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2014 National League Outlook

Less than five months after making his major league debut, Iowa City-born Michael Wacha won the 2013 NLCS Most Valuable Player. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Less than five months after making his major league debut, Iowa City-born Michael Wacha won the 2013 NLCS Most Valuable Player. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Here is our preview and predictions for the 2014 Major League Baseball season, with this preview concentrating on the National League.

NL East:

If indeed the National League East ends up becoming an arms race, last season’s division champions, the Atlanta Braves, might end up getting outgunned in 2014. Just before the season started, Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA in 2013) and Brandon Beachy (3.23 ERA in 46 career starts), two-fifths of their starting rotation, were lost for the season as they’re both due to have Tommy John surgery. With the retirement of Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel might be the best closer in the game, but can the Braves’ starters do well enough throughout the season to get to him in the ninth? Atlanta’s bats should still be as potent – and as impotent – as it was last season. The Braves led the Senior Circuit in both home runs (181) and strikeouts (1,384). The loss of Brian McCann in free agency (NY Yankees) opens the door for “El Oso Blanco,” Evan Gattis, to play everyday. His 27 home runs last season should take a spike up with being on the diamond more, and he certainly is able to protect the Upton Brothers and Freddie Freeman in the lineup. Third baseman Chris Johnson, a relative journeyman until last season, will need to duplicate his fine season of 2013, which included 34 doubles.

A hot finish to end the season could not save the Washington Nationals from recovering from a poor first four months of the season in manager Davey Johnson’s swan song. In steps Matt Williams, the former Giants and D-Backs slugger, and he’s inheriting a lot of talent, as well as whole lot of expectations. The main culprit to last season’s letdown was an offense that just couldn’t hit until the calendar almost hit September, and a main reason for that was the absence of outfielder Jayson Werth for a month last May due to a hamstring injury. After the All-Star Break, Werth might have been the best hitter in the National League, hitting .339 with an OPS of 1.032. An injury-free season from Werth might make all the difference in 2014. Being injury-free is also what the excellent starting pitching staff hopes for as well, although that’s not off to a good start. Doug Fister, whom the Nats acquired from Detroit in the offseason, suffered a lat strain in spring training and is currently on the DL. Nats fans hope starters Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez avoid the DL all season long.

After missing almost the final two months of 2013 with a hamstring injury, the Mets hop limiting David Wright to just a few games in spring training will lead to long-term good health for 2014. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
David Wright was limited to just a few games in spring training in the hope he will remain healthy for the long haul in 2014. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

To beef up their enervate lineup from last season, the New York Mets added Curtis Granderson, who spent the last few seasons applying his trade for the Yankees. We’re not sure his pull-happy swing will translate well in the more cavernous Citi Field compared of Yankee Stadium, but adding any power threat to go along with stalwart David Wright, who missed most of the final two months of 2013 due to a hamstring injury, was a necessity in the offseason. Granderson is one of many (and I mean MANY) outfielders the Mets have on the roster. Of that group, center fielder Juan Lagares needs to find his way into the lineup everyday, as he already might be the best defensive center fielder in the National League. It’s his offense (.287 OBP in 2013) that will cause him to be in a platoon situation if that doesn’t improve. Just over a month after being the starting pitcher at the All-Star Game in his home park, Mets wunderkind Matt Harvey was lost for the season – and probably all of this season – with an elbow injury, as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery last October. But another young arm, Noah Syndergaard, is poised to make a Harvey-like effect as he probably will be called up at some point during 2014.

This isn’t 1983, but no one would question you at all if you deemed the 2014 edition of the Philadelphia Phillies “Wheeze Kids: Part II.” Philadelphia projects to have five players in their everyday lineup that are at least 34 years of age; outfielder Marlon Byrd (36), shortstop Jimmy Rollins (35), second baseman Chase Utley (35), catcher Carlos Ruiz (35) and first baseman Ryan Howard (34). Their top two starters also are long in the tooth, with Cliff Lee being 35 and newly acquired A.J. Burnett being 37. As long as Lee stays his consistent self, Burnett could end up being the steal of free agency. Longing to live closer to his Maryland home to be with his wife and kids more often, Burnett has been stellar the past two seasons while a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning a combined 26 games with a 3.31 ERA. He was the ace of a staff that led Pittsburgh to its first postseason since 1992, and his stuff – along with his durability – could help the Phillies ascend the NL East ladder this season.

So how do I start talking about the Miami Marlins without mentioning pitching phenom Jose Fernandez? Well, I can’t. But it’s a good starting point, especially given that Fernandez exploded onto the Major League scene, winning NL Rookie of the Year (over Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig) and possessing stuff that is no-hit quality every time he steps onto the bump. Even with the fire sale the Marlins pulled off before last season, there’s still enough talent in the lineup to support a young and inexperienced pitching staff. Powerful masher Giancarlo Stanton has more protection in the lineup with the additions of first baseman Garrett Jones and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but the most important contributions in the lineup have to come from Stanton’s outfield mates, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. Both were highly touted prospects coming up the farm system, and both have to produce this season to make sure the Marlins stay competitive – as well as to make sure Miami can keep Stanton from becoming a valuable trading chip by June.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. 500px-Washington_Nationals_logo.svg   2.  201px-MiamiMarlins.svg     3.250px-Atlanta_Braves.svg     4.  250px-Philadelphia_Phillies.svg   5. 250px-New_York_Mets.svg

 

NL Central:

Yes, Boston won the World Series last season, but the St. Louis Cardinals, the team the Red Sox vanquished in the Fall Classic, continues to be the model of consistency in baseball. And the main reason that’s the case is shrewd personnel moves. When Albert Pujols flew the nest for sunny Los Angeles skies, all the Cardinals did was plug in guys like Allen Craig to fill in, and all Craig did last season was bat .378 with runners on base, .454 with runners in scoring position and .448 with runners in scoring position and two outs. IN-SANE! This season, the newest position player to come up from the minor league system with the expectation of making a big impact is second baseman Kolten Wong. (Yes, the same Wong that got picked off at first base to end Game 4 of the World Series last season.) Known for his speed and his glove, Wong had a torrid spring training, hitting .375 and posting a 1.080 OPS. If second base becomes a power source for St. Louis this season, their offense, which includes Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and newly acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta, may be the best in the National League. It might be the best right now without a breakout season from Wong. As for the arms, Michael Wacha, given his stellar 2013 postseason (4-1, 2.64 ERA, 30.2 IP, 16 H, 33 K), might be poised to the the ace real soon. Until now, that’s Adam Wainwright, who has led the NL in wins two of the last four seasons.

Holy, Mike LaValliere, Batman! The Pittsburgh Pirates are finally good again! Congratulations to the Pirates for last season’s run to the playoffs, and it was a well-deserved summer of fun for the fans in the Steel City desperate for a winner on the diamond to go along with their perennial powers on the gridiron (Steelers) and on the ice (Penguins). What can the Pirates do for an encore? They could be even better, if last season’s NL Most Valuable Player, Andrew McCutchen, continues to improve on his numbers. I say he needs to improve on his stats from 2013 (.317, 21 HR, 84 RBI, .911 OPS) because the Pirates lineup for 2014 is almost exactly the same from 2013. Without adding another power stick to the lineup in the offseason, Pittsburgh is hoping players like Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Neil Walker have even better seasons this time around. If the relatively no-name supporting cast doesn’t play up to that level, a precipitous drop in the standings could await. Losing A.J. Burnett to free agency hurts, but Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole should make for a solid top of the rotation, and a fully healthy Jason Grilli is back to shore up the back end of the bullpen.

Former pitching coach Bryan Price will try to lead the Reds to their first postseason series win since 1995. (Rob Tringali/Getty Images)
Former pitching coach Bryan Price will try to lead the Reds to their first postseason series win since 1995. (Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

After six seasons and three playoff appearances – but only two total playoff wins and zero playoff series victories – the Cincinnati Reds decided to part ways with manager Dusty Baker and promoted pitching coach Bryan Price to lead the team forward as the new skipper. As long as the Reds play their home games at Great American Ball Park, they’ll continue to win a lot of games; Cincinnati has finished at least 17 games over .500 at home in three of the last four seasons. The lineup is still potent with the likes of Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, and they’ll continue to hit. Votto continues to be one of the most patient, selective hitters in the game, but that’s something that most fans, as well as some associated with the Reds, want to see altered just a little bit. In his 2010 MVP season, the Toronto-born slugger hit 37 home runs, drove in 113 and walked 91 times in 150 games. Last season, he hit 24 homers, only drove in 73 runs and walked a league-leading 135 times. Votto has led the NL in walks in each of the past three seasons, but his patience may cause fans to have their patience wear thin, hoping he’ll swing the bat more. Cincinnati will start the season without flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, who suffered a concussion after a line-drive come backer struck him in the head late in spring training. His recovery may very well determine the Reds’ playoff hopes in 2014.

The Ryan Braun redemption tour begins in earnest in 2014 as the Milwaukee Brewers welcome back their disgraced slugger to the fold to help put behind them what was a miserable 2013. One of the few bright spots to last season was the emergence of All-Star center fielder Carlos Gomez, who had 61 extra-base hits to go along with 40 stolen bases. Along with the offense, he’s a highlight reel waiting to happen in center field. Braun will now man right field because of the emergence of young talent Khris Davis, who will be in left. In only 136 at-bats last season, Davis was able to smash 11 homers, and those numbers are only bound to increase given that he’ll play much more than the 56 games he played last season – as well as playing in hitter friendly Miller Park. Ace Yovani Gallardo is probably the only reliable starter in the rotation. He’s made at least 30 starts in every season since 2009 and has allowed 86 fewer hits than innings pitched (1097) in his career.

Now this year will be the Chicago Cubs’ year!! Ok, so that’s just a little belated  April Fool’s joke humor, but sooner or later, that has to be the case, right? It definitely won’t be this year, although the North Siders will be looking to a whole lot of youth and hoping to see the signs of a bright future ahead. Outfielder Junior Lake had a fine spring training (including a three-homer game) and hopes to translate that into a breakout 2014. Mike Olt, the former Texas minor league player of the year who came over to the North Side in the Matt Garza trade, is scheduled to start at third base and hit in the middle of the order, Olt was on the fast track to the majors before being hit by a pitch in the face in winter ball in 2012, subsequently suffering from concussion/vision issues. Jeff Samardzija is the ace of the staff, but with the Cubs projected to finish at or near the bottom of the division, how long he stays a Cub will be a big storyline over the summer.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. 216px-St._Louis_Cardinals_Logo.svg    2. 71px-Pirates_Logo_2014_Season (Wild Card)   3. NLC-CIN-Logo    4. Chicago_cubs_logo   5.  NLC-MIL-Logo

 

NL West:

After finding his legs coming back from injury early in 2013, Ramirez hit .370 last September. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)
After finding his legs coming back from injury early in 2013, Ramirez hit .370 last September. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images AsiaPac)

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Los Angeles Dodgers finished atop the NL West last season. From almost getting fired a couple of months in, manager Don Mattingly got the ship righted, with a little help from “Puig-mania.” Yasiel Puig’s call-up to the club last June was the spark the Dodgers needed to surge atop the standings, but now with Puig beginning the season with the club, will the momentum continue? Almost as important as Puig’s play was to the Dodgers success last season was the hot hitting of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who hopes to have a healthy season. Same goes for Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. And we haven’t even mentioned former MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, who still is recovering from October ankle surgery. If all goes well, he’ll be in the lineup in the first weekend series of the year against the Giants. Dan Haren was added to an already dynamite pitching staff, headed by 2011 and 2013 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were dealt a huge blow in the offseason when it was revealed that starter Patrick Corbin, an All-Star last season, had to undergo Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2014 season. With that development, Archie Bradley, one of the highest-rated prospects in the minors, will start the season in the rotation and the D-Backs hope that he can have as much of an impact as Corbin did last season. Former Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo was acquired in a three-team deal, and he’ll add protection for Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup. But since Goldschmidt already is manning first defensively, that means Trumbo will be playing left field, which could cause problems defensively.

For the past few seasons, the San Diego Padres always seem to start off very slowly, then work their way back to respectability by the time the year ends. At least they’re consistent on that front. But a fast start is imperative, and it helps that third basemen Chase Headley will start the season healthy, unlike last season. In 2012, Headley led the NL with 115 RBI, no small feat given that half of his games take place at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Speaking of pitchers, the staff could really become a force if Josh Johnson can come back strong from a forearm injury. He’s due back in May, and if he shows the stuff that he displayed a few seasons back in Miami, the Padres have a top-of-the-line stud to go with the likes of Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy. Pitching and defense have been key cogs to the Padres when they’ve been successful at Petco, and this year won’t be any different.

Many faces from the 2010 and 2012 champions are still on the roster, but is the magic still present for the San Francisco Giants? Uncharacteristically, the weakness of last season’s team was their pitching, and starters like Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong aren’t getting any younger. Matt Can, who saw his ERA jump from 2.79 in 2012 to an even 4.00 in 2013, needs to have a bounce back season. All this means Madison Bumgarner needs to be even better than his All-Star campaign on 2013 and become the unquestioned ace. The Giants bullpen still looks as good as it has been, so if the starters can get consistently turn over the game to them with the lead, things are looking up. The lineup features the same names from last season, although which Pablo Sandoval we’re going to get remains a mystery. Buster Posey is as consistent as they come, but if first baseman Brandon Belt can finally live up to expectations, he can be much-needed protection for Posey in the batting order.

By name recognition only, the Colorado Rockies lineup should be a fearsome one, with Michael Cuddyer (last season’s batting champion), Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau slotted for the middle of the order. By that same measure of name recognition, their pitching staff will struggle, with Jorge de la Rosa, Brett Anderson and Tyler Chatwood heading the starting rotation. And LaTroy Hawkins, at 41 years old, is the projected closer. Ouch. Maybe things will not go as bad as it looks, but there’s no reason why the trend of great hitting and horrible pitching won’t continue in Coors Field this season.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Los_Angeles_Dodgers_Logo   2. 185px-San_francisco_giants_alternate_logo   (Wild Card) 3.  200px-San_Diego_Padres_Logo_svg  4.  446px-Arizona_Diamondbacks    5.  200px-Colorado_Rockies_logo_svg

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