1 | Philadelphia Phillies
2006: 2nd place 85-77
Manager: Charlie Manuel.
Key free agents: SP Adam Eaton (3 years, $24.5 million), C Rod Barajas (1 year, $2.5 million), 3B Wes Helms (2 years, $5.45 million), OF Jayson Werth (1 year, $850,000).
Acquired in trade: SP Freddy Garcia (from White Sox).
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Going, going, gone: OF David Dellucci (signed by Cleveland), SP Randy Wolf (signed by Dodgers), C Mike Lieberthal (signed by Dodgers), RP Arthur Rhodes (signed by Seattle), SP Gavin Floyd (traded to White Sox).
On the hot seat: Pat Burrell hasn’t come close to his 2002 season (.282-37-116) and Phillies fans are tired of Burrell’s act (especially at patmustgo.com, where they’re taking a collection so the Phillies can dump him).
Written in Stone: For a cornerstone NL franchise, the Phillies have had a shockingly paltry playoff history — just one postseason appearance since 1984, just four NL pennants since 1883, and just one World Series title ever. Thus, any year with legitimate October dreams is one to savor, and the Phillies have them. Fans were ecstatic over the addition of Eaton and Garcia — at least until they saw Garcia throwing in the low 80s this spring. Provided he’s a semblance of the old Freddy, and provided the shallow bullpen doesn’t implode, the Phillies are primed for a run to the top, led by MVP Ryan Howard.
2 | New York Mets
2006 1st place 97-65
Manager: Willie Randolph.
Key free agents: OF Moises Alou (1 year, $8.5 million), RP Scott Schoeneweis (3 years, $10.8 million), RP Jorge Sosa (1 year, $1.25 million), SP Chan Ho Park (minor-league deal).
Acquired in trade: RP Ambiorix Burgos (from Kansas City).
Going, going, gone: OF Cliff Floyd (signed by Cubs), RP Roberto Hernandez (signed by Cleveland), SP Steve Trachsel (signed by Baltimore), INF Chris Woodward (signed by Atlanta), SP Victor Zambrano (signed by Toronto), SP Brian Bannister (traded to Kansas City), RP Chad Bradford (signed by Baltimore).
On the hot seat: Left-hander Oliver Perez has been injured and/or awful the past two years, but the Mets hope he can regain his 2004 form, when he fanned 239 and had an earned-run average of 2.98.
Written in Stone: What a dynamic lineup. What a frightening rotation. Those are the dueling issues for the Mets, whose batting order barely offers a letup for opposing pitchers, but whose starting staff is filled with questions. Will Tom Glavine and El Duque act their 40-something age? And will 23-year-old Mike Pelfrey, with four major-league starts, act his? Will Perez be the guy who couldn’t win during the season, or the guy who was nails in the postseason? And will Pedro Martinez, out until after the All-Star break, ride in to save the day?
3 | Atlanta Braves
2006: 3rd place 79-83
Manager: Bobby Cox.
Key free agents: 1B-OF Craig Wilson (1 year, $2 million), SP Mark Redman (minor-league deal).
Acquired in trade: RP Mike Gonzalez (from Pittsburgh), RP Rafael Soriano (from Seattle).
Going, going, gone: 1B Adam LaRoche (traded to Pittsburgh), SP Horacio Ramirez (traded to Seattle), 2B Marcus Giles (signed by San Diego), RP Danys Baez (signed by Baltimore), RP Chris Reitsma (signed by Seattle), SP John Thomson (signed by Toronto).
On the hot seat: Closer Bob Wickman usually gets the job done, but sometimes it’s not pretty. And if Wickman is shaky, the Braves have hard-throwing Mike Gonzalez, who was 24 for 24 in saves last season.
Written in Stone: Just when it looked like the Braves would win their division for the rest of eternity, they had their title streak snapped by the Mets. GM John Schuerholz decided that the road back involved a revamped bullpen, a process that began last July when he picked up Wickman from Cleveland. With Gonzalez and Soriano to set him up, the back end of their pen is now solid. On the flip side, the Braves’ rotation pales in comparison to the glory years, with the eternal John Smoltz the last remaining link. Much depends on whether Tim Hudson has really begun his career decline or merely had an aberrational season.
4 | Florida Marlins
2006: 4th place 78-84
Manager: Fredi Gonzalez.
Key free agent: 1B Aaron Boone (1 year, $925,000).
Acquired in trade: RP Jorge Julio (from Arizona), RP Henry Owens (from Mets), RP Kevin Gregg (from Angels).
Going, going, gone: 3B Wes Helms (signed by Philadelphia), RP Joe Borowski (signed by Cleveland), SP Yusmeiro Petit (traded to Arizona).
On the hot seat: The Marlins have a lot of good, young players, and if Dontrelle Willis returns to his 2005 form, maybe they can challenge. Of course, if they don’t, Willis trade rumors (and maybe even a real trade) will fly this summer.
Written in Stone: The Marlins were the feel-good story of 2006 (at least until they faded late and fired eventual Manager of the Year Joe Girardi). There could be more good feelings this year under new manager Gonzalez, formerly the Braves’ third-base coach. The Marlins are still loaded with young talent to go with superstar Miguel Cabrera and ace Willis, and they averted disaster with the late acquisition of Julio to close. While the loss of 12-game winner Josh Johnson for up to two months (ulnar nerve) hurts, the Marlins could really have something special in Anibal Sanchez. They definitely have something special in Hanley Ramirez. This year’s out-of-nowhere starter is 22-year-old center fielder Alejandro De Aza.
|CF||*Aljndro De Aza||.291||2||20|
5 | Washington Nationals
2006: 5th place 71-91
Manager: Manny Acta.
Key free agents: 1B Dmitri Young (minor-league deal), 2B Ronnie Belliard (minor-league deal).
Acquired in trade: OF Chris Snelling (from Seattle).
Going, going, gone: OF Alfonso Soriano (signed by Cubs), SP Ramon Ortiz (signed by Minnesota), SP Tony Armas Jr. (signed by Pittsburgh).
On the hot seat: The only Nationals pitcher assured of a rotation spot coming into spring training was John Patterson, with a dozen or so competing for the others. So, if Patterson can just win about 30 games …
Written in Stone: The Nationals are this year’s Marlins, only without the brewing young talent. They’re not going young, they’re going bad. There are exceptions, of course, such as second-year phenom Ryan Zimmerman, who looks like the Next Big Thing at third base. Then there’s … well, we’ll get back to you. Conspicuously absent is Soriano, who for some reason the Nats neglected to trade at the deadline despite zero chance of signing him back. Amazingly, ex-Mariner Snelling couldn’t lock up a starting job despite a hot spring and an opening created by an injury to Nook Logan. The Nats decided to go with a hotter, younger prospect, Kory Casto. The rotation is particularly bleak. When Patterson is your undisputed ace, you’ve got issues. Look for closer Chad Cordero to be traded by August.
|*2005 stats; **minor-league stats|
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.