The Glass Eye: MLB Preview Part Three – NL Top 10

We finish up with the NL’s best, and let me tell you – after the top three teams, there’s a lot of parity in the NL this season. I think you can make a solid case for any of the bottom seven teams to win a wildcard, and a case for any of them to finish with a losing record. However, it’s a good thing there’s a wildcard race this season, because I’m expecting all three division winners to be comfortably ahead by the end of the season.

10.) Arizona Diamondbacks

2013 record: 81-81 (2nd in NL West; 16th in MLB)

Key Additions: LF Mark Trumbo; RP Addison Reed; SP Bronson Arroyo

Key Losses: OF Jason Kubel, RP Heath Bell

Outlook:  The Diamondbacks appear to me to be trending the wrong way. They have an MVP-caliber hitter in Paul Goldschmidt and there’s definitely talent on this roster, but the rotation is full of good-not-great #3-type starters…and the DBacks keep trading away star potential. Last year it was Justin Upton, this time it was 3B prospect Matt Davidson. Trading a 25-30 homer prospect for a closer seems like a bad deal to me. People will look at Trumbo’s homers and see a good player – I look at his .294 on-base percentage and see an out-making machine.

I think the offense will be good enough but not great, the pitching will be mediocre and the Dbacks will slip behind the rising Padres in the west.

Why they could be worse: Goldschmidt’s 2013 was his career year and/or he gets hurt; Arroyo doesn’t provide 180+ average-or-better innings (and early signs are not promising, as he’s already hurt); the bullpen cannot soak up the extra innings needed.

Why they could be better: I could be underrating the rotation – there’s youth there, and a potential for growth, if not into aces then at least into above-average starters. Goldschmidt continues his ascent to become the best hitter in the NL, Trumbo hits 35+ homers and somehow bats .260 to mask his lack of walks, and the relief corps comes together.

Chances to contend: Right away it’s such a tough call. This team has the potential to win 85-90 games if everything breaks right, but I don’t like the pitching enough to call for that. I see a 10% chance of division contention, 40% to contend for a wildcard and 76-80 wins for the DBacks.

9.) New York Mets

2013 record: 74-88 (3rd in NL East; T-21stth in MLB)

Key Additions: SP Bartolo Colon; LF Curtis Granderson; OF Chris Young

Key Losses: SP Matt Harvey (injured, out for season); RP LaTroy Hawkins; SP Shaun Marcum;

Outlook: The Mets are right in the middle of a full rebuild, with David Wright set to be the only leftover piece from the last good Mets team…in 2008. The Mets have had a losing record every season since then, and I don’t look for 2014 to be much different. There’s an opening here for sure – with the demise of the Phils and the injuries to the Braves, second place is up for grabs…but losing Harvey crushed the Mets’ chances.

The offense is still basically Wright and a bunch of guys, although Granderson could provide some much-needed lefty pop if he’s healthy. Rookie Travis d’Arnaud is a good catching prospect, but other than that I see no real threats on offense unless Ike Davis suddenly figures it out at first base. This was a very poor offense in 2013 despite Marlon Byrd’s career year, and while I see slight improvement, they are still one of the lower-tier offenses.

The pitching has some potential, but signing 41-year-old Colon to be their ace was a poor decision. Sooner or later Colon will just fall apart, and I’m betting on sooner. Zack Wheeler could be a solid #2 pitcher, but he still has command issues…and Niese and Gee are #3/#4-types at best. When Harvey comes back healthy this could be a very solid rotation, but right now they are at least one arm short and if Colon falters, they could be pretty bad. The bullpen is unproven but has a variety of live arms – this could become a top bullpen in short order.

Why they could be worse: Colon is done, Wright starts to decline, and none of the young bats picks up the slack. The Mets collapse to a 95-loss team.

Why they could be better: Wright has another great year left, Granderson wins comeback player of the year, Wheeler becomes a good starter, and the weakness in the division allows the Mets to eke out 87 wins and the #2 wildcard.

Chances to contend: There’s just not enough here, especially on offense. I think they have no better than a 20% chance to contend for a wildcard and virtually no shot at the division. 77-81 wins for the Mets.

8.) Cincinnati Reds

2013 record: 90-72 (3rd in NL Central; 11th in MLB)

Key Additions: OF Billy Hamilton

Key Losses: OF Shin-Soo Choo; SP Bronson Arroyo

Outlook: The Reds appear to be a team that missed their chance. They won 97 games in 2012, slipped to 90 last season – DESPITE their excellent pitching, and they let their second-best hitter leave via free agency. Choo is a GREAT hitter – he hits for power, he has a bit of speed, and he walked 112 times last year, giving him a .423 on-base percentage!

Do you realize how thin the offense really is now? Assuming Hamilton is not a league-average hitter – and there’s no reason to believe he is, based on his minor league stats – the Reds now have two above-average hitters: Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Brandon Phillips is in decline, Frazier is average at best, and Ludwick is aging in left. The only hope for this offense is that Hamilton gets on base enough to steal 100 bases (and he just might), and that Devin Mesoraco finally hits to his potential behind the plate. This is the former Punxsy star’s last shot – if he doesn’t perform this season, look for him to be benched, traded, or both. Either way, this is no longer a good offense; I see them falling into the bottom half of the league.

The pitching will be good again, but almost certainly not as good as 2013. They would have declined a bit in any case, but losing Arroyo to free agency, Chapman to a broken face bone, and Latos to a bad knee really has put the Reds in a bind. They are converting Alfredo Simon to a starter for April to try to take up the slack, but he hasn’t started in years. The rest of the rotation is good, especially if Cueto is healthy, and the bullpen is as deep as any in the game…but overall, they should take a step back in 2014.

Why they could be worse: Votto gets hurt. If he goes down this team is in serious trouble. Aside from that there’s the risk of Hamilton and/or Mesoraco flaming out, and the chance that young starter Tony Cingrani isn’t quite as good as he looked in limited action last season. The Reds could end up under 75 wins in that case.

Why they could be better: Mesoraco hits 20 homers, Hamilton manages a .340 on-base percentage, Latos and Chapman come back 100% in May, and the Reds end up in a dogfight with the Cards.

Chances to contend: Obviously with their pitching, anything is possible. I think they have a 50% chance of contending for a wildcard (maybe 25% for the division). 79-83 wins for the Reds.

7.) Atlanta Braves

2013 record: 96-66 (2nd in NL West; 16th in MLB)

Key Additions:  SP Ervin Santana, C Ryan Doumit, SP Aaron Harang

Key Losses: C Brian McCann, SP Kris Medlen (elbow surgery), SP Brandon Beachy (elbow surgery), SP Tim Hudson, SP Paul Maholm

Outlook: The Braves have endured a nightmarish offseason. They lost McCann to free agency, as expected, but the big blows were on the injury front. The loss of Beachy could be overcome – he missed most of 2013 due to injury – but the loss of Medlen is a crippling blow. Medlen was scheduled to be their opening day starter, but Tommy John surgery (his second) will shelve him for 2014. Making matters worse, lefty Mike Minor is already on the DL with a sore shoulder, and while the team believes he will return by May, in my experience a young pitcher having shoulder issues in March bodes ill for his season. Add in the loss of Hudson and Maholm, and suddenly the only remaining 100+-inning starter is Julio Tehran! Santana’s late addition will help, he was excellent for KC last season, and can be counted on for 180-200 league average innings. Young Alex Wood was also very good in 11 starts in 2013…but he’s still only 23 and unproven. Suddenly this rotation is a major question mark.

The bullpen is still solid, but set-up lefty Johnny Venters still is not healthy, and one has to wonder if the Braves will end up trading closer Craig Kimbrel before he starts making big money in arbitration. In any case, the pitching will still be good overall, but I am 100% sure they will slip from their #1 ranking a year ago – in fact I think they will allow 50-100 more runs in 2014.

The lineup is potentially the good news, there’s reason for optimism in several slots. 1B Freddie Freeman broke out in 2013 and at age 24 could still improve. Same holds true for RF Jason Heyward, and we know that Justin Upton is capable of even more as well. BJ Upton will improve or his career is over – that’s how bad he was in 2013. They will be worse at catcher, and 3B is almost certain to decline (Chris Johnson isn’t THAT good, as his 29 walks vs. 116 K’s illustrates), but overall this offense should be as good as last season or slightly better.

Why they could be worse: Another young pitcher goes down, leaving the rotation in shambles; Heyward or Freeman take a step back, and/or BJ Upton’s terrible 2013 is repeated in ’14; the bullpen cannot shoulder the huge increase in workload, and one of their main relievers ends up on the DL. The Braves stumble out of the gate and don’t finish .500.

Why they could be better: Minor’s shoulder injury lives up to his name, and he still makes 25 starts; the Uptons both have a strong 2014 campaign, the offense carries the team through July, allowing the Braves to hang around the playoff hunt until trade reinforcements arrive.

Chances to contend: I was still a believer when McCann left, but the loss of Beachy, Medlen, and possibly Minor REALLY hurts this team’s chances in 2014. I think this is a 1-year setback, but I have a hard time seeing Atlanta stay with Washington. 15% chance of contending for the division; 50% chance of wildcard contention, and 82-85 wins for Atlanta.

6.) Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 record: 94-68 (2nd in NL Central; 5th in MLB)

Key Additions: none

Key Losses: SP AJ Burnett, 1B Garrett Jones

Outlook: One of the WORST things a team can do after a surprisingly good season is stand pat. Time and again, baseball history has shown that last year’s winners are this season’s disappointments unless some minor tweaks are made. Even the best teams have flaws, and the 2013 Pirates had plenty…especially on offense.

Sure, the Bucs had the NL MVP, and rightly so – McCutchen has become a true superstar. Starling Marte is on his way as well, and Pedro Alvarez inched a bit closer to becoming a star despite his subpar on-base%. The rest of the team was, frankly, not good with the bat. Despite the presence of Marte and McCutchen, this offense finished ninth in the NL in runs scored.

There IS potential for improvement on offense – Clint Barmes was completely ineffective at the plate, and new starter Jordy Mercer is a HUGE improvement offensively. Neil Walker had a subpar season, but he dealt with injuries and figures to rebound a bit. Right field could hardly be worse than it was for most of 2013, although both RF and 1B remain trouble spots in this lineup. Overall, I see improvement here, but not enough to put the offense in the top-6 in the league.

The pitching carried the Bucs in 2013 and while this is still an excellent staff, like the Reds there’s reason to expect decline. Losing Burnett hurts – he was the leader of the staff and he gave this team above-average production for two years. In addition, Francisco Liriano pitched BRILLIANTLY last season after two rotten years – I expect him to regress somewhat. The return of Wandy Rodriguez helps offset that somewhat, and I’m a big fan of Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, but it’s fair to expect the rotation to be slightly worse than in 2013.

The bullpen was flat-out AMAZING a year ago, carrying the team at various points…which is why it’s totally unfair to expect that again. There’s talent there, but a lot of those guys are not flame throwing, strikeout guys.

Why they could be worse: Liriano’s 2013 was the fluke, not 2011-12; the bullpen cannot replicate their amazing success; the bats only improve a little, and the team sinks back below .500

Why they could be better: Alvarez finally figures it all out and becomes an MVP candidate; the rest of the offense takes a significant step forward and becomes league-average, offsetting the slight pitching decline; GM Neal Huntingdon makes an aggressive in-season move to fill the RF hole, either by calling up Polanco or by making a trade, and the team wins 90 games.

Chances to contend: They are going to be worse…there’s no way I can see this group winning 94 games again. Having said that, there’s a darn good foundation here now, and more help is on the way. If management makes bold moves to deal from their excess prospects, there’s no reason the Bucs cannot contend in 2014. I am not at all sure they will make those moves, and I think the Bucs have a 15% chance of competing for the division and a 60% chance of contending for a wildcard slot. Call it 84-86 wins for the Bucs this season.

5.) San Diego Padres

2013 record: 76-86 (T-3rd in NL West; T-18thth in MLB)

Key Additions: SP Josh Johnson, RP Joaquin Beniot

Key Losses: SP Edinson Volquez, SP Jason Marquis

Outlook: This is admittedly an unorthodox pick, but I like the Padres to improve and even win the last wild-card in 2014. They stood pat on offense, which at first looks like a mistake…but when you allow for their EXTREMELY pitcher-friendly home park, you realize that their offense is actually decent – especially if Carlos Quentin can stay healthy. The entire lineup has ages between 25 and 31, so they all should be in or near their primes.  They feature well above-average production at 2B and SS, which is a RARE thing these days, and 3B Chase Headley is due to rebound after a relatively poor 2013. On the whole, this is a good
offense and could be even better if they remain healthy.

The question is the pitching – despite their home park, the Padres allowed 700 runs, third-worst in the NL. When you consider their park, the Padres probably had the worst pitching in the league. The bottom-end starters were responsible for much of that – Volquez, Marquis, and a host of others combined for an ERA well over 5.00, but all of those pitchers are gone. Ian Kennedy was brought in last season, and was an instant improvement – and I believe he can regain most of his 2011 form. Johnson is more of a wildcard, when healthy he’s an ace, but health has eluded him his whole career and he’s already on the DL this spring. If he can manage to give them 20 good starts, that would also be a huge boost. Tyson Ross also made 16 starts a year ago, and was successful in the role. Overall the rotation should be much improved.

The bullpen will be aided by the addition of Benoit, although losing Luke Gregerson was a blow.  This is a good ‘pen but not a dominant one, and a good candidate for midseason upgrade if they are contending.

Why they could be worse: Kennedy still is league average or worse, Johnson never gets healthy, the rest of the rotation is average or worse, I’m overestimating the offense, and the Padres improve only slightly.

Why they could be better: Johnson makes 25 good starts, Kennedy rediscovers his ‘ace’ form, the Padres allow 100 fewer runs and make a run at 90 wins.

Chances to contend: expecting them to keep up with the Dodgers is a long shot – say 10% – but I like this team’s chances to improve this year, and I think they have a 70% chance to contend for a playoff berth this year. 86-88 wins for the Padres.

4.) Milwaukee Brewers

2013 record: 74-88 (4th in NL Central; T-21stth in MLB)

Key Additions: SP Matt Garza

Key Losses: OF Nori Aoki, OF/1B Corey Hart

Outlook: Milwaukee really collapsed in 2013, but I’ll bet you didn’t realize that their pitching was actually better in 2013 than it had been in 2012. The Brewers actually allowed 50 less runs…the problem was the offense, which we will get to in a minute. The rotation was actually pretty good – Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta and Estrada were collectively above-average, and adding Matt Garza makes this potentially a very good rotation…especially if Peralta shows improvement in his second full season. The bullpen is another story – Henderson is a decent closer, but this is pretty clearly the weakest area of the team, and one that will need upgrading midseason if the Brewers are having a good year.

The offense COMPLETELY collapsed in 2013 – they scored 640 runs, a decrease of 136! The loss of Corey Hart for the year and Ryan Braun’s 100-game suspension were the main culprits…but don’t overlook the TERRIBLE production the team got from their replacements. This team gave 1000 at-bats to Betancourt, Schafer, and Bianchi…and they COMBINED for a .250 on-base% and a .320 slugging %. That’s pathetic and speaks to the lack of depth in the organization. Make no mistake, this team desperately needs an influx of talent in the next few seasons, and the farm system is completely barren…however, with the return of Braun and some injury luck, this team should be MUCH better offensively in 2014. If Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett are close to as good as they looked in limited action last season, this could be a top-5 offense in 2014. In any case, I’m predicting 60-100 more runs this season.

Why they could be worse: Injuries – there’s no depth at all, as they found out in 2013. If the rotation falters, the bullpen isn’t nearly good enough to compensate…and of course they cannot lose Braun for more than a handful of games this year, he’s the ‘straw that stirs the drink’.

Why they could be better: Braun has an MVP season, Aramis Ramirez is healthy, they get above-average production from the entire lineup and the front office adds the relief pieces needed for this team to make one final playoff run with this core.

Chances to contend: I think this is Milwaukee’s ‘last hurrah’ with this group, but when I see how bad their luck was in 2013, I see a team with an excellent chance to rebound. Couple that with the decline from all three playoff teams in the division, and someone has to pick up some of those wins – my bet is the Brewers. They have almost no margin for error, but if healthy they should be a very good team. 35% chance of division contention, 75% chance of wildcard contention, 87-90 wins and a playoff slot for the Brewers in 2014.

3.) Los Angeles Dodgers

2013 Record: 92-70 (1st in NL West; T-7th in MLB)

Key Additions: SP Dan Haren

Key Losses: SP Chris Capuano, SP Ricky Nolasco , 2B Mark Ellis

Outlook: The Dodgers are the consensus favorite to win the NL West, and while I do not disagree with that consensus, I believe the Dodgers are the most vulnerable of the division favorites due to a lack of depth. Their rotation is impressive, led by Kershaw, Grienke and Ryu – perhaps the best top-3 in the game, and now fortified by the addition of Haren. If Josh Beckett can give them even 20 league-average starts, this should be the best rotation in the NL. The bullpen is almost as impressive – Kenley Jansen is one of the game’s top closers, and they have three excellent set-up men in Wilson, Rodriguez and Howell. Much depends on the health of Kershaw and Grienke, however, as there’s not much depth after the top four.

The lineup is even thinner – they have stars in Ramirez, Gonzalez, and possibly Puig, league-average production at 3B, CF and LF, below-average production from C and a BIG question mark at 2B. They signed Cuban defector Alex Guerrero to replace Ellis, but he did so poorly that he’s been sent to AAA, and the perennially disappointing Dee Gordon is the opening-day 2B. Maybe this is the year he puts it together, but Gordon has not hit in three years of major league experience. Worse yet, there’s no depth on this team, and there’s a lot of injury history with Crawford and Ramirez. Puig needs to show he wasn’t a one-year wonder as well. If healthy this CAN be a very good offense, but I don’t see major improvement over 2013 here.

Why they could be worse: Kershaw, Grienke, Ramirez, or Gonzalez sustains a major injury; Haren continues his decline from his 2011 peak; Puig turns out to be a flash in the pan; Gordon is TERRIBLE at 2B and the team never solves the problem.

Why they could be better: The team stays relatively healthy, Puig is the real deal, Gordon or Guerrerro performes adequately at 2B, and the team runs away with the division.

Chances to contend: They WILL contend, I think it’s 95-99% to contend for a playoff berth and 90% to contend for the division. Even in the worst-case, this should be an 85+ win team, I just don’t see a lot of improvement over last season. Then again, that was good enough then and I think it will be in 2014. 91-94 wins and the division title for the Dodgers.

2.) St. Louis Cardinals

2013 record: 97-65 (1st in NL Central; T-1st in MLB)

Key Additions: CF Peter Bourjos, 2B Kolten Wong (rookie), SS Jhonny Peralta

Key Losses: OF Carlos Beltran, RP Edward Mujica, 3B David Freese, SP Jake Westbrook

Outlook: The Cardinals are the best organization in baseball. They have a strong farm system, excellent management, and the major league team has no apparent weaknesses. The only hole in the lineup in 2013 was SS Pete Kozma, and Peralta represents a huge offensive upgrade (albeit a defensive downgrade). Normally the loss of a hitter of Beltran’s caliber would be cause for concern, but his departure opens a lineup slot for Allan Craig, and also allows Philipsburg’s Matt Adams to take over fulltime at first base. If either falters, top prospect Oscar Taveras should be ready by midseason if needed. Wong’s arrival allows Matt Carpenter to move to third, a more natural position for him – and if Wong fails, they brought in Mark Ellis to provide insurance. The only concern on offense is that the Cards hit an amazing .330 in 2013 with runners in scoring position – look for that figure to drop at least 50 points, which may cause a slight decrease in runs scored…otherwise, this still profiles as a top-flight offense, and only three hitters (Holliday, Peralta and Molina) are over 30 – the Cards never rebuild, they simply reload.

As good as the hitting is, the pitching might be better. Wainwright is an established ace, Shelby Miller is an ace in the making, and Michael Wacha showed his talent last October. Jaime Garcia is back from injury, and while I’m not a big Lance Lynn fan, if he’s your #5 starter you have a very good rotation. The bullpen is full of young fireballers, let by Trevor Rosenthal (108 K’s in 75 innings last season).

Reasons they could be worse: Wong doesn’t pan out, their young rotation suffers growing pains or injuries, and one of their divisional rivals plays above their heads all season.

Reasons they could be better: Wong hits right away, Adams becomes a 40-homer beast, and the pitching is as good as expected. The Cards steamroll to 100+ wins.

Chances to contend: As close to 100% as anyone in MLB. It would take a string of injuries/disappointing performances for this team to win less than 85 games. The only reason I don’t rank them #1 is the division, it’s the toughest in the NL and should keep them under 100 wins. 99% to contend for the playoffs, 90% for the division, and 93-96 wins for the Cards.

1.) Washington Nationals

2013 record: 86-76(2nd in NL East, T-12th in MLB)

Key Additions: SP Doug Fister

Key Losses: SP Dan Haren

Outlook: After a disappointing 2013, I expect the Nats to bounce back in a big way in 2014. They have no obvious holes on offense, and the potential for big-time breakouts from Rendon and Harper. I’m already hearing ‘overrated’ talk about Bryce Harper – at age 20, he hit 20 homers in only 118 games, had a .368 on-base% and a slugged almost .500 – players who can do that at age 20 develop into stars in almost every case. Harper is a great bet to hit 30+ homers this season. Rendon held his own in 90 games last year, look for him to be well above-average this season. The only position that looks to be below average is first base, where LaRoche is aging and was barely average last year. Overall, expect this offense to produce 30-60 more runs this season as their young stars develop.

The rotation is already dominant – Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Fister form possibly the best top-4 in the NL, and as a fifth starter Ross Detweiler is above-average. The bullpen is solid, although not particularly deep – this is an area that probably could use upgrading in-season if there are issues.

Reasons they could be worse: Fister is already battling injuries, so if any of the top three starters get hurt, they will be in the
same boat as the Braves. There’s still some chance that Harper and Rendon do not develop, and LaRoche could be in steep decline.

Reasons they could be better: this team has HUGE potential if healthy, and if the rest of the division is as weak as I’m expecting, the Nats could end up with 100+ wins and wrap up the division the second week of September.

Chances to contend: I don’t believe in any other team in this division, so barring a series of injuries the Nats should be in the hunt all year with no problem. I think they are 95% to contend for the division, and I expect them to win 95-99 games and be the top overall seed in the playoffs.

Next week: a look back at the NHL season, as we begin to prepare for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs!

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

 

 

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