Team: New York Mets
Prediction: 90-72, 1st place
Why they’ll be better: Johan Santana in the National League could post some downright ridiculous numbers, and John Maine and Oliver Perez look like the real deal. David Wright is an absolute beast and the offense is likely to be one of the best in the league. The bullpen, led by Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman is quietly one of the better and deeper units in the league.
Why they’ll be worse: Well, Pedro Martinez is already hurt, but if he can come back healthy and effective it won’t be a big deal to miss April and May. Nobody really noticed, but Jose Reyes actually regressed a little last year and his ascent to superstardom is not guaranteed. Injuries and decline are possible for an older roster.
Key Player(s): RF Ryan Church – Acquired in a deal for Lastings Milledge, Church has long been deserving of a full-time job, and hit .278/.342/.506 away from spacious RFK Stadium last year. If he can hit lefties effectively, he could easily post a 25 HR, 100 RBI, .850 OPS type of year and give the Mets yet another bat and offset the decline of Carlos Delgado and injuries to Moises Alou.
Outlook: After a late-season meltdown which exposed the holes in their team – namely the starting rotation – the Mets went out and got Santana, the best pitcher in baseball, without sacrificing anything from their 25-man roster. This is pretty easily the best team in the National League, and anything less than a World Series appearance would be a disappointment.
Team: Atlanta Braves
Prediction: 83-79, 2nd place
Why they’ll be better: The lineup, with Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann in the middle, could be devastating. The return of Tom Glavine shores up one spot in a problem-filled rotation from last year, and along with Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and an underrated bullpen gives the Braves an above-average pitching staff.
Why they’ll be worse: Jones is 36 has not stayed healthy for a full year since 2003, and they’re counting on iffy veterans like Mark Kotsay and Mike Hampton to make significant contributions. The back end of the rotation is still a potential disaster and there is very little depth. If the Braves have to turn to Jo-Jo Reyes and Buddy Carlyle again, they aren’t gonna go anywhere.
Key Player(s): C McCann – Two seasons ago, at age 22, McCann had one of best seasons ever by a young catcher, hitting .333/.388/.572, but followed it up with a disappointing, injury-plagued 2007. He still made the All-Star team and had 56 extra base hits, but he has the potential to be an MVP candidate.
Outlook: The Braves have become this year’s chic pick, and while I think they’ll contend for the wild card, they have too many holes and injury concerns to be considered an elite team. They’ll score a lot of runs, but the pitching staff could give up just as many. With a couple of excellent hitting prospects in the pipeline but no pitching prospects close, that could be the story of the next few years.
Team: Philadelphia Phillies
Prediction: 82-80, 3rd place
Why they’ll be better: Their three best hitters – Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are unmatched by any team in baseball, and in their homer-happy ballpark, they could score 900 runs again.
Why they’ll be worse: Unfortunately, they’ll probably allow about that many as well, with one of the worst pitching staffs in the league. Cole Hamels is great, but Brett Myers is a question mark, and Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick will all post ERAs in the 5-6 range. The bullpen, even with the acquisition of Brad Lidge is a mess. Pedro Feliz is prominently involved.
Key Player(s): RHP Myers – Dropped from the rotation last year, Myers got hurt and then was a mediocre closer before being moved back to the rotation, making the start on Opening Day this year. If he can show his pre-2007 form, he’ll give the Phils some much needed above-average innings. If he’s actually a 4.50 ERA guy, the Phils are in even bigger trouble.
Outlook: The Phillies had a good run last year, but there’s no reason to think they’ll improve, especially when considering the career years turned in by Rollins, the now-departed Aaron Rowand and Kendrick. Their big off-season acquisition was a shake closer while they watched the Mets get the best pitcher in baseball. Their offense looks like a championship-caliber one, but their staff outside of Hamels is barely replacement level and will be their undoing.
Team: Washington Nationals
Prediction: 74-88, 4th place
Why they’ll be better: Ryan Zimmerman seems poised to challenge David Wright for NL 3B supremacy and become a true franchise player to build around. Nick Johnson is back, and though he’ll almost certainly get hurt again, he’s always hit when in the lineup. Austin Kearns is a great candidate to breakout in the new park. The bullpen is half-decent and coming off a strong year.
Why they’ll be worse: For starters, Odalis Perez was their Opening Day starter. That’s pretty terrible, and the rotation is comprised of injury risks, has-beens and never-will-bes. Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann, the only ones with promise, are perpetually injured. The rest of the rotation are guys who, in good years, could be competent #5s, and there isn’t much help on the way.
Key Player(s): CF Lastings Milledge – A 5-tool talent whose clashes with management led to his exile from New York, Milledge is going to play every day and should be an above-average player. If he and Elijah Dukes (who I have much less hope for, as his injury issues and WAY worse attitude issues hold him back) can get through a season successfully, they both have the talent to be building blocks of a winning team.
Outlook: The Nats are making slow, steady progress towards respectability, and if they can develop some pitching (or use their new ballpark revenues to buy some), they could actually be players within a couple of years. GM Jim Bowden seems to alternately make great moves (the Alfonso Soriano trade, the Kearns/Felipe Lopez heist) and terrible moves (the Soriano non-trade, the Dmitri Young contract extension to sit on the bench, buying a Segway) but if he can string together a couple of good ones, the Nats have a decent core to build around. They won’t go anywhere this year, but there is hope in DC.
Team: Florida Marlins
Prediction: 71-91, 5th place
Why they’ll be better: Hanley Ramirez may be the best player in the National League going forward, and Dan Uggla has defied critics (including myself) to become a well above-average offensive second baseman. Jeremy Hermida, Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs are all solid hitters, and this team should put up some runs. The bullpen is actually pretty solid if unspectacular.
Why they’ll be worse: The Nats threw Odalis Perez on Opening Day, and the Marlins similarly threw Mark Hendrickson, another waiver-bait fringy lefty starter. Their rotation, which looked promising with Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and others just two seasons ago, is going to be bad this year. The difference between theirs and Washington’s is that guys like Andrew Miller, Rick Vanden Hurk and their rehabbing youngsters actually could be very good in a couple of years. While their offense could be league-average, their defense is pretty bad as neither Ramirez or Uggla should be in the middle infield, and their outfield is slow without a true center fielder.
Key Player(s): LHP Scott Olsen – Two years ago, Olsen looked like he had put it together and while he got through last season healthy, unlike his rotation mates, he absolutely sucked. There are some makeup issues, but he has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, something the Marlins desperately need.
Outlook: The Marlins dealt away the last remaining vestiges of their shocking 2003 World Champion team, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis last season. Willis had become overrated, but losing Cabrera was hard to swallow, even if Cameron Maybin and Miller are excellent prospects. It’s absolutely brutal to see a team getting a shitload of money in revenue sharing and not using any of it – and there isn’t a more despicable owner in all of baseball than Jeff Loria, who ruined the Expos and is running the Marlins in the ground in a bid to bleed the community of a new ballpark. Build it yourself, asshole. That’s what the Giants did.