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2005 National League Preview

By Jim Callis
March 16, 2005

STAFF PREDICTIONS

Most Valuable Player
1. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
2. Barry Bonds, Giants
3. Jim Thome, Phillies

Cy Young
1. Jason Schmidt, Giants
2. Tim Hudson, Braves
3. Roy Oswalt, Astros

Rookie of the Year
1. Chris Burke, Astros
2. Jeff Francis, Rockies
3. J.J. Hardy, Brewers

Manager of the Year
1. Felipe Alou, Giants
2. Bobby Cox, Braves
3. Charlie Manuel, Phillies

American League Leaders
Batting Average: Todd Helton, Rockies
Home Runs: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
RBIs: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Stolen Bases: Juan Pierre, Marlins
Wins: Jason Schmidt, Giants
ERA: Jason Schmidt, Giants
Strikeouts: Ben Sheets, Brewers
Saves: Eric Gagne, Dodgers

Selected by Baseball America's correspondents and staff.

N.L. EAST

1. ATLANTA BRAVES
Quick Take: Betting against the Braves has been folly since 1991, and we've learned our lesson, even if the NL East should be a tight four-team race.
In The Spotlight: RHP John Smoltz. After saving 144 games over the last three seasons, he gets his wish and returns to the rotation. But can he hold up after not making 30 starts or pitching 200 innings since 1997? And can strikeout-challenged Dan Kolb be nearly as effective as Smoltz finishing games?

2. FLORIDA MARLINS
Quick Take: The Marlins have easily the deepest lineup in the entire National League.
In The Spotlight: RHP Josh Beckett. Florida wouldn't have made it to the 2003 World Series, let alone won it, without Beckett's postseason heroics. Yet for all his stuff and moxie, Beckett's career trips to the disabled list (seven) nearly match his career high in victories (nine). Scoring runs won't be a problem for the Marlins, who need Beckett to become the ace they've envisioned.

3. NEW YORK METS
Quick Take: Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez can't solve all of the Mets' problems by themselves.
In The Spotlight: 2B Kaz Matsui and SS Jose Reyes. They were supposed to give New York a special double-play combination but they mostly provided heartache instead. Reyes played in just 53 games last year because of leg injuries, while Matsui looked rather ordinary. Now they've traded positions. They almost certainly have to be better in 2005, but how good can they truly become?

4. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Quick Take: The Phillies should be less dysfunctional without Larry Bowa, but it remains to be seen if they'll be any more effective on the field.
In The Spotlight: RHP Brett Myers. When he was rising through the minors, Myers' pugnacious style made the Phillies smile. When he took a huge step backward last season, it wore thin. He warred with former manager Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, as well as the media. Now it's time to look in the mirror and make some adjustments.

5. WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Quick Take: Getting a new home won't immediately undo the damage MLB has done while owning the teamand a buyer still hasn't been found.
In The Spotlight: OF Jose Guillen. General manager Jim Bowden resurrected Guillen's career when he brought him to Cincinnati, and now he's giving him a second chance after the Angels suspended him for the final week and the playoffs last season. If Guillen behaves and drives in 104 runs again, picking up his $4 million option for 2006 will be a no-brainer. If he doesn't, his career could come to a swift end.


N.L. CENTRAL

1. CHICAGO CUBS
Quick Take: Though their crash and burn was ugly down the stretch in 2004, the Cubs still have the most balanced team in the division.
In The Spotlight: OF Jeromy Burnitz. He hit .244/.327/.448 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs away from Coors Field last year. When his numbers weren't enhanced by high altitude in 2002 and 2003, he averaged .227/.299/.306 with 25 homers and 66 RBIs. If Burnitz provides that kind of production, the absence of a certain boombox-blasting slugger will be glaring.

2. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Quick Take: If the back of the rotation continues to overachieve, the Cardinals could win the NL Central in a walk again.
In The Spotlight: LHP Mark Mulder. St. Louis starters combined for 72 wins with mirrors last year, and now dependable Woody Williams has departed and Matt Morris is coming off shoulder surgery. Enter Mulder, for whom the Cardinals paid a high price: promising righthander Danny Haren, sweet-swinging prospect Daric Barton and effective reliever Kiko Calero. He has the track record to become the ace St. Louis lacked, but he also went 0-4, 8.31 in his final seven starts of 2004--a major reason the Athletics missed the playoffs.

3. HOUSTON ASTROS
Quick Take: As usual, the same three teams are in the hunt in the NL Central. But the Astros suffered greater offseason losses than the Cubs and Cardinals.
In The Spotlight: LHP Andy Pettitte. Elbow problems ruined his homecoming, yet the Astros made it within a game of their first World Series without him. Now that Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent have departed and Lance Berkman has torn up his knee, the pitching staff will have to pull more weight. That means Pettitte will have to stay healthy and start living up to his $31.5 million contract.

4. CINCINNATI REDS
Quick Take: They're improved, but not enough to actually make a run at the postseason.
In The Spotlight: OF Austin Kearns. If Ken Griffey Jr. can stay healthyadmittedly, that's a big "if"Kearns could be the odd man out in an outfield that also includes Adam Dunn and Wily Mo Pena. Kearns batted .313 with 26 homers in his first 152 big league games, but has battled a procession of shoulder, forearm and thumb injuries ever since. An experimental move to third base didn't take in instructional league, so he has to prove he warrants playing time.

5. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Quick Take: While the Brewers are headed toward their 13th straight losing season, things should get better in the near future.
In The Spotlight: 1B Lyle Overbay. Disappointing as a rookie with the Diamondbacks, Overbay bounced back after getting included in the Richie Sexson trade. But pitchers seemed to figure him out in the second half of 2004, when he slumped to .245/.357/.379 with six homers and 25 RBIs. He won't be able to keep the first-base job from Prince Fielder in the long run in any case, but his 2005 production will determine whether he has a future as a regularand whether he can be a useful piece of trade bait for the Brewers.

6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Quick Take: The only thing worse than being the Brewers is being the Brewers and having no cause for optimism. That's the Pirates.
In The Spotlight: General manager Dave Littlefield and manager Lloyd McClendon. Yes, trying to win in Pittsburgh has been next to impossible and owner Kevin McClatchy just makes things worse. But the Pirates are headed toward their 13th consecutive losing season and their fifth straight under Littlefield (who became GM in mid-2001) and McClendon. McClatchy isn't going to point the finger at himself.


N.L. WEST

1. SAN DIEGO PADRES
Quick Take: Someone has to win the NL West. The Padres are poised to do so for the first time since 1998.
In The Spotlight: OF Ryan Klesko. Petco Park is no hitters' paradise, but that's no excuse for Klesko hitting nine homers last season. The Padres need him to return to his accustomed 25-homer level if they're going to pull off the division title. A healthy right shoulder should help, and less whining about the ballpark also would be nice.

2. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Quick Take: Older is wiser. But is it better?
In The Spotlight: OF Moises Alou. The Giants' latest effort to find lineup protection for Barry Bonds brought them to their manager's son. Alou smacked a career-high 39 homers last year, but 29 of those came at Wrigley Field, which never has been confused with Pac Bell Park. He's also 38, part of a starting lineup that averages 36 years of age.

3. LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Quick Take: They're the darlings of bloggers everywhere, but their lineup will hold them back.
In The Spotlight: 1B Hee Seop Choi. His minor league track record was part of the reason GM Paul DePodesta pulled the trigger on the deadline blockbuster with the Marlins last July. But Choi quickly lost his starting job with the Dodgers, and has yet to prove he can handle big league lefthanders or quality inside fastballs. If he can't adapt, Los Angeles will have a huge hole at first base.

4. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Quick Take: Followed a 111-loss season with the Wally Backman debacle, the Randy Johnson trade and the questionable free-agent signings of Troy Glaus ($45 million) and Russ Ortiz ($33 million). Enough said.
In The Spotlight: RHP Javier Vazquez. The Yankees' acquisition of Vazquez looked like a coup when he made the all-star team in his first season in New York. But by the end of 2004, he was a mechanical mess, and he was last seen getting shellacked in the Yankees' historic American League Championship Series collapse. Getting dealt to the Diamondbacks should mean a little less pressure, but he also was Arizona's primary return for Johnson.

5. COLORADO ROCKIES
Quick Take: The lineup should feature six players in their first or second seasons as regulars. And the Rockies still haven't discovered how to deal with Coors Field.
In The Spotlight: LHP Jeff Francis. Can a pitcher succeed a mile above sea level? Francis has the movement, command and savvy to give it a shot. If the reigning Minor League Player of the Year and the organization's best pitching prospect can't get it done, it may not be possible.

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