The Crystal Ball, Part 1 : National League
Seeing as how it’s opening day for most teams, it’s high time to throw my hat into the ring of pundits who think they can predict the season ahead. We’ll start with the league we Jays fans know a little less about and care a little less for, the NL
Washington- New manager Dusty Baker has smarts and experience and should be able to get decent results. Bryce Harper came into his own last year and should continue to ascend, even if his average drops a little due to his freakishly high BABIP last year (.369) Daniel Murphy won’t hit a homer every game (unlike last October) but is a nice addition to a good offense, Ben Revere should be in scoring position often for Harper. Rotation best in division, Strasburg pitching towards free agency likely to set career highs in innings and wins. I don’t like Papelbon the loose cannon as closer, but still look to Nats to win. 89 wins
New York – good again, but not World Series good, that rabbit’s foot got rubbed raw last year. Neil Walker great addition, one of the best all-around, least-heralded second basemen in game but D. Wright and C.Granderson are on downslopes of careers, Yoenis Cespedes is pretty unpredictable beyond 25 homers. Starting rotation is good, but not that good, a lot of pressure on youngsters Syndergaard and Matz. 86 wins
Miami – good defence and speed but all-in-all a very run of the mill team beyond Giancarlo Stanton (45 homers if he stays healthy this year) and Jose Fernandez. If they trade them away mid-season it’ll be a cellar-dweller season looking ahead to 2020 for hope, but otherwise the relatively weak division should land them 80 wins
Atlanta – you’d need to be ‘brave’ to be an optimistic Atlanta fan this year. Ditching Michael Bourn shows they’re looking beyond this year but still, a team with Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis isn’t all bad and though it will make fans cry when they compare it to the 90s team, the rotation at least has 2 adequate arms atop it in Teheran and Norris. 71 wins
Philadelphia – the Phils have almost completed their makeover; little remains to remind of their glory days at the end of the last decade besides Ryan Howard who at some point will probably end up as a platoon DH somewhere in the AL at Philadelphia’s expense (financially at least.) The young crew doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence but should start to gel together and shows promise for down the road. Aaron Nola could be a break-out pitcher, he flew under the radar as a rookie last year and is getting good reviews this spring. 68 wins
Chicago – I’ll go along with the crowd – to a point. Cubs are the chic pick to win it all this year and while I’m not convinced, at least they should get to have a crack at it by making it into the post-season. Jason Heyward was a great, if pricey, acquisition and in Wrigley could have a break-out year. .300 and 35 homers wouldn’t surprise me. Ben Zobrist seems over-rated but is a good, versatile player who knows Joe Maddon well and, on that subject, the Maddon effect probably adds 3 or 4 wins a season to any team. Russell and Bryant seem sure-thing superstars-to-be but may not quite be there this year. I don’t expect Jake Arrieta to replay the second half of the season last year, but should be good for another 17 wins or so and a sub-3 ERA; Lester and Lackey not quite so much but are both still above-average. 93 wins
St. Louis – if there’s a team out there that would have benefitted from signing Justin Upton or (keeping) Jason Heyward, it’s the Cards. I like their starting rotation better than Chicago’s, in particular the addition of Mike Leake; five guys with 180 innings+ and a dozen or more wins each is realistic. But they’ll have a hard time improving on their 11th in runs scored in NL last year, especially since Matt Holliday seems to be aging a bit (at 36, no surprise his .804 OPS last season was a career low) . Pitching will keep them competitive, 87 wins
Pittsburgh – Maybe Ray Searage can help Jon Niese take it to the next level, as he did with AJ Burnett and JA Happ (the bigger question to Toronto fans, of course, is will the lessons stick with Happ?). If so the Pirates could have a rotation not far off the preceding two Central division teams; one could do worse than pick Gerritt Cole for a dark horse Cy Young winner this year. But Andrew McCutchen does not an offense make; Pirates may have trouble duplicating the NL 4th-best 697 runs of last season. 85 wins
Milwaukee – Nothing about the Brew Crew really stinks; problem is nothing really shines either. Ryan Braun and Chris Carter will hit some homers and added to Jonathans Villar and Lucroy put a decent number of runs on the board; Jimmy Nelson and Tyler Jungmann provide the nucleus of a decent rotation. But they’re about one 40 base-stealing leadoff hitter, one .300 hitter, about 4 years too late for Aaron Hill to make an impact and two 13-game winning starters away from contending. 72 wins
Cincinnati – the Queen City could probably put pictures of Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips at the front of their PR material ahead of pictures of the beautiful riverfront and hills; the city must be great for them to refuse any trades to cities where they might contend and improve their careers. The team has some talent, of course, Votto is always an MVP-calibre player (I’m guessing .280/27 HR/ 90 RBI, .375 OBP if he stays in red all season; he might be a .300/ 35/110/ .400 in a number of other lineups); Billy Hamilton can run like the wind but needs to get on base more than 27% of the time to help out doing so; Homer Bailey’s great when he’s healthy but is coming off Tommy John surgery and Anthony Desclafani is a solid young pitcher many scouts are quite high on, getting a chance to develop his stuff out of the spotlight. Big Q’s for them are will Hamilton steal 75 bases and will the team be able to get rid of Jay Bruce and Phillips at All-star break? 67 wins
San Francisco – who had a better off-season in California? Not San Diego, by any means. LA lost one superstar starter and added an unpredictably good one. SF added two top-flight starters and have one former ace (Matt Cain) coming back from an injury-ridden season. Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Peavy; Casilla and Romo in a reasonably stacked ‘pen…it’ll be hard to run many runs up on the board against them. Lineup isn’t brilliant but is solid, through and through. Could be the long-awaited breakout year for Brandon Belt and last but not least, it is an even year again! 93 wins
Los Angeles – Clayton Kershaw may be the best pitcher in the majors and, it would seem certain, the most likeable Subway sandwich spokesman ever. But beyond him, the Dodgers hardly seem like an example of how to spend over $200 million well. Joc Pederson has chance to be a great but it may take more than this year to get him to learn plate discipline and cut down on his K’s. Obviously some real talent with likes of Gonzalez and Kendrick in infield and Yasiel Puig will be a superstar if he ever matures and stops battling his manager and teammates. Big Q’s are pitching-related: will Scott Kazmir be a 10-win, 4.00 ERA guy or a 16-win, 3.10 guy? Reports of much diminished velocity don’t bode well there. And is newcomer Kenta Maeda the next Yu Darvish or the next Kei Igawa? A tough team to evaluate, but let’s say 89 wins.
Arizona – good for the Diamondbacks for going for it. The expensive addition of Zack Greinke gives them a certified ace and lets them spit at LA in the process. Giving him 17 wins seems realistic, add in Shelby Miller, the best pitcher to lose 17 any time recently (6-17 but 3.02 ERA , 202 innings last year in Atlanta), it makes a decent rotation. Paul Goldschmidt is finally getting recognition as one of the game’s best hitters but might struggle to match last year’s numbers (.310, 33/110) without other big bats to back him. An improved team, but not by enough. 82 wins
San Diego – Well, they kept one Upton, but call him Melvin or call him BJ, he’s still not the right one. Still some decent talent; Matt Kemp is said to be taking better swings this spring and managed 100 ribbies last year anyway; Jon jay, Alexei Ramirez are both better-than-average but not-quite-star additions; Tyson Ross is one of the best young pitchers in NL and I still think James Shields will deliver 200 innings and a dozen wins even though there are worries about how many homers he allowed last year. Fernando Rodney is a timebomb for a closer in more ways than one, the loss of Craig Kimbrel will hurt and all things considered, the Padres aren’t bad…but aren’t very good either. 70 wins
Colorado – not much on the field for the Rockies fans to be high on. Carlos Gonzalez is great and had a big comeback season last year (40 homers, .525 slugging) which should make him a great July addition for a contending team. Nolan Arrenado is great already (89 extra base hits last season was a record for a third baseman) and at 25 should continue to progress, making the sky the limit for him by the time Colorado has matured its prospects enough to win. Jose Reyes will almost undoubtedly miss some time due to his (now dropped) domestic violence charges; seeing him first-hand last year as we Jays fans did, one suspects the Rockies wouldn’t be in any hurry to bring him back were it not for his big contract they’d love to dump. Rookie Trevor Story is said to be a much better defensive player already and hit OK in minors. Guessing they trade Gonzo, put them down for 65 wins.
Next up, we get to the real fun – the American League!