NL East beasts face pre-playoff playoff • Latino Sports

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NL East beasts face pre-playoff playoff

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Florida Marlins v Washington Nationals

No limits on Stephen Strasburg could mean more wins for the Washington Nationals.

Predicting the pennant races is not an exact science. There’s no way to tell on the cusp of the season how injuries, slumps, and the vagaries of veterans suffering sudden declines will impact the final standings.

With 162 games, baseball has the longest season of any sport. It also has unwieldy schedules, thanks to interleague play. Though teams play most of their games against divisional rivals, they also play clubs from the two other divisions in their own league and an uneven number of games against teams from the opposite league.

Long gone are the days of eight-team leagues, 154 games, and 22 games — evenly divided between home and away — per franchise. In those Good Old Days of baseball, things like interleague play, designated hitters, divisional play, wild cards, and Sunday night baseball were anathema to baseball purists. In fact, they still are.

That being said, the 2013 season is the first with two 15-team leagues, evenly split into three five-team divisions. The result, however, is an interleague game every day. If teams played the same interleague opponents, that might make sense.

But they don’t. The Atlanta Braves, for example, play four straight games — a home-and-homeseries — with the Toronto Blue Jays, a potential World Series rival. At the exact same time, the Washington Nationals face off for four against the Baltimore Orioles, a much weaker team. If only a game or two separates the Braves and Nationals in the final NL East standings, those series could tilt the scales.

As the season opens, the Nationals and Braves both seem loaded enough to finish in triple digits. In fact, let’s say they both win exactly 100 games. That would befuddle Organized Baseball, which would have to have a playoff before the playoff before the playoffs.

The winner of the Atlanta-Washington divisional playoff would be the NL East champion while the weary loser would slink into the wild-card playoff game against the other second-place team with the best record. The winner of  that game would advance to the Division Series, with the winner there moving to the League Championship Series. Since the NLCS determines the pennant winner, the National League would finally have a World Series entry, albeit a tired one with a wiped-out pitching staff.

While Washington won the most games (98) in the majors last year and will not sit ace starter Stephen Strasburg to save his elbow, it could vault to the century plateau. Signing closer Rafael Soriano and adding fleet centerfielder Denard Span by trade were master strokes. The Nats want to win it all for lame-duck manager Davey Johnson, who has a strong left-right rotation tandem in Gio Gonzalez and Strasburg plus a potent offense led by Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman.

B,J, Upton

Atlanta’s off-season acquisitions were both Upton brothers, B.J. (above) and Justin. Both outfielders are righthanded hitters with 30/30 potential.

Atlanta, vulnerable to lefty pitching last year, isn’t any more. It added the Upton brothers (B.J. and Justin) to an order anchored by Jayson Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and comeback candidates Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. Versatile Evan Gettis and hard-throwing Julio Teheran could both be Rookie of the Year contenders while closer Craig Kimbrel could bid for the Cy Young Award he should have won last year. The rotation gets a boost with Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm available from Day 1 and Brandon Beachy returning in June. If lefty Mike Minor maintains his late-season momentum, Tim Hudson won’t have to work so hard as the staff ace.

Oh, and did we mention Andrelton Simmons? The Curacao native, already the best defensive shortstop in the NL, moves to the leadoff spot vacated by the erratic Michael Bourn. Had Simmons not suffered a severe injury in a slide last summer, the Braves might have stopped the 2012 Washington juggernaut.

The fading Phillies, plagued by age and injury, are banking too heavily on the pitching troika of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay plus a lefty-leaning lineup led by Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. All but Hamels seem on the decline.

This figures to be an audition year for the Mets and Marlins, both struggling to stay out of the divisional basement. David Wright, the newly-named New York captain, and Giancarlo Stanton, who rightly fumed when Jeffrey Loria destroyed his franchise, will be nothing more than beacons in the fog.

In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals failed to replace Kyle Lohse (signed with Milwaukee) or Chris Carpenter (season-ending injury) but still have Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, closer Jason Motte (42 saves), and five players coming off 20-homer seasons. They still miss Albert Pujols but Yadier Molina’s bat has finally caught up with his glove. The key for the Cards is keeping Carlos Beltran from tweaking his fragile knees.

Milwaukee might mound a sustained challenge now that Lohse has joined Yovani Gallardo at the top of the rotation. Even with Cory Hart (knee surgery) out for six weeks, the Brewers will be wallbangers again because of home run king Ryan Braun plus Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, and Carlos Gomez.

Cincinnati’s defense of its NL Central crown starts with the wise decision to keep Cuban native Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. The best lefty closer in the game supports a rotation headed by Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey (that’s actually his first name, folks). Six Reds, led by Jay Bruce, hit at least 15 homers last year (Great American Ballpark is especially conducive to the long ball), and MVP contender Joey Votto is intact again after an injury-riddled campaign.

As for Pittsburgh, the young-and-hungry Pirates are certain to end the city’s record streak of 20 straight losing season. In fact, they could win the division if Andrew McCutchen becomes a 30/30 man, Pedro Alvarez maintains his power stroke, and free agent signee Russell Martin steadies a pitching staff that lacks experience after A.J. Burnett. Martin and Garrett Jones add pop to the lineup while Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald solidify the 2013 rotation.

The Cubs spent the winter trying to move the cumbersome contract of good-hit, no-field Alfonso Soriano but need his power (32 homers, 108 RBI). They get speed from Starlin Castro and occasional pop from Anthony Rizzo and Scott Hairston but the pitching is thin after Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija.

The Giants celebrate their second World Series in three years.

The Giants celebrate their second World Series win in three years.

San Francisco was not only Best of the West last year but winner of its second world championship in three seasons. It won’t happen again.

Even if Tim Lincecum resumes his erstwhile Cy Young form, the rotation is not much better than the one down the pike in Los Angeles. Bruce Bochy is banking heavily on perfect game author Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, and lefties Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner. Batting champ and MVP Buster Posey catches that starting staff and leads a lineup that features Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval. The pitching better be good because the offense won’t be.

The high-spending Dodgers have both, even with Hanley Ramirez idled til June after a World Baseball Classic injury. Look for Adrian Gonzalez to make a strong comeback behind Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, and rehabbing speedster Carl Crawford. The Dodgers have three Cy Young contenders in Zack Grienke, Clayton Kershaw, and Josh Beckett, backed by capable Chad Billingsley and talented rookie lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, plucked out of Japanese ball.

Arizona broke even last year (81-81) but bolstered its batting order by adding Martin Prado (trade) and Cody Ross (free agent) to Jason Kubel, Aaron Hill, and Paul Goldschmidt. Three starters (Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and lefty Wade Miley) won more than a dozen apiece last year and J.J. Putz (77 saves in two years) lived down to his surname only on rare occasions.

Pitching, as usual, could be big culprit in Colorado again. None of the projected starters for rookie manager Walt Weiss reached double digits in wins last year, making it all the more amazing that closer Rafael Betancourt saved 31 games. The Rox rely on hitting, with speedster Dexter Fowler backed by sluggers Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer, and Wilin Rosario, a catcher who clubbed 28 homers. Comebacks by Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton, both idled by injury for long stretches last summer, would make a huge difference.

San Diego has the opposite problem: better pitching than hitting. Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard, Eric Stults, and Jason Marquis hold the top four slots on the starting staff while the healthy-again Huston Street closes. Everth Cabrera and Cameron Maybin supply speed at the top of the lineup but need to get on more often for Carlos Quentin and Chase Headley, last year’s RBI king.

Here’s how the final standings should look:

NL East:

1. Braves/Nationals* (tie)

3. Phillies

4. Mets

5. Marlins

NL Central:

1. Reds

2. Brewers

3. Pirates

4. Cardinals

5. Cubs

NL West:

1. Dodgers

2. Giants*

3. Diamondbacks

4. Padres

5. Rockies

(*) wild-card winners

Unscheduled NL East division title game: Braves over Nationals

NL Wild-Card game: Nationals over Giants

NL Division Series: Nationals over Dodgers, Braves over Reds

NLCS (pennant): Braves over Nationals

World Series: Braves over Blue Jays

Most Valuable Player: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Cy Young Award:  Zack Grienke, Dodgers

Rookie of the Year:   Julio Teheran, Braves

Manager of the Year: Fredi Gonzalez, Braves

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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