National League Preview

East

1. Atlanta Braves: Yes, they've lost Gallaraga and their bullpen is shaky, but they have too many weapons for the rest of the divisions. A decent year from Klesko and maturation from the Jones boys could actually pick up most of those homers, Jordan and Boone could make up for the rest. Hard to imagine them not winning this.

Upside: Rocker is a quality closer, Klesko is the slugger he looked like a couple of years ago.

Trap Door: A plane crash. Too good in too many ways.

2. New York Mets: All the optimism around the Mets comes from two simple facts: they just missed last year, and they won't have Carlos Baerga, Todd Hundley, and assorted outfield garbage (Phillips, Harris, Huskey) using up tons of at bats. But those OF upgrades (Henderson and Bonilla) are mighty old and that has to scare you a little. Eventually Ricky will get old -- his batting average is already showing his age. Bonilla is already old, the Mets are hoping he's going to be better this year; there's no real reason to believe this, but it's possible. Even Robin Ventura has a downside, because he's no kid and I always worry a little about hitters changing leagues. The starting pitching is good, but not great, and after the top two, really mediocre. The bullpen is solid, but they're still depending on Franco as the closer, which is dangerous, to say the least. I don't see why they should be worse than last year and I'm a Met fan, so it's my job to be optimistic, so I'll pick them for second and give them the Wild Card spot, but I'll worry all year long.

Upside: Henderson has the same year as last year, Bonilla hits .290 with 20 homers, no one gets hurt, life is beautiful.

Trap Door: Franco could be terrible. The rest of the bullpen is leaderless and Valentine is not a manager who handles adversity well. Bonilla could be dreadful, or hurt -- the only decent reserve is Cedeño, who has no power. The minor leagues won't be of any help there.

3. Philadelphia Phillies: Lots of young talent here, Glanville is a pretty good leadoff man, Marlon Anderson is a very promising rookie, and Scott Rolen is one of the best players in the league. Bobby Estalella is also a first rate prospect, although he's hurt at the moment and is approaching the point where he'll have to produce. Bob Abreu is a fine all around player in right. But Rico Brogna is a weak cleanup hitter and Ron Gant may be on his last legs in left. And the pitching begins and ends with Curt Schilling, who may not be there come July. They are optimistic, but they seem a notch below where they need to be to compete for the playoffs.

Upside: Ogea and Spoljaric are major league two/three starters and Jeff Brantley comes back strong, giving them a decent pitching staff.

Trap Door: Ogea and Spoljaric are bad, they can't get anywhere near competing, dump Schilling for prospects.

4. Montreal Expos: Good athletes, young talent, no hope -- sounds like the Expos alright. Vlad Guerrero has superstar talent, Ugueth Urbina is as good as any closer in the game. They just can't compete not keeping their best talent year after year. The instability around the organization has to filter down. If everything goes right, Rondell White comes back, Hermanson is a quality starter and some of the kids are good, they could be over .500.

Upside: Pavano and Vasquez are ready to be first rate starters, the bullpen comes through, and the above.

Trap Door: Hermanson gets hurt (as pitchers do). Frankly, this team is mostly upside, as we expect so little.

5. Florida Marlins: Lots of young talent. They won't be as bad as last year.

Upside: Fernandez comes back, Sanchez improves, combined with Hernandez, they have a decent rotation. Cliff Floyd finally has that big year, as does Derrek Lee, butů

Trap door: Floyd is already on the DL and may never have a healthy season. And Livan Hernandez will almost certainly have an arm injury in the next year or two, due to the unconscionable abuse Jim Leyland heaped on his arm last year.

Central

1. Houston Astros: Losing Alou was a blow, but Richard Hidalgo has terrific potential and may do a surprisingly good Alou impression. And while Ken Caminiti is on the way down and gets hurt a lot, he has to be more productive than Bill Spiers. They'll miss Randy Johnson, but they had lots of margin in this division and their closest rival last year hasn't gotten better.

Upside: Hidalgo has a big year, Reynolds and Hampton have big years.

Trap Door: The pitching was a surprise last year, they could take a step back, especially Hampton, whose overall numbers weren't as good as his ERA last year. Also, Carl Everett had a career year, he could easily return to mediocrity.

2. St. Louis Cardinals: Boom! McGwire, Drew, Davis, Lankford, even Tatis and Marrero, power hitters all. The key to this team's offense is staying healthy. With Ray Lankford and Eric Davis involved, that gets tricky, but Darren Bragg is a capable reserve. Unfortunately, because of injuries, the pitching staff is stunningly mediocre. The bullpen seems fairly deep though, so the offense may be enough to get them to the mid-80's in wins.

Upside: They acquire a top starter and JD Drew combines with Mac to hit 115 homers.

Trap Door: It's already happened, as Matt Morris got hurt. If Eric Davis gets old, they could be very short of RH hitting.

3. Cincinnati Reds: Terrific 2-6 hitters, with Larkin, Casey, Vaughn, Young, and Taubensee. Mike Cameron has shown no ability to be a major league leadoff hitter. Aaron Boone and Pokey Reese haven't shown they're major league hitters, in fact Reese is barely a AAA hitter. They have some good bats on the bench, but they aren't as good as the starters they back up. The strength is starting pitching, but they're still counting on the likes of Steve Avery and Jason Bere. I'm not convinced John Hudek is going to have another good year.

Upside: Denny Neagle comes back healthy, Avery and Bere bounce back and they have the best pitching in this division. Combined with the hitters in the middle of the lineup, they win 90 games and the wildcard.

Trap Door: As always with the Reds, Barry Larkin's health. Will Greg Vaughn hit like he did in the first half of last year, or the second? Will they fall six games behind the Mets and give up, trading Vaughn or Harnisch for prospects?

4. Chicago Cubs: This incredibly old team did nothing in the off season except get older. They still have Sammy and Lord knows what he'll do this year -- based on the Grapefruit League, hit 75 homers (which should leave him second to McGwire's 80.) That's not going to be enough, they're old, slow, and mediocre defensively. A lot like the Mets, actually, with less of an upside. The Cubs history tells us they don't compete the year after making the playoffs, this season should fit.

Upside: Jon Lieber and Scott Sanders pitch to their ability rather than their history, and the bullpen outpitches their talent. Then they have a decent shot at the wild card.

Trap Door: It's already opened up, as Kerry Wood is gone.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates: They have some pitching, so maybe that will be enough to beat the Brewers. They've added some ho-hum veterans (Ed Sprague, Mike Benjamin, Pat Meares), whose primary function seems to be to take at bats from promising youngsters.

Upside: Jose Guillen becomes a big time hitter, the kids are alright, the old guys are replaced by the kids. Still can't seem them winning half their games.

Trap Door: They're already down there.

6. Milwaukee Brewers: Vina's an okay leadoff hitter and a hell of a secondbaseman, which is why this screwed up organization spent the whole winter trying to trade him. Mediocrity reigns throughout the lineup, the pitching is either unproven or working their way back.

Upside: Fifth place.

Trap Door: see Pittsburgh.

 

West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers: Their lineup is vastly overrated, but their pitching isn't. The addition of Kevin Brown gives the youngsters a role model and an ace to take the pressure off them. Park, Valdes, Dreifort, and Perez would make a damn good 1-4, at 2-5, they're awesome. The bullpen is a little thin, although the return of Antonio Osuna might help. Their biggest asset may be Davey Johnson. If the current wild card playoff slot had existed throughout his career, his teams would've made it every year. He knows talent and he will maximize it.

Upside: Sheffield and Mondesi keep their heads on straight, Hundley keeps his arm on straight and they score lots of runs, making them one of the best teams in baseball.

Trap Door: Todd Hundley's elbow. Face it, it wasn't just his defense that cost the Mets last year, he hit .161. He'll have to hit or the Dodgers have no LH hitting.

2. San Francisco Giants: Bonds, Kent, Burks, and Dusty Baker. An excellent bullpen gives Dusty the chance to maximize their potential. Basically, their status is to pick up the pieces if the Dodgers or Mets falter. They just may do it. The lineup has no depth, the starters are merely adequate and they seem to be counting a little too much on Marvin Benard. But they have a lot of class and I think they'll compete.

Upside: Shawn Estes returns to his 1997 form, giving them an ace starter. Kirk Reuter also steps up and they win the wild card.

Trap Door: They have no depth, so an injury to Bonds or Kent could be fatal, especially since they've already lost Mueller for a while.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks: The best pitching staff money can buy. Omar Daal took a big step forward last year and looked like he was going to be a first rate starter. Now he's the number four on this team, which is mighty impressive. I'm a lot less sold on Gregg Olson as a closer, but maybe he can hold it together for another season. The big problem is hitting, as they were horrid last year. Too many weak hitters, including, when he comes back, leadoff hitter Tony Womack, leaves them soft offensively, even if Finley and Williams bounce back.

Upside: Matt Williams and Steve Finley return to their glory days, and Travis Lee advances fast. This gives them a real shot at the wild card.

Trap Door: They don't return, leaving this team struggling for wins all year, despite the starters.

4. Colorado Rockies: They figure to be better than last year, mostly because several players, Lansing, Perez, and Astacio, can't be as bad as they were last year. Also Helton figures to improve, as does Daryl Kile. Larry Walker's injury has to scare them a bit, since they really don't have that good an offense. Away from Coors, they're near the bottom of the league offensively and while their pitching isn't as bad as it looks, they aren't good enough to make up for the hitters on the road.

Upside: Perez and Lansing end up as the best offensive middle infield in the league. Darryl Kile bounces back, showing good form on the road. These things happen and they could be in the thick of the race, unless...

Trap Door: Larry Walker is hurt worse than anyone's telling. He led the league in hitting last year, but was remarkably unproductive otherwise.

5. San Diego Padres: Except for Kevin Brown, who they tried to sign but couldn't, the guys they lost weren't such a horrible idea. They were overpriced, in the case of Vaughn, were going to be overpriced, and dealing them or not resigning them was right, on an individual basis. But collectively, the loss of this much punch is impossible to overcome. They still have some strengths, they may not be bad, but like the Cubs, they seem destined to relive their history, following winning with rebuilding.

Upside: Ashby and Hitchcock develop into top flight pitchers. This won't help them win anything this year, but will put them within a player or two of competing. The young pitchers, Clement and Spencer could also be good, but that would be asking a lot.

Trap Door: Already in the cellar, but if Gwynn spends too much time on the DL, they could be really awful.


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