Braves predicted to be No. 1

Zach Baker and Zach Baker

Trying to pick a winner in the National League is like trying to pick between which Mystery Science Theater videos to rent. There are plenty of worthy candidates, but none that you can decide on right away.

The San Francisco Giants represented the senior circuit last season, and despite the losses of several key players and perhaps the best manager in baseball, they remain a force. Whether that will be enough for a return to the Fall Classic remains to be seen, but hey, at least we can pick a champion without mentioning the New York Yankees once. So lets analyze the only league in the country that plays real baseball [That’s no Designated Hitter].

National League East

1. Atlanta Braves

Manager: Bobby Cox

2002 Record: 101-59

The Braves have been stuck in the same story since the dawn of the new millennium. They win a ton of games during the season, but for some reason, they can’t get back to the World Series. From 1991-1999, the Braves represented the National League five times. Since then, the best the Braves have been able to do is get to the NLCS. This season looks to be no different, as the Braves lost Tom Glavine to arch rival New York, and they are still lacking a strong offense. They’ll win the division, but from there, it’s questionable how far they can go.

2. Philadelphia Phillies

Manager: Larry Bowa

2002 Record: 80-80

Yeah, yeah, I know, Jim Thome. Thome signed a deal that gave him everything but public office in Philadelphia. Yet Thome’s deal is all but inconsequential to this team’s success. The biggest signing was not the first baseman, but rather the signing of Kevin Millwood, who had a string of strong seasons with Atlanta. Millwood was 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA last season. Any bullpen with Jose Mesa is bound to be shaky though, so look for a season of ups and downs.

3. New York Mets

Manager: Art Howe

2002 Record: 75-86

After a season so disappointing it makes Coke II look like a good investment, the Mets look to rebound with some new faces in 2003. The starting pitching should be the team’s strongest point, having acquired Glavine in free agency. Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn could each have strong comeback seasons, but the area with the most improvement might be the coaching staff, as Art Howe takes over for Bobby Valentine. Offense may be a question mark though, especially if Vaughn and Alomar struggle.

4. Florida Marlins

Manager: Jeff Torborg

2002 Record: 78-83

The Marlins have been gasping for air since the Indians lost to them in the 1997 World Series. Fans of theirs cannot even be sure that they know what they’re doing. A young, perhaps talented pitching staff led by Josh Becket (6-7, 4.10 ERA) is overshadowed by several castoffs in key positions. Juan Encarnacion is their most promising outfielder. Enough said.

5. Montreal Expos

Manager: Frank Robinson

2002 Record: 83-79

Perhaps the biggest surprise, all things considered, in baseball last season, Frank Robinson got a team with a degree of talent, and turned them into a contender for a fair amount of the season. All four Expos fans were said to be impressed. Vladimir Guerrero may be the best hitter in baseball right now, and Jose Vidro had an excellent 2003. Livan Hernandez and Zach Day highlight the pitching staff. It should be an interesting season, almost certainly the last for the Expos north of the border.

National League Central

1. Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dusty Baker

2002 Record: 67-95

Last season was awful, and Don Baylor paid the price with his job. The Cubs hired the best manager in baseball to replace him, and it’s funny how much better things look at Wrigley. Baker is an expert at getting the most out of what he has. Which isn’t to say that the Cubs are lacking talent. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior star on a pitching staff that could take the Cubs to the top. Oh, and that Sosa guy, can’t forget about him.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Tony LaRussa

2002 Record: 97-65

No team played under as trying circumstances as the Cardinals in 2002. It is a testament to how good the Cardinals were last season that they got as far as they did. This year they look to again be a threat in the Central. They have two legitimate MVP threats in third baseman Scott Rolen and left fielder Albert Pujols. Matt Morris leads a steady and experienced starting rotation, and while the bullpen is questionable, the Cardinals will still be tough. If Chicago falters, St. Louis will take them apart.

3. Houston Astros

Manager: Jimy Williams

2002 Record: 84-78

The Astros are a good team, and have been for a long time. But the franchise of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman has never been to a world series, and there is little to indicate that this will be there year. Jimy Williams is an underrated manager, and he finds his team in a division that is perhaps the most talent-laden in the league. The Astros beefed up their roster, signing former MVP Jeff Kent and shuffling Biggio to center field. The team made waves releasing veteran starter Shane Renyolds in Spring Training, and will now be relying on a staff of unproven arms.

4. Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bob Boone

2002 Record: 78-84

There is reason to believe the Reds will be much improved in 2003. Ken Griffey is healthy and Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns are primed for superstardom. Sean Casey looks to be primed for a strong season at first base, and Brandon Larson gives fans reasons to be excited for years to come. The problem for the Reds is pitching. Danny Graves is being moved to the starting rotation, joining Ryan Dempster and Jimmy Haynes. The rest of the staff is a combination of has-beens and rookies. The Reds could be a lot better, but the division they are in leaves them with little margin for error.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

2002 Record: 73-88

Remember when the Pirates were perennial champions in the East? Sure, the vision is hazy, but it wasn’t that long ago. Pirate’s fans have got to be looking for something positive about this team that doesn’t involve their ballpark. The Pirates have some veterans this season, to help with their perpetual re-building process. Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders have joined the ranks, presumably because no one else wanted them. It will be another long season in Pittsburgh, not that it matters to a city that couldn’t sellout playoff games in the early 1990s. Bring on football season.

6. Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ned Yost

2002 Record: 56-106

From bad to much, much, much worse. The Brewers were in a tooth and nail fight with the Devil Rays to see who was the worst team in baseball in 2002. I don’t remember who won. I think they both did, actually. We all lost. This team is directionless, and has been since Bud Selig took the commissioner job in 1992. They have a new ballpark, but that hasn’t translated into success. Yost is the team’s third manager in less than a year, and it’s fifth manager since 1999. Richie Sexson is just about the only recognizable face on the roster. Unless Yost has magic powers that we are unaware of, the Brewers will be getting a high draft pick in next year’s draft.

National League West

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

Manager: Bob Brenley

2002 Record: 98-64

The Diamondbacks are a rarity in professional sports. A franchise that is hemorrhaging money worse than AOL, but who continues to invest to put a winner on the field. The only thing that will keep them out of the playoffs is Mother Nature, who could affect their starting rotation. If Curt Shilling or Randy Johnson goes down, however, the Diamondbacks could find themselves looking up in the standings.

2. San Francisco Giants

Manager: Felipe Alou

2002 Record: 95-66

The defending National League Champions have lost several players from last season, but the biggest loss may have been losing Dusty Baker to the Cubs. Luckily for the Giants, the club is in the capable hands of Felipe Alou, who managed the Expos to respectable finishes in the 1990s. Gone from the team are Jeff Kent and Kenny Lofton, but Barry Bonds remains, and so does Jason Schmidt, who dominated in the playoffs last season. The Giants were six outs from a championship last season, and don’t think they are just going to go away.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

Manager: Jim Tracy

2002 Record: 92-70

The Dodgers are always out there. They have talent and an owner who is willing to keep them towards the top of the standings. Yet they haven’t been to the World Series since Reagan was in office. Hideo Nomo is at the front of the starting rotation, and is primed for a strong season. The rest of the staff is full of veterans who may or may not pan out.  The most exciting thing that the Dodgers possess is in their outfield, where Shawn Green will continue to put up numbers. The Dodgers are poised for another 90-win season, but that may not be good enough.

4. San Diego Padres

Manager: Bruce Boche

2002 Record: 66-96

It was just four years ago that San Diego was in the World Series, but it seems like a lot longer. San Diego has seen the franchises most recognizable player, Tony Gwynn, retire, and have seen its wins diminish. Those two factors may or may not be related. The staff is young and untested, and the offense, led by Ryan Klesko, is a question mark. Bruce Boche will have this team ready for contention…in two years.

5. Colorado Rockies

Manager: Clint Hurdle

2002 Record: 73-89

Everyone applauded the Rockies when they made the playoffs in their third year. So what the heck has happened? Former Indians executive Dan O’Dowd is now running things, and while the offense is powerful, the pitching, as always, is lacking. Of course, Felix Fermin could hit 20 homeruns in Colorado, but that’s beside the point. The team tried to unload Larry Walker in the off-season, but were unable to get any takers. The team’s payroll is bloated, and they are stuck with a combination of high-priced veterans who have overstayed their welcome, and youngsters whose talent have yet to be established.