BBRT 2017 National League Preview – Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

Spring Training and the WBC are in full swing and thoughts are focused on the upcoming season.  A couple of weeks ago, BBRT made its predictions for the coming American League season. (Click here for that post.)  In this post, I’ll take a look at the National League. You can see projected standings, won-lost records and award winners immediately below and go deeper into this long post for a review of each team, some “stat facts” and a couple of “players to watch” for each squad.  Oh yes, and remember these are just my own observations – like you, from the outside looking in. Like all prediction, their accuracy is up for debate.

PREDICTED NL STANDINGS

EAST

Washington Nationals (92-70)

New York Mets (85-77)

Miami Marlins (81-81)

Atlanta Braves (74-88)

Philadelphia\a Phillies (71-91)

CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs (99-63)

St. Louis Cardinals (89-77) … Wild Card

Pittsburgh Pirates (80-82)

Milwaukee Brewers (72-90)

Cincinnati Reds (68-94)

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

San Francisco Giants (90-72) … Wild Card

Colorado Rockies (81-81)

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86)

San Diego Padres (64-98)

National Leqgue Champions: Chicago Cubs

A detailed look at each team is provided after the award winner predictions. ____________________________________________

NL AWARD WINNERS

MVP

  1. Kris Bryant – Cubs (3B) … The Cubs are likely to go to the World Series again and Bryant, last season’s NL MVP is likely to lead them. He was .292-39-102, with 121 runs scored in 2016. If he continues to cut down on the strikeouts – dropped from 199 in 2016 to 154 last year – the 25-year-old could be even better.
  2. Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers (LHP) … Simply the best starting pitcher in baseball, Kershaw won the Cy Young Award and MVP in 2014. I wouldn’t bet against him being the first pitcher to accomplish that feat twice. If he leads the Dodgers to the West Division title with 20+ wins, he’ll be in the running. Last season in just 21 starts, he went 12-4, 1.69 with 172 whiffs in 149 innings.
  3. Nolan Arenado – Rockies (3B) … Arenado is my kind of player – bringing leather and lumber to the ballpark. Just 25, and in is fourth MLB season, he has won four Gold Gloves.  He also led the NL in home runs and RBI in each of the last two seasons (.294-41-133 last year).  If the Rockies can finish above .500 and anywhere near the Dodgers/Giants, Arenado could be the MVP.

Other potential candidates: Buster Posey, Giants; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs; Paul Goldschmnidt, Diamondbacks.

CY YOUNG AWARD

  1. Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers … Three-time CYA winner; 2014 NL MVP; four-time ERA leader; three-time league leader in strikeouts; twice league leader in wins; twice league leader in complete games; three-times league-leader in shutouts. Kershaw has to be the favorite.
  2. Max Scherzer – Nationals … Perhaps a long shot, since he’s nursing a finger injury. However, he pitched through the injury last season and ended up 20-7, 2.96 with a league-leading 284 strikeouts. Don’t count out the defending NL Cy Young Award winner in the chase for his third CYA.
  3. Madison Bumgarner – Giants… The epitome of a big-game pitcher. Consistently posts 15018 wins, an ERA under three and 200+ whiffs. One of these years, MadBum’s gonna be the man.

Other potential candidates: Noah Syndergaard, Mets: Johnny Cueto, Giants; John Lester, Cubs; Jake Arrieta, Cubs.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Dansby Swanson – Braves (SS) … Swanson, just 23, looks to be ready to join the amazing crop of young and talented shortstops dotting MLB rosters. He’s still a rookie, but got a 38 game “look:” from the Braves last season and hit .02, with three home runs, 17 RBI and 20 runs scored. The first overall pick of the 2015 is one of – if not the – 2017 ROY favorites.
  2. Hunter Renfroe – Padres (OF) … Last season’s Pacific Coast League MVP, Renfroe scorched Triple A pitching for a .306 average, with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. Then, in 11 games with the Padres, this former first-round draft pick, hit .371-4-14. He’ll get plenty of opportunity to show his stuff with the rebuilding Padres.
  3. Tyler Glasnow – Pirates (RHP) … At 6’ 8” and 220-pounds, the Pirates hope Glasnow is a big presence in their 2017 rotation. He looked a little overmatched in a late call up last season (0-2, 5.01), but did fan 24 in 23 1/3 innings. In four minor league seasons, he’s gone 36-19, 2.03 with 645 strikeouts in 500 innings. With that seasoning, I’m betting he’s ready for the NL.

Other potential candidates: Josh Bell, Pirates; Manuel Margot, Padres; J.P. Crawford, Phillies.

________________________________________________________________________

NOW A TEAM BY TEAM LOOK AT THE NL

EAST

First Place – Washington Nationals (92-70)

Max Scherzer Nationals photo

Two-time CYA winner Max Scherzer will lead the Natinals’ rotation. Photo by apardavila

The Nationals won the AL East by eight games last season – and the pitching staff led the way – putting up the second-lowest ERA in all of MLB (3.51). The Nats are returning the bulk of that staff.  The Nats also scored the fourth-most runs in the NL – and the most in the East Division.  The offense should be even stronger this season, with a full year of SS Trea Turner and the addition of CF/leadoff  hitter Adam Eaton (trade with the White Sox).  The Nationals will be back on top.

The Nationals starting rotation will again be led by Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96, 284 strikeouts in 228 1/3 innings), who continues to deal with a ring-finger injury.  Scherzer was the NL Cy Young Award winner last season and is only the sixth pitcher to win the CYA in both leagues.  Following Scherzer in the rotation is Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 3.60), who is an ace when he’s healthy, but has averaged only 137 innings in each of the last two seasons (due to back and elbow issues). If he’s healthy, he could win 17-20 games.  Last season, Strasburg won 15 games in just 24 starts.  The three and four spots also boast proven, quality arms.  Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83) can be expected to notch 15 victories, while southpaw Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57) has put up double-digit wins in each of the past seven seasons. The final spot should go to Joe Ross (7-5, 3.43), coming off shoulder surgery. If any of these falter, the most likely candidate is A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.17 with the Nationals last year and 8-8, 4.26 in Triple A).   Clearly, the Nationals have a quality rotation, but there are a couple of health questions that need to be answered.

NATIONALS STAT FACT

Last season, the National’s had MLB’s second-lowest ERA at 3.51 (only the Cubs were lower at 3.15). They also head the second-lowest starters’ ERA at 3.60 (again trailing the Cubs, 2.96) and second-lowest bullpen ERA at 3.37 (the Dodgers were at 3.35).

The Nationals “fanned” on signing a free-agent closer, so it appears Shawn Kelley (3-2, 2.64 with seven saves) will get the job. The 32-year-old has just 11 saves (in 23 opportunities) in eight MLB seasons, so he’s far from a proven commodity.  Still, his 80 strikeouts in 58 innings last season indicate he has closer “stuff.”  Getting the ball to Kelley will be Blake Treinen (4-1, 2.28 in 73 games) and Koda Glover (2-0, 5.03; but 3-1, 2.25 in three minor league stops – A/AA/AAA – last season).  A couple of additional assets in the pen include Sammy Solis (2.74 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 41 innings) and veteran Oliver Perez (2-3, 4.95.) If Kelley holds up at closer, the pen should be up to the job.  If not, look for closer-by-committee or a plunge into the trade market.

The biggest change in the Nationals lineup is right at the top, with newcomer Adam Eaton (trade White Sox). Eaton (.284-14-59 with 14 steals) will lead off and play CF.  Eaton is likely to be followed by 23-year-old SS Trea Turner (.342-13-40 in 73 games – after .302-6-33 in 83 Triple A contests). A full year of Turner will further boost the Nationals’ offense.  The middle of the lineup belongs to the proven bats of 2B Daniel Murphy (347-25-104); RF Bryce Harper (.243-24-86, with 21 steals, but capable of much more – he was .330-42-99 in 2015); and 3B Anthony Rendon (.270-20-85, with 12 steals). Included in the supporting cast are 1B Ryan Zimmerman (.218-15-46 in 115 games), who needs to bounce back from age and injuries; LF Jayson Werth (.244-21-69); and new catcher (free-agent) Matt Weiters (.243-17-66). Given a healthy pitching staff, this is more than enough offense to win the East.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Max Scherzer nursed a stress fracture in his right ring finger over the second half of 2016 (and did it successfully – going 10-1. 2.86 over the second half). He ended with a 20-7, 2.96 record and his second Cy Young Award. Keep an eye on the Nationals’ “ace.” Washington gave up some top pitching prospects in the Adam Eaton trade and needs a full season from Scherzer. Besides, why not watch the hurler who last season lead the NL in wins (20); starts (34); innings pitched (228 1/3); and strikeouts (284)? Scherzer is one of only six pitchers to win the Cy Young in both leagues; is one of just three pitchers to fan 20 batters in a nine-inning game; and one of just six pitchers to throw two no-hitters in one season.  Worth watching to see what he does next.

SS Trea Turner, just 23-years-old, is one of the crop of outstanding young shortstops dotting MLB rosters.  In 73 games for the Nationals last season, he hit 342-13-40, with 33 steals. This after minor league seasons in which he hit .331, .322 and .302.  It should be fun to watch him develop.

Second Place – New York Mets (85-77)

Noah Syndergaard photo

Noah Syndergaard’s “Thor-like” arm will lead the Mets’ rotation. Photo by Keith Allison

With the Mets, contending is likely to be all about pitching – and their pitching is all about health.  Consider their starting rotation. Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all had elbow issues last season (Matz and deGrom required surgery); Matt Harvey had only 17 starts (surgery related to thoracic outlet syndrome); and  Zach Wheeler was out due to Tommy John surgery.  Despite all of this, Mets’ starters put up MLB’s third-best ERA (and their relievers were sixth-best). Meanwhile, the team scored MLB’s fifth-fewest runs. Bottom line:  If the pitching holds up, they’ll contend. If not they could drop to third.

The Mets’ rotation starts with hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 2.60, with 218 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings). Syndergaard is the ace of the staff, but there is plenty of quality to follow.  Jacob deGrom (7-8, 3.04 in 24 starts) was an All Star (14-8, 2.54) in 2015.  Matt Harvey (4-10, 4.86) was 13-8, 2.71 in 2015. Steve Matz was 9-8, 3.40 in 22 starts. Zack Wheeler, coming of Tommy John surgery, hasn’t pitched since 2014, but was 11-11, 3.54 that season.  I’ve already noted the health issues with these very live (all under 30-years-old) arms.  Very simply, the Mets need at least three of these hurlers to put in a full, healthy season. Fortunately, if last season proved anything, it’s that the Mets do have places to turn to in case of injury. Ready to step in are Robert Gsellman (4-2, 2.42 in eight appearances, seven starts) and Seth Lugo (5-2, 2.67 in 18 appearances, eight starts).  The Mets should put a competitive rotation on the mound.

METS STAT FACT

The Mets hit the second-most home runs in the NL last season (218), but scored the fourth-fewest runs (671) – in great part due to their .225 average with runners in scoring position, last in the NL. The Mets were, in some way, an all-or-nothing offense.  They were the only NL team to score more than half their total runs (51.1 percent) via the home run. Maybe it’s time to diversify.

Jeurys Familia – and his high 90’s sinker – will again hold the closer’s role, after a 3-4. 2.55 season in which he posted a league-leading 51 saves (following a 43-save season in 2015).  As reliable as his arm is, the Mets still face a question at closer.  As this post is being written, Familia is still facing a possible MLB suspension related to a domestic violence case. If he is out for any amount of time, it will call for significant adjustment in bullpen roles. Right now it looks like key set up man Addison Reed will have the ninth inning to start the season. Reed was 4-2, 1.97 in 80 games a year ago – whiffing 91 batters in 77 2/3 innings.   Key members of the pen will likely be Fernando Salas (3.91 ERA in 75 appearances for the Angels and Mets); Hansel Robles (3.48 in 68 games); and Jerry Blevens (2.79 in 73 games). Josh Smoker also looked good in a late season call up, going 3-0, 4.70 in 20 outings, but fanning 25 batters in 15 1/3 innings. (Plus. I’d like to see a guy named Smoker on the mound.) The bullpen could be strength once Familia returns.

With 3B David Wright looking to start the season on the DL, the Mets’ lineup has a bit of a hole in the middle.  But, it’s one they are used to filling. Wright has played a total of 75 games in the past two seasons. Jose Reyes (.267-8-24, nine steals in 60 games) and Wilmer Flores (.267-16-49 in 103 games) should fill the gap.  The Mets’ middle-of-the-lineup power will come from LF Yeonis Cespedes (.280-31-86); RF Jay Bruce (.250-33-99); and, hopefully, 1B Lance Duda (who played only 47 games last season due to a back injury). Duda hit .229-7-23 last season, but hit 57 home runs in 2014-15.  The Mets need his power bat. CF Curtis Granderson has a hold on the leadoff spot – but he’s not your typical top of the lineup guy (.237-30-59, with just four steals).  If any of the Mets’ OF falters (or goes down with injury) look for former number-one draft pick Michael Conforto to step in.  Despite hitting just .220-12-42 in 109 games last season, the Mets remain high on the 24-year-old Conforto, who hit .270-9-26 in 56 games after a 2015 call up. If the Mets fall out of contention, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them move Conforto into the lineup and look to trade one of their veteran OF’s. Rounding out the lineup should be Asdrubel Cabrera (.280-23-62) at SS; Neil Walker (.282-23-55) at 2B; and Travis d’Arnaud (.247-4-15 in 75 games) at catcher.

It looks like the Mets will again have plenty of power at the plate, and have the potential for plenty of power arms on the mound.  There are just too many injury-related questions – from Wright and Duda to deGrom, Matz and Harvey – to expect them to catch the Nationals.  And, then, there’s also the impact of the Familia suspension on the bullpen.  They are in the right division to hold on to second place, but I don’t see them in the post season.  Note:  If the entire starting rotation stays healthy. the Mets could win 95 games, but that’s asking a lot.

A Couple of Players to Watch

The Dark Knight – Matt Harvey – is coming back from rib removal surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome) and was limited to 17 starts last season (4-10, 4.86).  In his healthy 2015 season, he made 29 starts, going 13-8, 2.71 and fanning 188 batters (versus just 37 walks) in 189 1/3 innings.  If he gets healthy, you could be looking at the Comeback Player of the Year.

Since joining the Mets in July of 2015, OF Yeonis Cespedes has hit .282, with 48 home runs and 130 RBI in 189 games.  When he has been in the lineup, the Mets have played .589 ball, without him in the lineup (since he joined the team), they’ve played at a .439 clip.  Keep an eye on Cespedes – his performance may well determine where the Mets finish.

Third Place – Miami Marlins (81-81)

Giancarlo stanton photo

The Marlins could use a full season of Giancarlo Stanton’s powerful bat. Photo by Corn Farmer

The loss of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez in a tragic boating accident in late September took a toll on the Marlins – on and off the field.  Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, was 16-8, 2.86 with 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings at the time of his death.  Obviously, you can’t replace Fernandez’ arm (nor his personality and presence). The Marlins did try to address at least the on-field loss, signing free-agent pitchers Jeff Locke and Edison Volquez and trading for Dan Straily. Those three won a total of 33 games last season.  They also bolstered the bullpen (free-agents Brad Zeigler and Junichi Tazawa). Still, you simply can’t replace an arm like Fernandez’ and the Marlins are returning a lineup that scored the third-fewest runs in the NL a year ago.  Third place seems like the peak – unless the Mets’ rotation falls apart.

There is no real “ace” at the top of the rotation, but there are a lot of arms competing for one-through-five.  Some of the leading candidates: Wei-Yin Chen (5-5, 4.96 in 22 starts); Adam Conley (8-6, 3.85 in 25 starts); Edison Volquez (10-11, 5.37 for the Royals, but a 13-game winner in 2014 and 2015); Tom Koehler (9-13, 4.33 in 33 starts); Dan Straily (14-8, 3.76 in 31 starts for the Reds); Jeff Locke (9-8, 5.44 for the Pirates). The Marlins should be able to put together a workable rotation, but will still lack a “stopper.”

MARLINS STAT FACT

The Marlins were one of two NL teams without a complete game last season (the other was the Brewers). The Marlins also went without a CG outing in 2015. (The Pirates were the only other team without a CG that season.) Their last complete game came on June 3, 2014, when Henderson Alvarez blanked Tampa1-0 on a five-hitter.

The Marlins made a run at a couple of free-agent closers – in particular Kenley Jansen.  They ended up adding Brad Ziegler (4-7, 2.25 with 22 saves for Boston and Arizona) and Junichi Tazawa (3-2, 4.17 in 53 games for the Red Sox).  Going into 2016, A.J. Ramos (2.81 with 40 saves and 73 strikeouts in 64 innings) should handle the ninth inning.  Ziegler will be a key late-inning setup man, along with Kevin Barraclough (6-3, 2.85 in 75 games, with 113 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings). David Phelps (7-6, 2.26 in 64 games) should also get plenty of work,

When you look at a lineup that includes RF Giancarlo Stanton, it’s hard to imagine the Marlins had the second-fewest HR’s in the NL last season. (They also had the third-fewest runs scored, despite boasting the league’s second-highest batting average.)  They need a couple of things – more power sprinkled trough the lineup and more days in the lineup for Stanton (who has topped 125 games only twice in seven MLB seasons).  Last year, Stanton hit .240-27-74 in 119 games (groin injury). A full year of Stanton would be a big plus. Joining Stanton in the middle of the lineup, expect CF Christian Yelich, coming off a career year (.293-21-98, nine steals) and LF Marcell Ozuna (.266-23-76). Ichiro Suzuki (.291 in 143 games) will also get playing time in the OF.  The top of the order will again feature 2B Dee Gordon (.268 with 30 steals in a season that also featured an 80 game PED-related suspension) and 3B Martin Prado (.305-8-75). Look for Adeiny Hechavarria (.236-3-38) at SS; Justin Bour (.264-15-51 in 90 games) at 1B; and catcher J.T. Realmuto (.303-11-48, with 12 steals) to fill in the bottom of the order.

Overall, a lack of power in the lineup, coupled with uncertainties in the rotation (particularly the lack of a true number-one starter) will keep the Rays out of the post season.  They still, however, have enough to hold off the Braves and Phillies, and should reach the .500 mark.

A Couple of Players to Watch

2B Dee Gordon served an 80-game, PED-related suspension last season and ended up at .268-1-14 with seven steals.  Gordon was an All Star in 2014 and 2015, leading the NL in stolen bases both seasons (64 and 58) and winning the 2015 NL batting title (.333).  It will be interesting to monitor his post-suspension performance.

Giancarlo Stanton hits some of the longest home runs in MLB.  ESPN Home Run Tracker credits him with the two longest of 2016 – and the only two of at least 490 feet.  Stanton hit 27 long balls in 119 games last season (groin strain). However, his durability can be a question. In seven MLB seasons, he’s averaged just 118 games a year – and topped 125 games only twice (in both those seasons, Stanton hit 37 home runs).  His power stroke is worth watching, as is his health.

Fourth Place – Atlanta Braves (74-88)

The Braves has some high-potential young arm in their minor league system, but they are not yet ready to expose them to MLB hitting. So, as they enter a new ballpark, Atlanta has added some not-so-new (veteran) pitchers to the staff – 43-year-old righty Bartolo Colon (free-agent); 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (free agent); and “the kid,” 30-year-old Jaime Garcia (trade with the Cardinals). Together these three likely members of the rotation have 41 years of MLB mound experience.  That may prove a two-edged sword, age and innings can catch up to you suddenly. Unfortunately, for all these pitchers, they will be backed by an offense that produced MLB’s second-fewest runs in 2016 (only the Phillies scored fewer).  I don’t see the Braves finishing higher than fourth.

Let’s look first at the rotation, which will be led by the quality arm of Julio Teheran (7-10, 3.21 with 167 strikeouts in 188 innings). Teheran was an All Star in 2014 and 2016 and should be a double-digit winner this season.  After that, the rotation is a mixture of styles that offer as many questions as answers.  There are the aforementioned Bartolo Colon (15-8, 3.43 in 34 starts for the Mets last season), who just keeps rolling along. The 43-year-old (turns 44 in May) has won 62 games (40 losses) over the past four seasons and has reached the 190-inning mark in all four.  Last season, Colon threw his fastball nearly 90 percent of the time.  Then there is the other 40+ starter, R.A. Dickey (10-15, 4.46 for the Blue Jays), who throws a knuckler more than 80 percent of the time – and has won at least ten games in each of the past five season.  If they stay healthy, they could eat plenty of innings – and keep hitters off balance – for the Braves.   Also in the rotation should be Jaime Garcia (10-13, 4.67 for the Cardinals) and youngster (25-years-old) Mike Foltynewicz (9-5, 4.31). If any of these falter, Matt Wisler and Josh Collmenter are in the wings.  A servicable rotation, but not enough to offset a still rebuilding offense.  A lot of placeholders, while young arms develop in the minors.

BRAVES STAT FACT

Last season, the Braves hit the fewest HR’s in MLB (122); scored the second-fewest runs (649), grounded into the third-most double plays (145) – but still drew the most intentional walks (60). Pretty good sign there are some holes in the lineup.

The closer will likely be Jim Johnson, who stepped up last season when Arodys Vizcaino went on the Disabled List.  Johnson – who saved 101 games for the Orioles in 2012-13 – finished 2-6, 3.06 with twenty saves in 23 opportunities.  Vizcaino – with a career 3.52 ERA (four seasons) and a 9+ strikeouts per nine-inning ratio – should be back as a key set up man. Ian Krol (2-0, 3.18 in 63 games) should also see plenty of work. Others likely to be in the mix include Paco Rodriguez, Mauricio Cabrera and Jose Ramirez. Ramirez’ 33 strikeouts in 32 2.3 inning (3.58 ERA) show promise.

Freddie Freeman (1B) is a truly professional hitter and the key to the Braves’ offense.  Last season, Freeman hit .302-34-91.  He didn’t, however, get much help in the power department – although things may be better this season.  LF Matt Kemp, who came over from the Padres mid-season, went .280-12-39 in 56 games for the Braves (.268-35-108 overall).  A full season of his production will help. Joining Freeman and Kemp in the middle of the lineup is RF Nick Markakis (.308-16-66). Recently acquired 2B Brandon Phillips will also boost the offense.  He hit .280-22-94 for the Reds last season. The top of the order could be interesting. Leadoff should go to 26-year-old CF Ender Inciarte – a Gold Glove defender with an improving bat (.291-3-29, with sixteen steals and 85 runs scored). In the two-spot is a youngster (23-years-old) the Braves see as a rising star, SS Dansby Swanson (acquired in the Shelby Miller trade). Swanson hit .302-3-17 in 38 games for the Braves last season – even better than his .275-9-55, with 13 steals at two minor league stops.  Filling in the bottom of the order, you should see 3B Adonis Garcia (.273-14-65) and C Tyler Flowers (.270-8-41 in 83 games).

The Braves continue to rebuild and once top prospects – particularly the stockpiled pitching prospects – start to move up, they should contend.  While they are not likely to contend this season, this cast should make games at the new ballpark interesting.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Who wouldn’t want to watch a 43-year old, 5’11”/ 285-pound right-hander, who still relies primarily on his fastball in his 20th MLB season?  Colon has won between 14 and 18 games in each of the past four seasons and needs just 17 wins to reach 250.  Each time he is on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s a potential for a viral video.  I’ll be watching.

Sean Rodriguez, who came over from the Pirates (free agent) hit .270 with 18 home runs for Pittsburgh last season – all career highs for the nine-year MLB veteran. He also saw action in 57 games at 1B, 29 at 2B, 27 at SS, 11 at 3B, 17 in RF, 10 in LF and 5 in CF.  BBRT will be watching to see how the Braves put his versatility (and his bat) to use in 2016.

Fifth Place – Philadelphia\a Phillies (71-91)

Photo by Keith Allison

Photo by Keith Allison

Nobody scored fewer runs (610) in MLB than the Phillies – and they gave up the fifth-most tallies (796). That 186 negative run differential was the worst in baseball.  While there may be some improvement in 2017, the team is still rebuilding. Philadelphians may have to wait a couple more years to get into the hunt.

You can expect young players at the corners to be the cornerstone of the Phillies’ offense. 3B Maikel Franco (24-years-old) hit .255-25-88 in his first full MLB season. He should just get better.  At the other corner, 1B Tommy Joseph (25-years-old, 6’1”, 255-pounds) is a potential 30-40 home run guy (and he has two first names).  Last season, as an MLB rookie, he hit .257, with 21 home runs and 47 RBI in 107 games – after hitting .347-6-17 in 27 contests at the Triple A level.  These two should fit somewhere into the heart (3-4-5 spots) in the lineup.  CF Odubel Herrera (25), doesn’t have the power of Franco or Joseph, but looks to hold onto a middle of the lineup spot. Herrera hit .286-15-49, with 25 steals last season.  Challenging for a spot in the middle – and sure to get plenty of at bats – will be new (trade with the Dodgers) LF Howie Kendrick. Kendrick (33 and in his 12th MLB season) adds a much-needed veteran presence in the lineup and clubhouse. He went .255-8-40, with ten steals, with the Dodgers last season (batting up and down the lineup and playing 1B, 2B, 3B and LF). With a more stable role, he should approach his .289 career average. Anything north of ten homers, however, would be a bonus.  2B Cesar Hernandez (26), a .294 hitter (with 17 steals), should hold down the leadoff spot. He’s only in his third full MLB season and continues to improve.  Hernandez led the NL with 11 triples a year ago, but needs to work on his base running (17 steals, but thrown out 13 times).  The Phillies added a second veteran bat in the off season in likely RF Michael Saunders (free agent). Saunders hit .253-24-57 for the Blue Jays and will add some power to the offense. Freddie Galvis (.241-20-67, with 17 steals) will likely start the season at short, but prospect J.P. Crawford could force the Phillies to make a move.  Cameron Rupp (.252-16-54) will work behind the plate.  A year of growth for the likes of Franco, Joseph and Herrera, plus the veteran bats of Kendrick and Saunders should help the Phillies put more runs on the board, but they still have a long way to go.

PHILLIES STAT FACT

The Phillies negative 186 run differential was the worst in all of MLB. Second worst was Minnesota at -167.  In 2015, the Phillies were second worst at a negative 183, with Atlanta the worst at -187.

Improvement in the rotation, like in the lineup, depends significantly on “growth” among young players. While veterans Jeremy Hellickson (12-10, 3.71) and newcomer (free agent) Clay Bucholz (8-10, 4.78 for the Red Sox) will be counted on for stability, the Phillies are looking for improvement from Jerad Eickhoff (11-14, 3.65 in 2016, his first full MLB season); 23-year-old Aaron Nola (6-9, 4.78 in 20 starts – after 10-4, 2.39 in two minor league stops); and 24-year-old Vincent Velasquez (8-6, 4.12). Alec Asher is an interesting prospect. He went 2-1, 2.28 in five starts for the Phillies and 4-2, 2.37 in 12 minor league starts; including 3-0, 1,53 at Triple A.  He may be earmarked for more seasoning, but we could see him inm Philadelphia mid-season.

The closer role will likely go to either hard-throwing Hector Neris (4-4, 2.58, with two saves and 102 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings). He would be replacing returnee Jeanmar Gomez (3-5, 4.85 with 37 saves) in that role. Gomez (47 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings) doesn’t miss as many bats as Neris and seemed to fade down the stretch (2.59 ERA before the All Star game, 8.33 after).  Others in the pen should include: veteran (free agent) Joaquin Benoit (3-1, 2.81 in 51 games for the Blue Jays); newcomer Pat Neshek (trade), 2-2, 3.06 in 60 games for the Astros; and returnee Edubray Ramos (1-3, 3.83 in 42 games). They could use a power southpaw arm in the pen, so I wouldn’t count out 24-year-old Joely Rodriguez, who got a look-see last season (2.79 in 12 games for the Phillies). Rodriguez has eight professional seasons under his belt and went 7-0, 2.35 in 53 games at A, AA and AAA last season.

Overall, the Phillies should improve as young players develop and learn from the scattering of veterans the Phils have brought in.  It should be a more interesting team to watch, just not yet competitive.

A Couple of Players to Watch

I love to watch third basemen (grew up an Eddie Mathews fan), so I’ll be following Maikel Franco, betting on a 30-home run season in his second full MLB year. Although I must admit, his 106 strikeouts versus just 40 walks concerns me. None other than Mike Schmidt, however, has indicated he thinks Franco is capable of a 30-HR, 100-RBI season this year.  

RHP Vincent Velasquez has a big arm (210 strikeouts in 186 2/3 major league innings), but tends to run up high pitch counts.  Still he has shown signs of true brilliance. On April 14, for example, he shutout the Padres on three hits (3-0), while fanning 16 and walking none. He needs to build some consistency.  Here are his 2016 monthly ERA’s: April – 1.78 in five starts; May – 5.12 in six starts; June – 1.86 in three starts; July – 3.19 in five starts; August – 7.52 in five starts; and September 2.57 in one start. Still, 152 strikeouts in 131 innings (versus 45 walks) shows the former Astros’ second-round pick (who has had Tommy John surgery) has potential well worth watching.

CENTRAL DIVISION

First Place – Chicago Cubs (99-63)

Kris Bryant photo

Kris Bryant. Consecutive MVP Awards? Photo by apardavila

The Cubs outscored their opponents by an MLB best 270 runs last season.  How dominant was that?   The second-best run differential was run up by the Boston Red Sox – and it was nearly 100 runs lower (at 176) than the Cubbies.  Second-best in the NL was the Nationals at 156.  Still, the World Champs did lose closer Aroldis Chapman, CF Dexter Fowleer and starter Jason Hammel to free agency. There is still more than enough talent here to carry them back to the World Series – and, besides, they added Wade Davis and Koji Uehara to bolster the bullpen; Albert Almorza, Jr. looks ready to move into Fowler’s shoes; and, even without Hammels, the rotation looks plenty strong.

The lineup is again loaded – with YOUNG AND VERSATILE players who have been through a pennant race and post-season and play like veterans. The offense will be led by 25-year-old 3B Kris Bryant (.284-39-102). Bryant has just two MLB seasonS under his belt and has been Rookie of the Year and MVP.  He should contend for MVP honors again. And, keep in mind, Bryant did all this while appearing at 3B, 1B, SS and all three outfield spots.  Joining Bryant in the middle of lineup will be 1B Anthony Rizzo  (.292-32-109), at 27-years-old already a six-season MLB veteran. Rizzo is a Gold Glover with a  30-homer, 100-RBI bat.  Then there is 23-year-old SS Addison Russell, a plus defender who hit .238-21-95.  At the top of the lineup, we see a veteran presence with 2B/OF  Ben Zobrist (.272-18-76) and youth with 24-year-old Kyle Schwarber, who hit .246-16-43 in 69 games as a rookie in 2015 (and can catch and play outfield). Schwarber is coming off 2016 knee surgery, but looks healthy and is reportedly being considered for the leadoff spot.  Fowler’s CF position looks to go to  veteran Jon Jay (.291-2-26 with the Padres) and/or 22-year-old Albert Almora, Jr., who went .277-3-15 in 47 games for the Cubs after hitting .303 in 80 games at Triple A.  In right field, Jason Heyward and his Gold Glove return, but the Cubs would like to see more offense out of him (.230-7-49).   Wilson Contreras (.282-12-35) and Miguel Montero (.216-8-33) will handle the catching. To add even more versatility, the Cubs have utility man Javier Baez (just 24), who hit .243-14-59, with 12 steals in 142 games – and played 1B/2B/3B/SS and LF.  The lineup is again stacked in Chicago; with lots of options.

CUBS STAT FACT

The Cubs led all of MLB with 103 wins last season, finishing 17 ½ games ahead of the second-place Cardinals in the NL Central. In the process, they tallied MLB’s lowest team ERA (3.15), fewest total runs allowed (556), third-most runs scored (808) – and recorded the most Defensive Runs Saved (107).  See you guys again in October.

Even without Jason Hammel’s 15 wins, the Cubs’ rotation has plenty to offer. Consider returnees: Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44); Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13); Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10); and John Lackey (11-8, 3.35). Auditioning for the fifth spot are Brett Anderson, coming off a back injury (1-2, 11.91 for the Dodgers last season, but 10-9, 3.69 in 31 starts in 2015) and Mike Montgomery (4-5, 2.82 for the Mariners and Cubs). Montgomery appears to have the edge.

In the bullpen, the Cubs will miss closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph-plus heat.  But they acquired a more than adequate replacement (trade with Royals) in Wade Davis (2-1, 1.87 with 27 saves for the Royals) and also added free-agent Koji Uehara (3.45 ERA in 50 games for the Red Sox). A couple of others who will play key roles are: Hector Rondon and closer-in-waiting Carl Edwards, Jr. (who fanned 52 batters in 36 innings last season). The pen should again be solid – particularly given a starting rotation not likely to tax the relief corps.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Kris Bryant, the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL Most Valuable Player (.292-39-102) plays and hits all over the field.  Last season, this hitting machine played 107 games at 3B, 60 in LF, 14 in RF, nine at 1B and one each at SS and in CF.  In 2016, Bryant dropped his strikeout total from a league-leading 199 as a rookie in 2015 (.275-26-99) to 154 and pretty much improved his stats across the board.  If he further improves his plate discipline in 2016, look out.  He bears watching.

Albert Almora, Jr. is among the candidates to replace CF Dexter Fowler.  A first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 2012, Almora averaged .288 over five minor league seasons, and was hitting .303 at Triple A when called up last season.  In 47 games as a Cub, the now 22-year-old hit .277-3-14. He’s a solid defender, as well.  I’ll be watching to see if he earns Fowler’s spot this spring.

Second Place – St. Louis Cardinals (89-77)

Last season, in an off year, the Cardinals still finished 10 games over .500. Unfortunately, that was one-game out of a Wild Card sport and 17 ½ behind the Central Champion Cubs.  The Redbirds should improve in 2017, contending again for a wild Card berth, but not catching the rival Cubbies.

Matt Carpenter photo

Matt Carpenter – a veteran presence and offensive weapon for the Cardinals. Photo by Keith Allison

Looking at the Cardinals’ lineup, Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday – who represented 48 of the Cardinals’ NL-leading 225 home runs – are gone (free agency). There is, however, still possibility for improvement. Over at 1B, Matt Carpenter continues to provide solid production (.271-21-68, with a .380 on base percentage). Last season, Carpenter split his time relatively equally between 3B, 1B and 2B.  A more stable position this year could result in improved offensive numbers.  Joining Carpenter in the middle of the lineup are RF Stephen Piscotty (.273-22-85, seven steals) and either LF Randal Grichuk (.240-24-68) or C Yadier Molina (.307-8-58 and still an outstanding defensive presence).  I lean toward Grichuk in the number-five hole, as Molina’s (.307-8-58) bat fits into a number of lineup slots.  Right at the top, we’ll see free-agent signee Dexter Fowler (.276-13-48, 13 steals), who provides solid defense and a .393 on base percentage. Note:  The fact that Fowler was signed away from the rival Cubs is an added plus. I look for the Cardinals’ OF to improve on defense and at the plate. SS Aledmys Diaz – a 2016 Rookie of the Year candidate – should fit into the number-two spot. In 111 games last season, Diaz – stepping in after Jhonny Peralta was injured – hit .300-17-65.  The job is his to lose. Filling out the lineup are some interesting 2B/3B combinations: 3B Jhonny Peralta (.260-8-29 in 82 games, but .271-17-71 and an All Star in 2015), who can also play SS; 2B Kolton Wong (.240-5-23); and Jedd Gyorko (.243-30-59), who last year appeared in 11 games at 1B, 46 at 2B, 39 at 3B and 26 at SS. Gyorko is one of the Cardinals’ most valuable assets.

CARDINALS STAT FACT

The Cardinals 35 stolen bases were the fewest in the NL last season, and their 57 percent success ratio was the league’s lowest.

The Redbirds’ rotation put up an NL (and MLB) best 2.99 ERA in 2015, but slid to an NL seventh-best 4.33 last season.  A return to 2.99 is probably out of reach, but the Cards should be able to get back under 4.00.  Either Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 after a 14-7, 3.01 season in 2015) or Adam Wainwright (13-9, 4.62­) may end up at the top of the rotation. Wainwright missed most of 2015 (ankle injury/surgery). In 2013-14, he won 39 games, with an ERA under 3.00 both seasons. A return to past form by the 35-year-old would be a plus for the Redbirds. Also in the rotation, expect Mike Leake (9-12, 4.69) and Lance Lynn (returning from Tommy John surgery). From 2011-2015, Lynn was 60-38 for the Cardinals.  With top prospect Alex Reyes out for the season, there are a few options for the final spot: Michael Wacha (7-7, 5.09 last year, but 17-7, 3.38 the year before); prospect Luke Weaver (the 23-year-old was 1-2, 5.70 in a 2016 call  up, but 7-3, 1.30 with 92 whiffs in 83 innings at Double A /Triple A); and former closer Trevor Rosenthal, who may get a shot at a starting role.

In the pen, Korean star Seung-hwan Ho has taken over from Rosenthal.  Ho’s nickname is Stone Buddha, so he better be good. The 34-year-old was, in fact, one of Korea’s best – and went 6-3, 1.97 with 19 saves and 103 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings for the Cardinals. Serving key roles in the pen will likely be Kevin Siegrist (6-3, 2.77 in 67 games) and free-agent signee Brett Cecil (1-7, 3.93 in 54 games for the Blue Jays).

Overall, the Cardinals just don’t have enough to overtake the Cubs, but  with solid pitching should capture a Wild Card spot.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Seung-hwan Ho could be an NL surprise.  Last season, Ho went 6-3, 1.97 with 19 saves and 103 strikeouts (versus just 18 walks) in 79 2/3 innings for the Cardinals.  In the previous eleven seasons (Korea/Japan), Ho notched 357 saves, with a 1.81 ERA. Can’t wait to see the 34-year-old’s first full season as an MLB closer.

Will the real Michael Wacha please stand up (or take the mound)?  Wacha who went from 17-7, 3.38 to 7-7, 5.09 (and faced some shoulder issues). He looked good early in Spring Training.  I’ll be watching to see how he performs in 2017, and how the Cardinals work to protect his arm.

Third Place – Pittsburgh Pirates (80-82)

starling marte photo

Starling Marte, BBRT’s favorite Pirate, does it all. Photo by jmd41280

The Pirates need some stability on the mound.  In 2017, they used 14 different starters and only two had at least 20 starts (Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano each had 21). One of those, Liriano, has since been traded.  If the starting rotation seems unsettled, the middle of the lineup and the OF defense are just the opposite – with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.

Marte (.311-9-46, with 47 steals) in center, McCutchen (.292-23-96 in right) and Polanco (.258-22-86, with 17 steals) in LF will be at the heart of the Pirates’ line up. At the top of the order will be 2B Josh Harrison (solid at .283-4-59, 19 stolen bases) and 24-year-old 1B Josh Bell. Bell hit .273-3-19 in 45 games – and is just growing into his power potential – after going .295-14-60 in 114 games at Triple A. Jung Ho Kang (.255-21-62) is slated for 3B, but could face some legal issues.  If he’s not available for the Opener, look for David Freese (.270-13-55). Jody Mercer (.256-11-59) will handle shortstop, while Francisco Cervelli (.264-1-53) will do the bulk of the catching.  The Pirates scored the sixth-most runs in the NL last season.  I believe there is real potential for this group to improve – a little more power from Marte, more contact from McCutchen (he hit between .292 and .327 in the four seasons preceding 2016’s .256) and continued development by Bell.

PIRATES STAT FACT

Pirate relievers threw 585 innings last season, second only to the Dodgers (590 2/3). The starters averaged just 5.3 innings per game.  Overall, the Pirates used 14 starters, with no pitcher getting more than 21 starts.

While the Pirates’ lineup seems set (excluding the Kang issue), the rotation has question marks.  The number-one spot clearly belongs to Gerrit Cole (7-10, 3.88 – after a 19-8, 2.60 the year before.) Cole has had some elbow issues, but he should put up 15 wins this season.  Veteran (seven MLB seasons) Ivan Nova is also a lock for the rotation.  Nova went 5-2, 3.06 for the Pirates – with three complete games in 11 starts) after coming over from the Yankees in early August last season. Then the fun begins.  Here are the candidates for the final fours spots (in BBRT’s estimation of rotation likelihood): 25-year-old Jameson Taillon (5-4, 3.38 in 18 starts as a rookie); 24-year-old Chad Kuhl (5-4, 4.20 in 14 starts as a rookie); 23-year-old Tyler Glasnow (0-2, 4.24 in seven appearances- two starts – as a rookie); 24-year-old Steve Brault (0-3, 4.86 in eight games – seven starts – as a rookie).  Also in the mix could be former Blue Jay Drew Hutchinson, who came over in an August trade. Hutchinson – at 26 – could offer a little more experience.  While he was only 1-0, 5.25 in nine MLB appearances last season, he was a 13-game winner for Toronto in 2015. It’s going to be an interesting spring for the Buccos..

The bullpen will be headed by southpaw closer Tony Watson (2-5. 3.05 with 15 saves), who took over the role after Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals last summer. Melancon saved  98 games for the Pirates in 2014-15, and had 30 saves when he was traded – so Watson has some big shoes to fill.  He has a career (four MLB seasons) ERA of just 2.56, so the Pirates are confidents he can handle the ninth. Others in the pen should include Daniel Hudson (coming off an off year with Arizona; 3-2, 5.22, but a dependable groundball pitcher) and hard-throwing Felipe Rivero (1-3, 3.29 – with 39 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings after coming over from the Nationals). Rivero is in his fifth MLB season and has notched 135 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings. Juan Nicasio (10-7, 4.50 in 52 games); Antonio Bastardo (3-0, 4.13 in 28 games) and Jared Hughes (1-1, 3.03 in 67 games) should see also plenty of work.

The Pirates’ offense should again finish in or near the top half of the NL (sixth last season) in runs scored.  The won-lost record, however, will depend on an inexperienced pitching staff, with second-year major leaguers likely to hold down three rotation spots and Watson in his first full season as closer.  Pittsburgh is unlikely to get back into the post season this year.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Tyler Glasnow – at just 23 – is a prospect worth watching.  And, at 6’8” and 220 pounds he won’t be hard to spot.  He boasts a high-90’s fastball and an effective high-70’s curve. He only got two starts with the Pirates last season, but he was 8-3, 1.87 with 133 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings (20 starts) at Triple A. In five minor league seasons, he’s fanned 645 batters in 500 innings.  He still needs to cut down on his walks – but he should be fun to watch (and the Pirates need him to earn a rotation spot).

Josh Bell, the Pirates’ 24-year-old 1B, maintained his rookie status for 2017, but his 47 MLB games in 2016 (.273-3-19) should help him in the 2017 Rookie of the Year race. Bell is a switch hitter with size (6’2”, 240-pounds) and power (.295 with 14 home runs at AAA before his call up).  He bears watching in the ROY competition.

Fourth Place – Milwaukee Brewers (72-90)

Ryan Braun Brewers photo

Ryan Braun has to lead the Brewers offense. Photo by JHTaylor

The Brewers are rebuilding and the process is not far enough along to yield any great dividends in the win column. Still, there will be some interesting young players in the lineup, they still have Ryan Braun and, if you like stolen bases, this team is your cup of tea (an MLB-leading 181 steals last season).

Let’s start with the lineup. Last season, the Brewers pounded out 194 home runs, but also fanned an MLB-leading 1,543 times. They let a lot of both go when they non-tendered 1B Chris Carter (signed with the Yankees). Last season Carter led the NL in home runs (tied at 41) and strikeouts (206), while hitting .222.   That leaves only one truly proven MLB power bat in the lineup – LF Ryan Braun (.305-30-91, with 16 steals). In ten MLB seasons, Braun has topped 30 home runs six times, 100 RBI five times and a .300 average six times.  Joining Braun in the meat of the Brewers’ line up, look for some combination that includes a couple of  newcomers: trade-acquisition 3B Travis Shaw (.242-16-71 for Boston in his first full MLB season) and free-agent signee 1B Eric Thames (.317-40-118 in Korea last season and a .250-21-62 hitter in 181 MLB games in 2011-12).  Also in the middle-of-the-lineup mix should be RF Domingo Santana.  The 24-year-old has just 135 games of MLB experience and hit .256-11-32 in 77 games for the Brewers last season.  The leading candidates for the CF spot both seem likely to hit in the bottom of the order. Keon Broxton has solid defensive skills, but just 82 games of MLB experience. Last season, hit .242-9-19, but with 23 steals, in 75 games for the Brew Crew.  He also fanned in 36 percent of his plate appearances. Competing for the CF is Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who has more experience at the MLB level, but hit just .209-13-44 in 2016 and also fanned in 34 percent of his plate appearances.  The very top of the order offers more promise – 2B Jonathon Villar hit .285-19-63 and led the NL with 62 steals in his first full MLB season (2016).  Villar, just 25, can also play short and third.  Alongside Villar will top prospect Orlando Arcia. The 22-year-old looks to be a future Gold Glover and hit .282 and stole 104 bases in five minor league seasons. He hit just .219 in 55 games for the Brewers a year ago, but he’ll have to continue his development at the major league level (and may spend some time near the bottom of the order).  Andrew Susac and Jett Bandy likely will handle the catching.  Finally, the Brewers will look for ways to get infielder Scooter Gennett’s reliable bat (263-14-56) in the lineup.

BREWERS STAT FACT

“M” was not a lucky initial in the NL last season – at least on the mound.  Milwaukee and Miami were the only two NL teams to record zero complete games.  Notably, the Brewers’ overall staff  ERA was 4.50 before the All Star break, but a more impressive 3.59 in the second half.

Junior Guerra may be the definition of a late bloomer. Last season, at age 31, he started his first MLB game – in a professional career that began in 2006 and had, to that point, included just three major league relief appearances.  All Guerra did is go 9-3, 2.81 in 23 appearances (20 starts). Also in the rotation will be Zach Davies, who got to the show a little quicker than Guerra.  Davies, 24-years-old, made 28 starts for the Brewers last season and led the team in wins (11-7), while posting a 3.97 ERA. Competing for the final three spots, look for Jimmy Nelson (8-16, 4.62); Wily Peralta (7-11, 4.86); Matt Garza (6-8, 4.51); Tommy Milone (3-5, 5.71); and Chase Anderson (9-11, 4.39).

Free-agent Neftali Feliz has the inside track for the closer designation. He’s a hard thrower with 99 career saves (eight seasons). In 2016, he went 4-2, 3.52 in 62 games for the Pirates, fanning 61 hitters in 53 2/3 innings. His presence should help the bull pen. Key set up men include Carlos Torres (3-3, 2.73 in 72 games) and Jhan Martinez (0-1, 3.18 in 46 games).

Overall, it looks like the rebuilding will continue – and the Brewers will also continue to struggle. There are, however, some prospects in the pipeline – like LHP Josh Hader; OF Lewis Brinson; and RHP Brandon Woodruff – so help may be on the way.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RHP Junior Guerra is a personal favorite.  You gotta admire a guy who starts out in the minors at age 21 … plays until age 30 (minors, Venezuela, Mexico) before getting his first shot at the majors (three games for the White Sox in 2015). Then, finally, at age 31 he becomes a major league starter (9-3, 2.81 for the Brewers).  I’ll be hoping for Guerra to follow up with a solid 2017 season.

Brewers’ 2B Jonathon Villar had a breakout year in 2016 – .285-19-63, with 92 runs scored, 63 RBI and a league-leading 62 stolen bases.  Every one of those figures represents a personal season high (minor league or major league).  It will be fun to see: 1) if he can continue to build on that success; 2) how much havoc he can wreak on the bases.

Fifth Place – Cincinnati Reds (68-94)

Joey Votto photo

Joey Votto – keeps putting up MVP-like numbers.. Photo by Keith Allison

The Reds – who won just 68 games a year ago – are serious about rebuilding.  So serious, in fact, that they traded away their most effective 2016 pitcher Dan Straily (who led the team in wins, starts, quality starts, innings pitched and strikeouts) for a trio of prospects. Straily’s 14 wins (8 losses) were, in fact, 20.6 percent of the Reds’ total. Couple that with Homer Bailey’s elbow surgery and uncertainty about the readiness of the Reds’ top pitching prospects and you have a formula for another fifth-place finish.

With Bailey on the 60-day Disabled List, Anthony DeSclafani should lead the rotation.  DeSclafani missed the first couple of months of the 2016 season with an oblique strain, but looked good upon his return (9-5, 3.28). Behind DeSclafani is Brandon Finnegan.  The 23-year-old southpaw was a dependable 10-11, 3.98 in 31 starts last season – his first MLB season as a full-time starter. After those first two, things get a little less clear. Tim Adelman, who got 13 starts for the Reds (4-4, 4.00) as a 28-year-old rookie last season is a leading option, along with a couple of prospects from among Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed and Amir Garret. There is no guarantee any of them are ready.  If needed, free-agent signee Scott Feldman could fill a need. The 12-season MLB veteran went 7-4, 3.97 last season and has 183 starts in 321 career appearances.

REDS STAT FACT

The Reds’ bullpen led MLB in home runs allowed (103), total runs allowed (356) and walks allowed (297).  They also led the NL in relief losses (32), had the league’s fewest saves (28), worst save percentage (52.8 percent) and second-worst relief ERA (5.09).  There is work to do.

The Reds’ bullpen did not get the job done last season – see the above Stat Facts. (Ah, remember the days of Arolidis Chapman and his 30+ saves or, further back, the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Meyers.) Cincy took a step toward resolving the issue with the January signing of veteran closer Drew Storen (98 career saves). This is not a slam dunk, however.  Last season, with Toronto and Seattle, Storen went 4-3, 5.23 with three saves.  He’s just 29, so he should be able to rebound.  The Reds need a return to the form that delivered 29 saves for the Nationals in 2015.  There will probably be key roles in the pen for Michael Lorenzen (2-1, 2.88 in 35 games a year ago); Tony Cingrani (2-4, 4.14, with 17 saves in 2016) and Raisel Iglesias (3-2, 2.53 in 37 games, with 83 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings pitched). Ultimately, if Storen can close, the bullpen roles should fall into place.  If not, there could be a scramble in organizating the pen.

The Reds had a middle of the pack offense last season – and not much has changed.  Four-time All Star and 2010 NL MVP 1B Joey Votto will lead the offense.  Votto was .326-29-97 in a typical Votto season. He is also a solid defender (Gold Glove in 2011). LF Adam Duvall .241-33-103 will provide protection and support. The only other consistent power source is veteran SS Zack Cozart (.252-15-50). CF Billy Hamilton should be back at leadoff.  He’s a burner – and speed is his game on defense and offense (.260-2-17, with 58 steals). Rounding out the lineup are a number of names that might not be too well known outside of Cincinnati. With Brandon Phillips gone (trade), Jose Peraza looks to get the nod at 2B. He’s just 22, but hit .324-3-25, with 21 steals, in 72 games for the Reds last season. Eugenio Suarez looks solid at 3B, putting up a .248-21-70 line (with 11 steals) in his first full MLB season. Scott Schebler (.265-9-40 in 82 games) has the inside track in RF. The Reds are hoping Devin Mesoraco (coming off shoulder surgery) can handle the backstop duties. Mesoraco was an All Star in 2014, hitting .273-25-80, but has played only 39 games over the past two seasons.  If he isn’t ready, look for Tucker Barnhart (.257-7-51).  If the youngsters work out, the offense could be improved, but there is still a long way to go in this rebuilding process.

A Couple of Players to Watch

LF Adam Duvall (28-years-old) came into his own last season as a regular (and an All Star) for the Reds.  He showed excellent leather and pounded out a .241-33-103 season. He has three minor league seasons of 30 or more homers under his belt.  He needs to cut down on his strikeouts (164 last season). If he does, we will be watching a force to be reckoned with.

Right-hander Raisel Iglesias appeared in 37 games last season, going 3-2, 2.53 with six saves and striking out 83 in 78 1/3 innings. His workload included five starts. The 27-year-old Cuban had 16 starts for the Reds in 2015 (out of 18 appearances) – going 3-7, 4.15, but fanning 104 in 95 1/3 innings. He now appears destined for the bullpen and, perhaps, an eventual closer’s role.  Given the Reds’ pitching needs, it will be interesting to see just how they use him.

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

Clayton Kershaw photo

Clayton Keershaw – that says it all. Photo by kla4067

The NL West is the toughest call in the league, as the Dodgers and Giants will likely fight it out to the end; with one taking the division and the other a Wild Card spot. BBRT thinks it may all come down to the “aces” – who has the better season, Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner.  My money is on Kershaw this season – and a Dodger title. I look at it this way.  The Giants gained ground when they acquired Mark Melancon to fortify a leaky bullpen, but the Dodgers should have a full year of Kershaw.  That balances out and points to another Dodgers over the Giants squeaker,

Good pitching is a Dodger tradition and the team’s success will continue to start with the ace of the rotation – southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Despite missing about ten starts with back issues, Kershaw was again the best pitcher in baseball (12-4, 1.69, with 172 strikeouts in 149 innings). A full season from the three-time Cy Young Award winner just makes LA that much stronger. Although there are health concerns up and down the rest of the rotation, they are plenty of arms to step in if problems surface. The Dodgers used 15 starting pitchers last season and still led the division.  Number-two in the rotation will be another lefty – Rich Hill, acquired from Oakland last August and coming off his career-best season (12-5, 2.12 in 20 starts). The next three spots should go to Kenta Maeda, 16-11, 3.48 with 179 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings in his rookie season. Maeda was a star in Japan for eight seasons (97-67, 2.39) before signing with the Dodgers, so his 2016 season is no fluke. It would not surprise to see some stiff Spring Training competition for the final two spots.  A short list of candidates would include. 1) Young (20-years-old) Julio Urias. The lefty was 5-1, 1.40 at Triple A and then 5-2, 3.39 with the Dodgers. The team may want to limit his innings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he went north for the opener; 2) veteran southpaw (How many lefties can the Dodgers run out there?) Scott Kazmir – (10-6, 4.57); 3) Alex Wood (1-4, 3.73 with ten 2016 starts – but a 12-game winner in 2015); 4) Brandon McCarthy (2-3, 4.95 with nine starts last season); and 5) Hyun-Jin Ryu, coming off elbow surgery, but a 14-game winner in both 2013 and 2014.  If I had to guess, I see a rotation of Kershaw, Hill, Kazmir, Urias and Ryu.

DODGERS STAT FACT

The Dodgers had the stingiest bullpen in MLB last season (3.35 ERA), despite an MLB-record 607 relief appearances. The pen also picked up 32 of LA’s victories, tops in the NL (tied with the Marlins) and logged the most bullpen strikeouts (633). The Dodgers 47 saves were fourth in the NL; while their 68.1 percent save percentage was very middle-of-the-pack – seventh in the NL.

The Dodgers’ bullpen stability is reflected in the fact that Kenley Jansen racked up all of the Dodgers’ 47 saves (in 53 opportunities), winning the NL Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year Award. Jansen’s back in place (3-2, 1.83).  Looking to the remainder of the pen, Pedro Baez (3-2, 3.04 in 73 games); Grant Dayton (0-1, 2.05 with 39 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings pitched as a rookie); and Josh Fields (1-0, 2.79 in 22 game)s all look to play key roles – as does newcomer, veteran Sergio Romo (1-0, 2.64 in 40 appearances with the Giants and with 498 strikeouts in 439 2/3 career relief innings). The pen should be fine, particularly if the rotation stays just a little healthier.

The Dodgers’ lineup is solid.  Right in the middle you have 1B Adrian Gonzalez, who had a typical year in 2016 (285-28-90).  He is a run producer. He’ll get plenty of support from SS Corey Seager (just 22 and one of the brightest young stars in the game), who won the Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of a .308-26-72 season; 3B Justin Turner (.275-27-90); and catcher Yasmil Grandal, an acknowledged pitch-framer, coming of a career-high 27 home runs and 72 RBI (despite a .228 average).  The outfield has both potential and question marks. LF and the leadoff spot appear slated for 24-year-old Andrew Toles, who hit ,314-3-16 in 48 games with the Dodgers (and has a .309 average over 306 minor league games). Joc Pederson holds the edge in centerfield. He was .246-25-69 last season, but has a .224 average and 311 strikeouts over 306 major league games. Then in RF, there is the mercurial Yasiel Puig – .263-11-45 last season.  Puig is hard to figure out.  He has shown exciting potential, and been criticized for a lack of focus (last season included a demotion to AAA, where he hit .358 in 24 games.). Further, his batting averages have gone (.319-.296-.255-.263). In 2017, Puig could be an All Star or spend some more time at Triple A. Also in the outfield mix are Andre Ethier and Trace Thompson.  The Dodgers coveted Twins’ All Star 2B Brian Dozier, but when that deal could not be made, went out and got Tampa Bay 2B Logan Forsythe (.264-20-52) – a solid keystone option. The Dodgers, ultimately, have plenty of offense – particularly if their starting rotation is healthy and keeping opposition run totals down – to repeat in the West.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Dodgers’ SS Corey Seager, the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year, is only 22 and already has a .308-26-72 MLB season under his belt.  The former first-round draft pick hit .307 with 62 home runs in four minor league seasons and looks poised for a long run as a power-hitting shortstop.  He should be fun to watch.

Clayton Kershaw.  Oh come on, who wouldn’t want to watch this guy pitch? Great control over a mid-90’s fastball, a mid-80’s slider, a big mid-70’s curve and an occasionally changeup.  He is a classic on the mound and it’s paid off with six All Star selections, three Cy Young Awards, the 2014 NL MVP Award, four ERA titles (and a career 2.37 ERA) and three strikeout crowns (and a 300+ strikeout season in 2015). When he pitches, get a ticket.  Too obvious a choice? Then try southpaw Julio Urias, just 22, but starting to look like Kershaw-lite. The Mexican-born Urias was 5-1, with a 1.40 ERA at Triple A Oklahoma City (49 strikeouts in 45 innings) last season – and then 5.2, 3.39 (84 whiffs in 77 innings) with the Dodgers. In 72 minor league appearances, he is 12-8, 2.66 with 313 K’s in 267 1/3 innings.  If he sticks in the LA rotation, you’ve got another must-buy ticket.

Second Place – San Francisco Giants (90-72)

Madison bumgarner photo

Madison Bumgarner – epitome of a big game pitcher. Photo by slgckgc

The Giants filled their most significant hole in the off-season when they picked up proven closer Mark Melancon (Nationals) in free agency. Last season, six Giants relievers recorded saves and the team blew an MLB-high 30 save opportunities. Melancon is a proven closer, who has saved 131 games in the past three seasons. Last season, he saved 47 games in 51 opportunities. Add in a solid starting rotation and solid defense and you have a contender.  There just might not be enough offense  – particularly from a power point of view – to catch the Dodgers, but it will be close.

Let’s start with the rotation – and that starts with southpaw Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74, with 251 strikeouts in 226 2/3 innings). MadBum is a proven big game pitcher. He’s not quite Clayton Kershaw, but a head-to-head matchup would be a pretty good contest.   Number-two in the rotation is Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79), who could be the number-one on most staffs. Following those two are Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) and Matt Moore (13-12, 4.08 for the Rays and Giants). There could be a battle for the five-spot.  Right now it looks like Matt Cain (4-8, 5.64), but he hasn’t made it to the 100-inning mark in any of the past three seasons, so health may be a concern.  If he’s not ready, or falters, Albert Suarez (3-5, 4.29) and a couple of prospects (Ty Blach and Tyle Beede) are waiting for a chance. Blach did well in a brief call up last season and was 14-7, 3.43 at Triple A.  Beede was 8-7, 2.81 at Double A.

GIANTS STAT FACT

The rivalry!  It may surprise a few Dodgers’ fans, but last season the Giants pitching staff had a lower ERA than LA (3.65 to 3.70). They also edged the Dodgers in starters’ ERA (3.71-3.95). They did lag the Dodgers in bullpen ERA (3.65 to 3.35) … a deficiency they worked to address in the off-season.  On defense, the Giants again outshone the Dodgers, making an NL-low 72 errors to the Dodgers’ 80. The offensive edge went to the Dodgers, however.  They outscored the Giants (725-712), out homered them 189 to 130.  The Giants, however, hit .258 to the Dodgers .249.  Two closely matched, long-standing rivals.

The Giants bullpen suffered through 30 blown saves in 2016.  So, San Francisco went out and signed Mark Melancon (47 saves in 51 opportunities).  That set things up for a much-improved pen. Former closers Santiago Castillo and Sergio Romo are gone and key set up men Hunter Strickland (3-3, 3.10 in 72 games), Derek Law (4-2, 2.16 in 61 games) and Will Smith (1-1, 2.95 in 26 games ) seem likely to get plenty of relevant innings.  Overall, roles should be better defined and bullpen performance improved.

The face of the Giants – on offense and defense – is clearly Buster Posey. A Gold Glove catcher, four-time All Star and 2012 NL MVP, Posey delivered a .288-14-80 line in 2016 – and knows he can do better. His main offensive help will come from RF fan-favorite Hunter Pence (.289-13-57 in 196 games), who needs to stay healthy; SS Brandon Crawford (.275-12-84 and a two-time Gold Glover); and 1B Brandon Belt (.275-17-82). Pence and Crawford have both shown the ability to deliver more power than they did in 2016. CF Denard Span (.266-11-53, with 12 steals), looks to be at the top of the order but, at 33, may be losing a step. Mark Williamson (.223-6-15 in 54 games) and Jarrett Parker (.236-5-14 in 63 games) may platoon in LF.  The Giants clearly need a healthy Pence if the OF is going to be productive.  Joe Panik (.239-10-62) will be at 2B. The Giants need a rebound from Panik, who hit .305 in 2014, .312 in 2015, but only .239 a year ago. The surprise of 2016 – the versatile Eduardo Nunez (.288-16-67, with 40 stolen bases for Minnesotan and San Francisco) may get most of the time at third base. Nunez, however, can play all around the infield so Conner Gillaspie or Kelby Tomlinson could see playing time at the hot corner – with Nunez moving around and adding some lineup flexibility.

Overall, the Giants have the pitching and defense to compete, but the lag the Dodgers in offensive fire “power.”  Still a rebound by Panik, a healthy season by Pence and a little more power from Posey and Crawford could be enough to push them past the Dodgers.  No matter what, I expect it’ll be close.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Southpaw Madison Bumgarner is a joy to watch. He’s been All Star each of the past four seasons, going 63-37, 2.86 with 903 strikeouts in 863 2/3 innings. Not only that, he’s 8-3, 2.11 in the post season and was the MVP of the 2014 NL Championship Series and World Series.  Plus, when he picks up a bat – and switches over to the right side – he rakes (at least for a pitcher). In 453 career at bats (in 228 games), Madbum has hit 14 home runs and driven in 49.  In the past three seasons alone, he’s gone 52-for-229 (.227 average), with 12 home runs, 27 runs scored, 33 RBI and 15 walks.  Just another reason #WhyIHateThe DH.

Pitching prospect Tyle Beede may not start the season with the Giants, but watch for him to come up before season’s end. The 23-year-old Beede was the Giants’ first-round draft pick in 2014. Last season, he went 8-7 at Double A Richmond and logged the league’s lowest ERA at 2.81.  Note:  From the Madison Bumgarner school, in 31 minor league at bats, Beede has collected nine hits (a .290 average). His repertoire includes a mid- to high-90’s fastball, an 80-mph curve, a change up and a developing sinker-slider.

Colorado Rockies (81-81)

ROCKIES STAT FACT

Coors Field is a statistician’s nightmare – and one should be aware of the impact on “stats” before evaluating the team.  Consider this hitters’ paradise from a Rockies’ point of view. Home batting average – .304. Away – .246.  Home runs at home – 116. Away – 88.  Runs scored at home – 508. Away – 337.

Or if you’re a Rockies’ pitcher. Home ERA – 5.40. Away – 4.37,  Home runs give up at home – 99. Away – 82. Opponents’ average at home – .289. Away – .259.

Nolan Arenado photo

Nolan Arenado. did someone say leather and lumber? Photo by jenniferlinneaphotography

The Rockies always have a potent offense and 3B Nolan Arenado will be right in the middle of it for some time to come. Just 25-years-old, Arenado is in is fourth MLB season and, not only has he won four Gold Gloves, the past two seasons he has led the NL in home runs, RBI and total bases.  His 2016 line was .294-41-133. Joining Arenado in the heart of the lineup are veteran RF Carlos Gonzalez (.298-25-100); newcomer free-agent Ian Desmond (.285-22-86), who is slated for 1B and should improve on those numbers at Coors; and 24-year-old SS Troy Story, limited to 97 games due to a thumb injury, but who still put up a .272-27-72 line. How good is this Rockies lineup? Desmond, a solid and consistent power source, has spent eight seasons as a SS/2B/OF, but had to switch to 1B to find a spot.   In the one-two spots in the lineup are CF Charlie Blackmon (.324-29-82, with 17 steals) and 2016 NL batting champ 2B DJ LeMahieu (.348-11-66, with 11 steals). To illustrate the “Coors’ Impact,” Le Maheiu hit .391 at home and .303 on the road. Rounding out the lineup are 23-year-old David Dahl (in LF, although he could play CF), who hit .315-7-24 in 63 games as a rookie (after .315-18-61 in 92 games at Double A and Triple A).  Dahl may not be ready on Opening Day (rib injury). George Parra (.253-7-39 in 102 games) is likely to get the early season call. Parra could also take 1B, with Desmond moving to LF. Tom Murphy (.273-5-13 in 21 games) and Tony Walters (.250-3-30 in 71 games) will handle catching with Nick Hundley gone via free agency. It’s a solid lineup that should help the Rockies improve on their 75-87 record of a year ago.

Another year of experience should help the rotation – which has potential to improve, but (thanks to Coors Field) little margin for error. Chad Bettis logged 32 starts a year ago and went 14-8, 4.79. The Rockies would be satisfied with another 14 wins in 2017. Then there is Jon Gray – a 2013 first round draft pick – who went 10-10, 4.61 as a 24-year-old rookie. He has a high-90’s (occasionally triple-digit) fastball and a hard slider that helped him record 185 strikeouts in 168 innings. Also in the rotation, expect Tyler Chatwood, who came back from Tommy John surgery to go 12-9, 3.87. Jeff Hoffman has also had arm issues (and Tommy John surgery), but is considered a top prospect. Hoffman came to the Rockies from the Blue Jays in the Troy Tulowitizki trade and went 6-9, 4.02, with 124 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last season.

The Rockies made a move to bolster the bullpen by signing former Royals’ closer Greg Holland, who missed the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, but saved 125 games for the Royals in 2013-14-15.  Holland is expected to be the closer, but if he isn’t ready other options are free-agent signee Mike Dunn (6-1, 3.40 in 51 appearances for the Marlins); Adam Ottavino (1-3, 2.67, with seven saves and 35 strikeouts in 27 innings – after … here it is again … Tommy John surgery in 2015); and Jake McGhee (2-3, 4.73 with 15 saves). The Rockies are also hoping that Jairo Diaz, who underwent Tommy John surgery last March, can return. In a 2015 call up, he had a 2.37 ERA in 21 appearances. Best hope for the Rockies, whose bullpen had an MLB-worst 5.13 ERA last season, is that Holland is ready to close, Diaz is recovered and Ottavino, Dunn and McGhee can slide into their roles.

Overall, the Rockies look better this season, but there are still a lot of question marks in the pitching staff – and too many past Tommy John surgeries to deal with. Still, third place – and even. 500+-  is within reach.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Greg Holland is coming back from Tommy John surgery (missed the 2016 season) to take over the closer’s role. From 2013-15, Holland saved 125 games for the Royals, appeared in 181 games, struck out 242 batters in 174 innings and notched a 1.97 ERA.  If they are to make progress, the Rockies need him to return to form.

Rockies’ 3B Nolan Arenado is the kind of player BBRT loves to watch – the ones that flash leather and lumber.  In the league just four years, Arenado has won four Gold Gloves. He’s also been an All Star twice and led the NL in home runs and RBI the past two seasons. In 2015-16, Arenado played in 317 of the Rockies’ 324 games, averaged .291, hit 83 home runs, drove in 263 and scored 213.  That is a player well worth watching.

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86)

Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks photo

Paul Goldschmidt – the best of the D-backs. Photo by jnashboulden

Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.  The Diamondbacks had MLB’s absolute worst staff ERA last season at 5.09. That effectively negated an offense that scored the tenth-most runs.  The result was a negative 138 run differential and a fourth-place (69-93) finish.  I expect the pitching staff will rebound a bit, but not enough to move the Diamondbacks out of fourth place (unless the Rockies’ pitching staff totally implodes).

The Diamondbacks do have some names and some talent in the offense.  How can yon not like 1B Paul Goldschmidt, a four-time All Star, who hit .297-24-95, with 32 steals last season – in what could be considered and off year?  Oh, and he also has a pair of Gold Gloves. At the opposite corner, the D-backs have 3B Jake Lamb (.249-29-91) to add some punch.  Also helping drive the offense will be LF Yasmany Tomas, just 26, who delivered a .272-31-83 season – but does have defensive limitations. The leadoff spot belongs to CF A.J. Pollock, who suffered through a broken elbow and a groin injury last season, but hit  .315-20-76, with 39 steals the year before. He could bring a lot of spark to the lineup.  Joining Tomas and Pollock in the outfield expect to see David Peralta, who – like Pollock – had a tough year health wise (on the disabled list three times in 2016). Peralta got in only 48 games a year ago, but in 2015 hit .312-17-78 and led the NL in triples with 10.  Up the middle, look for some combination of SS Nick Ahmed (.218-4-20), SS/2B Chris Owings (.277-5-49, with 21 steals) and utility man Brandon Drury (.282-16-53). Although Ahmed may be the best defender in the group, it may be hard for the Diamondbacks to turn their backs on the offensive potential of Owings and Drury.  Drury, just 24-years-old, may be the most intriguing of the group, as he can play corner OF and any infield position. Also in the mix is newcomer Ketel Marte, who hit .259-1-33 with 11 steals for the Mariners. Catching will be handled by newcomer Chris Ianetta (signed in January), who hit .210-7-24 for the Mariners and Jeff Mathis (a solid defender and pitch-framer).  Chris Herrmann (.284-6-28 in 56 games could see time at C, 1B and OF) depending on matchups and fatigue.

DIAMONDBACKS STAT FACT

The Diamondback had the NL’s (and MLB’s) worst starters’ ERA last season at 5.19 (and they don’t even play half their games in Colorado).  Only one starter picked up more than eight wins – Zack Grienke (13-7, 4.37). The bullpen didn’t fare much better. Its 4.97 ERA was the fourth-worst in the NL and MLB.

The pitching should be better in 2017. (Really, how could it not be.) Zack Grienke will again head the rotation and he should be better than his 13-7, 4.37 record (partially due to injuries that limited him to 26 starts). Grienke was 19-3, 1.66 with the Dodgers in 2015 – and while that is not a likely outcome for 2017, the former Cy Young Award winner (2009) should be closer to his career 3.42 ERA. His 13 wins were his fewest since 2008 and his ERA his highest since 2005. Southpaw Robbie Ray was inconsistent in 2016 (8-15, 4.90), but the 25-year-old showed potential – fanning 218 in 174 1/3 innings.  Newcomer Taijuan Walker (8-11, 4.22 in 24 starts for Seattle); Shelby Miller (3-12, 6.15); Patrick Corbin (5-13, 5.15); and Archie Bradley (8-9, 5.02) are likely to compete for the final three spots.  All, of course, need to improve on 2016’s performance, Miller may be the most interesting. He was a 15-game winner as recently as 2013 and never had an ERA over 3.74 before this past season. 2016 was Corbin’s first full year back after Tommy John surgery … and he was an All Star (14-8, 3.41) for the D-backs in 2013.  In the end, the Diamondbacks need a rebound from at least a couple of the hurlers competing for the back of the rotation.

The Diamondbacks brought in 40-year-old Fernando Rodney (free agent) from Miami to handle the closer’s role.  Arizona will be Rodney’s fifth team in three seasons (Mariners/Cubs in 2015; Padres/Marlins in 2016.). He did save 41 games a year ago (3.44 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings). However, he also walked 37 – and that may be an issue.  If Rodney missteps, young (25-years-old) Jake Barrett could get a shot at the ninth inning. Barrett boasts a mid-90’s fastball and an effective slider.  Last season, as a rookie, he went 1-2, 3.49, four saves in 68 games – with 56 whiffs in 59 1/3 innings). From 2013-15, Barrett recorded 76 saves in the minor leagues.  He’ll definitely have an important role in the pen, as will Randall Delgado (5-2, 4.44 in 79 appearances – with 68 strikeouts in 75 innings.) Other likely arms include Enrique Burgos; Andrew Chafin; and Zach Godley. Rodney could make a difference in the pen, but not enough.

The Diamondback go into the season with some emerging young stars on offense, but without enough pitching to contend – particularly in a division that includes the pitching rich Dodgers and Giants.

A COUPLE OF PLAYERS TO WATCH

CF A.J. Pollock fell victim a broken elbow and a groin injury last season – getting into only 12 games. In 2015, he was an All Star (.315-20-76, with 39 steals and a Gold Glove). If he stays healthy he has a chance to become a member of the 30-30 club and seems a shoe-in for a .300 average, 20-25 HR’s and 30 steals.  He is a rising star and should be fun to watch.

2B/3B Brandon Drury, 24-years-old, looks ready for a solid MLB career.  Last season, as a rookie, he hit .282-16-53 in 134 games – pretty much reflecting the numbers he put up in six full minor league season.  He’s a versatile player (2B/3B/1B/OF), so the Diamondbacks will find a place for his bat. Drury also has a solid glove and could develop into a Gold Glove second baseman with power (20-25 home runs).

RHP Brandon Shipley will be working for a spot in the 2017 rotation. He was a first-round pick (15th overall) in the 2013 MLB draft and promoted to the Diamondbacks late last July (4-5, 5.27). He’s got a four-pitch repertoire and a 3.79 ERA in four minor league seasons.

Fifth Place – San Diego Padres (64-98)

Not so long ago, the Padres were all about turning the corner with veterans – bringing in such names as Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel. Oops! That didn’t work. Now it’s all about rebuilding with talented youngsters.  For the immediate future, the result looks to be the same (a fifth-place finish). Longer-term there is more promise.

The Padres do have a couple of dependable and proven bats at the corner infield spots – and in the middle of the lineup. 1B Wil Meyers, at 26-years-old, is in his fifth big league season.  Last year was a breakout for Meyers, as he hit .259-28-94, with 28 steals.  The Padres are looking for a repeat. Across the diamond is 3B Yovaris Soloarte who, despite injury and personal tragedy (the death of his wife), turned in a .286-15-71 line in 109 games.  Those two must anchor an offense that will have to “grow up” at the MLB level. Joining them in the middle of the lineup should be RF Hunter Renfroe, who – at 25-years-old – seems ready for the “Show.”  Last season at Triple A, Renfroe hit .306, with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. The top of the order (one and two) looks to be the remainder of the outfield. Leading off could be LF Travis Jankowski (25-years-old), who hit .245 with 30 steals in 131 games as a rookie in 2016. Jankowski looks like a future Gold Glover on defense, but needs to develop offensively (just two home runs and 12 RBI a year ago).  In between Renfroe and Jankowski (and possible in the number-two spot in the lineup), we may see 22-year-old Manual Margot, who hit .304-6-55, with 30 steals at Triple A last year.  If any of these don’t work out, Alex Dickerson (.257-10-37 in 86 games) could take a garden spot.  The bottom of the lineup looks like 2B Ryan Schimpf, who showed good power (20 home runs and 51 RBI in 89 games), but not enough plate discipline (.217, with 105 strikeouts). Corey Spangenburg, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, may challenge at 2B. In 2015, Spangenburg hit .271 in 108 games. Youngster (23-years-old, see a trend here?) Luis Sardinas should start the season at SS.  Last season, Sardinas his .244 in 66 games for the Mariners and Padres.  Rookie Austin Hedges (24-years-old) should be behind the plate. He hit .326-21-82 at Triple A last season.  His game-calling skills have also been praised as he’s worked his way through the minors.

PADRES STAT FACT

The following six players from the Padres 2016 Opening Day lineup are no longer with the team. CF and leadoff hitter Jon Jay; C and number-two hitter Derek Norris; RF and number-three hitter Matt Kemp; SS and number-five hitter Alexei Ramirez; LF and number-seven hitter Melvin Upton Jr.; SP and number-nine hitter Tyson Ross.

Then again, the Padres lost 15-0 to the Kershaw-led Dodgers.  So maybe change isn’t such a bad thing.

Hard to pick the leader of the rotation, but it is interesting to note that the five-man rotation to start 2017 will not include any hurler who was in the 2016 Open Day rotation. Gone from the team via trades are James Shields, Drew Pomeranz and Andrew Cashner; Tyson Ross left as a free agent; and Colin Rea had Tommy John surgery.  Now, the likely starters include free-agent signees Jhoulys Chacin (6-8, 4.81 for the Angels and Braves) and Jered Weaver (12-12, 5.06 for the Angels, but an 18-game winner as recently as 2015). Joining those two we’ll likely see veteran Clayton Richard (who started 2016 as a reliever with the Cubs and ended up getting nine starts for the Padres and was 3-3, 2.52 with San Diego) and Luis Perdoma (the Padres’ top winner last season at  9-10, 5.71). Competitors for the fifth spot include Trevor Cahill (4-4, 2.74 as a reliever last season, but a steady starter early in his career); Christian Freidrich (5-12, 4.80); and Jarred Cosart (0-4, 6.00).

The Padres are anxious to see how Carter Capps bounces back from Tommy John surgery (did not play in 2016). The 26-year-old could be closer material.  In 2015, after a 1.80 ERA in 13 appearance at Triple A, he put up a 1.16 ERA in 30 games for the Marlins.  More important, he fanned 58 hitters in 31 innings in his MLB stint. If Capps isn’t ready, look to Brett Mauer to close. Despite an overall 0-5, 4.52 record, Mauer converted 13 out of 15 save opportunities after the Fernando Rodney trade. From July 1 on, Mauer had an ERA of 3.08 and fanned 25 batters in 32 innings.  Also likely to have key bullpen roles are Ryan Buchter (3-0, 2.86 in 67 games) and Brad Hand (4-4, 2.92 in a whopping 82 games).  Hand fanned 111 batters in 89 1/3 innings.  Depending on Capps, the bullpen could be a strength.

Overall, it looks like a long season in San Diego – with lots of new names to learn.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RF Hunter Renfroe, a Padres’ first-round draft selection in 2013, has moved to the majors in quick fashion.  In four minor league seasons, he hit .281-77-283 in 438 games.  He was the 2016 Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player in 2016, when he hit .306, with 30 home runs, 105 RBI and 95 runs scored in 133 games.  That earned him a September call up, where he hit .371 with four home runs in 11 games for the Padres.  Watch him – he looks ready.

RHP Carter Capps misses a lot of bats.   Drafted by Seattle in the third round of the 2013 draft, Capps has fanned 177 batters in 135 1/3 innings in four minor league seasons. He earned a call up to Seattle in 2012, where he fanned 28 major-league batters in 25 innings (3.96 ERA). In 2013, he went 3-3 with the Mariners (5.49), while fanning 66 batters in 59 innings. He got 17 games with the Marlins in 2014, fanning 25 in 20 1/3  innings (3.98 ERA). He then exploded on the scene in 2015, making 30 appearances, posting a 1.16 ERA and whiffing 58 batters in 31 innings. Capps missed the entire 2016 season (Tommy John surgery) and was traded to the  Padres in July of 2016.  BBRT and the Padres are anxious to see what they have.

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Member: Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; The Baseball Reliquary; Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

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