Paul’s Totally Accurate, Infallible 2014 Baseball Predictions, National League Edition

It must be spring, and it must be time for the baseball season. How do I know? Well, the atmosphere is rife with all the usual signs of springtime and the onset of Opening Day baseball. Cadbury eggs are starting to go into circulation again. Roughly ten NBA teams are openly and shamelessly tanking for more lottery balls in this summer’s draft. We’re beginning to get pelted with trailer after trailer for upcoming summer blockbusters, which  feature the latest offensive reboot. The sun is shining (actually, here in Sacramento it’s overcast), the birds are singing, bees are buzzing, and the Boys of Summer are ready to rev up for the best six months of every year: the 162-game baseball season.

Of course, with the start of the baseball season comes the inevitable baseball prediction post. What I love most about these prediction articles is that it’s a no-lose situation. If your predictions turn out to be all wrong, well, baseball’s just an inherently unpredictable sport (you just can’t predict it, don’tcha know?), and preseason prognostication is just a silly, pointless exercise, and don’t we have computers to do this for us anyway? Giant supercomputers that can spit out Mike Trout’s 15-year forecast in the time it takes me to type the last two words of this sentence? So who cares if I’m horribly wrong when real players are going to be replaced by the rosters of Basewars, anyway? I, for one, welcome our new war robot overlords.

However, if my predictions turn out to have even a modicum of accuracy, well, I’m clearly a genius and Jeff Luhnow needs to hire me ASAP so I can be the first of this supposed new wave of MLB front office-types who are going to be making millions, just like the players. Finally, all those hours spent obsessing over the 1988 Montreal Expos (as opposed to, you know, “socializing” with the “real world”) are going to pay off!

Whether or not my predictions come true and I can flaunt my baseball acumen to the unsuspecting world, this is a fun annual exercise. Even though they can tend to blend together, I always enjoy the baseball predictions on the various websites. We’ll start today with my National League predictions, and then I’ll have the American League up sometime before Monday.

National League East

1. Washington Nationals

Not only are the Nationals the clear favorite to win the NL East, they’re probably the only team with a shot at eclisping 100 wins. They stumbled out of the gate last year, and that led to a disappointing season, but that shouldn’t fool you. They have a true ’86 Mets thing going on here (including a Dykstra-esque player in Bryce Harper, in that everybody seems to hate him, for some reason). They have a collection of young, homegrown talent (Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond) that’s about to come together with a huge bang. They have capable veterans (Jayson Werth, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister) surrounding the young stars. They have the hitting, pitching, and a new manager in Matt Williams who has indicated that he’s going to be a more progressive field leader. If it all comes together, and it might this year, they’re easily the best team in the NL, and my pick to go to the World Series.

2. Atlanta Braves

On March 1st, on paper, the Braves looked like they could have traded body blows with the Nationals in the NL East and come away the winner after twelve rounds. However, after the one-two gut punch of losing both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, their odds of beating the Nats fall into the “no chance in hell” category. The injuries to Medlen and Beachy (and Mike Minor is also hurt) have thrown Atlanta’s rotation into a state of flux, to where they’re now having to rely on Aaron Harang and 26-year-old Princeton rookie David Hale to round out their starting staff. They’re also banking on Chris Johnson hitting .321 again, and hoping that batting glove-less Evan Gattis can replace the departed Brian McCann’s production while being semi-functional behind the plate. Oh, and they’re hoping that B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla can recover from their utterly disastrous 2013 seasons. Good luck with all that.

3. New York Mets

The Mets have been a running joke basically since the moment that Carlos Beltran decided not to swing at an Adam Wainwright curveball in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS. Since then, assorted Wilpon- and Madoff-related off-field issues have turned the on-field product into a laughingstock, and not the lovable kind like in the 1960’s. The sight of Bartolo Colon running the bases this year will only add to the hilarity, but the Mets have quietly put together a team that could theoretically land in second place this year and, if everything breaks right, potentially fight for a Wild Card. Even with the additions of Curtis Granderson and Chris Young (who was awful last year), their offense is still a mess. Their rotation, though, has the makings of one of the tougher units in the NL. Colon and Zack Wheeler are polar opposites in terms of age (and, um, conditioning), but they offer a formidable one-two punch. Top prospect Noah Syndergaard should be up near midseason to provide the Mets with another exciting young gun. If only Matt Harvey hadn’t gotten hurt, then things would have been really interesting.

4. Philadelphia Phillies

I’d argue that the Phillies are even more embarrassing than their NL East division-mates, the Marlins. The Marlins are terrible, but they aren’t even trying to win, so at least they have an excuse. The Phillies, meanwhile, have thrown one ill-advised contract after another at past-their-prime players in a quixotic quest to contend. The Ryan Howard contract has been and will continue to be an albatross, they signed Marlon Byrd to a highly questionable two-year deal, and Jimmy Rollins, the franchise icon of the past decade or so, is butting heads with manager Ryne Sandberg. Oh, and amidst all this, their general manager loves to flaunt his willful ignorance towards anything statistic-y. The only saving grace could be their top three of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett, but they’ll have to all produce the season of their lives to salvage this mess.

5. Miami Marlins

Not so much a baseball franchise as a money laundering scheme. The Marlins should just do us all a favor and trade Giancarlo Stanton to a team that gives a shit so he can get on with his career and we can get on with our lives. In Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, the Marlins have some legitimately great talent already on their major league roster, and more hot prospects down on the farm. However, the way this franchise operates, those players will probably just be dealt for another bushel of A-ballers once they hit their first arbitration year, so who the hell even cares? The Marlins aren’t even bad in a fun, colorful way. They’re just offensive. Not offensive as a baseball club, but offensive as a concept. And if you don’t want to punch team president David Samson in the face after this, there’s something wrong with you.

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Easily the most balanced team in the NL, and perhaps the best-run franchise. The Cards always seem to get things done despite never being in the headlines for shelling out money for big names. They find impact players through trade or via their ever-replenishing farm system, and just keep competing, year after year after year. The losses of David Freese and Carlos Beltran could hurt them in the run-scoring department, but watch out for Oscar Taveras, who could replace Matt Adams sometime this year and who projects to be an All-Star many times over. Taveras is an example of why the Cardinal lineup perennially functions like a Great White Shark’s teeth: lose one star hitter, and up immediately pops another from the farm system.

Also, don’t overlook the addition of Peter Bourjos, who is one of the absolute best defensive players in the majors. He could have a major impact on the Cards’ run prevention abilities, and fly ball pitchers Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Shelby Miller should learn to love him in a hurry.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

Call me insane, call me irrational, call me ripshit drunk, but don’t call me conventional. This is my bold pick for the preseason, that the Brewers will not only finish above the Pirates and Reds, but also contend for a Wild Card. The Brewers have assembled a quietly effective pitching staff to support a lineup that could be among the best in the league. Ryan Braun’s general asshat-ery will get all the headlines, but the star of this team is Carlos Gomez, who has quietly become one of the top all-around players in baseball. The Lyle Overbay/Mark Reynolds first base tandem never goes well for anybody (just ask the Yankees), so that’s a concern, but this team is very strong up the middle with Gomez in center, Jonathan Lucroy at catcher, and Jean Segura at short. They’re my dark horse playoff pick.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Much of the Reds’ season hinges on just how well speedster Billy Hamilton functions in the leadoff spot. If he hits .320, steals 70-80 bases, and gets into the opposing pitchers’ head every time he gets on base, the Reds have themselves a full-blown catalyst and in turn should be able to withstand the loss of Shin-Soo Choo. If Hamilton OBPs .290 and plays like the second coming of Gerald Young, then the Reds might be screwed. Behind Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, they have a righty-heavy lineup that can’t exactly mark down getting on base as a strong suit. Their pitching got weaker as well with the loss of Bronson Arroyo, so they’ll need Mike Leake to repeat his surprising 2013 (unlikely) and Tony Cingrani to prove he can handle a full season’s workload (more likely). With decliners like Ryan Ludwick and Brandon Phillips (though he denies it!), they look like a prime candidate to disappoint.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

I love that the Pirates are relevant again, but I think the Plexiglass Principle is going to hit them hard this season. For starters, they won’t have A.J. Burnett’s innings anymore, and they certainly won’t get another 109 All-Star-caliber innings from Jeff Locke, as they did in the first half last season. Second, it’s anyone’s guess if Francisco Liriano can stay both healthy and effective again; last year was the first time in a long time that he was both for any stretch of time. Lastly, they’re platooning Gaby Sanchez and Travis Ishikawa at first base, for heaven’s sake. The Pirates are definitely a team on the rise, and they have a lot of help coming in the near future from the farm, but the smart money is on regression this year. If the Pirates are Arcade Fire, then 2013 was Funeral, the coming-out party. 2014, then, is destined to be the Neon Bible disappointment. Just watch out for the incredible The Suburbs in 2015, which means maybe a brilliant Reflektor/World Series title in 2016.

5. Chicago Cubs

One of the hardest parts of being the general manager of a major league team, I assume, is having to balance the best interests of the team with the often-lunatic demands of fans and media. Noted curse-breaker Theo Epstein was carried into Chicago on the shoulders of an eternally-suffering fan base, but now, just two years into his tenure as the man at the top of the Cubs, those same fans are basically calling for his head. And the sad thing is, his process has been sound; the fans just don’t give a crap. They (and the writers…always the writers) want results, and they want them yesterday.

Epstein watched as two of his budding superstars, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, flopped completely last year, and now those two are just two more question marks as the rebuild process lurches on. With Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, and Jorge Soler coming up the pipeline, the Cubs don’t stand to be bad for too much longer, but it’s already been longer than the Windy City faithful would like. Everybody outside of Chicago still has confidence that Epstein knows what he’s doing, but the 2014 product is still going to be stomach-churning. See ya in 2015, Cubbies.

National League West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers may be taking the C. Montgomery Burns approach to winning, and they may have reaffirmed their long affiliation with Satan, but they’re definitely the team to beat in the NL West. Basically, a lot would have to go wrong for the Dodgers to cough up this division. What could go wrong, you ask? It’s hard to say, or at least hard to say what combination of calamities would keep the Dodgers out of October. Perhaps Yasiel Puig implodes and proves he’s a flash in the pan, or perhaps he becomes so much of a problem in the clubhouse that he brings the team down from within (though I’m convinced that much of the “Puig-as-cancer” theme is blown up by L.A. scribes and fueled by quasi-racism). Maybe Hanley Ramirez sinks back to his 2011-12 self. Maybe one of their pitchers gets hurt, or maybe Dan Haren and Josh Beckett will continue to be utter disasters. Maybe Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford get old and the lineup underperforms.

That’s certainly a whole lot of maybes, but if the Dodgers do struggle in the first half, I think I speak for all of us when I demand that they pull off a hilariously ill-advised trade for Alex Rodriguez to fill their 2015 third base hole.

2. San Francisco Giants

The thinking goes that if the Giants get a lot of breaks, they can contend for a playoff spot again, but I see it a bit differently. The team can’t possibly have more injuries than they did last season, when their starting center fielder and one of their starters each missed three months. When Angel Pagan was playing, it was just a totally different lineup. Matt Cain is a good bet to have a better year, Ryan Vogelsong is at least a decent bet to improve on his miserable 2013, and Tim Hudson can’t possibly be worse than Barry Zito was last season. The Giants are bound to get more firepower out of left field with Mike Morse around. So I don’t think it’s a matter of a bunch of stuff having to go right, so much as the team can’t suffer through all the things that went wrong again. If all the main guys stay healthy, they’ll be in the Wild Card hunt at the least.

3. San Diego Padres

The Padre offense is much better than you’d think. Petco Park suppresses offense perhaps more than any park in the majors, and does so to such a degree that it makes good hitters look downright vanilla. Take Jedd Gyorko, who had a fabulous rookie year in which he hit 23 home runs, but was largely ignored because his batting average was squashed by his home park.

Conversely, the Padres’ pitching staff is a lot worse than it appears. Last year, the team posted an 86 ERA+, despite a not-so-horrible-looking 3.98 team ERA. This year, if the Padres sink below .500 again, it’ll be that pitching that does them in. Behind Andrew Cashner, there are a lot of questions. Questions such as: Is Tyson Ross the real deal? Can Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson salvage their respective careers? How does Eric Stults get batters out? I like the chances of Kennedy and Johnson having a Petco-fueled resurgence, and the offense is much better than people realize, especially if Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin can stay healthy, and if Yasmani Grandal can stay off the juice. If the starting pitching improves, they could be a 2010-ish surprise team.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Snakes’ season may have been torpedoed before it even started when Patrick Corbin became the latest Tommy John patient. That deprives them of their best pitcher and forces them to turn to a lot of shaky options in their rotation. Brandon McCarthy, he of the amazing Twitter feed, was awful last season, and Bronson Arroyo’s fly ball-happy repertoire might not be a great fit in the desert. They also made some questionable offseason moves, like trading for combustible closer Addison Reed and out-maker extraordinaire Mark Trumbo. They also can’t seem to keep from taking shots in the press at former players after they’ve departed, which has gotta hurt them in the karma department, right? I’m a lot more bearish on their season than most, and see them disappointing a lot of people.

5. Colorado Rockies

I have a theory that the Rockies will never be able to see sustained success because of the toll Coors Field takes on their pitchers. Even the best pitchers they produce, the ones who have great seasons despite the altitude, are forced to throw more pitches and generally see more hitters per start, and that leads to more stressful innings and thus a higher propensity for breakdown. It happened to Jeff Francis, it happened to Ubaldo Jimenez, and it’s probably going to happen to Jorge De La Rosa, who averaged just 5.6 innings per start last year. Since the Rockies can never (and have never) been able to maintain a strong and healthy rotation for more than a year or two at a time, they have only a small window in which to compete for a title. Despite some truly dynamic star power in their lineup, that window is currently not open, and probably won’t be until Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler establish themselves in a couple of years and give the Rocks their next two year window before breaking down.

Postseason Picks

Wild Card: Giants over Brewers

NLDS: Nationals over Giants, Cardinals over Dodgers

NLCS: Nationals over Cardinals

MVP: Carlos Gomez

Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg

Rookie of the Year: Jameson Tailon

Manager of the Year: Ron Roenicke

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