Now that we're nearly THREE weeks into the season, it's long past time for The Monk's NL Preview. There are really only two or three teams in the NL that have a chance to win the World Series -- although others could win the pennant. The NL has been so weak recently, that winning the league has meant little -- four of the last eight NL champs have failed to win a World Series game and that includes both the '99 Braves and '04 Cards, owners of the best record in baseball in those years.
One of the teams from the NL that is actually a World Series winning threat is the Mets. From dysfunctional baseball family to probable division winner, this year the Mess have more of everything that they lacked in past seasons. First and foremost, the closer -- Billy Wagner is the closest thing in the NL to a Rivera-quality game-ending deal-sealer. And acquiring him hurt the Phillies -- double win for the Mess. Second, obtaining Carlos Delgado, a deadly power hitter who notched his ninth-straight 30+ homer season last year for the Marlins. Third, addition by subtraction through tossing out Mike Piazza and his non-existent defensive skills and off-loading Kris Benson and his psycho slut wife to the Orioles. With a healthy Glavine, a lights-out Pedro again dominating NL hitters, a solid Steve Trachsel and decent relief, the Mess have enough pitching to win the division in a walk. Their lineup (Delgado, Wright, Matsui, Beltran) and mix of young and old (Nady, Bannister v. Glavine, Delgado) looks about right to break the Braves' streak.
The Braves still have Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, the two Joneses and . . . not much else. They took Edgar Renteria as a RedSawx castoff, they have some good young players, and . . . a lot of we'll see. Without Leo Mazzone to work miracles with the pitching staff, the Braves may be in trouble.
The Phillies are the best of a weak lot in the rest of the division. They have power (Abreu, Utley, Burrell) and some speed. The pitching stinks, and was weakened in the off-season with the losses of Padilla and Wagner. They shouldn't challenge this year. The Nationals are a mess, and getting the whingy Alfonso Soriano won't help -- the clubhouse cohesiveness helped the Nats outplay their talent last year. The Marlins are in the midst of yet ANOTHER salary purge that led them to toss aside Josh Beckett, AJ Burnett, Delgado and potentially Dontrelle Willis later this year.
In the Central, the Astros have done the opposite of 2004 and 2005 -- they've rocketed off to a good start thanks in large part to a soft schedule. Speaking of Rocket -- where Roger Clemens will land is anyone's guess at this point. But if he joins the 'Stros in May, and they're still in or near first place, they can beat the Cards for the division. With Pettitte, Oswalt, Rodriguez and Lidge, the Astros have the cornerstones of a solid pitching staff. They also have enough hitting to win, especially if Lance Berkman remains healthy for the whole year. Even if the Cards win the division, the Astros are the Wild Card favorites.
The Cards are the best bet to win the Central. They have the most balanced lineup and the most depth in the pitching staff (Carpenter, Mulder, Marquis, Isringhausen). They have Albert Pujols, the best hitter in baseball, Scott Rolen, and they have three Gold Glove quality fielders: Yadier Molina (youngest of the flying Molina catcher brothers), Rolen and Jim Edmonds. The Cards are just, to their opponents, infuriatingly consistent.
The 3-5 spots in the division are a jumble. The Pirates in last place are a given -- too young, too little talent. The Reds have loads of pop, but the pitching is horrendous (the five starters average giving up more than two homers per game). The Cubs are snakebitten -- losing Derrek Lee for two months after already suffering injuries to PriorWood. The Brewers are on the way up with Ben Sheets, the second-best Lee in the division (Carlos) and Rookie of the Year favorite Prince Fielder, son of the long lost (to gambling and assorted debts) Cecil.
The NL West winner will be . . . fodder for an early-round beating in the playoffs. Let's keep this simple: the Giants are old, the Padres can't hit, the Dodgers are a mess and the Snakes are lacking both hitting and pitching. The Rockies do not count as a threat -- if they can win 80 games with no pitching and no hitting, it's a miracle. Honestly, this is a terrible division that will end up once again as fodder for the other two divisions in the NL. The Giants have fewer questions if Bonds is healthy, especially after snagging Matt Morris. But it doesn't really matter -- this division is the one-star matchup from those NFL matchup ratings by USA Today -- for diehards only.