whether Houston or Chicago will claim the flag. The Astros should have won the division last year but were eliminated by the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, allowing the Cubs to almost re-write history. I'm favoring Houston because their pitching is the only other in the NL that comes close to Chicago's and they hold a slight edge at the plate.
Anytime you can match up a staff like Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano against Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, and Wade Miller, any sane sports fan would enjoy to watch and debate.
The San Francisco Giants appear to be the consensus favorites due to sub par opponents in the division. The Giants have a veteran offense and one of the best skippers in baseball, Felipe Alou. Their downfall may be pitching. After Jason Schmidt and Kirk Rueter, there are numerous questions.
If the Giants slip a step, Arizona will be waiting. Their infield is as solid as their outfield is suspect. Their pitching is a huge question mark. Everything revolves around Randy Johnson, if he can return to his 1993-2002 form. A repeat performance from Brandon Webb along with 200 innings from Shane Reynolds and Arizona may sneak into a playoff situation.
Two teams to watch in 2004 that should not be playoff contenders are the San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers. The Padres are headed in the right direction with the acquisition of Brian Giles and David "Yes I wrote my own book" Wells. They're a year away from contending.
The Tigers haven't added any big name free agents outside of Ivan Rodriguez but made minor upgrades in a few key areas. They should improve by 25 wins this year. It sounds great but when you're coming off a 43-119 and were outscored by an average of just over two runs per game, anything is an improvement. They will improve along the same lines as they did in 1997 (79-83 after a 53-109 mark in '96).
Rafael Palmeiro will close in on 3000 hits (2780 after '03) and needs 21 homers to enter the top 10 all-time, Barry Bonds needs just three home runs to eclipse his god-father, Willie Mays (did Willie juice up too? Will Barry have an asterisk beside his name?), Clemens can move into 9th place with 20 wins in '04 (or 11th with another 17-win season; passing such greats as Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Nolan Ryan. Maddux will be the last pitcher in the next 10 years (or possibly ever with a 5-man rotation) to pass 300 wins (has 289 after '03) and 4000 innings. Clemens will move into 2nd place all-time in strikeouts by Memorial Day, and Johnson should pass 4000 strikeouts if he stays healthy.
With the retirement of Jesse Orosco and Mike Morgan, Rickey Henderson is the last remaining player who began his career in the 1970's and time seems to have run out even on the ageless Henderson. Julio Franco is currently the oldest active player and will turn 46 in August.