Earlier, we unveiled our American League divisional previews and predictions, and now it is the senior circuit’s turn. If our AL estimations hold true, the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers will make up one side of the bracket. Basketball fans know that the NBA often has a talent imbalance between the Western Conference and Eastern Conference — the latter sometimes referred to as the (L)eastern Conference — and we sense a similar discrepancy between the American League and National League this year.
Simply put, the NL looks much stronger. While the Royals and Astros, as it seems today, could be the sole elite AL teams, with the Red Sox and one of the wild cards just playoff-worthy enough, we see the NL field stacked with up to seven or eight postseason-caliber squads. With only five allowed to make the cut, some extremely tough picks lie ahead. Here are our 2016 National League divisional and wild-card predictions.
National League East
1. Washington Nationals
A team with this many superstars will not miss the playoffs again, will they? We’re not saying the Washington Nationals will meet the “World Series or bust” expectations they’ve had since bringing Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg together, but it’s safe to say we think they will at least qualify for the postseason. The off-season managerial change had to be made and it will be interesting to see what Dusty Baker can bring to the nation’s capital. Even if he struggles to control the fiery Harper and hot-headed closer Jonathan Papelbon, the roster is just too stacked to miss out on the tournament for a second consecutive year.
With Max Scherzer, Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez leading the way in the rotation, this unit could be the best in baseball. In other words: The Nats have a lineup that is strong from top to bottom with the newcomer and table-setter Ben Revere starting it off and guys like Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and former New York Met Daniel Murphy in the middle. Hey, for what it is worth, the Nationals sported the best spring training record in the majors through action on Monday.
2. New York Mets (wild card)
Do not expect things to be quite as easy for the Metropolitans in 2016, as the Nationals should be as pissed off (and ready to win) as ever. Given our pick of the Nats to take the NL East, the Mets will have to settle for a wild card, and with the dangerous NL Central and much improving NL West, it will be a hefty battle for the defending-NL pennant winners. We envision the loss of Murphy to hurt, but his replacement in Neil Walker could do nearly as good of a job.
The rest of the lineup has its strengths and weaknesses, but it will be hard to rely on Curtis Granderson and David Wright at the top. Obviously, the Mets’ advantage over many other NL contenders is their starting pitchers. No one has forgotten what they did in last year’s playoffs, and we can only hope that all the extra October work does not come back to bite them. The bullpen should be rock solid again, with breakout closer Jeurys Familia there to close the door on enough Mets wins this season to barely fend off some other wild-card challengers.
3. Miami Marlins
Almost everybody feels that there will be a large difference in win totals for the top two (Nats and Mets) and the bottom two (Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves). Where do the Miami Marlins fit in though? Under new manager Don Mattingly, we expect the Marlins to be much closer to the top half than the bottom half.
With Dee Gordon and Giancarlo Stanton leading the offensive charge, plenty of run support may come to the rotation, which is headed by a dynamic duo of Wei-Yin Chen and Jose Fernandez. The relief corps has its question marks, but we do not see any way that the Marlins finish lower than third.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
Now the battle for last. It is stunning just how quickly the tables have turned in this five-team group, as the Phillies and Braves were the classes of the division not too long ago. Long-gone are the days of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee though, and in their places are Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Charlie Morton.
Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are out of the picture, and the projected starting middle infield now consists of Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. With Andrew Bailey — yeah, he is still pitching apparently — holding onto closing duties for now, the bullpen has as any many questions as anywhere else, but we think the Philly’s rotation potential and continued breakout of third baseman Maikel Franco will keep this team out of the cellar.
5. Atlanta Braves
The Braves may be in serious contention this year… for the worst record in baseball. It is amazing to see how rapidly Atlanta has fallen. The truth hurts: There simply is not a lot to like about the projected starting lineup and rotation in 2016. They will have Freddie Freeman surrounded by a bunch of on-the-downswing veterans and questionable youngsters, and a pretty good pitcher in Julio Teheran, who could be saddled with 15 losses or more this campaign. Where, oh, where is Bobby Cox when you need him?
National League Central
1. Chicago Cubs
Until you know what happens for the Chicago Cubs, the age-old question of “Is this the year?” will linger. Unlike decades and decades of futility prior, expectations have to be at a nearly all-time high for the Cubbies based on a multitude of factors.
The offense can straight up rake, the starting pitching can match up with anybody, and the bullpen had its moments in 2015. Of course, last season’s surprise run to the NLCS will only shrink this organization’s room for error in 2016 and we see Joe Maddon working his magic again, only this time, to win the division. Once Chicago is in the division series, who knows?
2. Pittsburgh Pirates (wild card)
After an abysmal two-decade stretch of losing and more losing, the Pittsburgh Pirates have now made the playoffs three years in a row. However, getting past that first round has been a problem thus far. Look, the talent is clearly there. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco patrolling the PNC Park outfield, the team has the best outfield in the business.
Gerrit Cole is an up-and-coming ace and Francisco Liriano has reinvented himself as a solid No. 2 since joining the Bucs. In order for Pittsburgh to take the next step and become something of an NL version of the Royals, they have to get to at least the NLCS though.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the toughest teams to leave out of the playoffs, but we had to do it. If they were in the AL, they would likely make it, but being stuck in arguably the best division in baseball will not do the Cards any favors this time around. It would be easy to look at this group’s ultra-success of the millennium and count them as a shoo-in for a deep October run, but this will finally be the year where they are left out.
The lineup has injury concerns — with Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina — and the starting rotation has even more. Basically the entire rotation (Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia, and Carlos Martinez) has a serious and/or recent history of arm issues and the likelihood of all five staying healthy for the whole summer seems bleak. The overall balance of the NL, and the Mets and Pirates snagging the wild card spots, will leave the Cardinals on the outside looking in.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
Aside from an out-of-nowhere 96-win season in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have been the epitome of mediocrity over the past 11 years. After the 68-victory struggle a year ago though, the Brew Crew looks to be trending in the wrong direction. Much of their ability to avoid last place in the Central will depend on the possible bounce-back season of catcher Jonathan Lucroy and we are confident that he will succeed. The rotation looks iffy, but you could do a lot worse than Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza at the top, right?
5. Cincinnati Reds
We expect to see the Cincinnati Reds right there alongside the Braves at the bottom of the NL barrel. The roster has been cleaned out massively over the past 12 months, with the likes of Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, and Todd Frazier being shown the exit doors. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce remain, making up an okay projected starting lineup. The rotation on the other hand, has a 26-year-old, a 25-year-old, a 22-year-old, and Alfredo Simon to provide the veteran presence. Yikes.
National League West
1. San Francisco Giants
Hooray, it is an even-numbered year! That means San Francisco Giants fans can start planning their 2016 World Series parade, right? Not exactly, but we do see Bruce Bochy’s club having enough to make the postseason for the fourth time in seven years.
San Fran certainly has weaknesses on paper, and the rotation’s spring training troubles surely are a worrisome sign, but with perennial MVP-candidate Buster Posey and stud lefty Madison Bumgarner forming the best battery in the game, their up-in-the-air back-end of the starting staff should suffice.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
Like David Price with the Red Sox in the AL, Zack Greinke should have a huge impact on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ chances in the NL. The D-Backs lineup was already solid and is getting better with A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, and David Peralta in the middle. The starting five looks promising with the underrated Patrick Corbin and newcomer Shelby Miller following Greinke’s turn through.
The bullpen, like much of Arizona’s roster, may be overlooked, but the Brad Ziegler/Tyler Clippard combo at the end of games could be deadly. It should be a heck of a dogfight between the top three team in this division, but we see Arizona having just enough for second place, yet too little for a playoff berth.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Some may disagree, but we have the Los Angeles Dodgers pinned for third place this year. It would be the first time since 2011 when LA does not finish in the top two, breaking up a string of three straight division titles, but the rotation after Clayton Kershaw may struggle.
Despite his career renaissance, Scott Kazmir is somewhat of an unknown as the No. 2, while Kenta Maeda will have to adjust to MLB hitters quickly to win over Dodgers fans. The offense could propel the Dodgers and keep them in games late, but that will depend a lot on the return to dominance from Yasiel Puig and full seasons of productivity from youngsters Corey Seager and Joc Pederson.
4. San Diego Padres
We went back and forth multiple times before settling on the San Diego Padres for next-to-last in the NL West with the simple reason being the starting rotation. Tyson Ross, James Shields, and Andrew Cashner represent a front trio that is bound to be more consistent in 2016 and the lineup — while on the whole looks sketchy — has some potential nice pieces with Matt Kemp and the oft-injured Wil Myers. The bullpen, led by closer Fernando Rodney, could be a disaster, but hopefully for the Friars, the Ross/Shields/Cashner trio can eat up plenty of innings this summer.
5. Colorado Rockies
So, how many runs per game will be scored at Coors Field, the home of the Colorado Rockies, this season? Is an over or under of 12 too generous? Maybe so, but the Rockies’ offense should be one of the top lineups in baseball this year. The fact that their offense is so lethal yet they will still possibly finish last speaks to how atrocious their pitching looks on paper for the upcoming season.
When considering the over/under, just take a look at these impressive (and less so) names: Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado, Jorge De La Rosa, Chad Bettis, Jordan Lyles, and Tyler Chatwood. Rockies fans, get ready for some high-scoring affairs.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127