There’s moving and shaking going on. As I mentioned in Friday’s piece, I’ll break down each team in a brief season-preview – covering things to look for, intriguing story lines, and expectations for the year. These may be high, or these may be low, but there are expectations moving forward. I’ll try and pick which teams make the playoffs as well, an easier proposition given that a third of baseball’s teams make the postseason now. If I get even four out of ten right, I’ll be pleased as punch.
Here we go. This is your season preview, starting with the National League. (Note: Teams are listed in order of last year’s division finish)
NL East (or NL Least, if you’re feeling cynical)
They might be the best team in baseball. Expectations are high – they’ve got a loaded line-up with MVP candidates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, serviceable vets like Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, and Jayson Werth, and a rotation with no weak spots (the law firm of Strasberg, Zimmerman, Scherzer, et al). There’s a bunch of potential free agents in the coming years, so their window won’t be open for very long – hence the $200 million splurge on Scherzer in the offseason. Many are forecasting this team as having the best chance to win 100 games…a total that will be moot without a World Series title. Look for them to win the division comfortably.
New York Mets
Boy, they just can’t catch a break. This year would have been all about a deep rotation rounding into form with the return of Matt Harvey from TJ surgery, Zach Wheeler, last year’s Rookie of the Year Zach deGrom, and ever-present Bartolo Colon. Now Wheeler’s down with Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, apart from David Wright’s mastery of the hot corner, the infield for the Mets has all the power of a chihuahua in a Gucci purse. Don’t expect much from the Mets this year. They’ll have great pitching…but that only gets you so far.
Here’s where things have fallen to with the Braves: BJ Upton’s last two seasons at the plate were so terrible he literally changed his name to try and turn things around (say hello to Melvin) It’s almost like a running joke by a really lame stand-up – The Braves are so bad, they’re starting Jonny Gomes in left field! Things look dark in Atlanta – new right fielder Nick Markakis won’t be ready to start the season. When your best hope for everything going right is a return to form by Nick Markakis…you’re in trouble. At least Andrelton Simmons will continue to serve as a one man defensive highlight reel.
It was only two years ago that I lambasted the Marlins as the biggest joke in all of baseball. I now return to eat my words – the Marlins are contenders this year. And they’re doing it by making savvy trades and by developing and committing to their young talent. They signed Giancarlo Stanton to sports biggest contract over the offseason, a phrase that still baffles me. Just last week, they committed to stud left fielder Christian Yelich for seven years. Their rotation is studly. Hell, even Ichiro Suzuki said this seemed like a fun place to be. It might be time for Marlins fans (if they exist) to emerge from deep summer hibernation and come to the ballpark again if they succeed in winning a Wild Card berth.
Charlie Kelly couldn’t make this work. It is decidedly not sunny in Philadelphia this year.
Battle Royale Central
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals made a trade that might win them the offseason, and at the very least should help them contend for and claim a wild card berth. Jason Heyward never quite turned into the all-around hitter he was prophesied to be in Atlanta, yet his defensive metrics are so off the charts that he’s on track to put up a Hall of Fame caliber WAR total by the (distant) end of his career. There’s a chance that a change of scenery might do him good. With their pitching and potential Hall of Famer Yadier Molina anchoring the team, the Cardinals are in prime position to maintain their dominance.
And then there’s these guys, with Andrew McCutchen leading the team through their continued renaissance. I won’t lie – losing Russell Martin in the offseason concerns me greatly; a quality backstop is essential for any contending team, and Martin’s handling of their pitching staff was a big reason behind their renaissance. With that being said, their line-up is turning into a thing to be feared, with Josh Harrison, Sterling Marte, and Pedro Alvarez. Their pitching staff is terrific, their bullpen is probably the best in the division, and manager Clint Hurdle takes no guff. All of this is why I’m predicting the Pirates to win the NL Central.
It was a nice run last year, but ultimately bore no fruit as the Brew Crew collapsed down the stretch. This year, they’ll contend – barring a return to earth by MVP candidate Jonathan Lucroy or Carlos Gomez. Ryan Braun concerns me here – he’s not looked the same since he, you know, stopped taking steroids. If he can have a bounce back year, they might win a Wild Card slot. If not…they’re screwed.
“If” is a dirty word for sports fans. It’s buoyed up by hope, often is followed by unfulfilled promises, and more often than not bears no fruit. What makes it the most cruel of words is its almost contagious nature, producing statement after statement that can swing the fortunes of any and all devoted followers of teams.
Here’s an example: if Joey Votto can stay healthy and if he regains a spot as one of baseball’s top five hitters, if Brandon Phillips can put up numbers remotely close to year’s past, and if Jay Bruce bounces back from a nightmare year and if Todd Frazier doesn’t peak but continues to perform better and better and if Devin Mesoraco can keep up his breakthrough performance last year and if Billy Hamilton doesn’t fade in the second half of the year but stays strong and runs the bases better and if Johnny Cueto remains healthy and contends for a Cy Young and if Homer Bailey comes back healthy and dominant and if Rafael Iglesias or Anthony DeSclafani pan out as servicable replacements for Mat Latos and if the bullpen regains some of its magic from 2012-2013, then the Reds should contend for an NL Central title.
Speaking of hope…this might be the year the Cubs break through. Much of this depends upon their young prospects panning out. Kris Bryant and Addison Russell both will be fantastic, Jorge Soler should be good, and Javier Baez….well, let’s just say that he looks lost at the plate, going off of what I’ve seen from spring training. The pitching should be good, Jon Lester will anchor the staff, and Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in the game. But it all hinges on those prospects being able to hit in the Majors. If they can’t…it’ll be a long season on the North Side.
NL West (Pitching Pitching Pitching!)
Los Angeles Dodgers
Not content with washing out of the playoffs in the first round last year, the Dodgers overhauled their team, saying goodbye to hitters such as Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez and welcoming Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, and Twitter sensation Brandon McCarthy. Of course, their bullpen still resembles what I imagine a flaming oil spill looks like, so who knows how well that’ll all turn out. They’ve still got one of the best rotations in the league, with Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu spinning their magic, and their lineup is potent potent potent. They will win the NL West handily.
San Francisco Giants
They won the World Series last year, and might contend for another this year. On the other hand, their rotation is aging and/or broken (see Lincecum, T.), they lost their playoff catalyst (see Sandoval, P.) and their ace threw something like a billion jillionty innings last year after getting an Iron Man arc reactor implant. There’s a good chance his arm will simply fall off sometime this year. Oh, and it’s an odd year, so they’re probably not winning the World Series. Which, again, is fine. They won last year. Let some other poor bastards have a chance.
San Diego Padres
Last year, the Padres were relatively anonymous, forgotten in their own division (and in my columns). Apparently, somebody took offense – the Padres turned into the talk of baseball almost overnight, trading for Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and Derek Norris, in addition to signing Astronaut Lion James Shields. Their rotation is among the top half of the league, and while the offense might take a while to gel, it will make the baseball games being played in PetCo park infinitely more interesting to watch.
You know, it’s kind of sad. When healthy, Troy Tulowitzki plays like a Hall of Fame shortstop. He would probably be the first Rockie inducted into Cooperstown (Todd Helton has a case, but after seeing Larry Walker’s candidacy decline, I’m not hopeful) if he could just stay healthy and guide the Rockies into contention every year. Unfortunately, he’s only played 150+ games twice in his career. As Tulo goes, so go the Rockies. They’ve got a good core developing…but dat pitching though…
I…I have nothing nice to say here. It’s gonna get ugly in Phoenix this year. Like, super ugly.
Stay tuned for the AL preview tomorrow.