2004 Quick NL Preview

NL East
With the losses of Sheffield, Maddux and Lopez, this finally looked like the year that the Braves would tumble out of their lofty division titleist perch.  But the Cubs and Reds felt obliged to restock their pitching staff with Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma, and the Cards, their offense with their donation of JD Drew, so the Braves now have a chance to defend.  They're not the best bet to win the division because they still have holes on the pitching staff (wherever Cruz doesn't pitch) and on offense (third base, possibly first base as well).  But if JD Drew can stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his career, they shouldn't miss Sheffield's production too much.  Not a great bet, but it's still possible.  The better bet to win the division is either the Phillies or the Marlins.  The Phillies are better on paper, but as long as Larry Bowa can't keep his cool, they are still a meltdown waiting to happen.  Perhaps the additions of Eric Milton and Billy Wagner will make them Bowa-proof.  The Marlins are a very good playoff team, but might not be a good regular season team.  What that means is they can do a lot of things to win a short series, but they don't have the personnel to do the things to win a lot of games over the course of 6 months with the losses of Derrek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez.  Hee Seop Choi and Ramon Castro are nice players and could develop into stars, but it won't happen overnight.  The Mets have made some good moves this offseason, but their starting pitching is questionable and their offense only slightly less so.  The Expos are marking time until they get moved to Washington DC.  Major League Baseball has made some huge mistakes in it's history, but if Selig and the owners don't put a team in DC/NoVa by the end of this year, they will have made one of their worst blunders ever.  Virginia is unlikely to help finance a new stadium after this year, so unless stadium plans are in place, meaning a team is promised to be located there, baseball will have essentially lost it's second best market for the forseeable future.  That would put the Expos in limbo, either to be moved to a market that can't support them or contracted out of existence after 2006.  The Phillies should win this division, but the Marlins will be there if they underachieve for the third consecutive year.  The Braves still have an outside shot thanks to the generosity of the NL Central.

NL Central
The Cubs and Astros are the early favorites, but if Mark Prior is out for more than a month or so, the race will swing towards the Astros.  Both teams have improved this offseason, but getting a full season's production from Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Todd Walker will have a little more impact than signing Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, especially with the loss of Billy Wagner at the end.  Dotel will do just fine as the closer, as will Lidge and Stone.  But losing Wagner means that Jimy Williams has another inning to manage through and for a guy who couldn't recognize that Morgan Ensberg is a much, much better player then Geoff Blum, that isn't a good thing.  Plus, I like the fact that Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano now have Greg Maddux to talk pitching with on a daily basis.  With their stuff, if they learn anything they could become as dominating as Prior.  The Cardinals have some potential in their starting staff, and Matt Morris will be injury free, but Woody Williams is showing signs of breaking down.  After those two, there's talent like Dan Haren, Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright, but none of them are sure things.  Suppan and Carpenter are crap shoots.  Health is the biggest issue for the Reds, but if their big guns on offense (Dunn, Kearns, Griffey, Larson, Casey) can stay healthy, they have enough pitching to make some noise.  Jose Acevedo is probably the best they have, but Brandon Claussen and Aaron Harang aren't bad and with Paul Wilson and Cory Lidle eating up innings, this could be a nice darkhorse in the Central.  Thankfully, they moved Danny Graves to the only spot on the staff where a one-pitch pitcher can succeed: closer.  He'll be set-up by the phenomenal Ryan Wagner, who will be their closer no later than next year.  The Pirates would be interesting of they could figure out who can be an everyday hitter (Craig Wilson) and who can't (Randall Simon).  A lot of people don't like their mish-mash veteran bullpen, but the same trick has worked for a number of teams, most recently the 2001 Phillies.  The Brewers?  Well, they'll have a good offense when their AA team finally gets promoted.  Like the East, this looks like a two team race (Cubs and Astros) with a couple of darkhorses (Cards and Reds) waiting for any fall-off.

NL West
The Giants keep rebuilding but, like the Braves, this may be the year that it finally catches up to them.  AJ Pierzinski is a good hitting catcher, but there's a big difference between hitting in the dome in Minnesota and hitting at Pac Bell.  The same holds true for newcomers Dustan Mohr, Michael Tucker and Jefferey Hammonds, all coming from hitters' parks to one of the toughest pitchers' parks in the majors.  Marquis Grissom is due for a drop-off and with Neifi Perez replacing Rich Aurilia, the Giants offense looks like it will take a monstrous hit this year, even if Barry Bonds manages to keep up to his historic levels.  The bullpen is thinner without Worrell and the rotation isn't very deep after Schmidt and Tomko.  In fact, this is looking very much like a .500 team.  The Diamondbacks' youngsters played way over their heads last year and this year the team is depending on a repeat performance.  For example, Alex Cintron never hit more than 4 homers in any season previous to last year.  Yet in 2003, he set career highs in doubles (7 more than previous high), triples (2 more) and home runs with 15 while splitting time between AAA and the majors, getting the majority of his time facing big league pitching.  When a guy is a career .350 slugger in the minors and suddenly slugs .500 in the majors, something doesn't add up.  And the starting pitching after Johnson and Webb is just sad: retreads like Shane Reynolds and Elmer Dessens aren't gonna get you to the playoffs.  Until the Dodgers find some offense, they have no chance of competing, even in what is percieved to be a weak division.  In the Dodgers favor, they do have some solid starting pitching (Odalis Perez, Wilson Alvarez, Darren Dreifort, Edwin Jackson) and the best closer in baseball (Gagne), but the offense needed a lot more than Juan Encarnacion to even get to mediocre level.  If they somehow trade for Milton Bradley, they could challenge for 85-86 wins.  The Rockies are still too experimental to take seriously.  They don't appear to have any long range strategy and are having no luck solving the Coors pitching dilemma.  The Padres will move into their new park and fill it well into the playoffs.  They are the only team in the division that has quality depth at every position and if their boppers - Giles, Nevin, Klesko, Payton - can stay healthy, they will win the division with ease.  Even with the departure of Rod Beck, their bullpen is deep with good arms.  Akinori Ohtsuka (pronounced OATS-kah) has the talent to be the Rookie of the Year.  The Padre rotation is solid with David Wells (who has pitching at least 200 innings in 8 of the last 9 years) and emerging aces Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton.  As a minor leaguer, Peavy's potential impact was compared to that of Prior and Greg Maddux and it wasn't just scouting hyperbole.  Brian Lawrence is a solid 4th and the Pads shouldn't have much trouble finding a solid 5th starter from Sterling Hitchcock, Ismael Valdes, Ben Howard and Dennis Tankersley.  Barring serious injuries, the Padres will win 90 games and represent the West in the playoffs