2014 NL Preview

The long wait is over, and baseball has finally arrived. And rather than enjoy the festivities of Opening Day, every baseball fan and his or her mother will mark the occasion by attempting to predict the outcome of the 2014 season. As baseball fans, we at Serious Jammage feel obligated to do our own predictions, even though they are almost guaranteed to be wrong. Today is the NL Preview, with the AL Preview coming out tomorrow.

EAST

 

How will Doug Fister impact the Nationals?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Washington Nationals (93-69)

2. Atlanta Braves (87-75)

3. New York Mets (75-87)

4. Miami Marlins (70-92)

5. Philadelphia Phillies (69-93)

SLEEPER TEAM – Miami Marlins: 

Last year, the Marlins not only finished last in the division, but also finished last in the NL, ending the year with a 62-100 record. The 2013 Marlins suffered from an historic lack of offense, as they finished dead last in batting average, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs. In fact, the Marlins hit just 95 home runs in 2013 — two fewer than the combined totals of Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis.  However, their young rotation brimmed with talent, headlined of course by Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, whose 2.19 ERA was the lowest by a rookie since Dave Righetti in 1981.  But the rest of the rotation managed success in Fernandez’ shadow, with Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs under 4. Over the offseason, the Marlins made some to improve their offense, bringing in former Boston Red Sox’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs in 121 games last season. They took fliers on former Pirate Garrett Jones, who is coming off of a down year, as well as Rafael Furcal, who missed 2013 with injury, and Casey McGehee, who spent the year in Japan. On top of those additions, the Marlins will get full seasons from top outfield prospects Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Look for the pitching to improve as well in 2014, as probable regression from Fernandez will be mitigated by improvements from Turner, Eovaldi, and Alvarez, each of whom are no older than 24.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Philadelphia Phillies

The 2013 Phillies finished with the franchise’s worst record since 1997, and none of their moves this offseason suggest that they will be able to turn it around. Already this season, the Phillies have already lost pitcher Cole Hamels to bicep tendonitis, which will likely keep him out for at least the first month of the season.  Age is the biggest problem the Phillies face; their projected Opening Day lineup will have an average age of about 31, and their starting rotation (including Cole Hamels) will have an average age of about 33. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (given the derisive moniker “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.” by his detractors) did nothing to make his team younger — his biggest offseason signings were Marlon Byrd (36), Carlos Ruiz (35), and A.J. Burnett (37).  With a lack of major league talent in their farm system, the Phillies may be trapped if one of those aging stars go down with an injury. The Phillies may be looking for a redux of their famous Wheeze Kids team of 1983 — that club won the pennant despite an average age over 32.  But with the talent level on this year’s team, it seems the Phillies’ dynasty has finally run out of breath.

WHY WILL THE NATIONALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

Last season, the Nationals were one of the biggest disappointment in baseball. After winning 98 games and the division in 2o12 , the Nationals slipped in 2013, winning only 86 games and finishing 4 games out of the playoffs. A lack of offense for most of the season, injuries to star players like Bryce Harper, and a lack of pitching depth restricted the Nationals from becoming they team prognosticators thought they would be. However, the Nationals greatly improved their chances this year with possibly the biggest steal of the offseason, acquiring Doug Fister from the Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. Fister will slide into the fourth spot in the Nationals rotation, behind all-stars Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, giving the Nationals arguably the best rotation in baseball. As for their offense, full seasons from Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos will help give the Nationals plenty of depth in their lineup. If the Nationals are able to stay healthy in 2014, they have the potential to be as good as any other team in baseball.

CENTRAL

 

The Pirates lack of starting pitching will keep them from repeating their 2013 playoff run.

 

PROJECTED FINISH

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

2. Cincinnati Reds (88-74)

3. Pittsburg Pirates (82-80)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)

5. Chicago Cubs (68-94)

SLEEPER TEAM – Milwaukee Brewers: 

Heading into 2014, there are a lot of questions revolving around the Brewers. How will Ryan Braun play after his PED suspension? Can Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura repeat their success from last year? Is Matt Garza finally healthy? Will Yovani Gallardo return to his 2012 form? Who would name their child Scooter? Last season, the Brewers were a middle of the pack offensive team. However, they only got half of  a season from Braun, inarguably the most talented hitter on the roster; Braun has picked up where he left off this Spring, hitting .379/.468/.690 with 2 home runs. But the Brewers success this season comes down to their starting pitching, and more specifically, Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo. Garza, who signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this offseason, is coming off back to back seasons that have been shortened by injuries. If Garza can stay healthy in 2014, then the Brewers will have a strong 1-2 punch of him and the always-consistent Kyle Lohse. But Gallardo is the true lynchpin of the team’s success.  In 2013, Gallardo posted career worsts in almost all statistical categories. He pitched the fewest innings in his career, striking out the fewest he has in a season, while still giving up the most earned runs he has ever given up in a season. The Brewers need Gallardo to return to the form he displayed from 2009-2012 — when he had a 3.64 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning — in order for them to succeed this year. With a full season from Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, and a hopefully healthy Matt Garza, the Brewers have a chance to turn many heads this year. Plus, how can a team do poorly with this guy as their mascot?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Pittsburgh Pirates: 

One year removed from finally making it back to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the Pirates seem destined to find themselves sitting outside of the playoffs once again in 2014. After losing pitcher AJ Burnett to free agency, the Pirates didn’t do anything to replace them besides adding reclamation project Edison Volquez, who hasn’t had a season with an ERA under 4 since his rookie season in 2008. While a low risk/high reward signing worked out very well for the Pirates last year with Fransisco Liriano, Volquez hasn’t had the same career success as Liriano had heading into last season. And it’s impossible to be sure which Liriano the Pirates are going to get in 2014; the 2013 version who had a 3.02 ERA and a 117 ERA+, or the 2012 version, who finished the season with a 5.34 ERA, which was 4th worst among all qualified pitchers. By not re-signing AJ Burnett, the Pirates have lost the man who functioned as their staff ace over the past two seasons. If the Pirates rotation, now anchored by the mercurial Liriano and the young flamethrower Gerrit Cole, cannot hold together in 2014, it will be a long season in the Steel City.

WHY WILL THE CARDINALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

There is no team in baseball that has fewer holes on their roster than the St. Louis Cardinals. After losing to the Red Sox in the World Series, the Cardinals made two moves that help stack their lineup from top to bottom – signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and trading David Freese to the Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjous. By making these moves, the Cardinals can now move Matt Carpenter, who had a career year in 2013, back to his natural position of third base, start top prospect Kolten Wong at second, platoon Jon Jay, who had a down year last season, with Bourjous, and replace the offense-challenged Pete Kozma with the offense-heavy Peralta. Even when the Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran in free agency, they had a viable plan to replace him, moving Allen Craig to the outfield and handing Matt Adams the starting job at first base. Not only do the Cardinals have a fantastic lineup, they also have a rotation filled with young starters — like Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and postseason hero Michael Wacha — who have been successful at the major league level, alongside one of the best pitchers in the game in Adam Wainwright. On top of that, the Cardinals have one of the best young relievers in baseball in Trevor Rosenthal, whose fastball hits triple digits with regularity. With one of the most complete teams in baseball, look for the Cardinals to win their division again.

WEST

Can the Padres return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

2. San Diego Padres (89-63)

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83)

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (77-85)

5. Colorado Rockies (67-95)

SLEEPER TEAM: San Diego Padres

The Padres are the team with the most potential to surprise heading into 2014. Their rotation is headed by one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball in Andrew Cashner, who has had health issues in the past, but also has one of the best fastballs in baseball — Fangraphs had it as the fifith most valuable fastball in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Cliff Lee, and Max Scherzer. The Padres also have Eric Stults, who pitched more than 200 innings last year with an ERA under 4, and Tyson Ross, a 27-year old journeyman who finally found success at the big league level last year.  They have added reclamation projects Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy, both of whom have at one point been among the best pitchers in baseball, though both have struggled recently (Johnson has already been placed on the DL with a flexor strain in his right arm). Their lineup is full of players who had strong years last year, though their numbers were suppressed by their cavernous home park.  Outfielder Wil Venable and rookie second baseman Jedd Gyrko both showed that they could hit for power, hitting 22 and 23 home runs respectively. The Padres will be getting all-star shortstop Everth Cabrera back after a PED suspension cost him 50 games in 2013. And if Chase Headley can return to his 2012 form (when he finished 5th in the league in MVP balloting), the Padres will have a strong lineup in addition to an extremely deep bench, with players like Chase Hundley and Kyle Blanks being used as backups. If their pitching can hold up, and one of their reclamation projects can recover some of his former glory, the Padres will be able to compete with anybody in the NL, and will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks have finished 81-81 for the past two seasons, and this year, they might not even reach that mark.  In one of the most confusing moves this offseason, the Diamondbacks gave up starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs and outfielder prospect Adam Eaton for Mark Trumbo, who will be playing left field for them. While Trumbo is known for his power at the plate, his on-base percentage dropped below .300 last year, and his defense in left is Adam Dunn/Lucas Duda bad:

Like many other team this spring training, the Diamondbacks have been bit by the injury bug, losing ace Patrick Corbin and reliver David Hernandez for the season to a torn UCL. Losing Corbin for the season will cause the Diamondbacks to use either Josh Collmenter or Randall Delgado in their rotation. While neither of those player are bad, they will not be able to fill the void that Patrick Corbin left. Even with the signing of Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks will finish the season on the bad side of 81 wins.

WHY WILL THE DODGERS WIN THE DIVISION?

When you beat out the Yankees for the biggest payroll in baseball ($235 million, almost $30 million more than New York), you’re likely to be pretty good. The Dodgers have superstars at almost every position: Hanley Ramirez at short, Adrian Gonzalez at first, Yasiel Puig in right, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke in their rotation. Like the Cardinals, this team has very few holes. This offseason, the Dodgers did a good job fortifying their bullpen by re-signing Brian Wilson to a one year deal and signing former Indians closer Chris Perez. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, was a good as any other closer last season, compiling a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves. Outside of second base (where the team neglected to sign Mark Ellis, instead opting to replace him with untested Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, the Dodgers lineup projects to be a nightmare for opposing teams. And their rotation, with reigning Cy Young winner Kershaw alongside Greinke and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, seems likely to be one of the best in baseball. The Dodgers are not only the best team in the West; they might be the best team in baseball.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

NL CY YOUNG: Jose Fernandez. Miami Marlins

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

FIRST NL MANAGER FIRED: Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

NL WILD CARD GAME: Reds over Padres

NL DIVISION SERIES: Cardinals over Reds, Nationals over Dodgers

NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: Cardinals over Nationals

STAY TUNED FOR THE AL PREVIEW, COMING OUT TOMORROW.

The Battle for League Supremacy

These four young stars could help end the AL's reign of dominance

Young talent could help end the AL’s reign of dominance

In 1901, Ban Johnson reconstituted his fledgling Western League and declared it a major league, much to the consternation of the established National League. Johnson and his league, now called the American League, pilfered talent from the NL, using the promise of higher salaries to lure Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, and Wee Willie Keeler from their teams. Finally, the NL, weakened by the fight, compromised with Johnson. Under the National Agreement signed in 1903, the AL and NL would continue to operate as two distinct, major leagues. The two pennant winners would meet at the end of their respective seasons for a postseason series to determine which league was truly superior — thus, the World Series was born.

Since the American League’s inception, the two leagues have fought to determine which was superior. But in the last decade, the pendulum has shifted towards the so-called senior circuit. The AL had won 11 straight all-star games from 1997 to 2009, and although they lost three in a row from 2010 to 2012, they recovered to win in 2013 (though obviously, one game says very little about the talent of an entire league). More indicatively, the AL has finished with a winning record in interleague play every year since 2004, including a 164-146 advantage in 2013. It’s been rough going in recent times for the National League.

And as anyone who has been paying attention to the free agent market has noticed, the AL’s dominance has extended to the Hot Stove League. This, from Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan:

After I got over how much money both leagues had spent, I got to considering whether this was good news for the AL. My first thought? Of course. But then I began to ask myself; why is this the case? The answer — the AL is getting older. There is a shocking disparity between the amount of young talent in the NL and the relative lack of it in the AL. In the NL, position players 25 and younger received 24052 plate appearances, and accounted for 70.4 fWAR, roughly a quarter of the league’s total. But in the AL, players under 25 tallied only 17768 plate appearances, and accumulated only 43.9 fWAR — only 15% of the league’s total. On the pitching side, the disparity is almost equally as wide — 71.6 fWAR for NL youngsters against 53.5 fWAR for those of the AL.

And it seems many of the brightest young stars reside in the National League. The NL has Paul Goldschmidt, Andrelton Simmons, Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez — all of whom are scarcely old enough to rent a car. The AL, of course, has Mike Trout, Manny Machado, and Chris Sale, all top-flight stars. But beyond those three, there is little else. Behind Trout, Machado, and Sale, the next-best sub-25 position player by fWAR is Salvador Perez, the next-best pitcher Jose Quintana — useful players, but not stars by any definition of the word.

With the relative lack of young stars in their systems, AL teams must chase the more established, more expensive older stars available in free agency. Thus, the AL might have a chance of retaining the last vestiges of their dominance in the near-future. But like in all things, change is inevitable in the world of baseball. And for the National League, the future is looking very bright.