Earlier this week, I unveiled my 2016 predictions for the American League. Now, it’s time for the senior circuit to go under the microscope. Without further adieu, here’s my breakdown and picks in the National League.
National League East
Traditionally home to powerhouse contenders, this division has been split into two sections recently. At one extreme, the Mets and Nationals have leapt into contention, while the Marlins, Braves and Phillies have teetered on the brink of humiliation. Last year, New York won an unlikely pennant, but Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia combined to lose 285 games. Washington was a popular World Series pick last season, which makes their 83-79 record in a weak division even more perplexing. This year, the Marlins will try to break away and join the contenders, but this is undoubtedly the worst division in baseball.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Mets – 94-68 – –
2. Nationals – 88-74 – 6
3. Marlins – 81-81 – 13
4. Phillies – 60-102 – 34
5. Braves – 59-103 – 35
We didn’t quite know what to expect from the Mets last year. They had a strong young core, crafted meticulously by Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta, but couldn’t seem to shake the tag of cheap also-rans. In the first half, that frustration bore out, as a dazzling pitching staff barely counteracted a woeful offence. However, the deadline acquisition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes and other established veterans altered the mood, as New York stormed to the pennant in fairytale fashion.
Of course, the Mets were trumped by Kansas City in the World Series, which makes 2016 something of a crossroads. This captivating team could suffer a hangover and regress, or it could take a leaf out of the Royals’ book and go one better a year after Fall Classic heartache. Over the winter, Alderson managed to retain Cespedes and add solid second baseman Neil Walker. Daniel Murphy left for Washington, while Jon Niese, Asdrubal Cabrera, Juan Uribe and Dillon Dee found pastures new.
Despite those losses, I think the Mets have a phenomenal chance at defending their pennant. The pitching rotation, containing Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steve Matz and eventually Zack Wheeler, is unlike anything baseball has seen. On any given night, the Mets will have a young guy with ace potential on the mound, which is a dream for any fan or manager. Meanwhile, there should be enough growth from outfielder Michael Conforto and first baseman Lucas Duda to lead the Mets back to October. The only question is how far they can go in the postseason.
Following a farcical 2015 season that began in a blaze of hype and ended with the closer choking the franchise hero in a dugout fight, Washington made changes during the winter. Dusty Baker, that grand old warhorse of baseball, was drafted in as manager, replacing the taciturn Matt Williams, as the Nationals called for a do-over.
Essentially, few players remain from the golden team that never quite materialised. Jordan Zimmermann signed with Detroit and Doug Fister left for Houston. Ian Desmond, a fallen star, was left on the scrap heap before Texas dumped him in the outfield. Drew Storen, once a prized closer, was dealt away, as Jonathan Papelbon reigned supreme. In came Daniel Murphy, Ben Revere and, well, little else really.
Therefore, I’m not overly enamoured with the Nationals this year. Bryce Harper is a modern day Mickey Mantle, and Baker may use his experience managing Barry Bonds to further harness Harper’s talent, but this team has too many holes for my liking. Max Scherzer is an automatic ace, and Stephen Strasburg should dazzle in his walk year, but we’ve read this story before. When it comes to the Washington Nationals, our instinct informs tells us not to believe the hype. We’ve been hurt too many times before. Accordingly, I think they’ll improve, but not nearly enough to compete with the runaway Mets.
Ah, the Miami Marlins. That most unpredictable of teams in the most unpredictable of sports. At this point, it’s essentially futile to forecast what will happen next in the evolving soap opera of Jeffrey Loria’s plaything. This year, Barry Bonds is a Marlins hitting coach, because, well, you can never have enough distractions. However, for all the media mud-slinging, I’m always enthralled by this team and its ceaseless ability to surprise.
Beneath the lurid uniforms and strange ballpark and peculiar management, the Marlins have a strong core. A juggernaut baseball team lurks somewhere behind the pretensions and gimmicks. In Giancarlo Stanton, Miami has the most exciting slugger baseball has seen since Bonds. In Jose Fernandez, it has an electric ace who is yet to reach 24-years old. In Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, it has a nucleus of sensational dynamism. Yet, for one reason or another, the Marlins are just never able to put it all together. Be it through pure bad luck, or ownership meddling that installs a patently unqualified executive in the dugout as manager, Miami has done a pretty great job of squandering potential in recent years. The organisation hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2010, which is almost comical given the talent at hand.
So, what can we expect from the Marlins in 2016? Well, apart from the totally unexpected, I would say some considerable improvement. I believe strongly in this group of players, and new manager Don Mattingly should provide much-needed stability. Moreover, he is more than literate in baseball strategy, which simply wasn’t true of Dan Jennings, his unfortunate predecessor. Therefore, I can see the Marlins flirting with .500 ball, without really threatening October. After a 71-91 mark last season, that will be a big step forward for a franchise that should be doing so much better.
The Phillies managed to lose just 99 games last year, staving off the potential embarrassment of a first 100-loss season since 1961. However, that should not be celebrated, as one of the grandest of all baseball teams remains in the basement, far away from its rightful home.
I’m still startled by the rapidity with which Philadelphia has fallen on hard times. The Phillies were a genuine juggernaut throughout the 2000s and finally managed to win the World Series in ’08. They successfully defended that pennant in 2009, before reaching the playoffs in 2010 and ’11. Then, the wheels came off, as stars aged and heroes became human. Philadelphia lost 81 games in 2012, followed by 89 in the next two seasons. Last year felt like a new nadir, but many fear worse is still to come at the Major League level.
The Phillies are undoubtedly moving in the right direction, in a philosophical sense. Andy MacPhail hired Matt Klentak, a bright young mind that has revolutionised the teams’ baseball operations department and revitalised its farm system. Nevertheless, Philadelphia is still a long way from contention, and without the benefit of even half a season from Cole Hamels in 2016, I foresee the Phillies crashing through that painful 100-loss threshold.
The Atlanta Braves make me angry. I understand the narrative about building a new core of young stars ready for their new ballpark next season, but the systematic destruction of a fairly strong Major League roster in recent years has been unnecessary in my view.
Atlanta was a division-winning playoff team in 2013. The Braves won 96 games that year, before falling in the NLDS. However, in the ensuing two years, management has wilfully traded established stars in a fashion that is embarrassing and anti-competitive. Just consider the names that have been dealt away. Justin Upton, Evan Gattis and Craig Kimbrel; Alex Wood, Jason Heyward and Jonny Gomes. During the winter, Atlanta went all-in and moved Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller and Cameron Maybin, as a once proud team was decimated.
Of course, I know industry rules almost encourage such aggressive rebuilds, but I think prospect hype has gone too far. Naturally, the Braves have recouped some phenomenal young players in these trades, but there is no guarantee any of them will transition smoothly to the big leagues. Essentially, Atlanta has punted three whole seasons, from a position of relative strength, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. They’re banking on a brighter tomorrow, but was today really that bad? I don’t think so. And that’s cruel for the diehard fans, who had a respectable team broken up before their very eyes.
The Braves may be great in 2017, just as the Astros and Cubs were last year. But baseball must iron out those loopholes that incentivise losing on such a mass scale, before giddy future optics cloud our vision of the present.
National League Central
After many years and just as many promises, the National League Central is finally the greatest division in baseball. Last season, it became just the second in history to host three teams that won more than 95 games. St Louis won 100; Pittsburgh won 98; and the Cubs finished third with 97, a number that would have clinched any other division in baseball. Thus, the NL Central has finally overthrown the AL East as the engine room of MLB. This year, we’re in for an enthralling ride, as rivalries heat up and destinies collide. Expect fireworks.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Cubs – 99-63 – –
2. Pirates – 93-69 – 6
3. Cardinals – 92-70 – 7
4. Brewers – 64-98 – 35
5. Reds – 60-102 – 39
The Chicago Cubs have never been so popular. After building and scheming through years of pre-planned pain under Theo Epstein, the sleeping giant finally woke up last year. Led by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant on offence and Jake Arrieta on the mound, the Cubs advanced to the NLCS ahead of schedule. Joe Maddon had a phenomenal influence in the clubhouse, massaging a 24-win improvement in his first season on the North Side.
Chicago never held a lead in the NLCS, as the Mets swept the Cubs aside, but 2015 was a roaring success. It inspired Epstein to go for the jugular during the winter, in pursuit of the final pieces that may end 107 years of hurt at Wrigley Field. Sensing an opportunity, the Cubs pounced on prized free agent outfielder Jason Heyward, who earned a 8-year, $184 million contract. Meanwhile, Starlin Castro was traded to the Yankees and replaced by Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey was added as veteran ballast to a youthful group. Dexter Fowler returned in dramatic fashion, as the Cubs reloaded for a full-on assault at the October mountain.
This year, I think there is even more growth to come from Rizzo, Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, the monstrous slugger who debuted in 2015. However, I also feel this team has far more questions than many people acknowledge. For instance, will Arrieta regress significantly from his all-world campaign? Which John Lackey will the Cubs receive? Can Jon Lester improve from good to great? Who will be the fifth starter, and will he be productive? Was it wise to move a 26-year old Castro for Zobrist, soon to be 35?
Ultimately, I think enough of those questions will be answered positively for the Cubs to have a remarkably solid season. I also believe that tremendous offence will fuel an improvement on last season. Yet, it’s also wise to temper expectations. In my view, the Cubs will win the division, but thanks partly to serious regression elsewhere.
The Pirates remind me of a post-revolution country trying to keep the wave of optimism alive. All Pittsburgh has to show for 186 wins in the last two years is successive Wildcard game defeats. That could be a spur to their chances, encouraging them to be hungrier, or a severe hindrance, lurking in the mind like an overbearing caveat.
I still love the outfield trio of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, especially with renewed health. However, I just wonder if the Pirates cut out too much of their soul through the winter, as Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker departed for new teams. Sure, those guys weren’t exceptional in a Sabermetric sense, but they were integral to the culture of that team. They were major contributors to the baseball renaissance in Pittsburgh, and now they’re gone, just like that.
The Pirates also lost AJ Burnett and Aramis Ramirez to retirement, with Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong the headline additions. John Jaso will replace Alvarez, but I can’t help but feel that Pittsburgh has missed a trick. With ace Gerrit Cole leading the way, they’ll still be very strong, and once again a significant player in the Wildcard race, but the Cubs improved while they stood still, so a division crowd will once again prove elusive for Clint Hurdle.
Never underestimate the St Louis Cardinals. It’s one of the great maxims of baseball. This team has an admirable philosophy and a brilliant culture that makes it work. The Cardinals never spend egregiously, but they’re the closest thing to a perennial winner this game has known for some time. This year, St Louis will attempt to win a fourth straight division title and reach the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. From every quarter, they’re being overlooked, as Cub-mania sweeps the industry. However, St Louis won 100 games last season, and is deserving of far more respect than has been recently accorded.
The Cardinals perform best when they feel slighted. A siege mentality envelopes Busch Stadium, an us-against-the-world determination. Yet, this season, that may only be the difference between good and average, rather than great and excellent. You see, the Cardinals are reaching a crossroads, as the core gets older and the prospects try to mature. Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright have been sensational, but they’re creaking assets in a young man’s game. Nobody knows what they have left in the tank. Meanwhile, the loss of Jason Heyward and Lackey to the Cubs will sting, as St Louis struggled to recruit during the offseason.
Nevertheless, I believe this is still a playoff-calibre team. Despite losing influential shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a medium-term injury, the Cardinals have a next man up ethos akin to the New England Patriots of gridiron. Mike Leake is a nice addition to a rotation with elite potential, and the next generation is about to be thrown in at the deep end. There is terrific pressure on Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuck and Kolten Wong, but I think they’re capable of reaching that next level.
As many have argued, I don’t believe the Cardinals will catch the Cubs, but they’ll still be involved in the postseason picture, even if the journey to October is a little more treacherous than usual.
Since 1982, Milwaukee has only made the playoffs twice. That’s fairly depressing for a likeable franchise that possesses some of the most underrated fans in sports. However, while today may be a little grim for the Brewers, I truly believe tomorrow will be very bright. Indeed, the Brewers, along with the Marlins, are my sleeper pick to win a World Series championship within the next decade.
Of course, that is a long way off, but I like the general trend of things in Milwaukee, in a philosophical sense. Ever perceptive, owner Mark Attanasio took a step back last year and saw that, in St Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago, the Brewers faced formidable front offices making full use of advanced analytics and conventional scouting. Accordingly, Milwaukee hired David Stearns, a 30-year old Harvard graduate, to oversee a transformation of baseball operations. A key figure in the Astros’ revolution, Stearns is an avowed exponent of Sabermetrics, and his early work has been fascinating.
Naturally, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they improve for the Brewers, but in the context of modern baseball, that’s a good thing, somewhat perversely. In a division with juggernauts at every turn, Milwaukee has to be prudent with its resources. Therefore, a 100-loss season is highly probable this year, which Stearns may use to score high draft picks and trade away established veterans like Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy for prospects that will help rebuild a farm system that is already pretty solid.
For the Brewers, things are pretty bad at the Major League level right now, but I’m excited by what is happening in the owner’s suit and front office. In the long term, this recommittal to finding efficiencies will stand Milwaukee in good stead. They will surprise many people in a couple of years.
In many respects, the Reds are a cautionary tale for rebuilding teams. It worked for the Astros and Cubs, but all Cincinnati received as reward for dreadful stretch in the 2000s was two NLDS losses and an abrupt Wildcard game exit. Now, the Reds are right back at square one, needing to start over in an unforgiving division.
The fire sale began last year, when Johnny Cueto was dealt to the Royals. Over the winter, Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier departed, as things became even bleaker. Yet, the strange thing is that, on paper, the Reds still have some talent. Joey Votto is brilliant. Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce are capable of occasional excellence. Devin Mesoraco and Billy Hamilton are players I really like. But, for whatever reason, the bottom has fallen out in Cincinnati, which lost 98 games last year with Chapman and Frazier.
Further regression is sure to follow, and the Reds will likely be major sellers at the trade deadline. Whether they move Votto in a gutsy move remains to be seen, but many of the aforementioned players could be in new uniforms by August, if not before. Going forward, the outlook isn’t especially bright for the Reds, who may be stuck in the NL Central basement for a prolonged period of time.
National League West
The NL West has morphed into baseball’s most glamorous division in modernity. The Dodgers are spending more than any professional sports team in history, while the Giants have won three World Series titles in five years. In many ways, that storied rivalry, spanning two coasts and many decades, is the most intense anywhere in baseball today. It captivates our imagination and gets the pulse racing. Once again, those two powerhouses will fight to the bitter end this season, with Arizona attempting to get a slice of the action. Whatever happens, it’s sure to be wild.
My Predicted Standings, 2016
1. Dodgers – 92-70 – –
2. Giants – 89-73 – 3
3. Diamondbacks – 88-74 – 4
4. Padres – 69-93 – 23
5. Rockies – 66-96 – 26
On the surface, Los Angeles has been a dominant force in contemporary baseball, with three straight division titles solidifying their Western monopoly. However, the playoffs have been nothing short of a disaster for the Dodgers, who haven’t won a World Series or come especially close since 1988. Last year, an uber front office centred around Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes delivered two less regular season wins and the same premature exit from the postseason. Accordingly, the clock of expectation is ticking loudly at Chavez Ravine, where an impatient fanbase demands success.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to admire the Dodgers, even if they spend obscene amounts of money in pursuit of glory. The ballpark is magnificent. The uniforms are exquisite. The front office contains more brain power than perhaps any in history, with Alex Anthopoulos coming aboard during the winter. Similarly, the farm system is widely considered the best in baseball, while the Major League roster unfurls around an all-time great in Clayton Kershaw.
Yet, it’s time for the Dodgers to put it all together. Manager Don Mattingly was replaced by Dave Roberts for this season, as Los Angeles seeks a calmer clubhouse culture, but the loss of Zack Greinke to free agency will be a difficult blow to overcome. The Dodgers added Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda to fill Greinke’s void, prioritising depth over quality, although the roster has already been stretched with an unprecedented spate of injuries during spring training.
Right now, people are really down on the Dodgers’ chances, but I’m very confident that this will be a highly functional team. With the limelight to himself, Kershaw could be primed for a truly historic season, and there is certainly growth to come from Joc Pederson, Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig. I believe Roberts is the man to tap into that, and finally deliver Los Angeles to the Promised Land. A drop in scrutiny may play directly into the Dodgers’ hands, and for that reason, I fancy them to go all the way.
San Francisco is hoping to win a forth consecutive even-year World Series championship. The odd thing is that, every year after winning a ring, the Giants have missed the postseason entirely. Management tried to address that minor problem during the winter, with an infusion of fresh blood aimed at making the Giants more consistent.
In came Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to bolster a pretty strong rotation, while Denard Span arrived to fill an outfield hole. Elsewhere, a number of Giant mainstays, such as Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, were moved along, as San Francisco searches for greater reliability. Still, one has to question whether the Giants would have been better served pursuing a slugger like Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, rather than signing two fairly similar pitchers.
I love the core of Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Joe Panik and Hunter Pence. It should enjoy another season of considerable productivity. However, I think the Giants have more holes than many people realise, especially in the bullpen, which is particularly old right now. Also, I can’t help but feel that San Francisco is still one superstar player away from a certain run deep into October. As presently constituted, the Giants will need to grind out every single victory, which can be draining as the season unfolds.
All in all, one can never write off the San Francisco Giants. They’ve proved so many people wrong on so many different occasions that we’ve almost come to expect it. They have a tremendous culture, under the stewardship of Bruce Bochy, that enables winning even when logic frowns upon such a notion. If everything breaks right, they could easily win the World Series again this year, but personally, I just don’t see it happening.
Nobody quite knows who or what the Arizona Diamondbacks are these days. From ghastly uniforms to a parochial front office, from winners to losers and back to winners, they’ve seemingly done it all in the past decade. Now, they appear all-in, after their signing of Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract catalysed an earthquake at the heart of Major League Baseball.
Greinke will receive the highest annual salary in baseball history. But will his impact be so great as to catapult Arizona into immediate contention? I’m not entirely sold. You see, the Diamondbacks finished 79-83 last year, thirteen games adrift of the Dodgers. Arizona has improved and there is certainly reason to believe Los Angeles may regress, but that’s still a considerable gap to bridge.
Perhaps Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin will join Greinke in creating a strong starting trident, and Paul Goldschmidt could be primed for another monster. However, I’m still not a believer. Arizona should secure just the eighth winning season in team history, and the first since 2011, but picturing the Diamondbacks as a division champs, let alone World Series contenders, requires a leap of faith I’m just not prepared to make.
San Diego hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2010, a playoff berth since 2006, or a postseason series win since 1998. Energetic general manager AJ Preller tried to change that last year with big moves for Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and James Shields, but it just didn’t work, and the Padres finished 74-88. Quite frankly, they were a team full of hope and expectation, only to be swatted down like the younger, weaker cousins of NL West baseball.
So, what know? Who knows? Who ever knows with the San Diego Padres? Kimbrel was traded to the Red Sox. Upton left via free agency. Jedd Gyorko and Will Middlebrooks and Ian Kennedy have gone, too. In came Alexei Ramirez, a short-term fix at shortstop; Jon Jay, a potentially great outfielder who never puts it all together; and Fernando Rodney, an ageing closer of little material importance to the Padres’ future.
Even with a strong haul of prospects back from the Kimbrel deal, San Diego has just the 25th-best farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America. Accordingly, the Padres would appear to be stuck in baseball purgatory, caught between poor Major League results and questionable long-term health. In a tough NL West, San Diego barely stands a chance, which is sad for such a likeable and aesthetically pleasing team. This year may be used to trade veterans like Shields, Matt Kemp, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross for elite prospects. For years to come, that may be the only way to rekindle the glory days, for a fanbase that yearns to win.
Perpetually challenged and perennially confused, I feel the Colorado Rockies are reaching an important crossroads in their history. The team has only ever been to the postseason on three occasions, none since 2009, and hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2010. If it wasn’t for the loyal fans who continue to fill a beautiful ballpark, the industry might begin to question the legitimacy of Major League Baseball in Colorado.
As with most Rockies problems, it all comes back to altitude. Playing at Coors Field presents a code that is yet to be cracked. The Rockies have tried groundball pitchers and strikeout pitchers, control pitchers and pitchers with extreme velocity. Nothing seems to work. Coors Field continues to be an absolute haven for hitters, which in turn poses a problem when the Rockies struggle on the road.
Troy Tulowitzki was traded last season, almost as a sacrificial lamb, and the farm system is finally rounding into some kind of respectability. I think Nolan Arenado is a generational talent, but his prime could be wasted if the Rockies can’t assemble a winning team quickly. Ultimately, Colorado may look to trade Carlos Gonzalez and take another step in the right direction, while avoiding 100 losses should be considered a success at the big league level.
National League Wildcard
1. Pirates – 93-69 – –
2. Cardinals – 92-70 – –
3. Giants – 89-73 – 3
4. Nationals – 88-74 – 4
5. Diamondbacks – 88-74 – 4
Some very strong records, given the high number of potentially awful teams in the National League, but the intense NL Central rivalry will carry Pittsburgh and St Louis into the one-game shootout.