The Cream Rises: Setting Expectations In The National League This Season

The National League has been the superior product in the game over the past few seasons. It has hosted four of the last five World Series champions, including the reigning champion San Francisco Giants. As the new season begins, it is once again the National League that projects to host a handful of the game’s best teams.

Looking ahead at each division reveals few clear victors, while instead at least one legit MVP candidate, a Cy Young candidate and more importantly, a legitimate threat to become league champion. Can the incumbent division champs from D.C., St. Louis and Los Angeles hold their crowns, or did the newly imminent threats from within each division hijack the crown? OR could the champs defy their critics and defend their title across the first 162 games as well?

Plenty of questions, all with answers to come...now.

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National League East

1. Washington Nationals

The Backstory: The Nats ran away and hid with the NL East title a year ago, winning it by a ridiculous 17 game difference. And it was a measure met while the team fought through a plethora of injuries that came in waves where they never were quite together at the same time. But they still produced a Cy Young candidate in Jordan Zimmermann, the league hits king in Denard Span and hosted one of the biggest breakouts in game in Anthony Rendon—none of which were counted on as being the guiding lights for the team with the NL’s best record.

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The Winter: They played their cards slow and came away with the royal flush of the off season, landing Max Scherzer to take the group that was already the game’s best pitching rotation to yet another level.

The Prediction: The expectations are through the roof, but it is hard to think they could win the division by any more sizable of a margin. However, they are built to not only win series, but outright dominate them. The only thing that could hurt them in the long run is if they are too hurt to compete in October themselves.

2. Miami Marlins

The Backstory: They were the darlings of the NL Wild Card race a year ago; not quite in the mix, but close enough to put teams on notice. Giancarlo Stanton announced himself as one of the game’s absolute best and had a year good enough to win an MVP without a trip to the postseason being necessary—if not for becoming a victim of a brutal and badly timed fastball to the face.

The Winter: The Fish spared no expense—literally—this offseason, as they solidified their faith in Stanton by handing him a 13-year, $325 million extension that COULD (keyword) keep him in Miami through his 38th birthday. But they were far from finished, as moves were made to bring Dee Gordon, Mat Latos, Dan Haren, Martin Prado and Mike Morse to town as well.

The Prediction: Last season, their raw, youthful talent showed through and now an effort to add a veteran core around it has been made as well. The combination is enough to pull them from the outside of the Wild Card effort to driving it this year.

3. New York Mets

The Backstory: It was an awkward mix of an offense that could not find itself with its star David Wright never getting started, but a pitching staff that was much better than advertised, featuring the NL’s top producing bullpen and the NL Rookie of the Year in pitcher Jacob deGrom. The end result was a middle of the road club, but a tough one that had some potential.

The Winter: The continued (and continually pointless) rumors of a pursuit of Troy Tulowitzki aside, it was not a particularly busy winter in Queens. Michael Cuddyer actually took less to come over the Mets, while the biggest addition was the green light for the return of Matt Harvey.

The Prediction: With Harvey back in tow to lead their strong starting staff and a maturing everyday lineup, the Mets will be better than they finished 2014 as. But with a few questions at the very end of their pen, the loss of Zach Wheeler and uncertainty of which Wright will show up, the sky is limited for Terry Collins’ boys.

4. Atlanta Braves

The Backstory: It was an awkward year for the Bravos, as they returned much of the team that made it the postseason the previous two years, but fell 13 games and below .500. As it came to be, this was the beginning of would lead to the busiest offseason of any team in the NL.

The Winter: Perhaps no team will need a media guide to get familiar with more than Atlanta. Jettisoned in the last four months are Craig Kimbrel, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Kris Medlen, Jordan Walden, David Carpenter, Brandon Beachy, as well as both Justin and Melvin Upton. And while they acquired a lot of promise for their rotational future, starting with Shelby Miller, it was dizzying off season to behold.

The Prediction: No team has ushered itself more fully into rebuilding mode than the Braves, so the gradual march to towards their new stadium may feel longer than it actually is.

5. Philadelphia Phillies

The Backstory: The Phils delayed destruction of the Phillies carried over well into 2014, and while there were some signs of the vintage Phillies on hand, such as a return to All-Star form by Chase Utley, a 90-RBI campaign from Ryan Howard and a very impressive Cole Hamels, more often than not Murphy’s Law ruled Phillies roost.

The Winter: The biggest stories of the winter in Philly were around the rumor mill of if they would finally sell their costly and mostly outdated stars off to being fostering some sense of a rebuild effort. And while franchise shortstop Jimmy Rollins was dealt, there were no takers on Howard and much ado about nothing for Hamels, Utley, Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon.

The Prediction: This year will be nothing about competition and more about how soon they will be able to come to Earth on changing out more their broken parts now and starting the road to getting younger, cheaper and players ready to play to their worth now—not five years ago.

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National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

The Backstory: The script was the same for the National League’s most consistent franchise a season ago: another division championship and a deep push into the NL playoffs. Armed with an ensemble every day mix that saw Yadier Molina land a seventh straight Gold Glove and deep pitching staff led by another top three Cy Young finish from Adam Wainwright, the Cards reached the National League Championship Series for the fifth time in six seasons.

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The Winter: Tragedy began the Cardinal winter, when top prospect and projected future cornerstone Oscar Taveras died with his girlfriend in car accident. In turn, the team pulled the trigger on a deal to acquire Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden, while later adding power conduit Mark Reynolds to attempt to amplify their low power attack.

The Future: This year’s version of the Cardinals brings more clear potential to the table than the previous two, due to diverse mix of veteran leadership and developing young talent. It is a team that has a clearly defined chemistry and has successfully added immediate external impact talents in Heyward, Reynolds, Walden and John Lackey over the past half year. Their time is (still) now.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Backstory: 2013 proved to be no fluke, as the Pirates stayed firmly in the mix in the NL Central last year, grooming one of the most balanced teams in the game, with Andrew McCutchen once again posting an MVP-worthy performance, while Josh Harrison nearly notched a batting title as well. The Bucs posted their first back-to-back postseason appearances since 1991-92.

The Winter: It flew under the radar some, but they had a quietly impressive postseason. They posted the winning bid for Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang, who hit 38 home runs in 2014. Bringing A.J. Burnett, who won 26 games for Pittsburgh from 2012-13, and resigning Francisco Liriano assured they would post a solid, if not spectacular, rotation yet again.

The Future: They will be the second portion of what should be the tightest division title race in the National League this year. And while it could be another trip to October via the Wild Card, they will be a very tough matchup for any team with home field advantage.

3. Chicago Cubs

The Backstory: It was a fifth consecutive year in the cellar of the Central for the Cubs, but it was one that felt more encouraging than any other due to the team’s emergent talent base. If not for dealing away pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel away midseason, they could have pushed closer to .500 than they have since 2009.

The Winter: Team president Theo Epstein decided that enough was enough this winter, opening up the team’s resources and luring manager extraordinaire Joe Maddon to town to sign a show of change. Then, the club made one of the biggest splashes of the winter in bringing Jon Lester in a statement signing about its intent for the future. Further adds of Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler and a resigned Hammel further solidified their intent to rapidly rebuild their foundation.

The Future: The changes they made are sizable and will make a difference. Yet the biggest impact they will see will come from the debut and development of their homegrown talents such as Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Arismendy Alcantara. And while depending on youngsters is a solid foundation, it is both a risky and patient route to take. While the cellar is likely behind them, the future is not quite now yet.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

The Backstory: It was a disappointing year in Milwaukee ultimately, as they held first place from nearly April until August before falling not only from the top of the division, but out of the playoffs completely in mid-September, falling into a distant third place and just above .500.

The Winter: More left than stayed this winter, with former ace Yovani Gallardo being traded away, and incumbents Mark Reynolds and Rickie Weeks left town as well, impacting the club’s depth. Finding their closer Francisco Rodriguez still available in March was a salvageable coup for club at least.

The Prediction: The lineup can still produce and should finish in the upper half of the league in productivity, however, a suspect bullpen and questionable depth could come back to bite them in a division where weaknesses are at a premium. There was not much in the club’s budget to many drastic upgrades, so they will put efforts towards trying to be more consistent with what was so successful for half of last season.

5. Cincinnati Reds

The Backstory: There was nearly a complete failure at the club’s core last year. Outside of Johnny Cueto’s brilliant 20-win, Cy Young runner-up campaign and the standard dominant showing from Aroldis Chapman, the Reds struggled to make due. Between injuries to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey and severe downswings in production from Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, they fell out of the race pretty quickly.

The Winter: GM Walt Jocketty walked the line between holding serve and cutting bait this winter, making the call to move along pitcher Mat Latos, but to add for outfielder Marlon Byrd. They made no big splashes, but enough moves to at least see if they can compete before a potential mid-season fire sale.

The Prediction: The selloff is imminent. If health and productivity returns to the team, there’s a chance they could make a few waves, but not enough to break into the tight race in the Central. The headline of the year could be making either Chapman or Cueto available, who would instantly open up conversations for the club to acquire a number of other organization’s premium prospects to speed along their rise back up the division.

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National League West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Backstory: Everybody’s favorites coming into last season played the part well. Behind an instant vintage MVP/Cy Young performance from Clayton Kershaw and a strong ensemble showing from their deep cadre of offensive talent, led by Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and revived Matt Kemp. LA sewed up the West with a strong 94-win showing before falling for the second consecutive year to the Cardinals in the NLDS, this time behind two massive comebacks allowed in both of Kershaw’s series bookend starts.

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The Winter: They certainly did not stand pat in what could be seen as coming off of an accomplished season, as they dealt off former franchise face Kemp to the Padres, moved Dee Gordon to Miami, saw Hanley Ramirez walk back to Boston and continued on from there. In a flurry of moves, new GM Farhan Zaidi acquired Jimmy Rollins, Howie Kendrick, Brandon McCarthy, Yasmani Grandal and Brett Anderson.

The Prediction: Some feel that LA lost firepower, which may be true, but they also got more cohesive pieces. Kendrick and Rollins are certainly an upgrade up the middle in overall offering, while un-congesting their outfield gut will allow for both a chemistry upgrade and a defensive upgrade as well. The Dodgers should roll the West again, but may want to find a path through the postseason that avoids St. Louis.

2. San Diego Padres

The Backstory: Not much to say about 2014 for the Pads, as it was another in a string on nondescript campaigns the organization has put up recently. Former franchise face Chase Headley was finally dealt away, as was long-time closer Huston Street. Neither move really shook the foundation much of the club and they quietly settled into a third place finish.

The Winter: But the silence ended as the seasons turned cold. No team changed more about its direction than the Padres did, kicking off with a blockbuster move to land Matt Kemp from their division rivals in LA. And that was only the beginning, as soon after rookie GM A.J. Preller had landed Justin Upton, Wil Myers, James Shields and ultimately super closer Craig Kimbrel to transform his club from bland to potentially one of the most exciting collections of talent in the game.

The Prediction: Putting the Pads on the marquee is great, and it would be foolish to not consider them contenders after their facelift. But there will be growing pains, as well as some defensive challenges that will arise. But this is a team on top end talent alone that will make the Wild Card picture very interesting in already chock full NL top runner-up picture.

3. San Francisco Giants

The Backstory: They pulled the rabbit out of their hats again, transforming in the second half the year into a momentum train that picked up its most steam in September and October. In the end, Bruce Bochy did perhaps his most masterful job to date in route to the Giants’ third World Series title in the past five years. All with a diverse collection of top talents – specifically the miraculous performance of Madison Bumgarner – but more often than not just the right guy in the right place doing exactly what he was called on to do.

The Winter: The months following the Series were not as kind however, as the team took some blows to its foundation. Pablo Sandoval took his sizeable bat to Boston, while Hunter Pence had his forearm broken early in Spring Training. Jake Peavy, Sergio Romo and Ryan Vogelsong stayed, to assure there remains a cupboard of pitching options.

The Prediction: They did not bring much talent back in outside of keeping most of their own guys in town, which has them shading on the wrong half of the neutral equation, especially with Pence out early and Sandoval gone permanently. There seems to be a lull after every high for the Giants for some reason, and this year seems as if it will be no exception.

4. Colorado Rockies

The Backstory: Led by an epic start from Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies came out the gate hot last year with Nolan Arenado, Justin Morneau and Chris Dickerson joining in on the tear. However, two familiar plagues arose and sunk their hopes quickly: a season-ending injury to Tulo and a lost-at-sea pitching staff.

The Winter: It was a stunningly quiet winter for the Rockies, who chose to fill in a few blanks in the style that a team that had been far more successful would have done. When it is a race between Kyle Kendrick and Nick Hundley as your biggest off season acquisition, there should be a fairly upset fan base inhabiting Coors Field this summer.

The Prediction: More of the same could be in store, although if Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez can stay on the field and Arenado and Dickerson continue to develop, they will score a ton of runs along the way to another finish just outside of the money slots in the West.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Backstory: Injuries defined the beginning of the Arizona season and intensified their impact on as it went along. Staff leaders Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo went down for the season early on, while then-reliever David Hernandez and breakout star A.J. Pollack followed them onto the DL. Finally, the deathblow was dealt when their All-Star Paul Goldschmidt had his finger broken and the D’Backs year completely tanked out.

The Winter: With new GM Dave Stewart and team president Tony LaRussa in tow, some fundamental changes began to be set in place. They made a large commitment to Cuban Yasmany Tomas (who ended up beginning the year in the minors), while also moving out the contracts attached to Miguel Montero, Wade Miley, Cody Ross and Trevor Cahill.

The Prediction: While Goldschmidt and Pollack are back and healthy, the team overall is firmly in the middle of a massive rebuild. With a pitching staff still on the mend and devoid of a veteran presence, it sorts out to be a year way outside of the pack in the West while youngsters are given their chance to make an impact.

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Awards Tour

Most Valuable Player: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

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Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, Cubs

Comeback Player of the Year: Matt Harvey, Mets

Playoff Push

NL Wild Card Game

Pirates vs. Padres

NL Division Series

Nationals vs. Pirates

Cardinals vs. Dodgers

NL Championship Series

Cardinals vs. Nationals

National League Champions

St. Louis Cardinals

 Do you agree with our choices for division winners and award recipients? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, as we gear up for the 2015 MLB season!

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