“Don’t discount the Braves,” you hear over and over again, in reference to the NL East division title. To that I say, “don’t discount the other four teams to hand it to the Braves.” Despite the best(?) efforts by the Mets and Phillies to transcend what seems to be government-mandated mediocrity, by September their respective boo-birds were working the mating calls. And so this country still has an entire generation of teens who have never seen Atlanta in second place.
Will the complacent folks in Atlanta finally remember what it’s like to not have the option to not show up for Division Series home games? C’mon, let’s find out, shall we?
1. Philadelphia Phillies
I know I may be throwing the jinx in here, but the change from Larry “Buster Bloodvessel” Bowa to Charlie “Cool Runnings” Manuel will do this team well, a la the Williams/Francona switch in Boston. “Let the boys play, don’t get in their way, and be in first by Labor Day,” they say (and by “they,” I clearly mean “me”).
Yes, the Phillie rotation is very, very suspect, adding more gasoline to the fire by picking up Cory Lidle and Jon Lieber to fill out the squad. Ed Wade is no Billy Beane, let me tell you, but he may prove that any GM, given luck and enough cash, can pull together a good (although not great by any stretch of the cranium) team.
The key will be getting Thome, Abreu and Burrell to the plate as often as possible, and protecting the bullpen from overwork (in the business, we call this “starter pummeling minimization”). And if you’re looking for a good omen, Kenny Lofton has managed to find his way onto a different playoff team each of the past four seasons. Let’s hope that it doesn’t require a midseason trade.
2. Atlanta Braves
There are an awful lot of “experts” predicting a total fall from grace for the Bravos this year. I’m not one of them, if only because Leo Mazzone has proven to be a miracle-worker year-in and year-out. Agreed that moving John Smoltz back to the rotation is risking rapid decline and/or injury, but it is an acknowledgement that the starting five is where Smoltz should have been all along.
Offensively the Braves lost more than they gained this winter (i.e., they lost J.D. Drew), and one of these days, the Atlanta offense’s predicted decline will actually happen. But the rotation looks good (Tim Hudson’s overrated-ness not withstanding) and it’ll take fewer runs to win a game here than it will in Philly.
3. Florida Marlins
In great part, all the dumping on the Braves is a factor of some predictors’ love of the Fish. Admittedly, I like Florida a lot more with Carlos Delgado than without him (it’s the eyebrows that get me), but for the most part this offense is erratic with a capital E.
Adding Al Leiter to the rotation is pretty much a gimmick — obviously he’s there to share his sage wisdom with Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Dontrelle Willis, while holding an occasional lead himself. No good explanation for Ismael Valdez, though — maybe he’s there to tell the kids what it’ll be like when they’re aging journeymen?
Oh wow, I just realized Jeff Conine hasn’t retired. Maybe after he has the chance to play a season at shortstop.
4. New York Mets
The Mets are the team who will make this division interesting: in picking up Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, one would believe that they instantly made themselves a favorite for the division title, but no team has epitomized the meaning of the half-platitude “the best-laid plans” like the Flushing Meadow Flailers.
What the Mets will need is most or all of the following: an improved, healthy Mike Piazza; a Kazuo Matsui who doesn’t play like he’s got a beer keg strapped to his back; an improved, healthy Mike Cameron; a bullpen who plays up to the stathead-set’s expectations; an improved, healthy Jose Reyes; a Tom Glavine who pitches like he did before the car accident; and an improved, healthy Doug Mientkiewicz.
Chances are that at least some of the above will improve and/or remain off the DL, but with the Metropolitans’ luck, that only means that giant cockroaches will rise up and devour Shea Stadium.
5. Washington Nationals
They really should have decided to have some fun with this sad-sack team and name them the Generals for at least the next few years. They’re going to tread water until MLB manages to extract the enormous franchise fee that Bud Selig had his eye on when he made the move from Montreal. Then, if the future owners have any money left over, improvement will follow. If the owners have to leverage their net worth to buy the team, however, that could be a problem (see: Tampa Bay).
Even the Nationals’ free-agent signings were basically whomever the other 29 teams didn’t sign (Esteban Loaiza, Wil Cordero). I do like Endy Chavez though, — mostly because I like saying “Endy Chavez.”
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