Let's see . . . the none-too-original Monk has predicted the winners of four divisions and -- eureka! -- all four won their division last year. Has there ever been 6 repeaters in one year? No. And here's the upset pick -- the NL Central will not have a repeat champion.
First place will be the Astros. Say what? Yes, the Astros: first, they have Andy Pettitte back and he's good for 15 wins if healthy. Add a full season of Brandon Backe, another of Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and a full year as the closer for Brad Lidge and that means pitching stability, something the 'Stros lacked last year. The offense is still ok with the killer B's and killer E's -- Bagwell, Biggio, Ensberg, Everett -- and the strengthened pitching means that they can weather the loss of Beltran and Kent. Most importantly, the Cardinals will fall back to the pack, thereby putting this division within reach to anyone who can win 95. The Astros can.
The Cardinals will not win 100 games, period. Last year, they won 105 with a pitching staff that won with smoke, mirrors, and Dave Duncan's genius. This year, the Cards have added Mark Mulder, but what they gave up will hurt more: losing Danny Haren and Kiko Calero to transition the staff from the six-inning-and-pray-for-rain starters (Morris, Suppan, Carpenter, Marquis) to Jason Isringhausen -- a prototype one-inning closer. Remember: the 1998 Yankees won 114, added Roger Clemens and went 98-64 in '99; the Mariners won 116 in 2001, kept the team together and won 93 in '02; the catch-lightning-in-a-bottle teams that spike to extraordinary greatness tend to take a bit of a step back the next year. Pitching wins titles, as the Cards learned when the RedSux wiped the floor with them. The loss of Renteria hurts the infield defense. Thus, having the best middle of the lineup in the NL (Edmonds, Pujols, Walker, Rolen -- wow) means a good bid to win the division or win the wild card, but no guarantees.
The best rotation in the division could belong to the Cubs . . . if they're healthy. Wood-Prior-Zambrano-Maddux is the envy of about 28-31 of the other teams in the majors. But can Wood and Prior stay healthy? Can they pitch 8-9 innings per start? That may be the next big question because the Cubs are initially giving the closer job to LaTroy Hawkins, a player who is uniquely capable of only being a set-up man. If Scott Williamson is healthy and has his good stuff, he'll probably wind up with the job and that alone would improve their chances. Do they have enough hitting to win? That's question #3 after the health of the starters and efficacy of the 'pen. But Lee and Garciaparra have pop, Patterson has speed, and Walker-Hollandsworth-Barrett provide enough offense to enable the Cubbies to compete. If the pitching holds, this team can win the division and certainly compete for the wild card.
The NL Central is divided into two subdivisions: the teams that don't suck and the teams that do. The best of the latter bunch should be the Pirates because they have the Wilsons (Craig and Jack), a great pitcher in Oliver Perez and a couple of young pitchers who need a swift kick in the pants to improve (Wells, Vogelsong) but have room to do so. I'm betting that Lloyd McClendon doesn't make it through the season and whoever comes in to replace him rallies the team toward 78-82 wins.
The Reds have enough veterans, mid-level pitchers and Yankees prospect alums (Claussen, Wily Mo Pena, Jimenez) to again score a lot of runs and give up a bunch as well. Biggest questions: can Griffey stay healthy? Can Dunn break his own strikeout record? Can Claussen pitch in the bigs? Can Graves prevent his arm from falling off? Can Paul Wilson continue his remarkable comeback? Aside from all that, the Reds made two pitching pickups in the offseason: Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz. Two guys that give up a ton of homers now are to pitch in a small home ballpark. And you wonder why they're staying out of the playoffs?
The Brewers had one of the three best pitchers in the NL last year, and stank. This year, expect more of the same even with the super Ben Sheets. Carlos Lee and Russ Branyan are not the types of offseason pickups to turn a team around.