1. New York Mets
Offense: Over the last couple of years, the Mets have gone from a team loaded with offensive talent that just got by with their starting staff to a franchise entering 2008 relying on pitching. Itís not that the offense isnít good, but itís an aging group, with Carlos Delgado and Moises Alou no longer reliable. Neither is Luis Castillo or the catching situation. Still, David Wright and Carlos Beltran are elite hitters, and Jose Reyes should have a better season than last year. Ryan Church will be an asset against righties, and New York will take nothing for granted after last seasonís historical collapse.
Pitching: The Johan Santana acquisition made the Mets the NLís frontrunner, and a healthy looking Pedro Martinez this spring only solidified that. Oliver Perez is still erratic, but heís pitching for a contract and combines with John Maine to form a deep rotation. The fifth starter role is murky, as Orlando Hernandez appears done, and Mike Pelfrey is perpetually disappointing. However, that wonít matter come October, and the bullpen is solid enough.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Pedro Martinez finishes 2008 as one of the 15 most valuable pitchers.
2. Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)
Offense: After the Bravesí impressive division title run finally came to an end, a rebuilding process seemed inevitable. Apparently, that process was extremely short-lived, as Atlanta enters 2008 with a roster capable of reaching the World Series. Of course, itís also a team thatís going to rely on health more than most. Top to bottom, the Braves have the most rounded lineup in the National League. Chipper Jones is sure to miss 20-30 games, but heís still one of the gameís top-5 hitters when in the batterís box. A full season of Mark Teixeira, the continued maturation of Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar and bigger things from Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur should lead to plenty of runs put on the board. Matt Diaz is one of the better hitters no one talks about, and while Mark Kotsay is done, Atlantaís farm system is capable of improving center field later on.
Pitching: John Smoltzís health means everything. He doesnít think his latest case of shoulder soreness is serious, but itís clear his career has an expiration date approaching. Tim Hudson has followed up a superb 2007 with a terrific spring, so it looks like heís truly back to form. Tom Glavine fills the role of the proverbial ďinnings-eater,Ē while Chuck James and Jair Jurrjens provide solid depth. Anything the team can get out of Mike Hampton is gravy. The bullpen, however, is in big trouble if Rafael Soriano goes down.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Jeff Francoeur drives in 125 runs.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
Offense: Despite Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino missing a combined 79 games due to injury, the Phillies led the NL in runs scored last season, finishing only behind the Yankees in all of baseball. Jimmy Rollins is likely to regress, but the addition of Pedro Feliz improves the defense, and better health should result in yet another potent lineup. Howard set an MLB record with 199 strikeouts despite a DL-stint, but heís the favorite to lead the league in HRs and RBI nevertheless. If every team in MLB held a draft from scratch, Utley would be a first round pick.
Pitching: Cole Hamels and Brett Myers have the potential to form the best front-end of a rotation in the game, and if Hamels somehow reaches 200 innings, heíd be a major threat to win the Cy Young; his changeup is one of the five best pitches in baseball. However, Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton form a downright ugly bottom of the rotation. Itís a major team weakness that will ultimately be their downfall. Iím setting the over/under on Eatonís ERA at 6.0. The bullpen is also quite shaky, led by the flappable Brad Lidge.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Brett Myers wins 20 games.
4. Washington Nationals
Offense: Nationals GM Jim Bowden is a man after my own heart, compiling unproven offensive talent with tons of upside, character issues be damned. Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge arenít going to win any humanitarian awards anytime soon, but combined with Austin Kearns and eventually Wily Mo Pena, this outfield could be potent. With Ryan Zimmerman ready to bust out and Nick Johnson back in action, the Nationals arenít going to finish last in runs scored like they did last season, especially with the move out of RFK Stadium. However, Iím beginning to think Felipe Lopez just isnít a very good hitter.
Pitching: John Patterson, the teamís would-be Opening Day starter, was cut; so naturally, Odalis Perez, who they just recently signed, gets the nod. Yes, the rotation is a complete mess. Even in NL-only leagues, itís doubtful any of the five starters will be usable throughout the season. They also wonít have the benefit of RFK, which suppressed homers more than any other stadium in the league last year.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Lastings Milledge turns in a 25/20 campaign, helping win many fantasy titles Ė and our hearts.
5. Florida Marlins
Offense: Refusing to spend money, the Marlins are seemingly always in rebuilding mode. That is, when they arenít winning the World Series, of course. With Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis now gone, Florida truly is starting from scratch, and Cameron Maybin, the centerpiece of the deal, isnít ready to help the big club. Hanley Ramirez is one of the best offensive players in the game, and heíll need another monster year for the Marlins to approach mediocrity. Jeremy Hermida has a bunch of talent, but heís more likely to disappoint again than he is to finally reach expectations.
Pitching: Despite the pitcherís park, Florida finished with the NLís worst ERA last season (4.94). Their 1.58 WHIP was the worst in baseball. While the Dontrelle Willis trade might result in addition by subtraction, injuries to Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez really set back a once promising young rotation. So did Scott Olsenís regression. Still, Olsen has the stuff to be a successful major league pitcher, and Andrew Miller is a future ace, so there is some long-term potential here. Just not much in 2008.
Outlandish fantasy prediction: Scott Olsen puts it together and is a viable option even in shallow mixed leagues.