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By Issac Miller Sports-Central.org
The St. Louis Cardinals have made the playoffs five of the last six seasons. Manager Tony LaRussa’s club has also won four of the last six NL Central titles. Clearly, St. Louis is the team to beat in the National League. The Cardinals have won 205 games in the last two seasons with no signs of slowing down.
There is some competition in the NL Central, though. The Brewers may surprise a lot of people this year, but they are not realistic competition for St. Louis. The Reds and Pirates are another few years from being competitive, so the Cards need to watch out for the Cubs and Astros.
The Cubs are interesting because of their starting pitchers. With healthy seasons from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs can make a push for the division crown. The problem is that Wood is 11-13 over the last two years. In fact, Kerry has never had more than 14 wins in a season and has a career ERA of 3.67. He has impressive strikeout numbers, but he needs to learn to win more games and protect his body. If he posts another .500 season, Chicago will not reach 75 wins.
As for Prior, he is entering his fifth season in the league. Like Wood, he has yet to pitch up to his potential. He has 719 strikeouts in four seasons, but only a record of 41-23. Remove an 18-6 2003 campaign and Prior is 23-17 for the Cubs. He needs to step up in 2006 and win between 18-21 games in order for the Cubs to make any noise in the NL.
St. Louis is looking at a third straight 100-win season. The Houston Astros will be unable to produce enough runs to win the Central. Quality pitchers like Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Brandon Backe, and Brad Lidge will ensure at least 80 wins for Houston. This number will go up to 85 or 86 if the hitting improves from 2005, a season in which the Astros hit .256 as a club. Look for Houston and Chicago to fight for second place in the division, and also battle some NL East teams for the wildcard.
The Cardinals will win between 100 and 103 games in 2006. St. Louis has 46 games against the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates. LaRussa’s team also gets interleague games with Kansas City and Detroit. With 2005 NL MVP Albert Pujols and 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter on the roster, the Cardinals will cruise to the best record in baseball. There’s just too much talent in St. Louis.
Then there’s the NL West. There are huge holes in all five teams that make this the worst division in the majors. This is the like the NFC North or the NBA’s Atlantic Division. One of these teams will make the playoffs, but don’t expect more than 88 wins from the division champs.
The San Francisco Giants still have Barry Bonds, the game’s best player, but age is a concern for the Giants. SS Omar Vizquel is 39, OF Moises Alou is 40, and Bonds is 42. Also on the roster is 39-year-old Steve Finley. The Giants will contend for the division, but aging veterans tend to break down over 162 games.
A bright spot for the Giants is OF Randy Winn. He was acquired by San Francisco last season and hit .359 in 58 games for the Giants. He is also solid defensively, which SF needs to be successful.
The fact remains that the Giants will go only as far as Barry Bonds takes them. If he hits .350, 40 homers, 120 RBI, and has a .500 OBP, the Giants can win 85 games. At 42-years-old, those numbers would be remarkable. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but look for more modest numbers from the aging Bonds. Wins in the 72-78 range is more realistic because of a weak pitching staff anchored by Jason Schmidt and Matt Morris.
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So, who wins this terrible division? Don’t look for Arizona or Colorado to win more than 70 games each. The Padres were two games over .500 in ’05, which was good enough to win the division last year. San Diego will win 72 or 73 games in 2006, and finish third in the division. The new names on the Padres, like Mike Piazza and Mike Cameron, will not result in any more wins for San Diego.
The fact is that the Dodgers look ready to make a move in the NL West. Los Angeles had a disappointing 2005 season, finishing with just 71 wins after winning the division in 2004. L.A. has Derek Lowe and Brad Penny in the starting rotation, along with newcomers Jae Seo and Brett Tomko. Seo started 14 games for the Mets last year and went 8-2 with a 2.59 ERA. With these guys, the Dodgers should have the best rotation in the NL West.
The bullpen is stronger with the additions of Danys Baez and Lance Carter, but the biggest difference will be the return of closer Eric Gagne. He only pitched in 14 games last year, but should be healthy by Opening Day. The Dodgers might have the best bullpen in the NL if all of these guys perform well.
The Dodgers’ pitching looks good, but they improved offensively as well. L.A. picked up Nomar Garciaparra, Rafael Furcal, Bill Mueller, and Kenny Lofton. The Dodgers will have a potent offense behind the likes of Hee-Seop Choi, Jeff Kent, Ricky Ledee, Jose Cruz, Jr., and the new guys. This is the best team on paper with a ceiling of around 95 wins. Look for L.A. to win the NL West with closer to 87 or 88 wins.
Last year, San Diego made the playoffs by winning 82 games. There were three teams in the NL East that missed the playoffs with better records. That’s the advantage of a weak division. While Philadelphia, New York, and Florida were beating up on each other, the Padres breezed through garbage teams in the West. The 2006 NL East should be as competitive as last year, maybe more so.
Atlanta is looking for their 15th straight division title. The Braves don’t look like the best team in the East, but after 14 seasons finishing on top, I would not bet against them. Atlanta showed off some great young talent in 2005. Jeff Francoeur hit .300 as a rookie last year. Adam LaRoche had career highs in home runs and RBI last year, as well. Wilson Betemit hit .305 in 2005, and has one of the quickest bats I’ve ever seen. He is a future all-star. There is some serious young talent in Atlanta to go with Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, and Tim Hudson.
The Braves will win 90 games in 2006. It will be interesting to see if that’s enough to win the division. The Marlins let go of most of their talent during the offseason and the guys they kept will not win 75 games. The Nationals probably overachieved to finish .500 last season. There just isn’t enough talent on this squad to contend in a stacked NL East.
The Phillies just missed the playoffs a season ago, winning 88 games in the process. Philadelphia will win fewer games in 2006. The problem for the Phillies was pitching last year. Starters Jon Lieber, Vicente Padilla, Randy Wolf, and Cory Lidle all had ERAs over 4.00. Philly lacks an ace on the staff and losing Billy Wagner is going to kill the bullpen. In ’06, the hitting will not be able to compensate for pitching that will be worse than it was in ’05. Philly will win 83 games at most, but don’t be surprised if they end up with fewer wins than Washington.
Which brings us to the New York Metropolitans. The Mets have the second highest payroll in baseball and loads of talent. Anything short of a division title will be a disappointment. In addition to guys like Carlos Beltran, Kaz Matsui, David Wright, and Cliff Floyd, the Mets added Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca. This lineup could be absolutely deadly.
The bullpen is dangerous as well with the additions of flamethrowers Billy Wagner and Jorge Julio. The Mets also added Chad Bradford, who can be tough on right-handed hitters. If this team can get to the seventh inning with a lead, these guys will do the rest.
The problem lies in New York’s starting pitching. The Mets lost Kris Benson and Jae Seo and did not replace them. Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, and Victor Zambrano are the core of the rotation, but other guys are going to have to step up. If they don’t get quality starts from Steve Trachsel and Aaron Heilman, the Mets will miss the playoffs.
Look for the Braves to win their 15th straight division title with 90 wins. Losing pitching coach Leo Mazzone might hurt this team over the next few years, but they still have Smoltz, Hudson, John Thompson, and Jorge Sosa in the rotation. Combined with powerful offensive guys, the Braves are the team to beat. The Mets will put together a solid season and make the playoffs as the wildcard team. New York will finish with 88 or 89 wins.
The 2006 NL playoffs will consist of the Cardinals, Dodgers, Braves, and Mets. The Mets will be beat up, having struggled through the month of September playing must-win games every night. The rested Red Birds, having clinched the NL Central in late August, will make short work of New York, winning in four games, losing Game 3 in NY.
The interesting part of all this is that the Mets and Braves will be battling for the right to play the Dodgers, in addition to the division crown. Because teams from the same division cannot play each other in the first round of the playoffs, the team that wins the NL East will get to play the Dodgers and the wildcard team, assuming it comes from the East, will play the Cardinals. That being said, the Braves are better than the Dodgers in almost every area and will win that series in three or four games.
The Braves will play the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Atlanta will be tired from flying across the country to play Los Angeles and will be a step slow against St. Louis. It is clear that the Cardinals are the best team in the NL, maybe in all of baseball, and when October rolls around, they’re the team to beat.
Look for an exciting A’s/Cards World Series. St. Louis will be the best team in baseball for the third straight year, and LaRussa’s club will finally have a ring to show for it.