Competitive imbalance

Some National League teams are (much) better than others

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The 2016 American League preview can be found here.

Admission: Every time I hear people seriously talking again about adding the designated hitter to the National League, I can’t help but think: “Is this still a thing?” Here’s the reason: I know a lot of people who love National League teams, and I can’t think of one who wants to add the DH. Not one.

At the same time, I know a lot of American League fans — many more because I have lived most of my life in American League cities — and while I think most of them are perfectly content with the designated hitter, there are actually a few purists among them who wish that the AL would drop the DH.

In other words: I have no idea where the momentum for adding the DH even begins. Is there an underground movement of DH-loving National League fans that I just don’t know about?

As I wrote in my AL version of the previews, the DH is the last wall between the two leagues. If the NL did add the designated hitter, then there is no persuasive reason I can see to keep them as two leagues. Maybe it would be a good thing for baseball, which has become such a regional sport, to go to an Eastern and Western Conference, like in the NBA. I know there are a lot of people around the game who believe that.

Maybe. But best I can tell, National League fans, in general, believe the non-DH version of the game is “purer” and creates a nicer rhythm to the games. American League fans, in general, believe that watching the pitcher hit is boring and prefer watching, say, David Ortiz. I don’t see much energy in the efforts to change that.

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I used to write an annual column in Kansas City called “Why the Royals will win.” It was never right, but I wrote it because every team’s fans deserve hope on Opening Day. This is an extension of that column — I write why every team will win in 2015. I will admit up front: This was a much harder challenge in the NL. Speaking realistically: There or five or six teams in the NL that have a chance to lose 100 games.

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National League East

Favorite: Mets seems to be the favorite of most.

Contenders: Nationals. 

1. The Mets will win because …

… rotation, rotation, rotation.

By the end of 2015, the Mets had turned into a pretty good offensive team. It didn’t look that way early, but then Lucas Duda got hot (mashing 15 homers in the last 41 games) and Wilmer Flores emerged (hitting .300 with some power the last couple of months) and the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes, who was so good he actually got MVP votes for two months’ work. David Wright also returned from injury and seemed to be finding a bit of his old form.

All those guys are back along with middle infield additions of Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera — this team will score enough runs.

Then again, this team won’t need many runs, not with that now familiar power-arm rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz (with the mega-talented Zack Wheeler coming off Tommy John surgery). While several American League teams are following the Kansas City Royals strategy of backloading their best pitchers for the late innings, the Mets go old school, proving that having the better starting pitcher out there night after night is a pretty good strategy for winning a pennant.

All of those pitchers are young enough that they should be better this year. Scary stuff — of course the Mets will win.

2. The Nationals will win because …

… this year they will stay healthy and together.

The Nationals were overwhelming favorites coming into the 2015 season. I have a friend who is a huge Nationals fan, and he had his office do a poll predicting how many games Washington would win. The most pessimistic choice was 90 wins. That was if EVERYTHING went wrong.

Well, as former Royals manager Buddy Bell once said during a bad spell, “I never say it can’t get worse.” The Nationals were a sitcom of blunders, injuries and a wide variety of choking. They wasted one of the great offensive seasons of the last decade by Bryce Harper. They wasted the superb pitching (for the most part) of Max Scherzer. They were already under-performing when they made the disastrous trade for Jonathan Papelbon, which led to the all-too-predictable collapse from within.

But all that can distract us from something that is easy to miss: This Nationals team STILL is loaded with talent. Harper is only 23 years old; he might be even better in 2016 if that’s possible. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg all missed a huge chunk of the season with injuries. They’re all healthy now.

Also, Daniel Murphy. They got Daniel Murphy. Remember how he turned into Babe Ruth last October?

Last year, the Nationals’ manager was Matt Williams, and he looked on edge more or less every minute of every game. Now, the manager is Dusty “I’m too old to worry” Baker. With a looser clubhouse and fewer injuries, the Nationals will be unstoppable.

3. The Marlins will win because …

… every decade, at some point, they just do.

I don’t normally give out fantasy advice because I am terrible at such games and don’t know very much — but Wei-Yin Chen might be the sleeper you are looking for. Chen was a four-WAR pitcher last year in Baltimore. That was in the hard-hitting American League East while pitching half his games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Put him in Miami, with a happier ballpark for pitchers, with few designated hitters to worry about, I think he’s up for a big year.

And in doing that, he leads a rotation that will be really good. Jose Fernandez will be limited coming off injury, but when he pitches, he dominates. Young Adam Conley wowed them in spring training. And so on.

And then you look at the offense — this is the year that Giancarlo Stanton hits 50 homers (don’t tell me about his wrist injury), and young Christian Yelich hit .300 last year and Dee Gordon will be a force again. And the Marlins win the World Series and then, quickly, tear the team apart and start over. It’s just what the Marlins do.

4. The Philadelphia Phillies will win because …

… miracles happen.

They do happen. Look around you. Trees are a miracle, am I right? The flowers. Miracles happen every day you know, and I’m totally not fooling you with this bit, am I? You know that I’m rolling snake eyes in my effort to come up with a Phillies winning season.

The Phillies really do have some promising young pitching, led by Vincent Velasquez, who has one of the best young arms in the game, and Jerad Eickhoff, who has good breaking stuff and has made huge leaps forward. The Phillies really do have one of the best prospects in the game in shortstop J.P. Crawford, who some compare to former Phillies great Jimmy Rollins but others say matches up well with Cleveland’s superb young star Francisco Lindor. Philadelphia will take either version.

There is some progress forward but, look, it will take a while to dig out from the extraordinary mess that was left behind after the Phillies tried to extend their late 2000s dominance for too long. They still owe Ryan Howard $35 million, sort of a parting gift from the past. But at least, they are digging their way out.

And, in all seriousness, miracles do happen. If there’s one thing we have seen in baseball the last few years, it is that young teams can develop more quickly than expected. So that’s the hope for 2016 and beyond in Philadelphia.

5. The Atlanta Braves will win because …

… those guys in the movie “Major League” won.

The Braves are not trying to win. They are in fact trying, quite hard, to lose and lose and lose and then build a new, super team out of the ashes. That shining team of the future will play in a sparkly new ballpark in the suburbs with microbrews raised and local superstar Dansby Swanson at short. It will be so much fun.

This team meanwhile is built to be very bad, with poor Freddie Freeman playing the role of cheery veteran who keeps things positive (well, not so poor — he did sign an eight-year, $135 million deal).

And as mentioned, this strategy did work in “Major League” and if A.J. Pierzynski can be the Tom Berenger old catcher with one more year in him, if Ender Inciarte can be Willie Mays Hayes, if Hector Olivera can hit the fastball good like Pedro Cerrano … well, we’ve seen that work before.

* * *

Naitonal League Central

Favorites: Cubs. Wait, the Cubs?

Contenders: Cardinals and Pirates.

1. The Chicago Cubs will win because …

… this is the year. Really, no, come back here. This is the year. It is. Stop laughing. This is the year.

Even Cubs fans don’t want anymore hype on this team. They are loaded. This is the year.

2. The St. Louis Cardinals will win because …

… they’re the St. Louis Cardinals and they always win.

I happen to be friends with numerous Cardinals fans and the word I would use for them this off-season is “bemused.” That’s such a good word. It means “bewildered or puzzled” but there’s a touch of amusement in the confusion. Cardinals fans have had such a good time watching Chicago Cubs fans try to kick the football Charlie Brown style. I have one friend who keeps a long list of her favorite Cubs fiascos.

Now, though, it seems to me Cardinals fans are both:

A. Aware that these Cubs are super-talented and are worried that they will actually win a World Series.

B. Fairly certain that this attempt to kick the football will end up comically like all the other ones.

The Cardinals Way — if I might use that controversial term — is so overpowering that even when the Cardinals lose Jason Heyward and John Lackey to free agency and even when star pitcher Lance Lynn has to have Tommy John surgery, they somehow still put a near flawless team on the field. The Cardinals have that fantastic blend of old and new — with Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter representing the old, and Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, and Kolten Wong representing the new.

Lynn’s injury is trumped by the return of Adam Wainwright. Lackey’s role will be played by Mike Leake, a sound and underrated pitcher. The bullpen continues to throw very fast fastballs. The Cubs owned the offseason but as Cubs general manager Theo Epstein himself has said many times, nobody wins anything in December. The season begins. And baseball seasons belong to the St. Louis Cardinals.

More: Posnanski on Cubs’ sky-high hopes | Ian Desmond pays in flawed system | Let Bryce Harper live

3. The Pittsburgh Pirates will win because …

… we are family.

If you have been only semi-paying attention to baseball, you might not know that the Pirates have made the playoffs each of the last three years and had a significantly better record last year (98-64) than the San Francisco Giants did in any of their three World Series championship years.

The Pirates’ secret is this: They’re better than you think. Everybody knows by now about the awesomeness of center fielder Andrew McCutchen but it was easy to miss that, by wins above replacement, Starling Marte was even better last year. Everybody knows by now that young Gerrit Cole is turning into one of the league’s best pitchers, so it’s easy to miss that veteran Francisco Liriano is pretty amazing himself.

Third baseman Jung Ho Kang came from South Korea and was an impactful third baseman as a rookie last year. Gregory Polanco is 24 years old and, in his brief time in the big leagues, he has flashed power and speed. Mark Melancon is a much-traveled pitcher without a huge fastball, but that didn’t prevent him from leading the league with 51 saves last year.

And there are some big arms like Tyler Glasnow on the way.

In Pittsburgh, I sense, nobody really wants the rest of America to figure out that the Pirates are actually a fantastic team.

4. The Cincinnati Reds will win because …

… it’s the 40th anniversary of the Big Red Machine’s greatest triumph.

In 1976, the Cincnnati Reds led the National League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The Reds led the league in doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases and walks. It was perhaps the most versatile offensive team ever. The Reds scored 87 more runs than any other team in the league and, after stomping to a 10-game victory in their division, they swept the Pirates in the playoffs, then swept the Yankees in the World Series.

I’m doing that stalling thing again, aren’t I?

The Reds will win this year because their veterans — Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and so on — will all have big years and young pitchers like former Royals John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan will develop quickly and the whole team will be inspired by all the 40th-anniversary celebrations. That’s the best I have.

A quick word about Joey Votto: The Reds still owe him $192 million on a contract that will go out well into the second term of President Trump, and that will undoubtdly be an albatross around some team’s neck, presumably the Reds. But for now, Votto will remind us every now and again just how awesome he really is. In the second half last year, Votto hit .363, slugged .617 and, most remarkably, had a .535 on-base percentage.

Those are bulked-up Barry Bonds numbers.

5. The Milwaukee Brewers will win because …

… it will serve them right for trying so hard NOT to win.

The Brewers hired former Astros assistant general manager David Stearns presumably to help them do what the Astros did: Lose a lot of games and then lose a lot more games and then lose even more games after that … and then be really good.

It’s a cynical formula, but hey, winning is a cynical business. The Brewers still owe more than $100 million to the already-fading Ryan Braun, so that’s one thing they will have to deal with. They need to stall for time while some of their prospects, led by superb shortstop Orlando Arcia, develop and become established big league players. And they need to add a lot more talent to the system.

And this year is a stopgap — they got veterans like Aaron Hill and Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Chase Anderson to sort of hold down the fort until then. I am being outrageously optimistic in these previews, but Milwaukee does not want optimism. Milwaukee wants high draft picks. The Brewers should get their wish.

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National League West

Favorites: Dodgers or Giants, a toss-up.

Contender: Arizona. 

1. The San Francisco Giants will win because …

… It’s an even year.

With the Giants, I don’t even look anymore to see if their moves make sense. They give Barry Zito an outrageous contract — they win the World Series. They give big money to Aubrey Huff — they win the World Series. They sign the aging Hunter Pence to a gargantuan deal — they win the World Series.

So it doesn’t even matter if I think Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija were massive overpays. It doesn’t matter that their entire outfield is filled with 30-somethings. It doesn’t matter because they are the Giants, and they know black magic, and when the years are even, they shall reign supreme.

In all seriousness, though, this is a pretty fantastic team. Cueto and Samardija might not be great in five or six years when their contracts run out, but they should be awfully good in 2016, and teamed with Madison Bumgarner, that’s a pretty great rotation. The offense was fifth in the league in runs last year and Denard Span should make them better. The bullpen in San Francisco always just works.

And one final word about catcher Buster Posey: Is it even possible to be more majestic? Year after year, game after game, he hits his .300-plus, cracks out his 20 or so homers, drives in his 90-100 runs, plays his good-to-excellent defense, and is just positive every single day. He’s the guy you wish was your best friend. He’s like baseball’s version of the Big Man on Campus. If the Rocky Mountains were a baseball player, they’d be Buster Posey.

2. The Los Angeles Dodgers will win because …

… talent and stuff.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have something like a $253 million payroll … and they will still have the likely rookie of the year with Corey Seager at shortstop. They also have probably the best pitching left-handed prospect in the game in Julio Urias, and they have one of the better right-handed pitching prospects in the game in Jose De Leon. It doesn’t seem right to have all that money and all that big league talent and also have the best minor-league system in the game.

Of course, the Dodgers have had a lot of talent for a while now and have not been to the World Series since 1988. Many thought the problem was manager Don Mattingly and while I’m skeptical of that, well, maybe Dave Roberts is a difference-maker.

I do know this: When you start with the best pitcher on planet Earth in Clayton Kershaw, throw in the offensive firepower of Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez and close it all out with the all-but-unhittable Kenley Janson, yeah, you are in a pretty good position to win. Only a few things have to go right after that. This will be the year it all goes right in Los Angeles.

3. The Arizona Diamondbacks will win because …

… they were actually good BEFORE they made their big moves.

Every so often you will see a team try to skip ahead in line by signing a couple of big-name free agents or by making a massive deal. It rarely works. The reason it rarely works is because the teams almost always miscalculate their timing. They make moves BEFORE the team is really ready to compete. They think they are one or two players away from contention when, in fact, they are not.

The Diamondbacks are different. This was a young, impressive team BEFORE signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller. Paul Goldschmidt is one of the top five players in baseball. The entire lineup that finished second in the league in runs last year was made up of 20-somethings and the bullpen has a lot of nice pieces.

Now you add in the remarkable Greinke and potentially the best No. 2 starter in the league in Miller and … wow.

Note: Even in an overtly-positive preview like this one, you cannot ignore the unfortunate injury suffered by center fielder A.J. Pollock, one of the best players in the league. It stinks. And it hurts. Let’s hope he returns soon.

One final word on Miller’s 2015 season: The guy lost SEVENTEEN games for the Braves even though he had a 3.02 ERA. He had a 124 ERA+ — meaning his ERA, when you consider ballpark factors and such, was roughly 24 percent better than the league average — and still finished 6-17. No pitcher in the last 75 years has had comparably bad luck when it comes to wins and losses.

How did it happen?

April 30: 7 innings, two earned runs, loss.

May 28: 7 innings, one earned run, loss.

June 18: 5 2/3 innings, one earned run, loss.

July 19: 6 innings, one earned run, loss.

July 24: 7 innings, one earned run, loss.

And so on. From May 28 to September 27, Miller went 0-16 despite making 13 quality starts. That’s one bad team you’ve got around you, pal. He must feel like he’s gone to heaven.

4. The San Diego Padres will win because …

… San Diego deserves a break.

As a Clevelander, I think I know a little something about sports heartbreak. But you know what? San Diego is a wildly underrated market for sports pain. Maybe it’s because we’re talking about, you know, San Diego and they have the weather and the beaches and the beautiful people.

But from a sports perspective, look: The Chargers have been to one Super Bowl and they got demolished. The San Diego Padres have been to two World Series and they got demolished. The San Diego Clippers were SO bad that when they left nobody cared. Sure, San Diegans can wash away their sorrows by drinking Mai Tais and getting tan and catching some waves. But it’s still a lousy sports existence.

This year’s Padres team will win because, um, OK, so the rotation could be good. Tyson Ross has quietly developed into a very good pitcher, and James Shields still has something left. The offense, well, Matt Kemp stayed healthy and had a nice year last year and Will Myers, if he stays healthy, can really hit and Fernando Rodney, um, he might be good again.

I’m stretching. I feel your pain, San Diego. I do.

5. The Colorado Rockies will win because …

… there’s something in the water in Colorado. That’s what the Coors commercials say.

Can we talk for a minute about Nolan Arenado, the Rockies third baseman. That guy is Spiderman. Last year, he hit 42 homers, drove in 130 runs and that wasn’t even the most special part of his season — his defense is ridiculous. Do youself a favor and, when you have a moment during this baseball season, just wander over to the Rockies’ video page to see if there’s video of Arenado making a play. I’m currently writing a book about Harry Houdini and, from what I can tell, watching Arenado make some of those plays down the line and in foul ground is like watching Houdini escape from a strait jacket.

As for the rest of the team, you know, Carlos Gonzalez hit 40 homers last year and Charlie Blackmon stole 43 bases and as far as the rotation goes well, someone has to throw the pitch so that hitters can rifle shots down the third base line so that Arenado can perform magic.