Tuesday, February 19, 2008

NL East Preview

Two perennial offensive juggernauts, St. Louis and New York, return largely unchanged lineups and figure to sit atop the division. Atlanta chose to keep things in-house and will need inspired play from their young prospects if they want to return to the postseason for the first time in three years. Meanwhile, the Boston Colonials are under new ownership and are likely facing another rebuilding year after seven years of futility.

Here are the team outlooks with last season's record, followed by projections for season 8:

St. Louis Armstrongs

(S7: 118-44, 1st place, beat New York in Div Series, beat Tacoma in NLCS, lost World Series to Louisville; S8: 108-54, 1st place)

Key Additions: CF Phillip Borchard, SS Andruw Knight, RP Abdul Duncan
Key Losses: CF Luis Benitez, RP Alfredo Morandini

The Armstrongs dominated the NL all season, averaging a ridiculous 7+ runs per game. They'll return nearly the same team, but could miss Benitez (58 HR, 158 RBI), choosing instead to upgrade defensively.

The top of the order would make the '27 Yankees jealous, with LF Marvin Aurilia, fresh off his third straight MVP award, right smack in the middle. The 1-5 hitters are all 30 years or younger, and hit the heck out of the ball, so St. Louis figures to be in the WS hunt for a number of years.

While their bats get all the attention the pitching staff can be just as dominant, allowing the second least runs in the NL last season. SPs Esteban Franco, Roland Springer, and Vic Mendez will give their offense a good opportunity to win any ballgame, and their bullpen will usually close the door. As long as they stay healthy, expect to see them playing in October.

X-Factor: Young P.T. Espinosa will be asked to make the jump from the bullpen to the rotation. If he can give some quality starts, this team will be that much more dangerous.

New York Mets
(S7: 93-69, 2nd place, Wild Card, beat Charleston in round 1, lost in Divisional Series to St Louis; S8: 92-70, 2nd place)

Key Additions:
Key Losses: 2B Timo Kondou, LF Quentin McCarthy

The Mets remained somewhat inactive this offseason, preferring to count on their outstanding young core of hitters. New York will once again sandwich Silver Slugger 1B David Andujar between C Buddy Bacsik and RF Pablo Abreu. After averaging over 6 runs per game last season, expect the scoreboard to get plenty of work.

While Shea has long been considered a pitcher's ballpark, this is the biggest concern for the Mets if they want to challenge St. Louis. A solid top of the rotation, led by Midre Aquino, gives way to a vulnerable back end. Clyde Sparks is as good a set-up man as there is, but they'll need some young arms to step up if the bullpen's going to hang onto leads.

New York won't overtake St. Louis this season, as they didn't make up the 25 game deficit in off-season activity, but they will be right there in the Wild Card race at the end of the year.

X-Factor: RP Carlos Nunez will be asked to close out games. Sparks will get him the ball with the lead, but he'll need to be much better than last year (7 blown save in 19 opportunities) if he wants to be on the hill in the ninth innings during a playoff run.

Atlanta Gay Pirates
(S7: 72-90, 3rd place; S8: 77-85, 3rd place)

Key Additions: SP Dennis Park, SS Gus Fujiwara
Key Losses:

Pitching remains the question mark in Atlanta. They tried to shore up the rotation by signing veteran SP Park (3.71 career ERA) to a 3-yr deal, but will need big contributions from some youngsters. The bullpen doesn't need to be spectacular- they just need to get the ball to Alex Rijo (30 saves, 2.90 ERA).

The offense will feature four players ready to spend their first full-season in the bigs, but the heart of the order remains the same with 1B Rigo Trevino and 2B/OF Mariano Romano garnering the most attention.

Atlanta's success will be determined by the production of their youngsters. If they can contribute all season long, look for the Gay Pirates to contend for a Wild Card spot. But more likely, they're a year or two from being a serious threat.

X-Factor: With all the rookies, it's hard to pick one, but Brett Gload will be roaming CF and leading off. If he can consistently reach base ahead of the big bats and cause some havoc on the basepaths, Atlanta could surprise some teams.

Boston Colonials
(S7: 69-93, 4th place; S8: 66-96, 4th place)

Key Additions: SP Gerald Roosevelt
Key Losses: OF Patrick Hobbes, SP Pat Martin, SP Charles Hansen

The Colonials will lean heavily on their pitching this season. Last season they had the second worst run production in the NL, and not much has changed, so don't expect many slugfests.

Roosevelt will join 100-game winner Felipe Henriquez and young ace SP Alan Ward in the rotation. Brian Bechler (31 saves, 3.51 ERA) will convert back to being a starter for the first time since season 4, leaving the bullpen very suspect.

Nothing will come easy for the Colonials this season, as they'll need a lot to go their way in order to finish better than 3rd place in the NL East for the first time in franchise history.

X-Factor: Following a nice rookie season seeing limited action, OF Victor Wengert must produce as an everyday part of the middle of this lineup if the Colonials are going to put some runs on the board.

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