Dan's Dugout: NL Race Could Have Three New Winners • Latino Sports


Dan’s Dugout: NL Race Could Have Three New Winners


After a winter marked by a frigid free agent market, teams spent Valentine’s Day working out the kinks of the off-season and wondering when – and whether – unsigned free agents will sign.

For National League teams at least the 2018 season could be decidedly different.

The Chicago Cubs, aiming for their second world championship in three years, snatched a top free agent by adding Yu Darvish to their rotation. Their top NL Central challenger, the Milwaukee Brewers, landed Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. And the San Francisco Giants, preferring trading to signing, obtained Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen.

Other teams made moves too, though some 40 veteran free agents are rounding into shape together in the hope scouts will take note and moneybags will loosen.

With exhibition play about to begin next week, here’s how the teams could finish:

Eastern Division

Todd Frazier fortifies the Mets at third, at bat, and in the clubhouse

1. New York Mets – Sandy Alderson beefed up the batting order, the infield defense, and the clubhouse chemistry by signing Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, and Adrian Gonzalez. If Yoenis Cespedes stays healthy and Ahmed Rosario realizes his potential, the Mets should be formidable force. Much depends upon a pitching staff decimated by injuries last year. But spring signs are encouraging for Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and erstwhile wunderkind Matt Harvey, backed by capable relievers Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, and Anthony Swarzak.

2. Washington Nationals – Like the Mets, the Gnats have a rookie manager and a star-studded roster. MVP contender Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Daniel Murphy lead an attack that should generate a raft of runs for All-Star starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. But Dave Martinez needs to find a closer from the trio of Brandon Kintzler, Sean Doolittle, and Ryan Madson. Rookie Victor Robles, a blue-chip prospect, bears watching.

3. Atlanta Braves – It all depends upon pitching. The Braves have a bevy of untested prospects plus such underperforming holdovers as Julio Teheran and Mike Foltyniewicz. The lineup is good, especially with the promotion 20-year-old Minor League Player of the Year Ronald Acuna. Ozzie Albies, in his first full season, and leadoff man Ender Inciarte, a Gold Glove in center, top a lineup bolstered by Freddie Freeman, one of the game’s best hitters.

4. Philadelphia Phillies – After going 66-96 last year, the rebuilding Phils hope Rhys Hoskins continues his late-summer power explosion, veteran Carlos Santana thrives in Citizens Bank Park, and Aaron Nola pitches better than his 12-11 record might indicate. The team needs more hitting and more pitching but has a fine closer is hard-throwing Hector Neris.

Ripper Rhys Hoskins is starting his first full season

5. Miami Marlins – Derek Jeter has replaced Jeffrey Loria but the Fish are still floundering in the wake of their latest fire sale. Gone are Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and MVP Giancarlo Stanton, leaving little reason for fans to trek to Little Havana for games.

Central Division

1. Milwaukee Brewers – The return of Yovani Gallardo gives the Brewers three pitchers (along with Zach Davies and Jhoulys Chacin) who should win at least a dozen games each, thanks in part to All-Star closer Corey Knebel. Newcomers Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain join former MVP Ryan Braun and 30-homer men Travis Shaw and Eric Thames in providing plenty of power.

2. Chicago Cubs – Replacing Jake Arrieta with World Series flop Yu Darvish hurts, along with the free agent defection of Wade Davis. But the Cubs still have sluggers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo plus starting pitchers Jon Lester and Jose Quintana. But don’t expect Brandon Morrow to resemble the departed Davis, who jumped to Colorado via free agency.

3. St. Louis Cardinals – Expect the Redbird victory total to decline for the fourth straight year. They went 83-79 last year, finishing third in the division, and are getting long in the tooth. The Cards continue to bank on Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright while operating with a huge bullpen void. Marcell Ozuna adds a much-needed additional bat to a lineup whose surprise star is 20-20 man Tommy Pham.

How much longer can Yadi Molina hang on?

4. Pittsburgh Pirates – Memories of the 98-win season of 2015 are fading fast. And the Bucs compounded the felony by unloading Andrew McCutchen, the face of the franchise, and Gerrit Cole, its best pitcher. Outside of the league’s most photogenic ballpark, fans won’t have much to cheer about beyond Starling Marte, Josh Bell, and sensational southpaw closer Felipe Rivero.

5. Cincinnati Reds – Cincinnati pitching is so poor (5.55 ERA last year) that the Reds are destinated to dwell at the bottom of the NL Central all season and rival the Marlins for the most losses in the majors. Great American Ballpark will be a home run paradise again, however, with 30 homers within reach of a quintet of Reds: Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler, Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, and MVP candidate Joey Votto.

Western Division

1. San Francisco Giants – Hey, guess what? It’s an even-numbered year. In 2010, 2012, and 2014, the Giants won world championships and reached playoffs in 2016 too. Now that they’ve added life in their lineup with Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, there could be a worst-to-first season in the offing. To do that, Bruce Bochy believes Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and closer Mark Melancon will all bounce back from injury-riddled campaigns. He’ll get help from Buster Posey, the league’s best catcher, and Gold Glove shortstop Brandon Crawford.

Madison Bumgarner needs to stay healthy this season

2. Colorado Rockies – On track to improve their won-lost record for the fourth straight year, the Rox rely on a lineup led by MVP contenders Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon plus comeback candidates Trevor Story and Ian Desmond. Manager Bud Black, a former pitcher, has bolstered his bullpen with Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw and has a rotation rich with youth.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers – This team has the league’s best starter (Clayton Kershaw) and best closer (Kenley Jansen), its defending Rookie of the Year (Cody Bellinger), and a productive left side of the infield (Corey Seager and Justin Turner). But the sting of blowing a 3-2 World Series lead at home could carry over into 2018. The Dodgers depend upon strong seasons from southpaw starters Alex Wood and Rich Hill and run production from Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, in addition to Turner, Seager, and Bellinger.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks – After winning 93 games and winning a wild-card spot last summer, the D’backs will have trouble getting back to the playoffs. There’s just not enough hitting after 30-homer sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb and not enough pitching after Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin. Plus the team has a gaping void in the bullpen.

5. San Diego Padres – This team’s 20-year absence from the World Series will continue in 2018. Other than Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, and the returning Chase Headley, the hitting seems less wide awake than Ben Carson. While lefthander Brad Hand turned into an All-Star closer, no Padre pitcher reached double digits in wins. It won’t happen this year either.

WILD CARDS: Cubs, Nationals

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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