After looking at the American League yesterday, our attention now turns to the Senior Circuit.
The most significant difference between the two leagues coming into the 2016 season is that whilst every team in the AL at least has some chance – however small – of competing for a Wild Card place, 5 of the 15 teams in the National League are deliberately looking towards future seasons.
‘Tanking’ is the word people like to use, essentially where a team deliberately trades away its best players, slashes the payroll and prioritizes the acquisition and development of prospects over challenging for a play-off spot. It’s controversial given the amount of TV money these teams are banking – under the assumption that they would be fielding a team worth watching – yet the truth is the current MLB landscape doesn’t just allow teams to do this, it rewards them for it.
Nothing illustrates that better than the 2015 seasons had by the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros.
The Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies are all prepared to take some pain today for jam tomorrow.
The good news is that there are plenty of strong teams left in the NL to create a captivating regular season.
This time last year many onlookers had penciled-in the Washington Nationals as not only the team to beat in the NL East, but the team to beat across the whole league. They had won 96 games in 2014 and responded to an early play-off exit by signing ace pitcher Max Scherzer, so the hype was not unwarranted; however it was something the team singularly failed to live up to and ultimately cost manager Matt Williams his job.
In 2016 it’s the New York Mets who are receiving the same platitudes, yet it seems highly unlikely that they will buckle under the weight of expectations. Their young pitching staff is genuinely outstanding and, having unexpectedly made the World Series last season, figure to only get better in 2016. That’s a scary thought for everyone else.
Where does that leave the Nationals? The one true success of 2015 for them was the MVP season put together by Bryce Harper and just as you can count on the likes of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard to pitch like aces for the Mets, so you can expect Harper to do the near-impossible and challenge Mike Trout for the honour of the best player in MLB.
The experienced Dusty Baker has been brought in to pull the team together and create a happy ship out of what was a combustible crew. Whether they will challenge the Mets, or at least win a Wild Card spot, will come down to good health and how effectively they take advantage of the 38 games that they will play combined against the rebuilding Braves and Phillies.
It’s been an off-season diet of the Cubs, Cubs and more Cubs in the NL Central. Joe Maddon and his team are the new media darlings and you can understand why. They’ve amassed an enviable group of young talent and supplemented it with free agent signings in the form of Jon Lester in the 2014/15 off-season and now again with Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey.
They were really good in 2015 and will be again in 2016.
What we shouldn’t lose sight of, though, is that the Pittsburgh Pirates were just as good last season and the St Louis Cardinals were even better. Neither team has added the experienced talent that the Cubs have acquired, and Chicago’s gain has very directly been St Louis’s loss with Heyward and Lackey moving to the other side of that rivalry, but they still have strong rosters and the way things are shaping up could really suit them.
The Cubs are the team with all the expectations. It’s been very noticeable in Spring Training that the Cardinals are almost enjoying the way everyone is jumping on the Chicago bandwagon, ready to prove exactly why they’ve won the division for the past three seasons and have no intention of letting the upstarts crash their party.
As for the Pirates, you’ll struggle to find a team more determined to win a division having experienced the pain of a one-game-and-gone play-off exit in each of the past two seasons. This is going to be a true three-way battle.
Will there be a three-way battle in the West?
The Arizona Diamondbacks are intent on making that so. Their audacious signing of Zack Greinke mirrored the Cubs’ Cardinal clear-out job by taking him away from the LA Dodgers, with the added benefit that the San Francisco Giants lusted after the free agent too. They followed that up by trading for Shelby Miller and whilst the package they gave up for him may prove to be a high price to pay, it’s given them a front three with Patrick Corbin that stacks up well against their division rivals.
The D-Backs are confident, although it’s often been the case that the team that ‘won the off-season’ in recent years has gone on to win precious little else. What Arizona needed was for their existing players to either repeat or improve on their previous performances to make the additions count. That hope took a hammer blow last night with outfielder A.J. Pollock breaking his elbow. Pollock quietly developed into one of the best players in the National League last year. He will be out for an extended period – a similar injury cost him the entire 2010 season – and whilst it’s not fatal for the D-Backs’ chances, it certainly reduces them.
Injuries are also the story in LA where the Dodgers have been devastated by a succession of setbacks. At time of writing, MLB.com’s injury report lists no fewer than 13 Dodgers suffering notable ailments with as many as 10 of them being a doubt for Opening Day, if not out of action for much longer. They’re Major League-leading payroll ensures that sympathy will be in short supply and the Dodgers still have a solid group to compete with. As players return to health during the season, alongside the always-present potential for them to acquire new players and to up the payroll even further, you would be wrong to write them off even if they are in third place by the end of May.
NL East – NY Mets, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta
NL Central – St Louis, Chicago Cubs (WC), Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Milwaukee
NL West – LA Dodgers, San Francisco (WC), Arizona, San Diego, Colorado