1) Philadelphia Phillies:
It’s no secret that aging curmudgeon Larry Bowa rubbed most of his clubhouse the wrong way. Charlie Manuel, the new skipper, should put some relevance back into the phrase “City of Brotherly Love.” That terminology might accurately describe the relationship between the Philly faithful — desperate for some type of world championship — and this team over the coming summer. The lineup is pretty stocked. Right fielder Bobby Abreu has quietly become one of the best five players in the league, and Jim Thome and Pat Burrell are sluggers extraordinaire. Granted, Burrell’s average is dwarfed by some Little Leaguers, but he’ll crank 30 or so out of Citizens Bank Park. Thome should still be good for 40 homers and 120 RBIs, especially if he plays most of the games. David Bell, at the hot corner, shows uncanny plate discipline, and Mike Lieberthal is a seasoned signal-caller with a decent clutch bat. The rotation is a bit more questionable — it’s arguably the second-worst starting lineup in the division (in front of the Nationals), but if it produces well, it should secure the team a division title. Jon Lieber was 5-0 last September during the Yankees pennant race, and Randy Wolf and Vincente Padilla, barring setbacks, are capable of 13 wins each. Kenny Lofton should provide a veteran spark in the clubhouse and at the top of the order.
2) Atlanta Braves:
We wanted to pick the Braves lower, but is it really possible to argue against 13 straight division titles? Whenever you count Bobby Cox out, he comes back. This time, he’s moving John Smoltz from the bullpen back into the starting rotation. He’s got a new staff anchor in Tim Hudson, formerly of the Big Three in Oakland, who the Braves just inked for four years. Mike Hampton and John Thomson are reliable starters. Again, the front four of pitching coach Leo Mazzone could win 12-15 games each, which takes a good deal of pressure off the offense. Dan Kolb, formerly the closer in Milwaukee (potentially one of the more frustrating gigs in the bigs), takes over the finisher role at Turner Field this year. Kolb throws good stuff, including a sinkerball, and with good infield defense behind him, he should close out as many as Smoltz did. The pitching dominance is nice, but it isn’t the whole team — even with J.D. Drew gone, the offense has Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones shoring up the middle. Johnny Estrada, a young catcher, has proven clutch, and first bagger Adam LaRoche has 25 HR potential. This team won’t bludgeon you, but they will beat you subtly, doing every fundamental thing right. Teams preach that in spring training, but lose sight it over 162 games. The Braves don’t. Execution matters a lot in September, which is when the Phillies tend to choke. If Manuel in Philly isn’t a great leader, pencil the Braves in for another October appearance.
3) Florida Marlins:
The Marlins are 18 months removed from winning the World Series, but regularly get picked to finish fourth. Their front three starters — Josh Beckett (the hero of 2003’s Fall Classic), A.J. Burnett, and Dontrelle Willis — are up there as the best rotation anchors in either league. Al Leiter, who is probably 9 months away from joining the “Baseball Tonight” crew, will try to provide some veteran leadership for those guys, as well as middle-of-the-rotation innings, even at age 39. The lineup is decently loaded, too. Say what you will about Carlos Delgado moving into a pitchers’ park in Miami, but he’s still going to crank 30 homers if he plays 150 games. Juan Pierre is the second-best leadoff man in baseball (behind Ichiro), and Miguel Cabrera hasn’t even shown us what he’s fully capable of yet. Paul Lo Duca provides good leadership for the pitchers, and his contact hitting is welcome at the five spot; Mike Lowell, at cleanup, has become the true leader of this team, and despite all setbacks, he continues to produce above-average numbers. The stadium controversy might hang over this team’s head, and their manager is the third oldest in league history. Guillermo Mota was a tremendous set-up man, and he throws super hard. It’s still unproven — similar to the situation the Angels face — whether he can be “the man” out of the bullpen. If Beckett goes for 22 wins (entirely possible) and Burnett and Willis can each top 12, we slide the Marlins into the thick of the wild card race.
4) New York Mets:
The Mets, on paper, are one of the more interesting teams in baseball. Willie Randolph finally gets a managerial job after years molding champions with the Yankees under the tutelage of Joe Torre, and he inherits a roster utterly re-shaped by new GM Omar Minaya. On the other hand, Lee Mazilli was a Torre protÃ?Â©gÃ?Â© too, and halfway through this first season in Baltimore last year, there were rumors of a clubhouse mutiny. We’re hoping things go better for Willie, one of our favorite middle infielders from the 1980s. David Wright, at the hot corner, is going to be a monster power hitter someday, and will take strides towards that this year. Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes will be slick in the field, and solid at the top of the lineup. Let’s not forget about Mr. Beltran, who solidified his star status last year in the playoffs and then inked in at $119 million. It’s uncertain how he’ll handle the media in New York, or the fact that seemingly every time you say “Carlos Beltran” now, you have to first say “five-tool player.” He’ll get protection from Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd, but perhaps more importantly, the rotation might actually hold down some games this season. Pedro’s at the top — he’s 33, and the four-year deal might have been questionable, but why are people worrying about four years from now? Live in the present. Pedro’s good for 18-20 wins this year, which might re-invigorate Tom Glavine. Kris Benson, whose wife has promised him anything he wants if he brings home the Cy Young, apparently has enough motivation — now he just needs to deliver. Victor Zambrano is good and young, and needs to prove he was worth trading Scott Kazimir for. The Mets, if they click right off the bat, could win the NL East. It’s not a stretch. On the other hand, they haven’t had a winning season in three years. Since we figure they need time, and injuries might occur, we’ll put them fourth — but honestly, they could finish anywhere.
5) Washington Nationals:
This year isn’t really about winning for the Nationals — it’s about establishing themselves in DC, getting a good ownership group, and building towards being a contender in 2007 or 2008, when their brand-new park opens. They’ve got some punch, though — Jose Guillen is a good power hitter (hopefully he doesn’t run his mouth to Frank Robinson), Vinny Castilla can still drive in 120 runs at age 40 (and will provide veteran leadership), and Cristian Guzman is an emerging star who could become the face of the Nationals, ala Larkin (an Assistant GM in Washington now) with the Reds. With Brad Wilkerson and Nick Johnson, too, the Nats might score some runs — but how many will their foes score? If you haven’t heard of Zach Day, Jon Rauch, and John Patterson, don’t worry — most people haven’t. The rotation is young, unproven, and on a big stage now. The anchors will probably be Esteban Loazia (even though he’s listed as the fourth starter) and Livan Hernandez. Loazia won 21 games two years ago with the White Sox, and floundered with the Yankees in “hired gun” mode last year. He’s got good stuff, and might win 10 – 12 games in Washington. Hernandez is playoff-tested, which isn’t something he’ll need to do again for a while. He mixes it up well, and is one of few hurling bright spots on this squad. The rotation will be shaky, although closer Chad Cordero — when given the opportunity — could be an above-average finisher.