1 | St. Louis Cardinals
2006: 1st place 83-78
Manager: Tony La Russa.
Key free agents: 2B Adam Kennedy (3 years, $10 million), SP Kip Wells (1 year, $4 million), RP Ryan Franklin (1 year, $1 million), RP Russ Springer (1 year, $1.75 million).
Going, going, gone: SP Jeff Suppan (signed by Milwaukee), SP Jeff Weaver (signed by Seattle), SP Jason Marquis (3 years, $21 million), 2B Ronnie Belliard (signed by Washington).
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On the hot seat: Neither Braden Looper nor Adam Wainwright has started a game in the major leagues, but each is in the Cardinals’ rotation. Both pitched well this spring.
Written in Stone: When the starting point is Albert Pujols, the outlook will always be promising. Somehow, he keeps getting better. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals not contending as long as he’s healthy. That said, the Cards had a lot of rotation turnover for a team coming off a World Series title. It’s still hard to figure out, from both ends, how Weaver got away. The buzz in Florida is that Wells could be the latest Dave Duncan reclamation project to flourish. Adam Wainwright has a chance to be a big winner, but the whole pitching plan is predicated on Jason Isringhausen making a successful return from hip surgery. Meanwhile, GM Walt Jocketty continues his quest to reassemble the 2002 Angels, signing Kennedy to replace Belliard at second base.
2 | Milwaukee Brewers
2006: 4th place 75-87
Manager: Ned Yost.
Key free agents: SP Jeff Suppan (4 years, $42 million), INF Craig Counsell (2 years, $6 million).
Acquired in trade: C Johnny Estrada (from Arizona), SP Claudio Vargas (from Arizona).
Going, going, gone: SP Doug Davis (traded to Arizona), SP Tomo Ohka (signed by Toronto), 3B Jeff Cirillo (signed by Minnesota), RP Dan Kolb (signed by Pittsburgh).
On the hot seat: Rickie Weeks wasn’t been able to stay healthy his first two seasons. He missed the last two months of the 2006 season with a hand injury. In a full season, he might make those 30-30 predictions come true.
Written in Stone: The Brewers can talk legitimately about finishing with a winning record, something they haven’t done since 1992. And in an NL Central where 83 wins took the title last year, they might even be in line for their first postseason berth since 1982. Or not. Only Pittsburgh scored fewer runs in the NL last year, so the offense clearly has to step up. With only one new addition — Estrada — the Brewers will be counting on Weeks, a monumental talent, to finally break out, and Prince Fielder and Bill Hall to keep getting better. A return to form by Geoff Jenkins would be nice. And so would a healthy, productive year from Ben Sheets, who will put it all together and win 15 games one of these years.
3 | Chicago Cubs
2006: 6th place 66-96
Manager: Lou Piniella.
Key free agents: OF Alfonso Soriano (8 years, $136 million), SP Ted Lilly (4 years, $40 million), SP Jason Marquis (3 years, $21 million), 2B Mark DeRosa (3 years, $13 million), OF Cliff Floyd (1 year, $3 million).
Going, going, gone: OF Juan Pierre (signed by Dodgers), RP David Aardsma (traded to White Sox).
On the hot seat: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood combined for 32 wins and more than 500 strikeouts four years ago. Prior will start in the minors, Wood on the disabled list, and their days as Cubs might be nearing an end.
Written in Stone: The Cubs invested about $300 million in new contracts this winter and somehow neglected to significantly upgrade their pitching. If that shortcoming is exploited, it could be the undoing of GM Jim Hendry, and it is bound to raise the hackles of the chronically impatient Piniella. But what a great show it should be at Wrigley, with the always lively Lou trying to navigate his explosive offense through a tough division with only lame-duck pitcher Carlos Zambrano as a sure thing in the rotation. Closer Ryan Dempster is always an adventure. Wisely, the Cubs are not counting on Wood and Prior, who have broken their hearts too many times over the years. But they are counting on Soriano, who should hit just fine but must adjust to another new position, center field.
4 | Houston Astros
2006: 2nd place 82-80
Manager: Phil Garner.
Key free agents: OF Carlos Lee (6 years, $100 million), SP Woody Williams (2 years, $12.5 million), 2B Mark Loretta (1 year, $2.5 million).
Acquired in trade: SP Jason Jennings (from Colorado).
Going, going, gone: SP Roger Clemens (might re-sign in midseason), 1B Jeff Bagwell (retired), 3B Aubrey Huff (signed by Baltimore), OF Willy Taveras (traded to Colorado), SP Andy Pettitte (signed by Yankees).
On the hot seat: Closer Brad Lidge was nearly unhittable in 2004 and 2005, but lost his job for a time last season and struggled this spring. If he doesn’t find some answers soon, Dan Wheeler might be taking over.
Written in Stone: Barring injury, Craig Biggio will get his 3,000th hit with the Astros this year (he’s 70 short). But will Clemens get his 349th win and beyond in a Houston uniform? Yet again, that uncertainty hangs over a team that plummeted from the NL pennant to fighting to stay above .500. The ‘Stros, who lost Clemens’ running-mate Pettitte, made a beneficial pickup in Jennings. With the wondrous Roy Oswalt ahead of him, Jennings won’t have to worry about being the No. 1 guy, as he was in Colorado. The rotation lacks depth behind those two, and Lidge is in danger of pitching himself out of the closing job. The Astros’ big-ticket item, of course, was Lee, an impact bat who will greatly help what was a mediocre offense.
5 | Pittsburgh Pirates
2006: 5th place 67-95
Manager: Jim Tracy.
Key free agents: SP Tony Armas Jr. (1 year, $3.5 million), RP Dan Kolb (minor-league deal).
Acquired in trade: 1B Adam LaRoche (from Atlanta).
Going, going, gone: RP Mike Gonzalez (traded to Atlanta), 3B Joe Randa (retired).
On the hot seat: The Pirates were willing to trade their closer, Gonzalez, for some sorely needed power. They’re hoping that LaRoche, who hit 32 home runs last season for Atlanta, can provide it from the cleanup spot.
Written in Stone: One of these seasons, the Pirates will win more games than they lose, which they haven’t done since 1992 — Barry Bonds’ last year, in an amazing coincidence. This will not be that season. For the umpteenth time, the Pirates are counting heavily on the maturation of their “good, young arms.” If you want to pin your hopes on Tom Gorzelanny, be my guest, but I see more trouble ahead. That doesn’t even get into the notion of Salomon Torres closing — yikes. That said, there are small doses of hope sprinkled throughout the roster, such as Ian Snell and Zach Duke, and, of course, Jason Bay, who deserves a better showcase. The Pirates are sweating out a spring knee injury to batting champion Freddy Sanchez that might keep him out of early action. Xavier Nady’s persistent stomach ailment is another concern.
|RH||Tony Armas Jr.||9-12||5.03||97|
6 | Cincinnati Reds
2006: 3rd place 80-82
Manager: Jerry Narron.
Key free agents: SS Alex Gonzalez (3 years, $14 million), RP Mike Stanton (2 years, $5.5 million).
Acquired in trade: SP Kirk Saarloos (from Oakland), 1B-OF Jeff Conine (from Philadelphia).
Going, going, gone: 3B Rich Aurilia (signed by San Francisco), SS Royce Clayton (signed by Toronto), RP Ryan Franklin (signed by St. Louis), C Jason LaRue (traded to Kansas City), RP Scott Schoeneweis (signed by Mets).
On the hot seat: Can Ken Griffey Jr., now a right fielder, stay healthy? He hasn’t had 500 at-bats in a season since 2000 and comes into this season after fracturing his left hand this winter wrestling with his kids on his yacht.
Written in Stone: The Reds actually flirted with contention last year, but don’t worry, it won’t happen again. Just turn your head to the left and take a gander at that rotation. Yuck. Beyond Aaron Harang (a Billy Beane giveaway you won’t read about in “Moneyball,” traded from Oakland to Cincy for current Mariner Jose Guillen) and Bronson Arroyo, who was everything they hoped for last season and will have to be again, the Reds are flailing. At least, until all-world pitching prospect Homer Bailey arrives, which won’t be long. David Weathers isn’t exactly Mariano Rivera, and the lineup isn’t going to scare many, even on the off chance Griffey stays healthy.
|RF||Ken Griffey Jr.||.252||27||72|
Capsules by Bill Reader, section editor; Written in Stone and division rankings by Larry Stone, Seattle Times baseball reporter.Stats from 2006 season unless noted.