NL Preview: Cubs Look Like Superman, but Mets, Giants, Dodgers & Nats Hold Kryptonite

Cubs Celebration 2When the final out was made in the 2016 World Series, the baseball world was treated to not only a great final scene on the stage of Major League Baseball, but an overall hope for the world. If the Chicago Cubs can win a World Series after failing in 108 previous attempts, then there is hope for the rest of us.

The Cubs are back in 2017 and look just as strong, if not stronger than they did in 2016 when they won 103 games. Wade Davis comes over from Kansas City to sure up the closer role left empty when Aroldis Chapman went back to the Yankees. Since becoming a reliever in 2014, Davis has been lights out, posting a WHIP of 0.89 with an ERA of 1.18 in 182.2 IP over 185 games. Last season in his first full year as a closer, Davis saved 27 games for the Royals. He should get plenty of more chances with set up men Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, all who posted WHIP of under 1.00 in 2016.

The Cubs starting staff still possess one of the best Big 3 in baseball with Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA in 2016), Jake Arrieta (18-8, .194 Opp. BA in 2016) and Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 0.98 WHIP in 2016), with veteran John Lackey (11-8, 1.06 WHIP in 2016) to pick up any slack.

On offense the Cubs should be even stronger with the return of Kyle Schwarber (RotoChamp projects him to hit 34 HR in 2017) to their everyday lineup after missing most of 2016. Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant (39 HR, 102 RBI, .939 OPS in 2016) leads a young lineup also featuring Anthony Rizzo (.929 OPS, 109 RBI in 2016), Addison Russell (21 HR, 95 RBI in 2016), Javier Baez and Jason Heyward – all players that are 27 or younger. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist along with Miguel Montero provide veteran leadership that makes this roster so complete.

Unless there is some major unforseen circumstance that befalls this franchise in 2017, the Cubs should repeat as NL Central Champions.

The Cardinals and Pirates should provide some resistance to the Cubs, but are not nearly as strong as the teams they were in previous seasons. Andrew McCutchen (24 HR, 79 RBI in 2016) and Gerrit Cole (7-10, 1.44 WHIP in 2016) need to rebound from off years in 2016 to help a Pirates team that finished under .500 in 2016 after making three straight postseason appearances.

The Cardinals lineup features the same players it did in 2016 when they led the NL in HR and finished 4th in the majors in runs scored. Dexter Fowler (.393 OPS, 84 runs in 2016) migrated over from the Cubs to provide OF defense and a consistent presence at the top of the lineup. However, the Cardinals pitching rotation and bullpen will keep them from seriously challenging the Cubs. Not that the rotation of Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha is bad, but when compared to the Cubs, Mets, Nationals or even the Giants – it looks a little more pedestrian. I wouldn’t count the Cardinals out of the postseason push though, because their offense will put up runs and if their starters and bullpen – especially Trevor Rosenthal (1.90 WHIP in 2016) – perform better than expected, they can make some noise.

The Brewers and Reds bring up the rear in the NL Central and it will be a little while before they are contenders again with all the talent in the NL. Fans should keep an eye on longtime members Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Joey Votto (Reds) as they both could be trade pieces to bring back needed prospects at the trade deadline.

Dodgers Seager

Moving to the NL West, the Dodgers look strong enough to win the NL West for the 5th straight season. After placing a major league record 28 different players on the disabled list in 2016, the Dodgers hope to be more healthy this season.

2016 NL ROY Corey Seager’s development (.308 BA, .877 OPS, 26 HR in 2016) is vital to a lineup that had its ups and downs in 2016. The Dodgers finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories and six of their 8 regulars all struck out 107 or more times. If Adrian Gonzalez rebounds from his 2016 season (.784 OPS, 18 HR, 90 RBI after averaging .866 OPS, 28 HR and 103 RBI from 2006-15), the Dodgers should have more than enough offense to get by. Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, Justin Turner and Seager all connected for 25 or more HR in 2016. That should provide the Dodgers plenty of power and run production in 2017.

Andrew Toles is the latest of a long history of Dodger rookies that hope to be a difference maker in 2017. Toles won the LF job this spring with an impressive performance after hitting .314 in 48 games last season after spending time at 3 different minor league levels.

The Dodgers pitching is led by perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw. Despite making only 21 starts in 2016, Kershaw posted career-bests in ERA (1.69), shutouts (3) and WHIP (0.73). Kenta Maeda (14 wins in 2016), injury prone Scott Kazmir and youngster Julio Urias round out the rotation.

Los Angeles brought back Rich Hill (0.79 WHIP in just 6 starts in 2016) and closer Kenley Jansen (0.67 WHIP, 47 saves, 13.6 K per 9 in 2016) to keep a strong staff and bullpen that should be close to the staff that led the majors in strikeouts and finished second in WHIP (1.19) in 2016.

A major key to the Dodgers ability to separate themselves from the pack in the NL West this season will be Yasiel Puig. If Puig can stay healthy both physically and mentally and be anywhere near the player he was when he posted an .888 OPS in 252 games in 2013-14, the Dodgers will be thrilled.

Odd year seasons usually mean trouble for the San Francisco Giants, who have won 3 World Titles and made the postseason in the last 4 even years, but have not qualified for the postseason in an odd year since 2003.

After winning the NL Wild Card last season, the Giants were just 3 outs away from forcing the Cubs to a winner-take-all Game 5 at Wrigley Field in the NLDS. However, their bullpen could not hold a 5-2 lead, which was the achilles heel for a team that blew the most saves in baseball during the regular season (30). In comes closer Mark Melancon. Since 2014, no player has more saves than his 131. Losing Will Smith to Tommy John surgery will hurt them, but in Hunter Strickland, Derek Law and George Kontos, the Giants should hold down the fort until Melancon takes the mound in the 9th.

Buster Posey (82 runs scored, 80 RBI in 2016) leads a talented offense that makes contact (struck out fewest times in the NL and 2nd fewest in MLB). The Giants don’t do anything great offensively, they just do everything well (6 of 8 regulars had at least 67 runs scored, while 6 of 8 regulars had an OPS of .700 or higher).

Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 ERA, 251 K in 2016) leads a terrific big 3 that also features Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA in 2016) and Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA in 2016). If Matt Moore picks up on the momentum he built from his Game 4 NLDS start (8 IP, 2 H, ER, 10 K), this can be one of the best rotations in baseball. Remember that Moore is only 27, and was 17-4 for the Rays in 2013.

No team had higher expectations than the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016 after their offseason moves of bringing in Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller. However, Miller imploded (3-12, 6.15 ERA, 1.67 WHIP in 2016) and Greinke (13-7, 4.37 ERA in 2016) was OK, but fell far below his 2015 performance. Patrick Corbin (5-13, 5.15 ERA in 2016) failed to live up to the promise he showed in 2013 and 2015 and their young pitching prospects Robbie Ray (8-15, 4.90 ERA in 2016) and Archie Bradley (8-9, 5.02 ERA in 2016) struggled as well.

In 2017 the Diamondbacks rotation should be the same. Greinke, Miller, Ray and Corbin are all being counted on to being much better. A trade with Seattle brought in Taijuan Walker (8-11, 4.22 ERA in 2016) who showed some promise after being a first round pick in 2010. Fernando Rodney was brought in on a one-year deal to help sure up a bullpen that allowed the second most ER in the majors last season.

On offense, Arizona will miss Juan Segura, who was sent to Seattle in the offseason after leading the team with 203 hits last season. However, with the everyday return of A.J. Pollock (.315 BA, 111 runs scored in 2015) added to an impressive core of young players led by Paul Goldschmidt (.899 OPS, 24 HR, 95 RBI in 2016), the Diamondbacks should be explosive. Brandon Drury (16 HR, 53 RBI in 461 AB in 2016) will move back to the infield where he is more comfortable. Jake Lamb (.840 OPS, 29 HR, 91 RBI in 2016) and Yasmany Tomas (31 HR, 83 RBI in 2016) round out a very impressive group that could surprise if their pitching improves.

Colorado’s offense should be the same that saw them finish with the most runs in the NL and second most in the majors, but their pitching will keep them from winning more than the 75 games they won in 2016.

San Diego started a rebuilding project last season with the trades of Matt Kemp, Melvin Upton and Fernando Rodney. A solid offseason built around rebuilding their farm system has the Padres on the right track, but a few years from contending. Wil Myers, Yangervis Solarte and Ryan Schimpf provide hope for the future.

Harvey NLCS

The NL East could provide the majors best pennant race as the Mets and defending division champion Nationals should provide 19 memorable matchups. The Nationals starting five could be the best in baseball. Led by Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP in 2016)  Washington puts an excellent starter out there every day. Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 11.2 K per 9 in 2016), Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA in 2016), Joe Ross (7-5, 3.43 ERA in 2016) and Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57 ERA in 2016) make up the rest of the rotation.

In the bullpen, the Nationals lost closer Mark Melancon in the offseason after obtaining him from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. Despite that loss, the Nats bullpen should still have plenty of arms to choose from. Blake Treinen (2.28 ERA in team-high 73 games in 2016), Shawn Kelley (0.88 WHIP, 12.4 K per 9 in 2016) and Koda Glover are all capable of closing games.

On offense, the Nats bring back much of a lineup that scored the 4th most runs in the NL (4.7). Fresh off his amazing 2015 postseason performance, newcomer Daniel Murphy (.347 BA, 47 2B, 25 HR, 104 RBI, .985 OPS in 2016) was a revelation, leading the Nationals in every offensive category except runs scored. 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper had an off year (.243, 24 HR, 86 RBI in 2016), but is just 24 and should rebound nicely in 2017. Adam Eaton (.362 OBP, averaged 94 runs scored over last 2 seasons) was brought in from the White Sox and should provide consistency in the OF along with a steady bat in the lead off spot. Trea Turner (.342 BA, .937 OPS, 13 HR, 40 RBI in 307 AB in 2016)  was excellent after his call up from the minors, providing the Nationals with speed and power.

After surprising the baseball world with a run to the World Series in 2015, the Mets looked like a cinch to repeat that success in 2016. However, a season filled with injuries saw the Mets 2 games under .500 and 5.5 games behind the second wild card spot on August 20. Starters Matt Harvey (4-10 4.86 ERA, 1.47 WHIP in 17 starts in 2016), Jacob deGrom (7-8, 3.04 ERA in 2016) and Steven Matz (9-8, 3.40 ERA in 22 starts in 2016) were all lost for the season by that point (deGrom made 2 more starts after that date, losing both, allowing 18 hits and 8 ER in 9.2 IP). The offense was hitting under .200 with RISP through August 19 and finished the season hitting just .187 with 2 outs and RISP.  David Wright (.226 BA in 37 games played in 2016), Lucas Duda (.229 BA, 7 HR, 23 RBI in 47 games played in 2016) and Neil Walker (.282 BA, 23 HR, 55 RBI in 113 games in 2016) all missed long stretches of the season (Wright and Walker did not play in September).

Despite facing such incredible odds, the Mets rebounded and went 27-13 after August 19 to reach the postseason, losing in the NL Wild Card game to the Giants. All the experience the Mets gained in 2016 will greatly help them in 2017.

Their starting staff has the depth and talent to be the best in the majors. In addition to Harvey, deGrom and Matz (all who start the regular season healthy), the Mets rotation is led by Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 1.15 WHIP, 10.7 K per 9 in 2016) who became the team ace last season. The fifth and final spot in the rotation will be between Seth Lugo (5-2, 2.67 ERA in 17 games in 2016), Robert Gsellman (4-2, 2.42 ERA in 7 starts in 2016) and Zack Wheeler. Wheeler, once a top prospect, has not pitched since 2014 after having Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2015.

In the bullpen, the Mets are led by Jeurys Familia (led the majors with 51 saves in 2016) who will miss at least 30 games due to a suspension for domestic abuse. Addison Reed (0.94 WHIP, 10.5 K per 9 in 2016) will get his closer job while he is away. Fernando Salas, Hansel Robles and Jerry Blevins are other arms the Mets will need to rely on consistently if they want to bridge the gap to Reed and Familia. Despite the strength of their starting staff, the Mets bullpen could be their weak point and something that GM Sandy Alderson might need to address come the trade deadline.

On offense the Mets faithful let out a huge sigh of relief when the team re-signed Yoenis Cespedes (.884 OPS, 31 HR, 86 RBI to a long-term deal in the offseason. With Cespedes in the middle of the lineup the Mets were clearly a different team, going 72-54 in games he started compared to 15-21 when he didn’t.

Curtis Granderson (30 HR, 59 RBI in 2016), Michael Conforto (.220 BA, 12 HR, 42 RBI in 2016) and Jay Bruce (.219 BA, 8 HR, 19 RBI in 50 games after being acquired at trade deadline from CIN) make up a crowded outfield that should provide the Mets with plenty of power. Asdrubal Cabrera (.280 BA, 23 HR, 62 RBI in 2016), T.J. Rivera (.333 BA, 3 HR, 16 RBI in 33 games in 2016) Wilmer Flores (.249 BA, 16 HR, 49 RBI in 2016) and Jose Reyes (.267 BA, 45 runs in 60 games in 2016) should provide the Mets with depth and diversity on the infield in the event that David Wright can’t return.

After struggling most of 2016, the Atlanta Braves turned things around during the second half of 2016. Thanks to the acquisition of Matt Kemp (.855 OPS, 12 HR, 39 RBI in 56 games) and the call up of Dansby Swanson (.302 BA, 3 HR, 20 RBI in 38 games) the Braves went 24-14 after August 20th. Only the Mets and Cubs had better records in the NL. Freddie Freeman’s (.302 BA, 34 HR, 94 RBI, .968 OPS) year got lost in the Braves awful first 3/4 of the season, but he is quickly becoming a major superstar.

While the Braves might not be good enough to challenge the divisions elite in the Mets and Nationals, they will be improved enough to challenge the Marlins and Phillies for third.

The Marlins should put up a good fight and could surprise in the East if they get enough pitching. However, the shock of Jose Fernandez death last September is one that they will feel for a while. Christian Yelich (.298 BA, 21 HR, 98 RBI in 2016) is an emerging superstar with limitless talent and an eventual batting champion. He and Giancarlo Stanton (.240 BA, 27 HR, 74 RBI in 2016) provide an excellent 1-2 punch in the middle of the Marlins lineup.

The Phillies shocked many with their impressive first half performance of winning close games (went 28-23 in one-run games in 2016). On May 19 they were 7 games over .500 and a half-game behind the Nationals in the NL East. However, they folded after that going 47-74 the rest of the way.

On offense, Odubel Herrera (.286 BA, 87 runs scored in 2016) and Maikel Franco (.255 BA, 25 HR, 88 RBI in 2016) are young players who should be around for a while. On the mound, Jared Eickhoff (11-14, 1.16 WHIP in 2016), Vince Velasquez (8-6, 4.12 ERA in 2016) and Aaron Nola (6-9, 4.78 ERA in 2016) are all 26 or younger and provide hope for the future.

2017 NL Predictions

NL Cy Young Award Winner – Noah Syndergaard

NL MVP – Bryce Harper

NL Rookie of the Year – Dansby Swanson

NL East Champion – New York Mets – 98-64

NL Central Champion – Chicago Cubs – 101-61

NL West Champion – San Francisco Giants – 93-69

NL Wild Card – Washington Nationals – 95-67

NL Wild Card – Los Angeles Dodgers – 89-73

NL Champion – New York Mets

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