New York Mets
I want to feel good about my Mets. I want to look at this team and think – yes, we have the best rotation in baseball. How can you outperform Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zach Wheeler (returns mid-season) and the now de facto ace, Jacob DeGrom? Even Bartolo Colon, who would despite his age still be a number two pitcher on a much lesser team, will be the sixth best pitcher on this squad. The problem ended up being how shifty the Royals were, and the implosion of closer Jeurys Familia. I still don’t trust him, but Addison Reed was a closer on the White Sox and Arizona the past few years, so I imagine they have Familia on a short leash with a promise that he has a fine back-up to spell him if things get weary. Power also isn’t as shaky – after witnessing Daniel Murphy’s own implosion post-NLCS MVP award, the Mets allowed him to jump to the rival Nats, while picking up Neil Walker (for 7th-ranked pitcher Jon Niese) and Asdrubal Cabrera. So long, Ruben Tejada, you won’t get revenge for having your leg broken by Chase Utley, at least with the Mets. Anyway, the offense should be an upgrade from last year, and the team as a whole is better than they were a decade ago. That being said, there’s a lot going against them repeating into the World Series. They had the underdog thing going for them, and this time are easily everyone’s front-runners not named the Cubs. Anyone’s elbow blows out, it’s like a tire breaking down on your car. I’m certain we’ll hear Tommy John’s name bandied about throughout April, and I’m just hoping it won’t involve anyone in the Big Apple (or honestly anywhere, I’m sick of pitchers losing their arm). Beyond that, there’s the Yoenis Cespedes factor. Sure, he’s great for “morale” but he’s a bit of a spectacle that can win or lose favor very rapidly. There’s a reason he’s bounced between teams several Julys in a row. Everyone from Oakland to Boston to Detroit can tell you that he loses interest at weird moments, and I get the feeling like Cespedes, as well as the Mets, are one straw from exploding. We’ll see though, and for now I rank them best in the East.
Speaking of implosions, the Nationals did just that last season, failing spectacularly to reach the playoffs and forcing management’s hand in several arenas, including the laissez-faire manager, the volatile superstar tempers (Bryce Harper) and the devolution of the closer role with equally hot-headed Jonathan Papelbon coming over from the rival Phillies. With Drew Storen escaping north of the border, that won’t be as much a problem, but what of Pap’s production? He can’t maintain as well as he had even in the city of Brotherly Love, so he’ll have to rely on that one-two punch of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, as well as the continued offense of Harper and his aging pals Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon. With Danny Espinosa sliding to short to make room for Daniel Murphy, the infield errors should alleviate, but will Murph be as clutch as he was in the Big Apple? Perhaps more than just the temperature will be heating up in the nation’s capital this summer…
Miami is often a conundrum, as strange a beast as that contraption out in center field of their three-year-old boon of a stadium. Will franchise players like Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton stay healthy and lead the team closer to victory than they’ve tasted in neon orange, or will they relish their teal throwback days, stuck with duds in newcomers like Wei-Yin Chin and Martin Prado? Not to say those particular guys will flounder, but in the recent past players have come to watch their careers die in south Florida. Fernandez doesn’t have much backing up beyond Chin – Jarred Cosart and Tom Koehler are fine, but they’re not as stellar as the third and fourths on the Mets or Nats. Beyond Stanton, there’s a handful of young players hoping to emulate Houston’s youth movement, like Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and the always impressive speedster Dee Gordon. Will they fluke their way to another World Series and then dismantle the team, as in 1997 and 2003? With the way the rest of the division’s gone, this team looks to be at exactly .500. If one team above messes up, they could be in. If one of the worse teams manages a stretch of any value, then the Marlins could end up with new golf memberships.
I’m not sure quite what to make of the Phillies. They’ve certainly turned the corner, but it won’t truly be evident whether they’ve done anything with the turn until mid-summer. There’s such promise in young players such as Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera that you can’t help but to expect them to be the next Houston Astros. Fact is, the Phillies crashed so hard, there isn’t any more hole to dig, so they have to get better, and quick, right? Well, if you look at their starting rotation, you’ll be worried. Jeremy Hellickson is at the top of the list, and that doesn’t inspire hope, while the other two recognizable pitchers are Aaron Nola and Charlie Morton, castoffs from better teams. At least they’ve gotten a nice offense assembled, in order to see what they’ll be like when they get pitching back in a year or two. For now, it’s still a waiting game, especially for Atherr, who tore a ligament in his wrist and won’t even be back until that aforementioned summer sell-by date.
It’s very telling that I practically ripped apart the Phillies, and yet the Braves are ranked lower. The team is virtually unrecognizable since skipper Bobby Cox led the team, and unlike the Yankees, haven’t done much to attempt righting the ship. As better players have jumped ship for better teams, the remnants include ace Julio Teheran (next Felix Hernandez, miring on a team for his career as they rebuild), Freddie Freeman and Jason Grilli, who was only traded here from Pittsburgh because they had Mark Melancon coming up the depth chart. Nick Markakis and Erick Aybar followed him here on their own merit, which begs the question whether they’re here for money, inspired by the chance to help a rebuild, or simply that bad this late in their careers. Sometimes it’s simply a decent fit, but when Markakis and Aybar are your marquee players, you don’t expect pennants.
I won’t do it. I won’t call a jinx on this team. I will say that the team is damn good. Everyone’s calling for them to do the unmentionable, even moreso than the Mets or the repeat Royals. I, for one, feel good about the individual players as much as the team as a whole. Before we even get into the franchise players like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, I have to say I’m happy Dexter Fowler chose to remain in Chicago rather than take more money in Baltimore. I’ve always been a big fan of his, and he’s one of those clutch guys who run for the carrot when the string has playoffs dangling on the line. Anyway, like Bryant and Rizzo, we’ll see more growth from Addison Russel, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, while Tommy La Stella and World Series champ Ben Zobrist look to help the Cubbies out of their century-long funk. On the pitching side, much is the same, with Jake Arrieta leading familiar faces Jason Hammel, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Of course, the steal of the season involves their third ranked pitcher (John Lackey) and their new right fielder (Jason Heyward) who decided to come over from the rival Cardinals, hopefully along with some devil magic. Joking aside, I legitimately feel like this rotation rivals the Mets for best in the league, which I’m surprised to say, because they’re, well, the Cubs. It’s as strange as the Royals being in the playoffs was two years ago (let alone above .500).
St. Louis Cardinals
So, Cardinals devil magic. How’s your team? With youngster Stephen Piscotty ready to take over for the current Cub Jason Heyward, there isn’t too much different from last season. Much like the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, the Cards are a classic franchise built to win and survive the overturn that constantly plagues lesser successful teams. Back for more witchcraft are the villainous Matt Holliday, his cohort Kolten Wong, genuine nice guy Matt Carpenter and perennial all-stars Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta. Former Met Ruben Tejada will be spelling the shortstop as Peralta’s thumb heals, but they really don’t have much new to get used to. Even Jaime Garcia is still there. Let’s see what they can do, because given their history, I don’t expect them to be low, I simply expect the Cubs to be better.
Shame for the Pirates then, if the Cubs are the new cool kids in town. This division is only going to get tougher, so if Cutch and his pals are going to take the division by storm, this season may be one of their last chances. The best they’ve been able to muster is the unfortunate loss twice at the play-in Wild Card Game in 2014 (Giants) and 2015 (Cubs). Before that they barely snuffed the Reds only to be taken to the fifth game by eventual AL pennant winner St. Louis. With rivals like them, it’ll be tough, but Jon Niese brings grit over from New York to coincide with the rise of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. If Jung Ho Kang has fully healed, he’ll bolster the infield and the offense will find its way. The only way I see this team falling below third is if there are a few surprises, and they could even rise further if St. Louis is starting to lose the shine off their cursed apple.
To tell you the truth, I often forget Milwaukee fields a baseball team. Beyond pariah Ryan Braun and my perennial fantasy catcher Jonathan Lucroy, I couldn’t name another player. Maybe that’s for the better, as it casts the squad as underdogs. Looking through the roster I’m saddened to see Kirk Nieuwenhuis has left the Mets for the heart of Wisconsin, but it’s good to see he’ll get the playing time he deserves. Even the pitchers I’ve never even heard of. It’s hard for me to put this team in fourth but for the debacle that is the Cincinnati Reds. Maybe Milwaukee will surprise us with some chutzpah?
The Reds are gonna be bad. Atlanta Braves bad. They lost franchise player Todd Frazier to inevitability and the Chicago White Sox, while troublesome closer Aroldis Chapman left for the Yankees (though the tabloids won’t bother the Reds now). What does that leave them with, though? Aging Joey Votto, who won’t do much to rouse the team back to its former standards. Brandon Phillips and Billy Hamilton, underpaid and underwhelming stars who will look at Frazier and see the inevitability facing them as well. The way management handled the last few years is even worse than the confusion Miami typically deals with, so I won’t be surprised to see the Reds fighting the Braves for anklebiter status. Sellers by May, the only thing to watch baseball for in Cincinnati will be Homer Bailey and his consistent quality.
San Francisco Giants
What even year bullshit? The San Francisco Giants are just a quality franchise that consistently fields a good team, no matter the turnaround of their superstar third baseman, falling out of relievers, or passage of time. I mean, when that passage falls on an even-numbered year, at least this decade, we expect great things out of the Bay Area. The biggest news out of San Francisco this off-season wasn’t the acquisition of former Dodger Zach Greinke, but recent World Series champ rental Johnny Cueto. Dude signed a phenomenal six-year contract, meaning this even-year stuff might be winding down barring Cueto becoming the next Bumgarner. Speaking of which, Bum will take the mound Opening Day, followed by Mr. Moneybags (who I might see pitch when I’m there April 10th), and then last year’s White Sox rental Jeff Samardzija and mainstays Jake Peavy and Chris Heston. Matt Cain is sticking around, giving it a go one more time, as is virtually all of the offense – Angel Pagan (best religious themed baseball player), Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence (Stephanie Tanner’s boyfriend!), Matt Duffy and Brandon Belt all face the usual suspects this spring. The only newcomer save big-name pitching? Denard Span, one of the guys I once thought would lead the Washington Nationals to its first World Series is now the Giants’ center fielder. Perhaps he’s just the last key to a fourth crown in seven years?
The biggest surprise of the offseason was when Zach Greinke chose not only to leave the Dodgers behind (as most expected) but go east instead of north, and still stay in the same division. Rumors floated constantly that he was wavering between staying with his best bud Clayton Kershaw and inexplicably signing with their worst rivals San Francisco (who he apparently adores). Clearly no one saw this coming, but here we are – Greinke is ready to lead the pitching side of an Arizona contention for the World Series, alongside long underrated phenom Paul Goldschmidt. Toiling as the best player in a mediocre team in a mediocre division for the past few years, this is the year his patience will pay off. Young studs Yasmany Tomas, David Peralta and AJ Pollock look to steer the offense towards admirable, while Greinke is backed by Atlanta/St. Louis’ outcast Shelby Miller, homegrown Patrick Corbin and stalwart Rubby De La Rosa, and two of the best relievers outside of NYC – Brad Ziegler and Tyler Clippard (who could only play badly in…NYC). The Greinke factor pushes this team just ahead of his last team.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw must have a chip on his shoulder. Perhaps the best pitcher in the last ten years, he cannot control his command in the playoffs and that has directly resulted in early exits over the past few years. Time and again, management has thrown money at the problem, purchasing Zach Greinke from the Angels, paying top dollar for Boston behemoths Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, tossing around outfielders like Matt Kemp like they were pawns in a rich man’s game, yet none of it has worked. Sadly, looking at the lineup, not much has been added, the team instead looking to pick up where they left off – losing to the Mets in 5 games (NLDS). Timing is often key, and that Mets team was super hot to end September and begin October. Even Kershaw fared well in the two games he had (3-1 loss, 3-1 win) – no implosions, bringing his postseason total to 2-6. So as much as I think the team is pretty good, they lost their number two to Arizona. That tells me that even though Greinke is flighty (KC>Mil>LAA>LAD>ARI), the team will sorely miss him. Again, timing is key, and I think that if they can manage to squeak into the playoffs they’ll be just as dangerous as any other great team.
The Rockies, much like the Phillies, are only starting to turn a corner. After admitting that they’ve been bad since their last postseason appearance in 2009, they flipped franchise star Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto (pissing him off more than anything else) for troublesome shortstop Jose Reyes and some decent prospects. The future is key for Colorado, and that means that in this tough division they might have only made third anyway. Arizona improved itself much more, so the Rockies look to find themselves in another fourth place finish. Inexplicably, they allowed Chris Dickerson to escape to Tampa Bay, relying instead on oft-rumored trade bait Carlos Gonzalez and surprise hero Charlie Blackmon to take care of the outfield. Gerardo Parra was super keen to come to Denver, so that should fill a hole in left, and the infield will only mature. Pitching is always the big question in Colorado, but Jorge De La Rosa has the chance to lead the future into the rotation with Jon Gray. Trevor Story also looks to eventually take over for Reyes and help us forget Tulo was forced out. The future is promising here, but just like Philly we’ll probably have to wait for 2017 or 2018.
San Diego Padres
The experiment failed, and the San Diego Padres look foolish for leading us on with the expected improved slate they put up in 2015. James Shields is a nice pitcher, but he may be the only great one there, with Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner always seeming like fill-ins until the greats stop by. Wil Myers and Yangervis Solarte are the only batters I’m interested in, but with the top three teams in this division having a stranglehold, I’m not expecting them to somehow improve without actual offseason improvements.
Check in tomorrow, Opening Day, for my predictions who will make it to October and beyond!