Friday, April 01, 2005

NL Preview I = NL East

Yes, more free baseball info for you at a bargain price! The Monk turns his perspicacious gaze now upon the NL East and sees . . .

The blasted Braves again winning the division. Why? Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, John Thomson, Leo Mazzone. That is: the Braves' top three starters and the best pitching coach in baseball. Mazzone turned Thomson from a perennial underperformer (when not injured) into a guy who finally reached his long-rumored potential: 14-8, 3.72. Smoltz's return to the rotation after three All-Star caliber years as a closer will be interesting, but he is such a high-caliber pitcher and individual that he should be good for 30 starts and 14+ wins. There's enough hitting on this team (C. Jones, A. Jones, Giles, Franco, Peralta's uncanny RISP-hitting skills, Furcal) to win this division even with a wacko like Mondesi and retread Brian Jordan filling lineup slots (although with those two stiffs in the outfield, Andruw Jones will run himself ragged covering up for their inabilities. Remember, this is a pitcher's division because the ballparks are pitcher-friendly (except Philly). Add all that up, and there's no reason the Bravos should honk before their annual stink-up-the-playoffs appearance.

I like the Marlins: they're young, have some potentially great pitchers (Beckett, Burnett, Willis), added solid vets (Valdes in mid-season, Leiter in off-season) and added some pop by shelling the big money for Carlos Delgado. Add that to Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell, Jeff Conine and the speedsters Pierre & Castillo, and that's a decent lineup that will be even better if Paul LoDuca can pretend he's still in Dodger Stadium. Certainly one that can win this division. The first question is the bullpen: is Antonio Alfonseca the answer? Is Todd Jones of any use? And what the he*l is a Spooneybarger? The second question is whether Burnett and Beckett can stay healthy. If so, losing Pavano will be a nonfactor. If not, this lot could fall to fourth.

Talk about a team with questions, the Phillies are a potential mess, and a potential challenger to Atlanta. They are the one team that can nab 95 wins if things break right and they're the team that has the most trouble making its own breaks. The strengths: Jim Thome, period; Jimmy Rollins, who's bat is catching up to his glove; Bobby Abreu; balance in the rotation with Lidle, Leiber and Wolf; and good young pitchers -- Floyd, Liriano, Madson. The weaknesses: Pat Burrell's inconsistency, David Bell's up-and-down bat, Kenny Lofton's perpetual case-of-the-arse, Billy Wagner's health issues (and if there are none -- BIG plus for the Phils), Brett Myers' inability to get hitters out, the Phils' inability to handle the Marlins (13-25 the past two years). The Phils can range from first to fourth in this division, so somewhere in the middle feels right.

One of the things I cannot stand is a pitcher who gives up a lot of walks. The Mess have two of those in their starting rotation: Zambrano and Ishii. They also have the fragile Pedro, the re-emerging Glavine and the overrated (and overpaid) Benson. That's a lot of questions with no ready answers. Best case scenario: Pedro stays healthy, feasts upon the weak NL lineups (replete with 2 FREE OUTS per nine hitters!) and wins 18, Glavine continues to resemble the guy from 2002 instead of 2003, the young infielders (Wright, Reyes, Matsui) are able to handle the bat and glove with aplomb, Piazza is able to field whatever position they stick him at, and Beltran is everything they ever wanted. Worst case: injuries at the top of the rotation, Zambrano/Benson/Ishii dig deeper into the depths of mediocrity, the kiddies on the infield keep bobbling/can't throw the ball (Matsui's bane), Piazza can't regain his swing, Beltran honks the first half of the season under the NYC lights. Reality? This team is like a frosted sawdust cake: it seems pretty on the outside but . . . If Willie Randolph gets more than 85 wins from this crew, he'll deserve a lot of the Manager of the Year votes he won't get.

The Washington Nationals are happy to be out of Montreal. Can't beat that with a stick. Yes, they'll stink; yes, they'll come in last; no, there's no reason to even waste your cash on the 10,000-1 shot for an NL pennant. But they will actually play in front of THOUSANDS of people at home. Progress can be measured in small steps.

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