With spring training less than a month away, now seems like a good time to think ahead to who the top team in the National League will be. Of course, the offseason isn’t over and there is still time for more moves to be made, but with most of the top free agents now signed, the majority of teams will more or less enter the season with the roster that they have now.
The defending NL champion Mets surprised their fans and got back their best hitter after months of criticism directed at the front office for their lack of a big time move up to that point. Yoenis Cespedes adds the huge power threat to the middle of the lineup that the Mets desperately need. Now that their opening day lineup looks to be set, the Mets have a deep lineup from top to bottom to go along with one of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues. If the Mets aren’t the frontrunners in the NL, they are right near the top. The argument could be made that the team they will enter the season with is better than the one the one that came within three wins of a World Championship last year. One thing is for sure and that is that they are unquestionably better now than they were during the first half of 2015. Last year’s opening day roster did not include any of Cespedes, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, or Michael Conforto, not to mention the prolonged injury absences of Travis d’Arnaud and David Wright. Due to the nature of the MLB playoffs, you can’t say that any team should be expected to make it to the World Series, but anything short of a playoff berth for this team would be considered a huge failure.
The Mets should face serious competition within their own division. The Nationals were a disaster in 2015, but with a number of key players missing significant time (Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon), better health will surely benefit the team this year. While they won’t have Jordan Zimmerman or, with all likelihood, Ian Desmond, the Nationals could rebound simply from better performances and health from the players who were already on the roster. Like the Mets, the Nationals are a very well-rounded team and I don’t expect either team to run away with the NL East.
Many are picking the Cubs as the favorites to represent the National League in the World Series. Chicago has a stacked lineup from top to bottom full of young hitters who are only going to get better. After being swept out of the NLCS a year ago, offseason additions Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, and John Lackey make the Cubs as good on paper as any team in baseball. The team’s one weakness is its propensity for the strikeout, which proved to be somewhat of an issue against the Mets’ power pitching in the NLCS. The new lineup additions and any improvements made by their young stars in that area could be what it takes to put them over the top and end the curse.
A number of other teams will also be in the mix. The Cardinals, who finished with the best record in baseball last year, will again enter 2016 with high expectations. The departures of Heyward and Lackey to their cross-town rivals leave some big holes to fill, but this team has so much depth and they have been very good at replacing star players in the past.
The Giants have dished out tons of money to free agents this offseason. While they failed to make the playoffs after a 2014 World Series victory, young players like Joe Panik and Matt Duffy showed a lot of promise. The Giants were hit hard with injuries last year, so better luck and the impact of free agent signings such as Johnny Cueto and Denard Span make them a very dangerous team.
Zack Greinke fills a major need for a Diamondbacks team that I predicted would take a big step forward in 2016 even before the offseason began. It’s hard to think of any other NL team that features two superstars on the level of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. The NL West is a tough division, so their offseason moves might not be enough to get Arizona to the next level, but they do have a solid core of talent.
Finally, the Pirates and Dodgers can’t be counted out coming off of a postseason berth, although I don’t think either team is as strong as they were a year ago. Losing Greinke to a division rival has to leave a sting, and while there is a plenty of upside in a revamped starting rotation, there isn’t a whole lot of certainty outside of Clayton Kershaw. The Pirates are one of only three teams in baseball that has reached the postseason each of the last three seasons, along with the Cardinals and Dodgers, but losing Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez makes their offense a lot weaker. I haven’t been a fan of their offseason moves so far. They have gotten less talented in a number of positions and I don’t see a single position on their roster where they have made an improvement.
As always, we should see plenty of teams competing for playoff spots in the National League in 2016. All the teams I listed are solid teams, and of course there could be few teams that I didn’t mention that will emerge as surprise contenders. One thing that sticks out between the two leagues is the number of teams in the NL that are in a rebuilding stage, as opposed to the American League where you could make a case for almost any team to make the playoffs. The great thing about baseball is that it’s always nearly impossible to predict, so some of the teams that I named as World Series contenders will probably end up having terrible seasons. As we get closer to opening day, I will post my full predictions for the season.