Upstarts best NL hope for World win

Published 3:59 am Saturday, April 1, 2006

By By FILIP BONDY / Syndicated writer
The old guard is changing in the National League, or at least is very vulnerable. The top teams simply aren't as good as their counterparts in the AL, and the three best clubs from last season - Cards, Braves and Astros – are all arguably worse off than they were 12 months ago.
The path is clear for some upstarts, maybe the Mets or Cubs, to make a real run for the World Series. Here's a preview, in order of predicted finish:
Yes, it's ridiculous to pick Atlanta for first. On paper, the Braves may be the fourth-best team in the East. Until proven differently, however, they win this division for the 15th straight time merely by throwing their jerseys on the field. Edgar Renteria replaces Rafael Furcal at short, but the biggest problems are in the traditionally dominant rotation, where John Smoltz, 39, and frail Tim Hudson must keep the ship afloat.
GM Omar Minaya continues to remake the New York Mets into a contender. The key acquisitions this time are slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado (33 homers, 115 RBI), catcher Paul Lo Duca (replacing Mike Piazza's sprinkler-system arm) and closer Billy Wagner (having problems with his middle pitching finger, again). The team offense lacked pop (.258, 175 homers) last season. But playing at Shea will do that. The starting rotation is deep and talented, despite Pedro Martinez' sore toe and temperamental disposition.
The Phillies can hit, we know that. But the staff ERA of 4.21 last season is not likely to get better now that Philadelphia lost closer Wagner to the Mets and Ugueth Urbina to injury. Tom Gordon from the Yanks and Arthur Rhodes from Cleveland come in to help the bullpen, but neither is a sure thing. Rookie Ryan Howard will take over at first and Aaron Rowand comes from the White Sox to start in center. A lot of changes everywhere but where it counts, in the starting rotation.
The Nationals had the worst offense in the majors last season (.252, just 639 runs scored), and so they thought bringing in Alfonso Soriano would be a good idea. But then Soriano balked at moving to the outfield from second base, and the nomadic, who's-your-owner franchise appears utterly chaotic again this spring.
You would not want to be Marlins' new manager Joe Girardi, who is the caretaker for what is left of the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins. Two years after their title, they are a shell of themselves once more. Management dumped 10 top players in less than two weeks during the offseason, leaving Girardi with Miguel Cabrera (.323, 33, 116), Dontrelle Willis (22-10, 2.63) and a lot of faces that fans won't want to recognize.
The Cubs are back, if only by default. They have a pair of young stars in Derek Lee (.335, 46, 107) and Aramis Ramirez (.302, 31, 92). They have a strong starting rotation, led by Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior and Greg Maddux. They got a nice leadoff hitter in Juan Pierre, and a stronger bullpen with lefty Scott Eyre and righty Bobby Howry). Kerry Wood is trying to work his way back from arthroscopic surgery by late April, but at this point anything he gives Chicago will be gravy.
The Cardinals scored a league-high 805 runs last year, but have lost Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Larry Walker and Abraham Nunez from that lineup. Also gone: starter Matt Morris. St. Louis did not pick up a whole lot to replace these guys, outside of outfielder Juan Encarnacion (.287, 16, 76). That 100-victory season looks like a fond memory.
Houston brings back the same pitching-plus-defense team, minus Roger Clemens. That's a big minus, considering the Astros had very little margin for error last season with a typically impotent attack (.256). Maybe worse: Second baseman Craig Biggio is 40 and first baseman Jeff Bagwell turns 38 this spring, yet both are slated to start. To remain contenders, the Astros must hope for superb seasons again from both Roy Oswalt (2012, 2.94) and Andy Pettitte (17-9, 2.39).
Brewer GM Doug Melvin is rebuilding this long-suffering franchise in the mold of Billy Beane, with young, aggressive, second-tier players. Milwaukee reached .500 last season, and should stay around there with the help of first base prospect Prince Fielder, who was having a nice spring exhibition season.
The Pirates won only 67 games last year. Their pitching looks just as bad now, but at least the attack will be improved with additions first baseman Sean Casey (.312, 8, 58), right fielder Jeromy Burnitz (.258, 24, 87) and third baseman Joe Randa (.275, 17, 68). These are not stars, but they are also not automatic outs.
Ken Griffey Jr. flashed his old, healthy form for much of the World Baseball Classic, but the Reds really don't have much else to be happy about – unless you believe left-handed starter Dave Williams (1-11, 4.41) acquired from Pittsburgh, is going to rescue the league's worst pitching staff, with a 5.15 staff ERA in 2005.
The Dodgers have been the world's dullest team now for about as long as any teenager can remember. They should be a bit easier on the eyes now after remaking their infield with third baseman Bill Mueller, first baseman Nomar Garciaparra and shortstop Rafael Furcal (only Jeff Kent stays at second). The pitching should be fine. Jae Seo (8-2, 2.59) may turn out to be a steal from the Mets.
As Barry Bonds turns, so turn the unremarkable Giants. Bonds' home run chase of Ruth and Aaron figures to be an unpredictable spectacle, and very likely will overshadow the rest of San Francisco's season. This is a terrible division, and the Giants will probably contend because of Bonds' likely return and the signing of starter Matt Morris (14-10, 4.11) to a three-year, $27 million deal. Morris is no Cy Young candidate, though, and did not look so great in spring training.
The Padres somehow captured the West in 2005 with 82 victories and just 130 homers (nobody hit more than 18). Key players Brian Giles (.301, 15, 83) and closer Trevor Hoffman (42 saves) have been re-signed, and there have been minor additions in third baseman Castilla, center fielder Mike Cameron, and catchers Doug Mirabelli and an aging Mike Piazza.
The Diamondbacks acquired Miguel Batista (31 saves) in a trade with Toronto, then turned the closer into a starter and likely will use Jose Valverde in that key relief role.
Unfortunately, they gave up Troy Glaus (37, 97), who was about the only real power threat in their lineup outside of Chad Tracy. Arizona batted just .256 as a team last season, and figure to fare worse now.
The young Rockies are forever servants to their ballpark and their altitude. Opponents batted .287 last year against the pitching staff, which had a 5.13 ERA. Even in the NL West, you can't win the division with 67 victories.
Filip Bondy is a sports columnist for the New York Daily News.