Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions, Part 2: National League

Carlos Gomez and the Brewers are everyone's favorite sleeper pick. Consider me a believer.
Most predictions for the National League have been a little bit bland as there is virtually zero deviation from the expectation that the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals will win their divisions. As much I'll be rooting for some unpredictable chaos to throw those sure-thing predictions into disarray, I can't help but pick those three to be atop their divisions myself.

I do think the NL East will shape up differently than most are expecting, though.

(Win projections via Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system.)

NL West
1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 98 wins
My take: Under

The PECOTA system is known for being ultra-conservative, I don't remember ever seeing it pop out a win estimate this sky high. Taking the under here only means I don't think the Dodgers will be a 98-win juggernaut and the best team in baseball. They'll still be pretty damn good, though. You can try to nitpick their weaknesses (second base is nebulous, there's no real center fielder, the bottom of the rotation is troublesome, the manager is clueless strategy-wise), but the fact is: this team is going to be very good. Not 100-wins good, but certainly in the mix with the Nationals and Cardinals for top team in the NL.

2. Giants
PECOTA: 87 wins
My take: Over (Wild Card pick)

The Giants have transformed over the years from a team reliant on pitching & defense into an offense-oriented squad while its pitching lags behind. The run prevention is still bolstered by a strong defense and lefty Madison Bumgarner has established himself as an ace, but their once-dominant bullpen has a new tendency for hemorrhaging baserunners, Ryan Vogelsong's magic pixie dust has completely worn off (5.73 ERA last year, currently getting crushed in Spring Training) and, much to fans' dismay, Tim Lincecum just isn't the same Freak anymore. A full season from nifty pickup Tim Hudson and expected bounceback from Matt Cain will help on the mound and the offense is certainly deep enough to carry this team, leading me to believe this new version of the Giants is still plenty good enough to contend and possibly knock off the favored Dodgers.

3. Padres
PECOTA: 81 wins
My take: Over

One of this season's popular sleeper picks, the Padres have put together a nice roster without any glaring weak spots. A key for them will be whether Yonder Alonso can sustain the gap-hitting prowess we've seen brief flashes of and establish himself as a viable major league first baseman. Along with Alonso, who turns 27 around Opening Day, they have a collection of players entering their prime---Everth Cabrera (age 27), Andrew Cashner (27), Jedd Gyorko (25), Yasmani Grandal (25). Their breakout potential, combined with the reliable production of cornerstone Chase Headley and vets Carlos Quentin and Seth Smith offer plenty of hope for San Diego. The starting rotation doesn't look too imposing beyond Cashner but they'll have a deep pen. All told, it should be enough to keep them in contention for a Wild Card spot.

4. Diamondbacks
PECOTA: 79 wins
My take: Under

Since their 2011 division crown, the D'backs have gone exactly 81-81 two years in a row. The pressure is on for this underperforming team to show some life. General Manager Kevin Towers has been criticized for recklessly fiddling with his roster the last few years with no readily apparent rhyme or reason and will likely be on the hot seat in 2014. They've already lost last year's best pitcher in lefty Patrick Corbin (done for the season with Tommy John surgery looming) and now the rotation consists of a handful of mid-rotation types while the top pitching prospect in the sport, Archie Bradley, awaits his chance. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is quite possibly the best hitter in the National League but he's likely to be one of the few bright spots in another disappointing Arizona season.

5. Rockies
PECOTA: 77 wins
My take: Under

In 2013 Colorado actually had two starting pitchers finish among the NL's top 10 pitchers in adjusted-ERA--- Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa were both 27% better than league average when factoring in their ballpark. Right-hander Tyler Chatwood, a former Angels prospect who'd been cast aside before turning 23, was also impressive with a 3.14 ERA in 20 starts. With lefty Brett Anderson (who's a star when healthy) coming into the mix, the pitching staff may actually be a strength for the Rockies. Ironically, it's their offense which is problematic now. Last year's 706 runs scored was the lowest full-season total in franchise history. While few (if any) teams can boast a duo of young sluggers as good as Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, both are injury-prone and the rest of the lineup doesn't scare anyone.

NL Central

1. Cardinals
PECOTA: 87 wins
My take: Over

In the last three years the Cards have won two pennants and narrowly lost a third. And yet, after last year's 97-win finish (with a run differential that suggested they were even better than that), St. Louis seems to be getting started on what could be a stretch of dynastic dominance. This team is positively oozing with talent. They don't have any identifiable weaknesses and their minor league system has been a veritable factory for churning out top-notch major leaguers. They're as good a bet to make the World Series as anyone.

2. Brewers
PECOTA: 80 wins
My take: Over (Wild Card pick)

The Brew Crew are a popular sleeper team and I'm drinking the frothy Kool-Aid. Last year's 74-88 record can essentially be cast aside---they suffered a plague of injuries (including Ryan Braun before he was suspended for PEDs) resulting in far too many at-bats for guys like Logan Schafer (.211 average in 337 plate appearances) and Yuniesky Betancourt (.212 average, 409 plate appearances). They received the worst overall performance from the first base position of any team in major league history. All that adversity and yet they weren't even that bad. If you leave out their horrendous month of May (6 wins, 22 losses), they were actually over .500. Now they've got a deep lineup featuring plenty of young talent (Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis, Jean Segura, and Jonathan Lucroy are all 28 or younger) with breakout potential and they've cobbled together their deepest starting rotation in recent memory.

3. Pirates
PECOTA: 79 wins
My take: Over

A 20-year streak of grueling futility in Pittsburgh was broken last year as the Pirates not only finished above .500, they won 94 games and made the playoffs, giving the Cardinals a run for their money in the Division Series. Strangely, they stood pat in the offseason and will return essentially the same exact roster (minus A.J. Burnett). While the core of this team is certainly enough to get them to 85 wins or so, some regression is to be expected after last year's tsunami of good tidings.

4. Reds
PECOTA: 81 wins
My take: Under

Despite an elite pitching staff, two fearsome sluggers in the heart of the lineup, and the game's speediest baserunner in decades, I foresee a decline for the Reds. Losing Shin-Soo Choo hurts their offense considerably and they're left without much punch surrounding the aforementioned beasts, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. They got noticeably weaker in the offseason while their divisional rivals are getting stronger. The formidable trio of Mat Latos/Johnny Cueto/Homer Bailey atop their rotation might beg to differ, but this looks like a down year in Cincy.

5. Cubs
PECOTA: 73 wins
My take: Over

Interesting thing about the Cubs: all the talk about them is how they've got a glut of hitting prospects coming up but very little pitching. Yet, in the midst of their forgettable run the last few years it's been their offense which has been at the bottom while their pitching has been basically average. Emerging young hitters in the farm system like third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Javier Baez (both are potential stars with tons of power) are on the verge of coming to the majors and the pitching staff looks acceptable. I think it'll help them balance things out a bit and creep toward the high-70s in the win ledger.

NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 89 wins
My take: Over

The Nats shocked everyone last year by never really getting the gears in motion. They were expected to be a 100-win team and instead they finished 86-76 after a slow start was followed by a push that was too little, too late. They return with the same deep, well-rounded roster, bolstered by the addition of Doug Fister at the back of their rotation giving them perhaps the best starting pitching in the game. Offensively, they'll be led by the burgeoning 21-year-old beefcake Bryce Harper (who improved all across the board in his second season last year), heavily-bearded Jayson Werth in his late-career renaissance, and the emerging star shortstop Ian Desmond. New skipper Matt Williams has an open-minded approach to game management and I think his style will lead to the Nats fulfilling their potential as one of the best teams in the game.

2. Mets (!!!???)
PECOTA: 75 wins
My take: Over

Full disclosure: I'm a long-suffering Mets fan. But if you go back through my predictions in years past, I never showed much blind optimism about this organization. They've now piled up so many quality pitchers that I can't help myself---I think the Mets will be in the mix for a Wild Card spot this year. Sure, Matt Harvey's out for the year, but we've still got Zack Wheeler on the cusp of establishing his top-of-the-rotation pedigree, flame-throwing top prospect Noah Syndergaard eager to destroy worlds, Jenrry Mejia ready to make a (pretty odd) name for himself, and the diminutive deceptive Rafael Montero waiting for his chance. Not to mention Dillon Gee who had a 2.61 ERA over his last 22 starts of 2013 and Bartolo Colon who had the 6th-best ERA in all of baseball last year. All that, and they've ditched the game's worst pitch-framing catcher (John Buck) for a highly proficient one (Travis d'Arnaud). If Juan Lagares, who established himself as an elite centerfielder last year, gets to play regularly this mightcould be one of the better run prevention units in baseball.

3. Braves
PECOTA: 82 wins
My take: Under

This may end up being my most foolish prediction as the Braves are favored to win the division in some circles. Even having lost Brian McCann, their lineup still has plenty of pop. It's the pitching that looks problematic. They might be giving regular starts to Aaron Harang. New pickup Ervin Santana could thrive in his first go-round with the non-DH league and I really like Julio Teheran, but for a team with hopes of contention their rotation appears awfully unspectacular.

4. Marlins
PECOTA: 69 wins
My take: Over

This is a deplorable organization with a slimy crook for an owner. With that said, the team does have some noticeable talent this year. Jose Fernandez established himself among the Mike Trout/Bryce Harper class of elite young stars with a 2.19 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 28 starts at the age of 20 last year. He's backed by fellow under-25 pitchers Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, and Jacob Turner, all of whom have shown flashes of brilliance. The organization's top prospect, LHP Andrew Heaney, also figures to get some time in the majors this year as he's been mowing down the minors. Offensively... they're pretty offensive. Last year's lowest scoring team in the NL last year (by a very wide margin) didn't set out on making any real improvements. Giancarlo Stanton may have a chip on his shoulder after a down year and Christian Yelich has tons of potential, but this will likely be one of the worst offensive teams in baseball again. Overall, they may still be better than the Phillies.

5. Phillies
PECOTA: 76 wins
My take: Under

What an ugly team. It's sad that two of the game's best pitchers (Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels) are surrounded by such a steaming pile of garbage. The Phils went 73-89 last year and actually played over their heads. Their run differential suggests their performance was that of a 66-96 team. With beloved manager Charlie Manuel gone and the players already showing no energy under new leader Ryne Sandberg (they've been absolutely atrocious this spring, looking lazy and listless), it's going to be a loooooong season in Philly. Lee and Hamels might be the only thing preventing them from losing 100 games.

(Photo credit: Ron Vesely/Getty)

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