Senior Circuit Preview

by Chris Haffenreffer | 4/4/00 5:00am

As the 2000 Major League Baseball season commences, look to the National League to once again provide far superior competition to that of the American League. After a remarkable 1999 season that again produced a home run flurry, validated the wild card, and temporarily reaffirmed the ability of a small market team (Cincinatti) to succeed , the 2000 season will surpass even the excitement of last year.

The NL West will line up as it did in '99. In hope of repeating their '99 successes, Arizona made very few off-season moves. The Diamondbacks success hinges on a powerful lineup that includes .300 hitters Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams, the powerful Jay Bell (.289, 38 HR, 112 RBI), and gold glove centerfielder Steve Finley (.264, 34 HR, 103 RBI). However, Arizona can't realistically expect the same offensive performance out of Gonzalez, William, Bell and Finley this year.

Righthander Todd Stottlemyre was diagnosed with two tears in his rotator cuff but stubbornly bulked up to avoid season -- and possibly career -- ending surgery. With an ailing Stottlemyre, and a team that averages 31 years of age, the D'Backs can't possibly duplicate their '99 success.

San Francisco too, made no significant off-season moves; however, with the new Pacific Bell Park, look for the Giants to build on last year's successful season. A short right field porch will benefit lefties Barry Bonds (34 HR) and J.T. Snow (24 HR). However, San Francisco will need to acquire a number one starter in order to contend for the West title. Regardless, look for the NL West to be a much closer race than it was a year ago.

With a healthy Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez, the Braves have, once again, one of this season's most potent lineups. National League MVP Chipper Jones will provide his annual output, and the Braves rotation will remain the best in baseball, despite the loss of John Smoltz (torn ligament). Greg Maddux will affirm himself again as one of the best in baseball, but look to Kevin Millwood to have a Cy Young season.

However, the key to the Braves' success (i.e. World Series title) is Andruw Jones. The young centerfielder is one of the best in baseball, yet his immaturity and laziness plague his development into the best.

With the best infield in baseball, the New York Mets will once again challenge the Braves for the East title. Shortstop Rey Ordonez and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo are the best double play combination in the league, and Alfonzo adds pop (.304, 27 HR, 108 RBI) not typical of a middle infielder. The return of Rickey Henderson (.315), Darryl Hamilton (.315), Mike Piazza (.303), and Robin Ventura (.301) will propel the Mets to another successful season.

The Mets playoff possibilities hinge on newly -acquired lefty Mike Hampton. Hampton will fit in perfectly with New York, and if he can duplicate his '99 season (22-4), the Mets will challenge the Braves for the East title. Regardless, the Braves will once again return to their perch atop the National League East.

The National League Central is by far the most exciting and competitive division in baseball. Not only are the three most powerful home run hitters in the division, but three of the best teams in the NL reside in the central division. Unlike the West and East, where Arizona and Atlanta will most likely win their respective divisions, the Central is a crapshoot. Houston, Cincinnati, and St. Louis all have World Series potential, and one of these three will represent the National League in October.

The consensus seems to be Cincinnati. Building off a remarkable season in which the Reds were everybody's small market favorite, Cincinnati added Dante Bichette, a powerful hitter whose success could be defrauded this year as he escapes the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, and Ken Griffey Jr. Junior is the best player in baseball, and the Reds will obviously benefit from his talent. However, the pressure will be on Cincinnati. The question is whether the Reds can take it.

Houston acquired speedy centerfielder Roger Cedeno (.313, 66 SB) from the Mets, but gave up staff ace Mike Hampton. With the loss of Hampton, the Astros will rely on righties Jose Lima (21-10) and Shane Reynolds (16-14). With the consistency of Biggio, Bagwell, and Alou coupled with the speed of Cedeno, the Astros look strong.

St. Louis is my pick for the Central. Coming off a disappointing '99 season, GM Walt Jocketty made several key moves that will propel the Cards into the postseason for the first time since '95. Newly- acquired pitchers Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen, and Andy Benes all are potential All-Stars and will help out rookie sensation Rick Ankiel, my pick for NL Rookie of the Year. Furthermore, the addition of both Jim Edmonds and former All-Star Fernando Vina should complete a lineup that already includes Ray Lankford (.306, 63 RBI), Fernando Tatis (.298, 34 HR, 107 RBI), and home run king Mark McGwire.

So here's how the National League will end up -- St. Louis will beat the Diamondbacks, and the Wild Card Reds will fall to the Braves in the division series. In a rematch of the '95 NLCS, the Cards will beat the Braves in seven to make their first trip to the World Series since 1988.