This Week in the National League – March 28

As spring training nears its close and the regular season begins across the National League, Pete Khazen takes you there.

It all kicks off Sunday with the Cardinals and Mets. Yes, the 2007 season is here! It seems just like yesterday that we were ensconced in a wild card race in the National League that included all but a few teams into September. And so it all begins again. Most teams don't play until Monday, but it's going to be fun, no doubt. We've got you covered throughout the season, but as the spring season wraps up, here's the latest and greatest from around the Senior Circuit.

East Division

New York Mets - The Mets offense is loaded, but veteran outfielders Moises Alou and Shawn Green have struggled to get on track this spring. In 62 at-bats, Green is batting just .145, while Alou has managed a slightly-better .173 average in 52 at-bats. Endy Chavez will provide the Mets some solid defense in the outfield and give both Alou and Green time off on occasion. He's hitting a sharp .302 in spring play, but his slugging percentage is a mere .372. He's good for singles, but isn't the power threat Alou and Green are.

Philadelphia Phillies - Though trade rumors still loom, it looks like Jon Lieber might be starting the season in the rotation. Off-season acquisition Freddy Garcia had to leave his last spring start after just an inning due to biceps tendonitis. He three 30 pitches off a mound Tuesday, and just may be able to make his first start of the season and bump Lieber to the bullpen. And while Ryan Howard has struggled this spring with just two long balls and a .203 batting average, teammate Chase Utley has six dingers and a nice .350 batting average to boot.

Florida Marlins - The race for the closer role in South Florida is finally over, at least for now. The Marlins Monday acquired Jorge Julio and a little extra cash from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for one of the Marlins pitching prospects, Yusmeiro Petit. Struggling young outfielder Jeremy Hermida still has just two hits to his name this spring and is now hurt, which means Joe Borchard could be in line for some more at-bats early this season.

Atlanta Braves - After straining an oblique muscle, Mike Hampton threw 35 pitches off the mound to hitters and reportedly looked solid and felt good. He might just make that comeback this year, but with Hampton's history, it's always a roll of the dice. Outfielder Ryan Langerhans struck out 91 times in just 315 at-bats in 2006. That's better than one K ever four at-bats, so don't let that spring .370 batting average fool you. Langerhans has managed 17 punchouts in just 46 at-bats, which is better than one fan in every three at-bats.

Washington Nationals - In an ex-Cardinal flurry of deals, the Nationals signed relief pitcher Ray King and first baseman Dmitri Young, adding them to the 40-man roster. In doing so, they reassigned Jason Simontacchi, also an ex-Cardinal, and outfielder Abraham Nunez to the minors. Shortstop Christian Guzman, who is looking for a comeback season after missing 2006, is batting a perky .425 this spring.

Central Division

St. Louis Cardinals - In Chris Carpenter's final spring start, the staff ace tossed seven innings of shutout ball against the Dodgers and gave up four hits. Boy, does that sound familiar! And his offensive counterpart, Albert Pujols, knocked his first long ball of the spring en route to a 2-for-3 performance at the plate. That sounds familiar too! They're both machines, and there is little the competition can do to stop them. Keep in mind the defending World Champions will be opening the season at Busch Stadium before everyone else this season when they host the New York Mets in a 2006 League Championship Series rematch.

Cincinnati Reds - Josh Hamilton is the hot story this spring, and he remains hot. The outfielder is batting a crisp .403 at the plate and has surprised everyone, while enjoying every minute of his comeback. In four starts, Bronson Arroyo is getting to form with a nifty 1.53 ERA, which is more than what can be said for Aaron Harang and his 6.97 spring ERA.

Houston Astros - Woody Williams has struggled in that new Astros uniform this spring. Williams is 0-3 in four starts with a lofty 9.92 ERA. The Astros' other new starting pitcher, Jason Jennings, hasn't faired all that well either. In four starts, Jennings has a 5.79 ERA. While Wandy Rodriguez will likely lock up the fourth spot behind Roy Oswalt, Jennings, and Williams, that fifth spot is still wide open.

Milwaukee Brewers - Despite the big off-season signing of Jeff Suppan, and the recent, steady pitching of Chris Capuano, some things just don't change. Ben Sheets has been named the Brew Crew's opening day starter, and it's clear that the Brewers' success will rest on Sheets and his ability to stay consistent and healthy. Catcher Johnny Estrada, outfielder Kevin Mench, and first baseman Prince Fielder have all been mashing the ball this spring. Fielder has the lowest batting average among the trio with a .444 clip. Estrada is batting .451 and Mench .452.

Pittsburgh Pirates - Last season's batting champion, Freddy Sanchez, will be missing Opening Day, but is expected to be back in the lineup within a week. Paul Maholm has only made three spring starts for 13.2 innings, but he's looked solid. The young pitcher has allowed just eight hits and three earned runs in that time, including a 6.0-inning performance Monday where he didn't allow a single earned run.

Chicago Cubs - The Cubs will be starting the 2007 season without Mark Prior or Kerry Wood in the starting rotation, and they're not fishing for fill-ins. The number five starter could be the biggest story brewing in Chi-town. Wade Miller is mounting a comeback and has been formally named by Cubs skipper Lou Piniella as the fifth starter after posting a 3.63 ERA in five starts this spring. The big question will be whether or not this ability to move on will really let Prior and Wood work out their problems and injuries without pressure, or if they'll just fade into the sunset. Speaking of comebacks, Derrek Lee battled with Albert Pujols for MVP honors in 2005 before succumbing to that freak broken wrist in 2006. In spring training, Lee is swinging that sweet stick again, hitting .492 with a solid .797 slugging percentage.

West Division

Los Angeles Dodgers - Brett Tomko claimed that fifth spot in the Dodgers rotation, which means that we'll have to wait a little while longer before we'll see Chad Billingsley a regular starter. Billingsley will start the season in the bullpen. The one-two punch at the top of the Dodgers lineup has hit the ball well this spring. Rafael Furcal is batting .412 and Juan Pierre .347. The speedy duo only has five stolen bases, but they'll get more than their fair share during the season.

San Diego Padres - Greg Maddux was up to his old tricks, allowing only two runs in six innings Tuesday as the Padres routed the Texas Rangers 24-7. Russell Branyan went yard twice and had five RBI, while Adrian Gonzalez rapped three hits to boost his spring average to .396. The club is getting set to unconditionally release Todd Walker, though, after the infielder failed to find a regular spot to fill in the field or off the bench. Walker's got playoff experience and a decent stick. He's sure to catch on somewhere.

San Francisco Giants - Matt Morris might just be out to show he's still got some fuel left in the tank. Morris tossed six strong innings Tuesday only giving up two runs. With the way Rich Aurilia (.289) and Lance Niekro (.357) have been swinging the bat this spring, Mark Sweeney (.195) might have a hard time cracking that lineup regularly.

Arizona Diamondbacks - Scott Hairston will be on the Opening Day roster. In fact, he just found out and cracked a home run in each of his first three at-bats after hearing the news. Hairston is batting .426 this spring with six home runs and 17 RBIs in just 54 at-bats.

Colorado Rockies - Brad Hawpe sprained his left ankle and is listed as day-to-day, but there is a chance he might start the season on the DL. Jeff Baker replaced him in the lineup Tuesday and will likely be regular backfill for Hawpe. Catcher Chris Iannetta is making his presence felt with his bat going 12-for-30 with eight RBIs in 13 games.

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