NL teams have tough ‘Cliff’ to climb
AP Baseball Writer
Bruce Bochy has already picked the Phillies as his World Series favorite, and that’s coming from the manager who knows something about Philadelphia’s aces.
The Colorado Rockies consider themselves a legitimate title contender, too, even if they have to take care of Bochy’s champion San Francisco Giants in the pitching-heavy NL West to get there.
With four No. 1 starters in its rotation, Philadelphia is eager to make up for an early exit to the Giants last fall in the NL championship series. The Phillies were supposed to be the team to beat. Now, the expectations are even greater for this club: Win it all or bust.
“Obviously, that is the ultimate goal,” said Cliff Lee, who was on the other end against the Giants while pitching for AL champion Texas last season. “The first thing you’ve got to do is get there. We’ve got to play 162 games to get to the postseason. Once you’re in the postseason, yeah, you’ve got to win the last game to do the ultimate.”
Lee is far from the only new addition in the National League as he returns to Philly.
From Southern California to South Beach and north to the nation’s capital, changes abound in the NL. No more Bobby Cox on the top dugout step for the Atlanta Braves after he retired. No more Joe Torre managing the Los Angeles Dodgers. The four-time World Series winning skipper is Major League Baseball’s new executive vice president for baseball operations.
Slugger Jayson Werth is now in Washington. The right fielder received a $126 million, seven-year contract from the Nationals this winter, which includes a full no-trade clause.
And with another former AL Cy Young Award winner, Zack Greinke, now with Milwaukee, the Brewers figure to be in the playoff chase.
And don’t rule out Cincinnati in the Central after the Reds reached their first playoff trip in 15 years last fall only to be swept by the Phillies in the first round.
In the NL East, does anybody else stand a chance against Charlie Manuel’s bunch and all of those aces: Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton?
“We’ve still got to go play. We’ve got to beat people. That’s part of it,” Manuel said. “If you’re good, you’ve got to stay good. That means you’ve got to play hard, stay focused on what you’re doing, can’t get distracted and you’ve got to stay at it. And you’ve got to love to play.”
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
The big-spending Rockies aren’t quite ready to declare themselves the division champions considering the Giants won it all. But with a rebuilt roster and two young superstars signed well into the future, manager Jim Tracy has high hopes for a team that was plagued by injuries in 2010 and lost 13 of its final 14 games to finish 83-79 and third in the NL West.
This winter, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki locked up a new deal that pays him an additional $132 million over seven seasons through 2020, a contract that guarantees him $157.75 million for the next decade. He had been guaranteed $25.75 million through 2013 under the $31 million, six-year contract he received in January 2008.
Carlos Gonzalez followed suit, receiving an $80 million, seven-year contract this offseason that runs through 2017 and covers what would have been his first three years of free agency.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants still look an awful lot like they did last fall, when this bunch of castoffs and misfits surprised everybody by getting by the mighty Phillies in the NL championship series and then handling the Texas Rangers in five games to win the World Series.
General manager Brian Sabean kept nearly his entire roster intact for what he hopes is another deep October run, losing World Series MVP shortstop Edgar Renteria and also utility infielder Juan Uribe to the rival Dodgers. But San Francisco signed veteran shortstop Miguel Tejada, plenty familiar with Bay Area baseball after winning the 2002 AL MVP for the Oakland Athletics.
San Diego Padres
A late 10-game losing streak did in the Padres last season – and they know full well they should have been a playoff team with 90 wins. San Diego had an NL-best 76-49 record on Aug. 25 and had a chance until the season’s final day, when it lost at San Francisco.
The Padres look much different going into 2011, having traded away All-Star slugger Adrian Gonzalez to Boston in a mass exodus of players and boosted the lineup with a handful of new faces.
Closer Heath Bell’s 47 saves were one shy of the majors-best 48 by San Francisco’s Brian Wilson.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Don Mattingly has been waiting for his chance to be a manager, and the former Yankees star takes over in place of Torre for a team that went 80-82 last season.
The Dodgers signed Uribe away from the Giants in one of their bigger moves of the winter after he produced career bests of 24 home runs and 85 RBIs in his second season with San Francisco.
GM Ned Colletti insisted the divorce of Los Angeles owners Frank and Jamie McCourt wouldn’t affect offseason spending, and the Dodgers committed more than $80 million in signings over the winter – including a three-year, $21 million contract for Uribe.
New Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers doesn’t sugar coat his team’s chances as Kirk Gibson begins his first full season as manager. Towers has turned around franchises during his days in San Diego, and he is now running a club that struck out 1,517 times last season and finished in last place in the West for the second straight season.
The team’s 65 wins in 2010 matched the second-lowest victory total in franchise history.
The Phillies and most everybody else figured this team had the talent to win it all last season as two-time defending NL champions with baseball’s best record. Now, add Lee to the mix and the expectations are even greater for a club that fell short after winning 97 games.
Can this superstar pitching staff make it happen this time? Roy Halladay pitched a perfect game early last season, then a no-hitter against the Reds in the playoffs. Still, as the Giants showed, anybody has a shot come the postseason.
Fredi Gonzalez steps in to fill the big shoes left by Cox, who led the Braves to 91 wins and back to the playoffs for the first time in five years only to lose to the Giants in the first round as the wild card.
Atlanta added durable second baseman Dan Uggla as a key right-handed bat. The Braves acquired him in a trade from Florida, then rewarded the slugger with a $62 million, five-year contract. Keeping Chipper Jones healthy as he recovers from knee surgery is a top priority, and the Braves are counting on Jason Heyward following his Rookie of the Year runner-up season with another strong year.
A rotation led by Derek Lowe (16-12), Tommy Hanson (10-11) and Tim Hudson (17-9) should keep the Braves right in the mix even if the Phillies are the strong favorite. But the Braves will dearly miss retired closer Billy Wagner.
After losing someone like Uggla, Hanley Ramirez knows he needs to return to his productive self.
The 2006 Rookie of the Year was the NL batting champion in 2009 after hitting .342 with 24 home runs, then finished at .300 last season with 21 homers and 76 RBIs.
The young Marlins figure to rely on their talented rotation and a bullpen that was bolstered this winter.
New York Mets
Many consider the Mets to be a mess considering their financial woes and the large contracts still on the books. With proven executive Sandy Alderson in charge, that could change for a club that went 79-83 to finish fourth in the East. The retooled Mets still have question marks throughout their roster as they try to avoid a fifth straight season out of the playoffs despite the challenges ahead.
And ace Johan Santana won’t pitch for a while after shoulder surgery.
How much will Werth’s addition be worth in providing a much-needed boost to this offense? The Nationals hope a lot. He played in 159 games for the Phillies in 2009 and 156 last season, when he batted .296 with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs.
Washington – which has been last in the East the past three seasons and five of six since relocating from Montreal – went 20-28 in one-run games and 3-10 in extra-inning games last year, both worst in the NL. The Nats tied for the most errors in the majors.
The Nationals will be without star pitcher Stephen Strasburg for most of the season if not all of it. He was placed on the 60-day disabled list this past week as he recovers from right elbow reconstructive surgery last September. Recovery time is typically 12 to 18 months.
Manager Dusty Baker rattled off the names of free agents signed by the rest of the division.
“People weren’t standing still,” Baker said. “We weren’t standing still, either. We just re-signed people that we have and hope through experience and time that they get better, which they should.”
The defending division champions brought back their roster virtually intact, spending more than $150 million to lock in key players long-term. They’re counting on more consistency from outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs and right-handed starter Johnny Cueto, and full seasons from left-handed reliever Aroldis Chapman and right-handed starter Edinson Volquez.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals imploded down the stretch last season, going 21-27 while scoring two or fewer runs 17 times. They failed to sign three-time MVP Albert Pujols to an extension in the offseason, leaving him a potential free agent after this year.
Could things get worse? Yes.
Top starter Adam Wainwright tore up his pitching elbow in February and had reconstructive surgery. Starter Chris Carpenter pulled his left hamstring during spring training and missed a few weeks. Newcomer Lance Berkman developed a sore left elbow while getting ready for his move to the outfield. Utility infielder Nick Punto had surgery for a sports hernia, sidelining him for the first month of the season.
Milwaukee made two of the biggest moves in the division, acquiring Greinke and Shaun Marcum to round out the rotation. The Brewers also replaced manager Ken Macha with Ron Roenicke, who has instant expectations.
The Brewers gave up some of their top prospects to get the two pitchers in a win-now move. Prince Fielder can become a free agent after the season. If the pitching staff can hold up, the Brewers have enough offense to be a contender.
Call the Astros the young and the hitless.
Houston played 11 rookies last season, often using three or more in the starting lineup. The Astros brought the young lineup back virtually intact, adding veteran infielders Clint Barmes and Bill Hall to their ongoing rebuilding.
Offense is the issue. Houston hit only 108 homers last season, worst in the NL.
Can they just get along?
Manager Mike Quade’s top challenge is to get the Cubs to stop fighting themselves. Quade had to call a team meeting during spring training after pitcher Carlos Silva and third baseman Aramis Ramirez squabbled in the dugout.
“Sometimes a little revolt’s not bad,” Quade said.
The Cubs upgraded their rotation by acquiring Matt Garza, a 15-game winner with Tampa Bay last season.
Can they lose fewer than 105?
The Pirates hit that mark during their 18th straight losing season. They hit a league-low .242 and had a league-high earned run average of 5.00 – fourth-worst in franchise history.