by Nicholas Cicale (@nickcicale)
LA Dodgers (96-66)
The Dodger’s and Nationals are 1a and 1b when it comes to talent at the top of the depth chart. The Dodgers have no questions in the field, and a strong front of the rotation, while the Nationals have the strongest rotation in the league and an offense to match. But where the Dodgers get their advantage is the depth they’ve bought over the years, and that should be enough to give them the top seed in the National League this year.
In the offseason, their new front office made a lot of moves, and the Dodgers got better with each of them. Swapping Dee Gordon for Howie Kendrick was a no brainer. He’s a better second baseman in terms of health, consistency at the plate and defense. Matt Kemp was and expendable outfielder with a bad track record of health, and they got an offensive catcher and Jimmy Rollins in exchange.
Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and now Joc Peterson makeup a strong outfield, but if any miss time the Dodgers still have Andre Ethier and Scott Van Slyke, who would be everyday starters for most other MLB teams. Even in the infield, AJ Ellis, Justin Turner, Alex Guerrero and Darwin Barney are all very competent players that can play multiple positions.
To say that a rotation with Clayton Kershaw at the top is a big team weakness would hyperbole, but there is a slight concern with the Dodgers rotational depth. They signed two pitchers to the bottom of their rotation that are annual additions to the disabled list once or twice a year. For first time in his nine-year career, Brandon McCarthy made 30 starts in 2014, and Brett Anderson hasn’t had more than 19 starts since 2009, yet both got paid like reliable options. With Hyun-Jin Ryu already ailing, they’ll have to make sure ever start counts
I like the Nationals more, but I think the most likely outcome is the Dodgers coming out ahead of this top-heavy conference.
Washington Nationals (95-67)
Going into opening day, it looks like Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth will be on the disabled list, and that really showcases what the Nationals’ weakness is: projected health. At full strength, they have the strongest depth chart in baseball, with great defender scattered through the field, a rotation that’s six pitchers deep, and a lineup that can do damage in spots one through six. However, they really don’t have too much depth to replace guys when they miss time, and Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman and Werth all have bad histories of being injured.
The Nats also got worse overall this offseason, even with the addition of Max Scherzer. The loss of Adam LaRoach has been understated. He was a big reason the Nationals made the playoffs in 2012 and 2014. Sliding Ryan Zimmerman over to first as a replacement takes care of Zimmerman’s defensive shortcomings at third, but can’t replace LaRoach’s glove or reliability in the lineup. They also elected to let Rafael Soriano walk, and traded Tyler Clippard, without really replacing their production, making them vulnerable in the pen. Asdrubal Cabrera–who played way better in Washington than he did over the last three year–also left, and is being replaced with Yunel Escobar, which isn’t ideal.
The two most interesting pieces on the team to me are Tanner Roark and, of course, Bryce Harper, who will be a constant storyline until he finally breaks out again an puts together a full season. Roark could wind up being an extremely valuable relief pitcher. The common thought is that like he’ll be used for long relief and as a fill-in starter from time to time, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he was pushed into the closing role if Drew Storen falters early on.
If this were a video game and injuries could be turned off, there’s no way the Nationals wouldn’t be the best team in baseball, and that’s why I project them this high, but it isn’t a sure thing by any means.
St. Louis Cardinals (92-70)
Jason Heyward was a giant addition to the Cardinals, who uncharacteristically struggled to produce runs in 2014, however still managed to win their division by two games. They should get above average production from every spot in their order, and have great talents in the top three spots, with Matt Carpenter, Heyward, and Matt Holliday. The division is tough for sure, and the Pirates will be breathing down their neck all season, but I think the Cards will get it done again this year.
I have my concerns, starting with Adam Wainwright. He’s one of my favorite pitchers, but last season started to ware down. His velocity dipped slightly, the strikeouts went down, and he was constantly complaining about small injuries. He’s still a great player, but it’s not a sure thing anymore that he’ll hit 200 innings again or strike out 180. Yadier Molina is also a question coming off last season’s injuries. He’s always been an asset as a backstop, influencing the pitching staff and helping with his bat, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to comeback completely. Either way, they made it to the playoffs last year without him, and should be able too again.
Pittsburg Pirates (88-76)
Like Baltimore in the AL, the Pirates have become a perennial playoff team even though their rotation isn’t too impressive and the team only has one or two great players. The difference is that Gerrit Cole can become that top of the rotation arm that the team’s been lacking. The Pirates’ outfield has a lot of upside too, with Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte both making improvements as last season went on, and creating a one of the fastest units in the game with Andrew McCutchen manning center. Two other players, Josh Harrison and Neil Walker to a lesser extent, also broke out in 2014.
The big loss in the offseason was Russell Martin, and that production won’t be replaced by any of the catchers on the team, but it is conservable that the rest of the offense will be able to makeup for his production.
Overall, the Pirates are actually a more exciting team heading into this season compared to the last few, and with a nice mix of playoff experience and youth, they could get far in the postseason.
Miami Marlins (83-79)
The Marlins have a very strong, young outfield that’s good defensively and make up the core of their lineup. They have a solid infield, with a mix of veteran bats in the corners and two quick, young guns up the middle. With a well-balanced rotation and an average bullpen, they have made the right moves in the offseason to be set up to make a run.
The wild card for the Marlins is Jose Fernandez. When will he get back to the field and will he be as effective as he was over the first two months of 2014, and the last two months of 2013? If the team is still in the race when he returns, they have a really good shot at a wildcard spot, especially with 23 games against the Braves and Phillies after the All-star break.
New York Mets (81-81)
Even after Zack Wheeler went down in Spring Training, the Met’s still have one of the deepest rotations in the majors. Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom both had tremendous rookie campaigns where they struck out over a batter an inning and had a sub-three ERA, while this year’s expected rookie contributors, Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, might actually come close to doing the same. But even if the young guns falter more than expected, they have Bartolo Colon, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee, who would all be mid-rotation guys on almost any other team in baseball (and are all trade assets if the Mets look like contenders at the deadline).
Pitching this dominant will help cancel out many of the shortcoming that the Mets do indeed have. This team should be putrid defensively (Juan Lagares aside), and has no real weapon on offense or the basepaths. David Wright will likely be the key. If he can bat .285 with 15ish homeruns they should get enough production around him to be competent and to give the bullpen a lead to hold on to.
Chicago Cubs (81-81)
This team is hard to project. Based on all of their player’s upside and the addition of Joe Maddon, they look like a team poised to make the playoffs. At the same time, there’s something about a team of guys who haven’t played together for too long, who don’t have any experience of success, who are working with a new coach and have a lot of pressure to succeeds, that looks like a bad formula. They have all the pieces they need to win, whether it’s talent on the roster now or soon to be called to the majors; I think this is just one year too soon for it all to come together.
San Francisco Giants (81-81)
I don’t trust this pitching rotation to make it through the season without hiccups, even when I ignore Madison Bumgarner’s insane innings count last year. Tim Hudson is going to be 40 this season, and as their number two guy, there’s no way he hits 200 innings this season. Matt Cain was injured last year, and even if he’s fully recovered hasn’t been ace levels since 2012. Tim Lincecum, like he has to start the past three season, is eating up a rotation spot that could go to Yusmeiro Petit, whose probably the Giants’ third best pitcher and is being wasted in the pen right now.
Also similar to the last three seasons, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo are set up to fight over the closer role again. Every year, one of them starts as closers, and after two or thee bad outings in a June, the other is thrust back into the ninth inning. Neither have elite stuff, but their pen doesn’t have too many overpowering arms to throw out there instead.
The Giants offence isn’t too intimidating on paper, and a lot of the seven-win drop I’m predicting comes from the losses of Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse in free agency, and the Hunter Pence injury. They have enough depth everywhere on the field that they should be able to get average offensive production all season, but that’s the problem with this team. Even at full strength, their rotation, bullpen and lineup are just…average, no one piece able to propel them up the standings in an improving division. The defending champs weren’t at all a behemoth in the regular season last year, so there’s always a chance they get on a run midseason again and ride a hot player to the promises land, but as of now, they’re a .500 team with little room to improve and not too much downside.
San Diego Padres (81-81)
James Shields and now Craig Kimbrel were the icing on the cake this offseason. The Padres built in an unconventional way, but undoubtedly made their team better in the process. They completely ignored any holes in the infield (and there were holes at almost every position), but also assemble an outfield with a lot of power and speed upside (even though their outfield wasn’t too terrible before). A strong pitching staff in Petco will help them stay close with their opponents each game, and the offense is better as a whole, but I do not believe this is a completed product just yet.
Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
The Reds are probably the team with the high variance this year. In 2014, everything that could have went wrong, did. Jay Bruce performed well under what he usually does. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos all missed significant time and weren’t themselves even when on the field. And Tony Cingrani wasn’t the starter the Reds hoped he would be, and spent a lot of time in the pen.
At the same time, some really nice things happened. With everyone else hurting, Johnny Cueto had his first full season and was absolutely dominant. Devin Mesoraco hit the DL once but had a huge breakout year on offense. Todd Frazier showed more speed and power than anyone thought he would and was the most consistent player in the lineup. Finally, Billy Hamilton showed that he can be an everyday player and might develop into a lethal leadoff man.
If all of those breakout players to continue to show growth, or at least sustain the play they had last year, while also getting contributions form their big money makers who were MIA last year (which isn’t that crazy to think), the Reds might actually be able to reach 90 wins again. At the same time, if those guys never get back to the level they were performing at a two or three years ago, and some of the younger players regress to mean, they could be closer to 74 wins.
Milwaukee Brewers (78-83)
By all measures, Milwaukee over-performed in the first half last year, and came crashing back down to earth over the final month of the season. A lack of experience probably led to their downfall, and the team could feed of their failure to get to the next level this season. They’re returning the same core of young players, have a deep outfield, and made improvements at first base, while dumping some dead weight. The fact still remains that they over performed though, and I don’t think this team can possibly do that again. I think they’ll actually look like a better, more complete team this season, but that probably won’t result in more wins.
Colorado Rockies (67-95)
I feel like I can probably just copy and paste what I wrote last year about the Rockies, and it would still be 100 percent accurate. Troy Tulowitzki and CarGo agai missed time on the DL, and left the rest of their lineup to die. Luckily, Corey Dickerson and Nolan Arenado had big breakouts, but until the team can figure out their pitching problem, Colorado is stuck at the bottom of their division no matter what the offense can muster.
Arizona Diamondbacks (66-96)
It’s more fun looking up ridiculous quotes by Arizona’s front office about how stats are bad for baseball and the Diamondbacks are a great destination for players because they do thins the old fashion way, than it is to watch an actual Arizona game. Outside of Paul Goldschmidt and a few “promising” outfielders, this roster is a wasteland. Their pitching has a chance to be better than it looks right now, but there isn’t much going for them this year. Even their big offseason signing, Yasmany Tomas, is starting the season in the minors because he couldn’t play the field.
Atlanta Braves (66-96)
With the Braves trading away Craig Kimbrel on the eve of the season, it’s clear they aren’t trying to win this year (if it wasn’t obvious already). The team added Nick Markakias and Shelby Miller, and got rid of Jeyson Heyward, Justin and B.J. (Melvin) Upton, Evan Gattis, Tommy LaStella, Kimbrel, Jorden Walden, and David Carpenter (I’m sure I’m missing someone). There rotation is still pretty nice, and Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons are still strong, young players to build around. That’s about the only good that’ll come out of this team. Plus, with such a bad record, they’ll finally be forced to replace Fredi Gonzalez.
Philadelphia Phillies (63-99)
I don’t think anybody will lose 100 games this year, but the Phillies will be close.
At least they’ve finally started to move some of their older assets to reconstruct the farm. It’s a nice acknowledgement that the team knows what they have to do, and that they know they won’t be competitive for a while. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Ben Revere, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon will all most likely be on other teams by this time next year.