With National League action beginning late, late tonight in Australia, here are the projected finishes and win-loss records of its 15 teams. For each team, I make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) that attempt to justify my rankings. At the end of the season, I'll revisit these assertions to see how I did. (Hint: this is all just an exercise in fun.)
To the line!
1. Washington Nationals (89–73, 3rd playoff seed)
- The Nats' offense will remain decidedly "meh." Bryce Harper will be healthy enough to contend for MVP, but Jayson Werth will be half the man—and half the value above replacement—he was in 2013.
- All four of Washington's top starting pitchers will get NL Cy Young Award votes.
- Drew Storen will actually outpitch Rafael Soriano.
- Ross Detwiler will be pressed into service in the rotation for a few months in midseason, and his WAR in just three starts will exceed his season's WAR in relief.
2. Atlanta Braves (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
- Atlanta's pitching will take a huge hit. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran will scuffle to start the year as opponents figure them out, but they'll recover to end 2014 respectably. Accordingly, the Braves will pull a 2013 Nationals: appear to drop out of contention early, then turn it on in the late fall.
- The Braves will pray that Gavin Floyd's uninspiring summer isn't what Kris Medlen will look like when he returns from Tommy John surgery in 2015. Meanwhile, in replacing Brandon Beachy, Freddy García will match Beachy's five starts and 4.50 ERA from 2013 exactly.
- BJ Upton will stabilize at a new normal—.240/.310/.370—and the Braves will take it because it will still be a massive improvement.
- Dan Uggla will finish with a higher OBP than Evan Gattis, but the latter will still get more playing time and media praise.
- All those strikeouts will get a lot of blame for the Braves missing the playoffs, but maybe the blame should go to manager Fredi González.
3. New York Mets (78–84)
- Chris Young will rebound with a .230/.330/.420 season. With Curtis Granderson and, hopefully, Juan Lagares, he will constitute the majors' best defensive outfield. Eric Young Jr. will be a woeful substitute should they choose to go that route.
- The rotation will be a strength. Co-aces Zack Wheeler and Bartolo Colón will post ERAs below 3.00; Dillon Gee and Jon Niese will both be below 4.00 in supporting roles.
- Ike Davis will finally put it all together—and will then be promptly traded for a huge return.
4. Miami Marlins (74–88)
- José Fernández will win the ERA crown. With Jacob Turner and Henderson Álvarez, suddenly people will be talking about the Marlins' rotation. Unfortunately, however, Nathan Eovaldi will blow out his arm—like so many hard throwers before him.
- With an improved Giancarlo Stanton (pencil him in for 35 bombs), Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, the Fish have something resembling an offensive core. The latter two are no longer eligible for Rookie of the Year, but they'll out-WAR whoever wins it in the NL.
- Casey McGehee will struggle so badly at third base that the team will turn to top draft pick Colin Moran by September. Andrew Heaney will be this year's Gerrit Cole or Michael Wacha.
5. Philadelphia Phillies (60–102)
- This is the year it all collapses in Philadelphia. When Cole Hamels struggles all season long with nagging injuries, it will hit everyone around baseball: Imagine how bad this team could be if it didn't have two of the best pitchers in the game.
- The Phillies' lone offseason splash, Marlon Byrd will return to being below average. Everyone else in the lineup will atrophy as the natural aging process takes its toll. The result will be a bottom-five NL offense.
- However, Ben Revere will finally hit his first career home run.
- The number of starts Miguel Alfredo González makes will match his ERA: six.
- Phinally, Philly will possess the worst defense in the majors with a collective defensive-runs-saved figure worse than –100.
1. Saint Louis Cardinals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
- The Cardinals' .330 average with runners in scoring position will drop, explaining why they won't outscore the NL's runner-up by 77 runs this year. They should still finish first in that category, however, thanks to 30 homers by Matt Adams.
- Kolten Wong will fall into a platoon with Mark Ellis—not because he will struggle, but because every indication will be Ellis still deserves a starting job.
- An underappreciated advantage St. Louis will derive from their offseason roster moves: a much better defense. Peter Bourjos and Matt Carpenter (in place of David Freese at third base) will lead the way.
- Shelby Miller will start Games 1, 4, and 7 of the World Series as the championship trophy returns to St. Louis.
2. Cincinnati Reds (89–73, 1st Wild Card)
- This one's easy: Billy Hamilton will lead the NL in stolen bases by double digits—but he won't break the record for most steals by a guy named Billy Hamilton until 2015.
- The offense will be a problem at times, with only two men—Joey Votto and Jay Bruce—producing above-average OPSes.
- With a full season of Tony Cingrani, the Reds will set a franchise record for most pitcher strikeouts for the third year in a row.
3. Milwaukee Brewers (83–79)
- The Brewers offense will roar into the NL elite. With a full season, Ryan Braun will probably deserve to win NL MVP again (but obviously won't even get a whiff of consideration). Khris Davis will hit 35 home runs, and Scooter Gennett will be one of the league's most valuable second basemen. They will overcome slight regressions from Carlos Gómez and Aramis Ramírez.
- Marco Estrada, Marco Estrada, Marco Estrada. The best pitcher you've never heard of will get his home-run rate down to join his 4.00 K/BB ratio, and the result will be an All-Star berth.
- I am not a big believer in either Yovani Gallardo or Wily Peralta, but if just one of them succeeds, the Brewers will be looking at a Wild Card berth.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (80–82)
- Gerrit Cole will be phenomenal—20 wins isn't out of reach—but every other Pirates starter will be below average. This will include Francisco Liriano, who will pull a full Jonathan Sánchez; Wandy Rodríguez, who will have plenty of post-injury rust to work through; and Jeff Locke, whose mediocre fielding-independent stats will catch up to him.
- The continued excellence of the Pirates outfield will keep Gregory Polanco in the minors for most of 2014—where he will post record numbers for the Indianapolis Indians.
5. Chicago Cubs (68–94)
- Among the Cubs' dubious achievements this year: Darwin Barney's defensive WAR will be greater than any position player's offensive WAR. Junior Lake's .755 OPS will lead the team.
- Reversion to the mean: Edwin Jackson will improve, and Travis Wood will deteriorate, to identical 3.90 ERAs.
- Starlin Castro may end the season as a Cub, but he won't end the calendar year that way.
- The Cubs scoringest month will be September, thanks to a cast totally different from Opening Day's: Javier Báez, Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, and Kris Bryant.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (90–72, 2nd playoff seed)
- Here's a curveball: in the Dodgers' famously crowded outfield, Andre Ethier will play the most games, followed by Carl Crawford, then Yasiel Puig, then Matt Kemp.
- LA will be in the mix with the Nats and Reds for best rotation in the league. Dan Haren—owner of the fifth-best career K/BB ratio of all time—will thrive at Dodger Stadium, while Clayton Kershaw (yawn) will win another Cy Young Award.
- Alexander Guerrero: another Gordon Beckham?
- Brian Wilson will struggle for at least a few months before the Dodgers trust him with close games. Turns out 13.2 2013 innings wasn't a big enough sample size after all!
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (84–78)
- Despite Kevin Towers's best efforts, the D-backs will be better in 2014. Their three and four hitters—Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo—will combine for 70 home runs. Trumbo will continue to hurt the team with an OBP below .300, but hey—he'll be an improvement over Jason Kubel.
- Brandon McCarthy will return to his prior effectiveness. Arizona won't have a clear ace, but all five regular starters will finish with ERAs below 4.00.
- 2013 Pacific Coast League MVP Chris Owings will play Didi Gregorius into a utility role—possibly for the rest of his career—unless he's packaged in a trade out of Phoenix.
3. San Francisco Giants (82–80)
- The Giants will be made or broken by how well their starting pitching returns to form. I see Matt Cain returning to ace territory and Tim Hudson bringing his usual reliability. Unfortunately, I think Ryan Vogelsong is done as an effective major leaguer, and Tim Lincecum's 4.30 ERAs are the new normal.
- Madison Bumgarner will throw a no-hitter.
- Heath Hembree will seize the closing job away from a struggling Sergio Romo before the All-Star break.
- Pablo Sandoval will respond to the pressures of his walk year, but Brandon Belt will continue to be this team's best hitter. He'll be the game's least heralded superstar.
4. San Diego Padres (81–81)
- By far the Padres' biggest boost will be in the rotation. Josh Johnson will pitch to last year's xFIP—3.58—in homer-unhappy PETCO. Look for Ian Kennedy's walk rate to return to career norms, enabling him too to have a bounce-back year. The biggest difference may be a full season of starts by Tyson Ross, however; he will strike out a batter an inning.
- A mediocre offense will still limit the team. Is Jedd Gyorko really as good as he was in 2013? Can Carlos Quentin really ever be counted on to play a full season? Is Chase Headley really a 31-homer guy? I'm answering no to all of the above.
5. Colorado Rockies (74–88)
- It'll be the same old script in Denver: the Rockies will have more talent than most teams, but injuries—and the inherent unfairness of playing in Coors Field—will keep them far short of realizing their potential. Expect Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González to miss significant time again.
- Likewise, when they pitch, Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Anderson, and Jhoulys Chacín will be brilliant. Rockies fans will wonder what could have been if they could all three have pitched full seasons. As it is, they'll pitch just 300 innings between them.
- To a man, everyone thinks LaTroy Hawkins as a closer is a charade and that the Rox will switch presently to Rex Brothers. I'm not so sure. Look for Hawkins to remain the closer in name, while Brothers gets the true high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth. Colorado will want to keep his arbitration price down.