1. Florida Marlins
Pitchers: The Marlins’ starting rotation is good enough to carry them into October, but it could also sink them into the abyss of the division. In his first three big league seasons, Josh Beckett (9-9, 3.79) has had seven stints on the disabled list. A.J. Burnett (7-6, 3.68) rebounded from elbow surgery to have a decent 20-game run with the Marlins last year. 23-year-old Dontrelle Willis (10-11, 4.02) has great potential, but seemed to take a step back after a monstrous rookie season. If healthy, the trio should make Florida’ rotation one of the three or four best in the National League. Veteran Al Leiter (10-8, 3.21 with the Mets) joins the Marlins’ rotation, and Ismael Valdez (14-9, 5.19 with San Diego and Florida) had a decent run with the Marlins (5-3, 4.50) and figures to be the fifth starter.
With Armando Benitez gone to San Francisco, the Marlins are left without an experienced closer in the bullpen. For now, they’ll go with Guillermo Mota, who was unhittable with the Dodgers (8-4, 2.14), but very human with the Marlins (1-4, 4.81). It will be Mota’s first stint as a major-league closer. If he fails, veteran Antonio Alfonseca (6-4, 2.57 with Atlanta) will probably assume the role. Veterans Todd Jones and John Riedling were signed in the offseason to bolster the bullpen, and lefthanders Matt Perisho and Chad Bentz have a chance to win jobs.
Position players: The Marlins’ lineup is vastly improved over 2004. Leadoff man Juan Pierre (.326-3-45, 12 triples, 45 steals) is as good as they come, and number two hitter Luis Castillo (.291-2-47, 21 steals) isn’t bad, either. Now, they have someone to set the table for. Miguel Cabrera (.294-33-112) has limitless potential at age 21, and he now has a true masher joining him in the lineup, as Carlos Delgado (.269-32-99 in Toronto) was brought in as a free agent. Third baseman Mike Lowell (.293-27-85) is considered the leader of this team. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez (.232-23-79) needs to hit with more discipline. Defensively, the Delgado-Castillo-Gonzalez-Lowell infield is one of the best in the game. With Delgado’s big left-handed bat, the Marlins suddenly have a potentially formidable offense.
Overall analysis: This is a flawed division. No one stands out as a heavy favorite. The Braves are the easy pick because of their 13 straight titles. Everyone else is a risky pick because of that streak. The Marlins have never won this division, winning both their World Series after qualifying for the playoffs as the wild card. This will be the year. Their pitching is too talented, and the youngsters will benefit from the leadership of Leiter. With Delgado in the middle of the order, everyone becomes more dangerous. Not only that, but managers will no longer be able to match a right-handed reliever against the middle of the order, as Delgado gives them a left-handed presence they’ve really never had in Miami. The bullpen is a question mark because no one knows what Mota will do as the closer, but my hunch is that they’ll figure something out. The Marlins have enough offense and pitching to overcome the Braves and win the division.
2. Atlanta Braves
Pitchers: Lifelong Braves fan Tim Hudson is living a dream. He gets to play for the team he rooted for growing up. Hudson (12-6, 3.53 in Oakland) was acquired to assume the top spot in the Braves’ rotation, as Atlanta returns to a more pitching-oriented organizational plan. As part of that plan, the Braves have moved closer John Smoltz back to the rotation. Smoltz, 37, posted 154 saves in three-plus years as the Braves’ closer. Before that, Smoltz was one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the National League, posting a 157-113 record in 356 starts from 1988-1999. If Smoltz’s elbow holds up, he should be capable of 175-200 innings and 15-18 wins. Third starter John Thomson (14-8, 3.72) was almost unhittable in the second half of the season (8-1, 2.45). The Braves expect lefty Mike Hampton (13-9, 4.28) to pitch more like he did in the second half of the season (9-1, 3.13). Hampton and Thomson were huge keys to Atlanta’s second-half run to the National League East crown. Horacio Ramirez will serve as the fifth starter.
With Smoltz back in the rotation, John Schuerholz needed to go find a closer. Danny Kolb (39 saves, 2.98 ERA) was brought in from Milwaukee in a trade for flamethrowing prospect Jose Capellan. However, Kolb’s numbers are a bit deceiving. Four of his five blown saves came after the All-Star break, and his ERA in the second half of the season was an atrocious 4.88. The Braves best have a backup plan for Kolb, in case his second-half numbers are indicative of how he’ll pitch this season. Chris Reitsma is back in the pen, along with Kevin Gryboski, Gabe White, and youngster Roman Colon. None of them appear to have closer potential if Kolb falters.
Position players: Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi combined for eight home runs and 38 RBI in 2004. Those are the starting corner outfielders for this Braves team. Andruw Jones (.261-29-91) will ably man center field, as usual. The Braves will welcome a full season out of second baseman Marcus Giles (.311-8-48 in 102 games), and expectations are high that Rafael Furcal (.279-14-59) will continue to improve out of the leadoff spot. The first base platoon of lefty Adam LaRoche (.278-13-45) and 46-year-old Julio Franco (.309-6-57) should continue to work out well, provided Franco can still play. Chipper Jones failed to reach 100 RBIs last year for the first time since 1995 (.248-30-96). That won’t happen again.
Overall analysis: The Braves have won 13 straight division titles. It’s an amazing run by an amazing organization. They’ve always found ways to win, whether it’s with the pitching and defense or the offense. They’ve also found ways to make lightly-regarded players productive, as they did last year with castoffs Thomson and Hampton in the rotation and as they have with the ageless Franco. However, this is the year the run comes to an end. The Braves lost too much offense when J.D. Drew signed with the Dodgers, and they have a very shaky bullpen behind a potentially shaky starting rotation. If Bobby Cox is managing in October, he should get his face engraved on a mountain somewhere.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Pitchers: Jon Lieber went 5-0 last September for the Yankees (14-8, 4.33 overall). Now, Lieber, 35, will serve as the staff ace in Philadelphia. He’s a good ground-ball pitcher, which will serve him well in Citizens Bank Park, and pitchers normally do well in their second season following elbow surgery, so the Phillies have high hopes. He’d better come through, too, because the Phillies aren’t exactly blessed with a deep pitching staff. The group behind Lieber, Randy Wolf (5-8, 4.28), Cory Lidle (12-12, 4.90 overall; 5-2, 3.90 in Philadelphia), and Vincente Padilla (7-7, 4.53) are all inconsistent. Lidle has the most upside of the group, assuming he can control his sinker and get ground ball outs with it.
Billy Wagner, 33, pitched in just 45 games in his first season as a Phillie (2.42 ERA, 21 saves). He was overpowering, as usual, but health issues kept him from playing a full season. That caused other issues in the bullpen, as Tim Worrell (5-6, 3.68, 19 saves) had to close when Wagner was out, and the workload increased for setup men Rheal Cormier (84 games) and Ryan Madson. Worrell and Cormier are going to turn 38 during the season, so the burden is on the starters to get deeper into games, and on Wagner to stay healthy.
Position players: The top half of the order is pretty good. The bottom half has some issues. Jimmy Rollins (.289-14-73, 30 steals) has become a legitimate leadoff man. Kenny Lofton will get the job done out of the second spot, helping set the table for the power hitters. Bobby Abreu (.301-30-105) and Jim Thome (.274-42-105) are veteran sluggers who will produce plenty of big hits. Then, things get a bit shaky. Pat Burrell (257-24-84) has great power, but also strikes out more often than anyone else on the team. He’s followed in the lineup by Chase Utley (.266-13-57), who has great potential but has never gotten it done at the big league level. Also in the mix is catcher Mike Lieberthal (.271-17-61), whose overall numbers were good, but he hit just .142 with runners in scoring position. Third baseman David Bell (.291-18-77) is coming off a good season, but his production is at least in part predicated by the production of those around him. One thing’s for certain: Bell will give Philadelphia good effort and solid defense at third base.
Overall analysis: New manager Charlie Manuel will make sure his team scores runs, and he’ll make sure the players are relaxed, a stark contrast to the reign of Larry Bowa, in which players constantly complained of the poor dugout/clubhouse atmosphere. Manuel will get the most out of this offense, and there’s plenty of potential to tap into. However, the pitching staff has holes. The Phillies are relying on a 35-year-old with a 100-91 career record as their ace, and none of their other three main starters have shown any real consistency at the big league level. The aging bullpen needs less work, not more work. With the rotation Philadelphia has, the odds are high that they’ll get more work than they can handle. In a division full of elite pitching, the Phillies don’t have enough to be a huge factor.
4. New York Mets
Pitchers: If anything, the signing of Pedro Martinez (16-9, 3.90 in Boston) signals a change in the makeup of the Mets. Martinez, 33, has had his share of arm problems (which some reports say are more serious than anyone has let on), and he is prone to rough outings in hostile environments. He’s also capable of huge performances when the spotlight is on (in other words, it’s sometimes hard to figure him out), and the Mets think the health risk involved in giving Martinez a four-year deal is worth the reward they expect from him. His presence takes pressure off 39-year-old Tom Glavine (11-14, 3.60), who is no longer suited for the role of staff ace. Japanese import Kaz Ishii was brought in from Los Angeles (the Dodgers, that is) in a trade, and he should win a job in the rotation. Expectations are also high for Kris Benson (12-12, 4.31 overall), who got a big contract from the Mets in the offseason after they picked him up from Pittsburgh at the deadline. Victor Zambrano (11-7, 4.37 overall), another deadline pickup, will also work out of the Mets’ rotation.
New closer Braden Looper (2.70 ERA, 29 saves in 34 chances) did the job for this team last year, but getting leads to him was a bit of an adventure. For all the improvements made to the starting rotation, the Mets never found the right combination in the bullpen. Mike DeJean is back, along with Felix Heredia, Tyler Yates, Orber Moreno, and lefthanded Korean import Dae Sung Koo.
Position players: In Carlos Beltran, the Mets hope they’ve solved some of their hitting woes. However, as good as Beltran is (.267-38-104 overall), the Mets need to get Beltran in the lineup four or five times to cover up their offensive deficiencies. Jose Reyes (.255-2-14) and Kaz Matsui (.272-7-44) are okay at the top of the order. Beltran will do everything he can to get runs across, but he needs a healthy season out of catcher Mike Piazza (.266-20-54), and continued improvement out of third baseman David Wright (.293-14-40 in 69 games). Right fielder Mike Cameron has 30/30 talent, but his 2004 numbers (.231-30-76) weren’t nearly good enough despite the home run total. Cliff Floyd (.260-18-63 in 113 games) needs to stay healthy and improve his average. Miguel Cairo (.292-6-42) was signed as a free agent from the Yankees and might be able to help with his bat if the Mets can find a position for him to play. He’ll probably start as a backup for the middle infield spots.
Overall analysis: The Mets should have a solid starting rotation. If Martinez is healthy, that means the Mets’ top four starters all have the ability to log more than 200 innings, and fifth starter Zambrano isn’t bad, either. However, the Mets still have serious bullpen issues, and unless Beltran finds a way to manufacture enough runs on his own, they’ll still have trouble making things happen offensively. All in all, the Mets can contend if Beltran gets enough help in the lineup, but despite the money they committed to making the team better, the Mets enter 2005 with the odds stacked against them.
5. Washington Nationals
Pitchers: As The Artist Formerly Known As The Montreal Expos makes their debut in our nation’s capital, the hope is that fans will appreciate the efforts of old-school staff ace Livan Hernandez (11-15, 3.60, 255 innings) and not pay attention to the other four projected starting pitchers. The Nationals are hopeful (hope brought on by necessity) that free agent Esteban Loaiza (10-7, 5.70 overall) will recapture the magic he had with the White Sox in 2003 (21-9, 2.90). Loaiza will serve as the second starter, followed by Tony Armas (2-4, 4.88), Tomo Ohka (3-7, 3.40), and Zach Day (5-10, 3.93). Of the three, Day has the most upside, but all three of them have missed significant time in recent years because of injuries.
The overworked bullpen put up some good numbers as a group in 2004 (27-29, 4.00, 31 saves). Chad Cordero (2.94 ERA, 14 saves) should open the season as the closer, but manager Frank Robinson and his coaches think Cordero is better suited for setup duty. Luis Ayala (6-12, 2.69) might get a chance to steal the closer’s job at some point. Also in the mix in the bullpen are Joe Horgan, Joey Eischen, T.J. Tucker, and Claudio Vargas. It will probably be an overworked bullpen again, as the starters (outside of Hernandez) don’t appear capable of consistently pitching deep into games.
Position players: General manager Jim Bowden had a bit more success bringing in some talent to help in the batting order. Vinny Castilla (.271-35-131 in Colorado) and Jose Guillen (.294-27-104 in Anaheim) were signed to provide some pop in the middle of the order, and Cristian Guzman (.274-8-46) was signed to help steady the top of the order. Big things are expected out of center fielder Endy Chavez (.277-5-34), who should bat leadoff ahead of Guzman and star second baseman Jose Vidro (.294-14-60), who missed most of the last two months of the season because of knee surgery. First baseman/left fielder Brad Wilkerson (.255-32-67) needs to cut his unsightly strikeout total (152) and drive in more runs. Nick Johnson (.251-7-33) should see some time at first base. Catcher Brian Schneider (.257-12-49) isn’t a bad hitter, but he’s an even better defensive catcher.
Overall analysis: The Nationals are expecting a lot out of the aging Castilla, who hit .218 away from Coors Field last year. They’re also expecting big things out of Guillen, who was run out of Anaheim because of attitudinal problems before the playoffs. Given the numbers he was putting up for the Angels, the problems must have been serious to warrant a rest-of-the-season suspension. We’ll see how he gets along with Robinson and the other coaches. Outside of Hernandez, the pitching staff is extremely unstable, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Robinson will need a Herculean effort out of Loaiza, Armas, Ohka, and Day to keep this team afloat. It’s not the best way for baseball to reintroduce itself to Washington, especially considering that this franchise, which has been floundering for years, still doesn’t have a real owner.