2017 National League Preview — Playoff Predictions, Team Profiles & More
You may not have known this, but prior to the 2016 season it had been quite a long time since the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. One hundred eight years, in fact. And then Kris Bryant picked up a slow grounder and tossed it over to Anthony Rizzo. "The Chicago Cubs are world champions!" then became a not-ridiculous statement for the first time since 1908. Could it be that by this time next year, "The Chicago Cubs have won back-to-back World Series" also falls into the not-ridiculous category?
Maybe, but who really knows! Does that sound non-committal? Well, yeah, this preseason-prediction stuff (like our A.L. preview here) is fun and all, but nothing ever seems to go as planned over a 162-game baseball season. So please accept these "predictions" for what they are: almost certain to be mostly or completely wrong, but we do them anyway because Opening Day is when hope springs eternal. For 108 years baseball fans on the North Side of Chicago watched their team of (now former) lovable losers go out and try to win a title, and inevitably fail, sometimes in the most heartbreaking fashion. But finally, it happened.
And the Cubs look to be the class of the National League once again, though they have some serious competition from their coastal competitors. The Senior Circuit is a top-heavy league this year, with only the Cubs, Nationals, Mets, Dodgers and Giants as serious contenders for the pennant. Maybe the Cardinals can sneak in there too, and the Pirates and even the Rockies (!) may look to surprise us, but there is a fairly serious drop-off in quality once you get past those teams.
The Dodgers are loaded once again, and look to win their fourth straight N.L. West title. They have the best pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw, and they re-signed their biggest free agents, third baseman Justin Turner and closer Kenley Jansen. Their shortstop, Corey Seager, won Rookie of the Year and looks like a perennial MVP candidate in the making. It's hard to find any serious flaws in their roster, so we fully expect them to be playing in October again. Dodger fans will tell you that October's great and all, they'd just like to actually win a pennant this time, their first since 1988. It's not a 108-year-long wait or anything, but with the money and talent the Dodgers have, 2017 is World Series or bust.
The Nationals are another team that's been consistently great (three division titles in five years), but who can't quite put it all together in the postseason. The Nats haven't made it past the divisional round, so maybe a World Series is asking a bit much, but with this roster -- and with the limited time they have left of Bryce Harper's talents -- a championship has to be the goal. The Dodgers have Kershaw, but the Nats have maybe the game's No. 2 pitcher in Max Scherzer, who seems to do something remarkable every year, whether it's a no-hitter or a 20-strikeout game or a Cy Young award (he's won two already). Scherzer leads one of the league's best rotations, and paired with one of the best offenses you get a +151 run differential -- second only to the Cubs last season. This team is stacked, and the fact that they'll be breaking in a new closer doesn't diminish their chances all that much.
And now let's take a look at how the rest of the league looks...
National League East
2016 Final Standings:
The Nats may be slight favorites, but nearly as many people seem to think that the Mets have the best shot at the East title, and it's not hard to see why. Injuries decimated the roster last year, but just about everyone seems to be back and healthy heading into the 2017 season (except David Wright, still recovering from lingering effects of spinal stenosis). The pitching staff is where those returns will be the biggest. Jacob DeGrom and Matt Harvey both had season-ending surgeries, but have looked strong in spring training. Steven Matz's comeback from elbow surgery has hit a snag, as he was shut down for three weeks with elbow tenderness, but the Amazins have Zack Wheeler finally coming back from two years off due to Tommy John surgery. Those four plus the surprisingly effective Robert Gsellman give the Mets what could be the best rotation in all of baseball, and if you have that, then you have as good a chance as anyone to win it all.
We can't begin to discuss the Marlins' season outlook without acknowledging the gaping void in their rotation following the death of Jose Fernandez. Fernandez was one of the game's premier pitchers, a rising star with a deadly arsenal, who died in a boating accident in September. Edinson Volquez now slots in as the No. 1, but it's hard to imagine a way the Marlins are any better now than last year's 79-win edition. Giancarlo Stanton will hit his share of moonshots, and Adeiny Hechavarria will pull off numerous Web Gems, but the roster just isn't strong enough to topple the giants above them.
The Phillies are quite the intriguing squad heading into 2017. They will probably stink, but maybe they won't! They don't have any real stars, but they do have a bunch of decent guys! That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, and it isn't, but the Phils have a solid bunch of young, up-and-coming talent, and either this year or next year or the year after, that will start paying dividends. Jared Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson ain't exactly Scherzer/Strasburg or Syndergaard/DeGrom, but they're reliable, above-average hurlers. Center-fielder Odubel Herrera is a star on the rise, and infielder Cesar Hernandez may be as well. This team doesn't have the guns to compete with the Nats or Mets -- yet -- but 2017 could tell us an awful lot about how the future looks in Philly.
The Atlanta Braves are opening a new stadium, so they went out and acquired...R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon? Both are, first of all, very old -- but they're definitely not washed up. One-year deals for each of them actually seem like wise decisions for a team that probably won't be good, but like the Phillies, has its sights set on the near future. They have several top-line talents (first baseman Freddie Freeman, in particular, along with pitcher Julio Teheran, future star Dansby Swanson at short, and the under-appreciated Ender Inciarte in center), but there's a pretty steep decline after that. The Braves probably won't be 68-win bad again, but it'd be a surprise if they sniffed even third place this year.
Predicted Order of Finish:
National League Central
2016 Final Standings:
Chasing down the Cubs is going to be hard, hard work, and at the moment, it doesn't look like anyone else in the Central has the stuff to do it. The Cardinals finished 17.5 games back in 2016, and despite the addition of center fielder Dexter Fowler (luring him away from the Cubs, no less), the Redbirds are gonna have a lot of trouble trying to surpass their longtime doormats. A Wild Card shot is definitely in the cards (heh), though, and that should probably be their primary goal this year. St. Louis's roster is unusually short on stars, with ace Carlos Martinez perhaps the only truly high-end player left on the team. Of course, Yadier Molina could have a vintage season and boom, the Cardinals win 90-plus games again.
The Pirates were something of a disappointment in 2016, managing just 78 wins after seasons of 98 wins in 2015, 88 in 2014, and 94 in 2013. Management tried hard to trade the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutcheon, following Cutch's unusually weak 2016 season. However, McCutcheon will remain in Pittsburgh, albeit not in his accustomed center field. That job now falls to Starling Marte, pushing Cutch over to right -- that is, at least until the trade deadline approaches, when we may see Pittsburgh try again to deal their longtime star to a team with a better shot at the postseason than this edition of the Bucs has. That would signal the end of what has been an era of baseball rejuvenation in the 'burgh, though if McCutcheon has a return to form this season, the Pirates could haul in a load of top-notch prospects who'll soon bring the team back to contention.
The Brewers are one of 2017's most mysterious teams. Despite having no shot at the postseason last year, the declined to trade their star left fielder Ryan Braun, though perhaps they couldn't find much of a return due to his rather hefty contract and PED-related troubles. The Brew Crew doesn't look to have much of a shot at the playoffs this year, so at some point they've got to start reloading, right? Or maybe not? Who knows what this lineup can do if things go right. There are enough young players with good potential there to make some noise, but almost certainly not enough to challenge the big dogs. If the Brewers win 73 games again, it wouldn't be a huge surprise, nor would it be if they win 83. Again, they're a mystery.
And then there are the Reds. The poor Reds. Despite having perhaps the best hitter in the N.L., Joey Votto, they were just plain awful in 2016 -- mostly due to giving up the third-most runs in the league. Where to look for optimism? Well, uh, we're not sure what to tell you there. Management brought in Scott Feldman, who makes the Reds' rotation maybe worse? No different? Slightly better? It's hard to see how this team improves much on last year's 68 wins, though simple baseball math makes it hard to lose 94 games two years in a row. If this team climbs out of the cellar, call it a successful year.
Predicted Order of Finish:
(Yeah, we know, that's the same finish as last year, not very imaginative, etc. But are we wrong?)
National League West
2016 Final Standings:
Can the Giants overcome the Dodgers and claim their first division title since 2012? The addition of Mark Melancon at closer will help, but doesn't seem like the kind of move that'll dislodge L.A. The Giants have a very talented roster, with names like Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford, who you might have heard of. So they'll definitely be in the mix, and if things go well, they could inch past 90 wins. That might get them another Wild Card, and when you have Mad Bum ready to go nine innings of shutout ball, that's hardly a bad deal.
The Rockies are highly intriguing, the kind of team that, if everything breaks well, could actually jump over the Giants and Dodgers and snag their first-ever N.L. West crown. As always in Colorado, pitching is the big question. Can this rotation do enough to keep the team in games. The offense is stellar, led by Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, D.J. Lemahieu and Trevor Story, and if Carlos Gonzalez can bounce back, this team could score 900 runs -- which would be more than enough for any team not playing a mile high at home.
What will the Diamondbacks do this year? They were a popular pick to surprise and claim the West last year, following the acquisitions of pitchers Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, but both of those players had, shall we say, disappointing years -- especially Miller, for whom the D-backs gave up a king's ransom. Things did not go as planned, and management was reshuffled. Paul Goldschmidt at first base remains the team's shining star, but he'll be joined this year by A.J. Pollock, who returns after missing last season due to injury. The rotation will look different as well, with the addition of Tajiuan Walker in a trade from the Mariners. Walker was once a prized prospect, but has struggled a bit in the Majors. Arizona fans will soon find out if he was worth the price of Jean Segura, who had a stellar season in 2016.
Holding up the rear in the West are the Padres, who don't look to be much of a threat in 2017. The Friars probably weren't as bad as their 68-94 record last year looks, but their chances of climbing out of the cellar are pretty dim. The other four teams in the West are clearly stronger, with deeper lineups and better pitching. The Padres, like fellow 2016 cellar-dwellers the Braves, must hope that their farm system produces some Major League–ready talent soon, or else it looks like a bleak future in San Diego. Shame, really, we hear the weather is so nice there.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Division Champs: Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers
Wild Card Game: Mets defeat Rockies
Division Series: Cubs defeat Nationals, Mets defeat Dodgers
NLCS: Cubs vs. Mets