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2015 National League Rundown — Previews, Predictions & Promises About Every Team

Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutcheon, Clayton Kershaw
Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutcheon, Clayton Kershaw (Thearon W. Henderson, David Maxwell, Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

The betting site Bovada offers over/under win totals for every team in Major League Baseball heading into 2015. Only two reach 90 wins: the Nationals, at 93.5, and the Dodgers, at 92.5. (The Angels top the American League, at 88.5 wins.) Most teams are clustered close to 81 wins, a .500 season, which makes sense, but surely there will be more than just two teams breaking 90 wins, right?

Well, yes, probably, but we can still glean a few things from this. For one, there really are no dominant teams in the National League. Even the Nationals, who will trot out the best starting rotation in baseball, whose division features two of the league’s worst teams (the Braves and the Phillies), could still stumble — their fans still clearly remember 2013, when they failed to make the playoffs after a 98-win season the year before. Turns out it’s not so easy to simply get a dynasty up off the ground, no matter how much talent you accumulate.

The Dodgers enter the season with a record-shattering $273 million payroll — a good chunk of which is going to players who won’t even be playing for the Dodgers — but only a slightly better chance of winning their own division than the defending champs, the San Francisco Giants. (Though this is an odd-numbered year, so the Giants will probably be crap.) The Dodgers will probably knock the hell out of the ball on offense again, but after Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, can they pitch well enough to justify such high expectations (and finances)?

As for the Central Division, you’ve got the Cardinals (of course) and the Pirates, plus this year you can add the Cubs to the conversation. Bovada has those three teams back-to-back-to-back following the Nats and Dodgers as most likely to win the National League. How that threesome shakes out will be fun to watch. We’ll do our best to guess what might happen, but as they say, that’s why they play the games.

(At the bottom, you can find our playoff predictions, including the part where we crown a World Series champion who’s never even been to the Fall Classic.)

EAST

Standings last season:
  1. Washington Nationals, 96-66
  2. Atlanta Braves, 79-83
  3. New York Mets, 79-83
  4. Miami Marlins, 77-85
  5. Philadelphia Phillies, 73-89

The Nationals topped the N.L. in wins last year, and they look primed to stay on top again. They suffered only marginal losses in the off-season. Adam LaRoche moved to the White Sox, but Ryan Zimmerman will take over at first, so that’s probably a wash, as long as Zimmerman can stay healthy. Reliever Tyler Clippard got shipped out west, weakening the bullpen, which might be the Nats’ Achilles heel (if they have one at all). This team might not even need a bullpen, though. A one-through-five rotation of Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez (with Tanner Roark ready to step in, in case of injury) means the Nationals have a good shot at winning every time they step on the field. Barring something catastrophic, these are your 2015 N.L. East champs.

The Braves had a bizarre off-season. Are they rebuilding or what? They dealt homegrown favorite Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller, who may turn out to be a great pitcher (like he was in 2013) or simply mediocre (like he was last year). They also traded away Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, meaning they got rid of the guys who contributed more than half of the team’s home runs last year — a strange strategy for a team that scored the second-fewest runs in the N.L. But fine, if they’re rebuilding, that kinda makes sense, but then why did they ink 31-year-old Nick Markakis to a four-year deal? Perhaps we’ll realize what the Braves were doing in a few years, but 2015 looks like it’ll be a rough go in Atlanta, which is too bad for young stars like Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. Could one of them be on the trading block midseason?

In New York, hopes are high this season for the Mets, based largely on the return of Matt Harvey to an already-solid pitching staff. Last year’s Rookie of the Year Jacob DeGrom teams with Harvey, Jon Niese, Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee to comprise a rotation (even without the injured Zack Wheeler) that could be one of the best in the league … or maybe not. Colon is 42, Niese and Gee have lengthy injury histories, and no one knows if DeGrom can repeat his 2014 level or Harvey his 2013. On offense, the Mets added veteran Michael Cuddyer, which looks like a strange move now since the front office made no other substantial improvements. But if Cuddyer can stay healthy, and if David Wright and Curtis Granderson return to form, and if Juan Lagares, Lucas Duda and Travis d’Arnaud continue their strong development, well, that’s a lot of ifs, isn’t it? But as a Mets fan would say, ya gotta believe.

The Marlins are responsible for the largest contract in sports history. We know it happened months ago, but it’s still weird to say that out loud (or type it). Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year $325 million extension certainly makes it appear that the Marlins finally intend to win, and they backed it up by acquiring Dee Gordon, Mat Latos, Dan Haren and Martin Prado, right? Well, maybe. Those additions aren’t exactly sure things, any of them. The Marlins’ strength is probably their young, powerful outfield of Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, but even with stud Jose Fernandez likely to return by July from Tommy John surgery, the Fish may not have a strong enough rotation to seriously contend this season. Bovada has them pegged for 82-83 wins, which seems about right.

And now for the Phillies, who are still technically a baseball team. Bovada has them pegged for just 67-68 wins, which is both atrocious and probably a bit generous. They still have Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation, Chase Utley at second base and Jonathan Papelbon at closer, but if the Phils are smart (and the evidence there is unclear), they’ll unload all three veterans to replenish a weak farm system and then just hide out in the Citizens Bank Park basement for two or three years. Sorry to be so brutal, Phillies fans, but you can blame general manager Ruben Amaro for what will almost certainly be a painful, dismal season.

Predicted finish:
  1. Nationals
  2. Mets
  3. Marlins
  4. Braves
  5. Phillies

There are no sure things in April, but the Nats’ winning the East this year might be as close as you can get. The Mets and Marlins should battle all year for second place, while the Braves and Phils have locked up fourth and fifth, respectively. The only question there is just how many games Philadelphia will lose.

CENTRAL

Standings last season:
  1. St. Louis Cardinals, 90-72
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates, 88-74
  3. Milwaukee Brewers, 82-80
  4. Cincinnati Reds, 76-86
  5. Chicago Cubs, 73-89

In 2014 the Cardinals, once again, won the Central Division and, once again, made it to the National League Championship Series, where they fell the to the Giants (once again). It’s getting a bit boring, really, and (sigh) once again,the Cards look ready to compete. They added Jason Heyward to play right and bolster what was a below-average offense. The starting rotation, featuring Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, John Lackey and Carlos Martinez, could be the Cards’ biggest strength — unless the injury bug bites. But even if it does, the Cardinals will somehow end up around 90 wins and in the playoff hunt, just like always.

If any team has a real shot at overtaking the Cardinals this year, it’s the Pirates, who look to build on their 88- and 94-win seasons in 2014 and 2013. Catcher Russell Martin is gone, a big loss, but the Bucs have a deep, young core of position players, led by Best Player in Baseball (Non–Mike Trout Division) Andrew McCutcheon. Will they be able to pitch well enough to pass 90 wins? Uncertain, but the addition of A.J. Burnett should help. (Unless he’s terrible, like last year.)

It looks like a peculiar season ahead for the Brewers, who have some serious talent but also a ton of question marks. Can Ryan Braun rediscover his pre-Biogenesis suspension abilities? Will Jonathan Lucroy be able to repeat his outstanding 2014? Who is the real Jean Segura, the potential superstar from 2013 or the dud from 2014? And what to make of this rotation, which looks like it could be an upper-echelon group — but does anyone really trust Kyle Lohse to anchor a dynamite staff? They might have a better chance in a weaker division, but the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs all look superior to the Brew Crew.

The Reds also might be in some trouble this year. They’re another talent-laden squad whose window of opportunity looks to be closing, if it hasn’t already shut. You’d figure any team with an ace like Johnny Cueto at the top of the rotation, Aroldis Chapman shutting things down in the pen, and bats like Joey Votto and 2014 breakout Devin Mesoraco would be able to contend, but the Reds faltered badly last year, going just 33-47 in the second half after two straight 90-plus-win seasons. If Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips can rediscover their offensive mojo, the Reds should give the Cards and Bucs a hard time. Otherwise, they may get stuck battling the Brewers to stay out of the cellar.

If there’s a more intriguing team heading into 2015 than the Cubs, we don’t know it. Last-place finishers in 2014, the Cubs made a series of major moves this off-season, positioning themselves for at least a run at a Wild Card slot, if not quite enough to overtake Pittsburgh or St. Louis (at least not this year, anyway). New manager Joe Maddon is ready to push Chicago back into the spotlight, joined by ace Jon Lester and a bevy of young players who comprise one of the most promising groups of position players anywhere in baseball. Third-baseman Kris Bryant should be on the big-league team in just a few weeks, adding serious power to an offense already boasting Anthony Rizzo (32 homers last year), Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. It’s unclear whether the Cubbies will break through this year, but it seems inevitable that the North Siders are set to make some serious noise in the Central before long.

Predicted finish:
  1. Cardinals
  2. Pirates
  3. Cubs
  4. Brewers
  5. Reds

We wanted badly to put the Pirates ahead of the Cardinals, but the Cards’ decade-plus run of success seems too much to bet against. The Bucs could well earn their third straight Wild Card, and maybe this time they’ll find a way to the NLCS, at which point we’ll tip our caps, but they’ve got to do it first. This is a fascinating division, top to bottom, and we could easily see a multitude of possible finishes. Expect a race down to the wire, with the Cards’ talent and experience eventually nudging them ahead.

WEST

Standings last year:
  1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 94-68
  2. San Francisco Giants, 88-74
  3. San Diego Padres, 77-85
  4. Colorado Rockies, 66-96
  5. Arizona Diamondbacks, 64-98

We’ve already gone over the Dodgers’ almost comically large payroll (more than $100 higher than the Giants’, for the record), but L.A. won 94 games last year and could very well add to that total this year. Their middle infield is vastly improved, if a bit older, with Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick joining an already-powerful lineup. But the pitching may be a problem. Kershaw and Greinke will be great, but then what? Hyun-Jin Ryu is on the D.L. with a shoulder injury, and no team ever wants to utter the phrase “shoulder injury” about one of its starters. Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are also major injury risks, and then what? Well, new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, brought in from Tampa this off-season, can probably pry away Cole Hamels from the Phillies or maybe Johnny Cueto from the Reds, as those teams may be out of contention by the All-Star Break.

The Giants have won three World Series in the last five years, so how can we possibly think they won’t at least get back to the postseason again in 2015? Well, for one, their offense looks, shall we say, unimpressive. Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse are both gone now, and Hunter Pence is stuck on the D.L. to start the year. Add to that the fact that, after Madison Bumgarner, every rotation piece is a question mark — Matt Cain looked terrible last year; Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy are both getting up there in years; Tim Lincecum hasn’t been any good for years. Maybe Bruce Bochy will wave his magic wand and get the Giants back to the playoffs again, but it’s hard to see how.

No team had a more active off-season than the Padres, whose 2015 team is full of guys the casual fan will be saying, “Wait, he’s on the Padres?” about. The question is, though, did they get that much better? Their brand-new outfield of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton will probably hit well enough, but can they possibly play cover enough ground in spacious Petco Park to avoid giving up double after double into the gaps? James Shields now leads a rotation that was average last year and might just be marginally better. We figure San Diego will improve on last year’s 77-85 record, but by enough to sneak into a Wild Card? A lot will have to go right for that to happen.

In Denver, the off-season can best be summed up like this: The Rockies still have Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez. For some reason. The Rox did practically nothing to get better, and they won only 66 games last year. The strategy seems to be “Let’s hope Tulo and Cargo stay healthy this year!” History suggests that is not a smart strategy. Perhaps management figured that holding onto their two oft-injured stars and hoping they perform to their peaks will increase their in-season trade value. Perhaps. But as for this season, it’s very hard to tell where any extra wins are going to come from.

Last year went badly enough for the Diamondbacks that general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson got the sack in September. So it’s hard to expect too much from this year’s squad, now led by Dave Stewart upstairs and Alan Trammell on the field. First-baseman Paul Goldschmidt is one of the league’s best players, but he’ll need some more support for the D-backs to improve on last year’s 11th-best offense in the N.L. Cuban import Yasmany Tomas is a question mark. After playing outfield his whole life, Arizona plans to use him at … third base? Expect some growing pains there. But hey, that’s really not the worst thing for 2015, which figures to be a lost year anyway. Might as well see if he can learn to play the hot corner.

Predicted finish:
  1. Dodgers
  2. Padres
  3. Giants
  4. Diamondbacks
  5. Rockies

It just doesn’t make any sense to pick against the Dodgers, does it? They could win this division by double digits, without much trouble. Maybe the Giants will make another late-season push, if they can acquire some offensive help. It’s also possible the Padres gel faster than expected and give L.A. a race. But those aren’t very likely to happen. As for the D-backs and Rox contending, well, stranger things have happened. But for it to occur this year something entirely unpredictable will have to take place, like maybe a meteor hitting Dodger Stadium.

POSTSEASON

Division Champs: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers

Wild Card Game: Mets defeat Pirates

Division Series: Dodgers defeat Mets, Nationals defeat Cardinals

Championship Series: Nationals defeat Dodgers

World Series: Nationals defeat Mariners

The American League preview is here.

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