Do you think Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and first-year manager Matt Williams are happy their team resides in the National League East division?
Absolutely. Why wouldn’t they be thrilled, when three of their four division opponents lost more games than they won in 2013?
Some would say the likelihood of a successful 2014 campaign for the Nationals increased with the news that the New York Mets would be minus stud pitcher Matt Harvey (Tommy John surgery) for the season, only to be followed by Atlanta’s Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, who like Medlen may be headed for a second Tommy John.
And in Philadelphia, left-hander Cole Hamels is sidelined indefinitely with shoulder/biceps tendinitis.
Does Washington have what it takes to take advantage of a weakened division and fend off an ailing but still talented Braves outfit?
Which teams will reign supreme across the National League in 2014? Which of the NL’s other 14 clubs are poised to take the next step or falter this season?
It’s all here as we project the division winners along with three teams on the rise and decline. We posted the American League preview earlier this week.
East: Washington — The Nationals were a good bet to win the division even before Atlanta’s starting pitching trio of Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down with injuries in spring training. The question is, will Washington finish closer to its 86-76 record of a year ago or the 98 wins of 2012? We’re saying the latter, thanks in large part to starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.
We also expect a big spike in production from 21-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, who posted 20 homers, 58 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in just 118 games. Also, his walk rate jumped in 2013 while his strikeout rate dipped. Besides Harper, second baseman Anthony Rendon, 23, and catcher Wilson Ramos, 26, have yet to reach their potential.
Central: St. Louis — There is little doubt the Cardinals continue to rule the division coming off their second National League pennant in three years. They have few weaknesses entering the 2014 season, having added Jhonny Peralta to replace Pete Kozma at shortstop, while Matt Carpenter shifts to third base from second to replace David Freese, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. Infield prospect Kolten Wong will play second.
Outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will start the season at triple-A, meaning more at-bats for first baseman Matt Adams (.284, 17 homers in 296 at-bats in 2013) while Allen Craig patrols right field. Adam Wainwright and 2013 playoff standout Michael Wacha form a 1-2 punch atop the starting rotation and hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal (108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings) is the full-time closer.
West: Los Angeles Dodgers — No surprise here as the Dodgers won 92 times last season despite a slew of injuries. Health would go a long way in helping L.A. move closer to the 95-97-win range, specifically when you’re talking about outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, who missed a combined 135 games in 2013. The Dodgers will also have a full season of outfielder Yasiel Puig, who will attempt to duplicate the pace of last year’s 40-game stint (.313, eight homers, 37 RBIs, 13 stolen bases).
The Dodgers also blew 19 saves last season as lights-out stopper Kenley Jansen (28 saves, 111 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings) didn’t step into the role until late June. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke anchor the starting rotation, with veterans Dan Haren and Josh Beckett on the back end.
On the rise
Colorado — We’re expecting the Rockies, who finished fifth in the National League West last season with a 74-88 record, to inch closer to the .500 mark, health permitting. However, that’s already in question with starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin nursing a shoulder strain. Fellow starter Brett Anderson, who arrived in a trade from Oakland in the off-season, has also been a frequent visitor to the disabled list but is currently healthy.
Colorado could still improve and outperform the opposition with its stellar offence, led by star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, also oft-injured players. Outfielder Michael Cuddyer, catcher Wilin Rosario and Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau can top the 20-homer mark while third baseman Nolan Arenado (10 homers, 52 RBIs in 486 AB) and fellow youngster D.J. LeMahieu (.280, 18 steals) should improve at the plate.
Milwaukee — Ryan Braun’s back from his season-ending suspension, so what’s not to like? The Brewers should best their 2013 performance of 74-88, even though they were reeling before Braun’s banishment for PED use. Fellow outfielder Carlos Gomez supplies power and speed (24 homers, 40 stolen bases in 2013), Jonathan Lucroy is a strong-hitting catcher and a healthy Aramis Ramirez at third base is usually good for a .290 batting average and 25 home runs.
On the mound, Matt Garza returns to the National League after a brief and disappointing stint with Texas. A bounce-back season from Yovani Gallardo would help, as would continued improvement from fellow starting pitchers Marco Estrada (7-4, 3.87 ERA in 21 starts) and Wily Peralta (11 wins, 4.37 ERA).
San Diego — There will no doubt be some eyes in Toronto on the Padres to see if ex-Blue Jays pitcher Josh Johnson can stay healthy and produce more than the two wins and 6.20 ERA he did in Toronto. But this isn’t the reason we’re saying they’re a team on the rise. It’s more about their younger players and their capability to take a step forward, namely Yonder Alonso (.281, six HRs, 45 RBIs), Jedd Gyorko (.249, 23 HRs) and Yasmani Grandal (.216, one HR in 88 AB).
Third baseman Chase Headley (.250, 13 HRs, 50 RBIs) should post better numbers (he had 31 homers and 115 RBIs in 2012) while we also expect improvements with starting pitchers Andrew Cashner (10 wins, 3.09 ERA in 26 starts) and Tyson Ross (3 wins, 3.17 in 35 games including 16 starts).
On the decline
Arizona — The Diamondbacks will be hard-pressed to match or surpass 81 victories, which they have accomplished in back-to-back seasons, given the recent news that ace pitcher Patrick Corbin might will miss the entire 2014 campaign after elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery. He took a big step in his second major league season in 2013, winning 14 games with a 3.41 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 208 1/3 innings.
Veteran righty Bronson Arroyo, who averaged 13 wins the past eight seasons with Cincinnati, also has dealt with a back issue this spring. Arizona is also gambling on bounce-back seasons from Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill, which is far from a certainty. While new left-fielder Mark Trumbo doesn’t hit for average, he’ll provide power alongside first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Atlanta — Hard to imagine the last time the Braves would fall into this category, but this happens when your projected top three starting pitchers are felled by injury during spring training. Mike Minor might miss most, if not all, of April after developing shoulder soreness following off-season urinary tract surgery. Kris Medlen is lost for the season after March 18 Tommy John surgery, his second, while Brandon Beachy also requires a second Tommy John procedure.
While Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and recently signed Ervin Santana are capable of good things, the loss of Medlen and Beachy should quiet any talk of Atlanta winning 96 games again and repeating as National League East champions. The Braves will be good, not great, because of hitters like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and closer Craig Kimbrel.
Miami — Well, at least fans can get excited about 21-year-old pitching sensation Jose Fernandez, who posted a 12-6 record in his first 28 major league starts. More impressive was his 2.19 ERA, 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings and holding opposing batters to a .182 batting average.
The Marlins might match their 62 wins of 2013 should outfielder Giancarlo Stanton play more than the 116 games he did last season. He still managed 24 home runs but is capable of 40 in a healthy year. Fellow outfielder Christian Yelich has a bright future but only 62 games of major league experience. First baseman Garrett Jones and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia are new to the team but not difference-makers.