Wednesday, March 27, 2019

National League Preview

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Team Strengths: The Nationals’ rotation was already one of MLB’s best and improved further with the signings of Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson and the full return of Joe Ross from Tommy John surgery. The left side of the diamond is exceptional, with Anthony Rendon at third base, Trea Turner at shortstop and Juan Soto in left field.

Team Weaknesses: The Nationals have excelled at developing corner players, but up-the-middle positions have long needed to be filled by free agents or trades. The Nationals had the worst second base play in MLB and fourth-worst catching last year as measured Baseball Reference’s runs above average, and Michael Taylor’s struggles in center field contributed to the Nats’ outfield ranking in the bottom half of baseball despite the presence of Soto and Bryce Harper.

What They Did About It: The Nationals upgraded their problem areas, acquiring Yan Gomes and signing Kurt Suzuki to take care of the catching duties and signing Brian Dozier to take over for Wilmer Difo at second base. Center field, meanwhile, has been turned over to top prospect Victor Robles.

Final Outlook: The Nationals filled their holes and maintained or upgraded their strengths. With that, the Nats should be in the thick of the division title hunt.


Team Strengths: The Braves finished top-10 in both ERA and runs scored last season and appear even better on both sides. An offense that has stars in both the outfield (Ronald Acuna) and infield (Freddie Freeman) received a boost from Josh Donaldson. The starting staff runs eight deep with Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson all reaching the majors last year and capable of assuming larger roles behind Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran.

Team Weaknesses: The bullpen finished 17th in ERA last year (4.15) and showed its leaks in the playoffs. In all, Atlanta blew 20 saves and converted just two-thirds of its save chances.

What They Did About It: The Braves didn’t add any relievers in free agency but stand to get contributions from Darren O’Day, who didn’t pitch last year after being acquired in the Kevin Gausman trade. Perhaps more important, the group of young starters are all viable options in the bullpen as well.

Final Outlook: The Braves’ pitching depth sets it apart from the rest of the the division, and their balanced lineup should provide plenty of run support. The division will be brutally tough, but the Braves have the talent to defend their NL East crown.


Team Strengths: In the context of Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies actually boast one of the better pitching staffs in baseball. Led by Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta in the rotation and Seranthony Dominguez in the bullpen, the Phillies had the third-best staff in MLB as measured by Baseball-Reference’s runs above average. That group was further enhanced by the signing of reliever David Robertson and the acquisition of catcher J.T. Realmuto, whose athleticism and experience will further aid the staff.

Team Weaknesses: The Phillies were a mess defensively last year, largely because of players playing out of position. With those players struggling to learn new positions, both the team defense cratered and the individual players’ offense suffered to the point the Phillies ranked 22nd in the majors in runs despite their hitter-friendly park.

What They Did About It: The Phillies traded for a true shortstop in Jean Segura and shipped out Carlos Santana to open up first base for Rhys Hoskins, substantially upgrading both the infield and outfield defense in one move. Andrew McCutchen signed to take over in left field, another significant upgrade.

Final Outlook: The additions of Realmuto, Segura and Robertson had the Phillies in position to snap their streak of six straight losing seasons, and then they added Bryce Harper. Health and improved decision-making from management will determine if all the additions equal a postseason berth.


Team Strengths: The Mets return their formidable rotation with Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz all coming back from the unit that finished sixth in starter’s ERA a year ago. The Mets’ homegrown outfield of Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Juan Lagares has a chance to be a strength as well.

Team Weaknesses: The Mets struggled to develop infielders this decade and had little to turn to once David Wright, Jose Reyes and Daniel Murphy aged out or moved on. While they’ve excelled at developing starting pitchers, there have been few reliable relievers outside of Jeurys Familia. It came to a head last year as the Mets posted MLB’s third-worst bullpen ERA.

What They Did About It: New general manager Brodie Van Wagenen addressed the Mets’ problems head-on, acquiring Edwin Diaz and re-signing Familia for the bullpen and adding Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie and J.D. Davis to the infield, not to mention Wilson Ramos at catcher. Further improvement from Amed Rosario and Jeff McNeil can further put the Mets’ infield development problems to bed, and mashing first baseman Pete Alonso awaits in the minors.

Final Outlook: The Mets have the talent to win the division. How healthy their talented but injury-prone rotation remains will determine if they actually do.


Team Strengths: Everything is relative for a team that has traded two MVPs, two other All-Stars and baseball’s best catcher in just over a calendar year. Starlin Castro was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB last year and Brian Anderson proved he’s a keeper. That’s about it.

Team Weaknesses: Just about everything. The Marlins finished last in runs scored and 25th in ERA, with the worst bullpen ERA (5.34) in the game.

What They Did About It: In addition to trading J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins traded their best reliever in Kyle Barraclough and surprisingly designated Derek Dietrich for assignment. Spots are now open across the diamond for their acquired prospects to get acclimated to the majors and prove they belong. Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Nick Neidert and Zac Gallen all have shots to pitch in the rotation, Isan Diaz should get his first callup in the infield and Monte Harrison is primed to join the outfield mix.

Final Outlook: The Marlins avoided 100 losses last year. With the division getting better around them as they got worse, it will be tough to avoid the century mark again this year.


Team Strengths: The Cubs’ infield remains arguably the best in baseball, with Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and David Bote representing the six-deep group and Ian Happ able to play in the dirt too. With that infield leading the way, the Cubs finished in the top 10 in MLB in runs (9th), batting average (4th) and OPS (10th) last season. The pitching staff took heat, but the Cubs actually finished top 10 in ERA for both starters and relievers.

Team Weaknesses: The outfield is full of famous names, but they aren’t actually that productive. Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward have been average or below hitters the last three seasons, while Kyle Schwarber’s bounceback year was good but not exceptional. As such, the Cubs' outfield finished a middling 16th in runs above average last year, as measured by Baseball-Reference.

What They Did About It: Daniel Descalso, another infielder, was the only position player free agent the Cubs signed. There’s no outfield help coming from a bottom-tier farm system, either.

Final Outlook: The Cubs largely stood by as the rest of the division got stronger. Still, there’s too much talent present to not win 90-plus games and make the playoffs for a fifth straight year.


Team Strengths: Reigning MVP Christian Yelich, all-star Lorenzo Cain and former MVP Ryan Braun are all back in the National League’s best outfield, as is key reserve Eric Thames. The relief corps that posted the fifth-best bullpen ERA is largely back too, led by Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel.

Team Weaknesses: The Brewers have struggled to develop homegrown infielders or frontline starters, and it shows. The production they received from second base and shortstop last year was bottom 10 in MLB, while their lack of reliable starters forced them to use their bullpen to the extreme in the postseason.

What They Did About It: Mike Moustakas re-signed to help their infield depth. Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, who primarily pitched out of the bullpen last year, are primed to rise to the rotation and end the Brewers’ drought of homegrown arms outside of Jimmy Nelson, who is also due back after he missed all of 2018 recovering from shoulder surgery.

Final Outlook: The Brewers brought back all their key pieces and added catcher Yasmani Grandal on top of it. The division got tougher around them, but they should remain in the playoff picture.


Team Strengths: Infielders Matt Carpenter, Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong, all homegrown, are among the best at their positions, and now the Cardinals have added Paul Goldschmidt. They also return every key starter from the rotation that finished fifth in ERA a year ago and can add top prospect Alex Reyes.

Team Weaknesses: The bullpen was a disaster through the trade deadline, but an midseason rebuild saw homegrown arms Dakota Hudson, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber salvage the relief corps. The Cardinals made the most errors in the majors last season, the latest chapter in their longstanding defensive shortcomings.

What They Did About It: The Cardinals signed Andrew Miller to be their closer, giving them a formidable end-of-game combination with flamethrowing setup man Jordan Hicks. As for the defense, adding Goldschmidt at first base and getting full seasons from Harrison Bader and possibly Tyler O’Neill in the outfield make for a substantial upgrade.

Final Outlook: With Goldschmidt and a cavalcade of major league-ready young arms in tow, the Cardinals have few weaknesses and are in prime position to snap their three-year playoff drought.


Team Strengths: The Reds boast one of MLB’s best infields with All-Stars Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett and Joey Votto manning the bases and Jose Peraza becoming one the better-hitting shortstops around. A previously underperforming outfield now looks like a strength, with Yasiel Puig, Scott Schebler, Matt Kemp and Jesse Winker providing above-average offense and top prospect Nick Senzel attempting a shift to the outfield as well.

Team Weaknesses: Draftees Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Robert Stephenson and Amir Garrett and prospect trade acquisitions Luis Castillo, Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani, and Keury Mella have ranged from below-average to downright flops as starting pitchers. As such, the Reds ranked 25th, 29th, 25th and 26th in starter’s ERA the last four seasons.

What They Did About It: The Reds acquired Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood in trades, meaning they only need two of their young pitchers to click now instead of five.

Final Outlook: The Reds took a strong offense and made it better and took a bad pitching staff and made it better. They are in strong position to snap their streak of four straight 90-plus loss seasons.


Team Strengths: Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz quietly made up the second-best catching unit in MLB last year, as measured by Baseball-Reference’s runs above average. The outfield of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson ranked eighth.

Team Weaknesses: As strong as the outfield and catching were, they couldn’t make up for how poorly the infield performed. The Pirates ranked in the bottom half of the majors at every infield position, sinking the offense and undoing all the positives from the rest of the team, including a solid pitching staff.

What They Did About It: The Pirates gave Adam Frazier a more permanent role by making him the everyday second baseman. They acquired Erik Gonzalez in a trade with the Indians to shore up shortstop, and top prospects Kevin Kramer and Kevin Newman are ready to step in if someone falters.

Final Outlook: The Pirates aren’t terrible and might even contend in a weaker division, but they are behind their peers in the NL Central and will have to fight to avoid last place.


Team Strengths: The Dodgers led the NL in runs last year despite injuries afflicting them from the jump. The losses of Manny Machado, Yasmani Grandal, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig are notable, but through productive drafts (Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson) and bargain-bin finds (Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, Max Muncy), the Dodgers have enough to cover it. Add in the free agency addition of A.J. Pollock and top prospects Keibert Ruiz, Alex Verdugo, Gavin Lux and Will Smith all finishing last year in Double-A or above, and the Dodgers have plenty of bats in-house.

Team Weaknesses: The Dodgers led the NL in ERA last year, but that was mostly due to their starting staff. Even though it posted a solid ERA during the season, the Dodgers' bullpen faltered badly down the stretch and imploded completely in the World Series.

What They Did About It: The Dodgers signed Joe Kelly, but beyond that they’ll rely on prospects to improve their relief corps. Caleb Ferguson and Dennis Santana are two homegrown reinforcements who debuted last year, and Tony Gonsolin, Mitchell White and Yadier Alvarez are all candidates to follow.

Final outlook: The Dodgers have the star-power and depth to win a seventh consecutive division title. Getting back to the World Series a third straight year will require their young arms quickly acclimating to pressure situations in relief.


Team Strengths: The Rockies had the second-best starting rotation in MLB last year, as measured by Baseball-Reference’s runs above average. Kyle Freeland, Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray and Antonio Senzatela are all homegrown and German Marquez was acquired in A-ball, giving the Rockies a track record of developing starting pitching few organizations can match. Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story represent the organization’s strength developing infielders.

Team Weaknesses: The Rockies had the fourth-least productive outfield in baseball, as measured by Baseball-Reference’s runs above average, and the second-worst production at first base. Aging veterans Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond received a combined 1,401 at-bats, while Ryan McMahon, David Dahl and Raimel Tapia were left to languish in part-time roles or in Triple-A.

What They Did About It: Gonzalez and Parra were allowed to leave in free agency, opening up more playing time for Dahl and Tapia, while McMahon and prospect Garrett Hampson will split time at second base after DJ LeMahieu left as a free agent. Desmond is now the starting center fielder after Daniel Murphy signed to play first base, but on the whole the Rockies opened up more at-bats for their young talent.

Final Outlook: The Rockies came within a one-game tiebreaker of winning the division last year. Their young players are an upgrade over the departed veterans, giving Colorado a strong chance at its third straight postseason berth.


Team Strengths: The Padres have talent and numbers in the outfield, with Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes, Franchy Cordero and Travis Jankowski representing the franchise’s best homegrown position unit in some time. Manuel Margot and Wil Myers have disappointed at times since coming over in trades, but both have flashed the talent of being above-average contributors. With top prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. and Luis Urias set to take over the middle infield and the record-breaking free-agent signee Manny Machado, the Padres suddenly have a promising offensive core.

Team Weaknesses: The Padres ranked 27th in starter’s ERA last year (5.09), an amazing feat considering they played their home games at Petco Park and another 19 games at Dodger Stadium and Oracle Park. It’s the product of years of failed pitching development and poor in-house evaluations that sent Corey Kluber, Joe Ross, Max Fried and Matt Andriese away as prospects and failed to see Miles Mikolas as a starter.

What They Did About It: The Padres are going to lean on their No. 1-ranked farm system to provide the starting pitching they need. Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer and Jacob Nix debuted last year, and Logan Allen, Cal Quantrill and Chris Paddack should represent the next wave this year. The possible return of Dinelson Lamet from Tommy John surgery during the season will help too.

Final outlook: The Padres are further ahead in their rebuild than the Giants and D-backs. With Machado on board, a group of talented pitchers primed to ascend and touted prospects Fernando Tatis Jr., Luis Urias and Francisco Mejia set to give the offense a boost, the Padres have a chance to finish better than fourth for the first time in five years.


Team Strengths: The Giants remain set at catcher and first base, with Buster Posey and Brandon Belt doing most of the work for the only positions San Francisco finished among the top 10 in Baseball-Reference’s runs above-average metric. They have depth with Aramis Garcia capable of playing both and Austin Slater able to play first in addition to the outfield.

Team Weaknesses: Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Evan Longoria have declined into below-average players, while the organization’s failure to develop even a single starting outfielder this decade continues to handicap the offense. With that, the Giants finished second-to-last in runs scored last season.

What They Did About It: The Giants are going with an all-homegrown outfield of Slater, Steven Duggar and Chris Shaw in the hopes the trio can end the franchise’s outfield development blues. Otherwise they are banking on a return to form from their infielders, and hoping Jeff Samardzija and free agent signee Drew Pomeranz come back from injury-riddled seasons to make the rotation viable.

Final outlook: The Giants are changing gears under new GM Farhan Zaidi and understand a multi-year rebuild is ahead. They could finish as high as third place if their veterans bounce back, but recent history suggests that’s unlikely.


Team Strengths: The D-backs return most of the pitching staff that finished fourth in ERA last year. The loss of Patrick Corbin in free agency hurts, but the D-backs kept Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, get Taijuan Walker back from Tommy John surgery during the year, added Luke Weaver via trade and stand to benefit from the looming ascension of top pitching prospect Jon Duplantier.

Team Weaknesses: The D-backs finished 19th in runs scored last season, then traded franchise icon Paul Goldschmidt and lost A.J. Pollock in free agency. It continued a long, dispiriting run of developing impact homegrown position players only to lose them, following Justin Upton, Adam Eaton, Carlos Gonzalez, Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson and Mark Reynolds.

What They Did About It: The D-backs signed only two free agent position players—Wilmer Flores and Caleb Joseph—and will try to cover the loss of Goldschmidt and Pollock with position converts. Seven of the D-backs’ top eight position prospects have yet to play above Class A, so internal reinforcements won’t be coming on a large scale for at least another year.

Final outlook: The pitching staff may keep the D-backs afloat for a bit, but a subpar offense appears likely doom the club to its first losing season in three years.

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