Opening Day 2017: National League

The turning of the calendar into April means it’s time for Opening Day and while it’s impossible to predict how every team will fare come October, it’s still fun to try. Here is a brief outlook for each National League team, plus one player from each club who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

NL EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves have been undergoing a rebuild, but they brought in a number of veterans to mentor their younger players and stay competitive at the same time. They did perform very well towards the end of last season, so it remains to be seen whether or not they can carry that momentum into 2017. Atlanta is a team on the rise, and although they probably won’t be in contention come September, they could improve to around .500 as they debut their brand new ballpark.

Player to watch: Dansby Swanson was impressive in his brief debut last year and looks primed to become one of game’s best shortstops.

MIAMI MARLINS

Miami has an intriguing collection of offensive talent, from speedster Dee Gordon to the outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. The Marlins spent big on the bullpen, but the starting rotation is a huge area of concern following the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez.

Player to watch: We know about Stanton’s tape measure power, but Yelich is getting better and better each year. Yelich more than doubled his career high in home runs last season and although he’s never made an All-Star team, that’s about to change.

NEW YORK METS

The roster the Mets will open the season with is a true rarity in the modern game, since it’s nearly identical to the one that clinched a Wild Card berth last season. That could be a good thing, since the 2016 Mets were devastated by injuries, yet still won 87 games. If they can stay healthy, New York should be on par with the Nationals and could very well have the best starting pitching in baseball.

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes was the star the Mets needed to keep, so they handed him the largest contract of the offseason. Cespedes has grown tremendously as a hitter in his year and a half in the Big Apple. There’s a chance he has his first 40 home run season and could make a run at the NL MVP.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies’ had one of baseball’s worst offenses in 2016, but there are reasons for fans to be optimistic. Maikel Franco has the skills to become a perennial 30 home run bat and former Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera has become a fine player. Prospects J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro should also help in the coming years. On the pitching side, Philadelphia has three good young arms in Aaron Nola, Jerad Eichkoff, and Vince Velasquez, along with veteran Jeremy Hellickson. In all likelihood, the Phillies won’t be serious playoff contenders for another year or two, but this team isn’t far off.

Player to watch: Franco has already shown to have serious power, but he’s a good candidate to have a huge breakout in 2017.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

The Nats made it back to the postseason in 2016, but this is a team that surely has greater aspirations in mind and there’s certainly no shortage of star power in Washington. The pitching duo of Maz Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is as good as any in the game. The lineup is very deep, anchored by Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Trea Turner, who is on his way to becoming one of the best all-around players in the game. From one to eight, it’s arguably the deepest lineup in the NL.

Player to watch: After a down season, Harper should have no trouble getting back to his MVP form from 2015. It’s easy to see him entering the MVP conversation once again and if that happens, the rest of the National League has another reason to be worried about the Nationals.

NL Central

CHICAGO CUBS

The defending World Series Champions will enter the season as the favorites once again. Perhaps no team has as deep of a 25-man roster as the Cubs, with superstars all over the roster on both sides of the ball. It would be a big surprise if Chicago didn’t win the NL Central.

Player to watch: The nation got a chance to witness the immense talent of Javier Baez in the playoffs. Joe Maddon can play Baez almost anywhere on the diamond, and will surely try to get him into the lineup as much as possible. The Cubs may have more accomplished stars, but Baez’s ceiling is still incredibly high.

CINCINNATI REDS

Reds’ fans will get a look at what the future holds, as the departure of Brandon Phillips opens the door for infielders like Jose Peraza and Dilson Herrera. Billy Hamilton showed some improvements late last year and Joey Votto remains an on-base machine, but Cincinnati’s patchwork pitching rotation eliminates any chance of being competitive this year.

Players to watch: The Reds intend to use Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as multi-inning bullpen options, sort of like a throwback to an earlier era. If they follow through, each pitcher could exceed 100 innings out of the pen. It will be interesting to see if other teams adopt a similar strategy if the Reds have success with it.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Milwaukee is another team in rebuild mode, but Jonathan Villar has developed into a franchise cornerstone. Villar led the NL in stolen bases a year ago, while also hitting 19 home runs to go along with a .369 on base percentage. The Brewers have done a nice job stockpiling prospects the past few years, but this year’s club will more than likely be battling the Reds for last place in the NL Central.

Player to watch: Eric Thames will be a fascinating player to watch as he returns to the states after three monster seasons in South Korea. Can he carry the momentum over to Milwaukee?

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Much of the low-budget Pirates’ offseason revolved around speculation over whether Andrew McCutchen would be dealt. McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh and it’s a very similar team around him, at least offensively. Pitching , on the other hand, is a big question mark. The Pirates have some intriguing talent on their staff, including rookie Jameson Taillon, but a lot is unproven. Rotation ace Gerrit Cole has become injury prone and the decision to deal Francisco Liriano near the end of last season didn’t make much sense.

Player to watch: Starling Marte has played much of his career in McCutchen’s shadow, but his blend of power and speed make him one of the best, and underappreciated, outfielders in the National League.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals fell short of the postseason in 2016 and played uncharacteristically poor defense. That should improve this year, but St. Louis also led the National League in home runs in 2016, which is hard to see happening again. This team should be solid, but will need a lot to go right in order to make a postseason run.

Player to watch: Free agent acquisition Dexter Fowler improves the Cardinals in all areas of the game. He could be the difference maker that puts St. Louis into the postseason.

NL West

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Arizona’s high hopes crashed miserably in 2016, en route to a 69-93 season. The D’Backs didn’t add a whole lot to their team in the offseason, so their success remains tied to the expectation that a number of players can rebound from bad seasons.

Player to watch: If A.J. Pollock can make a strong comeback after missing nearly the entire 2016 season, Arizona’s chances of reaching the playoffs will drastically improve. Even in that event, however, the Diamondbacks will still need much better contributions from players like Zack Greinke.

COLORADO ROCKIES

Colorado looked like a team on the rise last season, with as much offensive talent as any team in the game. If Colorado’s pitching can even be average, they should be a playoff team. However, the Rockies already have multiple key players injured before the season has even begun. The Rockies focused on bullpen help this offseason in the hopes of giving their starting rotation a greater margin of error.

Player to watch: Colorado’s best pitcher is probably Jon Gray, who opened eyes last year with his adept strikeout ability (9.9 K/IP). He has the kind of stuff that can help him overcome the difficulties most pitchers face when pitching in high altitude.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Like the Mets, the Dodgers put most of their resources into signing their own free agents. Since these included a lot of the top players on the market, why not? Health concerns still linger over their pitching rotation, but the Dodgers are an extremely talented team, so it appears only bad luck with injuries will keep this team out of the postseason.

Player to watch: No active pitcher is better than Clayton Kershaw. He’s been on an unreal run over the course of his career, but did miss some time last year with a herniated disc in his back. The Dodgers will hope he is fully healthy, in which case he’ll once again be the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

San Diego might have the worst roster in major league baseball. However, Andy Green will use the opportunity to give substantial playing time to young, unproven players who could play a role for the team in the future. Wil Myers finally broke out last year and is now a key building block for the Padres.

Player to watch: The Padres do have one of baseball’s most intriguing players in pitcher/catcher/outfielder Christian Bethancourt. Two-way players have been nearly nonexistent in the last century, so it would be pretty cool if Bethancourt succeeds with it.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Since it’s not an even numbered year, do the Giants even have a chance? They certainly do if their bullpen can stop blowing leads and their offense is more consistent. But the Giants also failed to add a big bat to a lineup that went through prolonged dry spells in 2016, especially in the power department.

Player to watch: The Giants gave a lot of money to Mark Melancon in order to bolster the back of their bullpen. This was San Francisco’s only major offseason addition, so the team is placing relief pitching at a very high value.

 

NL Division Winners: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers

NL Wild Card: Nationals, Rockies

Like last year, the National League appears to be very top-heavy, with only about seven or eight teams that have a real shot. I’m guessing the NL East race will be the tightest of all the divisions, and it could come down to whose players stay healthier. If the Mets starting pitchers can avoid lengthy stints on the disabled list, they will be awfully tough to compete with. But if their elite pitching is compromised at all, the Nationals, who have the superior offense, could start to run away with it.

The Rockies are my surprise NL team in 2017. With an abundance of offensive talent and some promising young pitching, it’s easy to envision them ending their seven-year playoff drought, especially in a year when other competitors like the Cardinals, Giants, Pirates, and Marlins all have some major flaws.

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