Around this same time last year as part of the annual UCB project to make predictions for all 6 divisions, I not-so-boldly picked the top three as the Brewers, Cardinals, and the Reds (see here for proof). Based on the individual rosters, it wasn’t difficult to put those three in order. It was actually the bottom three teams that made it difficult to prognosticate. This year may be even more difficult. Or maybe I’m just thinking that to recalibrate my brain to think in terms of the Cardinals as underdogs again.
- St. Louis Cardinals (94-68). Yes, this represents a significant improvement over last season, and last season the Cardinals still had Pujols. They also had a roster that appeared perfectly structured for a 2 inning game as long as those 2 innings were the 8th and 9th. They started the season without a legitimate shortstop, and they didn’t have a player at second base who could cover more ground than his own shadow could. Adam Wainwright was out for the season before the season even started, and there was no shortage of questions about whether Lance Berkman could last a full 9 innings in the outfield much less a full season. Well, everybody knows how that all ended, and this year’s team may be in way better shape to start the season than last year’s squad was. The injury to Chris Carpenter notwithstanding, the Cardinals improved at a few positions without giving away too much in any particular spot. Losing Albert Pujols may seem significant on paper, but his departure opens the way for Berkman and maybe even Allen Craig to see time at first base. The new big man on campus is now David Freese, and he looks to have the confidence of someone who has performed at the highest level on the biggest stage. Maybe that’s because he has. So has Allen Craig. So has Jason Motte, Yadier Molina, and most of the pitching staff. Losing a 5 WAR player is huge, but they Cardinals are getting another 5+ WAR player back. In theory, they have essentially swapped Berkman for Pujols and Carlos Beltran for Berkman.
- Milwaukee Brewers (89-73). Despite the loss of Prince Fielder, make no mistake about this lineup’s ability to put crooked numbers on the board. It may take another MVPee season from Ryan Braun, but their pitching is still very solid, and they should be able to bash their way to another good season, especially if they can dominate at home.
- Cincinnati Reds (83-79). The injury to Ryan Madson might slow the Reds down a bit, but they should be better than a .500 club. After all, Votto is still there, and the Reds have another year of Aroldis Chapman who could be combined with Sean Marshall to make a fantastic duo at the end of games. The importance of Marshall to the Reds cannot be overstated. He could give them the ability to effectively shorten some games to 6 inning affairs. Their real problem could simply be getting to the 7th inning with a lead, because their offense can be very hit-and-miss at times, and there are a few questions about the consistency of the middle relief. However, they do still get to beat up on the Cubs and Astros to a certain extent, and that always helps.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86). The Pirates may be the new trendy pick to finish 3rd in this division, but after careful inspection of their roster, I just don’t see where they have improved enough to jump over the Reds. Andrew McCutchen is turning into a legitimate, perennial All-Star kind of player, but he yet to show the ability to drive runners home, and that is what is sorely lacking in Pittsburgh. Maybe Casey McGehee can return to form and be that run producer they need to help McCutchen, but that is a relatively large “maybe”.
- Chicago Cubs (73-89). I am still a little fuzzy where the Cubs are concerned, because I am still trying to reconcile the trade that sent Andrew Cashner and a minor league guy to the Padres in exchange for Anthony Rizzo and another minor league guy. Kudos to the Cubbies for cutting payroll down to size, but it is hard to imagine that they will get where they want to go until the Alfonso Soriano deal is off the books.
- Houston Astros (55-107). After following what Jeff Luhnow did in St. Louis, I find it difficult to imagine that the Astros will be cellar dwellers for very long. Maybe moving to the AL will help accelerate the building process, but the more likely scenario includes years of pain before seeing real progress. Getting big contracts and excess fat off the payroll is one thing, but filling roster spots with useful players to make the team competitive represents a completely different task. Fortunately for the Astros, it appears that they finally have the right baseball man for the job.
NOTE: If you add up the win-loss records for all the NL predictions made, the total is 1287-1305. The American League possesses the ability to dominate interleague play this season, and the result may not be pretty.
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