Tag Archives: National League

3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Arizona Diamondbacks

Up next in our preview of all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the NL West, with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who came in fourth place last season, up first for the division

After a disappointing season in 2016 when they failed to win 70 games, the Diamondbacks hope to live up to the expectations people had for them last year in 2017. To achieve that, they made one major move this winter, a trade with the Mariners. In the deal, the Diamondbacks acquired SS Ketel Marte and SP Taijuan Walker in exchange for a package highlighted by SS Jean Segura, who the Diamondbacks traded for last offseason. Marte is in a competition with Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings for the starting shortstop job and Walker will slot in near the top of the rotation, behind ace Zack Greinke. The team also signed C Jeff Mathis and RP Fernando Rodney and claimed OF Jeremy Hazelbaker off waivers from the Cardinals, though he likely will just provide depth in the outfield rather than be an everyday starter, at least to begin the season.

The Diamondbacks finished tied for seventh in Major League Baseball with a .261 batting average last season but their 190 home runs put them around the middle of the pack, as did their .752 OPS. Among their best hitters was perennial all-star 1B Paul Goldschmidt, who hit .297 with 24 home runs and a .899 OPS (10th best in the National League); his WAR was 4.8. While those are good numbers, they were down significantly from his 2015 performance that earned him a second-place finish in NL MVP voting that season. OF Yasmany Tomas led the team with 31 home runs while hitting .272 for a .820 OPS. 3B Jake Lamb showed power, hitting 29 home runs to go along with a .249 average. Ahmed played in 90 games, hitting just .218 with 4 home runs. As for his competition for the starting job at the position, Owings went .277 with 5 home runs in 119 games and Marte hit .259 with 1 home run in 119 games with the Mariners.

The pitching staff posted a MLB-worst 5.09 ERA, but their 1,518 strikeouts finished in the top half of the majors. The bullpen recorded the fourth-fewest saves in MLB with 31. Greinke did not perform to the level people expected him to after signing a nine-figure contract with the Diamondbacks in free agency last winter. He put up a 4.37 ERA — his worst since posting a 5.80 mark back in 2005, his second season in the league — and struck out 134 batters in 158.2 innings over 26 starts. And it pretty much goes down from there for the rest of the rotation, with the possible exception of SP Robbie Ray, who had 218 strikeouts — tied for the ninth-most in the majors — in 174.1 innings, but that went with a poor 4.90 ERA. SP Shelby Miller, who the D-backs traded top prospect Dansby Swanson for last season, started just 20 games because he was sent down to the minors during the season as a result of putting up a 6.15 ERA with just 70 strikeouts in 101 innings. Walker made 25 starts with Seattle, compiling a 4.22 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 134.1 innings. Things weren’t much better in the bullpen. RP Brad Ziegler led the team with 18 saves. He posted a 2.82 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 38.1 innings before being traded to the Red Sox in July. Other than him, the relievers didn’t pitch well, with many of them posting ERAs above 4.00 and 5.00. Splitting time between the Padres and Marlins last season, Rodney went 25-for-28 in save opportunities while posting a 3.44 ERA with 74 strikeouts in 65.1 innings.

One reason to be optimistic about the Diamondbacks’ 2017 season is injuries were one reason why they underperformed last season, with OFs A.J. Pollock and David Peralta limited to 12 and 48 games, respectively. While they both could be ready to play on Opening Day, or shortly after, Tomas strained his oblique earlier this month and doesn’t have a timetable for a return, which means his status for Opening Day is in question. If the outfielders can stay healthy and on the field for the bulk of the season, it would provide a boost to the offense and take some of the pressure off of Goldschmidt to carry the team.

Walker should help improve the team’s pitching, but Greinke and Miller need to pitch better to keep the Diamondbacks in the games that they start. If Ray can lower his ERA, he could become a top pitcher with his ability to strike out hitters. Although his ERA was higher than you’d like to see from a closer, Rodney’s other numbers were pretty good so he will improve the bullpen if he can have another season like that, but he recently turned 40 so that could be asking a lot out of the veteran.

The Diamondbacks are better than they were last year, but how much better their record ends up being largely lies with the starting pitching. Greinke returning to form will be key to their success and ability to compete with the likes of the Dodgers and Giants in the division. I’m not convinced they’re as good as those teams, but it should at least be closer than it was last season.

Be sure to check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.dbacks.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: St. Louis Cardinals

Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, concludes with the St. Louis Cardinals, who came in second place in the division last season.

The Cardinals’ biggest acquisition of the winter to help in their pursuit of catching the defending World Series champion Cubs in the division was a former Cub, signing OF Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract. He’ll be joining OFs Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. The infield will once again by led by veteran C Yadier Molina and 1B Matt Carpenter, who missed the World Baseball Classic and some spring training action with tightness in his lower back. SP Adam Wainwright still sits atop the starting rotation, while RP Seung-hwan Oh handles closing duties out of the bullpen. Among the losses the Cardinals experienced this winter were SP Jaime Garcia, who they traded to the Braves, and OF Matt Holliday, who signed with the Yankees. The team will also be without SP Alex Reyes, who underwent Tommy John surgery in February that will result in him missing the 2017 season and potentially cause him to miss the start of the 2018 campaign.

Last year’s team hit .255, which matched the MLB average, and hit 225 home runs — the most in the National League and second-most in the majors — with a .767 OPS that was fifth in the majors. Piscotty had one of the best overall seasons among the Cardinals’ hitters last season, hitting .273 with 22 home runs and a .800 OPS, while Grichuk hit 24 home runs in 132 games to go along with a .240 average and .769 OPS. SS Aledmys Diaz hit .300 with 17 home runs and a .879 OPS in 111 games, and Carpenter hit .271 with 21 home runs and a .885 OPS in 129 games. Jedd Gyorko, who is expected to provide depth filling in around the infield, led the team with 30 home runs last season, which just missed making the top 10 in the NL, to go along with a .243 average. Molina played in 147 games, which is a lot for a catcher, and hit .307 with 8 home runs.

The pitching staff finished in the top half of the majors with a 4.08 ERA, but the team’s 1,290 strikeouts was below the league average. The bullpen recorded just 38 saves, the eighth-fewest in the majors and fewer than six closers had individually. SP Carlos Martinez led the starters with a 3.04 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 195.1 innings over 31 starts. Coming off an injury that limited him to four starts in 2015, Wainwright was able to start 33 games but didn’t put up good numbers; his 4.62 ERA was the worst of his career and his 161 strikeouts were the fewest since 2008, when he made only 20 starts. SP Michael Wacha also put up a career-worst 5.09 ERA and struck out 114 batters in 138 innings over 24 starts (27 games overall). In his first season in the majors after playing in Japan, Oh made 76 appearances, saving 19 games in 23 opportunities, to go along with a 1.92 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 79.2 innings.

The Cardinals have a good-enough offense to win games, but it’s their starting pitching that could limit their success this season. The offense could take a step back from last year, though, with Holliday gone and Carpenter dealing with the back issues that could cause problems if it continues into the regular season. Wainwright has a history of pitching well, but he’s now 35 and on the backside of his career, so his down year in 2016 is likely part of the natural decline as a pitcher gets older. If he can’t return to form with the way he pitched earlier in his career, someone like Wacha will have to step up to make up for some of the production lost with Wainwright.

The Cardinals are a good team but are disadvantaged by being in the same division as the Cubs, who are likely still the best team in the majors. The Cardinals are clearly the second-best team in the NL Central and should win enough games to get one of the National League’s wild cards, but they likely won’t be able to keep up with the Cubs unless the Cubs are hampered by injuries during the season.

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below. And be sure to subscribe, check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.stlouiscardinals.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Pittsburgh Pirates

Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, continues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished in third place in the division last season.

If you watch the Pirates play in 2017, you’ll see a team whose core is essentially the same as it was last season. It’s somewhat surprising they didn’t go after any major free agents considering 2016 saw the Pirates win 20 fewer games than they did in 2015. The main change on the diamond is on the defensive side of things, with the outfielders changing positions. Andrew McCutchen is moving to right field, with Starling Marte in center and Gregory Polanco patrolling left field. Other than that 1B Josh Bell, who played 45 games in the big leagues last season, takes over full-time as the team’s starting first baseman. Pitchers Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow, who were on the major-league roster for part of last season, are expected to start the season in Pittsburgh as part of the starting rotation, joining SPs Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova.

The Pirates hit .257 as a team, which put them near the middle of Major League Baseball. They didn’t show much power, though, hitting 153 home runs — the fifth-fewest in the majors — to go along with a .734 OPS, which was below the major-league average. After being in the National League MVP discussion in 2015, McCutchen’s offensive production dropped last season, hitting .256 — nearly 40 points under his career average — although his 24 home runs were right on target with his average. McCutchen’s .766 OPS was by far the lowest of his career, nearly 50 points below his previous low. Marte played in 129 games last season and hit a career-best and team-leading .311, but he hit just 9 home runs, the first time since his rookie year — when he played just 47 games — that he failed to reach double digits in home runs. Rounding out the outfield, Polanco hit .258 with a career-high 22 home runs — 13 more than 2015 despite playing in nine fewer games. 3B Jung Ho Kang hit .255 with 21 home runs, and in his limited time in the majors Bell hit .273 with 3 home runs in 128 at-bats.

The Pirates’ 4.21 ERA put them in the bottom half of the majors, as did their 1,232 strikeouts. The bullpen recorded 51 saves, which was the fifth-most in the majors. Cole, who was dealing with an elbow injury for part of the season, started only 21 games  and put up disappointing numbers compared to 2015. In 116 innings, he posted a 3.88 ERA with 98 strikeouts, the first year of his career he finished with fewer than 100. Nova made 11 starts for the team after being traded by the Yankees and was surprisingly effective in those games, recording 52 strikeouts in 64.2 innings with a 3.06 ERA and a 5-2 record. Taillon made 18 starts in the majors, posting a 3.38 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 104 innings. RP Tony Watson spent the bulk of the second half of the season as the Pirates’ closer after the team traded RP Mark Melancon at the deadline. Overall for the season, Watson went 15-for-20 in save opportunities with a 3.06 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 67.2 innings, not up to par with elite closers but not that bad.

The key for the Pirates offense this year will be for McCutchen to get his average back up to the .290 range that he has averaged for his career. He can’t hit .256 again and expect the team to be significantly better because he is the heart of the offense. He needs to hit better this year so the team can put more runs on the scoreboard and have more of a chance to win games. A situation that is hanging over the Pirates is the legal trouble facing Kang, who was arrested in his native South Korea in December after a crash that resulted from him allegedly driving drunk. The team has placed him on the restricted list for now as he has been unable to obtain a visa to travel to America. It is unknown when he’ll get the visa so his availability for the start of the regular season is in doubt, which means 3B David Freese could see more playing time than expected if Kang’s legal troubles linger into April.

Much like McCutchen has to step up his game and return to the performance people have come to expect from him, Cole is in a similar situation as he hopes to lower his ERA from near 4.00 to closer to the 3.00 range. If they want to stay in the rotation all season,Taillon and Kuhl need to prove that they can perform well in the majors if they don’t want to get sent back down to the minors. Although he’s a veteran, Nova similarly needs to prove to the team that the good numbers he put up in less than half a season with the team last year weren’t a fluke because they were significantly better than what he has done for the majority of his career. Continuing with the prove-you’re-legit theme, Watson needs to improve his numbers a bit to solidify himself as a legitimate closer.

The Pirates won 78 games last season and I think they’re a little better than that. They’re probably about a .500 team but not much better than that. I think they’re still the third-best team in the division and probably won’t be able to pass the Cardinals to move up to second place in the division behind the Cubs.

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below. And be sure to subscribe, check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.pirates.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Milwaukee Brewers

Our look at the NL Central teams, part of our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season, continues with the Milwaukee Brewers, who finished in fourth place in the division last season.

The Brewers are coming off of two straight fourth-place finishes in which they finished more than 30 games back of the division champs. They had a fairly quiet offseason, with the most impactful move possibly being adding RP Neftali Feliz to serve as their closer. The team also made a trade that sent RP Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox in exchange for a package highlighted by 3B Travis Shaw. The team also traded for C Jett Bandy, who is essentially replacing C Jonathan Lucroy, who the Brewers traded to the Rangers at the trade deadline last season. OF Ryan Braun continues to be a veteran presence on a largely inexperienced team.

The Brewers struggled offensively in 2016, with their .244 team average ending up as the fourth-worst in Major League Baseball. They were better with their power, hitting 194 home runs, which was higher than the MLB average of 187, which helped them finish around the middle of the league with a .729 OPS; 41 of those home runs were hit by 1B Chris Carter, who is now with the Yankees. Braun had his best season since 2012 at the plate, hitting .305 — 10th in the National League — with 30 home runs and a .903 OPS, which was ninth-best in the NL. SS Jonathan Villar, who is sliding over to second base this season, hit .285 with 19 home runs, but his biggest value came on the bases, collecting a MLB-best 62 steals, which helped him earn a 3.9 WAR. With the Red Sox last season, Shaw hit .242 with 16 home runs.

The pitching staff finished a bit better than league average with a 4.08 ERA, but the pitchers had the third-fewest strikeouts in the majors with 1,175, and the bullpen recorded an above-average 46 saves. SP Junior Guerra led the staff with a 2.81 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 121.2 innings. SP Jimmy Nelson led the team in strikeouts with 140 in 179.1 innings while posting a 4.62 ERA. SP Zach Davies had a 3.97 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 163.1 innings. RP Jeremy Jeffress recorded 27 saves with a 2.22 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 44.2 innings over 47 games. With the Pirates, Feliz struck out 61 batters in 53.2 innings to go along with a 3.52 ERA.

Going from Lucroy to Bandy, who hit .234 in limited playing time with the Angels last year, is a significant offensive downgrade at the catcher position, but putting Shaw in at third in place of Aaron Hill should provide the team with more power at the hot corner, but probably not enough to make up for Lucroy’s lost production. Braun is likely a key to how successful the offense will be in 2017. He had somewhat of a rebirth at the plate last season and the team needs him to repeat his performance this season to have any chance of a good offense in 2017, but it would hurt the team if Braun regresses toward the numbers he had been putting up in the 2013-2015 time frame because the team counts on him to be its leader at the plate.

The pitching staff lacks a true ace, with Guerra slotted into the No. 1 spot. He pitched well last year in his rookie season, so if he can pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA again in 2017 he could earn that “ace” label, but I need to see him do it again before believing it. Davies is going to have to see a significant improvement this season to solidify the No. 2 position in the rotation because posting a nearly-4.00 ERA doesn’t cut it in the NL. Veteran SP Matt Garza sits at the backend of the rotation, but don’t expect him to last there all season. He is coming off of two mediocre seasons and will likely wind up in the bullpen at some point, giving way to a another pitcher to get a chance to start — probably Chase Anderson, who made 30 starts last season but currently is listed sixth on the starting-pitching depth chart. Feliz is coming off of the two worst seasons of his career so he may not last the full season as the closer, but there’s no young prospect behind him in the bullpen waiting for the opportunity to replace him.

While the Cubs and Cardinals are at the top of the division, the Brewers will again be battling with the Reds to avoid finishing in the basement in the NL Central. They just don’t have enough talent to win enough games to be competitive. If they’re lucky, they may win 70-75 games, but that may even be a little on the high side of expectations.

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below. And be sure to subscribe, check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.brewers.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Cincinnati Reds

The next NL Central team up in our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Cincinnati Reds, who finished in last place in the division last season.

The Reds, coming off a 68-win season, have finished in last place in the division each of the last two seasons, and are clearly in rebuilding mode. Last month, they traded veteran 2B Brandon Phillips to the Braves for a couple of minor leaguers and earlier in the winter traded SP Dan Straily to the Marlins. Their biggest acquisition this offseason was RP Drew Storen, who provides a veteran presence in the bullpen and could compete for the closer’s role, a position he has experience in from his time with the Nationals. Phillips’ departure leaves 1B Joey Votto as the only experienced position player in the starting lineup. Replacing Phillips at second is speedy Jose Peraza, with more speed in the outfield represented by Billy Hamilton. SP Anthony DeSclafani looked like he might be on track to lead the rotation — which also includes SP Scott Feldman, who the Reds signed to a one-year contract in January — but he has been shut down for a month with a torn UCL sprain, so he’ll be starting the season on the DL.

The Reds’ .256 batting average last season was just above the MLB average of .255, but they were in the bottom 10 with 164 home runs and a .724 OPS. Thanks to Peraza and Hamilton, the team ranked second in the majors with 139 steals. Votto’s .326 average led the team, and he hit 29 home runs for a .985 OPS. OF Adam Duvall hit 33 home runs, the most on the club, but hit just .241 with a .795 OPS. 3B Eugenio Suarez hit .248 with 21 home runs in his first full season in the majors. Peraza hit .324 and stole 21 bases in 72 games, while Hamilton swiped 58 bases, which was the second-most in the majors.

The team’s 4.91 ERA was tied for third-worst in the majors and the pitching staff’s 1,241 strikeouts were in the bottom half of the league. The bullpen recorded just 28 saves, which was the fewest in the National League and second-fewest overall in the majors. DeSclafani posted a 3.28 ERA with 105 strikeouts in 123.1 innings over the course of 20 starts. SP Brandon Finnegan put up a 3.98 ERA and struck out 145 batters in 172 innings in 31 starts. RP Tony Cingrani led the bullpen with 17 saves in 65 appearances. His 4.14 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 63 innings don’t stand out as part of a particularly successful season. In 37 games, RP Raisel Iglesias recorded 83 strikeouts in 78.1 innings with 6 saves and a 2.53 ERA. With the Blue Jays and Mariners, Storen pitched in 57 games last season with a career-worst 5.23 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 51.2 innings; he also added 3 saves to his career total.

Without adding any big-name hitters after trading away Phillips, the Reds are likely going to remain an average to below-average offense this season. You would expect Votto to exhibit power again this year, but Duvall likely won’t be able to repeat the 33-homer season he had a year ago. Having Peraza and Hamilton on the basepaths with their speed doesn’t benefit the Reds as much as it could other teams since they can’t capitalize on having the runners on base as much as they should. The pitching staff is mediocre for the most part, lacking both a proven ace and closer. The team has SP Homer Bailey waiting in the wings as he recovers from offseason elbow surgery, but he likely won’t be able to pitch until June at the earliest. Iglesias is probably the best option to close games, but he has virtually no experience in the role so it’s a gamble as to whether he would succeed as the closer. Storen has closing experience — he’s just a couple saves shy of 100 for his career — but he didn’t have a good year in 2016 and the Reds may not want him closing out games.

The Reds are likely still the worst team in the Central and playing in the same division as the World Series champion Cubs obviously won’t do them any favors. If their young players can develop into stars, the Reds could be good in a few years but for now they’re just a bad team that will finish another season well under .500.

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below. And be sure to subscribe, check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.reds.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Chicago Cubs

Our next NL Central team in our continuing series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Chicago Cubs, who  won the division last season en route to a World Series title

No matter what the Cubs do this year, it’ll pale in comparison to 2016 when the team finally ended its curse and won the World Series for the first time since 1908 after winning 103 games during the regular season. As they look to repeat as champs, the Cubs have the core of their team returning, including reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant at third base, 1B Anthony Rizzo and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist at second base. The team should get a boost with the return of OF Kyle Schwarber, who only had a few at-bats during the regular season but came up big in the World Series after returning from a season-long injury. SP Jon Lester leads the rotation that also includes SPs Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta. They added RP Wade Davis to the bullpen, acquiring him in a trade for OF Jorge Soler, to close out games. Their most significant losses on offense are OF Dexter Fowler, who signed with the Cardinals as a free agent, and C David Ross, who retired following the season.

Despite winning over 100 games last season, the Cubs offense was just average with a .256 batting average and their 199 home runs ranked 13th in Major League Baseball, but their .772 OPS was third-best in the majors. Bryant led the offense with a .292 average, 39 home runs and a .939 OPS. Bryant’s 7.7 WAR was best in the NL and placed him third in the majors. Rizzo also hit .292 to go along with 32 home runs and a .928 OPS; his 5.7 WAR ranked 10th in the NL. SS Addison Russell hit 21 home runs but had just a .238 average while Zobrist hit .272 with 18 home runs. OF Jason Heyward didn’t perform well in his first year with the team, hitting .230 with just 7 home runs, down from .293 and 13 homers in his final year with the Cardinals in 2015.

Pitching is where the Cubs excelled last season, with a MLB-leading 3.15 ERA and 1,441 strikeouts, which was the third-highest total in the league. The bullpen, however, had only 38 saves — fewer than six closers — putting them near the bottom of the league in that category. Lester had the best overall season on the staff, going 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 202.2 inning spread out over 32 starts. Hendricks, however, bested Lester with a 2.13 ERA in 30 starts. He threw 190 innings, striking out 170. In the follow-up to his 2015 Cy Young-winning season, Arrieta took a step backwards but still pitched well; he went 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA and 190 strikeouts in 197.1 innings in 31 starts. RP Hector Rondon made 54 appearances, posting a 3.53 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 51 innings and earned 18 saves before giving way to trade acquisition Aroldis Chapman in the second half of the season. With the Royals last year, Davis pitched in 45 games, saving 27 of them. He put up a 1.87 ERA and had 47 strikeouts in 43.1 innings.

The Cubs look to have another dominant season, with 100 wins not out of the question once again. Adding Schwarber will boost the offense and add to the team’s home-run total while Davis provides a solid backend option in the bullpen with a track record of success as a closer. Hendricks can probably be expected to regress a bit as it would be hard to repeat his performance from last year. Lester’s ERA will probably go up some, as well, as he enters his 33-year-old season. But if the team can get some production from the back of the rotation, as they did out of SP John Lackey last year, the Cubs could have some of the best starting pitching in the majors.

The Cubs’ only real competition in the division is the Cardinals, who are clearly a step below the Cubs, who should cruise to another NL Central title. The question then becomes how far can they get in the postseason. While it won’t be easy to repeat as World Series champs, one thing seems certain: with the group of players the Cubs have — not to mention one of the game’s best managers in Joe Maddon — the team likely won’t be waiting another 108 years to bring the next title home to Wrigleyville.

Be sure to check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Source: http://www.cubs.comhttp://www.baseball-reference.com

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3rd Annual 30 in 30ish MLB Previews: Washington Nationals

We finish out the first division in our continuing previews of all 30 MLB teams with the Washington Nationals, who  won the NL East last season.

 

The Nationals had a busy offseason, trying to improve a team coming off a division title — its third in the last five seasons — but couldn’t get out of the NLDS. With C Wilson Ramos moving to the Rays in free agency, the Nationals looked to acquire a veteran presence with a proven offensive track record behind the plate rather than relying on light-hitting C Jose Lobaton as the starter. Early in the winter, they acquired C Derek Norris in a trade with the Padres. He will likely serve as a backup, though, because just days before spring training the Nats signed C Matt Wieters, who has spent his entire career in the region as a member of the Orioles. Wieters should get the starting job at catcher. The Nationals also made a trade with the White Sox, getting OF Adam Eaton in exchange for a trio of prospects, led by Lucas Giolito, who saw some time in the majors last season. The Nationals also traded away 2B Danny Espinosa, who didn’t have a starting role in a crowded infield that includes 2B Daniel Murphy and young SS Trea Turner up the middle. And early in spring training, they signed veteran P Joe Blanton, who may compete for a spot at the bottom of the rotation but will likely provide bullpen depth if he doesn’t get a starting role.

While not excelling on offense in 2016, the Nationals finished in the top half of MLB in most offensive categories, including batting average, home runs and OPS. Leading the offensive attack was Murphy, who had a career year in his first season with the team. He hit .347 with 25 home runs, and he led the National League with 47 doubles, .595 slugging percentage and .985 OPS. Murphy’s offensive WAR of 5.7 was good for third best in the NL. Those numbers helped him finish second in NL MVP voting, behind Cubs 3B Kris Bryant. Murphy’s performance helped pick up the slack for the disappointing year from OF Bryce Harper, the 2015 MVP, who hit .243 with 24 home runs and a .814 OPS — all career lows for a year in which he played in more than 100 games. HIs 1.6 WAR was also the lowest of his career, save for injury-shortened 2014, and a big drop-off from the 9.9 WAR he had in 2015. 3B Anthony Rendon and OF Jayson Werth each hit at least 20 home runs while hitting .270 and .244, respectively. In 73 games after being called up from the minors, Turner hit .342 with 13 home runs and 33 steals in 307 at-bats. With the Orioles last season, Wieters hit .243 with 17 home runs.

On the mound, SP Max Scherzer led a pitching staff that posted a 3.51 ERA, which ranked as the second-best in the majors behind the eventual World Series champion Cubs. The Nationals’ 1,476 strikeouts was also second, and their 155 home runs allowed were the third fewest in the majors. Where the pitching wasn’t as good was in the bullpen, with the Nationals’ 46 saves slotting in near the middle of the pack. In his 34 starts, Scherzer struck out a career-best and NL-leading 284 batters en route to posting a 2.96 ERA over 228.1 innings, earning him the NL Cy Young Award. Scherzer also led the NL with 20 wins, a 0.968 WHIP and a 6.2 WAR for pitchers. Pitching behind Scherzer in the rotation, SP Tanner Roark went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA and 172 strikeouts and SP Stephen Strasburg won 15 of his 24 starts, posting a 3.60 ERA with 183 strikeouts. RP Jonathan Papelbon — currently a free agent — led the team in saves. RP Shawn Kelley had 7 saves last season to go along with his 2.64 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 67 appearances.

The Nationals should be improved with the additions they made to their roster, but there are some question marks that could hamper expectations for the team that won 95 games last year. One is injury-related, with Scherzer dealing with a hand injury that could cause him to miss the beginning of the regular season. A bigger worry is the bullpen and the Nationals’ lack of a bonafide closer. Kelley looks like he’ll get the first shot at the role, but his limited experience closing games could limit his success at the end of games.

The team also shouldn’t expect to get a repeat performance from Murphy, who played well above the level people have come to expect from him. In his 32-year-old season, he should regress back toward his career averages of .296 batting average and 13 home runs. On the other hand, Harper should bounce back from his down year in 2016. The 24 home runs he hit last year is around what he typically does — 2015’s 42 homers are definitely an outlier in his career stats — but he should be able to raise his .243 average significantly. Turner is a wild card with his limited experience in the majors, but if he can keep up the strong pace he got off to in his rookie season, he could be a 20-homer, 40-steal guy if he can keep up the power and speed he showcased in the second half of last season.

The Nationals look like they have a good chance of winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, including the Montreal days. The Mets are still a good team, but the Nationals remain the class of the NL East. It may be hard to win 95 games again but the Nationals appear to be on track for another season of 90-plus victories, which should be enough for another division title. If that happens, the question becomes whether the Nationals can advance out of the NLDS for the first time since moving to D.C.

Be sure to check back every day around 12pm Eastern for another team preview, see them all here, and follow me on Twitter for a link to each new post when it’s posted.

Sources: http://www.nationals.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com

 

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