As the season starts, every fan base has optimism that this year is THE year (except maybe Cubs fans, for whom THE year never seems to come). However, only a couple of teams are going to be successful in making the playoffs. As much as I would like to tell everyone that their team is going to make the playoffs, they must be realistic. Certainly, I will look foolish by the end of the year, but here are my predictions for the year, this time the National League version. (By the way, if you missed them, here are my AL predictions.)
1.Washington Nationals, 90-72
Key offseason additions: RHP Doug Fister (trade), OF Nate McLouth, LHP Jerry Bleavins (trade), C Jose Lobaton (trade)
Key offseason losses: RHP Dan Haren, LHP Ian Krol (Fister trade), INF/OF Steve Lombardozzi (Fister trade)
After a breakout 2012 campaign in which they won 98 games, the Nationals had World Series aspirations going into 2013. Unfortunately for them, they got off to a slow start and never fully recovered leading them to a disappointing second place finish. With the addition of Fister and improved health they could once again be dangerous in 2014. They certainly have question marks, with the health of Fister in doubt as he starts the year on the DL and the performances of veterans OF Jayson Werth and 3B Ryan Zimmerman in question. In the case of Werth, it is a health issue, as he has dealt with nagging injuries for the last couple of years, but he mashed last year to a tune of an OPS+ of 154 (For those of you who are not sabermetrically inclined, that means that he was 54% better than the average major league hitter last year). Zimmerman's questions, however, come primarily on the defensive side of the ball, as his defensive decline last year was well-documented. If he can correct his throwing issues, his current lack of range would be much easier to swallow. As a whole though, I am nitpicking, as the Nationals are the clear favorites with a great starting rotation No. 1-4 and a young core of position players including SS Ian Desmond and phenom OF Bryce Harper.
2. Atlanta Braves, 87-75
Key offseason additions: RHP Ervin Santana, RHP Gavin Floyd
Key offseason losses: C Brian McCann, RHP Tim Hudson
One could be deceived into thinking that the Braves had a relatively quiet offseason with relatively few moves if they just looked at the transaction log. Unfortunately for the Braves things were not quite as quiet as they seemed, as young RHPs Kris Medlan and Brandon Beachy are lost for the season with Tommy John surgeries. Combining that with the losses of Hudson and McCann,this team looks significantly worse than the 2013 version. Santana should help, but the rotation just looks too thin to put them over the Nationals.
3. Philadelphia Phillies, 78-84
Key offseason additions: RHP A.J. Burnett, OF Marlon Byrd, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Brad Lincoln (trade)
Key offseason losses: RHP Roy Halladay (retired), C Erik Kratz
The Phillies have been in steady decline in the last two years coming off of a five-year run of division titles from 2007-2011. The last time they won fewer games than their total of 73 last year was 2000 when Scott Rolen was their third basemen and star attraction. They still have a lot of talent with a great top-three pitching rotation of LHP Cliff Lee, LHP Cole Hamels and RHP A.J. Burnett. Once Hamels recovers from his shoulder injury he will go along with a core of former All-Stars that includes 2B Chase Utley and 1B Ryan Howard. The problem in the last two years, as it is with most older teams, has been health, as their star players have not been able to stay on the field. If everything goes right, they could be competitive, but teams that rely on older players do not normally have everything go right.
4. New York Mets, 73-89
Key offseason additions: RHP Bartolo Colon, OF Curtis Granderson, OF Chris Young,
Key offseason losses: RHP LaTroy Hawkins
Like the Braves, the offseason transaction log is deceiving as the Mets lost star RHP Matt Harvey and they traded their best outfielder from last year at the trade deadline, Marlon Byrd. While Granderson and the ageless Colon should help, it is a stretch to expect Colon to post another sub-3 ERA with a relatively low K/9 rate. Granderson's power may be somewhat stifled by the still spacious dimensions of Citi Field compared to his old homer-friendly home park of Yankee Stadium. C Travis d'Arnaud and RHP Noah Syndengaard could help ease Mets fans’ concerns of the future by having standout rookie campaigns (d'Arnaud played 31 games last year, but is still rookie eligible), but the Mets would be a stretch to contend this year even with Harvey and have little chance without him.
5. Miami Marlins, 67-88
Key offseason additions: C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 1B Garrett Jones, 3B Casey McGehee, RHP Carter Capps (trade), INF Jeff Baker, RHP Chad Qualls RHP Carlos Marmol
Key offseason losses: DH/1B Logan Morrison (Capps trade), OF Juan Pierre, 3B Placido Polanco (retirement)
Let's start with the positives, which almost begin and end with stars RHP Jose Fernandez and the almighty OF Giancarlo Stanton. They have some good young arms in RHP Nathan Eovaldi and RHP Jacob Turner, but their plus stuff so far has not translated into great results at the major league level yet. Saltalamacchia and Jones give them two other major league bats besides Stanton, but Jones is best suited for a platoon role and Saltalamacchia was incredibly fortunate last year with a .372 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). With a normal amount of correction for a player with little speed, Saltalamacchia's BABIP should fall to around .290 or .300 and his batting average should likewise fall to around .230 or .240 if his strikeout rate remains around his astounding 29.6% rate from last year. The bottom line is that the Marlins did not do enough this offseason to improve their major league worst offense to be competitive in 2014.
1. St. Louis Cardinals, 94-68
Key additions: SS Jhonny Peralta, OF Peter Bourjos (trade), 2B Mark Ellis
Key losses: OF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese (Bourjos trade), RHP Edward Mujica, RHP John Axford, RHP Fernando Salas (Bourjos trade)
The Cardinals are still the class of the NL Central, as they have both top end talent and they are deep on their roster 1-25. Their offense, led by OF Matt Holliday and C Yadier Molina is still the class of the NL, although they may not be able to repeat their batting average with runners in scoring position of .330 last year. I think that regression may be more of a problem than the loss of Beltran, who was the worst defensive right fielder in baseball last year with a -15.3 UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating. The Cardinals also have good replacement options for the loss of Beltran, as they will start the season with Matt Adams at first base and Allen Craig in right field and super prospect OF Oscar Taveras waiting in the wings to take over right field. The strength of this team is their wealth of pitching, as they have stud RHP Adam Wainwright on top of the rotation and multitudes of young power arms behind him including RHP Michael Wacha and RHP Shelby Miller. Some of the pitchers such as RHP Carlos Martinez and RHP Trevor Rosenthal would be in the starting rotation for most teams, but the Cardinals have enough depth to use those guys as weapons out of the bullpen.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates, 88-74
Key offseason additions: RHP Edinson Volquez
Key offseason losses: RHP A.J. Burnett, OF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, 1B/OF Garrett Jones
While this projects a six-win drop off for the Pirates, I think I am being somewhat generous with this ranking. Considering that they lost their No. 2 starter and their starting right fielder to free agency and did not really replace them, they could have some issues this year compared to their magical 2013. I also think that their bullpen will not be as good this year as it is hard to project that RHPs Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon and LHPs Justin Wilson and Tony Watson will all post sub-3 ERA's again. The thing that will keep the Pirates in contention this year will be their young guns, as stud RHP Gerrit Cole gets to pitch a full season and top prospects RHP Jamison Tallion (as this is being posted he just had Tommy John, knocking him out for 2014) and OF Gregory Polanco should come up and contribute this year. Even if Polanco does not tear the league up offensively in his first year, he could be worth 2 WAR (wins above replacement) just on the merit of his outstanding defense and closer to 3 or 4 WAR in a partial season if he hits well.
3. Cincinnati Reds, 84-78
Key offseason additions: OF/INF Skip Schumaker? (as broad as I have made this category, I'm still not sure Skip qualifies)
Key offseason losses: OF Shin-Soo Choo, RHP Bronson Arroyo, C Ryan Hanigan
The Reds are traditionally an offense first team, but they have shifted in recent years to a team based on pitching. Last year their offense was incredibly top-heavy, as Choo, 1B Joey Votto and OF Jay Bruce tore it up while the rest of the offense was composed of either league average hitters or below league average hitters. Some may argue that 2B Brandon Phillips also qualifies with his 103 RBI's despite posting an OPS+ of 92. Those people tend to ignore that RBI's are mostly a product of having people get on-base in front of you and Phillips had the No. 2 and No. 4 hitters in OBP hitting in front of him in Choo and Votto. The bottom line is that if the Reds are going to make the playoffs they need another hitter or two to step up and produce, whether it be a guy like 3B Todd Frazier or OF Ryan Ludwick or even a player acquired in a midseason trade.
4. Milwaukee Brewers, 81-81
Key offseason additions: RHP Matt Garza, LHP Will Smith (trade), 1B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay
Key offseason losses: OF Nori Aoki (Smith trade), 1B Corey Hart, RHP Francisco Rodriguez
This was one of my sleeper teams from last year based on their base of position player talent. They underperformed last year with a record of 74-88, but they had to deal with the loss of OF Ryan Braun to suspension and injury and 3B Aramis Ramirez to a knee injury. With the addition of Garza, I think they have a solid, but unremarkable rotation with RHP Yovani Gallardo RHP Kyle Lohse, and RHP Marco Estrada all being No. 2 0r No. 3 type of starters. While they lack a true ace, all of those guys should be able to keep them in most games and their offense could be dangerous. OF Carlos Gomez and SS Jean Segura both had breakout seasons last year, with Gomez actually ranking first in the NL in WAR according to baseball-reference.com. Gomez's WAR was boosted heavily by outstanding defensive ratings, but even if he does not quite repeat, they should have plenty of offense with all of those guys and underrated C Jonathan Lucroy. I could be talked into putting the Brewers ahead of the Reds in the division, but in the end I do not like the fact that Braun's thumb is hurt again and that the Brewers do not have much depth to withstand injuries.
5. Chicago Cubs, 68-94
Key offseason additions: RHP Jason Hammel, INF/OF Emilio Bonifacio, OF Justin Ruggiano, RHP Jose Veras, LHP Wesley Wright
Key offseason losses: C Dianer Navarro, RHP Kevin Gregg (still free agent)
As always, it seems that the Cubs are waiting for next year. Unlike previous years in which next year seems to be an empty promise, the Cubs could actually be better in 2015. SS Javier Baez and 3B Kris Bryant are on a fast track to Chicago along with RHP C.J. Edwards and OF Albert Almora. Their short-term success will depend on the two players who were supposed to be the building blocks of the franchise, SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo. I feel much better about a bounce-back for Rizzo than Castro, as Rizzo ran into some bad luck last year in the form of a .258 BABIP and his power remained while Castro saw a 3.8% increase in his strikeout rate from 2012 to 2013 and seems to be caught in the middle on his plate selection. Castro tried to be more patient last year and it took him away from what made him successful as a Pablo Sandoval type of hitter who could hit the ball anywhere it was pitched. If he and Rizzo improve in 2014, it could lead to some optimism about the future on the North Side of the Windy City.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 92-70
Key offseason additions: RHP Dan Haren, RHP Chris Perez, LHP Paul Maholm, 2B Alexander Guerrero, 2B Justin Turner
Key offseason losses: RHP Ricky Nolasco, 2B Mark Ellis, INF Nick Punto, RHP Edinson Volquez, INF Michael Young (retirement), INF/OF Skip Schumaker
I like what the Dodgers did this offseason for the most part, as they bought low on two good starting pitchers in Haren and Maholm and retained players such as 3B Juan Uribe and RHP Brian Wilson. The only move that did not make sense to me was declining 2B Mark Ellis' $6.5 million option, as his plus defense makes him a better option than their current platoon of INF Dee Gordon and Turner. They expected Guerrero to be ready to step immediately into the lineup, but they could have minimized the risk for a relatively small amount if they had kept Ellis around. The Dodgers are the favorites in this division, as they are by far the most talented team. The only thing that could derail them is injuries, as ace LHP Clayton Kershaw is already on the DL indefinitely with a back injury and players such as SS Hanley Ramirez and CF Matt Kemp have a long history of injuries. Like every other team, if their key guys do not stay healthy they could be in trouble, as the Giants are in a position to challenge them.
2. San Francisco Giants, 86-76
Key offseason additions: RHP Tim Hudson, OF/1B Michael Morse
Key offseason losses: LHP Barry Zito (retirement)
Instead of adding players from outside of the organization, the Giants primarily focused on extending the players they already had such as OF Hunter Pence, RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Ryan Vogelsong, and LHP Javier Lopez. I really like the addition of Hudson, as he is still effective when he is on the mound despite his advancing age and his ankle injury. I also think that 1B Brandon Belt could have an even better year this year and that OF Angel Pagan could bounce-back strong from his injury.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks, 82-80
Key offseason additions: OF/1B Mark Trumbo (trade), RHP Addison Reed (trade), RHP Bronson Arroyo, LHP Oliver Perez
Key offseason losses: OF Adam Eaton (Trumbo trade), LHP Tyler Skaggs (Trumbo trade), 3B Matt Davidson (Reed trade), RHP Heath Bell (trade)
Kevin Towers went into the offseason with a definite wish list, as he wanted a right-handed power bat, a starting pitcher and a closer. In that respect, he was successful, as Trumbo, Reed and Arroyo fit all of those categories. However, I do not think that the Diamondbacks actually significantly improved themselves for either the short or long term. Trumbo is certainly powerful, but especially as an outfielder I do not think his combo of power and poor on-base skills along with poor defense provides an upgrade over Eaton's better-rounded skill set. The idea of needing a "proven closer" is also outdated, as shown by the two World Series teams last year, the Red Sox and the Cardinals, going with closers without much closing experience, RHP Koji Uehara and RHP Trevor Rosenthal. In this case, Towers decided that the sense of security provided by having a "proven closer" was a big enough need to give up a promising 3B prospect, Matt Davidson. The theme of these moves is that they do not provide much upside and that the team is not significantly better than last year's team, especially with the loss of their ace, LHP Patrick Corbin, to Tommy John surgery. The Diamondbacks could reasonably project improved performances from C Miguel Montero and 2B Aaron Hill after they combined to only post 1.7 WAR last year, but other than that I do not see any other players who could make the 2014 Diamondbacks much better than the 2013 version.
4. Colorado Rockies, 76-86
Key offseason additions: 1B Justin Morneau, LHP Brett Anderson (trade), RHP LaTroy Hawkins, LHP Boone Logan, OF Drew Stubbs (trade), OF Brandon Barnes (trade), RHP Jordan Lyles (trade)
Key offseason losses: 1B Todd Helton (retirement), OF Dexter Fowler (Barnes and Lyles trade), LHP Drew Pomeranz (Anderson trade), RHP Rafael Betancourt
The Rockies were very busy this offseason, with a lot of parts moving in and out. While in some cases this could signal significant improvement, the Rockies, like the Diamondbacks, did a lot to not get much better. Morneau would have been an imposing acquisition a couple of years ago, but his production was barely above a major league average hitter last year at an OPS+ mark of 103. He simply has not been the same since his concussion troubles. While he provides solid defense at first base, his signing makes the Rockies place last year's batting average champion, OF/1B Michael Cuddyer regularly in right field, where he posted a -13.4 UZR rating. For some context, that was second worst in the majors last year, only better than new Yankees RF Carlos Beltran. As always with the Rockies, if stars SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez stay healthy, they could surprise. If I were a gambling man however, I would place that bet, as Cargo has never played over 145 games and Tulo has not played 150 games since 2009.
4. San Diego Padres, 76-86
Key offseason additions: RHP Josh Johnson, RHP Joaquin Benoit, OF Seth Smith (trade), LHP Alex Torres (trade)
Key offseason losses: RHP Luke Gregerson (Smith trade) RHP Jason Marquis, LHP Clayton Richard, OF/PH Mark Kotsay (retirement)
Some experts are touting the Padres as a sleeper pick due to their lack of weaknesses and power arms in the rotation. I agree with the second part of that reasoning, with RHP Andrew Cashner as one of my favorite fantasy picks this year and RHP Tyson Ross emerging as a viable starter last year. However, the Padres will remain near the bottom of the division because they have a bunch of injury-prone players who are already hurt such as Johnson, OF Carlos Quentin and OF Cameron Maybin. The Padres seem to be abnormally struck by the injury bug every year and stockpiling injury risks is not helping their misfortune. Third-baseman Chase Headley is headed for a strong year as he is one year away from free agency and 2B Jedd Gyroko to continue to develop, but for a team with no superstars they have too many potential holes such as 1B with a powerless Yonder Alonso to be serious contenders.