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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Predictions 2006: National League 

Here are my 2006 predictions for the National League.

NL East
1. New York Mets
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. Atlanta Braves
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins

East: I can’t believe that I am picking the Mets to win the NL East. And I’m not 100% about it either. The Mets have looked invincible before: in 2002 they looked like a juggernaut after their off-season spending spree and absolutely collapsed. I remember the ‘89 Mets walked into the preseason expecting to walk away with the division but internal dissention tore the team apart (I think the title for SI’s preview of the Mets began with “Only the Mets can beat the Mets”). This team looks like your classic paper tiger team too. So many things could go wrong: Carlos Beltran could slump worse, Pedro could blow out his arm, Billy Wagner could lose his 100 mph velocity … but this looks like the strongest team in the NL East. In fact, I think this is the strongest team in the NL this year. They had a surprisingly good pitching staff (third in Fielding Independent Pitching in ’05), play great defense (fourth-best in Defense Efficiency Ratio in ’05), and are more explosive on offense. This is a great team. On paper. We’ll see during the season … Yes, I think the Phillies will finish second for the umpteenth time in recent memory. (If they finish second in 2006, it will be the fourth time in six years.) A lot of people are down on the team this year, but I think they will eat their words. They will have a better lineup with Ryan Howard playing a whole season at first. Jon Lieber will have a great year too, and the defense will be great as always. The problem is that this team is basically the same as last year’s, and the Mets made a lot of improvements. I see this team winning 86, 88, even 90 games. But I see the Mets as a 95, 100 win team in 2006. Maybe they can make a run. Anything is possible. But I don’t think they can catch the Mets … Just as South Florida Cubans have been anxiously expecting Fidel Castro to kick the bucket, Phillies, Mets and Marlins fans have been anxiously awaiting the Braves fall from grace. “This is the year!” they excitedly exclaim. And the Braves win another division title. I’m frankly sick of their dominance. They make it tough to hate too, with their blandness and their dull, predictable efficiency. The thing of it is that I think this is the year for the Braves to fall. They just didn’t look that good in ’05. Their vaunted pitching was average and they didn’t play very good defense. Oh, and their best defensive player, Rafael Furcal, left. So I’m going with a third-place finish in ’06, because I see a lot of cracks appearing in their bland façade. Stay tuned … Nats fans enjoyed ’05, didn’t they? New team, new stadium, contention for a brief period of time … I was surprised as anyone by the Nats toughness in hanging into the ’05 NL East race. They had fifth place written all over them. Their 81-81 record was, honestly, very impressive. I don’t see that replicated in ’06: they didn’t make many moves and I think the novelty will wear off pretty darn quick. Fourth … Pity Fish fans. Seriously. I really thought that the Marlins had the best chance of any team to knock the Braves off their perch. They had a young, talented pitching staff, played tough defense and had some pop in their lineup. I look at them now and I can only shrug my shoulders. They won’t nearly be as bad as the ’98 Marlins, but this team is a shell of last year and last year’s struggled to win 83 games. They played terrible defense, couldn't score runs and their pitchers broke down. This one will probably win 70 at most. Doormat.

NL Central
1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Houston Astros
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Cincinnati Reds

Central: I love the Cubs. Great rotation, some power at the plate … this is the best team in the Central. The idea of facing Kerry Wood and Mark Prior is scary to consider. Okay, so maybe Derek Lee won’t be as good, but this lineup can still score runs. I going with the Cubbies … I like and respect Tony LaRussa a lot, despite the fact that he’s become the savior of the anti-Moneyball crowd, and I think the Cards are a good team, but this is a franchise on the decline. Their rotation is graying and looking much more vulnerable, their lineup isn’t nearly as good … I look at this team and I think: “I bet this team will collapse in ’07.” In the here and now I think the Cards will contend and be pretty good in 2006, but time is passing them by … I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve over-estimated the Brewers, but I like this team. They are young and they have some real talent. Ben Sheets is an awesome talent, a future Cy Young winner. My dark-horse team …I actually forgot that the Astros played in the World Series last October. That was how forgettable last year’s team was. This year’s edition is even more forgettable. The pitching staff won’t be anywhere near as good as last year and they can’t score runs the way they once did. Honestly, this team could finish fifth, it is so due for a fall …I have the sneaking suspicion that I’ve ranked the Pittsburgh Pirates too high. It’s tough to have optimism about a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992, but I’ve found Pirates fans have cautious optimism about the future. (FYI, I live in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.) The team is young and has a little talent, particularly in terms of its pitching. Still, they continue to follow a strategy of signing low-cost veterans as opposed to developing younger talent. I've compared them to a Wal-Mart version of the Mets, and that holds true, except that the Mets have finally gotten savvy about signing players and have avoided rotisserie league baseball. I'm waiting for that in Pittsburgh … I wonder if the Reds are even trying these days. Any team that looks at Eric Milton and says: “Hey, I think this flyball pitcher would do well in our home-run friendly ballpark!” has lost the battle before it even began. This team looks like a motley collection of slow-footed sluggers who can’t play defense trying to backup C-list pitchers. At least the Pirates will give them a run for sixth.

NL West
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants
3. San Diego Padres
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
5. Colorado Rockies

West: The weakest division in baseball? It certainly was in 2005. The Padres won it and made the playoffs with an anemic 82 wins, six fewer than the Phils. I see the Dodgers on top in ’06. I feel bad for Paul DePodesta: he was building something in L.A. and never really got a shot. I question a lot of his moves (a multi-year deal with J.D. Drew – huh?), but he was building a tough team in L.A. Now the Dodgers will bear fruit and I think they’ll win the West in a walk. Great pitching, great defense and improved offense. I hate to predict the Giants as second, but any team with a healthy Barry Bonds will be dangerous. I think they could make a run at the division, but this is an old team. Could be their last hurrah. The Padres I’m not terribly impressed by either. They’ve got a lot of problems. A team built around pitching and defense will prosper at Petco, but I think this team lacks an identity. The Diamondbacks exceeded their ’05 Pythagorean win-loss by 12 games, a tremendous variance. I see a big fall in ’06, and this team only won 77 games in ’05. They could be one of the worst teams in the MLB in ’06. The Rockies? Hopeless. Why even talk about them? They’ll never lure pitching to Coors (especially since pitchers saw how badly Mike Hampton’s career was damaged) and nobody will want to play there because teams will assume their stats are bloated by the Mile High air. This team is hopeless. Worst in the NL. Mark my words.


Mets over Cardinals, 3-2
Cubs over Dodgers, 3-0

I like the Mets over the Cards because the Mets have a better pitching staff and more power to their lineup. The Cubs get the edge because they have a better rotation than the Dodgers.

Mets over Cubs, 4-2

I like the Mets consistency over the Cubs here.

World Series:
A's over Mets, 4-3

I've been waiting for the A's to win the Series for seven years now. This is the year. Great pitching, lots of depth ... this team would be hard to beat, especially if it goes to a seven game series. I think this will be the triumph of Moneyball. A's win it all.

Note: I would direct the attention of all Citizen's Blog readers to today's The Hardball Times where our friend Jason Weitzel of Beerleaguer wrote their Five Questions preview for the Phillies. I think it is one of the strongest previews I've read so far, hitting all of the important points and making a lot of bold statements that fly in the face of conventional wisdom about the team. Well done Jason!

A nice post, however I have to disagree with your NL Central analysis and the credit you give the Cubs. Believe me, nobody here in Chicago thinks the Cubs are going to be any good this year - and nobody thinks Wood and Prior will be healthy.

As I wrote a few times last year about the Cubs, Zambrano is their best pitcher. I don't think Prior and Wood will combine to win 15 games - they make David Bell look healthy. A team can't go very far, especially against the Cardinals, with a rotation that has Zambrano being followed by an aging Greg Maddux and people like Glendon Rusch.
I think it's all predicated on the Phils pitching(whether it comes together as it can) and the Mets health. If the Mets have a couple arms go down, and Delgado goes down, they're just done.
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