Let’s check out what the National League will look like in 2015.
Last year, the Nationals were one of the two or three safest picks in the game.
Every pundit and prognosticator out there had them winning their division handily, which they did, earning 96 win en route to a 17-game cushion on the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets.
But that’s where the fun stopped.
There was no joy in Washington. The Mighty Nationals struck out, getting bounced out of the National League Division Series three games to one at the hands of the eventual World Champion Giants.
While fans were busy cursing all things San Francisco, the Nationals’ front-office, led by GM Mike Rizzo, was working on getting the Nationals to their ultimate goal in 2015.
Rizzo only made one major move, signing 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to a 7-year, $210-million contract. With the deal, the Nationals have one of the best starting rotations in the game, if not the best.
However, in looking around the rest of the division, it does seem that the Nationals are all but sure of a playoff spot. What happens in October, though, is anyone’s guess.
Along with Scherzer and Fister, the rest of Washington’s rotation looks very good, with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann rounding things out. The bullpen includes potential rotation fill-in Tanner Roark, who impressed in his first full season last year.
The remainder of the relievers will be led by closer Drew Storen, who took over toward the end of 2014. Lefty Matt Thornton and righties Aaron Barrett and Craig Stammen will share setup duties, with Roark probably working as a multi-inning swingman weapon.
Washington’s lineup is solid up-and-down, although health could be the team’s bugaboo all year long. Starters Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth will all begin 2015 on the DL and outfielder Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are not exactly the poster children of durability. If anything derails Washington in this division, it will be their health.
Overall, though, it’s a great group of talent. Rendon looks poised to join the ranks of the elite at the hot corner, while shortstop Ian Desmond will be hoping to boost his impending free agency with another great year.
Overall, this is a critical year for the Nats. Teams have life cycles and any modern “dynasty” is short-lived nowadays thanks to free agency and arbitration. The Nationals still have a window that’s wide open, but with the possible departures of Desmond, Zimmermann, Fister, and Span, as well as the advancing age (and health concerns) for Werth and Zimmerman, the window could slam shut in the not-too-distant future.
It’s time to win now in D.C.
Prediction: 94-68; first place in the National League East
New York Mets
Make no mistake: this is not a great team.
The 2015 Mets might not even be good.
But they should be good enougn.
The team’s ownership continued its penny-pinching during the offseason, only adding one free agent of any relevance, inking former Colorado Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer to a 2-year, $15-million contract that cost the team its No. 15 overall pick in this summer’s draft.
For a franchise trying to go on the cheap and build from within, it’s a strange move. For a team that plays in the largest of all markets, it’s downright bizarre.
Despite their lack of urgency, the Mets should still be good enough to compete for a wild card spot based on what looks to be an alright defense, a bullpen that’s more strength than weakness, and a nice group of starting pitchers.
On the mound, the biggest news is the return of ace Matt Harvey. The brash 26-year-old will be coming back from a lost 2014 thanks to Tommy John surgery. He’s looked good this spring (.219 BAA, 21 K in 22 ⅔ IP), as has reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom (1.82 ERA, 21 K in 22 IP). Add in the “young veterans” Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, along with the ageless Bartolo Colon, along with top prospect Noah Syndergaard sometime this year, and it should be good times on the mound in Flushing.
The bullpen should hold its own too, with closer Jenrry Mejia is not an elite name, he’ll be surrounded a by a good core, including Jeuyrs Familia, Carlos Torres, Rafael Montero, and recently-acquired lefties Alex Torres and Jerry Blevins.
While the pitching is a strong point for New York, the lineup leaves a bit to be desired. Third baseman David Wright is still the on-and-off-field anchor for the team, while first baseman Lucas Duda and second baseman Daniel Murphy have surpassed Wright as offensive leaders. Shortstop is still an open question, with rookie Wilmer Flores taking the job for now.
In the outfielder, Cuddyer will attempt to battle right field to a draw, while strikeout-machine Curtis Granderson takes over left. It’s a good thing defensive wizard Juan Lagares will patrol center, as the Mets will need a lot of ground covered by someone out there.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud could be a big key to the team’s success; not only in how he handles the pitching staff, but with his bat. A breakout year from the young catcher could help flesh out the Mets’ lineup.
The Mets do not represent a true contender. But, they have the talent to compete.
After six straight sub-.500 seasons, that’s something to be happy about in the Big Apple.
I don’t trust Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to sell me a sandwich.
To be honest, Loria’s best quality as a team owner is getting the hell out of the way and letting his hired goons in the front office run things.
Because when they have the resources, and are allowed to use them, the Marlins can be pretty good.
Top slugger Giancarlo Stanton signed a $325-million contract in November, just over two months his season was cut short by a Mike Fiers’ fastball to the face. Stanton is fully recovered and will look to regain his MVP-caliber performance with an intriguing supporting cast.
The Marlins’ outfield should be exceptional, with Stanton in right, emerging power threat Marcell Ozuna in center and newly extended Christian Yelich in left. It’s a dynamic group that does everything well and should be the core of Miami’s lineup into the next decade.
The infield got a makeover, with new recruits Mike Morse (1B), Dee Gordon (2B), and Martin Prado (3B) joining incumbent shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. There is no superstar in that group, but everybody’s pretty solid on both sides of the ball, and with good health, it will be one of the more productive units in the bigs.
Miami’s pitching doesn’t light the world on fire. It’s the Ford Focus of pitching staffs. Starters Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart, Mat Latos, Dan Haren, and Tom Koehler all have talent, but they also have injury histories and not one of them profiles as an ace. However, if the Marlins are still in the race in July, their true ace, Jose Fernandez will be back from his Tommy John surgery and will slot nicely at the top of this staff.
Miami’s bullpen is fine, with closer Steve Cishek leading a nice collection of arms. It’s the type of bullpen that could either help Miami to a wild card, or get sold off piece-by-piece and replenish the farm system if the team’s out of things earlier than anticipated.
The Marlins may be the most fascinating team in baseball. They have dynamic, game-changing talent, youth, speed, power, and they are guaranteed to get better at midseason when Fernandez returns.
They could wind up stunning the world or stinking up the joint.
Either way, Loria will find a way to make it all about him.
He always does.
Prediction: 86-76; second place in NL East
Atlanta fell off last season, ending five straight seasons above .500 with a 79-83 record that saw the Braves finish 17 games behind the division-winning Nats.
During the off-season, the Braves let longtime GM Frank Wren go and replaced him with John Hart, the architect of the mid-90s Cleveland Indians.
After taking the wheel, Hart promptly drove the Braves’ chances of contention off a cliff, dealing away outfielders Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, and Evan Gattis. With the team sapped of its power, Hart then added outfielder Nick Markakis and a slew of middle-tier relievers and bench-level bats to fill out the lineup.
Hart’s target is a return to contention in 2017 when the Braves’ new park, SunTrust Park opens. So, his mission statement now is to get younger, but add value wherever possible to keep the turnaround quick.
In both the Upton and Heyward deals, Hart got some decent prospects as well as 24-year-old starter Shelby Miller, who will join Julio Teheran and Alex Wood at the front of Atlanta’s staff. Journeyman Eric Stults is slated for the fourth spot and recent trade pickup Trevor Cahill will be the fifth arm.
Even with those less-than-stellar names in the bullpen, the Braves’ lineup reads like a Witness Protection rundown of fake names.
Aside from Freddie Freeman (1B), Chris Johnson (3B), Markakis (RF), and Andrelton Simmons (SS), the rest of Atlanta’s offense is a who’s who of who’s that, with Christian Bethancourt (C), Jace Peterson (2B), Jonny Gomes (LF), and Eric Young, Jr. (CF) filling things out.
It’s going to be a long, brutal summer in Atlanta this year. What Hart has assembled here could be the worst team in baseball, if not for their division bedfellows to the north.
Prediction: 70-92; fourth place in NL West
How totally, totally appropriate.
In the seven years since the Phillies won the World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays, the franchise has slowly devolved from contender (back to the Series in ‘09), fringe contender (NLCS loss in ‘10; NLDS loss in ‘11) to middling team (.500 in ‘12; 73-89 in ‘13 and ‘14).
And now, the worst is still to come, as the team held on to its 2008 stars a bit too long, suffered through injuries and aging, and the process has not been helped by GM Ruben Amaro, Jr.’s refusal to move most of the name-value he’s left with.*
*He did move longtime shortstop Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers this year for a couple of young pitchers. Not a bad return, but Amaro could have gotten more if he’d dealt Rollins a few years ago.
Remaining with the team are closer Jonathan Papelbon, second baseman Chase Utley, first baseman Ryan Howard, and starter Cole Hamels. They’ve had a few bites on Papelbon and Utley, and teams will be falling all over themselves come July to get Hamels. Howard, though, appears to be nigh immobile (on the trade market, too).
So, what is Philly left with on the field?
The pitching will be Hamels and a quartet of fourth starters. The bullpen’s got Papelbon and closer-in-waiting Ken Giles, but little else.
The lineup stinks, with Utley the lone talent along with Howard at 1B, Freddy Galvis at SS, and Cody Asche at 3B. The catcher is 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz, and the outfield is a tire fire, with Ben Revere (LF), Odubel Herrera (CF), and Grady Sizemore (RF) roaming Citizen’s Bank.
There’s not enough liquor in the world to stomach that team, which will probably (easily) lose 100 games with or (especially) without their remaining veterans.
Prediction: 58-104; fifth-place in NL East
Our next stop is the National League Central, where the Cardinals look to fend off the Pirates again, while the Cubs are on the rise.