Dan's Dugout: New Champs Should Surface in NL • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: New Champs Should Surface in NL

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Now that position players are in position at spring training camps across the land, it’s time for the annual Latino Sports forecast.

With much to say, we’ll tackle the National League first, since it’s the home of the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs.

Say what?

The magic moment: the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series Photo Credit: Bill Menzel/Latino Sports

The magic moment: the Chicago Cubs win the 2016 World Series
Photo Credit: Bill Menzel/Latino Sports

Yes, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt was president. It was close – with the seventh game stretching into extra innings for the first time since 1991 – but the Little Bears became the Big Bears overnight.

Keeping that crown could be problematic, however, as any team needs to win at least two preliminary rounds and sometimes three (as in 2014, when the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals were both wild-card winners who needed to win the sudden-death wild-card game before advancing).

The 2017 crystal ball looks a little foggy but not shrouded enough to preclude these predictions:

National League East

1. New York Mets – Keeping Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker in the fold was essential but keeping their young pitchers healthy is even more vital. The Mets aren’t worried about Noah Syndergaard, who will work the April 3 opener, but have concerns about erstwhile aces Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom and youngsters Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler (whose elbow is already barking). Comebacks by David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Travis d’Arnaud would boost the offense, which would get a big boost from a Jay Bruce bounceback. The season could depend upon how long a suspension hits closer Jeurys Familia (domestic violence issue).

2. Washington Nationals – Losing closer Mark Melancon makes Dusty Baker’s boys vulnerable, though a likely Bryce Harper comeback and a full year of health by Stephen Strasburg would make the manager breathe more comfortably. Look for big years by Trea Turner and comeback candidate Ryan Zimmerman, not to mention defending Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.

A Bryce Harper comeback would help the Nationals

A Bryce Harper comeback would help the Nationals

3. Atlanta Braves – Adding Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson late last summer turned this team into a formidable force that needed only rotation stability. Adding Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, and Jaime Garcia may have done that. The Braves could even challenge for a wild card if Kemp continues his good work behind No. 3 hitter Freddie Freeman. Brandon Phillips fills an infield hole at second base.

4. Miami Marlins – No way this team compensates for the untimely demise of Jose Fernandez last fall. Don Mattingly’s men will produce offense from Dee Gordon, Martin Prado, and Giancarlo Stanton but the porous pitching pose problems – not to mention the pending appointment of owner Jeffrey Loria as ambassador to France.

5. Philadelphia Phillies – This rebuilding team is still rebuilding. There’s not enough of anything to suggest the Phils will amount to more than a pest to the clubs ahead of them.

National League Central

Hall of Famer Billy Williams throws out the first pitch at a 2016 World Series game Photo Credit: Bill Menzel/Latino Sports

Hall of Famer Billy Williams throws out the first pitch at a 2016 World Series game
Photo Credit: Bill Menzel/Latino Sports

1. Chicago Cubs – Joe Maddon coaxed the Cubs to the most wins and biggest victory margin in the majors last year and might repeat his magic. Dexter Fowler has jumped to St. Louis but a Jason Heyward comeback would be a major boost to a team led by MVP Kris Bryant and fellow slugger Anthony Rizzo. There’s solid pitching in starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendrick plus newly-acquired closer Wade Davis.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates – Andrew McCutchen’s burning desire to recapture his former MVP form may determine whether the Bucs stop here. He’ll team with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to give the Bucs a formidable outfield. Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer are fine up-the-middle but the corners could have new occupants, though Francisco Cervelli returns as the catcher. The Bucs have a fine 1-2 rotation tandem in Gerrit Cole and Ivan Nova, backed by lefty closer Tony Watson.

3. St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards counted on offense over defense last year and it cost them. Adding Fowler as a free agent centerfielder and leadoff man helps, especially since he’ll hit ahead of Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko, and the declining Yadier Molina. The Cards already suffered a big blow this spring when Tommy John surgery claimed Alex Reyes for the year. That means Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn need to step up.

4. Cincinnati Reds – Scoring more runs than they allow is the mission for this once-proud franchise. There’s speed in Billy Hamilton, patience in Joey Votto, and power in Adam Duvall but the pitching – especially the bullpen – is pretty pathetic. Look for the Reds to battle the Brewers for the bottom of this top-heavy division.

5. Milwaukee Brewers – This team was mostly inactive during the off-season despite constant Ryan Braun rumors. The former MVP returns to anchor a lineup that includes newcomer Travis Shaw and fleet leadoff man Jonathan Villar. The pitching isn’t much to write home about after top starters Zach Davies and Junior Guerra.

National League West

1. San Francisco Giants – A bullpen that blew a club-record 30 save opportunities last summer is now in the capable hands of Melancon, starting a four-year contract as the new Closer by the Bay. The Giants have a fine left-right tandem in Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto and a run-producing lineup anchored by Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence. Having lefty starter Matt Moore for the whole season should help.

Madison Bumgarner gives the Giants a great lefthanded ace

Madison Bumgarner gives the Giants a great lefthanded ace

2. Los Angeles Dodgers – Corey Seager came close last year to becoming the first National Leaguer named MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. The slugging shortstop gets lineup help from Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, and Joc Pederson while Clayton Kershaw, the league’s best lefty, leads a rotation that features four southpaws. Closer Kenley Jansen, a former catcher, is one of the NL’s top closers but needs better set-up work.

3. Colorado Rockies – Scoring in Coors Field is a given, especially with MVP contender Nolan Arenado anchoring the order. Newcomer Ian Desmond, veteran Carlos Gonzalez, and batting king DJ LeMahieu provide pop behind an improving rotation led by Jon Gray and Tyler Chatwood. Adding lefty reliever Mike Dunn helps the relief corps.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks – Thanks to the second-highest altitude in the majors, Zack Greinke struggled after signing a $34 million deal. His supporting cast didn’t provide much support but might this year, thanks to the additions of Tajuan Walker and closer Fernando Rodney. A Shelby Miller comeback is crucial. No matter what, the fans will still enjoy the bats of Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb.

5. San Diego Padres – The girl pitcher on the FOX show Pitch could help this club, which lost 94 games last year. Except for nine-game winner Luis Perdomo, all of last year’s starters are gone. Carter Capps, out all of last year after elbow surgery, tries to claim the closer’s role. At least the Padres have one of baseball’s rising young stars in Wil Myers, who says he’s aiming at a 40-40 season. Without much else, San Diego will take it.

Next: American League Preview

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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