Having made my predictions for the American League, let's take a look at the National League.
The Mets have made a number of roster changes this off-season, as they did last year. Will it be enough to finally break Atlanta's hold on the East? Delgado will be a massive upgrade on their first base mess from last season, whilst Billy Wagner is still as dominating as ever. However, it will be the performances of the Mets' marque signings from the previous off-season that will determine their fate. Carlos Beltran's 2005 can only be described as a major disappointment. If he can put that behind him and return to somewhere near his previous form, the Mets will have an imposing line-up. Pedro Martinez was certainly not a disappointment in 2005. His numbers may have been helped by moving to Shea and not having to face a DH, but that doesn't obscure the fact that he pitched extremely well. Pedro's toe has been the main talking point around the Mets camp during spring training, and many breathed a sigh of relief when he made an impressive appearance in his first outing on Sunday. If the Mets can get 30 starts from Pedro, they will just about be too strong for the Braves.
Still, it's hard to bet against Atlanta! Although they have several question marks against their name this year, they always seem to be able to find a way around their problems. Their young stars from last season appear to be the real deal, so there's a good chance the sophomore slump won't affect them too much (if at all). What makes me pick the Mets ahead of them right now is that we don't know how they will cope with the losses of Furcal and Leo Mazzone. I'm not convinced that Renteria will find his old form simply by returning to the National League. As for Mazzone, I think as much as anything his departure will create problems because he will be mentioned every time the pitching staff gets into the slightest bit of trouble. That puts a lot of pressure on the new pitching coach, Roger McDowell. The Braves will still be a very good team, and when combined with the weakness of the Nationals and the Marlins this season, they will probably make the play-offs even if the Mets take the East. The Phillies should not be discounted though. They have experienced a fair amount of change over the off-season, both on the field and off. Wagner and Thome may not be missed as much as some think, and when you look at the talent they have (i.e. Howard, Utley, Rollins, Abreu, Burrell, Rowand, Lieber, Myers etc) they could very well be in the mix as the season draws to a close.
This is a tough division to call. That's a strange thing to say considering how good the Cardinals have been over the past few seasons. Any side with a core of Pujols, Edmonds and Rolens is going to be very strong (so long as they can keep them on the field) and overall they look to be a solid outfit. Not good enough to win 100 games for the third straight year, but that criticism is relative! There are a few chinks of light for the rest of the Central though. Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders were a key part of their team (even though they didn't play full seasons) and I'm not convinced that they have found adequate replacements. The Cards will also be playing in a brand new stadium this season. Sometimes it can take a while for a team to regain that home field advantage as they become familiar with their new environment. So long as they keep their best players fit, these factors shouldn't stop them from winning the division again.
However, what makes this division so intriguing is that the Astros could be major threats to the Cardinals. Everyone knows what impact re-signing Clemens would have on the fortunes of the Astros, from a general performance standpoint as well as the lift it would give to the whole ballclub. If he re-joins them in May (and most people seem to think he will do), they will take some stopping. Oswalt and Pettitte are a decent enough 1-2 punch in the meantime (!), yet they will need Clemens if they are to take the top spot or beat out the second placed team in the East for the wildcard. The Cubs could pose a threat, but starting out with both Wood and Prior on the DL is a bad omen for the season ahead. The Brewers should be a fun team to watch with their group of exciting young players. Success for them this season would be to finish in third place, ahead of the Cubs, for the second straight season.
I guess every baseball fan is putting together their predictions for the season ahead right now. Most of them will just shake their head when they start pondering this lot! The West was historically bad last year, so things can't get worse. The Padres “stormed” to victory with just 82 wins, and few were surprised when the Cardinals swept them 3-0. They have kept hold of Giles and Hoffman, and Mike Cameron was a great pick-up (if he has recovered from his injuries). Piazza might be able to put together a good season, although the expanses of Petco won't help him, and a move to the American League (with the DH spot) might have suited him better at this stage in his career. The Padres don't look to have improved all that much and to retain their title they will need the Giants and Dodgers to fall apart again.
Fortunately for San Diego, that scenario is not beyond the realms of possibility. New Dodgers GM Ned Colletti has made a series of moves to bring in experienced players on short term deals whilst not blocking the paths of their many prospects. Looking a few years down the road, that will prove to be the right decision. For 2006, it hasn't really helped. Injuries brought their downfall last season, and expecting the likes of Garciaparra, Lofton, Mueller and JD Drew to stay healthy this year is wildly optimistic. I don't know enough about their prospects to state whether many can help out in the Big Leagues this year if/when injuries occur. They may be able to replicate the 2005 Braves if so.
As for the Giants, no team is more dependent on one player than they are. If Bonds can play in 130 games or more then they will probably win the division. If Bonds has another injury ravaged season, the Geriatric Giants will struggle to a sub .500 year again. The steroids controversy will put a dark cloud over the events either way. The D-Backs will settle for a .470 season whilst patiently waiting for their group of heigh ceiling prospects to make their way through the farm system.
NL East = Mets
NL Central = Cardinals
NL West = Padres
Wildcard = Braves.
I can see the Giants and the Dodgers blowing up again, handing the division to San Diego. As for the rest, both the Braves and/or the Phillies could keep the Mets out of the play-offs altogether, and the Astros will be a good bet for the play-offs if Clemens returns. So I'm not wildly confident with my predictions! It's difficult to know how things will turn out, and that's what makes the baseball season so exciting.