Great Expectations – National League

I love the beginning of the baseball season.  If it were possible, I would take several days off every April, and just watch baseball all day.  The start of a fresh season with all of the unknowns, all of the anticipation, and of course, a lot of different expectations.  As I mentioned last week (Great Expectations – American League), there are frequently unreasonable expectations that fans have for their teams.  Like the Cubs fan who said “this is our year” for the last 40 years, and felt like they had accomplished something by finally being right.  So, let’s take a look at reasonable expectations for 2017.

NL EAST

  • Atlanta Braves (68-93; last in division) – The Braves have centered their rebuilding focus primarily on high quality pitching prospects.  My biggest concern is the fact that this is a much slower rebuild than the development of position players.  The middle of the infield looks like it will be great for years to come, once Albies and Swanson are playing together every day.  But, for now, the Braves are filling in with a lot of short-term contracts, which could provide trade opportunities at the deadline in July.  And, after going 10-20 against 4 of the 5 worst teams outside their division, this team should naturally see some improvement.  Reasonable Expectations:  75+ wins, young players make strides toward being competitive in 2018.
  • Miami Marlins (79-82; 3rd in division) – The Marlins have had very little movement, other than signing Volquez to take the top of the rotation after the tragic loss of Fernandez.  So, in addition to losing the one quality starter in the rotation, they did nothing to improve the offense.  How does a team with the 2nd best team batting avg. in the NL score the 3rd fewest runs?  By not taking advantage of opportunities (10th in RBI’s with RISP).  And, until Stanton can stay healthy for a full season, there’s no one to fear in that lineup.  Reasonable Expectations:  Drop back a little to around 70 wins.
  • New York Mets (87-75; 2nd in division; lost Wild Card game) – Bruce did not play well in NY after the trade (.219/.294/.391).  You would expect him to be back to his usual 25-30 HR and .800+ OPS form this year, which makes this a formidable lineup. If the pitching staff can live up to expectations, this seems to be a team poised for a great season.  The biggest challenge to improvement will be the Nationals – they went 7-12 against them last year, and that was a huge factor in the Nats winning the division.  Reasonable Expectations:  Compete for the division title; possibly make a deep playoff run.
  • Philadelphia Phillies (71-91; 4th in division) – The Phils have a very young offense that isn’t littered with a lot of firepower (scored the fewest runs in the NL in ’16).  But, as they mature, they could be very consistent, even against better pitching staffs.  However, their own rotation has been pieced together, and isn’t exactly intimidating.  Plus, their bullpen had an ERA over 5.00 last year.  And, this team doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere real soon.  Only one legit top-tier prospect that’s close to MLB ready (Crawford), and several of their best prospects were just drafted last year, and won’t be ready for a few years.  Reasonable Expectations:  with other teams in this division taking steps forward, I think the Phils will drop back to the bottom of the division.  Good news is, after getting to pick #8 in this year’s draft, there’s a good chance they’ll be in the top 5 next year.
  • Washington Nationals (95-67; 1st in division; lost NLDS) – Think of it this way: the Nationals won 95 games with their marquee player having arguably the worst full season of his career, and with just 73 games from phenom Trea Turner, and the worst offensive output from Zimmerman in his career.  What does that mean?  The Nats are legit World Series contenders.  Reasonable Expectations:  At minimum compete for the division; look for a strong playoff run.

NL CENTRAL

  • Chicago Cubs (103-58; 1st in division; Won the World Series) – I know it’s been said a lot, but do you realize the Cubs could actually be better this year?  A full season of Schwarber.  A full season of Contreras.  Baez playing regularly.  Russell, Bryant, & Rizzo all maturing as hitters.  This offense could be one of the most productive ever. Plus, Arrietta wasn’t his dominant self for half the year last year, and the bullpen had obvious holes that have now been filled with Edwards, Uehara, and Wade Davis.  Reasonable Expectations:  Division title; but don’t expect another World Series run – the only NL team to win back-to-back titles since 1922 was the ’75-’76 Reds.
  • Cincinnati Reds (68-94; last in division) – The Reds finished with the worst record in the National League a year ago, and were only 4 games better than their 2015 record.  In fact, since they lost the Wild Card game in 2013, they haven’t been better than 10 games under .500.  And, legitimate impact from prospects like Senzel and Garrett is still a year or two away.  One of the worst pitching staffs in baseball was left basically untouched (4.91 ERA in 2016 – only Arizona was worse), and they’re already starting off the year with DeSclafani, Bailey, and Mesoraco on the DL.  Reasonable Expectations:  Hopefully can use Cozart and maybe Storen as mid-season trade bait for some prospects; hopefully don’t see 100 losses.
  • Milwaukee Brewers (73-89; 4th in division) – Even with NL HR champ Carter, this team was tied for 25th in all of baseball in runs scored last year.  Maybe that’s why they decided they didn’t really need him anymore, and let him go to free agency.  And, after trading Lucroy to Texas, this offense only has one real threat in Braun. The farm system is very strong, but it will be a couple years before it impacts the major league team.  Reasonable Expectations:  Hopefully avoid 90+ losses.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (78-83; 3rd in division) – After three consecutive playoff appearances, the Pirates slipped just below .500.  They had a terrible record against the division-winning Cubs (4-14), and only 1 game over .500 against the rest of the division.  So, they need to improve there, if they expect to be in the playoff hunt this year.  But, this is a team that has a good offense, when clicking on all cylinders, an excellent defensive outfield, and if they can perform up to expectations, their starting rotation could be one of the best in the league.  Reasonable Expectations:  Probably not able to compete at the top of the division, but a Wild Card spot would be a successful season.  85+ wins is very reasonable.
  • St. Louis Cardinals (86-76; 2nd in division) – The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.  What had as much to do with it as anything was the way they played down the stretch.  Just one game over .500 over the months of August and September.  And, despite scoring the 3rd most runs in the NL, the pitching staff was middle of the pack (7th in team ERA).  And, while the addition of Fowler means the offense is likely to run more smoothly, the pitching staff remains unchanged.  And, any hope they thought they might get from a young Reyes went out the window with Tommy John surgery.  That, on top of other injuries to the pitching staff means this team is starting off on a tough foot.  Reasonable Expectations:  Similar record; compete for a Wild Card spot.

NL WEST

  • Arizona Diamondbacks (69-93; 4th in division) – A.J. Pollack at the top of this lineup is a difference-maker.  Losing him at the beginning of last season took an immediate toll on this team’s chances.  However, I remain unconvinced that Greinke has the mental makeup to be an ace.  And behind him is not exactly a string of dominating pitchers.  Without any significant additions to the pitching staff (Walker doesn’t count, since he has had an ERA over 4.00 the last two years), I don’t see much chance for improvement over the staff that had the worst ERA in the league a year ago.  Reasonable Expectations:  Better offense = a few more wins, but pitching is the name of the game.  75+ wins should be considered a success.
  • Colorado Rockies (75-87; 3rd in division) – This was a team that underperformed at a fairly significant level.  The Pythagorean algorithm based on their runs scored and runs allowed suggests this team should have won 80 games.  One of the biggest factors in this is that they were just 12-20 in one-run games.  A pitching staff that performs okay when you take the thin air out of the equation (7th in ERA away from Denver), should keep them in some games, because the offense is pretty anemic once they get away from Colorado (10th in the NL in runs scored).  Reasonable Expectations:  .500 is what this team legitimately feels like.  Especially in this division.  Not enough offensive firepower or pitching prowess to overtake the big boys.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71; 1st in division; lost NLCS) – Four straight division championships, but the closest this team has come to the World Series was last year, when they lost the LCS in 6.  The amazing thing about this team is that they have been very good, and keep bringing up impressive prospects.  Pederson, Toles, and Seager the last couple years, Urias will be in the rotation all year this year, and if he gets a chance Cody Bellinger could be an impact rookie this year.  There’s a reason PECOTA predicted them to have the best record in baseball this year.  Reasonable Expectations:  At least compete for the division.  This is a legit World Series contender.
  • San Diego Padres (68-94; last in division) – One of the 8 teams that has yet to win a World Series doesn’t look like they’re any closer to doing so.  They were 10th in the NL in both runs scored, and team ERA.  Quality outfield prospects Margot and Renfroe could be the beginning of an improved offense, but they are both very young and are going to take a little while to make big impacts.  The starting rotation is mostly made up of guys cast aside by other teams.  In a division that seems to have improved everywhere else, this is a team that is waiting for the farm system to develop.  Reasonable Expectations:  Avoid 100 losses, and draft well, as they continue to develop their prospects.
  • San Francisco Giants (87-75; 2nd in division; lost NLDS) – The Giants continue to be a postseason threat, and continue to make very reasonable signings.  Yes, they paid a lot to secure Melancon at the back of their bullpen, but this was an obvious hole in last year’s team – leading the league with 30 blown saves.  The offense really seemed to underperform, considering their lineup.  But, this contributed to a complete collapse in the second half of the season – a 30-42 record which clearly cost them the division.  Reasonable Expectations:  With the closer in place, they should compete for the division, and may very well be a World Series contender … again.
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