National League powers and sleepers will battle for limited playoff spots

    NL West

    The National League West has carried recent success in 2010 and 2012 with wins by San Francisco Giants. However, the Giants were subject last year to pitching issues, leading to a 76-86 record. They look to remedy those reliability issues with Tim Hudson, whose 13-season MLB tenure has never suffered more losses than wins. You can’t count out Bruce Bochy’s ball club to repeat their odd-even championship rotation.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have their eyes and wallets set on the prize with an all-time record $233 million payroll. 2013 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw leads a starting rotation that includes 15-game winner Zack Greinke and 14-game winner Hyun Jin Ryu. If outfielders Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier can match their 2013 performance and center fielder Matt Kemp can come back strong for the first time in two years, the Dodgers won’t beat themselves.

    The Colorado Rockies’ subject bullpen had them struggling with a record below .500. They are hoping their pitching woes can be fixed by acquiring Brett Anderson from Oakland. Yet if they are to compete in this evenly-matched NL West, the burden falls on shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who posts the best numbers at his position in the game (when healthy), and slugging outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.

     

    Dodgers vs. Red Sox
    All eyes will be on Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig as he enters his first full season in the majors. Photo Courtesy of MCT

     

    Among all the talk of the Dodgers, lost in the conversation is the Arizona Diamondbacks. After two-straight 81-81 seasons, Arizona is poised to make a strong push in 2014.

    The Diamondbacks have a balanced lineup with second baseman Aaron Hill setting the table for home run leaders first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielder Mark Trumbo, and protected by former all stars catcher Miguel Montero and infielder Martin Prado.

    Despite an up-and-coming rotation, Arizona has some of the top defenders in the game in shortstop Didi Gregorious and outfielder Gerardo Parra, whose cannon arm will make baserunners think twice about rounding third base every time.

    The San Diego Padres have been dismissed by every pundit, but they can find the magic they found in 2010 in which they almost stole the division over the eventual champion Giants.  Excluding first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Heath Bell, the Padres still retain many of the players from 2010.

    Team home run and RBI leader second basemen Jedd Gyorko is on the rise coming into this season, and third baseman Chase Headley and outfielder Carlos Quentin are threats to return to their all-star caliber play of seasons past.

    Starting pitchers Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy are question marks, but another strong season from a no-name bullpen could be the key to making the Padres competitors (or spoilers) late in the season.

    The NL West is going to be exciting to watch with so many questions about this evenly stacked portion of the league.

     

    NL Central

    The NL Central is led by the St. Louis Cardinals and seasoned veteran outfielder Matt Holliday are back in major contention. The Cardinals should be an easy pick, having won the division five times in the last decade. They put major money in a  4-year $53 million deal with shortstop Jhonny Peralta and will expect major production from him. A big question they will have to answer throughout the season is who will replace outfielder Carlos Beltran, who went to the Yankees. Matt Carpenter, however, could fill that gap. Carpenter has moved from second to third base, and led the National League in hit doubles and runs last year.

    The real pressure in the NL Central comes between last post season’s Wild Cards, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates.

    The Pirates made the postseason for the first time in over two decades in 2013, but unfortunately for them that was with the aid of starting pitcher A.J Burnett who has sinced donned a Phillies uniform.

    Cincinnati also left the offseason wounded, losing leadoff hitter and on-base machine outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Texas Rangers. Standout September call-up Billy Hamilton was red hot towards the end of last season batting .368 with 13 steals, but the question remains – can he carry that into 2014?

     

    NLCS Game 6: LA Dodgers at St. Louis
    St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha will try to continue the success he had in September and October, when he helped his team reach the World Series. Photo Courtesy of MCT

     

    With the Chicago Cubs still another year away from contention and the Milwaukee Brewers on the decline, the NL Central will be another three-team race between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds.  However, St. Louis will have a harder time repeating as division and national league champions with a slightly stronger Reds team and motivated Pirates squad.

    Despite concerns over Billy Hamilton, the Reds will start the season with a healthy Ryan Ludwick, who only played 38 games in 2013.  Ludwick is one of the more underrated hitters in the National League, who smashed 26 home runs in 2012 for Cincinnati and can provide protection for sluggers second baseman Brandon Phillips and first baseman Joey Votto.  On the mound, Matt Latos has quietly been one of the better pitchers in the National League with an ERA of 3.16 last season, and if new $100-million man Homer Bailey can string together a consistent season, the Reds will be in great shape for 2014.

    The Pirates won’t catch anybody by surprise this season, and with the loss of A.J. Burnett, they will have a tougher task repeating a return to the postseason.  However, former top-prospect Gerrit Cole should improve in his second year in the majors and help ease the blow of losing Burnett.  Catcher Russell Martin should continue to provide veteran leadership and guide the staff in another successful year, and the scrappy lineup headed by National League MVP Andrew McCutchen should be sufficient to keep the Pirates competitive.

    The Cardinals may have this one prematurely in the bag as they seem to be the only team without lineup questions or offseason losses. The concerns arising between the mid-level teams could lead to an additional playoff seat for the NL West.

     

    NL East

    The Washington Nationals have been the talk of the league with what some are calling the most stacked rotation in the MLB, thanks to the addition of pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers. They faltered under pressure and injuries last season but the combination of a healthy Stephen Strasburg on the mound and outfielder Bryce Harper gripping a bat cannot be ignored. Harper was injured last year but with youth on his side a big comeback is a very real possibility.

    The reigning NL East champion Atlanta Braves, who are almost always a playoff contender, were previously seen as a major possibility but with the loss of starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, (both to Tommy John surgery) their future is more than subjective. Their pitching woes only get worse with the rival New York Mets helping their own by snatching away closer Jose Valverde from the Tigers.

    Don’t count the Braves out just yet, however. Atlanta did best the Nationals by 10 games last season, comfortably clinching the division with a week left in the season. They still have arguably the best closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel.

    Don’t expect too much to come out of the NL East, but there should still be some good contention between the two tops teams from last season. The Nationals may be hailed now due to their lineup, but its a long season and the Braves will put up a good fight.

     

    Braves vs. Nationals
    Still only 21 years old, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is expected to have a breakout season in 2014. Photo Courtesy of MCT

     

    Despite high expectations, the Nationals and Braves may not have the easiest time rolling through their division in 2014.  Washington can be susceptible to another sluggish start, as they limped to a 65-65 record through late August before making a playoff push in September and finishing 86-76.  The addition of Fister should push the Nationals over the top, but a rough transition to facing National League lineups could thin out Washington’s rotation.

    The Braves have locked up their young offensive stars for the foreseeable future, with over $206 million committed this offseason to first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop and defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons, and the talented but inconsistent Jayson Heyward.  With questions already surrounding their pitching staff, all the pressure will be on the youth to perform up to expectations.  If Freeman can’t produce at an all-star level, Heyward has another down year and Simmons doesn’t show more pop at the plate, the Braves will be in trouble.

    With the Miami Marlins and New York Mets in another year of rebuilding, the aging Phillies could provide Atlanta and Washington some problems.  The imminent return of left-handed starter Cole Hamels to a rotation featuring right-hander A.J. Burnett and southpaw Cliff Lee could give Philadelphia one of the NL’s better rotations.  Bounce-back years from former all-stars first baseman Ryan Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley could make the Phillies a dark horse in the NL East.