National League Preview
Will anyone be razing Arizona?
March 28, 2002
Individual player rankings (in parentheses) and text by Jim Callis
Lineups are intended to reflect the players who project to have the most at-bats or innings (barring injury), not necessarily Opening Day lineups
How They'll Finish
1. Atlanta Braves
Strengths: If its the Braves, it must be pitching. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood are on hand. John Smoltz is still around too, in a new incarnation as a closer. Jason Marquis has the stuff to win big at the end of the rotation, and the middle relievers (Kerry Ligtenberg, Mike Remlinger and Co.) are another asset. The outfield is unmatched in the game, now that Chipper Jones has moved from third base and Gary Sheffield was acquired to flank Andruw Jones.
Weaknesses: The infield is riddled with holes, especially on the corners. Wes Helms is the best option at first base, while third base belongs to Vinny Castilla after he was inexplicably handed a two-year, $8 million contract. Atlanta would have been better off putting prospect Wilson Betemit at the hot corner. Albie Lopez 2001 performance didnt warrant a $4 million salary, but thats what he got to fill the No. 4 starters spot.
Outlook: The Braves have won 10 straight division titles and have the horses to make it 11. That would give them a shot at that elusive second World Series title.
2. New York Mets
Strengths: The Mets overhauled an anemic offense. Hello, Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Mo Vaughn. Mike Piazza is still the best offensive catcher in baseball. The rotation is solid if not spectacular, helped by the acquisitions of Shawn Estes and Pedro Astacio.
Weaknesses: Still plenty of problems in the lineup. Rey Ordonez bat is a black hole. The outfield of Cedeno, Jay Payton and Burnitz still is going to give up way too many outs. Astacio opted not to have surgery to correct shoulder problems, so he could go down at any time.
Outlook: Even with all their offseason spending, the Mets very well could be looking up at the Braves in the East and at the Central runner-up in the wild-card race. But New York should be in the postseason hunt well into September.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Strengths: The offense features four potential all-stars in Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell, Scott Rolen and Jimmy Rollins. If Mike Lieberthal is healthy, make that five. The rotation is fairly solid, especially if Terry Adams, Dave Coggin and Brandon Duckworth all can pitch as well as they did a year ago. Outfield prospect Marlon Byrd could fill a hole if hes ready. Pitching coach Vern Ruhle always gets the most out of his staff.
Weaknesses: Rollins lacks the plate discipline to be a truly effective leadoff hitter. A real table-setter is vital in a lineup that gets below-average production from its first baseman (Travis Lee), second baseman (Marlon Anderson) and center fielder (Doug Glanville). Rolens lack of interest in signing a long-term contract is a distraction that wont go away. Larry Bowas intensity could wear thin the second time around. The bench and bullpen are liabilities.
Outlook: If everything goes right, the Phillies could chase the division title for the second straight season. But almost everything went right for Philadelphia in 2001, and that rarely happens two years in a row.
4. Florida Marlins
Strengths: The Marlins run out tantalizing young starters in Brad Penny, Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and Matt Clement. If those five stay healthy for the year, Florida should be able to contend again. There isnt a hitter in the lineup who doesnt have upside. Alex Gonzalez was the first NL rookie shortstop ever to play in the All-Star Game.
Weaknesses: Gonzalez hasnt done much since playing in the 1999 All-Star Game. At second base Luis Castillo needs to forget 2001 and remember 2000. Theres a lot of potential here, and the players need to maximize it.
Outlook: Its probably too much to ask for the Marlins to make a serious playoff run in 2002. Still, Jeff Torborg has to be awfully happy hes in Miami rather than Montreal.
5. Montreal Expos
Strengths: At least Major League Baseball did not allow owner Jeffrey Loria to take Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez to Florida. If a team was looking to build around a young hitter and a young pitcher, thats as good a place to start as any. The double-play combination of Orlando Cabrera and Jose Vidro is the NLs best.
Weaknesses: Michael Barrett, Peter Bergeron and Brad Wilkerson need to prove they can hit major league pitching. Carl Pavano must stay healthy. Because the Expos are destined for contraction or Washington D.C., it may be all too easy for this team to pack it in once it has settled into last place by June.
Outlook: If Montreal somehow managed to contend, would MLB allow general manager Omar Minaya to trade prospects for veterans? Ah, its just a pipe dream anyway.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: The Cardinals greatest strength may be the front four of their rotation, the best quartet in the NL. J.D. Drew and Albert Pujols rank among baseballs most promising young hitters. Double-play partners Fernando Vina and Edgar Renteria more than get the job done offensively and defensively. So does Jim Edmonds. Free-agent signee Tino Martinez isnt the threat Mark McGwire was, but hes also not the injury risk McGwire was.
Weaknesses: Placido Polanco is a valuable supersub, but when hes the best option in left field, thats a problem. The last spot in the rotation is a hole. Mike Matheny is a standout catcher but also the worst-hitting regular in the league.
Outlook: Again, the Cardinals and Astros will battle right down to seasons end to determine the NL Central championship. The loser may wind up with the wild card.
2. Chicago Cubs
Strengths: Sammy Sosa has help with Fred McGriff in the lineup year-round and Moises Alou coming in as a free agent. Once Corey Patterson starts living up to his promise, the Cubs will have quite an outfield. If Jason Bere and Juan Cruz can pitch as well as they did in 2001, Chicago will have a deep rotation fronted by rock-solid Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood.
Weaknesses: Projected closer Tom Gordon may not pitch this year, which means Kyle Farnsworth has to prove he can finish games. It also weakens a depleted setup corps that lost Todd Van Poppel and David Weathers to free agency. Theres no clear fifth starter and uncertainty at third base.
Outlook: Combine the best of this years lineup with the best of baseballs top farm system, and the Cubs will have a long-term contender.
3. Houston Astros
Strengths: Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio keep plugging along, but Lance Berkman is the best hitter on this powerful club. The remade left side of the infield offers Morgan Ensberg, an offensive upgrade over Vinny Castilla, and Adam Everett, a defensive upgrade over Julio Lugo. Carlos Hernandez and Tim Redding could break out in 2002. Few teams can match the 1-2 bullpen punch of Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel.
Weaknesses: Brad Ausmus and Everett are standouts with the glove, but weak with the bat. If Ensberg doesnt come through, the Astros will be really hurting at third base. Offensively gifted Daryle Ward is such a rough defender that he may not even be able to handle left field, but minor league slugger Jason Lane offers a viable Plan B.
Outlook: Though the Astros cant win a postseason series, few teams can match their consistent regular season excellence.
4. Cincinnati Reds
Strengths: With the exception of catcher and right field, the Reds have plus bats at every position. Behind the plate, Jason LaRues defensive excellence makes up for his lackluster bat. If all goes well, Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey could combine for upwards of 85 home runs.
Weaknesses: Elmer Dessens is much more suited to be a No. 5 starter than a No. 1, and the rotation goes downhill from there. Chris Reitsma is the only starter who figures to be in Cincinnati three years from now, but he could use some Triple-A time instead of the responsibilities of being a No. 2. Danny Graves should be a setup man, not a closer, but hell finish games unless Scott Williamson comes back strong.
Outlook: Until the Reds get some pitching, theyre not going to be able to play with the big boys in the NL Central.
5. Milwaukee Brewers
Strengths: Stealing Richie Sexson from the Indians two years ago is the best thing that has happened to the Brewers in years. GM Dean Taylor made another nifty trade last summer, picking up Ruben Quevedo for free-agent-to-be David Weathers. Though a lackluster offense will miss Jeromy Burnitz, Glendon Rusch might prove to be another feather in Taylors cap. Ben Sheets and Nick Neugebauer are the future leaders of a currently young rotation.
Weaknesses: Outside of Sexson and Geoff Jenkins, the offense lacks any kind of punch. Including Sexson and Jenkins, the offense strikes out in bunches. Signing Jeffrey Hammonds to a $21.75 million contract and Eric Young to a $5 million deal were curious moves for a perpetually rebuilding club.
Outlook: Milwaukee seems to be headed in the right direction, albeit taking small steps forward. The Brewers still appear years from realistic contention.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Strengths: The Pirates get the benefit of drafting first in June. They do have some building blocks on offense in Brian Giles, Jason Kendall and Aramis Ramirez. Armando Rios (career .860 on-base plus slugging percentage) could have a breakthrough season, now that he finally has a starting job. Former GM Cam Bonifay isnt around any longer, so the days of handing multimillion-dollar contracts to Derek Bell and Pat Meares have ended.
Weaknesses: Pokey Reese and Jack Wilson will provide plenty of defensive support, but their gloves are more than offset by their weak bats. Kevin Young makes too much money and relegates the far more promising Craig Wilson to the bench. The biggest problem is the pitchers, and it probably wont be solved until Kris Benson returns to health.
Outlook: David Littlefield, Bonifays successor, has his work cut out for him. The trade of Todd Ritchie for Kip Wells, Sean Lowe and Josh Fogg shows promise, but the Reese signing does not.
1. San Francisco Giants
Strengths: Barry Bonds just had the best offensive season in the history of the game. Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent also offer more power than any NL players at their positions. Dusty Baker is the leagues top manager and no one works his bullpenalso the best in the leaguebetter than he does. Russ Ortiz has matured into a rotation anchor and could win 20 games this season.
Weaknesses: Behind Aurilia, Bonds and Kent, San Francisco has a very weak collection of bats. Dont be surprised if Bonds challenges his own major league walk record. The back end of the rotation is going to be shaky until Kurt Ainsworth and Jerome Williams are ready for prime time.
Outlook: The NL West is an extremely balanced division. Bakers ability to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and GM Brian Sabeans flair for midseason adjustments, will help the Giants as they try to return to the postseason.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
Strengths: Who needs Aura and Mystique when you have a pair like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling? Outfielder Luis Gonzalez is coming off the second-most-surprising 50-homer season in baseball history. Erubiel Durazo is 35 homers and 120 RBIs waiting to happen.
Weaknesses: Having baseballs oldest team means injuries and a loss of production. Matt Williams went down, and Jay Bell isnt exactly going to offer typical third-base production. The rotation is shaky behind Johnson and Schilling.
Outlook: Though the defending World Series champions have several flaws, Johnson and Schilling can cover most of them. They make Arizona dangerous in the postseason.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Strengths: Starting pitching, assuming Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby can take the mound on a regular basis. Japanese import Kazuhisa Ishii was dazzling early in spring training, Japanese veteran Hideo Nomo led the American League in strikeouts last year and Odalis Perez is poised for a breakthrough. Eric Gagne and Omar Daal are good backup plans. Shawn Green is a rock, while Adrian Beltre and Paul LoDuca could play in their first All-Star Game this year.
Weaknesses: Brian Jordan is a solid player, but hes no Gary Sheffield. Thats a big tradedown for a club that has four gaping holes in its lineup. The Dodgers have unsuccessfully pursued a closer for months. The rest of the bullpen is weak, as is the bench.
Outlook: Starting pitching alone should make Los Angeles part of the playoff chase. If the Dodgers could trade some of their surplus to pick up a closer and an extra bat, they could bolster their chances.
4. Colorado Rockies
Strengths: Todd Helton and Larry Walker are elite players, not just Coors Field mirages. The new double-play combo, Jose Ortiz and Juan Uribe, could combine for 40-plus homers. Juan Pierre has the center-field range needed to cover the wide gaps at Coors.
Weaknesses: As usual, the Rockies are going to surrender tons of runs. Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle didnt change that trend in their first season after signing contracts totaling $175 million. The defense doesnt help the cause, either, as Benny Agbayani, Ortiz, Ben Petrick and Todd Zeile arent going to save many runs with their gloves.
Outlook: Unless Hampton and Neagle suddenly turn into Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the Rockies dont have a chance.
5. San Diego Padres
Strengths: There isnt an easy out in the lineup, which is powered by Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin. Trades have brought in DAngelo Jimenez and Ramon Vazquez, quality
middle infielders the Padres lacked a year ago. Rookie Sean Burroughs is about to embark on a George Brett-type career. The rotation has five viable starters. Rookies Jason Middlebrook and Dennis Tankersley are on the verge of contributing. Trevor Hoffman is still one of the best closers in the business. GM Kevin Towers has assembled a fine bench and bullpen.
Weaknesses: Wiki Gonzalez and Jimenez disappointed by looking sluggish in spring training. Kevin Jarvis and Bobby Jones arent what a club wants at the front of its rotation.
Outlook: If the Padres ever get their new ballpark built, watch out. They have a team on the rise and a well-stocked farm system.
Copyright 2002 Baseball America. All rights reserved.|
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.