Best team in New York
could be Mets

Mar 21, 2006 4:19 AM

To be honest, it’s hard to focus on major league baseball predictions when you have so little to go on, distractions from March Madness and interruption with the World Baseball Classic.

But the calendar doesn’t care and Opening Day in the National League is Monday, April 3. Fortunately in Las Vegas, the sports books take care of preseason ratings with their future odds on winning the World Series, division titles and projected victory totals.

Of course, that’s not to mention the individual props available and fantasy league drafts going on around town. This promises to be a fun season in baseball if Bud Selig, Balco, Congress and Barry Bonds don’t screw things up.

Hopefully everything will work itself out and we can concentrate on seeing whether the Atlanta Braves can lose the NL East for the first time since 1990!

Don’t pay attention to spring training (the players don’t care, except for the rookies). Storylines? Pick one — Can the White Sox repeat? Is Johnny Damon better with short hair for the Yankees? Will Mark Prior ever pitch? Can Eric Gagne be a dominant closer again? Can the Mets outspend the Yanks and make it pay? What about Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Jeff Bagwell?

We’re not even going to speculate. Right now it’s gut feelings, no matter how much you study the statistics and go over your fantasy baseball rosters. So, here’s our very shaky preseason outlook for the National League, along with odds to win the pennant from Caesars Palace.

EAST: Mets (2-1), Braves (4-1), Phillies (6-1), Marlins (125-1), Nationals (18-1)

The Mets really lost the pennant in Game 1 last year when Braden Looper allowed two homers to Cincinnati in the last of the ninth in blowing a three-run lead. Finally, the Amazins have a closer in Billy Wagner. They also added Carlos Delgado and to go with Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd and Paul Lo Duca. The Braves lost pitching coach Leo Mazzoni, which is bigger than you think. Jeff Francoeur is the next Dale Murphy and fits right in with the Jones boys. Philly has Bobby Abreu, but no Wagner closing. Miguel Cabrera may be the best player in baseball, but fire sales don’t translate into pennants for the Marlins. Washington takes a step back.

CENTRAL: Cardinals (5-2), Brewers (25-1), Pirates (85-1), Reds (75-1), Cubs (9-2), Astros (7-1): The Cardinals are so solid with Cy Young pitcher Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols, who has a .332 average and 621 RBI over the past three seasons. The Brewers have a real stud lefty in Chris Capuano and a solid offense. They’re coming. So are Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Jason Bay is the No. 10 fantasy player on the board, evidenced by his .306 BA, 32 HR, 101 RBI and 21 steals in 22 tries from a year ago. First baseman Sean Casey adds a solid bat and great clubhouse presence. If lefty Oliver Perez returns to top form, watch out. Big years from Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn are critical for Cincy. With the Cubs, it’s all about health. Right now Derrek Lee hurt himself in the WBC, Prior is on the DL and Kerry Wood has the usual tender arm. The Astros need Clemens, but it looks like he’s waiting for July when the itch to pitch returns.

WEST: Padres (12-1), Dodgers (10-1), Giants (10-1), Rockies (85-1), D’backs (35-1). This division is wide open. I believe making the playoffs last year was a big plus for San Diego’s young ballclub. Jake Peavy is the best pitcher in the division, Brian Giles is ready to have a career season and a re-energized Mike Piazza has one good season left. Gagne is certainly a major question, although the Dodgers have an outstanding bullpen. If Nomar Garciaparra can recapture his Red Sox form, it could turn around the entire division. Hard to pick the Giants first with Bonds availability certainly an unknown. I really like the young Rockies hitters, particularly Matt Holliday. Arizona is certainly in the mix, but somebody has to tail off and losing Troy Glaus to Toronto didn’t help.

Next week: The American League.

In two weeks: The Baseball Page.