April 2, 2006 in Sports

National League preview

The Spokesman-Review
 

Capsules of National League teams,

in order of finish last year:

EAST DIVISION

Atlanta Braves

2005: 90-72, first place.

Manager: Bobby Cox (17th season of current tenure, 21st with Braves overall).

He’s here: SS Edgar Renteria, C Todd Pratt, RHP Oscar Villarreal, RHP Lance Cormier, LHP Mike Remlinger, OF Matt Diaz.

He’s outta here: SS Rafael Furcal, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, C Johnny Estrada, 1B Julio Franco, RHP Dan Kolb.

Hot spot: The bullpen. Blaine Boyer (shoulder) and Macay McBride (forearm) might start the season on the DL and John Foster (elbow) is just hoping to avoid season-ending elbow surgery. The injuries may force Chuck James, a starter, to open the season in the bullpen instead of as a starter at Triple-A Richmond. It could open a roster spot for veteran LHP Remlinger. Chris Reitsma will open the season as the closer, but strong springs by Joey Devine and Villarreal show they could be closer candidates if Reitsma falters. The Braves may trade John Thomson for relief help, opening a rotation spot for Kyle Davies.

Bottom line: The Braves won their record 14th straight division title despite an unusually heavy reliance on rookies last year. Those 2005 rookies, including Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Ryan Langerhans, Boyer and McBride must show they can handle full-time loads. The Braves may have to look to another rookie – Devine – if Reitsma can’t handle the closer’s role. Francoeur, who came back from the World Baseball Classic with a hot bat, appears ready to join Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones as the big bats in the middle of the order. John Smoltz will turn 39 and said he’s willing to assume a lighter load during the regular season in hopes of being strong for another playoff run. The team will miss Furcal’s speed at the top of the lineup and arm at shortstop, but if the bullpen doesn’t come together the exit of pitching coach Leo Mazzone could prove to be the more costly loss.

Philadelphia Phillies

2005: 88-74, second place.

Manager: Charlie Manuel (second season).

He’s here: GM Pat Gillick, RHP Tom Gordon, CF Aaron Rowand, LHP Arthur Rhodes, RHP Ryan Franklin, RHP Julio Santana, INF Abraham Nunez, INF Alex S. Gonzalez, RHP Chris Booker, C Sal Fasano, OF David Dellucci.

He’s outta here: GM Ed Wade, LHP Billy Wagner, 1B Jim Thome, RHP Vicente Padilla, RHP Ugueth Urbina, OF Jason Michaels, C Todd Pratt, RHP Robinson Tejada.

Hot spot: The pitching staff. Wagner’s departure to the division-rival Mets left a major void in the bullpen. Gordon hasn’t been a full-time closer since 2001, he’s 38 and had minor elbow issues in spring training. Ryan Madson’s move to the rotation leaves Rhodes as the only proven setup man. Jon Lieber, Brett Myers and Cory Lidle were durable and dependable. Franklin struggled in Seattle the last two years. Left-hander Randy Wolf is out until at least the All-Star break following Tommy John surgery.

Bottom line: The Phillies fell just one game short of tying Houston for the wild card in 2005. The high-powered offense needs to be more consistent and carry the load because the pitching staff lacks depth. The rotation is missing a true No. 1 starter, and Nos. 4-5 are question marks. Gordon has to stay healthy or the bullpen could fall apart. David Bell’s balky back makes him a question mark.

Florida Marlins

2005: 83-79, tied for third place.

Manager: Joe Girardi (first season).

He’s here: 1B Mike Jacobs, 2B Dan Uggla, SS Hanley Ramirez, INF Wes Helms, C Miguel Olivo, RHP Sergio Mitre, RHP Joe Borowski, RHP Ricky Nolasco.

He’s outta Here: Manager Jack McKeon, RHP Josh Beckett, RHP A.J. Burnett, 1B Carlos Delgado, 2B Luis Castillo, SS Alex Gonzalez, 3B Mike Lowell, C Paul Lo Duca, CF Juan Pierre, RF Juan Encarnacion, 1B-OF Jeff Conine, INF Damion Easley, RHP Todd Jones, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Antonio Alfonseca, LHP Ron Villone.

Hot spot: The franchise’s future. During the off-season, the Marlins abandoned their bid for a ballpark near downtown Miami and began looking at other cities as possible sites to relocate the franchise, with the blessing of Major League Baseball. Management cut the player payroll by two-thirds, saying owner Jeffrey Loria was no longer willing to lose money after another year of poor attendance during an 83-win season.

Bottom line: The outlook is similar to 1998, when the Marlins were coming off a World Series title but also another round of salary dumping. In ‘98, Florida finished 54-108. That record might be tough to match in ‘06.

New York Mets

2005: 83-79, tied for third place.

Manager: Willie Randolph (second season).

He’s here: 1B Carlos Delgado, LHP Billy Wagner, C Paul Lo Duca, RHP Duaner Sanchez, RF Xavier Nady, RHP Jorge Julio, RHP Chad Bradford, 1B Julio Franco, INF Jose Valentin, RHP Jose Lima, RHP Yusaku Iriki, OF Endy Chavez, LHP Darren Oliver.

He’s outta here: C Mike Piazza, RF Mike Cameron, RHP Braden Looper, RHP Kris Benson, RHP Jae Seo, RHP Roberto Hernandez, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B Mike Jacobs, 2B Miguel Cairo, INF-OF Marlon Anderson, LHP Kazuhisa Ishii, RHP Danny Graves, C Mike DiFelice, 1B Jose Offerman, RHP Shingo Takatsu, OF Gerald Williams, LHP Felix Heredia.

Hot spots: Second base and right field. An expensive two-year bust since coming over from Japan, Kaz Matsui (knee) is hurt again and is expected to miss opening day. When (or if) he comes back, who knows what the Mets will get from him on offense or defense? A pair of youngsters is also vying for a chance to play second. Anderson Hernandez is a reliable fielder who has shown signs of development at the plate. He must prove he can hit big-league pitching, however. Look for him to get an opportunity at some point, maybe early, but he might not hit enough. Jeff Keppinger has been a consistent hitter throughout his minor league career, but his defense is suspect and he doesn’t seem to wow anybody.

Bottom line: After making some major strides last season, the Mets and GM Omar Minaya had another busy winter. With a hefty payroll and a handful of big-name stars, this team now expects to reach the playoffs and at least threaten to unseat Atlanta finally. Playing in what looks to be a much softer division this year should help. Wagner is a big upgrade at closer over Looper, though the hard-throwing lefty is trying to shake off some recurring finger stiffness. Delgado gives New York the power-hitting first baseman it sorely needed. But for the inconsistent offense to really improve, Carlos Beltran must be much more productive than he was in his first season with the team and Jose Reyes has to get on base more. By trading Benson and Seo, Minaya probably weakened what had been a relatively deep, if not spectacular, rotation.

Washington Nationals

2005: 81-81, fifth place.

Manager: Frank Robinson (fifth season).

He’s here: OF Alfonso Soriano, RHP Ramon Ortiz, RHP Pedro Astacio, RHP Felix Rodriguez, SS Royce Clayton, INF-OF Damian Jackson, INF-OF Marlon Anderson, 1B-C Matthew LeCroy, 1B-OF Daryle Ward, C Wiki Gonzalez.

He’s outta here: OF Preston Wilson, OF Brad Wilkerson, 3B Vinny Castilla, RHP Hector Carrasco, RHP Esteban Loaiza, C Gary Bennett, 2B Junior Spivey, 2B Rick Short, OF Terrmel Sledge.

Hot spot: The rotation – and left field, because of the Soriano situation. After Livian Hernandez (coming off knee surgery) and John Patterson (who had a breakthrough 2005), there’s a significant dropoff among starters. The Nationals essentially are patching together the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation and keeping their fingers crossed. Don’t forget, they lost RHP Brian Lawrence to a torn shoulder after his first throwing session of the spring. After initially balking, Soriano relented to the switch from 2B to LF. But who knows how long the detente will last – or how D.C. fans will treat him?

Bottom line: The Nationals still do not have a new owner, so everything pretty much stayed status quo, with Jim Bowden as GM, Robinson as manager and few impact roster additions – most of the imports were bench players. The biggest name (and, it turns out, headache) the Nationals added was Soriano, in a trade for, among others, team leader Wilkerson. Spring training was one setback after another, from Lawrence’s injury (and some debate over whether the team should have had an MRI exam done on his shoulder before trading for him), to Jose Guillen’s wrist injury that sidelined him for a chunk of exhibition games, to the Soriano mess, to RHP Luis Ayala – Chad Cordero’s main setup man – being lost for the season after hurting his right elbow at the World Baseball Classic.

CENTRAL DIVISION St. Louis Cardinals

2005: 100-62, first place.

Manager: Tony La Russa (11th season).

He’s here: OF Juan Encarnacion, RHP Sidney Ponson, RHP Braden Looper, OF Larry Bigbie, 2B Junior Spivey, INF Aaron Miles, LHP Ricardo Rincon, C Gary Bennett.

He’s outta here: RHP Matt Morris, RF Larry Walker, LF Reggie Sanders, 2B Mark Grudzielanek, INF Abraham Nunez, LHP Ray King, RHP Cal Eldred.

Hot spot: Third base. Scott Rolen missed two-thirds of last season with a left shoulder injury that required two operations and his durability is in question. His fielding was unaffected by the injury, sustained in a base-running collision, but he had no power. Second base. Spivey was the leading contender entering spring training but has struggled at the plate. The bullpen is largely rebuilt following the departures of setup men Julian Tavarez and King.

Bottom line: La Russa will try to produce a third straight 100-win team for only the second time in franchise history, and the first time since 1942-44, with a roster that has most of the key elements from the first two years. Plus, he’s likely to get a boost from the opening of a new stadium. The team took a small gamble that Ponson, a 17-game winner in 2003 coming off alcohol-related troubles, is a changed man and can replace Morris in the rotation. The biggest offensive dropoff may be in left field, where a combination of So Taguchi, Larry Bigbie and John Rodriguez is likely to replace the departed Sanders. Defense might have been sacrificed, along with consistency, when the Cardinals allowed underrated Grudzielanek to leave as a free agent.

Houston Astros

2005: 89-73, second place, wild card, N.L. champions.

Manager: Phil Garner (third season).

He’s here: RF Preston Wilson, LHP Trever Miller.

He’s outta here: INF Jose Vizcaino.

He might be outta here: RHP Roger Clemens, 1B Jeff Bagwell.

Hot spot: First base. Longtime star Bagwell will begin the season on the disabled list and might never play again because of a chronically injured right shoulder. The Astros filed an insurance claim to recoup $15.6 million of the $17 million he’s guaranteed this season in the last year of his contract. The claim was denied, and the dispute could go to court. Lance Berkman shifts from the outfield to first base, where he played 96 games last season. Houston GM Tim Purpura is confident Berkman’s defense will be fine at first. The move also could mean more playing time in the outfield for energetic Chris Burke.

Bottom line: If Clemens doesn’t return, the back end of the rotation could be a little shaky with relatively inexperienced pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio filling the fourth and fifth spots. The top of the rotation will be strong with Roy Oswalt, who has posted consecutive 20-win seasons, and Andy Pettitte looking to pick up where they left off last season. The Astros relied on their pitching to reverse a 15-30 start and make their first World Series last year. They’ve added some power with Wilson to try and amp up their sometimes-sagging offense, which scored just 693 runs, 24th in the majors last season.

Milwaukee Brewers

2005: 81-81, third place.

Manager: Ned Yost (fourth season).

He’s here: 1B Prince Fielder, 3B Corey Koskie, RHP Dan Kolb, RHP Dave Bush, OF Gabe Gross.

He’s outta here: 1B Lyle Overbay, RHP Wes Obermueller, 3B Russell Branyan.

Hot spot: The right side of the infield. After trading 2B Junior Spivey for Tomo Ohka to free up room for Rickie Weeks in June last season, Brewers GM Doug Melvin dealt incumbent 1B Overbay to Toronto for Bush and Gross this off-season. That makes Fielder – the power-hitting prospect and son of former major leaguer Cecil Fielder – the everyday first baseman, batting ahead of Carlos Lee. New third base coach Dale Sveum and bench coach Robin Yount will be expected to help Fielder and Weeks develop their defensive skills.

Bottom line: The last time the Brewers had a winning record, they were in the American League and there were only 26 major league teams. Now Milwaukee is a trendy pick to finally break through and contend for the N.L. wild card, but Ben Sheets’ health remains a concern. Sheets missed all of September after tearing a different back muscle, and the Brewers finished eight games behind Houston for the wild card. Doug Davis, named the opening-day starter, had better raw numbers than Chris Capuano, but Capuano’s 18 victories came as Davis went 14 starts without a win or run support. Both will have to have equal or better performances for Milwaukee to reach the 90-win plateau. In the bullpen, the Brewers did nothing to address their need for a left-handed reliever.

Chicago Cubs

2005: 79-83, fourth place.

Manager: Dusty Baker (fourth season).

He’s here: OF Juan Pierre, OF Jacque Jones, OF John Mabry, RHP Bobby Howry, LHP Scott Eyre.

He’s outta here: INF Nomar Garciaparra, OF Corey Patterson, OF Jeromy Burnitz.

Hot spot: Pitching. The Cubs solidified their bullpen in the off-season, adding Howry and Eyre, but – again – their success will likely depend on the health of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The early signs aren’t good, after both spent significant chunks of last season on the disabled list. Already expected to miss the first few weeks while recuperating from surgery on his right shoulder, Wood had a minor knee operation this month. Prior will also begin the season on the DL after straining his right shoulder. RH Jerome Williams might start the season in the rotation, and RH Angel Guzman, LH Rich Hill, LH Sean Marshall and RH Jae Kuk Ryu are in the mix with Prior out indefinitely.

Bottom line: The theme here is uncertainty. Baker and general manager Jim Hendry are in the final years of their contracts. The Cubs struck out trying to land shortstop and leadoff batter Rafael Furcal but filled their hole at the top of the order with Pierre. That leaves Ronny Cedeno at short. The outfield is revamped from last season’s opener, with Pierre in center, Jones in right and Matt Murton in left. The Cubs will need another big year from Derrek Lee and a healthy season for Aramis Ramirez.

Cincinnati Reds

2005: 73-89, fifth place.

Manager: Jerry Narron (first season).

He’s here: RHP Bronson Arroyo, LHP Dave Williams, LHP Chris Hammond, RHP Rick White, INF Tony Womack, C David Ross, OF Quinton McCracken, 1B Scott Hatteberg.

He’s outta here: 1B Sean Casey, OF Wily Mo Pena, RHP Ramon Ortiz, RHP Ben Weber, INF D’Angelo Jimenez, RH Josh Hancock.

Hot spot: Where else? The rotation. The Reds have plenty of offense – led the league in homers, runs and doubles while averaging five runs per game – but the rotation gave up an average of 5.38 earned runs per game, worst in the league. RH Paul Wilson is still recovering from shoulder surgery. The Reds are so desperate for starters that they traded popular Casey to Pittsburgh for Williams, and OF Pena to Boston for Arroyo.

Bottom line: New owner Bob Castellini and general manager Wayne Krivsky took over too late to have much of an effect on this season. Look for more sweeping changes afterward. If the rotation can be merely average, the Reds have enough offense to flirt with the break-even mark this year. But that’s doubtful.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2005: 67-95, sixth place.

Manager: Jim Tracy (first season).

He’s here: 1B Sean Casey, OF Jeromy Burnitz, 3B Joe Randa, RHP Roberto Hernandez, LHP Damaso Marte, RHP Victor Santos, INF Jose Hernandez, RHP Giovanni Carrara, RHP Brandon Duckworth.

He’s outta here: LHP Dave Williams, RHP Jose Mesa, RHP Josh Fogg, OF-INF Rob Mackowiak, 1B Daryle Ward, OF Tike Redman, 3B Ty Wigginton, OF Michael Restovich, INF Bobby Hill, RHP Brian Meadows, RHP Rick White.

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Hot spot: The Pirates appear to have upgraded their bullpen by adding 41-year-old Hernandez and reacquiring Marte, but 27-year-old Mike Gonzalez has never been a closer except while going 3 of 3 in save conversions during brief trial last season. With such a young rotation – four of the five likely starters weren’t in the majors on opening day a year ago – the closer will play an especially important role for Pirates.

Bottom line: The Pirates are staking the fate of their season on their talented but inexperienced starting pitchers. Zach Duke was exceptional as a rookie and likely would have pushed for the rookie of the year award if he had arrived earlier in the season. RHP Kip Wells, the most experienced starter, is out until midseason after needing surgery in camp to repair a vein. Tracy is the first manager hired from outside the organization since Jim Leyland in 1986, and has many new players around him, with Casey, Burnitz and Randa added to improve one of the majors’ most deficient offenses. LF Jason Bay (North Idaho College/Gonzaga University) might be on the verge of becoming a certifiable star outside the city limits of Pittsburgh – he has averages of .296, 29 homers and 92 RBIs in his first two full seasons, despite missing the first month of 2004 season with a sore shoulder.

WEST DIVISION San Diego Padres

2005: 82-80, first place.

Manager: Bruce Bochy (12th season).

He’s here: C Mike Piazza, CF Mike Cameron, 3B Vinny Castilla, 2B Mark Bellhorn, LHP Shawn Estes, LHP Alan Embree, RHP Dewon Brazelton, C Doug Mirabelli, RHP Chris Young, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, OF Terrmel Sledge, RHP Doug Brocail.

He’s outta here: 2B Mark Loretta, 3B Sean Burroughs, C Ramon Hernandez, RHP Adam Eaton, RHP Brian Lawrence, RHP Akinori Otsuka, OF-INF Xavier Nady, RHP Pedro Astacio, INF Mark Sweeney.

Hot spot: Ryan Klesko will make $10 million this season in the final year of his contract, and the Padres hope to get more in return than they have in recent years. He pops up a lot and hits a lot of fly balls. He did lead the power-poor Padres with 18 homers last year. Klesko moves from left field back to first base but is likely to begin the season on the DL with a sore left shoulder.

Bottom line: The Padres had one of the most uninspiring stretch runs by a division champion in recent memory. They were two games less than .500 with a week left in the season before rallying to finish 82-80 atop the weak West, then were swept by the Cardinals in the playoffs. GM Kevin Towers immediately went to work in reshaping the roster, although it might not be a whole lot better than last year. He added Cameron, Piazza and Castilla. The rotation drops off drastically after Jake Peavy, who led the league in strikeouts with 216 last year, a season after leading the majors with a 2.27 ERA.

Arizona Diamondbacks

2005: 77-85, second place.

Manager: Bob Melvin (second season).

He’s here: C Johnny Estrada, 2B Orlando Hudson, CF Eric Byrnes, RHP Miguel Batista, RHP Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, OF Jeff DaVanon, RHP Luis Vizcaino, LHP Terry Mulholland, RHP Juan Cruz.

He’s outta here: 3B Troy Glaus, SS Alex Cintron, RHP Javier Vazquez, SS Royce Clayton, LHP Shawn Estes, OF Quinton McCracken, LHP Brad Halsey.

Hot spot: Pitching, especially the starting rotation. Russ Ortiz was often injured and awful when he wasn’t last season, and he wasn’t any better in spring training. Batista must adjust to being a starter again. Hernandez is at least 40. There is no lefty in the rotation and only one, 43-year-old Mulholland, in the bullpen.

Bottom line: The franchise is loaded with young talent, but most of it is still in the minors. New GM Josh Byrnes is trying to make the team competitive while loading up for the future, and the team, despite its deficiencies, thinks it can contend in the weak West.

San Francisco Giants

2005: 75-87, third place.

Manager: Felipe Alou (fourth season).

He’s here: RHP Matt Morris, OF Steve Finley, RHP Jamey Wright, INF-OF Mark Sweeney, LHP Steve Kline, RHP Tim Worrell, INF Jose Vizcaino, C Todd Greene.

He’s outta here: 1B J.T. Snow, 3B Edgardo Alfonzo, RHP Brett Tomko, LHP Scott Eyre, RHP LaTroy Hawkins.

Hot spot: One of the biggest questions for the Giants is which Jason Schmidt will take the mound. Will it be the ace who went 35-12 with a 2.79 ERA as he overpowered hitters in 2003-04 or the pitcher who struggled to find his stuff last season when his ERA rose to 4.40? Schmidt said he feels much better this spring and is poised for another big campaign.

Bottom line: The focus in San Francisco is on one player: Barry Bonds. From his chase of Hank Aaron’s home run record to baseball’s investigation into his alleged steroid use, from the retirement talk to his new TV show, Bonds will provide a circus-like atmosphere all season. He also might be the most important player for his team. When he is in the lineup, drawing walks and launching homers, San Francisco is one of the best offenses in the league. When he’s not, as happened last year when he underwent three knee operations, the Giants struggle to score. The Giants improved their depth with the acquisitions of Finley, Sweeney and Vizcaino, but it’s Bonds and Moises Alou who need to be the big cogs in the offense.

Los Angeles Dodgers

2005: 71-91, fourth place.

Manager: Grady Little (first season).

He’s here: C Sandy Alomar Jr., RHP Danys Baez, RHP Lance Carter, RHP Jae Seo, RHP Brett Tomko, 1B Nomar Garciaparra, SS Rafael Furcal, INF Ramon Martinez, 3B Bill Mueller, CF Kenny Lofton.

He’s outta here: Manager Jim Tracy, GM Paul DePodesta, LHP Wilson Alvarez, C Paul Bako, CF Milton Bradley, RHP Giovanni Carrara, RHP Darren Dreifort, RHP Elmer Dessens, INF-OF Mike Edwards, RHP Edwin Jackson, INF Antonio Perez, C Jason Phillips, C Mike Rose, RHP Duaner Sanchez, RHP Steve Schmoll, INF Jose Valentin, RHP Jeff Weaver.

Hot Spots: Catcher and the outfield. The switch-hitting Dioner Navarro showed promise in 50 games late last season, doing an adequate job at the plate and a fine job behind it. But he’s only 22 and can’t be considered a proven commodity yet. J.D. Drew has played in more than 135 games only once in his injury-filled career, and is coming off September surgery on his right wrist and right shoulder. His 2005 season ended July 3 when he broke his left wrist when hit by a pitch. Jose Cruz Jr. is a journeyman who played with three teams last season, and the 38-year-old Lofton doesn’t figure to play many more games than the 110 he appeared in with the Phillies last year.

Bottom line: New GM Ned Colletti inherited a mess when he was hired in mid-November. But he did a terrific job of filling in several holes by signing Furcal, Lofton, Garciaparra, Mueller and Tomko as free agents and acquiring Seo, Baez and Carter in trades. Drew and Garciaparra have a history of being sidelined for extensive lengths of time with injuries, but both seem to be in good health entering the season. The same goes for Eric Gagne, baseball’s best closer from 2002-04, and the Dodgers have an excellent insurance policy in the 28-year-old Baez. There is some advancing age in what appears to be a decent lineup. The rotation seems solid, with Seo, 28, appearing to have come of age late last season.

Colorado Rockies

2005: 67-95, fifth place.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (fifth season).

He’s here: RHP Jose Mesa, LHP Ray King, C Yorvit Torrealba, OF Eli Marrero.

He’s outta here: OF Larry Bigbie, C Todd Greene, 2B Aaron Miles, RHP Jamey Wright, RHP Dan Miceli.

Hot spot: Choo Freeman (.273 in 18 games for Rockies after hitting .280, 10 HRs, 59 RBIs for Colorado Springs) could push for a starting outfield spot if anybody falters. He’s primarily a center fielder but can play left and right and doesn’t think it’s too far in his future to think about vying for a starting job.

Bottom line: The Rockies gave Hurdle and GM Dan O’Dowd each one-year contract extensions, but that was about the biggest off-season splashes the club made. They managed to sign King and Mesa to strengthen their bullpen and give Hurdle more flexibility as he gets the ball into Brian Fuentes’ hands to close. But they did little else to bolster a roster that is chock-full of youth. Although Jason Jennings is the opening-day starting pitcher, Aaron Cook has had the best spring and is showing signs of becoming the pitcher he was before life-threatening blood clots sidelined him for a year.

Associated Press

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