The tardiest MLB Primer you will ever see (NL)
Let’s get this done so I can start writing about things that have happened, something eminently more interesting than writing about things I think will happen.
5. San Diego
4. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco
I went over this division in the final installment of my Giants primer.
1. St. Louis
Houston is abjectly terrible, and doesn’t deserve more than a dozen words. Pittsburgh and Chicago are pretty close to even. The Pirates really overachieved last year, and so are due for some suckiness. Andrew McCutchen is an offensive force for them, something the Cubs lack. But the Cubs have an ace in Matt Garza, and the Pirates have nobody like that (though I suspect Garza will be traded this season as part of the Cubs’ rebuilding process). The Cubs’ second and third starters, Ryan Dempster and Jeff Samardzija, are also better than anyone the Pirates have. Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett should perform better now that he’s in the NL and away from New York, but he’s at best a No. 2.
Milwaukee is the third-best team in this division, with no one really close to them either above or below. Aramis Ramirez and Matt Gamel may be able to replace much of the departed Prince Fielder’s production, but they won’t intimidate pitchers the way he does nor alter the way they pitch to Ryan Braun the way he did when he was protecting Braun in the lineup. The Brewers still have two legitimate aces in Yovani Gallardo and Zach Greinke, but the rest of the rotation is too shaky.
The decision between St. Louis and Cincinnati was one of the toughest for me to make, like going to a restaurant with so many good options that you just throw up. The Cardinals of course lost Albert Pujols, but getting new guy Carlos Beltran and a full season out of David Freese ought to help mitigate the loss of his offense. The lineup is just as deep and balanced as Cincinnati’s, with Matt Holliday, Freese, Beltran, Yadier Molina, Lance Berkman, Jon Jay and Allen Craig all being above-average-to-great hitters for their respective positions. Cincinnati acquired Mat Latos from the Padres, and he might be an ace. If so, they have a nice top of the rotation with him and Johnny Cueto. That still isn’t as nice as the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia and Adam Wainwright—and Chris Carpenter should be back sometime midseason. The Reds fortification of their bullpen was somewhat thwarted by Ryan Madson’s injury. Joey Votto is the best hitter in the NL, though, and Cincinnati will be in the playoff hunt.
*Note: Assertion not supported by facts, figures or even believable lies.
5. New York
Not really a bad team in this bunch. I can say that more confidently now because I have seen Johan Santana pitch well for the Mets. The Mets hit for average if not power, but that might change with the fences at Citi Field moved in now. Santana might be an ace again, but with his injury history and the defeatist attitude of Mets fans, a sense of impending doom will hang over his throwing shoulder. R.A. Dickey is impossible to root against, because he’s the last knuckleballer, a fan of Star Wars and Tolkien, an avid mountain climber and the author of a startlingly honest autobiography, in which he revealed that he was sexually assaulted as a child. Cynics would say he wrote that book to profit, but not everyone’s profit schemes also have the potential to help victims of molestation cope. His pitching potential, given the fickle nature of the knuckleball, is always going to be capped at “solid No. 3 starter.”
The top four in the division were extraordinarily hard to separate. Miami has a powerful lineup. Philadelphia has three aces in the rotation. Atlanta has oodles of young talent all over the place. Washington has a reinforced pitching staff and a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, the only third baseman in the NL who can claim to be better than Pablo Sandoval. I picked the Nationals because there is always a team that makes the playoffs after finishing the previous season below .500—an 80-82 record qualifies barely and suggests that they don’t need much more improvement, only about 10 games or so. A more team-specific reason would be their starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg will be as healthy as he ever is in his first full season off Tommy John surgery. Jordan Zimmermann is a secret stud. Gio Gonzalez is another very good pitcher with a low profile. He was hidden in Oakland, the Land that Selig Forgot, before he was mercifully traded here. Gonzalez should enjoy the move to the NL. Edwin Jackson has electric stuff and is one of the best fourth starters in the league. Closer Drew Storen’s injury hurts their chances, but not enough, especially with Typer Clippard more than more-than-capable of taking over. If Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa can improve their OBP at the top of the order, they will have a formidable offense.
Philadelphia’s offense, on the other hand, is like a retired boxer or your uncle who was in the Marines: capable of reminiscing on old times in which they kicked ass, but not capable of reproducing them in the gray present. It is autumn for the Phillies, and November at that. Chase Utley is rickety. Ryan Howard is slipping fast, while Jimmy Rollins has already slipped. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino are still very good, though. If John Mayberry, Jr. becomes a good hitter, then they have a shot. Their three aces are still great, but without Roy Oswalt the team would be in a really bad position if one got injured. I find that likely given their age and injury-free recent history.
Too many things need to go right for Miami to go to the playoffs. Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson need to stay healthy. Carlos Zambrano needs to tone down the crazy. The odds are slim.
People in baseball circles have commented on the strength of the pitching on the farm for the Braves in recent years. Well now those prospects are major leaguers, and it seems like they all excel at striking people out. Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward can only improve, and a full season with Michael Bourn, the best leadoff hitter in the NL, will turn the Braves into a dangerous offense.
NL Wild Card Game
(2) Atlanta at (1) Cincinnati
It was tough not to put the Giants here, but Bill Simmons has taught me that it is good to reverse jinx, and I don’t think we have enough offense. Besides, I realized that if I had the Giants making the playoffs, I would be unable to pick against them, and whatever credibility you think I have would vanish. The Reds would go with Mat Latos here; the Braves, Tommy Hanson. I think the Reds potent offense carries them here.
Cincinnati at St. Louis
Washington at Arizona
St. Louis’ all-around depth earn them the top spot in the playoffs, while Washington comes out of an East with a deflated record because the top four teams in the division beat up on each other. The Cardinals best the Reds in the playoffs for the same reasons they bested them in the division race. Washington’s deeper starting rotation carries them past the D-backs. An NLCS appearance is welcomed warmly in the nation’s capital, but the extra innings pitched by Strasburg in the playoffs have the potential of harming his reconstructed elbow.
St. Louis over Washington
Washington’s magical season ends at the hands of the Cardinals thanks to a deep St. Louis bullpen. It’s hard to write stuff here because I already wrote pretty much all of the thoughts I had on these teams.
St. Louis vs. ???
This would be more suspenseful if I wasn’t going to post my AL Primer right after this.