Nationals expected to win NL East for 2nd consecutive year

Phillies and Braves fight for wild card spots while Mets and Marlins struggle after rough offseasons

NL Eastern Division:

1. Washington Nationals

2. Philadelphia Phillies

3. Atlanta Braves

4. New York Mets

5. Miami Marlins

Last year, the Washington Nationals surprised everyone by taking over the NL East and winning the most games in the MLB. They won’t be nearly as much of a sleeper this season, however, as they will have a target on their back from Game 1. It remains to be seen whether or not they can handle the added pressure, but my bet is that they’ll be fine. This team is loaded with talent from top to bottom and they have arguably the best pitching rotation in baseball led by phenom Stephen Strasburg.

As disastrous as it seemed to be, the Phillies didn’t play all that bad last year. They suffered major injuries to most of their star players (Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all missed significant time) but still managed to win 81 games and finish 3rd in the division. If they can get better luck with injuries this year (and that is a big if), they still have one of the best rosters in baseball. They have 3 potential Cy Young candidates in their rotation, and enough offensive firepower to make it a tight race with Washington.

Atlanta comes into the season without Chipper Jones, the face of the franchise for more than the past 15 years. Nevertheless, they are still a formidable team that is going to win a lot of games this year. The Braves completely revamped their outfield this offseason, allowing Michael Bourn to leave so that they could make room for the two brothers, Justin and B.J. Upton. They have other young, talented players such as Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward, so they should remain contenders in the East for many seasons to come. Expect them to compete for the 2nd Wild Card spot in the NL.

After the first three teams in the division, there is a severe drop-off in quality when you get to the Mets and Marlins. New York managed to retain third baseman David Wright after signing him to an enormous long term contract in the off season (worth $138 million). Unfortunately, they traded away last year’s Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, greatly weakening an already shaky rotation. Other than Wright, they don’t have much offense to speak of, and they will have huge difficulties competing this season.

After splurging on several large contracts last offseason, the Marlins decided that one year was enough evaluation time and traded the majority of them in order to cut salary from their cap. Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and staff ace Josh Johnson were all traded to the Blue Jays and they were left incredibly weak as a result. Almost overnight, they went from a talented, yet underachieving, team to a potentially last place squad. One of the only bright spots is outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but he can’t win games on his own. The Marlins are going to struggle this year — a lot.

NL Central Division

1. Cincinnati Reds

2. St. Louis Cardinals

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

4. Milwaukee Brewers

5. Chicago Cubs

Cincinnati improved their already outstanding team by acquiring outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Cleveland Indians. They still have former MVP Joey Votto manning first base and he is surrounded by talent such as Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick. Their pitching rotation is also very formidable, led by Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. Aroldis Chapman was terrific last season and I expect him to continue his success this year. Although the Cardinals will be nipping at their heels most of the way, the Reds should be back in the postseason.

St. Louis seems to be a contender every season and there is no reason to believe that they will not be this year. Although they didn’t improve much over the offseason, they also didn’t get much worse. Their offense is still led by Matt Holliday, David Freese, and Carlos Beltran, so they won’t have too many problems scoring runs. One of their only difficulties may be the potential loss of Chris Carpenter for the majority, if not all, of the season. They still have enough on their team to be a good team, but if Carpenter is gone for all of 2013, they might have a hard time beating out Atlanta and Philadelphia for a Wild Card spot.

Pittsburgh is on the cusp of being a playoff team. Led by All-Star and potential MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, they should be able to push the Cardinals for 2nd place in the division this season. Their rotation is passable, headed by A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, but it isn’t necessarily a bright spot on the team. Don’t be surprised if they play very well this season and surpass last season’s win total of 79. They’re almost ready to take the next step, but they probably need one or two more pieces.

Milwaukee has superstar outfielder Ryan Braun, but that’s about it. They have a decent pitching staff, but nothing too special outside of Yovani Gallardo. They are definitely going to need to retool their lineup at either the trade deadline or in the offseason next year, because it will be extremely difficult to field a contending team with this roster. Braun is definitely a player to build around, but they need more pieces.

Finally, the Chicago Cubs can expect to be in the cellar of the division again this year. They have some nice young players to build around, like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, but they aren’t nearly seasoned enough to fight for a playoff spot. Their rotation should be decent this season, especially if Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson perform at the level that they are capable of.

NL Western Division

1. San Francisco Giants

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

4. Colorado Rockies

5. San Diego Padres

This should be one of the more interesting divisions in baseball in 2013. There is a ton of talent on every team, and it is home to the 2012 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants have one of the best rotations in baseball, and if Tim Lincecum can bounce back from his horrendous 2012 campaign and regain his previous Cy Young form, they will be practically unhittable. Buster Posey returns after his MVP season eager to repeat, while Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan round out a dangerous offense. Until proven otherwise, San Fran is still the team to beat out West.

The Dodgers have spent a lot of money over the past two seasons. After their blockbuster trade with the Red Sox to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, they have one of the most complete rosters in the big leagues. It is unknown when Crawford will be ready to play, but the Dodgers don’t need him right away. They have a perennial MVP candidate in Matt Kemp patrolling center field and the always reliable Andre Eithier in right. Their pitchers are their biggest strength, however. Clayton Kershaw is one of the best left handers in the league, and the acquisition of former Royals stud Zack Grienke improved an already formidable rotation. They are neck and neck with the Giants in terms of talent, and it should be a great race.

Arizona lost a key piece this offseason when they traded Justin Upton to Atlanta. They still have a talented core, but they aren’t nearly as much of a threat as they were last season. Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt are players to build around, but they might need to acquire another player at the trade deadline if they are in the hunt. Their rotation is very good, highlighted by Ian Kennedy. The signing of Brandon McCarthy over the offseason was also a good one, as he had a good season last year for Oakland, going 8-6 with a 3.24 ERA.

Colorado has some extremely talented offensive players in its lineup such as Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler. The signing of Michael Cuddyer also solidified an already dangerous lineup (especially playing in Coors Field, a well-known hitter’s park). Their problem is their pitching. They really do not have any starters of value, especially after they traded former staff ace Ubaldo Jiminez last season to Cleveland. They will be in shootouts all year with teams, and it’s very difficult to win a lot of games that way.

Lastly, the Padres round out the division. After losing Adrian Gonzalez a couple of seasons ago, San Diego hasn’t been able to recover. They don’t have a key player to build their lineup around, so they will need to do that at some point if they ever want to compete in this tough division. Carlos Quentin is a good player, but he is simply not enough. They also do not have much to speak of in the pitching department, except for closer Huston Street. Their starters are really nothing special, so don’t expect much from the Padres this season.