Team-by-team guide to the National League

Written By kom nampuldu on Kamis, 02 April 2015 | 18.18

A team-by-team look at the National League, in predicted order of finish:

NL East

1. Washington Nationals

Key player: This team might be so deep and talented that it can't be undermined by a shaky bullpen. Nevertheless, the Nationals would rather not test that theory, so it'll be up to RHP Drew Storen, back securely in the closer's seat, to protect most of the late-inning leads he'll inherit. Storen has spent this spring dealing with a left-hand injury.

Player who'll need to step up: OF Bryce Harper was the Nationals' best player during their very brief 2014 playoff run. Gosh, would Washington like to see its prodigy, now 22, build on that and attain the promise of excellence he displayed as a rookie.

Name you'll get to know: OF Michael Taylor will replace OF Denard Span while the veteran rehabs from core-muscle surgery. Taylor, a 2009 draft selection, has put up impressive minor-league numbers.

Biggest question mark: How will the impending free agents — SS Ian Desmond and RHPs Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann — handle their platform seasons?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if the ridiculously talented starting rotation, headed by newcomer RHP Max Scherzer, heads the Nats' run-prevention machine. They will dive if the early ailments to Span, OF Jayson Werth (right shoulder) and 3B Anthony Rendon (left knee) prove to be precursors of an injury plague.

2. Miami Marlins

Key player: OF Giancarlo Stanton, having signed the largest contract in baseball history (13 years, $325 million) has to both shrug off the pressure associated with that deal and bounce back from the pitch (from Milwaukee RHP Mike Fiers) he took to the face last September.

Player who'll need to step up: The Marlins acquired RHP Mat Latos from Cincinnati with the hope he can shake off last year's injuries and showcase himself for his upcoming free agency.

Name you'll get to know: C J.T. Realmuto, ranked as Baseball America's 76th-best prospect, will be waiting if the Marlins' frontline receiver C Jarrod Saltalamacchia gets hurt. He played in 11 major-league games last year.

Biggest question mark: Does this team have enough pitching to stay afloat until (or if) ace RHP Jose Fernandez returns midseason from Tommy John surgery? RHP Dan Haren, acquired from the Dodgers, has been mediocre each of the three prior seasons.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if the trio of Stanton, Marcel Ozuna and Christian Yelich team to give Miami baseball's best outfield and if new 2B Dee Gordon makes the NL All-Star team again. They will dive if the bullpen of young power arms can't pick up considerable quality innings for the iffy rotation.

3. New York Mets

Key player: The way the Mets talk about RHP Matt Harvey, you'd think his résumé matches that of Roy Halladay or Roger Clemens. That just amps up the pressure on the 2013 All-Star to dominate as he returns from Tommy John surgery. If he doesn't pitch very well, it will be deflating for the team.

Player who'll need to step up: 3B David Wright registered the worst offensive season of his career in 2014. It's difficult to envision how the Mets can succeed without Wright approaching the numbers he put up in 2012 and 2013.

Name you'll get to know: Bet on IF Matt Reynolds making his major-league debut. The 24-year-old can play all over the infield and get on base.

Biggest question mark: We all know it. Will they hit enough? The Mets are counting on rebounds by Wright and OF Curtis Granderson as well as good health from OF Michael Cuddyer.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if their revamped farm system bears fruit at the highest level, with resources such as IF Dilson Herrera, LHP Steven Matz, C Kevin Plawecki and RHP Noah Syndergaard candidates to contribute. They will dive if the team can't overcome the spring-training losses of RHP Zack Wheeler and LHP Josh Edgin to Tommy John surgery.

4. Atlanta Braves

Key player: 1B Freddie Freeman, signed through 2021, will be looked upon to provide both leadership and run production as the Braves enter a clear rebuilding period.

Player who'll need to step up: While the Braves unloaded several veteran players, they did sign former Orioles OF Nick Markakis to a four-year contract. After growing accustomed to playing on a contender, Markakis must reach back to his younger days and remember how to keep grinding when your team is out of the race.

Name you'll get to know: The farm system's dry spell brought the Braves to this juncture, but 2B Jose Peraza is one player who could climb aboard by season's end.

Biggest question mark: Will OF Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J.), out for now with a left-foot problem, restore any luster to his albatross of a contract before the season concludes? He's in Year 3 of a five-year, $72.25 million deal that has been an all-time bust.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if virtually everybody on the roster exceeds projections and new president of baseball operations John Hart honors such results with a midseason trade. They will dive under pretty much every other scenario, with the hope their minor leagues will develop smoothly in preparation for the franchise's new ballpark launch in 2017.

5. Philadelphia Phillies

Key player: LHP Cole Hamels is by far the most interesting player on this team that is about two years too late to its own renovation party. It's on Hamels to stay healthy, pitch well and increase his trade value for July.

Phillies ace Cole HamelsPhoto: Charles Wenzelberg

Player who'll need to step up: 1B Ryan Howard, with $60 million left on his contract, begins the season with virtually no trade value. A renaissance at age 35 would help this franchise move forward.

Name you'll get to know: Take two on 3B Maikel Franco, who occupied this spot last year, barely played in the majors in 2014 and then enjoyed a strong winter in the Dominican Republic.

Biggest question mark: Was OF Domonic Brown's strong 2013 an aberration, or was his weak 2014 just a hiccup in his development? The Phillies badly could use a strong building block — or another good trade chip.

How it'll go down: They will thrive, in the long-term, if Hamels, Howard, Brown, RHP Jonathan Papelbon, C Carlos Ruiz and even 2B Chase Utley play well enough to equip general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. — his own future hardly secure — for good deals. They will dive, big picture, if their veterans show their age and turn 2015 into a wholly wasted campaign.

NL Central

1. Pittsburgh Pirates

Key player: CF Andrew McCutchen has established himself as one of the game's elite players, the sort of guy from whom you simply don't expect a down year. Another spectacular season would give the Bucs room for error elsewhere.

Player who'll need to step up: Former Yankees C Francisco Cervelli never stayed healthy (or out of trouble) long enough to keep the starting job behind the plate. The Pirates, having lost former Yankees C Russell Martin to Toronto, would benefit greatly from Cervelli, 29, finally putting it together.

Name you'll get to know: IF Jung-Ho Kang hit 40 home runs in Korean ball last year, generating industry-wide curiosity about how that power will translate to the majors. Concerns about his defense make him a utility guy for now.

Biggest question mark: Can 1B Pedro Alvarez, switching across the diamond from third base, handle his new position and go deep closer to his 2013 total of 36 homers than last year's 18?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if RHP Gerrit Cole takes the next step in his development and RHP A.J. Burnett concludes his roller-coaster career on a high note. They will dive if the Pirates miss Martin in the clubhouse as much as they will on the field.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals righty Michael WachaPhoto: AP

Key player: RHP Michael Wacha's sophomore season found trouble with a right shoulder injury. If he can stay healthy and pitch with the sort of mastery he displayed in 2013, the Cards could have potential co-aces in Wacha and veteran RHP Adam Wainwright.

Player who'll need to step up: Whether he spends the bulk of the season in the starting rotation or in the bullpen, RHP Carlos Martinez has to translate his impressive stuff — and his ability to miss bats — into better results.

Name you'll get to know: LHP Marco Gonzales, a first-round draft selection in 2013, could help in the starting rotation, the bullpen or both. He registered a shaky major league cameo in 2014.

Biggest question mark: How will OF Jason Heyward, acquired from the Braves after St. Louis prospect OF Oscar Taveras died in an October car accident, handle his walk year in a new environment?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if they execute with runners in scoring position, as they managed to succeed last year despite not doing so. They will dive if early injury concerns about Wacha, Wainwright (abdomen) and RHP Lance Lynn (hip flexor strain) evolve into worst-case scenario and the Cardinals' greatest strength turns into a weakness.

3. Chicago Cubs

Key player: LHP Jon Lester blew off the Red Sox to reunite with his former Boston general manager, Theo Epstein, with the idea being that he would lead this next phase of Epstein's rebuilding program. With new manager Joe Maddon and Lester aboard, the Cubs are hoping to make a big leap.

Player who'll need to step up: 2B Javier Baez experienced a very rough introduction to the big leagues in 2014. The Cubs can't tolerate such incompetence if they want to make a long-shot run at a playoff spot.

Name you'll get to know: The major-league debut of 3B Kris Bryant might be the most anticipated such event of 2015, so rich is the University of San Diego product's pedigree.

Cubs ace Jon LesterPhoto: AP

Biggest question mark: At 31, can C Miguel Montero, coming over from Arizona via trade, break his downward trend of the past two seasons? If he can't, he'll be overpaid at $12 million this year and $14 million each in 2016 and 2017.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if Maddon effortlessly repurposes his Tampa Bay Rays magic and the Cubs' young position players scoff at the notion of growing pains. They will dive if the bullpen's straightening-out of 2014 proves ephemeral and the team loses a bevy of close games.

4. Cincinnati Reds

Key player: 1B Joey Votto, signed through 2023, looks to return from a left quadriceps injury that limited him to just 62 games last year and generated criticism from Reds fans who questioned his commitment.

Player who'll need to step up: OF Jay Bruce endured a brutal 2014, the worst season of his career. If he and Votto rebound with normal production, the Reds' offense will be well on its way back to respectability.

Name you'll get to know: RHP Anthony DeSclafani, acquired from Miami in the trade that sent RHP Mat Latos the other way, struck out 26 and walked just five in a 33-inning cameo for the Marlins last year.

Biggest question mark: If they're on the playoff bubble come July, should they sell impending free agents RHP Johnny Cueto and OF Marlon Byrd in the trade market? Or should they go for it even if the odds of success are low?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if OF Billy Hamilton improves considerably as a sophomore and 2B Brandon Phillips reverses his negative trending to join Bruce and Votto as the avenging offense. They will dive if Cueto crumbles under the free-agent spotlight, or just experiences some misfortune, and can't dominate the way he has in the past.

5. Milwaukee Brewers

Key player: OF Ryan Braun's first season back from his Biogenesis suspension (and correlating embarrassment) underwhelmed. He claims the right thumb injury that hindered his 2014 is better.

Player who'll need to step up: SS Jean Segura looked destined for stardom after a stellar 2013, yet he suffered a significant setback last year. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, as he lost an infant son during the season.

Name you'll get to know: After fits and starts the prior two seasons — and despite a rough spring — RHP Jimmy Nelson will get a full opportunity to pitch in the Brewers' starting rotation.

Biggest question mark: Can the starting rotation keep the team remotely in contention? Former ace RHP Yovani Gallardo went to Texas in a trade, and RHPs Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza have been solid yet far from great.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if manager Ron Roenicke, who could be in trouble along with his general manager Doug Melvin, can help them move past their late-season meltdown that turned 2014 from a potential playoff berth to an ugly conclusion. They will dive if RHP Francisco Rodriguez, having just re-upped for two years, can't duplicate his most recent effort and Milwaukee's bullpen becomes a liability.

NL West

1. San Diego Padres

Key player: OF Matt Kemp, having traveled down I-5 from the Dodgers, must stay healthy, productive and happy in order to justify the Padres' acquisition of him.

Player who'll need to step up: OF Wil Myers' sophomore season with the Rays proved awful enough to get him traded away. The Padres are banking on him to not only rediscover his hitting stroke, but also to play a competent center field.

Name you'll get to know: RHP Matt Wisler struggled in the Pacific Coast League last year, although that's not much of a red flag. He could help the Pads' big-league starting rotation this season if injuries strike.

James Shields, with general manager A.J. PrellerPhoto: AP

Biggest question mark: While the Padres' outfield courtesy of new GM A.J. Preller looks potentially excellent, can their infield and catchers hit enough to elevate the team's offense to above-average? The team's 535 runs scored in 2014 placed San Diego dead last in the majors.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if veteran manager Bud Black, now working with his fourth general manager, navigates the risks of the restructured roster and maximizes the talent. They will dive if new ace RHP James Shields shows why his free-agent market didn't blossom as he hoped — by hitting a wall after so many years of high-innings counts.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

Key player: OF Yasiel Puig has produced plenty in his two years as a Dodger, yet his frequent antics have mitigated his on-the-field value. Can he learn from new veteran teammates SS Jimmy Rollins and 2B Howie Kendrick to remain as productive with less drama?

Player who'll need to step up: The closer. We're likely talking about more than one person, as RHP Kenley Jansen will miss the start of the season due to a left foot injury and RHP Brandon League is down with an ailing right shoulder. Veterans like RHP Joel Peralta and LHP J.P. Howell are in the mix.

Joc Pederson, the Dodgers' rookie center fielderPhoto: AP

Name you'll get to know: OF Joc Pederson is set to start in center field for the Dodgers. He put up monster offensive numbers in the minor leagues.

Biggest question mark: The Dodgers' new front office (Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes) made high-risk, high-reward bets on former Yankees RHP Brandon McCarthy and LHP Brett Anderson. Will they pay off or crap out?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if LHP Clayton Kershaw, the reigning NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, and RHP Zack Greinke are good enough to cover for the ailing LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu (left shoulder). They will dive if manager Don Mattingly doesn't click with his new bosses and can't solve his bullpen.

3. San Francisco Giants

Key player: Does any player in baseball mean more to his team than LHP Madison Bumgarner to the Giants? San Francisco is defending its third World Series title in five years thanks to him, and the drop-off from him to the rest of the team's starting rotation is severe.

Player who'll need to step up: OF Nori Aoki, whose Royals fell to the Giants in last year's Fall Classic, now tries to help San Francisco cope with the spring loss of OF Hunter Pence to a broken right ulna bone. It's a tall order.

Buster PoseyPhoto: AP

Name you'll get to know: C Andrew Susac shined as C Buster Posey's backup once he got called up for good last July. He gives flexibility to manager Bruce Bochy.

Biggest question mark: How exactly can this team replace the production of departed free agents OF Michael Morse and 3B Pablo Sandoval? Betting on 3B Casey McGehee and OF Gregor Blanco seems like a considerable risk.

How it'll go down: They will thrive if RHP Matt Cain, coming back from right elbow surgery and not yet at full strength, regains his pre-2013 form and provides some help to a still-elite Bumgarner while McGehee, Aoki and Blanco prosper. They will dive if Bumgarner can't recover sufficiently from his massive workload of last October.

4. Colorado Rockies

Key player: SS Troy Tulowitzki. Of course. Will he stay on the field? Will the Rockies finally commit to trading him? Will he keep sending passive-aggressive signals through the media that he would like to leave the franchise? He's a one-man Rocky Mountain saga.

Player who'll need to step up: LHP Boone Logan pitched horribly and made three visits to the disabled list after leaving the Yankees for big bucks in Denver. He has to earn his considerable keep ($5.5 million this year) to give the Rockies a chance.

Name you'll get to know: RHP Jon Gray performed well at Double-A Tulsa last season, so if he keeps progressing, there surely will be room for him in the Rockies' eternally depleted starting rotation. RHPs Kyle Kendrick, Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek won't block others' opportunities.

Biggest question mark: That depleted starting rotation. After finishing with an MLB-worst 4.84 ERA last year, where will the improvement come from?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if Tulowitzki and his fellow pillar OF Carlos Gonzalez stay on the field and put up the sort of numbers that made the Rockies invest long-term in them in the first place. They will dive if new GM Jeff Bridich's wait-and-see approach to his first winter results in more of the same — lousy pitching and too many visits to the trainer's room.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Key player: 3B Yasmany Tomas might be the only rookie "Key Player" in the big leagues. On this group, how the Cuban handles third base and how he hits major-league pitching will greatly determine whether the D-Backs are mediocre or just plain awful.

Player who'll need to step up: OF-1B Mark Trumbo did not at all match Arizona's hopes in his first year in the desert, getting sidelined dramatically by a right foot injury. He was a prolific slugger with the Angels. Can he regain that power?

Name you'll get to know: Just like last year, it's RHP Archie Bradley, whose rough 2014 at Triple-A Reno didn't significantly diminish the industry's high ceiling for him.

Biggest question mark: Can the team's brain trust of team president Derrick Hall, president of baseball operations Tony La Russa, general manager Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale — all of them intense personalities, and only Hall experienced in his current role — produce the right mix needed to succeed?

How it'll go down: They will thrive if 1B Paul Goldschmidt puts up his characteristic production in 150 games, rather than last year's 109, and about 20 other scenarios play out perfectly. They will dive, deep, if the suspect starting rotation lives down to its projections.


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