The Hawk Eye

National League Predictions

National League Predictions

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blogThere are very few sensations that can match the euphoria that these days give me. Baseball is back. The simple three word phrase is enough to send me scouring the Internet for every single little tidbit of information I can get my hands on.
Even if you’re not as enthusiastic a baseball fan as I am, I’m sure you can relate to the struggle of getting the most relevant information. I mean, ESPN comes up with the most inane and pointless articles in the world. Who cares about Mike Trout’s meteorology hobby?
That is why I’m here. As this semester winds down, I’ll be constantly aggregating the most important statistics, projections and I may or may not throw my own opinions in the mix as well. I’ll be covering major league baseball, but you’ll have to excuse my regional bias toward the Texas Rangers.
Now let’s dive into the substance. Why not start out ambitiously? I give you my Way-Too-Early 2016 National League predictions.

National League East
It’d be almost impossible to argue that the New York Mets are not the favorite to win this division, or even the league pennant. Their young rotation is still intact, and Matt Harvey should be completely recovered. The addition of SS Asdrubal Cabrera is a net gain over Ruben Tejada, and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, while due for some regression, will add a power presence to the middle of the lineup.

They’ve been the favorites to come out of the east for the past several years, but this year the Washington Nationals will have to fight from behind to steal the division title from the Mets. They have the league’s MVP in Bryce Harper in right field, who does not appear to have peaked yet. However, they will rely heavily on Max Scherzer to anchor an otherwise injury prone and inconsistent pitching staff. The Nats have a high ceiling, but an even lower floor.

Call me crazy, but I think that the Miami Marlins will make a good showing this year and end up in third place. They have one of the most prolific power hitters in the game patrolling right field in Giancarlo Stanton, and one of the great young pitchers, Jose Fernandez. Young talent is a surplus for the Marlins, but what they’ll need in order to be competitive is health and discipline. New manager Don Mattingly has an old-school reputation, but that may not be enough to get the team on the same page.

It seems like so long ago that the Atlanta Braves had run off an incredible streak of 14 division titles in a row. The offseason was not kind to the Braves, where they traded away perhaps their best players in shortstop Andrelton Simmons and starting pitcher Shelby Miller and received in turn … not much at all. They plugged the gaps on their team by taking one-year fliers on guys who have seen better days, like relief pitcher Jim Johnson and infielder Gordon Beckham. It will be a long season for the Braves, and the minor league system has not turned out a role player for them in years.

Bringing up the rear in this year’s NL East will be the Philadelphia Phillies. The good news for Phillies fans is that the worst seems to be over. After finally getting out from under the massive contracts of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, the team has become one the youngest in baseball, with an average age of 26.5. That and the team’s top ranked farm system ensure that the Phillies have a very bright future. Unfortunately, they will likely be very bad in the near future. The lone “threat” in this lineup is Ryan Howard, who is a shade of his former self. In fact, he’s a shade of the shade of his former self. Other than that, the team is mostly full of players who make even Philadelphia supporters go “Who?” The Phillies’ mantra needs to be “Wait for five years from now.”

National League Central
There may not be a more complete team, from top to bottom, than the Chicago Cubs. Coming off a year when they made a serious run at the World Series, expectations couldn’t have been higher. That is, until they added a potential All-Star in outfielder Jason Heyward, neatly stealing him from the rival Cardinals. The rotation features defending NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who is looking to prove that last year’s spectacular performance was no fluke. The lineup is powerful, with young sluggers Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant ready to build on their impressive 2015 seasons. After 100-plus years, this may finally be the Cubs’ year.

Not, however, if the St. Louis Cardinals have anything to say about it. The Cardinals have had only one losing record since 1999, and have become the hallmark for consistency. The Cards have almost as much talent as the Cubs, and will ensure that this division race stays close. Their next wave of top prospects has arrived, and Steven Piscotty, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong will provide lineup support for the steadily aging Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday. On the pitching side, Adam Wainwright, coming off a season where he played only a small fraction due to injury, leads a rotation that has the potential to be one of the best in the game. The bullpen will once again be shutdown, as flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal will get a full season’s look at closer. This division race may be the closest in the game.

In this baseball arms race, the Pittsburgh Pirates seem to have been left in the dust. A few years ago, baseball pundits were declaring that the Pirates had finally arrived; however, they have quickly fallen backward. Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen brings speed and power to the lineup, but young corner outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have still not taken the next step in their development to join him, which makes you wonder about the limits of the patience of the front office. The rotation, on the other hand, should be incredibly solid, with the youthful Gerrit Cole headlining a group of talented, but inconsistent castoffs from other teams. Overall, the Pirates are a good team. In many other divisions, they would be right up there for the title. But to compete in the NL Central, you need to be great.

“Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” That’s how the Cincinnati Reds’ juggernaut fell apart in the last few years. This past offseason, they lost their “ace” Homer Bailey, and traded away the 100 mph heat of Aroldis Chapman and slugging third baseman Todd Frazier. Left behind to keep this team from embarrassing itself is Joey Votto, whose walk totals and eyebrows are about the only good thing going for him after several seasons of subtle but insidious regression. The wheels have fallen off the once quick Brandon Phillips, who can now be considered a liability in the field at second base. The team does boast the fastest man in the game, center fielder Billy Hamilton, but he still has not figured out major league pitching. Maybe he’d fare better against the Reds’ own pitching, which features a collection of junkyard scraps, including a closer competition between a guy named Jumbo and a guy named Hoover. Votto will carry this team to a fourth place finish, but expect nothing but disappointment from this team in 2016.

The Milwaukee Brewers are another team that burned brightly but briefly a few years ago. Luckily, the Brew Crew are a young team, with the oldest player (newly-acquired infielder Aaron Hill) coming in at a venerable 33 years old. Unluckily, they lack the requisite talent that makes a young team fun to watch. Disgraced former MVP Ryan Braun, who has yet to return to his pre-PED totals, will anchor a punchless lineup that also includes catcher Jonathan Lucroy, whose offensive stats only look good compared to other catchers. The rotation is led by the promising young Tyler Jungmann, but also features Matt Garza, the most overpaid bottom-of-the-rotation starter in baseball ($12.2 million/year). Will Smith is closing for the team, which would be great if he were the real Will Smith, instead of being an organizational depth guy. Brewers fans can take comfort in the fact that it will all be over relatively quickly.

National League West
Despite losing its second ace, Zack Greinke, in free agency, the Los Angeles Dodgers should still be able to easily defend their division title. The rotation is still one of the best thanks primarily to Clayton Kershaw, the unquestioned best pitcher in baseball, but also due to the addition of Scott Kazmir and Japanese import Kenta Maeda. Closer Kenley Jansen converted 36 of 38 save opportunities in limited play, and his walk rate has plummeted as his swing and miss percentage skyrockets. The lineup, while not astounding, will get the job done. Rookies Joc Pederson and Corey Seager were great last year, and they both have lots of promise; they’ll benefit from playing under solid veterans Chase Utley and Adrian Gonzalez. Both the present and the future look good for the Dodgers.

Year after year, against all odds, the San Francisco Giants are always in the mix. This year will be no different, as the Giants have one of the best young infields in MLB. The 25-year-old second baseman Joe Panik will look to build on a season in which he hit .312, but Brandon Belt will have to reduce his 25 percent strikeout rate to improve from a solid 2015 campaign. Hunter Pence will once again be a sparkplug in right field and in the top of the lineup, which should not have much trouble scoring runs. The pitching staff is loaded, with youthful ace Madison Bumgarner leading a group of wily veterans like Jake Peavy and Matt Cain. The de facto closer is Santiago Casilla, but he will be challenged by the 100 mph arm of Hunter Strickland. The season should be a good one for the Giants, as they try to keep their even-numbered years streak going.

The National League’s biggest disappointment this year will be the Arizona Diamondbacks, who made perhaps the biggest splash of the offseason by snagging ace righty Zack Greinke away from their division rival Dodgers. But other than a trade for the workhorse starter Shelby Miller, the D-Backs did little to address the dearth of offense that the team suffered last year. Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the best first baseman in the league, and he’ll easily reach his fourth straight 30/100/.300 season, but the rest of the lineup has a lot of question marks. The acquisition of shortstop Jean Segura has a lot of upside, but also could be a total bust. The team is much improved on the pitching side, with 26-year-old starter Patrick Corbin looking to improve in his first full season since 2013. The bullpen lacks star power, but Daniel Hudson and Brad Ziegler should be able to effectively protect late-inning leads. This team is good, but the question is: Are they good enough?

For the Colorado Rockies, this season will be a new chapter, but of the same story. Once again, they will feature a great offense buoyed by the thin air at Coors Field, but their pitching woes will drag them down to a near-the-bottom finish. The good news first: This may be the best Colorado offense since they went to the World Series in 2007. Third baseman Nolan Arenado is just getting started after his tremendous 2015 slash line of 42/130/.287; his power is elite and his abilities suggest that the batting average will only rise. It doesn’t end there, as right fielder Carlos Gonzalez launched a career-high 40 home runs to go along with center fielder Charlie Blackmon’s 43 steals. Jose Reyes will likely have to wait out a suspension, but when he is back, he brings a great glove and speed to the shortstop position. The bad news: This pitching staff is a tragedy. Not one of the starters had an ERA below 4.00 last season, and the bullpen lacks a truly lockdown pitcher. Expect near-record offensive levels, but atrocious pitching numbers to put this team near the cellar once again.

A year ago, fans of the San Diego Padres had a lot to be excited about. Their team had added Royals playoff hero James Shields along with perennial All-Star centerfielder Matt Kemp from the Dodgers. However, Shields’ strikeout rate fell off a cliff while his ERA rose steadily upward, and San Diego’s Petco Park proved to be too spacious for Kemp to hit home runs out of or effectively defend. This year promises much of the same, as the average (at best) lineup simply cannot overcome the disadvantages of the park. Wil Myers will be the lone bright spot in the lineup, as he tries to turn his significant talent into production. The pitching staff will be solid, primarily because Petco Park is an offense-killer; Tyson Ross and his impressive 9.7 K/9 rate will probably see improvement as he becomes more familiar with major league hitting. Overall, this team is a living representation of the word “meh,” and that just won’t cut it.

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