1) San Francisco Giants: GM Brian Sabean has worked on a “win now” basis for the past several years, and it’s been pretty solid. In 2002, the Giants (with an average age of 33) won the NL and came within 1 out of the whole shebang. This year, they might average 34.7 years old in the everyday rotation, but check this out — last year, when they missed the playoffs by 2 games, could it have been because AJ Pierzynski behind the dish was only 27? They’ve replaced him with seasoned signal-caller Mike Matheny. That’s a good thing, because the youngest part of the San Fran crew is the pitching staff. Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry could be two sons to some of the other guys, but they have good stuff. Lowry was brilliant in a call-up last year — can he keep hitters guessing? Jason Schmidt has been getting rocked this spring, but he’s a Cy Young candidate overall with a nice mix of pitches. Brett Tomko and Kirk Rueter aren’t studs or workhorses, but both are consistent and capable of success in the form of double-digit wins. Now, despite the (clear and creamy) cloud hanging over the last three years of his career, Barry Bonds is arguably the best player in the history of our universe, and even at 40-41, he’s going to stroke 40 homers and drive in 100 runs (while being walked 150 times). He needs to get healthy, but once he does, the sky’s the limit. Don’t believe the stories about him never returning. He’s emotionally and physically fatigued, sure, but he’s not going to permanently walk away from a game he loves and helped to define to a modern audience. He’ll have more protection in the lineup with Moises “Coach’s Son” Alou hitting behind him. Ray Durham, Marquis Grissom, and JT Snow will provide good OBP, decent pop, and score some runs — same stuff they tend to do every year. The Giants have too much all-around to not be the favorite here.
2) San Diego Padres: The biggest problem that San Diego has right now is GM Kevin Towers has just begun to build them for their new home, Petco Park. Case in point: nabbing fly-ball pitcher / NL pennant run star Woody Williams as the new ace in SoCal. Williams lacks the big-game experience of David Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½Boomer’ Wells, previously the man in San Diego, but his game is capable of 15 wins in Petco. We love the assembling of this team — CF Dave Roberts was a catalyst for Boston last fall, and he’s going to get on base, steal bases, and play above-average defense for the Padres. Khalil Greene is a star on the rise at short, and Jake Peavy — who has increased his win total while decreasing his ERA for each of the past three seasons — might be the most legitimate person to compare Greg Maddux to. The team is solid up and down the lineup with Mark Loretta, Brian Giles, Phil Nevin, Ryan Klesko, and Ramon Hernandez. The pitching is a slightly bigger question mark — Williams and Peavy are solid, but Adam Eaton has been getting banged around this spring, and Brian Lawrence is inconsistent with his control. Darrell May, the fifth starter, was with the Royals last year. He should benefit from switching to a place where baseball is fun again, but his adjustment to NL parks and hitters might be rough. The Padres have a plethora of tools — they’ll get on base, generate runs, and protect leads with Trevor Hoffman firing out of the bullpen — but the bottom of their rotation is too suspect compared to the bottom of the Giants’ lineup, which has youngsters who have already begun to prove themselves. Oh, yea, and there’s no one named Bonds hereÃ¢Â?Â¦
3) Los Angeles Dodgers: In the summer of ’95, I saw Milton Bradley play a NY-Penn League game as the center fielder for the Vermont Expos. His five-tool skills were already on display — he slid to catch a shallow pop, doubled twice, and stole at least one base. Joking about his name, some drunk fan behind me said “You might say he has a monopoly on the game.” Actually, Monopoly is a Parker Brothers game. That notwithstanding, Bradley is a big-league talent, but also a big-league head case. I find this humorous, because after that NY-Penn League game, he signed my baseball card and was really nice. We’re not sure if combining Bradley and hot head Jeff Kent is the best idea, although their partnership in the lineup should produce nicely. The team lost HR king Adrian Beltre in a cost move, and nabbed J.D. Drew, whose excellent season last year was probably more the result of being in the Braves’ system than anything else. As a result, Drew could tank at the five spot, and beyond those guys in the line-up, there’s not much. The rotation is a bit better. Derek Lowe, rumored to be en route to the Tigers most of the hot stove season, comes here looking to build on playoff success. Odalis Perez could win 18 games (he has the junk to do it). No one knows what’s up with Brad Penny’s nerve, but he too is capable of 12-15 wins. And, lest we forget, if the Dodgers are winning after 8 innings, well, they’re winning. Gagne is the most lights-out closer in MLB history, which gives the team a super size advantage. If they get quality bench play like they did last year, they can get themselves back into some games. Still, the playoffs are a stretch.
4) Arizona Diamondbacks: You gotta feel for Diamondbacks fan. One year after arguably the worst campaign in National League history, Arizona’s faithful (likely after seeing the Suns not win the NBA Title) will have to spend their summer watching their former heros, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, shine in baseball’s biggest, most headline-grabbing feud. All the while, Bank One Ballparkers will be chilling out in the hot tub watching overpaid Javier Vasquez, Russ Ortiz, and no-namers like Brad Halsey. We like Brandon Webb. He got a lot of hype last year, but couldn’t carry the load (ala Sabathia in Cleveland). He’s the third starter here, and the improved defense is going to help his ground ball junk flourish. Gamble with him in fantasy. Meanwhile, the D-Backs lineup isn’t half-bad, but also isn’t half-good. Troy Glaus has a lot to prove. He got shipped out of Anaheim, arguably baseball’s best team, for Dallas McPherson, who is currently sidelined with an injury. A hot start by Glaus will have the Rally Monkey stewing in his own juices, which Glaus would love. Shawn Green, another new addition across the diamond, is America’s most over-rated player, although we will give him props for being that good and being Jewish. You don’t often see excellence from Jewish baseball players. His OBP last year was right near Carlos Pena, and his power stroke has declined. Luis Gonzalez is nowhere near his ’01 performance, but in front of Glaus and Green, he’ll see more pitches and come close to 100 RBIs. Who exactly is Greg Aquino? He’s the closer. Um, he used to be an infielder. He did save 16 of 19 chances last year, but whether he can match similar success (and avoid challenges from other pen guys) is questionable.
5) Colorado Rockies: Todd Helton juiced? Say it ain’t so! Despite claims from the Cardinals’ press corps, the only thing Helton is juicing up on is his morning OJ. His numbers are unreal — he’s always good for .300, 25 home runs, and 90 RBIs. Just go ahead and write that down for him in September – in pen. You won’t need to erase it. Our biggest argument for why Helton isn’t juicing is this: first of all, he’s a good ol’ fashioned down to earth kid. More importantly, what would it do for him? His numbers would improve, sure, but he’s got virtually nothing around him! The only other guy on the Rockies you need to pitch to is Preston Wilson, and if you throw 3 different pitches, chances are you can strike him out within the first six balls you hurl. The Rockies are clearly rebuilding, but unlike other “rebuilding” projects such as Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, it seems like they may keep these guys around for a bit, allowing them to establish some sort of continuity. Their pitching is intriguing — Jason Jennings is a regular winner of double-digit games, Joe Kennedy has good stuff, and Jeff Francis is on radar screens for NL Rookie of the Year. The question is, can any pitcher survive and thrive in Coors Field most of the time? It’s an uphill battle. In terms of fantasy, there’s some value in Colorado — Helton is a sure-fire 1B, and those three pitchers are good late-round grabs. In terms of reality, it’s going to be a long, long summer.