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2016 National League Preview — The Contenders

Gerrit Cole needs to front the rotation for the Pirates, if they hope to contend again this season. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Gerrit Cole needs to front the rotation for the Pirates, if they hope to contend again this season.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This two part series will look at all 15 teams in the National League and determine their potential to make the NL Playoffs in October.  Yesterday looked at the also-rans, but today will look at the teams that should be in contention for a good portion of the season up to October.  In addition to forecasting a number for how many wins the team may achieve, I’m also looking at what each team’s contention window may be, based on existing contracts and potential farm system replacements.

Legitimate Contenders, In Some Form Or Fashion

Some of these teams may be trying to squeak into a Wild Card, while others have legitimate World Series hopes.

dbacksArizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks would be a maddening team to follow.  One on hand, they have two outstanding position players in 1B Paul Goldschmidt and OF A.J. Pollock.  They made a huge commitment to winning this offseason by surprising all of baseball with the signing of Zack Greinke to front their rotation.  But on the other hand, their front office is stubbornly old school and seems to have no concept of asset management.  Case in point 1 — the fleecing by the Braves in the Shelby Miller deal.  GM Dave Stewart wanted Shelby Miller to slot in behind Greinke and gave away the store (and the farm) to get him.  Case in point 2 — cavalierly tossing pitching prospect Touki Toussaint into a separate deal with the Braves just to rid themselves of the Bronson Arroyo contract.  Maybe they should just stop dealing with the Braves.

The Diamondbacks made themselves decent, in a vacuum, with the Greinke signing and Miller trade.  However, the rest of their lineup is spotty, at best, with a decent chunk of their hopes resting on Yasmany Tomas turning himself into something other than a Cuban bust.  Their rotation behind Greinke/Miller is shaky, especially if Pat Corbin doesn’t come out of the gate firing after Tommy John recovery.  There’s also the matter of playing in the same division as the star-studded and well-heeled Dodgers and the always dangerous Giants.

Even though they just signed a gargantuan local TV deal last year, many of their moves seem like a team consumed with cutting costs due to underlying financial stresses and debts.  With little left on the farm, it will interesting to see if there is financial wiggle room to obtain additional pieces if they are in contention at the deadline.

Contention Window — 2016 to 2019, the last year of Goldschmidt’s contract

2016 Prediction —  82-87 wins

giantsSan Francisco Giants

By now, just about everyone has heard the “even year” theory for the Giants.  In every even year (hey 2016!), the Giants win the World Series and in odd years they kind of kick back and hang out.  The 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series banners are flying proudly above AT&T Park and are wondering if a 2016 banner will join them.

New GM Bobby Evans is trying really hard to make that happen.  He spent lavishly to reinforce the pitching rotation with Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzjia now calling San Francisco home.  Denard Span was also brought on board, via a very friendly deal, to man CF and deepen the lineup.  They still have C Buster Posey and emerging star SS Brandon Crawford, along with complementary pieces like 1B Brandon Belt and 2B Joe Panik.  They also still have pitcher extraordinaire Madison Bumgarner to front the rotation.

There are certainly enough pieces in play to make another playoff run.  Is a World Series possible?  Sure, why not?  The Giants aren’t on my personal shortlist, but it is an even year…

Contention Window — 2016 to 2020, especially the even years

2016 Prediction — 86-91 wins

cardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals

There will come a day when the Cardinals’ magic runs out.  When they stop producing above-average major league starters out of nondescript late-round draft picks.  When they can lose a key starter and not easily replace him with someone plucked out of the minors.  Maybe it will be when Father Time catches up to too many of their players.

I think that day will come this year. (Note: I’ve thought this for the past two years also.)

Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta are both recovering from thumb injuries and in their mid-30’s.  Matt Holliday is now 36 and had an injury-marred 2015 season.  Adam Wainwright is coming back from an Achilles injury and is 34 himself.

The Cardinals have a solid, if unspectacular, farm system that will inevitably produce some talent.  And there’s still younger players like Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha, and Matt Carpenter around.  But it seems as if the Cardinals are going to start trending downward soon.

Contention Window — 2016-17

2016 Prediction — 87-92 wins

piratesPittsburgh Pirates

Three straight playoff appearances have not healed all wounds, especially after the Pirates got their teeth kicked in during the last two Wild Card games, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta.  Everyone is focused on what the Pirates lost in the form of Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez (who everyone seemed ready to see depart for the past few seasons), but don’t see what the Pirates still have.

Their rotation’s front two of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are as good as it gets in the National League, New York Mets not withstanding.  Their outfield is the envy of baseball with Starling Marte-Andrew McCutchen-Gregory Polanco ranging from left to right.  The back of the bullpen isn’t flashy, but Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are one of the best pairings in baseball.

Every team has “ifs” that will make them good, but the Pirates don’t need their “ifs” to stretch too much — if Josh Harrison can stay healthy he’ll add a spark at 2B and in the lineup.  If Jung-ho Kang can return healthy in May and lock down 3B, David Freese will make the bench stronger.  If Neftali Feliz can snap back to normal form, he’ll be a dominant 7th inning option.  And most importantly, if Ray Searage can juice up Jon Niese to a #3-level pitcher, the Pirates’ rotation will be that much deeper.  I’m not even factoring in the “if” of Tyler Glasnow possibly debuting in late June/early July, either.

Contention Window — 2016-17, longer if the inevitable McCutchen trade brings back solid talent

2016 Prediction — 87-92 wins

nationalsWashington Nationals

Last year the Nationals were my virtual shoe-in to represent the National League in the World Series.  Their rotation was stacked at spots 1 through 5, they had a dangerous offense on paper, and good depth.  Injuries eroded that depth and some starting pitchers and position players had very down years.

Move forward one year and now pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond, and center fielder Denard Span are gone.  Reliever Drew Storen was traded.  In their place are younger options that the Nationals hope can replicate the production of the departed.

This is, presumably, Stephen Strasburg’s last year before he hits free agency.  I’m not going to say the window is closed after this year, but there’s a hand on the sill with a downward pressure.

Contention Window — 2016 to 2018

2016 Prediction — 90-95 wins

dodgersLos Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are full of name-brand players that present them with enviable depth.  The problem is that depth is based on players with substantial injury histories that are already peeking through.  Pitchers Hyun-jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, and new addition Scott Kazmir are recovering from or currently dealing with injuries.  That’s on top of position players such as Justin Turner, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford that have injury histories and doesn’t even include Andre Ethier, who is out for 10-14 weeks with a broken tibia.

It’s unbelievable that a team with a league-leading $250M’ish payroll must rely on minimum salary players to thrive this season, but that’s the boat that the Dodgers are in.  They have a great farm system that will feature SS Corey Seager and pitchers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon at some point this year.

Contention Window — with a $200M+ budget and great farm, it’s hard to see their window closing for quite a while.

2016 Prediction — 92-97 wins

metsNew York Mets

The Mets rotation is absolutely stacked with Harvey-de Grom-Syndergaard-Matz a formidable 1 to 4.  Jovial and aged zeppelin Bartolo Colon is back and holding a spot while Zack Wheeler rehabs from Tommy John.  But as was the case with the Nationals last year, I’m wary about assuming too much.

The Mets prioritized offense over defense this year, as they brought in Neil Walker (trade with Pirates) and Asdrubal Cabrera (free agency) over internal options like Dilson Herrera and Wilmer Flores at 2B/SS.  This was compounded with the surprising re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes to patrol the outfield, as well.

The Mets look strong, but will the continued financial limitations placed on a New York-based franchise by the ownership be their downfall?

Contention Window — 2016 to 2020

2016 Prediction — 92-97 wins

cubsChicago Cubs

The Cubs are everyone’s darling to win the National League this year, due to the incredible collection of young 2nd year talent, coupled with a willingness to spend money on free agents to fill in as necessary.  I like them, as well, but it is entirely common for young players to experience a regression in their second years.  And naturally injuries occur.

Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are obviously a formidable 1-2 punch, but I’m less sanguine on the middle and back of the rotation than others.  Jon Lackey is old and doesn’t possess anything special.  Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are very good, but aren’t keeping batters awake at night in dripping sweat.  Their bullpen is very good, but seem very prone to year-to-year fluctuation more than other premium pens.

This could all be moot in the offense produces as expected, though.

Contention Window — Arrieta is a free agent after 2017, but the offense has so much team control.  I’ll say 2016 to 2020.

2016 Prediction — 93-98 wins

About Kevin Creagh (234 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

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