The skewed perspective of a conservative Catholic employee-side employment lawyer living in the most exciting city in the Milky Way, Las Vegas, Nevada USA, who listens to a lot of really strange music and who, for some reason, lives and dies St. Louis Cardinal baseball

4/03/2005

Baseball preview: NL East

Prediction:
Florida Marlins (92-70), World Series champions
Atlanta Braves (89-73), NL wild card
New York Mets (85-77)
Philadelphia Phillies (83-79)
Washington Nationals, f/k/a Montreal Expos (73-89)


2004 Final Standings:
Atlanta (96-66)
Philadelphia (86-76)
Florida (83-79)
New York (71-91)
Montreal (67-95) (R.I.P.)

This easily will be baseball’s toughest division this season. It will be the home of the eventual Word Series champions, if the two-time champion Marlins can handle the playoffs from the unprecedented position of divisional winner.

In 2004, for the first time in franchise history, the Florida Fish had a winning record and failed to win the World Series. In the team’s decade-plus lifespan, they previously had only two winning seasons, which coincided precisely with their World Series wins. Fishy things in South Florida should return to normal in’05: a winning record combined with a World Series win. The pitching may be a little thinner than ‘03, but the overall team may be better. With the Cardinals’ offseason losses, the Fish now boast the best up-the-middle defense in baseball: superb and under-rated SS Alex Gonzalez (how a legit World Series hero can be under-rated is beyond me), CF Juan Pierre, possibly the best lead-off hitter and smartest-playing player in the game, and 2B Luis Castillo. The Fish also will have a full season of what they lacked for most of ‘04: team leadership from an intelligent veteran, Paul Lo Duca. While I am not personally a fan of Carlos Delgado, his bat will be a huge addition. Add the continuing development of RF Miguel Cabrera and P Josh Beckett, and you have the best complete team in baseball. Put together on a reasonable budget.

Every year everybody predicts that the end of the Braves’ run of – what is it now, 88? – straight division titles (actually, an impressive-enough 13). And, every year, everyone is wrong. 2004 was the year the streak was a lock to end. The Braves pitching was in shambles. Free agent departures were sure to stymie both the pitching and the offense. And the Phillies had put together the NL’s best team on paper. But, as sportswriters and coaches constantly repeat, they don’t play the game on paper. After no other team in the division had stepped forward two months into the season, the A-Braves went on a tear. RF J.D. Drew stayed healthy and had a career year. C Johnny Estrada (who I erroneously thought was a throw-in during the Braves salary dumping of Kevin Millwood) not only replaced Javy Lopez’s career year, but he improved the team’s defensive play at that position. The 2005 Braves added A’s refugee Tim Hudson to this mix. Can they make it 14? Doubtful. They over-achieved ridiculously in 2004 and such performances are hard to repeat two years in a row. Drew is gone and he has been replaced by the man who is quite possibly the most malignant team cancer in baseball, Raul Mondesi (although, it will be a huge shock if he is still on the roster by July 31). Pitching coach Leo Mazzone should be a Hall of Famer. But he can’t keep filling inside straights, can he?

The most improved team in the National League will be the New York Mets. Yes, the New Yorkers. Two offseason acquisitions will propel this team into the pennant race. And neither is named "Pedro." Yes, Pedro is a huge pick-up. His roster presence is critically important for the Mets to achieve the primary goal: more back page covers than the Yankees in the New York tabloids. As far as getting this team to win, the aging and increasingly fragile Pedro Martinez are not nearly as important as the signing of CF Carlos Beltran and the hiring of manager Willie Randolph. Randolph has been apprenticing for a managerial job for quite some time. His hiring is past due. And since he is New York-tested, he will not be intimidated, or thrown off his game, by the New York media. While the Mets pitching is old and shaky, the team defense will be superb: Beltran, Mike Cameron shifting over to right, the charismatic Doug Mientkiewicz at first. Given Randolph’s experience as a middle infielder, I anticipate that he will straighten out the Jose Reyes/Kaz Matsui mess. Of course, with Mike Piazza still at catcher, there is a huge giant black hole in the team defense. This team will go as far as they can with their old-timers. that means competitive, but not playoffs.

The Philadelphia Phillies should be the best fourth-place in baseball. By far. The window of opportunity opened wide in 2004, but the team’s pig-headed decision to stick with Larry Bowa cost them a legitimate chance at a World Series. Bowa was an awful manager. He ran Scott Rolen out of town (for lack of "leadership," something he has been lauded for in St. Louis). He stunted the development of hitting machine Pat Burrell. He installed SS Jimmy Rollins as leadoff hitter, retarding the offense. His hard-driving style forced Randy Wolf to keep pitching on an injured arm. Bowa’s been axed and replaced by a "player’s manager," Charlie Manuel. Typically, when a First Class Jerk who’s worn out his welcome is replaced by a player’s manager, the team responds the first year with increased wins. That will not happen here as (1) the NL East is significantly improved from 2004 and (2) Manuel has a lot less pitching to work with, given the loss of Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton (who wasn’t going to have consecutive healthy seasons anyway).

The surest thing in baseball is the last place finish from the Washington Nationals, formerly known as the Montreal Expos. Finally, Les Expos have been liberated from French Canada, where we now know Major League Baseball should never have gone. There should be some improvement from the end of those 22 extra "home" games on the road in Puerto Rico. There is legitimate talent that the Nats may now be able to afford to keep on the roster, such as 2B Jose Vidro and 1B/OF Brad Wilkerson. They even added a free agent in the person of SS Cristian Guzman. Zut alors! (Sorry, no longer applicable). The roster is a bit thin, though. Vinny Castilla? That may not be so bad as Castilla puts up monster numbers in extreme hitters’ parks. If RFK has short outfield lines (as it did when they used to play exhibition games there in 1980s), Castilla might hit like he’s back in Coors. Maybe the great Frank Robinson, a superb handler of players, can keep under control OF Jose Guillen (a locker room cancer of near-Mondesian proportions). The fans should be enthusiastic and appreciative that baseball is back in the Nation’s Capital. They won’t demand a division title until, oh, 2006. The honeymoon will then be over.

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