|With BC-BBN--NL Preview Capsules|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 21 March 2008 18:02|
After all that and more, Jimmy Rollins still likes his Phillies.
``There isn't a team in this division or the National League that's better than us,'' the NL MVP said. ``After 162 games, we'll be looking to win the next 11.''
There was no shortage of bravado in the NL as opening day approached this year. Last season, Rollins boldly declared Philadelphia was the team to beat in the East and backed up his words, leading the Phillies on a late charge that netted them the division title.
This spring it seemed like everyone was trying to follow Rollins' example.
``Let me tell you this: Without Santana, we felt as a team that we have a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division,'' Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran said. ``So this year, to Jimmy Rollins - we are the team to beat!''
New York was awful down the stretch last year, blowing a seven-game lead in the East with 17 to play. The historic collapse led to a winter of difficult questions that only subsided when the Mets sent four prospects to the Twins for Santana.
The acquisition of the two-time Cy Young Award winner erased much of the sting from last season and gave New York one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
The brash Rollins and normally subdued Beltran weren't the only players predicting big things this spring.
``I think we are going to win the World Series. I really do,'' Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster said.
Dempster's prediction might have been the most outrageous boast of the year - this season marks the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series winner.
A year ago in spring training, it was Carlos Zambrano guaranteeing the Cubs would win the World Series. They ended up winning the NL Central and were swept by the Diamondbacks in the first round of the playoffs.
Chicago returns mostly intact and added Fukudome, a prized Japanese free agent who signed a $48 million, four-year contract to be the Cubs' right fielder. Chicago also has the benefit of playing in one of the weakest divisions in baseball.
The Mets, Phillies and Braves could take the division race to the wire in the improved East, and the West could be even more brutal.
Arizona got Haren from the Athletics in December to set up a nice 1-2 punch at the top of its rotation with Brandon Webb. The youthful Diamondbacks also have budding star Chris Young and top prospect Justin Upton.
They won the West last season and were swept in the NL championship series by Colorado, which was relatively quiet this winter after storming to the pennant last year. Then again, the Rockies have Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki and several other emerging stars. So maybe they didn't have to do much.
Mix in the Los Angeles Dodgers with new manager Joe Torre and new center fielder Andruw Jones, and the San Diego Padres and Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, and the West is loaded.
``In this division, any team can finish fourth or fifth, or any team can finish first or second, because of the strong pitching,'' Giants infielder Rich Aurilia said.
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
New York Mets
The Mets managed to land the biggest prize on the market this offseason and keep their major league roster largely intact, acquiring Santana from Minnesota and signing the left-hander to a $137.5 million, six-year contract. Santana, Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and John Maine are locked into one of the majors' best rotations, and either Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey will win the fifth spot.
Health may be the biggest concern for New York, which is aging at several key spots and was banged up throughout spring training. Moises Alou will miss the start of the season after hernia surgery, Carlos Delgado has been hampered by a sore right hip and Hernandez could be touch and go again this year.
Brad Lidge is in as closer and Brett Myers is headed for another opening-day start. Philadelphia acquired Lidge from the Astros in November and is hoping the right-hander just needs a change in scenery. There have been questions about Lidge's effectiveness since he gave up a long three-run homer to Albert Pujols with two outs in the ninth inning that sent St. Louis to a 5-4 win in Game 5 of the 2005 NL championship series. He also had knee surgery in February.
Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are the big bats in a strong Phillies lineup and Myers should strengthen the rotation, but they'll have a tough time replacing Aaron Rowand on and off the field. The All-Star center fielder signed with the Giants in the offseason.
Glavine showed that you can go home, spurning New York for an $8 million, one-year deal with the Braves. The left-hander spent the first 16 years of his career with Atlanta and kept his home there when he moved to the Mets. He will be counted on to provide some depth in the Braves' rotation beyond good buddy John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.
While Glavine returned, Jones created a significant hole in center field by departing for Los Angeles. Mark Kotsay insists his back problems are behind him and he'll get the first crack at replacing the 10-time Gold Glove winner.
General manager Jim Bowden loves to take chances and he picked up two in the offseason in Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, two talented outfielders who wore out their welcome in their first major league stops. Milledge hit .272 with seven homers and 29 RBIs in 184 at-bats with the Mets last season, seeing time at all three outfield spots. Dukes hit 10 homers in 52 games with Tampa Bay. Both should get more regular time during Washington's first season at Nationals Park.
The Marlins' latest rebuilding project is centered on left-hander Andrew Miller and center fielder Cameron Maybin, two of the six prospects they got when they dealt Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Detroit Tigers in one of the winter's biggest deals. The 6-foot-6 Miller was drafted sixth overall by Detroit in 2006 and Maybin was the 10th pick in 2005. Both will be counted on immediately.
Lou Piniella's lineup got a little stronger with the offseason addition of Fukudome and might be even better by the time the Cubs break camp if they can pull off the long-rumored deal for Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. The lefty-batting Fukudome is expected to hit for average, create more opportunities for sluggers Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and is known as a smooth outfielder.
Piniella's pitching staff could have a different feel, with Dempster trying to move from closer to starter and Kerry Wood looking like the favorite to replace him at the back end of the bullpen. Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Rich Hill are the heart of the division's best rotation.
Milwaukee was in position last year to end a postseason drought that dates to 1982 but faded down the stretch to hand the division title to the Cubs. The Brewers are hoping Mike Cameron can help them get over the hump after the center fielder serves a 25-game suspension at the start of the year for a banned stimulant. The three-time Gold Glove winner has played in two AL championship series and was a key performer when San Diego won the NL West in 2006.
The kids are all right in Cincinnati, where the rotation could feature 22-year-old Johnny Cueto and 24-year-old Edinson Volquez. Cueto put together a terrific spring after entering camp as a dark horse to make the rotation, and the Reds acquired Volquez from the Rangers in the offseason for last year's feel-good story, Josh Hamilton. Cueto and Volquez both have upper-90s fastballs and were aggressive in the strike zone in the spring.
Astros general manager Ed Wade made over his entire bullpen in the offseason, replacing Lidge with Jose Valverde and restocking the middle relief with several new faces. Valverde led the majors with 47 saves last season with Arizona, and right-handers Doug Brocail, Geoff Geary and Oscar Villareal should help manager Cecil Cooper bridge the gap to the new closer. The infield also has a dramatically different look with Kaz Matsui replacing Craig Biggio at second and Miguel Tejada taking over at shortstop. Tejada was largely quiet during the spring with the FBI investigating whether he lied to House committee investigators about steroids.
St. Louis Cardinals
Rick Ankiel has completed his transformation from erratic pitching prospect to everyday player, taking over in center field from longtime Cardinals star Jim Edmonds. Ankiel was called up in August last year, hit 11 homers in 47 games and was trying to move past a newspaper report that linked him to human growth hormone. Tony La Russa, one of Ankiel's biggest supporters, also is back after flirting with leaving in the offseason. The longtime manager has his work cut out for him as Cardinals the have several question marks in the rotation and among position players. Former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter could be back at midseason, but there was some concern in the spring about star slugger Albert Pujols' balky elbow.
Not much is new in Pittsburgh, where the perpetually struggling Pirates made virtually no attempt to upgrade their roster in the offseason. At least new manager John Russell has the foundation of a good young rotation with Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny. Snell had a 3.76 ERA in 32 starts last year and got a new deal in the spring. Gorzelanny went 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA. Now Russell just has to figure out what happened to Jason Bay. The former All-Star outfielder slumped to 21 homers and a .247 batting average last year.
Lost in all the talk about Santana this offseason was Arizona's trade for Haren, a younger, cheaper ace who had a better 2007 than the Mets' lefty. The 27-year-old Haren stumbled down the stretch last season but still went 15-9 with a 3.07 ERA in 34 starts for Oakland. If he can stay consistent the whole year, the right-hander could be in for a big season in the easier National League.
Arizona is expecting more big things from Young, Upton, shortstop Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson, who finally has first base all to himself with Tony Clark in San Diego. Left-hander Randy Johnson, recovering from another back surgery, is the x-factor on the talented D-Backs.
After an amazing postseason run last year, the Rockies reached new deals with Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki and made second base an open competition this spring. It looks like the winner is rookie Jayson Nix, who batted .292 with 11 homers and 54 RBIs at Triple-A Colorado Springs last year. Nix should fit right in on the best fielding team in the majors and shouldn't feel much pressure at the plate with the slugging Rockies. Led by Holliday, they led the NL in batting average and finished second in runs last year.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Torre took the New York Yankees to the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons as manager, and he has some pieces to work with in his first season in Los Angeles. James Loney hit .331 with 15 homers and 67 RBIs in just 96 games after he was called up in June. Andre Ethier, who turns 26 in April, and 23-year-old Matt Kemp are also potential breakout stars. Catcher Russell Martin is coming off an All-Star year and Jones fills a hole in center field.
There was some friction between the Dodgers' young talent and their veterans last year, leading to their collapse down the stretch. Torre will be counted on to help prevent that this season.
San Diego Padres
The NL's best pitcher resides in San Diego but Peavy is going to need to some offensive help if the Padres are going to return to the top of the West. San Diego finished ninth in the NL in runs and didn't do much in the offseason to improve its offense. Jim Edmonds came over in a trade with the Cardinals but was bothered by a strained right calf in the spring and is on the downside of a terrific career. The Padres did sign free-agent second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who batted .304 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 45 games with the Phillies last year.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants said goodbye to home run king Barry Bonds in the offseason and hello to free-agent center fielder Rowand, who is coming off a career year with the Phillies. Bonds was still one of the NL's most productive hitters last year, and San Francisco is sure to miss his bat in the middle of the lineup. Its best hope is talented young right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. The Giants also will be looking for a better year from left-hander Barry Zito, who went 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA in his first season in San Francisco.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Rob Maaddi and AP Baseball Writer Mike Fitzpatrick contributed to this report.