ACC Basketball Postseason Power Rankings

College basketball season came to an end last week, and fortunately for the ACC, ended with Duke winning the national championship.  Duke’s freshman foursome of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, and Grayson Allen combined for 60 points in the title game, a 68-63 win over fellow one-seed Wisconsin, with Jones winning the Most Outstanding Player Award.  The championship was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth, which is the second most all-time, behind only John Wooden, who he also tied this season for most Final Four appearances, with 12.

The rest of the ACC also played well in the NCAA Tournament, with three schools reaching the Elite Eight (Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville), and two more reaching the Sweet 16 (North Carolina, NC State), out of the six who made the field.

Prior to the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame beat Duke and North Carolina back-to-back nights in Greensboro to take home the ACC Tournament title, their first conference tournament championship in program history.

Here is a look at the ACC, from top to bottom, as we close out the 2014-15 season.

1. Duke (35-4 overall, 15-3 ACC, Last Week: 1st, Coaches Poll: 1st)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (def. NC State; lost to Notre Dame)
NCAA Tournament:  National Champions (def. Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Wisconsin)
Average Rank: 1.5, High: 1, Low: 2, Preseason: 1
Not only did the Blue Devils end up as the best in the ACC at season’s end, but took home the school’s fifth national title, winning the first championship for the ACC since Duke’s last title in 2010.  Okafor, Jones, and Winslow are all leaving early for the NBA, and Quinn Cook is graduating, although Duke has another good recruiting class coming.

2. Notre Dame (32-6, 14-4, 3rd, Poll: 5th)
ACC Tournament:  Tournament Champions (def. Miami, Duke, North Carolina)
NCAA Tournament:  Elite Eight (def. Northeastern, Butler, Wichita State; lost to Kentucky)
Average Rank: 4.3, High: 2, Low: 9, Preseason: 9
The Irish backed up their ACC Tournament win with an appearance in the Elite Eight, and came one shot away from knocking off then-undefeated Kentucky, in one of the best games of the tournament.

3. Virginia (30-4, 16-2, 2nd, Poll: 8th)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (def. Florida State; lost to North Carolina)
NCAA Tournament:  Round of 32 (def. Belmont; lost to Michigan State)
Average Rank: 2.0, High: 1, Low: 4, Preseason: 4
Although the Cavaliers won another ACC regular season title, there is seemingly a feeling of frustration at the team’s results in the postseason, after an ACC Tournament semifinal loss to North Carolina, and a Round of 32 NCAA Tournament upset loss to Michigan State.

4. Louisville (27-9, 12-6, 4th, Poll: 10th)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (lost to North Carolina)
NCAA Tournament:  Elite Eight (def. UC Irvine, Northern Iowa, NC State; lost to Michigan State)
Average Rank: 3.6, High: 2, Low: 5, Preseason: 2
The Cardinals made another deep run into the NCAA Tournament, something Rick Pitino’s team seems to do perennially.  While they lost to Michigan State in a great regional final game, they defeated NC State in an ACC flavored Sweet 16 matchup.

5. North Carolina (26-12, 11-7, 5th, Poll: 12th)
ACC Tournament:  Runner-up (def. Boston College, Louisville, Virginia; lost to Notre Dame)
NCAA Tournament:  Sweet 16 (def. Harvard, Arkansas; lost to Wisconsin)
Average Rank: 4.4, High: 3, Low: 5, Preseason: 3
The Tar Heels made a run to the ACC title game, upsetting Virginia in the process, before reaching the Sweet 16 and losing to eventual national runner-up Wisconsin.  With everyone except J.P. Tokoto coming back, this team should be really good next year.

6. NC State (22-14, 10-8, 6th, Poll: 24th)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (def. Pittsburgh; lost to Duke)
NCAA Tournament:  Sweet 16 (def. LSU, Villanova; lost to Louisville)
Average Rank: 7.0, High: 6, Low: 11, Preseason: 7
As he seems to do, Mark Gottfried got his team to outplay their expectations in March, beating LSU at the buzzer, before upsetting top-seeded Villanova to reach the Sweet 16 as an 8-seed.

7. Miami (25-13, 10-8, 7th)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (def. Virginia Tech; lost to Notre Dame)
NIT: Second Place (def. NC Central, Alabama, Richmond, Temple; lost to Stanford)
Average Rank: 7.4, High: 4, Low: 11, Preseason: 10
Miami made a nice run in the second-tier postseason tournament, the NIT, losing to Stanford in the final.  Every key player will be back next year for Jim Larranaga’s team, meaning they should be an NCAA Tournament team.

8. Florida State (17-16, 8-10, 8th)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (def. Clemson; lost to Virginia)
Average Rank: 10.6, High: 6, Low: 14, Preseason: 6
The Seminoles finished where they were all season, hovering around the .500 mark, but have one of the nation’s best recruiting classes coming in to add to a good young roster.  The future is bright in Tallahassee.

9. Syracuse (18-13, 9-9, 9th)
Did not participate in the postseason due to self-imposed ban
Average Rank: 8.0, High: 5, Low: 9, Preseason: 5
The Orange have an interesting few years ahead of them, with recently imposed NCAA sanctions reducing scholarships and suspending coach Jim Boeheim for the first nine conference games next year.  Boeheim announced he will retire in three years, so the program is really at a crossroads, as it moves into its future and tries to sustain its level of success from the past.

10. Pittsburgh (19-15, 8-10, 10th)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (lost to NC State)
NIT:  First Round (lost to George Washington)
Average Rank: 8.4, High: 6, Low: 11, Preseason: 8
With two weeks left in the regular season, the Panthers were on the NCAA bubble, but lost their last three regular season games, their only ACC Tournament game, and then their first round NIT game.  Needless to say, they have a sour taste in their mouth heading into the offseason.

11. Clemson (16-15, 8-10, 11th)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (lost to Florida State)
Average Rank: 10.3, High: 6, Low: 14, Preseason: 13
After reaching the NCAA bubble at one point, the Tigers lost seven out of their last nine, and did not play in any postseason tournament after Greensboro.  While the team loses seniors Demarcus Harrison and Rod Hall, it still retains a solid core to move into the future.

12. Boston College (13-19, 4-14, 12th)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (def. Georgia Tech; lost to North Carolina)
Average Rank: 13.6, High: 12, Low: 15, Preseason: 12
The difference in the Eagles at the beginning and at the end of the season was enormous, as the team closed coach Jim Christian’s inaugural came to a positive close with four straight wins before their conference tournament loss to North Carolina.  However, Olivier Hanlan is leaving for the NBA, leaving a bigger void on his team than any other single departing player in the ACC leaves on their respective team.

13. Wake Forest (13-19, 5-13, 13th)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (lost to Virginia Tech)
Average Rank: 11.8, High: 9, Low: 13, Preseason: 11
The Demon Deacons were more competitive in coach Danny Manning’s first year, losing several close games, including their ACC Tournament loss by a single point to Virginia Tech.  The team only loses one key player, and has a top 20 recruiting class coming in, meaning the upward trend should continue in Manning’s second year.

14. Virginia Tech (11-21, 2-16, 14th)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (def. Wake Forest; lost to Miami)
Average Rank: 14.3, High: 13, Low: 15, Preseason: 15
Like Boston College, the improvement from the beginning to the end of Buzz Williams’ first year in Blacksburg was clear, resulting with an opening round win over Wake Forest in Greensboro.  The improvement is a great sign for the future, especially considering that the Hokies were one of the youngest teams in the nation this season.

15. Georgia Tech (12-19, 3-15, 15th)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (lost to Boston College)
Average Rank: 13.0, High: 10, Low: 15, Preseason: 14
Nothing seemed to go right for the Yellow Jackets, as they 10 of their 15 conference losses were by five points or less or in overtime, as was a one-point loss to Boston College in the ACC Tournament, a microcosm of their season.  Administration, however, decided to keep coach Brian Gregory around at least one more year, meaning there is no coaching turnover this offseason in the ACC.

2015 American League Preview

After looking at the National League on Saturday, here’s a look at how the American League should stack up for 2015:

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox (Last Year: 71-91, 5th in AL East)
The Red Sox over the last three years have gone worst-to-first-to-worst, winning the 2013 World Series in the process, and they have placed themselves in good position to get back to first again in 2015.  The only major loss from last year is Yoenis Cespedes (who only played the second half for them anyway), who was traded to the Tigers for Rick Porcello.  Porcello is joined by Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly to form a rotation without a strong top-end, but with five middle rotation-types, meaning they should, at worst, be average.  That should be good enough, as the offense will be far above average, featuring free agent signees Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, and returning players David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, and Dustin Pedroia.  This organization had a rough year last year but, again, won the World Series just two years ago.  They have the roster to be back playing baseball deep into October.

2. Toronto Blue Jays (83-79, 3rd)
Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, who are looking for their first playoff appearance since their 1993 World Series title, will not have trouble scoring runs.  The middle of the order, led by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and newly acquired Josh Donaldson, is among the best collection of power hitters in baseball, with Jose Reyes and free agent signing Russell Martin supporting the heart of the order.  With that lineup, the only thing keeping this team from being the favorites in the East is their pitching staff, which can be called average.  The rotation is led by Drew Hutchinson, former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, and five-time All-Star Mark Buehrle.  The bullpen will have its ups and downs, with no big names but some solid players behind closer Brett Cecil.  It’s been 22 years since the Blue Jays have played in the postseason, and they have a shot to at least contend to end that drought.

3. Baltimore Orioles (96-66, 1st, lost to Royals in ALCS)
Last year, the Orioles reached the playoffs for the second time in three years, and advanced to the ALCS for the first time since 1997.  This team has mostly the same personnel as that one, but a couple glaring exceptions cause them to not be picked to repeat that success.  The pitching staff remains mainly unchanged, with a rotation which lacks a true ace but is good top to bottom, including Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris.  Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter lead a good bullpen, although the loss of southpaw Andrew Miller to the Yankees in free agency will hurt.  The lineup retains key pieces Chris Davis, Steve Pearce, Adam Jones, Alejandro De Aza, and Manny Machado.  So why is this team not projected to win the division they ran away with last year?  The losses of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in free agency.  Markakis was a good piece for the top of the order, and Cruz, in the middle of the order, was absolutely the catalyst for their success, which will be hard to duplicate without these two leaders.

4. New York Yankees (84-78, 2nd)
As always, the Yankees have a roster full of big names.  However, many of these names are past their prime, or have become injury-prone.  The Yankee lineup is spearheaded by Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Brett Gardner, and Mark Teixiera, a nice foursome to have in the lineup based on experience, but with an average age of 33 (McCann at 31 is the youngest).  Another veteran, Alex Rodriguez, returns from his PED suspension in the year he will turn 40.  The Yanks offense didn’t really get any younger this offseason, even with the loss of Derek Jeter to retirement.  If the rotation’s top three of Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, and Michael Pineda can stay healthy the pitching staff can be decent, but the health of all three is a question mark.  The bullpen should be about the same as last year, losing David Robertson, but signing Andrew Miller and trading for David Carpenter.  This team could be decently good if they stay healthy, but the odds of that are relatively slim due to the team’s increasing age.

5. Tampa Bay Rays (77-85, 4th)
The Rays didn’t have a quiet offseason, but their many moves didn’t necessarily improve their roster either.  While they added Asdrubal Cabrera and Ernesto Frieri in free agency, and traded for Kevin Jepsen, Rene Rivera, and Steven Souza, they also traded away Ryan Hanigan, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Joyce, Will Myers, Joel Peralta, and Sean Rodriguez.  All of those players were key pieces for the Rays a year ago, and many were key pieces for the 2013 team which won the AL Wild Card Game.  Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, and James Loney remain from last year’s lineup, while Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Drew Smyly lead a decent rotation (although the latter two are injured), and veteran Grant Balfour leads the bullpen, but this team was 19 games behind Baltimore a year ago, and since they didn’t necessarily get better over the winter, and have a first-time manager, it could be a long year on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

AL Central

1. Kansas City Royals (Last Year: 89-73, 2nd in AL Central, lost to Giants in World Series)
A year ago, the Royals ended 29 years of frustration by reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1985, and came one game away from winning it all in the process.  While the roster isn’t identical to last year’s American League champions, it is pretty similar, and the players who left were, for the most part, replaced.  Outfielder Nori Aoki is replaced by Alex Rios, DH Billy Butler is replaced by Kendrys Morales, and while Edinson Volquez doesn’t quite replace starter James Shields, the rest of the young pitching staff, particularly Yordano Ventura, is a year older, making up for the difference.  That includes the best bullpen in baseball, with the 1-2-3 punch of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, who make the team nearly unbeatable when leading after six innings.  While the lineup doesn’t have anyone with overwhelming stats, players such as Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain seem to have a certain “it” factor, particularly in big situations.  There is a lot to like about this team, and after not playing in the postseason for 29 years, they could very easily play in it for two years in a row.

2. Detroit Tigers (90-72, 1st, lost to Orioles in ALDS)
The Tigers have won four straight division titles in the AL Central, including last year in manager Brad Ausmus’s first year at the helm, but that streak may not stay alive this year.  Why?  It isn’t their lineup, which is one of the best in baseball with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler, and only got better with the acquisition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes.  It is the pitching staff, and especially the bullpen.  While the rotation had a bit of a drop-off with the loss of Max Scherzer to free agency and Rick Porcello to trade, trading for Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon in the process, it still is above average with David Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez at the top.  But the bullpen, which collectively had a 4.29 ERA last year and was horrendously bad in the playoffs, lost Phil Coke, one of its better members, to free agency, and didn’t add anyone to try to aid the problem.  Unfortunately, no lead will be safe for the Tigers until this is fixed, and the games the bullpen may cost them enough games to cost them the division.

3. Cleveland Indians (85-77, 3rd)
The Indians are a hot pick to win the Central, and perhaps more, but I’m not so quick to make them the favorites in this division.  While the team did play well in the second half of last year, they didn’t improve much on a roster that finished five games back in third place in the strong Central division that is just as strong this year.  Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes return to an offense that was either right on the league average or very close to it in every major stat category last year, although the offense does add newly acquired Brandon Moss.  Defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber leads a strong pitching staff that also includes Carlos Carrasco and three other strong young pitchers.  Cody Allen will close games, leading a bullpen that had a strong 3.12 ERA last season.  While this team is good, it isn’t that much better than last year’s team, and there are some very strong teams in the American League, and in the Central.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m wrong on this one.

4. Chicago White Sox (73-89, 4th)
The ChiSox made one of the biggest offseason splashes, and will be much better than they’ve been over the last two seasons in which they’ve averaged 68 wins.  The only major loss the team had over the winter was Paul Konerko, who retired.  The team traded for ace Jeff Samardzija and bullpen piece Dan Jennings, and signed pitchers David Robertson and Zach Duke, slugger Adam LaRoche, and outfielder Melky Cabrera.  This group joins returning players Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Avisail Garcia, and Adam Eaton in the lineup, and Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in the rotation.  The only thing that could be a problem for this team is their depth, an issue in such a good division which has four teams capable of winning it.  This team is very close to being good, and if they get ahead of schedule can even be good this year, as they are one of the four teams that could realistically win the most wide open division in baseball.

5. Minnesota Twins (70-92, 5th)
A year ago the Twins were easily the worst team in this division, although they were within three games in the standings.  This is a team that is clearly in rebuilding mode, although they did sign veterans Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana in the offseason.  Santana, though, was suspended 80 games for the use of PED’s.  Beyond those players, however, and returning veterans Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer (though Mauer is very injury prone), there is very little depth on this team in the form of proven major league players.  One strength is a decent rotation, even without Santana, led by Phil Hughes, with Ricky Nolasco and Tommy Milone.  The bullpen, behind closer Glen Perkins, is a collection of prospects and veteran journeyman, and could potentially be good if things go well, but more realistically won’t be that great.  The lineup has more questions than answers, as fans wonder how well its veterans, mainly Mauer and Hunter, will hold up, and who will step up out of the lineup’s younger players.  First year manager Paul Molitor will have a tough job in Minneapolis.  This team hasn’t had a winning season since winning the Central in 2010, and expect that streak to continue.

AL West

1. Seattle Mariners (Last Year: 87-75, 3rd in AL West)
Last year the Mariners made the game’s third biggest improvement, winning 16 more games than they had in 2013, falling one game short of making the playoffs for the first time since 2001.  That team saw several highly touted prospects become proven big league players, including Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, and Dustin Ackley, giving a nice supporting cast to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and company.  While Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, and Justin Smoak are among the players on that team no longer in Seattle, the team added free agents Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith, adding two very key pieces for future success.  While the offense was statistically below average last year, they should be better this year with those additions, and the young players gaining another year experience.   In the meantime, Hernandez leads one of the best pitching staffs in the game, with a good rotation including Hisashi Iwakuma, young guns James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, and veteran J.A. Happ.  Closer Fernando Rodney joins Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar in a bullpen that had a tremendous 2.59 ERA a year ago.  With a very solid mix of talented youth and experienced leaders, this team has a high ceiling.  Baseball is back in Seattle.

2. Los Angeles Angels (98-64, lost to Royals in ALDS)
The Angels finally put it together in 2014, leading to the best record in baseball and their first playoff appearance since 2009.  That postseason trip, however, resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Royals, leaving the Angels without a single win in the playoffs.  The rotation, led by veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, but also getting big contributions from youngsters Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker, was a key to the team’s success, as was the bullpen, led by closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith.  That staff remains mainly intact, losing only Jason Grilli and Kevin Jepsen and relying on stout prospects in the bullpen.  The biggest key for the Angels, however, is one of the best offenses in baseball.  AL MVP Mike Trout is joined in the heart of the order by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and although the team lost Howie Kendrick in a trade, Matt Joyce, acquired in a different trade, should fill that spot nicely near the top of the order, alongside Kole Calhoun.  This team is very similar to last year’s squad, and while that type of regular season success can be difficult to replicate, the Halos should find themselves in the postseason again come October, even if it is as a Wild Card (as they are picked here).

3. Oakland Athletics (88-74, lost to Royals in AL Wild Card Game)
A year ago, for the first two-thirds of the season, the A’s were the class of baseball, but sputtered down the stretch, losing the division to the Angels, and the Wild Card Game to the Royals.  This year’s Athletics roster doesn’t look much like that team from last year, but it isn’t necessarily because the offseason moves that were made improved the roster, as they don’t appear to be as good as they were in 2014.  The list of departures seems endless, with lineup pieces Josh Donaldson, Jonny Gomes, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss, and Derek Norris gone, along with pitchers Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Luke Gregerson.  The team does add Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Ben Zobrist, and Brett Lawrie, among others, to a lineup which retains Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick, although both start the season on the disabled list.  Oakland has a good young rotation featuring Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Hahn, and Drew Pomeranz, although that may be a letdown after last year’s very strong rotation.  Tyler Clippard will close games, joined by Jesse Chavez, Dan Otero, Fernando Abad, and Eric O’Flaherty in the bullpen.  This team is decent, but that won’t get it done in this division behind the top two, particularly if the chemistry of this group that has never played together becomes any kind of issue.

4. Houston Astros (70-92, 4th)
Last year the Astros improved from 51 wins in 2013 to 70, as they continue their lengthy rebuilding process.  Despite the record, which was still 22 games below .500, there were positives in the play of some of the team’s many prospects who should be pivotal players for years to come.  These include pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, outfielder George Springer, first baseman Chris Carter, and catcher Jason Castro.  Proven big leaguers Dexter Fowler, in center field, Scott Feldman, in the rotation, and Chad Qualls, in the bullpen, helped provide the team with veteran leadership.  And, of course, second baseman Jose Altuve surprised everyone and won the American League batting title with a .341 average.  Relief pitcher Jose Veras was the only key player the team lost this offseason, while they were able to use trades and free agency to improve their roster.  Evan Gattis was acquired from the Braves, and infielder Jed Lowrie and relivers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson signed with the club, adding more of a veteran presence.  If things go right, this team can flirt with .500, something that is a big deal for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning record since 2008, as they get set to make an extended run for division titles over the next decade.

5. Texas Rangers (67-95, 5th)
Last year, I picked the Rangers to win the AL West (yes, I’m man enough to admit it).  Once the season started, if it could go wrong, it did for the Rangers, leading to their last place finish, 28 games under .500 and 31 games behind the Angels.  Practically everyone got hurt, and the ones who did manage to stay healthy didn’t produce as expected.  This year might not be much better.  Alex Rios and Alexi Ogando left in free agency.  Starter Martin Perez is still out from his 2014 Tommy John surgery until May, Tanner Scheppers and Kyuji Fujikawa are out temporarily, and ace pitcher Yu Darvish will miss the entire 2015 season after Tommy John Surgery.  The rest of the rotation features newly acquired Yovani Gallardo, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Ross Detwiler, also traded for.  Behind Neftali Feliz, the bullpen isn’t great right now, although two of their key pieces are currently hurt, but not for too long.  The lineup features a nice middle of the order trio of Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Mitch Moreland, with Shin-Soo Choo and Elvus Andrus at the top, and one of baseball’s best prospects Rougned Odor, developing down in the bottom third.  That lineup, however, proved last year it was injury prone, and there’s no reason to believe history won’t repeat itself with the same principles involved.  It could be a long year in Texas, or a long few, since many of their injury-riddled stars are signed for a while.

Playoffs

Narrowly Missing Out:  Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Yankees, White Sox, Athletics

Wild Card:  Angels def. Tigers

Division Series:  Mariners def. Angels, Royals def. Red Sox

Championship Series:  Royals def. Mariners

World Series:  Cardinals def. Royals

 

Note: In the National League Preview post, I picked the San Diego Padres to finish third in the NL West.  Since, they have acquired Melvin Upton and Craig Kimbrel from the Atlanta Braves for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, and prospects.  That acquisition moves them, in my opinion, into the second spot in the NL West, and a Wild Card spot in the NL Playoffs, as I now have them projected to lose the Wild Card game to the Pirates, who will then lose the NLDS to the Nationals.

2015 National League Preview

Baseball is back, starting Sunday night with the Cardinals taking on the Cubs at the halfway renovated Wrigley Field.

After an excellent postseason which resulted in the Giants winning their third World Series in five years, while the Royals got to the World Series after making their first playoff appearance since 1985, with both reaching the Fall Classic after sneaking in the postseason as Wild Cards.

This year could be just as crazy, as there are (in my opinion) 26 teams who have at least a shot at making the playoffs heading into Opening Day, with 20 teams who can set the playoffs as a realistic goal on Opening Day.

In the National League, many of the same teams will be good again, including last year’s playoff teams, the Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals, and Pirates.  But after an active offseason, there are many other teams expected to be in playoff contention, including some that haven’t been good in a few years.  Here is a look at how the National League might stack up.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (Last Year: 96-66, 1st in NL East, lost to Giants in NLDS)
The Nats will be trying to defend their Eastern Division crown, but do so without departed free agents Adam LaRoche and Asdrubal Cabrera.   However, with Ryan Zimmerman moving to first, and Yunel Escobar signing to play second base, those holes are filled, in addition to the signing of former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to top a rotation that was already arguably the best in baseball, joining Jordan Zimmerman and Steven Strasburg.  Many have this team as World Series favorites (although they have never won a playoff series in their history), and they are heavily favored in this division where they are the only sure contenders.

2. Miami Marlins (77-85, 4th)
The Marlins made a big splash this offseason, improving their roster while only signing one free key agent (Michael Morse), acquiring Dee Gordon, Mat Latos, Dan Haren, and Martin Prado in trades.  Add that to a good young core of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Jose Fernandez (although Fernandez will start the year on the DL after last year’s Tommy John surgery), and this team should be ready to contend.  Not having Fernandez until likely July will hurt, but the pitching staff, led by a strong rotation, is good enough to supplement an above average offense, and have this team making a playoff push come September.

3. New York Mets (79-83, tied for 2nd)
The Mets roster remains mostly unchanged, with no one who can’t be replaced leaving Flushing, and Michael Cuddyer coming in as the only new starter.  However, ace Matt Harvey is back from his season long Tommy John recovery in 2014, and tops one of the best young rotations in the game (that is, young when you don’t include Opening Day starter Bartolo Colon, who will be 42 in May).  Unfortunately, injuries have decimated the bullpen in Spring Training, but with the leadership of Cuddyer and fellow veterans David Wright and Curtis Granderson, and another year of experience for their young players, the Mets could be playoff contenders.

4. Atlanta Braves (79-83, tied for 2nd)
After firing GM Frank Wren in September, the Braves tabbed former Indians and Rangers executive John Hart to rebuild a roster that boasted strong pitching but a high-strikeout, low-production offense.  The result was the trades of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, and Tommy La Stella, mostly for returning prospects, although Shelby Miller and Jace Peterson, both part of trade returns, will be on the opening day roster.  Veterans Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes will start in the outfield, as will Eric Young Jr. with the spring training injury of Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J. Upton).  Veteran relievers Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli, both former closers, will set up Craig Kimbrel, the best closer in the game, and supplement an above average and very young rotation led by Julio Teheran and Alex Wood.  This team has some work to do to be a playoff team, but with all the new faces, fans can enjoy getting to know the players who could lead Atlanta to their next strong run in the coming years.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 5th)
There hasn’t been much to cheer about in Philadelphia baseball circles recently, with back-to-back 73-89 seasons for the Fightin’ Phils.  And with the offseason trades of Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins, along with the free agency losses of A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick, this team isn’t going to be getting any better any time in the immediate future.  Young players hold many of the key positions on the field, although veterans Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz can remind their teammates and the fans of the 2008 World Series title.  So can Cole Hamels, who is one of the best pitchers in baseball, but has very little rotational depth behind him, especially with the Spring Training injury of Cliff Lee.  A bullpen which has struggled the last several seasons isn’t any better either.  It’s going to be a long year in Philadelphia.

NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals (Last Year: 90-72, 1st in NL Central, lost to Giants in NLCS)
This offseason put the Cardinals organizational depth on display, particularly on the mound.  Although they traded away starter Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, who had been in the bullpen, will join the rotation, along with a fearsome foursome of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, and Michael Wacha.  Incredibly, this may actually be among the worst of the Cards’ rotations in recent years, which says something about some of the ones they have had, as this one is still one of the best in baseball.  The bullpen lost Jason Motte and Pat Neshek to free agency, but the Miller trade got them Jordan Walden to help Seth Maness and others set up strong closer Trevor Rosenthal.  The Miller trade also added Jason Heyward to an offense that is one of the strongest from top to bottom in baseball, led by Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Matt Carpenter.  This team  has all the pieces in place for another deep postseason run, after reaching the playoffs four straight seasons and the World Series in 2011 and 2013 (this is another odd-numbered year…).

2. Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74, 2nd, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game)
After 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012, the Pirates have made the playoffs as the Wild Card the last two seasons, winning 94 and 88 games.  The core from those two teams remain, as this team tries to reach the playoffs for the third straight year, just as they did in the three years before the extended losing streak.  The Bucs have the benefit of Andrew McCutchen, one of the game’s true five-tool players, manning center field and the middle of the lineup through 2018, who joins Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez among the team’s offensive leaders, and Gregory Polanco is expected to break out in his first full MLB season.  Free agent A.J. Burnett joins veteran Francisco Liriano and youngster Gerrit Cole atop a very strong rotation, while lefty Antonio Bastardo was acquired by trade to help Tony Watson set up closer Mark Melancon.  This team should contend to win the division, and is widely regarded as a favorite to land one of the two Wild Card spots should they not win the Central.

3. Chicago Cubs (73-89, 5th)
Among the most excited of fan bases in baseball going into the season are the long-suffering fans of the Cubs, and with good reason.  An organization that has several of the best prospects in baseball is starting to see them reach the majors, and the front office has bolstered the roster with some veterans to help this team prepare to finally win after five straight seasons with at least 87 losses.  Jorge Soler will be up from the minors for his first full season, and powerful prospect Kris Bryant is expected to get the call very soon.  Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro remain the stalwarts of the team, with free agent signing Dexter Fowler set to lead off and fellow free agent Jon Lester anchoring a rotation that includes solid budding star Jake Arrieta, and Jason Hammel, who returns as a free agent after the Cubs traded him to Oakland last June.  The Cubs also signed Jason Motte to bolster a bullpen that isn’t necessarily one of their strengths, but isn’t bad, and the team also has a strong bench.  This isn’t quite a playoff team yet, as it is still a young roster, but the Cubs are close than they’ve been in a while.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (82-80, 3rd)
This roster is mostly unchanged from last year’s team that finished above .500, but that isn’t necessarily the best news.  The team led the NL Central for parts of the season, but really fizzled out down the stretch, suffering through a miserable 31-47 record after July 1.  The Brew Crew has a strong outfield of Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, and Khris Davis, and acquired Adam Lind to join Aramis Ramirez at the corner infield spots, with rising star Jean Segura at shortstop.  The team’s biggest loss is at the top of the rotation after trading away Yovani Gallardo.  The rotation is still strong at the top, led by Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta, but lacks back-end depth.  Much of the same can be said for the bullpen behind closer Francisco Rodriguez.  This team isn’t bad, but they are very average, and in a strong division will struggle to contend by simply hovering near .500.

5. Cincinnati Reds (76-86, 4th)
After a strong four-year stretch from 2010-13 that included two division titles and a Wild Card Game appearance, the 2014 Reds fell out of contention over the second half of the season, and finished 14 games behind the Cardinals.  After Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon, and Chris Heisey were traded away, and Ryan Ludwick left via free agency, and the only big pickup for the team was Marlon Byrd, it will be a struggle in 2015.  While the team has a proven big leaguer at every position, the money tied up in large contracts for the team’s veteran players prevents them from getting fresh talent to come to Cincinnati.  The biggest hole for the team is rotational depth, as there isn’t much there behind an average top three of Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey, who will start the season on the DL.  This team hasn’t improved from last year, and since they only won 76 a year ago, that’s not a good sign for 2015.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (Last Year: 94-68, 1st in NL West, lost to Cardinals in NLDS)
The Dodgers have increased their win total in each of the last four seasons, including back-to-back NL West titles the last two years, but have spent Spring Training getting to know each other after the organization parted ways with several key players and brought in several others.  Why?  In an attempt to have better success in the postseason, where the team has failed to reach the World Series since winning it in 1988. including many lopsided series losses.  Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon, and Dan Haren have all been traded away, and Hanley Ramirez left as a free agent, but the team welcomes the bats of Howie Kendrick, Yasmani Grandal, and Jimmy Rollins, and the arms of Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson,  Chris Hatcher, and Joel Peralta.  These new arrivals join a lineup including the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford, along with highly touted rookie Joc Pederson, and a rotation including the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, and another former Cy Young winner, Zack Grienke.  Closer Kenley Jansen, once he returns from a foot injury, will get to close out plenty of Dodger victories this year, as this team is very solid.

2. San Francisco Giants (88-74, 2nd, won World Series)
The last three even-numbered years, 2010, ’12, and ’14, the Giants have lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy in late October as World Series champions.  But in the odd-numbered years in between, the team has missed the playoffs, and unfortunately for Bruce Bochy and company, it’s an odd-numbered year.  This team should be better than the last odd-numbered year in 2013, which went 76-86, but it won’t be as good as last year’s world champs.  Free agents Pablo Sandoval, and Michael Morse have moved on, although Casey McGehee was acquired to replace at least some of their production.  The team does return middle of the order pieces like Brandon Belt and former MVP Buster Posey, but Hunter Pence is out for the first 2-4 weeks of the regular season.  The team still has good pitching, led by World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, along with two former Cy Young winners in Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum, although they are both past their prime.  Santiago Casilla took the closer’s job from Sergio Romo last year, and those two will continue to lead the bullpen.  This team isn’t quite as good as last year, but still has enough talent to make the playoffs.

3. San Diego Padres (77-85, 3rd)
After four consecutive losing seasons, the Padres had as active an offseason as anyone, making over their roster through multiple blockbuster trades to help improve an offense that was one of the two worst in the NL last year, and further bolster an already strong pitching staff.  Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp were acquired to serve as the starting outfield and the middle of the order.  Catcher Derek Norris and infielder Will Middlebrooks also come to San Diego via trade, while the only lineup regulars traded away were Yasmani Grandal and Seth Smith, although Everth Cabrera left in free agency.  With newly acquired players set to start, there will be some very experienced players on the bench, making this one of the best benches in the game.  A very good young pitching staff from last year that featured Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross added James Shields in free agency.  The only minor issue for the Padres is the bullpen, where there isn’t much experience behind closer Joaquin Benoit.  This team made tremendous strides in offseason, but in this stacked West Division, it still may not be enough.

4. Colorado Rockies (66-96, 4th)
A year after finishing 28 games behind the Dodgers, the Rockies aren’t projected to be any better.  The problem in Denver isn’t the offense, led by solid veterans such as Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Justin Morneau, and promising young talent Nolan Arenado.  That offense also added free agent Daniel Descalso to be a trusted bench piece.  This offense led the NL in runs scored last year, and is capable of repeating that success, especially playing half their games at altitude in Denver.  The problem here is pitching.  The ace of the team is Jorge De La Rosa, who would be a middle of the rotation starter almost anywhere else, and behind him and free agent signing Kyle Kendrick, there is no rotational depth.  The bullpen has some decent names, including LaTroy Hawkins, Rex Brothers, John Axford, and Boone Logan, but these pitchers are, for the most part, past their prime, leading to the Rockies bullpen ERA of 4.79 last year, when Matt Belisle was still with the team.  This pitching staff wouldn’t be very good anywhere, but playing half their games at altitude, that weakness will be even more evident.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98, 5th)
After a division title in 2011 and back-to-back 81-81 seasons in 2012-13, nothing went right in 2014, leading to the worst record in the NL and the firing of manager Kirk Gibson.  In the offseason, the D-backs didn’t necessarily get any better, trading away Didi Gregorius, who the Yankess have tabbed to be Derek Jeter’s replacement, as well as Wade Miley and Miguel Montero.  Some pitching pieces were acquired, including Jeremy Hellickson from the Rays and MLB-ready prospect Rubby De La Rosa from the Red Sox, and Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas signed with the team.  Offensively, there aren’t pieces there to support Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, particularly if Tomas doesn’t produce, or doesn’t reach the big leagues as quickly as expected.  Josh Collmenter, who wouldn’t be an ace almost anywhere else, will be the opening day starter, and there isn’t great rotational depth, as they are hurt by the mid-season Tommy John surguries of both Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo, who won’t be back until this summer.  This team may improve on their 64-win total (they can’t get much worse), but winning more than 70 games would be better than expected for this year.

Playoffs

Narrowly Missing Out:  Padres, Cubs, Marlins, Mets

Wild Card:  Giants def. Pirates

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

Championship Series:  Cardinals def. Nationals

Stay tuned for the American League Preview, to find out who the Cardinals will win in the World Series, and who will win it all in October.