This Week in the National League: February 28

Let the 2007 Cactus and Grapefruit Seasons Begin!!

Spring is here, even though a good chunk of the nation is still feeling the effects of winter storms and bracing for more. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues kick off play this week. I can feel the warm sun beating down. The crack of the bat. The pop of the leather.

Baseball is upon us, and though March is more commonly synonymous with college basketball, the thoughts of a wild 2007 season are too tempting not to get excited. Here's a little insight into some players and matchups to watch across the Senior Circuit in the coming weeks, as well as some recent news from the past week.

East Division

New York Mets - Picking up where they left off, that ridiculous Mets offense launched some bombs in an intrasquad game. Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes all went yaka. For those of you that get hyped up on pitching matchups, the spring offers one heckuva meaningless duel this Thursday. It might only be a few innings for each pitcher, but the Mets will send probable Opening Day starter Tom Glavine to the hill against St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. We'll get our first look at the two veterans. If you have tickets, don't be late.

Philadelphia Phillies - The Phils open the spring training season with the American League Champion Detroit Tigers on Thursday. Last year they just missed the playoffs, and finished the regular season with 85 wins - two more than the World Champion Cardinals. Loaded with a strong, veteran rotation, the Phillies are ready to do battle with the Mets this season. There are essentially three positions up for grabs: left field, third base, and catcher. Shane Victorino and Jason Werth will likely split time in left, as will Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez at third base. And for now Rod Barajas figures to start at catcher with Carlos Ruiz backing him up. But keep an eye on all three spots this spring.

Florida Marlins - The Marlins are still griping with Joe Girardi. The latest involves some friendly calls from Girardi to his old teammate Jon Lieber during the season last year. Apparently Girardi offered some advice to his friend, and the Marlins don't like that he did it, nor that Lieber earned two Ws down the stretch at the expense of the big fish. Getting away from the front office fiasco, the Marlins took it to the University of Miami Hurricanes in an exhibition game, winning 12-7. Miguel Cabrera, Joe Borchard, Jeremy Hermida all cracked homers in the game. But the Marlins pitching staff is already looking a bit disheveled. Last season's surprise Josh Johnson (12-7, 3.01) is still suffering from a sore arm and is doubtful to be ready come opening day. Ricky Nolasco figures to take his spot in the rotation.

Atlanta Braves - On the Tommy John comeback trail, Mike Hampton reportedly tossed breaking balls for the first time off the mound. There are no guarantees, especially with Hampton's history, so he'll be one pitcher worth keeping a close eye on this spring, as he can definitely be a big difference maker. But Hampton might not gather as much attention this spring as new first baseman Scott Thorman. With Adam LaRoche long gone to Pittsburgh, it's Thorman's spot to earn and keep. The rookie brings a solid stick to camp and could be a nice backfill for LaRoche.

Washington Nationals - It's tough to get too excited about this Nationals team for 2007. Although when a team doesn't have many stars, it can be exciting to watch the competition for those starting spots. That being said, you better believe the Nats will have an exciting spring. One of those battles to watch is between Christian Guzman and Josh Wilson at shortstop. Only problem is that Guzman has been dealing with some tendinitis in his shoulder and has already sat out a few days. Keep watch.

Central Division

St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals agreed to terms with four young players instrumental in their 2006 World Series Championship playoff run. Catcher Yadier Molina, outfielder Chris Duncan, and pitchers Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes all signed one-year deals. Terms were also inked with 14 other players as the Cards look forward to the first spring training games on the road to defending their crown. One name the Cards added to the roster earlier this offseason was Kip Wells, who will likely slide into the two-spot in the rotation behind Carpenter, particularly with Mark Mulder not ready for the start of the season. Mulder is still recovering from rotator cuff surgery, which means Braden Looper might also be taking up a spot in a very different-looking Cardinals rotation for 2007.

Cincinnati Reds - Josh Hamilton might not have a familiar face or name, but once you see him, you won't forget him. His arms are loaded with bold, noticeable tattoos and he's been looking good swinging the bat so far this spring. Hamilton has dealt with some personal problems and hasn't played above Double-A ball, but he appears to be on-track and could be a surprise player to watch this spring. Without a doubt, though, one position to watch this spring for the Reds is the closer spot. Mike Stanton is penciled in right now, but he saved just eight games last season in San Francisco, and has just 19 saves since the end of the 1998 season. David Weathers, who is currently slated for the setup man, could also contend for that high-pressure spot.

Houston Astros - Roger Clemens is at camp, but he's not saying if he's come to any decision to play in 2007 yet. He's just there to help his son Koby work out. So the beat goes on for the Astros. The kick off the spring season is with Cleveland this Thursday, which means the time has arrived for us to see what Carlos Lee can do in the same lineup with Lance Berkman.

Milwaukee Brewers - J.J. Hardy was one of those budding talents in the National League, but injury struck and knocked him out for the season last May. He's back this spring and has a lot to prove, so keep an eye on him and don't be surprised if he has a little more pop in his bat than you might have remembered. Speaking of injuries, Johnny Estrada's backup at the catcher position, Damian Miller, strained his calf this week and underwent an MRI Tuesday afternoon.

Pittsburgh Pirates - One of those 60 famous 1909 Honus Wagner baseball cards sold for $2.35 million dollars this week. People forget he was a Pirate. Just imagine if the Buccos managed to collect and hold onto those cards. They might just be able to afford a $100 million dollar team. Instead they'll compete with what they have. But that won't be easy. Xavier Nady was hospitalized last week with an intestinal ailment and was tested for Crohn's disease this past Monday. No word on results yet. And All-Star outfielder Jason Bay is still nursing his knee but is expected to be ready come Opening Day.

Chicago Cubs - After a couple of date changes to gather attention, Mark Prior will make his always much anticipated first start of the spring on Monday against the Mariners. Sidetracked by that hot tub slip, Prior's injury-riddled counterpart, Kerry Wood, is throwing and is expected to make his first appearance in the second week of Cactus League action. Aside from that, fans should be pumped to get their first sight of Alfonso Soriano in spring games. You can bet Sunday's game against the Chicago White Sox will draw a large crowd at Ho Ho Kam Park and give the players a little taste of the regular season electricity in the air.

West Division

Los Angeles Dodgers - Rafael Furcal will be leading off for the Dodgers to start the 2007 season. Juan Pierre will be in the two spot, but Grady Little expects him to bat like he's a leadoff hitter himself. How the duo will workout as a 1-2 combination statistically will be worth tracking. Another competition worth watching is at the catcher spot. Russell Martin is slated to be the starting catcher after a solid campaign in 2006, but the Dodgers signed a nice insurance policy in Mike Lieberthal to back him up. Martin is likely to keep his starting job, but should he slip up, Lieberthal is more than capable to step in.

San Diego Padres - Infielder Todd Walker won his arbitration case last week and got himself a nice bump in pay to rein in $3.95 million. That's a hefty price for a veteran who, at this point in time, doesn't appear to have a starting spot at any position. Marcus Giles figures to be the everyday player at second base. And after Walker's struggles defensively at third base, Geoff Blum figures to get the majority of the playing time there.

San Francisco Giants - Matt Cain was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde pitcher last season, finishing 13-12 with a 4.15 ERA and 179 punchouts. Though he dropped his last three games of the season, he won five decisions prior and undoubtedly finished the season strong. He could have that monster breakout season and is a player to watch this spring. So is veteran speedster Dave Roberts, who was added to the Giants roster this offseason. Roberts had 49 steals last season with San Diego and scored a career-high 80 runs.

Arizona Diamondbacks - It's no doubt that all eyes will be on Stephen Drew and Randy Johnson this spring in the Diamondbacks camp, but keep a watch on Eric Byrnes as well. The colorful outfielder garnered quite a bit of attention during the playoffs last October offering his insight into the games, and that limelight might just follow him into the 2007 season. He just turned 31 years old this month, but he's coming off his best season yet.

Colorado Rockies - Steve Finley will turn 42 years young this March and he's still out to prove he's got gas left in the tank. The veteran outfielder signed a minor league contract with the Rockies last week and figures to compete for a roster spot. With big sluggers Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday painting the corners in the outfield and newcomer Willy Taveras in center, the Rockies are pretty much set in the outfield. But you never know what can happen.

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