This two part series will look at all 15 teams in the National League and determine their seaworthiness and potential to make the NL Playoffs in October. Farm system rankings based on published Top 10 Prospects from Baseball America for the 2015 season. Yesterday’s post looked at the also-rans and teams that may be on the outside looking in at the end. Today’s post will look at the playoff contenders.
Friskier Than A Bilge Rat They Be
All of these teams appear to be legitimate Wild Card contenders at this point. Of course, some will stay in the race longer than others.
The 2014 season saw the arrival of the critical mass of Cubs’ impact prospects. Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara all arrived and made Cubs fans squint and see the end of the tunnel. This year will see the arrival of perhaps the prospect that will trump them all – 3B Kris Bryant, Destroyer of Baseballs. And there’s plenty more prospects behind Bryant, too.
The Cubs’ front office saw this too, apparently, and decided that now was the time to augment the young core with moves in free agency and trades. Jon Lester was the big power grab in free agency and he’ll front a strong rotation with Jake Arrieta and fellow free agent Jason Hammel. They also traded for OF Dexter Fowler from the Astros and accepted an old-school salary dump for C Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks.
The resurgence of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro last year, coupled with the young players already mentioned, has Cubs Nation openly discussing the playoffs, which is rare for this franchise’s long-suffering fans. In the end, I think they come up short, mostly due to growing pains from the young core. But 2016? Yikes, look out NL Central.
Kevin’s rank of the Cubs’ farm system — 1st out of 30
Prediction — 81-86 wins
San Francisco Giants
It’s OK if you want to write off the Giants. It happens all the time and more often than not in recent years (like 3 out of the last 5), they storm through the playoffs and claim a World Series. If they have a downturn this year, it’s to be expected, as they only seem to win in even-numbered years.
But all of that aside, the Giants have a few things working against them this year. First is the question ‘What does Madison Bumgarner do for an encore?’ After putting together one of, if not the most, dominant post-seasons in recent history, how much does he have in the tank for 2015? The rotation after him is a little dicey. Matt Cain had an injury-plagued 2014 and people are starting to whisper about his effectiveness. Tim Lincecum is cooked and drastically overpaid ($18M). They do have Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy, but they are 39 and 34 this year, respectively.
After giving it the ol’ college try, the Giants eventually lost Pablo Sandoval to the Red Sox and didn’t seem to really replace his production, unless you’re super-psyched about Norichika Aoki coming on board. The Giants’ offense was never the best to begin with, Buster Posey aside, so this seems to be shaping up to be a reload year by the Bay. At least they can bask in the glow of three World Series Championships, though.
Kevin’s rank of the Giants’ farm system — 29th out of 30
Prediction — 81-86 wins
San Diego Padres
No team has had a more stunning transformation this offseason than the Padres. New GM A.J. Preller has wasted no time in renovating the entire roster. The Padres have always been a bland, run-of-the-mill franchise, but now there is a crackling energy around them.
The keystone buttressing the new team is the all-new outfield of Justin Upton-Wil Myers-Matt Kemp, acquired in trades with the Braves-Rays-Dodgers, respectively. A lot of talent went out the door in those deals, but the Padres still managed to keep their top three prospects. The cherry on top of the offseason splurge was the signing of RHP James Shields. He’ll hopefully do James Shields-type of things, mostly chew 200+ innings at #2-pitcher caliber level.
The Padres rotation was strong even without Shields. Now the rotation shakes out as Shields-Andrew Cashner-Ian Kennedy-Tyson Ross-Odrisamer Despaigne. The bullpen is solid, with Joaquin Benoit expected to be the main closer.
So start printing playoff tickets, right? Maybe, maybe not. As star-studded as the outfield is, the infield can potentially turn into a soul-sucking black hole. 1B Yonder Alonso has never developed as hoped. 2B Jedd Gyorko got a brand-new extension last year that guarantees him money to 2019…and promptly hit .210 AVG/.280 OBP/.333 SLG, continuing a bizarre trend of the Padres’ extensions completely flopping. The starting shortstop combo of Clint Barmes/Alexei Amarista may be great defensively, but their hitting will make Bud Black consider batting them 10th in a 9 person lineup. Third base could be either Yangervis Solarte or recently acquired Will Middlebrooks, neither of whom inspire a great deal of confidence long-term.
If Kemp and Myers stay healthy and Upton stays motivated, the outfield may hit enough to power through the projected deficiencies in the infield. The Padres risked a lot to get Upton for just one year and tie themselves to Kemp for the next five; if the new guys succumb to the black cloud that seemingly hangs over the Padres’ franchise, it could be a long season.
Kevin’s rank of the Padres’ farm system — 27th out of 30
Prediction — 83-88 wins
If you picked the Marlins as the first team to sign a player to a $300M+ contract, you’d be lying, but that’s what happened when they gave Giancarlo Stanton a 12 year/$325M deal at the start of the offseason. Whether he actually sees all of that money while in a Marlins uniform is a question for another day. What is known is that the Marlins have a young outfield, rivaled only by the Pirates in terms of talent and cost-control, in the form of Christian Yelich-Marcell Ozuna-Stanton.
The Marlins made a couple of trades that will incrementally improve their infield, too. Martin Prado should give them a more reliable 3B in 2015 and 2B Dee Gordon will be a nightmare on the bases ahead of Stanton.
Although the Marlins have a good, young rotation, the front office attempted to burnish it by obtaining RHP Mat Latos and RHP Dan Haren in separate trades that took away some of those young pitchers. It appears as if Haren will not retire and instead pitch this year, but they really just need him to hang on until late June when future Cy Young-winner Jose Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery.
The Marlins are a team right on the precipice and seem to have a good mix of young players and veteran leadership.
Kevin’s rank of the Marlins’ farm system — 13th out of 30
Prediction — 84-89 wins
The Pirates had a very busy offseason and did just enough to keep themselves in the mix for a Wild Card. But when I look at this roster, it doesn’t scream NL Central title to me. Re-signing Liriano for 3 years was a great move, bringing in Sean Rodriguez and Corey Hart to strengthen the bench were solid moves, and signing Jung-ho Kang was shocking. Losing Russell Martin will sting, but if Cervelli-Stewart can provide solid defense and occasionally chip in from the 8th spot, that’s fine.
The Pirates’ outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Polanco will be the envy of baseball, if it isn’t already, if Polanco breaks out in 2015 as expected. Hopefully the unicorn horn dust hasn’t worn off of Josh Harrison yet. Neil Walker will continue to do his thing. For me, though, the season hinges on if Gerrit Cole can take the next step to developing into the #1 ace that he has the capability to be.
The Pirates are in the middle of what should be a long potential contention window. There are plenty of prospects still in the pipeline to reload on the fly, especially on the pitching side of things. I just hope that ownership will pull the trigger on a deal to make this team a World Series contender and not just a Wild Card contender, if the opportunity arises.
Kevin’s rank of the Pirates’ farm system — 4th out of 30
Prediction — 87-92 wins
Booty Awaits Fer Plunderin’
These teams are the ones that I feel are the front runners to win their respective divisions.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are as consistent as a metronome, in terms of their dominance of the NL Central. Since 2000, the Cards have finished 1st in the division eight times and made the playoffs 11 out of the past 15 seasons (with two World Series trophies in that span). Quite simply, they are the model organization for drafting and development. They get production out of mid to lower round draft picks unlike any other team.
This past offseason had a terrible start for them when Oscar Taveras died at the end of October. The Cardinals wasted no time, though, in finding a new RF when they traded for Jason Heyward from the Braves (and Jorden Walden to bolster their bullpen). They had to give up young RHP Shelby Miller to make the deal, but the Cards have plenty of other rotation candidates, topped by Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez, to fill his role.
This is a team with no real hole in their lineup and a rotation fronted by perennial Cy Young-contender Adam Wainwright. Perhaps one season the Pirates will become lead sled dog, but I don’t see it being this year.
Kevin’s rank of the Cardinals’ farm system — 23th out of 30
Prediction — 92-97 wins
For a while there, I was getting worried. The offseason was drawing to a close and GM Mike Rizzo hadn’t signed a Scott Boras client yet. But sure enough, RHP Max Scherzer agreed to sign on the dotted line for 7 years/$210M (with nearly half of that deferred, somehow this is allowed with an amount of that size, for an additional seven years). So here’s the current rotation, in some order, for the Nationals: Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg-Jordan Zimmermann-Gio Gonzalez-Doug Fister. Fister is, without a doubt, the best #5 starter you’ll see this year. Tanner Roark (198 IP, 178 H, 39 BB, 138 K, 2.85 ERA) is now the swingman. That’s borderline unfair.
But there is an air of 2015-or-bust with the Nationals, as they have a huge number of key pending free agents. Jordan Zimmermann, Fister, Denard Span, and Ian Desmond are all set to hit free agency after this year. Strasburg is ready to test it after 2016, along with Gio Gonzalez and Drew Storen. Perhaps that’s why the Nats signed Scherzer, but also why they moved OF Stephen Souza to the Rays as part of a 3-team deal to get SS Trea Turner and RHP Joe Ross in return — building for the future, while playing for the present. That’s what money can do for you.
Short of incurring a series of catastrophic injuries, there is no doubt the Nationals are going to win the NL East, probably by a comfortable 10 game margin.
Kevin’s rank of the Nationals’ farm system — 8th out of 30
Prediction — 94-99 wins
Not only are the Dodgers backed by the financial muscle of an ownership group that bought them for $2B in 2012 and not only do they have a local television deal that is good for $7B over 25 years, but now they replaced their quasi-incompetent GM of Ned Colletti with the infinitely smarter duo of GM Farhan Zaidi (from the A’s) and President Andrew Friedman (from the Rays).
Financial muscle + intellectual muscle = long-term dominance pending
The Dodgers used their financial muscle in interesting ways this offseason. By being willing to eat a large sum of Matt Kemp’s contract (take notes, Phillies), the Dodgers offloaded his long-term deal to the Padres and upgraded at catcher with Yasmani Grandal, plus two interesting pitching prospects in Zach Eflin (flipped to Phillies as part of package for SS Jimmy Rollins) and Joe Wieland. The front office then acquired ML-ready pitching prospect Andrew Heaney (in a deal for outgoing 2B Dee Gordon) and flipped him to the Angels for 2B Howie Kendrick.
The Dodgers were willing to eat money to be rid of reliever Brian Wilson ($9.5M) and starter Dan Haren ($10M to Marlins, whether he stays with them or not). If it wasn’t official before, it is now: the Dodgers are the West Coast Yankees.
Kevin’s rank of the Dodgers’ farm system — 5th out of 30
Prediction — 93-98 wins