The balance of power in MLB has shifted in the National League. St. Louis and Pittsburgh are no longer the favorites in the Central, Washington is trying to find an identity in the East, and Arizona is tired of sitting at the bottom of the West.
There are narratives abound for every team as spring training games begin this week. Here is a look at the top five Senior Circuit storylines.
1. Cubs “Embracing the Target”
After a 97-win season and a trip to the NLCS with a lineup that regularly featured four rookies in 2015, the Chicago Cubs are the odds on favorite to win their first World Series in 108 years (but who’s counting?). Last year, Joe Maddon’s spring training mantra was “Respect 90,” an effort to instill a blue-collar, professional mentality in his young squad. This season, with expectations mounting, Maddon is preaching, “Embrace the Target,” and so far it seems to be working, with a bevy of players showing up early for spring training.
But Maddon and his players weren’t the only ones prepping to take care of unfinished business this season. This winter, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer morphed the Cubs from youthful sensations to a National League juggernaut by signing Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward, reliable starter John Lackey, and infield aficionado Ben Zobrist as free agents, and re-signing last year’s leadoff hitter and starting center fielder Dexter Fowler.
With depth unlike we’ve never seen before, the Cubs have a thousand different ways they can win this season. It sure feels like a very special summer is in the works on the North Side.
2. It’s Another Even Year...
... and the San Francisco Giants have re-loaded — most notably in their starting rotation. Outside the fantastic Madison Bumgarner, the Giants’ rotation was decent but inconsistent last season. The hope is that free agent pickups Johnny Cueto, who struggled mightily in the second half of ’15, and Jeff Samardzija, who had his worst season ever, can revert back to their 2014 forms when both had ERAs under 3.00 and more than 200 strikeouts. With Jake Peavy and Matt Cain rounding out the starting five, and a dynamite bullpen, San Fran will have the necessary pitching to compete with the Dodgers in the NL West.
The Giants’ 84-78 mark wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in ’15, due in large part to Hunter Pence only appearing in 52 games. Manager Bruce Bochy has the complete lineup card, highlighted with a healthy Pence, perennial All-Star Buster Posey, and solid complementary pieces in Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and budding hitters Joe Panik and Matt Duffy. With one of the more polished rosters in the NL, the Giants might have enough to make another even-year October run.
3. Rotation Positions Mets for NL East Repeat
Last season, with lineup regulars Travis d’Arnaud, David Wright and Lucas Duda missing significant time, and runs coming at a premium, the Mets’ starting rotation — highlighted by the return of Matt Harvey — kept them in the thick of the playoff hunt during the first half of the season. Thanks to the addition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes and the complete collapse of the Nationals in the second half, the Mets, led by their collection of young hurlers, won their first NL East crown in nearly a decade and made it to the World Series for the first time since 2000.
The Mets’ offense should be better this season with the return of Cespedes, the additions of Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera up the middle, and the full-time emergence of Michael Conforto. Once July rolls around, the Mets’ rotation could somehow become even more dangerous with the return of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery. The rotation alone of Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Wheeler should lead to another October appearance for the Mets.
4. Dusty in D.C.
The Nationals were pegged by most pundits to be the NL representative in last year’s World Series. But the Nats’ signature moment of ’15 wasn’t raising the Commissioner’s Trophy — it was NL MVP and franchise cornerstone Bryce Harper being choked by teammate Jonathan Papelbon in the Washington dugout in September. Papelbon kept his job for ’16, but manager Matt Williams did not. Enter baseball lifer, Dusty Baker.
Baker wasn’t brought in by president/GM Mike Rizzo for his in-game management skills, but more for his industry-renown ability to manage a clubhouse full of different and inflated personalities. But massaging egos like Papelbon and Harper will only be a small part of Baker’s responsibilities with this Nats team — a team whose players missed nearly 1,300 games to injury last season.
Health aside — after missing out on the likes Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips this offseason, losing Ian Desmond to free agency, along with the regression of veterans Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, the Nats could struggle to surround Harper with competent offensive talent.
Baker will be relying heavily on his starting rotation this season — which might scare some Nats fans given Baker’s history of over-using certain arms. Even with the loss of Jordan Zimmermann to the Tigers, the Washington rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez should be solid, especially with the addition of new pitching coach Mike Maddux.
5. Diamondbacks Go All-In
The only thing missing from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015 was starting pitching. Consider that problem solved. After signing top pitching free agent Zach Greinke for $206 million, the D’Backs traded a haul of good, young prospects, including the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s draft (Dansby Swanson) and Ender Inciarte to the Braves for All-Star starter Shelby Miller. With former All-Star Patrick Corbin now able to shoulder a full-time pitching load after Tommy John surgery in 2014, the Diamondbacks have pushed their chips toward the center of the NL West poker table.
The emergence of A.J. Pollock and David Peralta, with the continued brilliance of Paul Goldschmidt, helped Arizona boast the second-best offense in the NL last season. If Cuban defector Yasmany Tomas can put it all together at the plate, the Diamondbacks should contend for the NL West this fall.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)