NL East: The Braves' rotation trades Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz, and Paul Byrd for Tim Hudson, John Smoltz, and Horacio Ramirez -- big improvement! Raul Mondesi, Brian Jordan, and Ryan Langerhans replace JD Drew, Eli Marrero, and Charles Thomas -- time will tell on that one. Andruw Jones is in much better shape, Adam LaRoche looks much better for his sophomore season, Chipper Jones won't bat below .250 again, and Marcus Giles will probably return to form and hit 20+ homers again. The bullpen looks a little shoddy, and the bench isn't all that solid, but the team is good enough to take home yet another division crown. The Braves are the team to beat until someone beats them!
The Mets pitching moves since last July will mean something this season, and hopefully Mike Piazza's switch to 1B will help put the focus back on his bat -- if not on his defense. But the additions of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran make the Mets instant qualifiers. The Marlins probably have a better shot at challenging the Braves, though, with a pitching staff and lineup worthy of comparison, especially with the addition of Carlos Delgado at 1B. If the Phillies rotation shows up to pitch, they could be good enough to earn some respect. And then there are the
Ignoring yesterday's media frenzy over the Red Sox / Yankees game that shouldn't have been played on the last day of Spring Training, today is the first day of the MLB regular season. If you know my history, you know what this means: time for my 2005 MLB preview! (This will be longer than necessary and most of you won't read it. Fair warning!)
I'd like to take a moment to interrupt the thrill of Opening Day by talking about steroids and random player suspensions. Thank you, MLB front-office idiots. Okay, moving on.
I'll put roughly one sentence per team from here, and I'll mention the teams in each division in the order that I expect them to finish. For example, I expect the NL East to finish with the Braves in first, Mets in second, Marlins in third, Phillies in fourth, and Nationals in fifth, so that's the order in which the teams are mentioned.
Montreal Expos Washington Nationals, who will probably play better than expected but not as well as hoped.
NL Central: The Cardinals are probably the team to beat, with the addition of Mark Mulder making a strong pitching staff a little stronger. Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, and Walker anchor a very tough lineup. The Astros are always contenders, but I'm wondering how much longer Roger Clemens can pitch effectively, and whether Andy Pettitte will return to form this year. The leadership of what's left of the Killer B's should keep the clubhouse in check, though. The Cubs need Mark Prior to be healthy, but their pitching staff is so good that they can survive without him, and Nomar Garciaparra has had time to adjust to Wrigley Field and his role as Wrigley's superstar. The Reds have a solid lineup if everyone remembers to make contact, but they may have issues with the pitching. And Ken Griffey is long overdue for a healthy season! The Brewers and Pirates look like fifth- and sixth-place teams on paper, but they have enough talent to surprise the league if their stars keep performing and their unknowns surpass expectations.
NL West: The Dodgers are the team to beat, especially if Derek Lowe and Jeff Weaver pitch well. The Giants will contend and they have a good team without Barry Bonds, but they're better with him in the lineup -- even if he's only worth an intentional walk each time up. He'll reach base about 100 times more and make an out about 100 times fewer than whoever he relpaces over the course of a full season, and that extra baserunner plus an extra out to play with every inning or two is incredibly valuable over the course of a full season. The Diamondbacks' poor performance last season didn't make sense; they looked good on paper. And they still do, although not as good as the Giants or Dodgers. The Padres look okay, but they need big years from some veterans who haven't had big years in a while. And it looks like the Rockies have downgraded from the old days, but they probably have the best home field advantage in the league, whatever that's worth.
AL East: I won't drag this part down by blabbing about the Red Sox and Yankees -- you know who they are, so you decide. The Orioles pitching staff needs help (unless Bruce Chen making the staff is a good thing), but the lineup is solid. I predict the first back-to-back home runs for two 550+ home run hitters will be a SportsCenter highlight within a month or two. The Blue Jays look good in places, but they don't look all that solid. I'm not familiar with half the Devil Rays roster, and that can't be a good thing. Maybe they'll surprise me though. But we all know none of this matters, since the Red Sox and Yankees will battle for the division crown and wildcard spot. So while everyone else previews those two teams in depth, I'll skip them.
AL Central: The Twins have a good lineup and a good pitching staff and remain the team to beat. The Tigers are going to surprise everyone and put together a 85-win season -- they've got several good players who are long overdue for good seasons. The White Sox should look good, but they have a couple of holes here and there that could prove troublesome. The Indians will have a little more trouble. The Royals will play better than they should but won't challenge the Twins.
AL West: This will be the tightest division in MLB. Not only does it have the fewest teams, but they all seem to be fairly evenly matched. The Athletics look best on paper, but there's no telling how they'll react to losing two of the three iron arms in their pitching triumverate. The rotation's replacements for Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson won't fill their shoes, and the lineup isn't the best in the West, but they'll still have a good team. The Seattle Mariners picked up Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson in the offseason, giving a good lineup a powerful boost. The pitching is something to worry about, but maybe 42-year-old Jaime Moyer can function as an unofficial pitching coach too. The Rangers' lineup isn't quite as impressive, but their pitching looks comparable, so I expect them to stay behind the Mariners in the standings. The Angels have some good pitchers who haven't pitched well in a while, and that will be real trouble (and expensive trouble) if they don't pick it up again, but they have a great lineup that can overcome bad pitching... but can they overcome it well enough to win?
Impact Player Movement: Adding Sammy Sosa to any lineup is going to improve that lineup, but unfortunately the Orioles are locked in a division with the two biggest money teams in MLB, so even if he gives them 10 more wins, it still means their season ends before the postseason. Tim Hudson will have a much bigger impact in Atlanta, especially pitching out of the #3 spot in the rotation. Adrian Beltre (Mariners) and Carlos Beltran (Mets) will put a charge into their respective lineups, JD Drew (Dodgers) too if he stays healthy, and Moises Alou will be a huge help in San Francisco while Bonds is out. (Anyone else think Orlando Hernandez might help out the ChiSox too?)
Best Hitters: Albert Pujols (STL) and Sammy Sosa (BAL)
Best Pitchers: Tim Hudson (ATL) and Barry Zito (OAK)
Best Rookies: (Gimme a week to figure out who they are!)