season as the Reds SS. Second, they got rid of Dave Miley and GM Dan O'Brien. Wayne Krivsky, formerly of Minnesota, can't do much worse. Third- the OF logjam has passed, and it would appear to be a Dunn/ Griffey/ Kearns situation where the latter finally gets a full slate of ABs, the former can continue being a power hitting, on base machine (ignoring the strikeout whining), and Griffey had his first more or less healthy season since 2000. Aarong Harang, their 28 year old RHP, became their ace last year by throwing 211 IP, striking out nearly 7/9IP and allowing only 22 HR pitching in that bandbox. His 3.83 ERA was was top 25 in the NL last year, and he lead his team in IP. The Reds also locked up Ryan Freel, hopefully a sign that he will be their starting 2B, and not the sucking chest wound of horrible-osity that is the Tony Womack Pile of Garbage. Edwin Encarnacion showed some solid power in limited time last year, and Jason LaRue is a great catcher that has a graet walk rate, some power, and can throw some runners out- has also been in the top ten in the NL in HBPs the last 4 seasons.

There are, naturally, problems of course. The OF defense is porous- Kearns being passable, with Dunn and Griffey being very, very poor. The rotation after Harang gets bad fast- Bronson Arroyo can hope to be league average possibly in his return to the NL, but then it's Eric Milton, who was allowed to throw 180+ IP at a 6.47 ERA, Paul Wilson, who topped out at 50 IP with a 7.77 ERA, Dave Williams- who's a less innings hungry version of Arroyo, and former Yankee farmhand Brandon Claussen, who would be most team's long man. The bullpen is stacked with old retreads- Chris Hammond, David Weathers, Kent Mercker, Rick White. It's like a who's who. Their only young promising arm there is Ryan Wagner, who was likely rushed and has been rough in the outset. Tony Womack is on the roster, so he'll get ABs, and the team signed Scott Hatteberg to be their starting 1B, trading Sean Casey for their number three starter, LHP Dave Williams. I could go on, but you get the idea- nothing too exciting going on here.

Which, as a statement, would be an understatement when applied to the Pirates. Let me save you the trouble- Zach Duke, Jason Bay, Oliver Perez (crossing fingers), and a ton of crap.

That's not totally fair. Jason Bay was a top ten player last year, and is only getting better. Duke was fairly dominating in his half season last year, so some patience and care with the arm should yield some fun starts. Mike Gonzalez is a Wanger-ian lefty fireballer as the closer, but he'll need to work more than 50 IP to really have his optimal value. Salomon Torres had a nice year last year (don't hold your breath this year, and if he does, don't enjoy him past 7/31, Pirate fans) and Damaso Marte was a nice bullpen pickup. Who knows, too- Jack Wilson may not suck horribly this year. Also, the Pirates are the team which based one of the great quotes of all time, about notoriously lazy and poorly motivated Derrek Bell- then playing for Pittsburgh on a fat salary- "you know, I think he really is a Pirate- he lives on a boat, and he steals other people's money." No idea how said it, though.

NL WEST
_______________________________GB
  1. SAN DIEGO PADRES
  2. LOS ANGELES DODGERS_________4
  3. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS________8
  4. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS_______12
  5. COLORADO ROCKIES___________22


Ah yes- baseball's dumping ground.

The Padres win by default, but they're not a terrible team. They have the best pitcher in the league starting their rotation in Jake Peavy, they were able to re-sign Brian Giles, and have a solid catching platoon (not a L/R platoon, however) in Piazza and Mirabelli. They got Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young for Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton- dumping the weaker portion of their bullpen and upgrading a SP. They also picked up Vinny Castilla from Washington in exchange for Brian Lawrence, and got Mike Cameron for Xavier Nady. I'm not huge Castilla fan, but I was even less of a Lawrence fan, so that will at least improve their defense after giving up (finally) on Sean Burroughs. Mike Cameron is a brilliant CF, moving back to his natural position, toiling in his third straight cavernous pitcher's park.

There should also be a solid battle for the 2B job between Mark Bellhorn and 23 year old prospect Josh Barfield. Barfield will likely win the job with a lot of spelling from Bellhorn, who's a capable sub. Khalil Greene took a pretty serious step backwards in every facet of his game last year, from defense, OBP and decreased power. He missed some time due to injury, so hopefully his healthy age 26 season will be more like his very solid 2004 campaign. I also think Towers could have held out for more in Mark Loretta. He felt he needed to clear salary to re-sign Trevor Hoffman, and that he had Barfield ready to step in- but only a backup catcher in return for a guy one injury season removed from a near MVP calibre season is short shrift.

The Padres did resign Hoffman, however who, coupled with Scott Linebrink, form a nice tandem at the end of games. Linebrink, a 30 year old RHP coming of a 73.1 IP season at 1.83 ERA, Linebrink's been this good for a few years now, and has nearly totally flown under the radar.

The Padres are also really deep at every position- Ben Johnson and Termell Sledge backing up the Dave Roberts/ Mike Cameron/ Brian Giles OF, Adrian Gonzalez spending time behind Ryan Klesko at 1B until he moves on, Eric Young backing up the IF, Geoff Blum as a good corner IF/ OF option. There are some older players on the roster subject to injury, but GM Kevin Towers has stocked every position with pretty dependable, replacement level players. They should be a team able to withstand a pretty decent sized injury, especially in this division.

The Dodgers are- maybe- the most brittle team in the major leagues. Nomar Garciaparra at 1B. Bill Mueller and his knees at 3B. JD Drew in RF. Rafael Furcal and his leg issues at SS. Eric Gagne as closer. But, if most of these players can stay healthy, they've got a pretty solid veteran team. They got really old pretty fast, and I still think the firing of Paul DePodesta was completely unfair- but if JD Drew, for instance, stays healthy, and so do Nomar and Mueller, there's no reason to believe Furcal can't round himself into shape eventually- suddenly, you've got a decent offense. Furcal/ Garciaparra/ Drew/ Kent/ Cruz Jr./ Mueller/ Lofton/ Navarro isn't too bad, if you can get a similar OBP out of Lofton that Philly did in 2005 (392) as well. Speaking of Lofton- since 2001, he's played for the Indians, Pirates, Cubs, Yankees, Giants, White Sox, Phillies and Dodgers. Pretty crazy, huh?

But notice all the "ifs" in that paragraph. The Dodgers are going to have a tremendously tough time staying healthy, and their pitching isn't necessarily equipped to shoulder the load. Brad Penny and Odalis Perez have both had recent injury concerns, and are only decent starters when they're right. Derek Lowe is nearly injury-proof, however, and had a really nice half when he finally settled down with his TV host mistress. New GM Ned Colletti bolstered the bullpen rather nicely, though, picking up Danys Baez to go along with Yhency Brazobhan. Jae Seo is a great back of the rotation pitcher, but Brett Tomko was a flat-out waste of money.

One unfortunate casualty to Dodger revamping looks like it's going to be Hee Choi, one of those schism players that scouts hate but sabres tend to like. Choi would be a good fit for a team looking for a late-spring solution at 1B- someone like the Red Sox, after seeing enough of JT Snow to know he's got a fork innim.

Maybe you haven't heard, but the San Francisco Giants are "old" with a capital "OLD." Jettisoning Edgardo Alfonzo in order to make Steve Finley their 4th OF was an oddly lateral move, though the Giants felt like clearing the path for Pedro Feliz to assume 3B for good was the way to go. A sub-.300 OBP coupled with a middling SLG can only be explained away so much through "undefined role," etc. That said, he's not a huge part of their offense, either way.

Before I go on, however, I have to mention- did anyone notice the line Randy Winn put up in 231 ABs after being traded to San Francisco?

__________BA______OBP______SLG______HR
WINN____.359_____.391_____.680______14


That's unbelievable! Mantle-esque. Who would have thought it?- Randy Winn. Anyway, the Giants are a "veteran ballclub" who are going to settling most of their hopes on Barry Bonds' knee. If Bonds is healthy enough to withstand the season, they'll do fairly well, I suppose, although one or all of Alou, Durham, Vizquel, or Matheny are going to fall off an age related cliff starting this year. It's inevitable.

Their bullpen is terrible- Benitez barely recovering from his injury last year and starting to lose velocity on that fastball. They have Schmidt, a big injury question mark, leading their rotation. After coming back from arm trouble last year he had a heap of trouble maintaining velocity, location, and getting his stuff to move. It doesn't look likely that he'll make a dramatic return to form at age 33, but he could still be very good, and in a walk year. Worth noting. Matt Morris, a new signing, will get helped out by SBC Park, but he's pretty average at this point- giving up a good deal of HRs and not striking too many guys out. He won't have the defense behind him he did in St. Louis, and that could be more than enough to temper the boost his home park will give him.

The Giants big wellspring of youthful production comes in the form of 25 year old Noah Lowry, who threw 200+ IP work last year with a 3.78 ERA. Lowry struck out an impressive 172 in those innings, though struggled with control, walking 72 batters. If he can move that down a bit with some seasoning, as well as cut down on his HR rate, he could have a real breakout year in San Francisco, though there's no promise of that. There's some question about the toll put on his arm as the Giants' lone go-to starter last year.

The Diamondbacks are now two seasons removed from that ghastly 2004 campaign, and with a new GM (Jed Hoyer), they've started to take a few nice steps. They had to shed Javier Vazquez, unfortunately, because he was guaranteed the right to trade per the CBA- getting El Duque, RP Luis Vizcaino and OF Chris Young for the White Sox. The Diamondbacks also signed Eric Byrnes, traded Troy Glaus away from Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista, extended ace Brandon Webb through 2009, and signed Jeff DaVanon for OF depth. Conor Jackson will finally start to get some show at 1B, and they also picked up a young catcher in Johnny Estrada for Oscar Villareal.

This isn't a very good team right now- they're still in a bit of a holding pattern waiting for some of their older, expiring contracts to go away- Shawn Green, Russ Ortiz (ugh), Luis Gonazalez. They do also have one of the best farm systems in the majors, boasting Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin, the now graduating Conor Jackson, Justin Upton, and Carlos Gonzales. They're inching their way back, but if Hoyer's patient, it looks like they could be crafting an exciting new team.

The Rockies are the most stultifyingly boring team in the major leagues, on the other hand. Sometimes I wonder if I just pretend they're not there, that they may go away. No such luck. Maybe Jeff Francis will be a breakout player, and Clint Barmes looked good before he hurt himself carrying some groceries. Todd Helton, signed through 2546, is Todd Helton- but he's getting older.

Ugh, I can't even write about them- who cares? They're terrible. Ian Stewart can't get there fast enough.





MVP

  1. Jason Bay OF, PIT

  2. Derrek Lee 1B, CHI

  3. Albert Pujols 1B, STL

  4. Chase Utley 2B, PHI

  5. David Wright 3B, NYM


CY YOUNG

  1. Roy Oswalt, HOU
  2. Jake Peavy, SDP

  3. Carlos Zambrano, CHC


ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Prince Fielder 1B, MIL

  2. Jeremy Hermida OF, FLA

  3. Carlos Quentin OF, ARZ


HR LEADER

  1. Jason Bay OF, PIT

  2. Ryan Howard 1B, PHI

  3. Albert Pujols 1B, STL


BATTING CHAMP

  1. Miguel Cabrera 3B, FLA

  2. Felipe Lopez SS, CIN

  3. Albert Pujols 1B, STL



VORP LEADER

  1. Miguel Cabrera 3B, FLA

  2. Albert Pujols 1B, STL

  3. David Wright 3B, NYM

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