This Week in the National League: '07 Preview

Pete Khazen offers a team-by-team look at how the Senior Circuit is shaping up for 2007.

It's that time of the year! Pitchers and catchers are reporting and before you know it, the regular season will be upon us. This Week in the National League will be here the entire way to bring you up to speed weekly on the latest trends and eye-catching stories around the Senior Circuit. For the first story of the season, we offer a mini preview of each team to go with the rest of them floating around in cyberspace. Enjoy! It's going to be another great season!

East Division

New York Mets - The Mets were almost there in 2006. That Game Seven loss to the eventual World Champion Cardinals was one for the ages. John Maine and Oliver Perez will look to build on their impressive showing in the playoffs and have a solid run in 2007. To contend the Mets will need that since betting on a healthy Pedro Martinez and another big year from Tom Glavine might not be the best odds in the National League. Still, you can't go wrong with Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Paul Lo Duca, Shawn Green, Jose Reyes, and recent addition Moises Alou in your lineup. The big question mark for the Mets offense will rest in David Wright. He didn't exactly show up in the postseason last year, but it's not likely that lack of performance will carry into 2007.

Philadelphia Phillies - Ryan Howard, Ryan Howard, Ryan Howard. What a special year he had in 2006! He might not quite repeat that performance in '07, but if his teammates can stay healthy, this Phillies team will be quite the force. Chase Utley, Aaron Rowand, and Jimmy Rollins will also be back to make some noise in the field and on the basepaths. But the Phillies chances at the playoffs will rest once again with their pitching staff. They loaded up this off-season and heading into spring training have six potential starters fighting it out: Brett Myers, Jon Lieber, Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton, Jamie Moyer, and Cole Hamels. Lieber looks to potentially be the odd man out, especially with Hamels setting his sights on a big 2007 after that strong finish in 2006.

Florida Marlins - The low-flying fish almost shocked the National League last season. With a year of experience, this young team could be a force in 2007. But losing their skipper, Joe Girardi, is going to hurt the club. Just how much remains to be seen. That young pitching staff should only improve this season, but Josh Johnson will be one to keep an eye on for potential injury recurrence. The closer situation will be up for grabs this spring, and even the likes of Ricky Nolasco might be on the short list to win the spot. As for the sticks, Jeremy Hermida should finally have that monster year we've been waiting for, and though he injured his shoulder this winter, Hanley Ramirez should build on that Rookie of the Year campaign last season.

Atlanta Braves - Atlanta saw their impressive, dominant run through the NL East come to a close last season. The 2007 season won't bring a return to dominance, but they still should be competitive. The Braves lost Adam LaRoche this offseason, though they rolled the dice and picked up Craig Wilson to contend with Scott Thorman for that vacated power spot in the lineup at first base. And though Marcus Giles is no longer a Brave, Kelly Johnson should fill in nicely for him at second base. Bottom line, this offense is still loaded without LaRoche and Giles. With the likes of Andruw Jones, Brian McCann, Edgar Renteria, Jeff Francoeur, and the seasoned veteran Chipper Jones, runs shouldn't be a problem for the Braves. Banking on a pitching staff anchored by an aging John Smoltz, an underachieving Tim Hudson, and an injury prone Mike Hampton leaves many a question. At least they locked up Bob Wickman to close out games, provided the staff can give him opportunities.

Washington Nationals - This figures to be a rebuilding year for the Nationals. With Alfonso Soriano gone, Austin Kearns appears to have the biggest bat in the Washington lineup. John Patterson will look to rebound from injury and anchor the starting pitching staff, while Chad Cordero will close out the few opportunities he'll be given this season.

Central Division

St. Louis Cardinals - Can the Cards repeat? Considering last season's roster made up the team fans and experts all over the country had most doubts about winning it all in recent years, why not? As long as the Redbirds have Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, and Tony La Russa steering the ship, this club will continue to be a force in the National League. Unlikely postseason pitching heroes Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan are both long gone, as is inning hog Jason Marquis. That means Anthony Reyes will have to step up his game, as will Adam Wainwright. Jason Isringhausen hopes to recover from surgery and get back to that closer role, but if he doesn't, the Cards rotation will lose Wainwright to the pen, which will make things all the more interesting.

Cincinnati Reds - This appears to be the team year in and year out that looks downright intimidating on paper with their lineup. But that's why we play the game, right? Well, the Reds aren't as formidable heading into 2007, but Adam Dunn, Ryan Freel, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang definitely pack some punch. Kirk Saarloos could be the big wild card in Cincy. He'll likely earn a starting spot in the rotation and could present some difficulty for NL hitters. And Mike Stanton figures to be the closer as Eddie Guardado will be out until mid-season recovering from offseason surgery.

Houston Astros - Carlos Lee is back in the NL after a short stint in Texas. He should tear things up in that short-perched park nicknamed the Juice Box. His offensive prowess will be quite welcome with the formal departure of Jeff Bagwell. While Morgan Ensberg came back down to earth in 2006, where he'll stay, Lance Berkman showed everyone just how special he is. Expect Berkman to have another big year in Houston. Alas, pitching in Houston is the big question mark. With Roger Clemens doing his normal thing and Andy Pettitte gone, the pressure is on Roy Oswalt to have another remarkable year. The Astros did pick up Jason Jennings and Woody Williams to fill in behind him, but they're far from Clemens and Pettitte.

Milwaukee Brewers - Ben Sheets has turned into the Brewers' Kerry Wood and will be a question mark all season as usual. The Brew Crew did add Jeff Suppan, which will definitely help their staff. However, it's not likely Suppan will have lights out stuff with any regularity in Milwaukee. Chris Capuano showed he's the real deal once again last season, but he faltered down the stretch, which is something to watch out for again in 2007. As for their offense, the prognosis isn't much better than last year. They added Johnny Estrada, but the club will continue to rely on Prince Fielder, Bill Hall, and Geoff Jenkins, which almost guarantees they'll be close to leading the league in strikeouts.

Pittsburgh Pirates - Adding Adam LaRoche to the lineup will definitely help lighten the load from Jason Bay and last season's surprise, Freddy Sanchez. As evidenced by Bay and Sanchez, the club is still built on youthful talent. And their chances for success will rest once again in the young arms of Ian Snell and Zach Duke. The two have shown glimmers of brilliance at times but haven't been consistent.

Chicago Cubs - The Tribune Company, which is up for sale, opened up the wallet and dropped a fortune this off-season. The Cubs opted for Lou Piniella's fire and experience over fan-favorite Joe Girardi, and so a new era begins in Chicago. Alfonso Soriano was the biggest sweepstakes winner and brings Cubs fans hopes of a 40/40 man to town. Soriano will replace Juan Pierre in center field. They also added Mark DeRosa, who is coming off his best season at the plate, and figures to spend most his time at second base. The Cubbies went on to spend more when they signed Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, adding some dependable arms to the rotation behind staff ace Carlos Zambrano. But as usual, the Cubs success will rest in their health. Derrek Lee looks to bounce back from that wrist injury that created a big letdown year for him, and Wade Miller has his eyes set on being a nice comeback surprise on the mound. As for Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Prior will attempt to exorcise those demons while Wood could make a move to the closer role ala John Smoltz.

West Division

Los Angeles Dodgers - J.D. Drew took the cash in Boston, and Greg Maddux kept his stay in LA short, but the Dodgers still managed to stock up this off-season. They added veteran leaders Luis Gonzalez and Jason Schmidt to their roster, as well as Juan Pierre. With Rafael Furcal and Pierre atop that order, the Dodgers will have some serious speed on the basepaths ahead of Nomar Garciaparra and Gonzalez. With regular time coming at third base, Wilson Betemit is definitely a candidate for a breakout year and is one to keep an eye on.

San Diego Padres - Greg Maddux and David Wells bring years of experience and a whole lotta Ws to the San Diego rotation, which is anchored by Jake Peavy. Peavy had a so-so 2006 and will look to get back to form in 2007. The Padres bullpen remains one of the best in the business with Trevor Hoffman continuing his dominance. But offense is still a concern. Adrian Gonzalez has shown some promise with the stick, and the addition of Marcus Giles will help the offense. To further give the squad a boost, the Padres traded away Josh Barfield to add some potential power in Kevin Kouzmanoff, who could be a big sleeper this season.

San Francisco Giants - Attached at the hip until the bitter end, the Giants and Barry Bonds might make history in 2007. At the helm, when/if it happens, will be new manager Bruce Bochy, who will bring his class act and consistent winning ways to San Francisco. Jason Schmidt is gone, but Barry Zito found himself a monster contract across the bay and will look to team up with Matt Cain and Matt Morris to rack up some serious strikeouts in 2007. Bengie Molina will be the new regular signal caller behind the plate, while newcomers Rich Aurilia and Ryan Klesko figure to split time at first base. Armando Benitez figures to be the stopper once again provided he can stay healthy.

Arizona Diamondbacks - Randy Johnson is back in the desert, but he's nowhere close to the pitcher he was when he and Curt Schilling thumped all challengers in the 2001 playoffs. Make no bones about it, 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb is still the ace of this staff. As for the D'Backs' offense, Stephen Drew could have a big, breakout year and is definitely a player to watch. First baseman Conor Jackson is another youngster who might just be primed for that breakout season.

Colorado Rockies - Garrett Atkins just hammered the baseball last season, as did Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe. These guys can hit. And though they'll likely start the season with sweet-swingin' Todd Helton as their teammate, it is likely Helton won't finish the season in Colorado as there are already trade rumors. With every spot in the Rockies rotation virtually up for grabs, the Colorado bats better stay alive all season long if they want to keep things interesting.

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