Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On A Better Track (2015 National League Preview)

Generally, I do annual season preview capsules that for all intents and purposes are pulled directly out of my ass. It's a good avenue to make some fairly outlandish predictions that don't come anywhere close to being correct. But last year, at least when I wrote out a National League preview, I was actually somewhat on the right track. In addition to correctly predicting all 5 National League playoff teams, I nailed the Mets record right on the nose at 79-83. Of course, in the Playoffs everything went haywire, but that's OK. I still picked a Giants/Pirates Wildcard game, and the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers as division champions. The American League, forget about it. I picked the Rays to win the pennant, although to my credit, I did astutely pick the Royals to make the playoffs as a Wildcard team (and then lose to Boston).

So, let's see if the mojo I had last year carries over. As always, the records are a general approximation within 5 or so wins to the good or bad.

1) Washington Nationals (97-65)
I already went into how Washington is going into this season basically having been anointed as the Team to Beat in just about all of Baseball. And why shouldn't they be? Loaded from top to bottom, they added Max Scherzer to a rotation that now boasts 5 pitchers that could easily be #1 starters on other teams. Bryce Harper has another year under his belt. Anthony Rendon has emerged to fill the void left by an aging Ryan Zimmerman and other such names like Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos are still around to wreak havoc on other teams, particularly the Mets if history holds to form. Of course, they're such an overwhelming favorite that you have to wonder if maybe it'll go to their heads a little bit. Either way, I hope they lose and look like schmucks in the process.

2) New York Mets (89-73)
We talk plenty around here about the Mets already so there's not too much that hasn't been said, but I've been all in on this Mets team all Winter. After 6 seasons in the wilderness, the Mets finally have a team that's worth getting excited about. Losing Zack Wheeler for the season might take a little bit of the starch out of the collar, but for all intents and purposes the young and still learning Wheeler is being replaced by Matt Harvey, who looks every bit like he's going to pistol-whip opponents like he did in 2013. The presence of Harvey alone ought to shove the Mets over .500. Add to that the fact that Jacob deGrom looks like he's picked up right where he left off, and all these other good pitchers are hanging around, and you have a staff that could easily compete with Washington. Offensively, they still appear challenged except that they've been beating the tar out of everyone in Spring Training. Michael Cuddyer's looked good, David Wright seems healthy, Lucas Duda and Juan Lagares appear ready to build on strong 2014 seasons, and I'm still on the Wilmer Flores bandwagon. This is a good team as composed right now. Just, nobody wants to give the Mets that kind of credit yet. So people are still thumbing their noses at the Mets, but just wait. Vindication is on its way.

3) Mickey Mouse Marlins (84-78)
This is another one of those seasons where the Marlins spent some money and bought some talent in the offseason, but are any of us really fooled? Look at these names. Dee Gordon. Dan Haren. Ichiro Suzuki. Mat Latos. Michael Morse. Good players, but not the kind of guys that are going to lift the team to new heights. More like players brought in to placate their $325 million dollar man Giancarlo Stanton. Until the Marlins are at .500 in late July and they decide to cut bait on everyone and start from scratch again. You know it's coming.

4) Atlanta Barves (77-85)
So glad these guys are over. After once again proving me right by completely shitting the bed down the stretch last season, the Braves decided a bit of a rebuild was necessary and jettisoned guys like Jason Heyward, who never lived up to his lofty billing, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, who continues to trade high based on one month where he hit 9 HRs two years ago. The result is a mostly new look lineup that features a lot of old (Jonny Gomes, Nick Markakis), a lot of the same (Freddie Freeman) and some same that have changed their names in order to confuse people (Melvin Upton, Jr). Of course, since God's Gift to Shortstops Andrelton Simmons and the "unhittable" Craig Kimbrel are still around, maybe some pundits are still tricked into thinking the Braves will be good, but they won't. Don't worry.

5) Philadelphia Phillies (70-92)
Clearly now in their twilight, the Phillies still for whatever reason have hung on to their glory guys Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee when they're not going to perform up to their prior levels and even if they did, they wouldn't help a team that's not going to amount to much. The team is now choking on the back end of their contracts and with a mostly barren farm system, help doesn't seem to be on the way any time soon. Too bad.

1) St. Louis Cardinals (93-79)
A recycled comment: Why fight it? But these clowns are so damn full of themselves that Mike Matheny, after two years managing the team, was salty enough to pen a love letter to himself under the title "The Matheny Manifesto," as though he's been a Baseball sage for 30+ years. A testament to the arrogance of this team, and yet they always seem to back it up.

2) Pittsburgh Pirates (87-75)
It may be a slight regression year for the Pirates but I wouldn't expect them to fall off the cliff by any stretch. This is still a team to be reckoned with; their Outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte may be the best in Baseball and they can still through some good quality pitching at you on any given night. Still, some holes in the back end of their lineup and an unsettled bullpen may be the difference between a Wildcard and going home this year.

3) Chicago Cubs (82-80)
The offseason's busiest bees, that's for certain, the Cubs have raised plenty of eyebrows with the myriad deals they struck, most notably to poach Manager Joe Maddon from the Rays and the signing of ballyhooed Free Agent pitcher Jon Lester to go along with their galaxy of top prospects in Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and them other guys. Except that they're getting cute and trying to Super-2 Bryant and Russell and so they'll begin the year in the Minors. Still, the Cubs have been getting an awful lot of ink this Spring, particularly for a team that's fared about as well as the Mets in recent years and has a Championship drought that's now well over a century. Still, it seems as though the Cubs fan knows no such thing as hubris, and this will probably lead to their downfall and another forgettable season.

4) Milwaukee Brewers (80-82)
The Brewers could well be one of those surprise teams that everyone sleeps on because, well, they're kind of a sleepy group. Their entire roster, once you look past their stars, Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, is pretty sleepy. I mean, the carcass that's Aramis Ramirez is still trolling 3rd Base, Kyle Lohse is pitching for them and they have a 2nd baseman named Scooter. Yes, I know that Scooter Gennett is actually a decent player, but can you take a team seriously when their starting 2nd Baseman is literally named "Scooter?"

5) Cincinnati Reds (78-84)
The Reds, kind of like the Brewers, are a Baseball team with some modicum of talent that's stuck in a crowded NL Central where there aren't any particularly bad teams, but outside of the Cardinals nobody that's especially good. So it's difficult to pick an order among them but someone has to finish last, and I'm going to go with the Reds, because they've steadily regressed over the past few seasons after making the playoffs and getting bounced in the first round multiple times, because they haven't really gotten any better, and because their two best players, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, can't stay healthy.

1) Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68)
This incarnation of the Dodgers is one more Postseason failure away from officially becoming overrated. I mean, sure. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet, but when that calendar flips and he sees that Cardinal red, he suddenly becomes very ordinary. Meanwhile, they still have a galaxy's worth of stars around him, from mercurial Yasiel Puig, to irritable Adrian Gonzalez, to Ãœberprospect Joc Pederson, and that should be more than enough to carry them through to another division title. But can they make their opportunity count this time?

2) San Diego Padres (88-74)
The Padres are a good example of remaking the entire identity of a team on the fly. After basically looking kind of stuck in the mud for the better part of a few seasons, all of a sudden they have this flashy young GM in A.J. Preller who swoops in and turns around the entire team. Gone are Padre mainstays like Franch Headley and Yasmani Grandal. In are some big names like Matt Kemp, James Shields, Wil Myers, Justin Upton and Will Middlebrooks. That right there is half of a lineup of new blood, and good new blood at that to support some of the guys still around like Yonder Alonso and Jedd Gyorko. This should be enough to put the Padres in position to strike as a contending team.

3) San Francisco Giants (85-77)
Since it's an odd year, the Giants figure to regress off their 3rd World Series Championship in 5 seasons. Much of their Championship nucleus is still in place, among them Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey, but Pablo Sandoval is gone to Boston and Hunter Pence will miss a chunk of time with an injury. The Giants have won their championships based on a team that's greater as a whole than as the sum of their parts. But when too many of their parts go missing, it creates a hole that even Madison Bumgarner can't fix.

4) Colorado Rockies (77-85)
Once again the Colorados are a team stuck in neutral. They still have Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez on their roster in spite of these two players leading the league in being injured and being rumored to be traded, they still have 13 other guys named Charlie, they have aging Justin Morneau, and from what I'm able to discern, they are about to go into the 2015 season without a Major League Pitcher on their roster, which I suppose is their way of saying that no pitcher is better than whatever they have in their system.

5) Arizona Diamondbacks (73-89)
Some teams are bad. Some teams are boring. It seems like the Diamondbacks are a little bit of both. It's easy for an NL East fan like myself to sort of gloss over an NL West team, but these Diamondbacks seem to be a special case. They made no moves of note in the offseason (unless you consider Jeremy Hellickson of note), they didn't make any effort to protect their two 40 Home Run strikeout machines in Paul Goldschmidt or Mark Trumbo in the lineup, and, yes, Oliver Perez is still on their roster. If that's not enough to make you want to throw in the towel, I don't know what is.

NL MVP: Anthony Rendon, Nationals
NL Cy Young: Matt Harvey, Mets
NL ROY: Joc Pederson, Dodgers

NL Wildcard Game: Mets over Padres
NLDS: Cardinals over Dodgers, Mets over Nationals
NLCS: Cardinals over Mets

Well, hey, perhaps I could be accused of homerism, and that may well be true. But I know a team on the rise when I see it, and the page is about to be turned for the Mets. Plus if Mets fans didn't have enough reason to hate the Cardinals, well, let's turn that knife some more.

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