Friday, March 31, 2006

MLB preview: NL East

I can't figure out how a division so competitive can be won by the same team, year after year. Why should this year be any different? I don't care how logical the argument is for any other team, I can't pick against Atlanta.

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Atlanta Braves
Atlanta's run of 15 straight division titles has to be the product of tremendous stability in the front office and coaching staff, because it sure isn't due to keeping the same players.
John Smoltz is the only player who has been a part of all 15 division titles. The Braves have enough money to keep a few stars around, such as Chipper Jones, but mostly it's because Braves GM John Schuerholz makes great trades and great drafts. No more Maddux or Glavine? No sweat. Enter Tim Hudson and a cast of young pitchers. No more Gary Sheffield? Jeff Francoeur steps up from the minors.
I don't think even the loss of guru pitching coach Leo Mazzone is going to adversely affect Altanta's run at a 16th straight division title. This is a team that can make it to the World Series out of a weakened NL.

2. New York Mets
Cha-ching! Can you hear the sound? Cha-ching!
That's the Mets' answer to everything. Spend, spend, spend.
In 2000, they spent their way to a pennant. Every year since then, they've spent their way to squat.
But this year might be different, because the Mets spent their money smartly this winter. They added an elite closer in Billy Wagner and a dangerous hitter in Carlos Delgado.
Pedro Martinez is still hanging in there, injuries and all. And I have to think Carlos Beltran is too young to be buried after a lousy debut in New York last year.
The Mets certainly have enough firepower to be a force in the NL. It's just a matter of getting all the egos on the same page, and keeping them healthy.

3. Washington Nationals
Philly gets all the press as the up-and-comer in this division. I think they overlook the Nationals, who aren't quite stacked, but have some great ammo.
No matter where he plays, Alfanso Soriano will produce, and give us a good idea of what this team could have done had the Expos kept Vlad Guererro.
Jose Vidro and Cristian Guzman provide some solid contact hitting at the top of the order. The X-factor of the Washington offense, however, is rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who rocketed to the majors after only 67 minor-league games last year. In five years, he and the Indians' Andy Marte will be the best third basemen in baseball. Mark it down.
The pitching is behind the hitting for Washington, but Livan Hernandez is a workhorse and Chad Cordero netted 47 saves last year.
The Nationals will be in the postseason picture into September, even if they don't make it.

4. Philadelphia Phillies
Out from under the weight of Jim Thome's contract, the Phils can now concentrate on rebuilding with young talent, which probably means at least one more season as an NL also-ran
The centerpiece of the team is the middle-infield tandem of second basemen Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who currently has a 36-game hitting streak. (He won't catch DiMaggio. No way.)
Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell provide the RBIs, though Abreu is more consistent. And you shouldn't overlook the acquisition of center fielder Aaron Rowand, acquired from the White Sox for Thome. Rowand was a huge spark plug for the White Sox last year, and can do the same for the Phils.

5. Florida Marlins
With the departure of the Expos from Montreal, the Marlins now assume the title of "team that has the worst relationship with its home city."
It makes no sense. With Miami's Latino-heavy population, it should be a baseball-crazy town. But, even with two World Series titles in the past nine years, I get the feeling that most Miamians just don't give a crap.
Attendance routinely lags unless the Marlins are contending, and now the team leaders are threatening to pull out of the city unless they get a new stadium deal.
It's a shame. The Marlins have always been the beneficiaries of filthy-rich ownership or smart minds in the front office. A spending spree delivered Miami the '97 title, and home-grown talent the '03 title. Now, '03 Series MVP Josh Beckett is in Boston, Carlos Delgado is in New York, and Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera could be on their way out, too.
The fates appear to be working against this team, which could be playing in another city in several years.

Up next: the NL West

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