Monday, April 10, 2017

Predicting the 2017 Season—National League

They may be a week late, but it will take more than an ill-timed cross-country roadtrip to keep me from cogitating on the upcoming current baseball season. I don't do season previews in the usual sense—no doubt you've already read a zillion of those from analysts more plugged in than I. Instead, I predict the final win-loss records in each division but also issue a few wildly specific predictions for each team. Then, at the end of the season, I'll look back and see how insightful—or hilariously off the mark—I was. First up: the Senior Circuit.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (97–65, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Bryce Harper will post another monster season even better than his 2015. He will surpass Mike Trout with over 10.0 WAR. He'll again be the runaway MVP.
  • Over half of the Nats' lineup will be worth more than 4.0 WAR: Harper, Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Daniel Murphy. Jayson Werth, improbably, won't be far behind, with one last gasp as an offensive catalyst.
  • For the third straight season, Mike Rizzo will swing a deal for a closer at the trade deadline—and this time it will be for no less than Drew Storen. Disaster will, predictably, ensue.
  • Washington will advance beyond the NLDS for the first time and defeat the Cubs in a thrilling seven-game NLCS. Unfortunately, they'll run into a buzzsaw in the American League champion.

2. New York Mets (91–71, 1st Wild Card) 
  • Jacob deGrom will be fully healthy and join Noah Syndergaard as a top Cy Young contender, as both exceed 200 innings (and 200 strikeouts).
  • Steven Matz will also break out with an ERA below 3.00. Matt Harvey will be respectable again, but that will only make him the team's fourth-best starter.
  • With Lucas Duda suffering through lingering back problems, Jay Bruce will play a lot of first base. He will finally win over Mets fans by giving them a .750 OPS there, as well as enabling a strong season by Michael Conforto with the move.
  • Amed Rosario and Asdrúbal Cabrera will end the season on the left side of the Mets' infield, with José Reyes banished from Flushing for good.

3. Miami Marlins (77–85) 
  • World Baseball Classic number-eight hitter Giancarlo Stanton will be the first Marlin ever to top 50 home runs, leading the National League.
  • While Wei-Yin Chen will return to a 120 ERA+, Edinson Vólquez will again have negative value.
  • Led by Kyle Barraclough's 5.0 K/BB ratio, the Marlins will trail only the Dodgers for the NL's stingiest bullpen.
  • By the end of the season, Jeb Bush will be the proud new owner of the Marlins.

4. Atlanta Braves (71–91) 
  • Jaime García will finally pitch a full season and do it well, setting himself up to be one of next winter's better free agents.
  • Jim Johnson will fall apart for the second time in his career, as his fastball velocity dips to below 90 miles per hour. Opponents will hit .350 off him before his midseason release.
  • The safest prediction on this page: Dansby Swanson will be your 2017 NL Rookie of the Year.
  • Traffic woes and shoddy construction will get SunTrust Park off to a rough start. Attendance will be well below estimates; the park will draw fewer fans than Turner Field did last season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (64–98) 
  • Vince Velasquez will prove he belongs in the starting rotation, pairing his well-known 25% strikeout rate with 18 quality starts.
  • Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff will at times this spring resemble a poor man's Phearsome Phour, but how many of them will be around at the end of the season? The guess here is not Nola (Tommy John surgery) or Hellickson (traded).
  • Clay Buchholz will lead the league in home runs allowed (32).
  • The no-name offense will be the lowest-scoring in baseball.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs (100–62, 1st playoff seed) 
  • Wade Davis will struggle with his control in his recovery from injury. By the end of the season, Koji Uehara will have more saves.
  • The rotation will be the closest thing to a weakness on the North Side. Kyle Hendricks will regress to league average, and the fifth starter's job will remain unsettled for most of the year.
  • Jason Heyward has a big bounceback in him. He'll hit .290/.350/.450, paired with his usual 20 Defensive Runs Saved, for a 5.0 WAR season.
  • Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, will run into a brick wall. His modest value with the bat will be offset by the worst defensive season of his career.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (89–73, 2nd Wild Card) 
  • Yadier Molina's pedestrian .250/.300/.380 slash line will inaugurate the decline phase of his career.
  • Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha will both rebound to above-average ERAs (say, 3.70), and Lance Lynn will pick up where he left off before surgery, but Carlos Martínez has permanently supplanted them as the Cardinals ace.
  • A bone-headed strategic move by Mike Matheny will be the reason for the Cardinals' extra-innings loss to the Mets in the Wild Card Game.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81) 
  • The most important question for the 2017 Pirates will be answered early, when Andrew McCutchen wins Player of the Month for April. He'll finish with a classic McCutchen season: .300/.400/.500.
  • Jameson Taillon will zoom past Gerrit Cole as Pittsburgh's best pitcher, and his 2.50 ERA will put him squarely in the Cy Young conversation.
  • The Pirates will have the NL's best outfield—but its worst infield.
  • Jung Ho Kang's personal and legal problems will prevent him from returning to the Pirates, and the once-revelatory third baseman will wash out of Major League Baseball.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (72–90) 
  • Yeah, Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana may strike out a combined 300 times, but who cares? They will both be fantasy studs, especially in OBP leagues. Look for 20 homers and 30 steals from Broxton, and a mirror-image 30/20 season from Santana. Both will get on base at .350 clips despite .250 batting averages.
  • As quickly as Jonathan Villar's stock rose, it will come crashing down. He'll hit just .240, and his runs scored and stolen bases will both be slashed in half.
  • Junior Guerra may not be the second coming of Zack Greinke, but he'll continue to give the Brewers a chance to win every time out. He'll be the Jordan Zimmermann of Milwaukee's rebuilding effort: not the best pitcher on their next winning team, but still good enough to contribute to it.

5. Cincinnati Reds (61–101) 
  • Anthony DeSclafani will endure another frustrating season of injuries. His recovery from a sprained UCL will last nearly all season, until he debuts in late September—and throws a no-hitter in his one and only start.
  • This will finally be the year that gets Bryan Price fired. Then again, if 2015 and 2016 didn't do it...

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92–70, 3rd playoff seed) 
  • Every Dodgers starting pitcher will miss at least eight starts. Even last year's reliable Kenta Maeda will be plagued by some of the "irregularities" found in his physical when he first signed out of Japan.
  • Every year, Clayton Kershaw has found a way to top his seemingly untoppable season from the year before. How will he do it this year? By tossing a 21-strikeout perfect game—by every measure, the best pitching performance in baseball history.
  • A 2.79 ERA. 6.3 hits per nine innings. A 9.7/4.8 K/BB ratio. Kershaw's first full season, or Julio Urías's?
  • Yasiel Puig will match his 137 wRC+ from September of last year, after a demotion to the minor leagues.
  • LA's uncertain left-field situation will be solved when Cody Bellinger forces himself into the lineup in mid-siummer.

2. San Francisco Giants (84–78) 
  • Despite the addition of Mark Melancon, the bullpen will still be a weakness for the Giants. Ironically, their fans will look on longingly as the likes of Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo dominate elsewhere in California while the San Francisco relief corps comes in below average.
  • Handing starting jobs to Eduardo Núñez and Jarrett Parker will prove to be a fatal move for a team in need of offensive help. As age saps talent all around the diamond, San Francisco will post its worst offensive season since the 2011 squad's 91 OPS+.
  • On the bright side, one Giant will finally get his due: Madison Bumgarner will take home the Cy Young trophy.

3. Colorado Rockies (83–79) 

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (74–88) 
  • The D'Backs will be better almost automatically, as Greinke, Shelby Miller, and A.J. Pollock all revert to the mean.
  • Robbie Ray will take a huge step forward, shaving more than a run off his ERA and leading the league in strikeouts.

5. San Diego Padres (68–94) 
  • Even with the help of Petco Park, the Padres will have the worst rotation in baseball. 
  • In just 30 innings pitched, Carter Capps will have the highest WAR of any Padre pitcher.
  • The Padres will run out 61 different players in 2017, breaking the MLB record for most men deployed in a season.
  • Travis Jankowski will pull a Kevin Kiermaier, amassing eye-popping value on the strength of defense alone. Oh, and he'll lead Major League Baseball in stolen bases.

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