2014 National League Preview

Baseball is here, and after six weeks of seemingly meaningless exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, and a pair of regular season games in Austrailia, the season is upon us. It is a time of hope for the 29 franchises whose season last year fell short of the ultimate goal, and a time of celebration for the one franchise who reached that goal, as the Boston Red Sox will commemorate their World Series title (that day will officially come Friday at their home opener).

Everyone currently has a shot at doing something special this season, no matter how much of a favorite or an underdog each individual team is. This is true in any sport, but certainly in baseball where so many teams have made surprise runs into October after being picked near the bottom of their division and/or finishing at or near the bottom in previous seasons.

That being said, while I’m sure I’ll miss some of these picks, here is my best guess as to how each division will play out over the course of the upcoming season. Included is each team’s 2013 record, division finish, and playoff results if applicable.

Here is a preview of the how each National League division could play out, as well as the NL portion of the playoffs.

West (Division Rank: 2)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, 1st, lost to STL in NL Championship Series)
A team of stars with a payroll of $235 million, the Dodgers ended the Yankees 15-year streak of having the highest payroll in MLB. It may not be wise to pick against them, as they present a very complete roster. The rotation is anchored by defending Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, although he will miss some time early with a back injury, and adds free agent Dan Haren. The bullpen has five pitchers who have each saved at least 17 games in a single season, including closer Kenley Jansen. The lineup is led by veterans Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, and will be extremely potent as long as everyone stays healthy (injuries were an issue last year). One key will be whether or not outfielder Yasiel Puig can continue to play like he did during his outstanding rookie season a year ago. This team can really make some noise this year.

2. San Francisco Giants (76-86, tied for 3rd)
After winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012, the 2013 season saw the Giants gain no luck or momentum and lose their shot at returning to the postseason. They have the roster to do it, however, in 2014, based on pitching, just like those title teams. The rotation returns Cy Young candidate Matt Cain, former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, and adds free agent Tim Hudson. The bullpen is anchored by closer Sergio Romo, in addition to a pair of tough lefties, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. The Giants lineup isn’t overpowering, but very consistent, including Marco Scutaro, who was the second hardest hitter in baseball to strike out in 2013, as well as 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81, 2nd)
The Diamondbacks were in the race in the West most of last year, before fizzling down the stretch and falling victim to the Dodgers amazing second half run. Most of that team returns, although the rotation lost ace Patrick Corbin to Tommy John Surgery in spring training. The rotation does still include big names Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy. A key offseason acquisition was closer Addison Reed, who came over from the White Sox, and anchors a better-than-average bullpen. The heart of the order includes MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, and Mark Trumbo, in addition to the always reliable Martin Prado, with the veteran Eric Chavez on the bench.

4. San Diego Padres (76-86, tied for 3rd)
Last year the Padres won 76 for the second consecutive year, although this year they are quietly optimistic about their playoff chances. Their best player is 3B Chase Headley, although they need him to return to 2012 form. Joining him in the lineup is Everth Cabrera, back from a 50-game drug suspension, and Carlos Quentin. The bench is also made up of former starters, including Seth Smith, who homered in his first Padre at bat Sunday night. The rotation features a solid top three of Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Josh Johnson, and the bullpen is led by consistent closer Huston Street and setup man Joaquin Benoit, once a closer in Detroit. The only problem for the Padres is that they are behind three other good teams in the best division in the NL.

5. Colorado Rockies (74-88, 5th)
The 2013 edition showed a 10-win improvement from 2012, although I don’t quite expect another 10-win improvement this year. It’s not that the Rockies are a bad team, they are just in a tough division. The Carlos Gonzalez-Troy Tulowitski-Michael Cuddyer middle of the order is solid, and new addition Justin Morneau is also a key piece. The issue comes in pitching, as the rotation lacks an ace, with Jorge De La Rosa becoming the de facto leader last year, with the rest of the rotation below average. Veteran journeyman LaTroy Hawkins, who leads all active pitchers with 943 career appearances, got his chance to close during the second half last year with the Mets, and will likely close for the Rockies this year. The rest of the bullpen lacks overall depth. While this would be a mid-pack team in any other NL division, they’ve got a tough hand in the West.

Central (Division Rank: 3)

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65, 1st, lost to BOS in World Series)
The defending NL champions appeared in their fourth World Series in the last 10 years, and did so with the youngest team out of those in the playoffs. That team was so young after numerous injuries, particularly in the pitching staff, in addition to the emergence of some amazing prospects. Ace Adam Wainwright was a workhorse last year, and is a perennial Cy Young contender. The rotation which has the most upside in baseball includes postseason phenom Michael Wacha. The bullpen will feature closer Trevor Rosenthal, who stepped in last year after a series of injuries. He is joined by a solid unit including Jason Motte, returning soon from injury, and veteran Randy Choate. In the lineup, Matt Carpenter moves to third base, and joins Jhonny Peralta, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina to create the best lineup core in baseball. Each member of the Cardinal bench would likely start almost anywhere else. This Cardinals team should easily win a decent Central Division, and is my favorite to the NL pennant and the World Series.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68, 2nd, lost to STL in NL Division Series)
The Pirates earned their first winning record and playoff berth since 1992 last season, and took the Cardinals to five games in the Division Series before falling. The Pirates roster stays pretty much intact from that run a year ago, led by a strong, young pitching staff. Francisco Liriano is a leader among so many young arms, and Edinson Volquez is the lone newcomer. Former journeyman Jason Grilli returns after recording 33 saves a season ago despite a late-season forearm injury. He is joined in the bullpen by setup man Mark Melancon. A lineup that seemed to have a flare for the dramatic last year returns NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon, in addition to Pedro Alvarez, and Russell Martin. As good, and deep, as this team is, they still are just the second best team in their division and the sixth best in the NL.

3. Cincinnati Reds (90-72, 3rd, lost to PIT in NL Wild Card Game)
Bryan Price takes over as manager after the interesting firing of Dusty Baker, despite the Reds making the playoffs last year as a Wild Card. A powerful lineup in a small ballpark includes MVP candidate Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce, while rookie Billy Hamilton will do his best replace the departed Shin-Soo Choo. The bench picked up competent utility man Skip Schumaker, but otherwise is just average. A powerful rotation features a trio who could all be called an ace, in Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey. Closer Aroldis Chapman could be back as soon as late April, a miracle after a skull injury due to a line drive to the face in spring training, and has one of the best setup units in the game. This is a good team, although they will likely fall just short of the postseason.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (74-88, 4th)
The biggest story in Milwaukee is the return of Ryan Braun from a 65-game suspension for his connection with the Biogenesis scandal. He certainly adds some pop to a lineup that includes Carlos Gomez, one of the best young players in the game. A decent rotation includes Kyle Lohse, Yovanni Gallardo, and Matt Garza. The problem for this team will be depth late in games, as both the bench and the bullpen are very young and inexperienced, and may give the Brewers issues trying to hold leads. Milwaukee will improve on its 74-win season from 2013, but it’s hard to make a case that they are any better than the fourth best team in this division.

5. Chicago Cubs (66-96, 5th)
It has been 105 years and counting since the Cubs won a World Series, and unless new manager Rick Renteria can manufacture a miracle, the dubious curse will continue. It’s not that the Cubs don’t have good players. The lineup is led by Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Nate Schierholtz, and the pitching staff is led by Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and newly acquired starter Jason Hammel and closer Jose Veras. Like the Brewers, depth will be an issue for the Cubs, although things can’t get much worse than they’ve already been the last two years (and really the last 105) in Chicago.

East (Division Rank: 6)

1. Washington Nationals (86-76, 2nd)
The 2013 Nationals were picked by many to win the NL, but due to a slow start, nagging injuries, and bad luck, they couldn’t get anything going, and a late surge fell short. After Davey Johnson’s retirement, new manager Matt Williams takes over. In a league full of outstanding rotations, this is one of the best, with four pitchers who have a legitimate Cy Young chance in Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and free agent Doug Fister. A solid bullpen is anchored by veteran Rafeal Soriano. All eight position players in the Nationals lineup are tough outs, led by five tool player Bryce Harper and slugger Ryan Zimmerman. The bench is a nice blend of youth and experience, which should supplement the lineup nicely. If this team can stay healthy, they should have a very potent blend of offense and pitching, and win the division.

2. Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st, lost to LAD in NL Division Series)
The Braves won the East last year, only to lose in the playoffs when Juan Uribe of the Dodgers couldn’t bunt. Injuries have hurt the Braves throughout the spring, particularly in the rotation, losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John Surgery, although the late signing of Ervin Santana will help when he joins the team in mid-April. After Mariano Rivera’s retirement, the consensus “best closer in the game” is Craig Kimbrel, who saved 50 games while allowing just 39 hits, and has led the NL in saves three straight years. He is also joined by a strong bullpen, which was statistically the best in baseball last year. Jason Heyward moved to the leadoff spot in August and the Braves caught fire, and he will continue there this season. Freddie Freeman is locked up for the next eight years, and will anchor the lineup, where the biggest questions are whether BJ Upton and Dan Uggla can return from tough 2013 campaigns. A solid bench is led by veterans Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit. This team, with its injury issues, still has the talent to win 100 games, should still win around 90, but could win only 80.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 4th)
After a 102-win campaign in 2011, the last two seasons have been disastrous for the Phillies. Injuries, as well as an aging core, have hurt the franchise significantly. And due to some lengthy contracts with that core, they are stuck with many of the same players this year. Jimmy Rollins may or may not be at odds with the front office, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have had trouble staying healthy. Domonic Brown and free agent Marlon Byrd add depth to the lineup. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels anchor a rotation which also includes highly touted rookie Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a Cuban defector. The Phillies bullpen was abysmal a year ago, and other than closer Johnathan Papelbon, it’s still a big question for the fighting Phils. Health and the bullpen could be the only two things between Ryne Sandberg’s team and a competitive season.

4. New York Mets (74-88, 3rd)
The Mets have suffered five consecutive losing seasons, but they have filled some holes this year, trying to avoid that number becoming six. Longtime cornerstone David Wright is joined in the middle of the lineup by free agent Curtis Granderson, who came across town from the Yankees. They are joined by players with a lot of potential, like Daniel Murphy, Chris Young, Ike Davis, and highly touted catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud. The rotation does not include Matt Harvey, who is out for the year after Tommy John surgery, but does include the ageless Bartolo Colon, a free agent pickup, and prospect Zack Wheeler. Closer Bobby Parnell is already battling injury, and is backed up by an inexperienced bullpen. While they have filled some holes from last year, depth will still be an issue for the Mets.

5. Miami Marlins (62-100, 5th)
The Marlins won 87 games in 2009, but have gotten worse every year since, including a 100-loss campaign in 2013. The team does have a lot of good prospects, so the future looks better (then again, it can’t get much worse). Free agent veterans Rafael Furcal, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, and Casey McGehee will add some experience to a young lineup, with Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich expected to become superstars at some point (Stanton may be already there). 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez should compete for the Cy Young Award out of the rotation, which is full of good prospects, and just needs a little more experience. Closer Steve Cishek currently has a streak of 29 consecutive saves converted, and the bullpen also has a good upside but lacks experience. It’s tough to keep this team in the cellar, and I don’t think they’ll lose more than 90 games this year, which is a vast improvement.

Wild Card

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Atlanta Braves

Playoffs

Championship Series: Cardinals def. Dodgers

Division Series: Cardinals def. Giants, Dodgers def. Nationals

Wild Card Game: Giants def. Braves

Tomorrow, I will look at the American League, both through the regular season and the playoffs, and see who I think the Cardinals will play in the World Series, and who will win it all.

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