Throughout the season, a collaboration of writers at Baseball Essential will rank MLB teams considering record, potential, recent trends, and injuries. The rankings will be bi-monthly on the 1st and 15th of each month.
The contributing voters for the preseason National League rankings were Jon Becker, Sam Bellestri, Tyler Fiedler, Geoffrey Godfrey, Jake Hasan, Mark Hoffberg, Matthew Hutcheson, Jack McNeil, Gershon Rabinowitz, Brian Stoops, Chris Wickersham, and Ryan Witry.
The Nationals headline the rankings, receiving 10 of 12 first place votes from the writers. The rotation led the majors in ERA last year at 3.04 while allowing the fewest walks and they have only gotten more dangerous. Max Scherzer, who signed a 7 year, $210 million contract in the winter will be followed by Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister in the best rotation in the bigs. At the plate, there are small injury concerns. Third baseman Anthony Rendon had a breakout season, posting a .287 average while amassing 21 home runs and 83 RBI. However, Rendon recently met with Dr. James Andrews concerning his ailing knee. Catcher Wilson Ramos has made five DL stints since 2012 and Ryan Zimmerman missed 100 games last year because of a hamstring injury and a broken thumb. They are poised for a deep postseason run as long as they avoid injuries and get reliable contribution from Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard in the bullpen.
The Dodgers have won the division crown in back-to-back seasons, but have nothing to show for it in the postseason. In the off-season, newly hired president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, dealt for Yasmani Grandal, Howie Kendrick, Brandon McCarthy, Joel Peralta, and Jimmy Rollins to replace Josh Beckett, Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Matt Kemp, and Hanley Ramirez. The moves sent fan favorites out of Los Angeles, but they brought in better defense and fixed the Dodgers crowded outfield. It’s only a matter of time before Yasiel Puig puts together an MVP-caliber season and Clayton Kershaw is a virtual lock for the Cy Young. This is a dangerous team that is not afraid to spend, so watch out at the deadline.
The Cardinals made a nice off-season trade, swapping surplus pitching for a five-tool outfielder in Jason Heyward. It is hard to forget that Heyward is only 25 years old, as he is already entering his sixth full season in the major leagues. The Cardinals also have a solid middle of the lineup with Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina that is complemented well with the speed of second baseman Kolten Wong. In the rotation, Adam Wainwright is coming off once of his best years in the majors. Wainwright posted a 20-9 record with a 2.38 ERA in 2014. Keep an eye out for Carlos Martinez, a 6’0” right-hander with a fastball in the high 90s. If he can develop an off-speed pitch, he could easily move up in the rotation by the end of the season.
There’s finally some stability in Pittsburgh as they posted their second consecutive year with 88 or more wins. They have one of the best players in the game in outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a five-tool player with surprising pop. The rotation is headlined by young righty Gerrit Cole and anchored by veterans Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. The 24-year-old Cole had a 3.65 ERA and 11 wins in 2014. There’s plenty of future talent for Pittsburgh fans to look forward to as well, with Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows waiting for their shot in the majors. Polanco received a taste of the bigs last year, hitting seven home runs with 33 RBI in 89 games.
The Padres have been the talk of the league since their off-season roster revamp and are receiving high praise from baseball’s top minds despite four consecutive losing seasons. General manager A.J. Preller brought in Matt Kemp, Will Middlebrooks, Wil Myers, Brandon Morrow, and Justin Upton, among others. Hopefully the new bats will bolster a Padres line-up that was horrible last season, hitting just .226 with an on-base percentage of .292, both 20 points below league average. The rotation was underrated last year. Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross all had ERAs at or below 3.63, but hardly ever received any help from their offense to pick up wins.
This is about where everyone puts the Giants every season, only for them to make a deep postseason run in even years or flop in odd years. Madison Bumgarner is coming off a scorching postseason where he threw 52 2/3 innings, allowing just six earned runs and 28 hits. Behind him, Matt Cain has been receiving high praise in Spring Training after coming off disappointing 2013 and 2014 campaigns. The key for the Giants will be their hitting, after losing Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse. Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Hunter Pence will each need to post 20 home run seasons for this team to be successful.
The Marlins were in the wild-card race until Giancarlo Stanton was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. While the baseball fans certainly hope there are no lingering effects, it is hard to forget what happened to David Wright after he was hit in the face by Matt Cain in 2009. The Marlins injury problems last season extended to the mound as well when Jose Fernandez required Tommy John surgery at 22 years old. It is tough to expect him to provide ace numbers this season and the Marlins knew it, acquiring Mat Latos from the Reds in the off-season as a solid number two starter. At the plate, the Marlins front office added speed at the top of the order with Dee Gordon and a balanced first baseman in Mike Morse. They also have one of the best outfields in the game with Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich. Despite their increased depth, Miami’s success hinges upon how well Fernandez and Stanton recover from their injuries in 2015.
No one can argue with what Theo Epstein is building on the north side of Chicago. They signed one of the top free agent arms in Jon Lester and anchored the middle of their rotation with Jason Hammel from the Athletics. They have no shortage of star prospects with the recent and upcoming arrivals of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell. Bryant made headlines in the spring, mashing nine home runs while hitting .425 at the plate. Unfortunately fans will have to wait a few weeks for him to make the active roster after the Cubs optioned him to AAA. The move ensured that the Cubs would have another year of team control before he reaches free agency. The Cubs also have two stars in Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, who are both shockingly only 25 years old. Rizzo is an MVP candidate who is primed for a 30 home run and 100 RBI season in a new-look Cubs batting order.
The story for the Mets in 2014 was highlighted by above-average pitching and marred by struggles at the plate. Free agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer will provide power to an offense that hit 93 home runs last season. On the mound, Matt Harvey is ready to go on Opening Day for the Mets after missing 18 months for Tommy John surgery. He has a 1.45 ERA in 18 2/3 innings so far this spring, proving he is capable of reproducing his stellar 2012 and 2013 campaigns. A player to watch is Harvey’s fellow Tommy John survivor, Jacob deGrom, who had a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts in 2014 en route to a rookie of the year award. The loss of Zack Wheeler will be felt by the Mets’ rotation.
A roller-coaster year ended in disappointment for Brewers fans when the club finished with 82 wins and six games back in the wild-card race. Milwaukee has one of the best players in the game in Carlos Gomez, a gifted athlete who has posted back-to-back 20 home run, 30 steal seasons. Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Khris Davis provide more power in the middle of the order in a Brewer’s line-up that hit 117 home runs in 2014. On the mound, Wily Peralta is a young arm with top-of-the-rotation stuff. Last year, Peralta had 17 wins and a 3.53 ERA. His youth is complemented nicely by the experience of Matt Garza, Mike Fiers, and Kyle Lohse. Finally, it is tough to talk Brewers baseball without mentioning star catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy made his first all-star appearance last year and finished fourth in the NL MVP race. He hit .301, compiled a 6.7 WAR, and led the league in doubles with 53.
The Reds lost two arms from their rotation in Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos, but added rookie starter Anthony DeSclafani, a righty with a good slider and a low-90s fastball. Johnny Cueto is one of the best starters in the majors, leading the majors in strikeouts and hits per nine innings in 2014. At the plate, Billy Hamilton, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto lead a dynamic offense that hit 118 home runs last year while amassing 122 stolen bases. A player to watch is Todd Frazier, a power hitting third baseman who is capable of hitting over 30 home runs with 10 steals. The problem for the Reds may be in the bullpen, even with Aroldis Chapman at the back-end. Reds relievers had a 4.11 ERA last year.
Now, we’ve reached the rebuilding part of the National League. The Arizona off-season was headlined by the international free agent signing of Yasmany Tomas from Cuba, but star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt might not get much more help in the order. A.J. Pollock and Mark Trumbo are poised to help the most. Last year, Pollock hit .302 with 14 steals in 75 games and Trumbo hit 14 home runs in an injury-shortened campaign. The rotation is a huge question mark. Last year, Diamondback starters had a 4.44 ERA, 70 points worse than league average. Josh Collmenter is Arizona’s opening day starter, a 29-year-old who quietly had a nice year in 2014. He had a 3.46 ERA and 11 wins in 33 appearances.
Atlanta’s new front-office sent Justin Upton and Jason Heyward packing, bringing in Shelby Miller and Nick Markakis in the process, among others. The pitching staff actually sets up quite well, with Julio Teheran and Craig Kimbrel leading the way. In case you have not been tuning into TBS the past few years, Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball. He has a 1.43 career ERA in five seasons and has had 42 or more saves in every season since earning the closer role in 2011. A player to watch is young righty Alex Wood. The 24-year-old has a strange delivery, but had a 2.78 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 35 appearances last year. This year will be his first year as a full-time starter with the club. Offensively, keep an eye on Freddie Freeman, a power-hitting first baseman with potential to hit near .300 with 20 home runs and 100 RBI.
The health of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez will always be the story in Colorado. When healthy, the duo is one of the best in the game, but both have missed significant chunks of playing time the past few seasons. The pitching staff is a mess, even by Colorado standards. Last year, the starters had a 4.89 ERA, while the bullpen was slightly better at 4.79. The player to watch for the Rockies is Nolan Arenado, perhaps one of the best third baseman you have never heard of. The 23-year-old had a .287 average with 18 home runs and 61 RBI in his second full season in the majors. Defensively, he is the best third basemen in the NL and has won back-to-back Gold Gloves.
Phillies fans are waiting (somewhat) patiently for their team to rebuild and recover from several awful contracts. With aging stars in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and the injured Cliff Lee, 2015 is definitely not the year for the Phillies to break out of the cellar. Cole Hamels is constantly on the trade block and it would be a shock if he is not dealt by the July 31 deadline. Offensively, Ben Revere is an exciting player to watch. The 26-year-old is an aggressive hitter who had a .306 average with 49 steals in 2014.