2013 Major League Baseball Mega-Preview: the National League
The National League enters 2013 competition with the consensus best team in baseball, the Washington Nationals. This is relevant on a number of levels. Three years ago, the Nats had the first overall pick and took Bryce Harper. That means that in 2009, they were the very worst team in baseball. Last year, they were the very best, at least in the regular season. This year’s team looks even more scary.
But perhaps more to the point, the MLB is heavily trending the way of the NBA and NFL in that the model to build the consensus best franchise isn’t to throw money around at established vets like the Yankees (successfully) and Cubs (unsuccessfully) have done over the years, but to throw lots of money at amateur talent like the Rays did with David Price and Tim Beckham and now the Nationals have done with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper; all first overall draft selections. There aren’t a lot of sure things in a given MLB draft, but the top overall picks have a strong track record, recently at least.
Maybe what the Nationals taught us on their way to the top was that to be really, really good, you must first be really, really bad. Just keep doing your thing, Yankees.
The National League East
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Washington Nationals (2012: 731 runs scored, 594 runs allowed) is not the kind of talent they were able to amass through the draft, but how few weaknesses they have. At this point, the biggest threat to a Nats dynasty may not be hitting or pitching or defense, but the RF Jason Werth contract, which has five years left on it and more than $100 million remaining because it was heavily backloaded. Werth and 1B Adam LaRoche are at ages where power hitters typically start to develop major holes in their swing, and though LaRoche still represents a buy-low candidate on a one year deal, Werth’s deal was signed back when the Nats were going to have to throw crazy money around to attract free agents.
The key of course is that Washington knew there would be dead money on the back end of the deal when they signed it. What I don’t think they were prepared for is that with five years remaining on the deal, I’d be writing about how their highest paid player coming off an excellent year is the team’s biggest problem. Hey, it’s a good problem to have, I suppose. Large contracts to outfielders typically don’t sour as quickly as money given to pitchers or infielders or catchers. I mean, everyone in the world knew the Alfonso Soriano contract was a disaster when it was signed, but in his first six of the eight years, Soriano has produced at an all-star level in four of those seasons.
What the Nats may lose in terms of their outfield production in regression from Werth and trading away Michael Morse, they gain back in acquiring Kurt Suzuki and Denard Span from American League teams. And the pitching rotation’s weakest link may be Dan Haren, who was considered an Ace way back when the Nationals were horrible (in 2009). But what’s really impressive is just the level of depth the Nationals have. There’s no player they could lose, not even Harper, that would put the team in an offensive situation that would be measurably worse than any other team in the National League.
Except one. The Atlanta Braves (2012: 700 runs scored, 600 runs allowed) completed a five year rebuilding project and horrific collapse at the end of the 2011 season to make the playoffs in 2012. Did you miss them? The reason you don’t remember this is because they lost the play-in game to the Cardinals and just like that, the Braves and Rangers missed the divisional series. In case you’re wondering how we got the Giants and Tigers in the World Series last year, remember that the Angels, Braves, and Rangers were all the top team in baseball at different points last season. None of them were among the 8 teams allowed into the divisional round. This year, the Braves will run out the most interesting outfield combination in modern baseball: LF Justin Upton, CF B.J. Upton, and RF Jason Heyward. The potential is limitless for that trio, but there is significant bust potential, and the Braves now have a whole bunch of money tied up in that group. It also places the pressure squarely on Heyward because if the Braves need to break that group up at some point in the next three years, Heyward is the most trade-able asset in it.
The Braves have made plenty of questionable personnel moves under GM Frank Wren, but they did perhaps the smartest thing in response to the Philadelphia Phillies (2012: 684 runs scored, 680 runs allowed) quest to acquire every pitcher in the American League: they got the hell out of the way. Now the Phillies are left with an aging, expensive roster that they are trying to plug leaky holes with: trying to be the Yankees without having the resources of the Yankees. The Braves are off doing more exciting things. The Phillies begin this season healthy, which is more than they can say about last year. Ultimately though, 162 games is a freakin’ long season for the depth-less Phillies to expect all to go right. It’s already going wrong with RHP Roy Halladay, who has lost fastball velocity and may be fighting injuries. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels would be a good one-two punch on any baseball team, but on the Phillies, they are the remnants of an idea that was supposed to amount to so much more. That also describes Giancarlo Stanton’s Miami Marlins (2012: 609 runs scored, 724 runs allowed) pretty well. The main differences being that the Marlins weren’t a very good baseball team last year. They’ll be worse this season. It probably says something about the New York Mets (2012: 650 rusn scored, 709 runs allowed) that they don’t get mentioned until now, in a division that includes the Marlins. Also, I wish I could credit this to the proper source, but I read recently that the top two highest paid outfielders on the Mets this year will be the departed Jason Bay (buyout)…and Bobby Bonilla. And 3B David Wright might go on the DL. Also: Johan Santana will make $25 million this year. And the Wilpon brothers (according to reports) are basically broke. On the positive side: 23 year old SS Ruben Tejada should be fun to watch. So there’s that.
The National League Central
Within the next two to three years, the Los Angeles Angels of California and currently of Anaheim are going to deal with significant derision for the contracts they gave to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. I already discussed the Rangers’ side of this, but I don’t think the teams that let those superstars walk will get enough credit. And for the St. Louis Cardinals (2012: 765 runs scored, 648 runs allowed), we’re talking about a town where Albert Pujols was the main attraction. For the city. Not just the team. It would have been easily justifiable for the Cards to make a deal with Pujols under the same pretense that the Twins did with Joe Mauer and just accept the downside that comes with having a declining superstar on your team. But the Cards let Pujols sign elsewhere after WINNING THE WORLD SERIES. And as critical as I can be of the Cardinals and the perception of their fans, this team came within a game of returning to the World Series without Pujols.
The Cardinals built the best lineup in the AL Central after losing Pujols. Their main acquisition was Carlos Beltran, who still projects to be an excellent player this year, even at age 36. In 2012, Beltran had an on base percentage of .346. Pujols? .343 for the Angels. They’ll have some dead contract money with Rafael Furcal out for the year needing Tommy John surgery. Furcal wasn’t that great of a signing last year though, having OPS’ed a fraction under .700. Pete Kozma will take over at short. The Cardinals are the favorites to win the division because they have 4 guys in the lineup who on-based better than .370 last year, in an era where that’s impossible to sustain. Those four guys: LF Matt Holliday, CF John Jay, C Yadier Molina, and 3B David Freese, all return to the lineup this year.
After the Nationals, the Cincinnati Reds (2012: 669 runs scored, 588 runs allowed) won more games than any other baseball team last year. What sticks out immediately looking at the Reds is the 588 runs allowed figure. They play half their games at the launching pad that is the Great American Ballpark. Their rotation was excellent last season. And sensationally healthy: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake all made 30 starts last year. Dusty Baker is turning over a new leaf.
The Reds have $50 million in total contract value tied up in closers Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman, and that doesn’t even count what they spent on Ryan Madson last year to fix the position. Chapman is excellent and Broxton isn’t bad, but the effects of such a payroll structure will be seen down the road. For 2013, the Reds hope that switching out Drew Stubbs for Shin Soo-Choo in Center Field will fix the team’s offensive woes. The Reds were excellent last year when 1B Joey Votto (.474 on base) was out, but that was due almost exclusively to pitching.
This should be the year that the Pittsburgh Pirates (2012: 651 runs scored, 674 runs allowed) finally make it back to third place, because a team with the National League’s best player should not finish below third place. Andrew McCutchen (.400 on base) is every bit as good as Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun. The strength of the Pirates is a very strong rotation, one that replaces their two weaknesses Kevin Correia and Erik Bedard with Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Locke, a left handed prospect. The lineup is still very much a mess, but the Pirates have about two years to get it together before McCutchen’s contract and future become problems. The Milwaukee Brewers (2012: 776 runs scored, 733 runs allowed) are what happens to a stars and scrubs team two years removed from their peak. Homegrown stars Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo still represent frontline talent, but Braun is more synonymous for his link to PEDs than to MVPs these days, and Gallardo is quickly rampaging towards free agency in 2016. Braun is likely to still be under contract when the world ends. The Brewers have a skill for collecting spare parts, which made all the difference when they had Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Prince Fielder. When your third best player is Aramis Ramirez, the relative value of Alex Gonzalez vs. Jean Segura at shortstop is frivolous. The only difference between the Brewers and the Chicago Cubs (2012: 613 runs scored, 759 runs allowed) at this point is that Alfonso Soriano, Starlin Castro, and Jeff Samardzija aren’t quite Ryan Braun, Gonzalez, and Gallardo. The Cubs are still working hard to build around that core they have established, although players such as David DeJesus, Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Ian Stewart, and Matt Garza will all look better in other uniforms at the deadline than they will in Cubbie Blue.
The National League West
Anything goes in the West this year. Well anything except the Colorado Rockies (2012: 758 runs scored, 890 runs allowed). The Rockies sit casually knowing that rebuilding is imminent, however, they just haven’t had time to begin the process. Bummer. A healthy Troy Tulowitzki probably adds a couple of wins to the total for the Rocks, but for a franchise that has never had great pitching — its been a while since the rotation was this weak. Every other team in the division is in play for the title this year, but it makes sense to start with the Los Angeles Dodgers (2012: 637 runs scored, 597 runs allowed), who will have the highest payroll in baseball history this season, and a surprisingly mediocre roster given that distinction.
It doesn’t take a genius to find the strength of the Dodgers: you just have to follow the money trail. The starting rotation is baseball’s most expensive joint, and perhaps the best this side of Washington. However, with RHP Zack Greinke fighting elbow inflammation, Chad Billingsley coming back off an elbow issue from last year, and just having no idea what to expect from Josh Beckett, the sheer number of name guys in the Dodgers rotation may be more impressive than the results. The Dodgers are eight deep with starting pitching talent. Offensively, SS Hanley Ramirez will miss the early portion of the season, and may move back to third base later on. The hallmark of the 2013 Dodgers may be that they gave up on the development of all their young talent last year, creating a stars and scrubs roster. Given more time, players like SS Dee Gordon, OF Alex Castellanos, OF Tony Gwynn Jr., IF Elian Herrera, SS Justin Sellers, and OF Scott Van Slyke could have been a deep, young lineup for the Dodgers (or at least parts), but the Dodgers lacked the patience to develop that core.
The Dodgers’ money explosion may prove problematic for their fans, but it’s definitely a problem for the San Francisco Giants (2012: 718 runs scored, 649 runs allowed), who simply have a lot more to compete with now. The Giants have a strong one-two pitching combination with Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner atop their rotation, but a big issue with the Giants that dates back to last season will be whether or not RHP Tim Lincecum can get hitters out. Lincecum still has the stuff of a no. 3 pitcher in a big league rotation, but hasn’t enjoyed the results of one for a couple of years. The lineup still very much resembles what we’ve come to think of a Giants lineup, but it’s worth pointing out that 718 runs scored last year — while probably not drumming up visions of a world series champion — is considerably better than an average NL West team would do playing in AT&T Park. Of course, the single biggest contributor was OF Melky Cabrera, who got suspended for the final 45 games of the season and is currently a Toronto Blue Jay.
The more interesting teams in the NL West are the Arizona Diamondbacks (2012: 734 runs scored, 688 runs allowed) and San Diego Padres (2012: 651 runs scored, 710 runs allowed), either of which can take this division. Third baseman Martin Prado was always a role player on the Atlanta Braves, but he’s very much the main guy now on the D-Backs. And very quietly, LF Carlos Quentin had a great yer for the Padres in 2012. If there’s just two things you can count on in this division, I don’t think it’s the pitching of the Giants and Dodgers, I think it’s that the Diamondbacks are going to score a ton of runs, and that the Padres are going to play great defense. For all the impressive budgeting and payroll in the NL West’s larger markets, the best baseball could very well be played in its smaller ones.
2013 NL Predictions
East Champ: Washington Nationals (103-59)
Central Champ: St. Louis Cardinals (96-66)
West Champ: Arizona Diamondbacks (92-70)
Wild Card #1: Atlanta Braves (100-62)
Wild Card #2: Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72)