And now, the NL East.
1. New York Mets
It’s sad to report, but I’m picking the Mets to win the East. The offense isn’t fantastic, but it’ll suffice. Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran comprise one of the top-3 trios in baseball. Behind them are a hodgepodge, including injured Moises Alou, light-swinging Brian Schneider, the OK Ryan Church and old Carlos Delgado. The supporting cast will lose them some games, but they’ll make them up with a great pitching staff. It’s Johan’s time in the NL, and he’ll be electric. I’m not counting too much on Pedro Martinez, but John Maine is enough of a No. 2 to give them huge numbers. Oliver Perez carries the back end with Orlando Hernandez and â€” soon â€” Mike Pelfrey. The difference is the bullpen: Billy Wagner might not be the greatest closer, but Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman are as good as setup men get. Joe Smith is one to watch. There’s not much depth beyond the MLB club, but make no mistake: The Mets are determined to win this year above any. It is their year to take the East again.
Predicted Finish: 92-70
2. Atlanta Braves
Ouch, heh? Let’s see â€” a very offense top to bottom. Mark Teixeira is a beast, and he’s got Brian McCann and Jeff Franceour to help. Add young Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar and you’ve got a strong, formidable order. They’ll score runs. They can field too, like hell. The staff is old, but count on Tim Hudson to carry the weight while John Smoltz pitches in a solid final season. I don’t expect great things from Mike Hampton or even Tom Glavine, but their staff is as good as the Phils’ right now. The bullpen is strong with Rafael Soriano leading the charge, but injuries will wear them out. Still, they’re a hair better than the Phillies and will take the Wild Card.
Predicted Finish: 88-74
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Make no mistake, this is the pessimistic prediction, and I’m feeling very pessimistic. Optimistically, the lineup is amazing, the starting pitching doesn’t fall apart and the bullpen remains doable. If these things happen, this could be a 95-100 win team. But here’s the truth: Jamie Moyer is effective until the fifth inning; Kyle Kendrick will be worse, and maybe a lot worse; the fifth starter isn’t in the organization; Tom Gordon is not a good setup man; Ryan Madson and JC Romero will get overworked; there is no middle relief. And that’s just the pitching. The offense will be awesome, as Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will get theirs. Expect a let down from Jimmy Rollins â€” maybe an injury. Carlos Ruiz is a star catcher in the making, and Pat Burrell might deliver the goods in his contract year, but Jayson Werth, Pedro Feliz and Geoff Jenkins aren’t primed to take the baton. It’s a top-3 NL offense, but a bottom-3 NL staff. Chances are they’ll be dead by June, make their run and come up a few games short. But I really hope I’m wrong.
Predicted Finish: 85-77
4. Washington Nationals
It’s a good young team, but in no way are they ready. The offense is led by Ryan Zimmerman, who you’d think he’s 30 with his service time (he’s 23), and he’s primed for a tremendous year in Nationals Park. He’s backed by Nick Johnson, who’s probably been in the league for 15 years. The outfield is stacked with young troublemaker Elijah Dukes and crazy Lastings Milledge, and they’ll both be nice additions. Austin Kearns remains an enigma of hitting. Paul LoDuca gives relatively nothing to the team, and it won’t matter â€” the pitching staff is nothing. It’s led by Odalis Perez until Shawn Hill returns. Both won’t be lights out. There’s also Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico. The bullpen has standout Joel Hanrahan and a nice back end, led by closer Chad Cordero. But it’s not quite enough offense and no starting pitching. They’ll be a nice story; maybe even hitting .500, but I can’t say they will.
Predicted Finish: 75-87
5. Florida Marlins
Another good, young team, but they’re a year well behind Washington. They lost Miguel Cabrera, so it’s now the Hanley Ramirez show. Josh Willingham will drive him in with homers, and Dan Uggla will do the same with doubles. Cameron Maybin is close to joining the squad, and will be a nice fit when he does. The pitching staff is led by Mark Hendrickson â€” yes, the Mark Hendrickson â€” and has a bunch of young guys, including hopeful star Scott Olsen. Andrew Miller is also a nice arm. The bullpen has some good throwers, but they’re primed for a setback. Kevin Gregg won’t get many chances to save games, so he could be a bad play in the ninth. Still a year from making big noise, but then again, they are the Marlins â€” two titles in 15 years says something, right?
Predicted Finish: 63-99
Tomorrow I’ll have a more in depth preview of the Phillies, and I’ll tell you why I’m still on the fence about these guys.