Only five days now until Opening Day, although you wouldn't be able to figure that out if you went outside, since it feels like January (or, more appropriately, any April night at Citi Field), but nonetheless, it's as good a time as any to share my convoluted thoughts on how the National League standings are going to break out this upcoming season. Last year (and in general), I was nowhere close to correct. I'll try to do better this year, but I really can't promise anything other than providing some mild amusement. As always, figure these records to be a general approximation of the final standing, plus or minus a 5-win margin of error. Or not.
1) Washington Nationals (91-71)
Last year, I picked the Nationals all the way to the NLCS, and of course they promptly came out and laid an egg for the first 4 months before finally getting their act together, sort of. By the end of the season, though they were out of contention, they were earning the label of "The Team Nobody Wants To Play." It's mostly the same group of guys this season, minus Dan Haren, who was ineffective, and plus Doug Fister, who was procured from Detroit and can be sneaky good. The bullpen is solid, assuming Tyler Clippard continues to be annoying and Drew Storen has his act together, and the offense is pretty damn solid. The keys, in particular, are the health of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, and a return to form from Ryan Zimmerman. Regardless, they stack up as substantially better than their competition and I have a feeling they can run and hide if they get off to a fast start.
2) Atlanta Braves (83-79)
Say it with me now...
I'm truly baffled by the continued fascination everyone has with this Paper Tiger team. They fattened up on a weak division and lucked out because Washington couldn't get out of their own way last season, masking the fact that toolsy B.J. Upton hit .200 all season and Awesome Andrelton Simmons struggled to bat his weight. Guys like Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward can shoulder some of the load, but they lost Brian McCann to Free Agency and Flathat Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to elbow injuries and at some point Craig Kimbrel is actually going to show that he's not worthy of the Mariano Rivera treatment he continues to get. Luis Avilan is apparently their Opening Day starter and Aaron Harang is involved in this picture, as is stone-handed strikeout machine Dan Uggla and that adds up to trouble in the long run. I'd pick them lower but there's a reasonable enough amount of talent there to prevent the ship from sinking completely. Expect them to be outliers that get a courtesy display in the Wildcard standings despite being 6 games out with 12 to play.
3) New York Mets (79-83)
In spite of the fact that management has spoon-fed us the "contend in 2014" mantra for a few years now, this team doesn't look like it's ready to make that leap yet. I've gone through it a bit already, but while anything's possible and the Mets could put it all together and be relevant in the Wildcard race, there's too much that needs to go right in order to say that with any kind of confidence. Both Ike Davis and the train wreck that is Lucas Duda are still prominently involved, and neither has taken charge or shown any kind of sign that they'll be what we hope they'll be. Ruben Tejada has been basically given the Shortstop job for reasons I clearly am not meant to know. At least the Outfield, with the additions of Chris Young and Curtis Granderson, is of Major League quality this year. Pitching, well, while the horses are in the organization, they're not going to be in the Major Leagues on Monday, save Zack Wheeler, who will get the nod in the season's 3rd game. Jonathon Niese has been a big question mark and it seems Daisuke Matsuzaka will make the team if what I'm hearing is correct. The bullpen is once again suspect, particularly since Bobby Parnell has struggled in Spring. That's all to say nothing of the fact that Matt Harvey isn't around, but even his presence on this team might not be enough to offset the lacks on offense and in the bullpen.
4) Philadelphia Phillies (74-88)
Nothing like a nice decaying dynasty, isn't there? After carrying the club through probably the greatest era in team history, now the Phillies are left with the bloated, untradeable contracts of the now well past-their-prime Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. A youth movement would have been nice, to find some pieces to complement Domonic Brown, but instead, the Phillies went out and signed Marlon Byrd (36), Wil Nieves (36), A.J. Burnett (37 and was set to retire) and Roberto Hernandez (33 and still hasn't sunk in that he's not Fausto Carmona anymore) to team up with Cole Hamels, who's injured, and Cliff Lee, who's looking more and more like very expensive trade bait to a contending team. We all knew this day would come, and man, it's going to be great to see these guys crash and burn.
5) Mickey Mouse Marlins (67-95)
Last year, the Marlins caught lightning in a bottle and the emergence of excitable 20-year old Rookie Jose Fernandez put some starch in an otherwise miserable season (that, annoyingly, was punctuated by the fact that they continually manhandled the Mets). They have some interesting youth projects on their roster right now in Henderson Alvarez, Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick to placate Giancarlo Stanton, but they're all completely unproven and most of the roster is filled with marginal players like Ed Lucas, Casey McGehee, Brian Bogusevic and Garrett Jones. Basically, you can expect another season of the Marlins getting run over by most teams, and somehow winning 11 of 18 from the Mets again.
1) St. Louis Cardinals (95-67)
Why fight it. No matter how many players they lose, no matter how many Managers they change, the Fucking Cardinals will still somehow manage to win 90 games, many of them in the most annoying way possible.
2) Pittsburgh Pirates (89-73)
After finally making it back to the Playoffs for the first time in 21 years and winning the Wildcard Game, the Cardinals ended up spoiling the Pirates party. But the good vibes generated from that season shouldn't be erased. Though they did not gain much by way of offseason moves (unless you count Edinson Volquez and Jaff Decker key additions), this group, led by reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, should continue to perform well, particularly since they'll be getting a full season out of Gerrit Cole. Finally proving they can win and getting past that 20-year losing streak can help build a boatload of confidence in a young team, and though they won't sneak up on teams anymore, they still should be able to finish the job and make it back to the Wildcard game once again.
3) Cincinnati Reds (85-77)
I have a hard time figuring out the enigmatic Reds. On paper, they look like a team that really ought to run away with this division, and for all I know they may yet do that, but it's always something with this team, like Johnny Cueto having a meltdown, or Ryan Ludwick underperforming, or Brandon Phillips mysteriously aging, or Homer Bailey coming down with some bad vibes that morning. Whatever it is, a team that looked to be on cruise control in September kind of petered out at the end and eventually got bounced in the Wildcard game. Gone are longtime stalwart Bronson Arroyo and OBP machine Shin-Soo Choo, replaced by hotshot Rookie Billy Hamilton. Hamilton gets justifiable hype because of his speed, but it's an interesting experiment. Hamilton certainly has the skills to swipe 90-100 bases, but offensively, he's shown himself to be on par with, say, Joey Gathright. It's difficult to steal bases if you can't get on base first. That could be the Red Herring in the Reds season.
4) Milwaukee Brewers (78-84)
The addition of Matt Garza to this roster and the return of Steroid Pariah Ryan Braun give the Brewers a little bit of intrigue, but this team still has a number of holes not easily filled by the pieces in place. Carlos Gomez had an outstanding season last year, but they're also still trotting out Aramis Ramirez, who's aged about as well as Scott Rolen did, and never-will-be Rickie Weeks, to go along with a bunch of guys you've probably never heard of. Also in the mix are Pirate Castoffs Tom Gorzelanny and Zach Duke, never a good sign.
5) Chicago Cubs (69-93)
Help is on the way for the Cubs, but it's still a couple of years off. After throwing money around willy nilly for years, the Cubs are now sort of trying the Houston Astros model of rebuilding, although not quite at the dramatic level that the Astros did it. Regardless, there's a number of interesting, intriguing prospects that are kicking around the Cubs Minor League system. Unfortunately, these prospects won't do the Cubs a damn bit of good this season, so instead they're looking at another long, unexciting year.
1) Los Angeles Dodgers (96-66)
The Dodgers are like everyone's darlings since they managed to out-Yankee the Yankees this season, and it certainly will translate some wins, because the lineup and the pitching staff are loaded, but man, these guys are going to piss you off. They're two games into the season and already Yasiel Puig has managed to piss off his manager and Adrian Gonzalez and everyone who likes to write about violent stuff. So lord only knows what the rest of the season has in store. Zack Greinke mouthed off on Australia, Matt Kemp mouthed off on something else, and we haven't even gotten to Brian Wilson yet. Plus they have old friends Justin Turner and Mike Baxter kicking around their roster. They're going to win, this is unavoidable. Just try not to get too hot and bothered by it and then enjoy it when they inevitably shit the bed in October.
2) San Francisco Giants (86-76)
The Giants hit a wall for one reason or another last year, but for the most part this is the same team that's won two World Series Championships in the past 4 years, and that's not something that can be easily overlooked. As much as you'd like to think that their low, leaky offense that consists of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and nobody else in particular, the pitching, behind Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and the Artist formerly known as Tim Lincecum, was bolstered by the signing of Pro's pro Tim Hudson and is still capable of carrying the team to a higher level. You can fall asleep on them but there they are, contending for a Wildcard and making things difficult for other teams.
3) San Diego Padres (81-81)
San Diego seems to be getting an awful lot of "sleeper" talk this Spring, for reasons I can understand, because they're banking on a Chase Headley rebound and a Jedd Gyorko ascension, and other guys like Yonder Alonso and Will Venable had decent years last year, and maybe if Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy can get their respective shit together, then maybe they've got something here. But maybe. Much like the Mets, they need a lot to go right in order to be a serious contender, and too much needs to go right for them to seriously contend.
4) Colorado Rockies (79-83)
The Colorados are one of those teams that I don't think knows what they are just yet. They added Brett Anderson, Boone Logan and old friend LaTroy Hawkins to a pitching staff that included nobody noteworthy, and on the other side, they certainly will hit, but the Colorados are another one of those teams that ends up getting killed by injuries and guys like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez end up being replaced by guys like Charlie McCharlieman and D.J. LaNosehair, and that's not good for business.
5) Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86)
I don't necessarily think the D'Backs are a last place team, but they're probably the least together team in a particularly good division. Losing Patrick Corbin for the season kind of takes the starch out of their season, and although the addition of Mark Trumbo in addition to Paul Goldschmidt certainly puts a ton of feast-or-famine thunder in the middle of their lineup, there's also a little too much Cliff Pennington/Eric Chavez/Didi Brontasaurius going around to make things too exciting. Also, Oliver Perez.
NL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers
NL Cy Young: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
NL ROY: Travis d'Arnaud, Mets
NL Wildcard Game: Pirates over Giants
NLDS: Cardinals over Nationals; Dodgers over Pirates
NLCS: Cardinals over Dodgers
Again, why fight it. But maybe since I'm predicting it, it won't actually happen.