When April with Its Showers Sweet. . .

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That’s a paraphrase of Chaucer, who opens his Canterbury Tales with a celebration of the wonderful month of April. And he didn’t even know about April’s most delightful treasure, the opening of the baseball season! Holy smokes, I can hardly stand it. Despite all the ‘roid rage surrounding the game, for me there’s gonna be nothing better than when the Yanks and Sawks kick off the ’05 season by renewing their blood feud on Sunday night. So, without further ado, here are my picks for how the ’05 NL campaign will wind up.

NL EAST

1. Atlanta

Last I checked the sun was still rising in the east, so I’ll assume Atlanta will win its 83rd straight division title or whatever it is. I’ve tried to get ahead of the game by picking them to falter the last couple of years, but now I’ll just ride the horse ’til it dies. Schuerholtz did a good job of restocking the rotation and lineup again, and the bullpen should be pretty solid assuming Danny Kolb can repeat last year’s magic. Keep an eye on Chipper Jones as he moves back to third base. Expect a big year from Larry, as he feels more comfortable and involved at the hot corner.

2. Florida

A very solid team with no obvious weaknesses. My wildcard pick. Al Leiter brings stability to a talented rotation featuring purveyors of filthiness Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett. Delgado’s big bat turns a good offensive club into a frightening one, when placed between Pujols-clone Miguel Cabrera and Jim Rome lookalike Mike Lowell in the lineup. LoDuca’s leadership will prove valuable, and the defense should be solid with Castillo, Alex Gonzales and Juan Pierre. Keep your eye on Guillermo Mota. Clearly has the stuff to be a closer; how will he handle the mental aspect of the role.

3. New York

The top four teams in this division are real close. All have a playoff shot. Mets could easily sneak into the wildcard spot, though they may be relying too much on young players. I like Randolph as a manager; he knows how to handle New York and should keep thinks on an even keel. Pedro should pitch well in New York, unless the Braves are his daddies and will anchor a deep rotation. Carlos Beltran will instantly become the greatest center-fielder in Mets history (sorry, Mookie), and will anchor a pretty terrific outfield defense, Cliff Floyd notwithstanding. Piazza should have a solid year now that he won’t be asked to play first. Keep your eye on Jose Reyes. If this kid can stay healthy, he’ll wreak havoc on the basepaths and give Beltan, Piazza and Floyd someone to drive home.

4. Philadelphia

Should have a pretty good lineup. Will presumably play looser now that Bowa’s gone. Thome should have another monster year hitting in that ballpark, as should Abreu. Chase Utley is drawing raves from manager Charlie Manuel and may be ready to have an impact. The Marlon Byrd experiment seems to be off as 56-year old Kenny Lofton will man centerfield. The real problem for the Phils is the rotation, which is anchored by (yikes!) Jon Lieber. Unless the Phils score like the Yankees did last year, they could end up closer to Washington than New York. (In the standings, not geographically). Keep your eye on Pat Burrell. What happened to this guy? Can he regain the form that earned him the nickname “the bat,” or will he repeat last year’s enigmatic performance, perhaps leading the kind-hearted Phillie fans to give him another nickname?

5. Washington

They’ll be better than last year, but that won’t help much in this division. Jose Guillen’s and Vinny Castilla’s offense and Cristian Guzman’s defense are an upgrade, but too many holes remain in the lineup and rotation. After Livan Hernandez the rotation gets really thin, and, while the lineup has several good hitters (Nick Johnson, Brad Wilkerson), there are no great hitters to build around. The bullpen is also a major question mark. Keep your eye on Jose Vidro. Struggled last year without Vlad Guerrero’s protection in the lineup. Can he rebound hitting in front of Guillen and Castilla?

NL CENTRAL

1. St. Louis

Should be head and shoulders above anyone in the division, and with Bonds out indefinitely, probably the best team in the NL. Lineup is an absolute nightmare. Eckstein’s a solid leadoff hitter and should score a ton of runs hitting in front of Pujols, Rolen, et. al.. Grudzielanek’s a solid bat, and Yadier Molina should be an upgrade over Matheny offensively. Rotation may be the best in the NL one through five, though the health of Carpenter and Morris may be an issue. Defense won’t be as spectacular as recent years, but should still be solid. Pujols should probably be striving for his 3rd MVP award; as it is, he’ll pick up his first. Keep your eye on Yady Molina. By all accounts the most talented of the Amazing Catching Molinas, he has big shoes to fill replacing gold glover Matheny, especially in handling the pitching staff.

2. Chicago

Dominating rotation one through four, though health is an issue again this year. Offense lost a lot of production, but still has more pop than people give it credit for, with Garciaparra, Ramirez and Lee through the heart of the lineup. Defense is questionable outside of Derrek Lee. That’s always a fun question. The biggest concern is the bullpen, which opens with (are you kidding?) Ryan Dempster as the closer. Could make a wildcard run if the chips fall right, but these are the Cubs, so you feel pretty confident they’ll find a way to underachieve. Keep your eye on Corey Patterson. Have the Cubs and/or Patterson decided whether this guys a top of the lineup or middle of the lineup guy? Has all the talent in the world, but never seems committed to batting first or second. The Cubs may be best served to drop him in the six hole and let him swing for the fences.

3. Houston

Rotation should still be good, especially if Pettitte is healthy and Brandon Backe pitches like he did in the playoffs last year. Too many question marks in the lineup — can they get run production from Ensberg and Jason Lane? What kind of year will Biggio and Bagwell have? Will Berkman recover from his injury to have a usual Lance Berkman year? The bullpen is shaky before Brad Lidge, who may challenge Gagne as the best closer in baseball this year. Roy Oswalt is my pick to make it back-to-back Astros Cy Youngs. Keep your eye on Zeek Astacio. Pretty much stole the 5th starter’s spot in spring training. Has very good stuff and is very competitive. ROY candidate.

4. Cincinnati

Prediction: the Reds will find themselves in first place around June 1st, like they do every year, but, like Peter walking on the water, it won’t last. Griffey and/or Kearnes will get hurt, and they’ll realize that their pitching is pretty terrible. Reality will set in and they’ll tumble into fourth place where they belong. Lineup looks devastating on paper, particularly if Wily Mo Pena (shouldn’t it be pronounced “why-lee” as in the coyote?) maintains last year’s form. However, the pitching looks just as devastatingly bad, and with gopher-machines Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz pitching in the Great American Ballpark, they could set a record for home runs allowed. Keep your eye on Adam Dunn. The Big Donkey annually puts up some of the strangest stats in baseball history. The race is on to see if he gets to 200 K’s or 60 home runs first.

5. Pittsburgh

The Pirates have some pretty decent players, and one outstanding talent in lefthander Oliver Perez. They have some other nice pitchers in Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, who could win some games if they get some run support. Jason Bay and Craig Wilson, who’s playing without his Lynrd Skynrd hairdo this year, swing pretty decent sticks. Benito Santiago seems to be trying to outlast Julio Franco; he’ll start behind the plate. This isn’t an awful team, they just aren’t very good, either. Keep your eye on Jack Wilson. Had a breakout year last year and works hard enough that it shouldn’t be a fluke. With Renteria in the AL, should battle Adam Everett and Khalil Greene for a gold glove. Not a brown-eyed handsome man.

6. Milwaukee

What can you say? It should be another long year for the Milwaukee Seligs, but, hey, at least they’ve got a nice park. Ben Sheets is an ace pitcher and would probably be a Cy Young candidate on another team. Their offense doesn’t really have any great hitters; certainly not anyone you’d want to build around. Newly acquired Carlos Lee may be their best one. Overbay’s also nice and Geoff Jenkins has had some pretty good years. Back end of the rotation and bullpen could be really scary. Keep your eye on Rickey Weeks. May not start the year with the big club, but should certainly finish it as the Brewer’s second baseman. Along with Prince Fielder, he gives them something to build around in the future.

NL WEST

1. San Diego

Caveat: these predictions are based on an assumption Barry Bonds misses half the year. The Padres have a real solid team. They lost Fatty Wells off their pitching staff, but replaced him with Woody Williams so that’s all right. It looks like their actually going to try and put Tim Redding in the rotation; good luck with that. The lineup is solid, with Giles, Nevin and Loretta. Sean Burroughs remains an enigma; how can a guy that big be a singles hitter? Bullpen should be filthy with Hoffman and Otsuka. Keep your eye on Ryan Klesko. Can he learn to hit in Petco Park? The Pads will need him to drive in runs if they want to win the division.

2. Los Angeles

Offensively, the Dodgers seem to have taken a step backward, losing Beltre and Green and replacing them with an injury-prone J.D. Drew and an aging Jeff Kent. I also think they’ll feel the loss of Paul LoDuca more this year. The rotation is very good, featuring Odalis Perez and Derek Lowe. Of course, you know about the bullpen. This is still a very good team with a real shot at either the division or the wildcard. Keep your eye on Jayson Werth. He hit very well last year and should thrive with a full season in the starting lineup. If the Dodgers do make a playoff push, he’ll play a big role.

3. San Francisco

This is probably the hardest team to pick, just because you don’t know when Bonds will return or what he’ll be like when he does. I’m guessing they’ll be pretty bad without him, though with Alou, their lineup won’t be totally dreadful. I think their real problem will be pitching, though. After Schmidt, there’s a lot of question marks. Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams have talent, but they are also young so you hate to count on them. The bullpen cost them the wildcard last year, but it should be upgraded with Armando Benitez closing the door. Keep your eye on Pedro Feliz, who has the unenviable task of replacing Bonds in the field and, possibly, the lineup. I actually think he’ll do pretty well; he’s a good hitter and doesn’t seem the type to be fazed by the attention.

4. Arizona

May have had the most senseless offseason in baseball. They should clearly be in a rebuilding mode, figuring out if their kids can play, but they seem to have delusions of contending. Glaus may hit some for them, but their pitching is dreadful outside of Brandon Webb and Russ Ortiz. Even harder to understand is why they would bring in Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell to play middle infield and sit Alex Cintron who seems to be their most promising prospect. Maybe Wally Backman lucked out. Keep your eye on Russ Ortiz. He always wins a lot of games, but he’s always played on very good teams, first in San Fran then in Atlanta. He walks a ton of guys, and may put up some ugly numbers pitching for a supbar D-Backs squad.

5. Colorado

Wait, there is a worse team than Milwaukee in the NL. For years, the Rockies have struggled to find a way to build a winning team in Coors field, alternating between emphasing power to emphasizing speed to trying to sign every free agent pitcher on the market. This year, it seems they’ve settled on unconditional surrender. The offense doesn’t look good enough to score outside of Coors Field, and the pitching doesn’t look good enough to win at Coors. Poor Todd Helton. Keep your eye on Shawn Chacon, who, after being an All Star as a starter two years ago, was inexplicably moved to the closer’s role last year. He’s back in the rotation this year and could give the Rockies a needed boost if he returns to his 2003 form.

MVP — Albert Pujols
Cy Young — Roy Oswalt
Rookie of the Year — no clue, really. Luke Scott, Astros (I’m such a homer)

Playoffs: Marlins upset the Cards in the first round, then beat the Padres to reach the Series.

AL picks next week.

Tourney notes

Greatest weekend in basketball history? I can’t think of a better one, offhand. It was like having three Duke-Kentucky/Christian Laetner games. Just after I thought Louisville had pulled off the greatest comeback in tourney history, here come the Illini to match it. Then, UK gets an impossible miracle shot to send it to OT, only to fall in the end. Again, that’s why March Madness is the greatest single thing in sports.

Wally Sczerbiak award, given to the guy who played his way into the first round of the draft, goes to Kevin Pittsnoggle of WVU. If nothing else, there’s always a spot on an NBA roster for a 6’ll” white dude who can shoot threes.

Pittsnoggle’s also on my all name team, along with Pops Mensa-Bansu, Taylor Coppenrath, Taquan Dean, and Rajon Rondo. Alternates: pretty much anyone on Arizona’s squad (Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams, Channing Frye, Mustafa Shakur).

Tourney questions if you wish to respond. Lets focus on the last 25 years or so:

Best team to win the tourney? not win the tourney?
Best moment in the tourney? game? upset?
All tourney team (over the last 25 years)?

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26 Responses to “When April with Its Showers Sweet. . .”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Yea for the Cardinals prediction! (except the playoffs, of course) Yady Molina looks promising – his only problem that he has the speed of a rock. Oh well. Can’t have it all. Matheny never made it on base to showcase his slowness of foot.

    TOURNEY OFFERINGS:
    * I’ll combine the best upset with the best moment with the best team not to win the tourney – ’83’s Jimmy V miracle, Whittenberg to Lorenzo Charles. Phi Slamma Jamma was pretty awesome for my Houston boy, Andy. Akeem (not Hakeem yet) and Drexler of course, but the rest of those dudes were tough, too. Larry Micheaux was the prototype for POWER forwards, Michael Young was an awesome shooting guard, and Alvin Franklin was a mouthy, but good point guard. They even had Benny Anders (aka Instant Offense) on the bench. I loved the upset. Great, great moment.

    * Best game: All how you look at it, I guess. Villanova PLAYED the best game ever in ’85. To me, of course, Arkansas/Duke was a classic game. I got to see Kansas/Syracuse in person 2 years ago, which was a great game. I’ll go with 1982 UNC/Georgetown, though, with MJ’s freshman baseline jumper and Fred Brown’s unthinkable pass to James Worthy.

    * Best team to win the tourney: UNLV in whatever year they won – best team money could buy.

    * All-Tourney Team:
    Center: Patrick Ewing
    Forward: Danny Manning
    Forward: Glen Rice
    Guard: Michael Jordan
    Guard: Carmelo Anthony (for Mikey!)

  2. guru junior Says:

    Biggest upset has to be ‘Nova/Georgetown. The cats barely made it into the tourney. The biggest name on the team was Ed Pickney and their coach was a cross between some character from Goodfellas and one of the Super Mario Brothers. I agree with Al on the best team not to win, but sentimentally speaking, the Hogs had a heckuva team that lost to UCLA. Still don’t like to talk about it.

  3. Coolhand Says:

    that’s a pretty funny take on rollie masamino (sp?).

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Harumph, Al, on ‘melo. I noticed on Fox Sports (or something similar) that he was merely an honorable mention as far as the greatest tourney players ever are concerned, which was, frankly, an outrage. Maybe because I saw the effect he had on the campus in general (he was a pretty good guy in addition to the basketball, and people–boys and girls–got all nervous around him for some reason), but he made his team into a championship team. Hakeem Warrick was an absolutely average-at-best (I’d even go so far as to say a tall skinny guy with little going for him other than his wing-span) player before Carmelo arrived. Craig Forth has been a horrible Center since he left. And there was this other post player who I can’t remember off hand — real big guy — who was prone to laziness until ‘melo would get in his face virtually every game and then said big guy would become a monster on the court and intimidate the daylights out of opposing players. That’s something even Boeheim couldn’t do. I don’t know how he ranks on the all time list of college players, but I think he elevated a group of average players (and unranked at the beginning of the season) to a level they would not have been able to play without his leadership.

  5. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Al,
    You sure you didn’t write this one yourself? Only a St. Louis homer would say they have the best 1-5 rotation in the NL. Say it with me now… Oswalt, Pettite, Clemens, Backe, and whoever else you want to throw in the five slot. The first three seal it for the Stros. I’m not even going to mention the Cubbies. Cards have the third best rotation in the Central not to mention the rest of the NL.

    The Stros lost some pop, but have some great young’uns getting a full chance this year. The Cards have a better lineup, but I wouldn’t say head and shoulders above the division.

    Another thing, Al… how do you have an all-time tourney team without Laettner?

  6. Coolhand Says:

    I think the back of the Card’s rotation make it strongest. I’ll take Marquis and Suppan over any other 4-5.

  7. The man with no nickname Says:

    Cool Hand:
    How could you leave out the height of drama for the entire NL season? The part where the Braves, who, as you pointed out, have won the last 147 NL titles (which was, coincidentally, Joe Louis’s age when he fought Marciano), get to the postseason and face the wildcard team that limped into the playoffs. The Braves are soundly destroyed in two games (beaten so badly that the Bud Selig just calls off Game 3). Travis goes home to wash off his face paint only to discover that the tears have taken care of most of it already.

    You have to love being a Braves fan though. It is like 11th Grade: All Drama. I will probably secretly root for the NL Central candidate all year knowing that my Braves don’t have a chance.

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