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.
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.
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.
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.
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.