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March 31, 2014 at 6:50 am ET
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Your 2014 National League Preview-Palooza

I spent the better part of last weekend in Cleveland, Brohio, home of the defending 2013 American League Play-In Game Participants, the Cleveland Indians. On our approach into town, we were greeted with a gigantic billboard that simply read, “Unfinished Business” with a big “C” in front of the “U” in “unfinished.” After a hearty juvenile laugh (sketch it out), I began thinking 2014 could be the year of “unfinished business” for a lot of teams who fell short at the end of last year. After a roller-coaster season in which the team widely picked to finish last in their division won the World Series, more organizations than ever believe they have a shot at winning at all, and the offseason aggressiveness of teams like Seattle and Baltimore (albeit a few months late) indicate more teams than ever are looking for that one final piece.

While there are some teams who are basically divisional doorstops, 2014 should be one of the most competitive we’ve ever seen. Six inches of snow aside, I’m ready to play ball.

We start today with the Senior Circuit and since the West is the Best; we’ll go left to right.  Bold team names indicate predicted order of finish and * indicates Wild Card winners.  Tune in later this week for the AL preview and playoff predictions that are guaranteed to be at least 33% accurate.

National League West

The 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers season got off to a rough start: manager Don Mattingly almost quit, phenom Yasiel Puig showed up to camp way too heavy, then aces Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw got hurt. Nonetheless, los Doyers are the NL’s best team in a mediocre division. Even with Kershaw missing a significant period of time (which seems unlikely), this team is still playoff-bound. They are deep, they are talented, and they got all kinds of money.

A few hundred miles north, the San Francisco Giants* will try to make one last playoff push with the core of their 2010 and 2012 championship teams starting to fade. Surprisingly, the Giants should actually score some runs with Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence, and Pablo Sandoval anchoring the middle of the lineup. What’s scary here is the team’s pitching — once the best in baseball, the Giants are banking on Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, and Tim Lincecum returning to their 2012 form (probably/maybe/outlook not so good) while free agent addition Tim Hudson tries to coax one more All-Star season out of his 38 year-old arm. If 2012 Cain and Madison Bumgarner can combine for 60 starts, the Giants are still contenders.

Call me crazy, but I think the Colorado Rockies will get a full season out of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Led by these two MVP-caliber talents, the Rockies boast a balanced offensive attack that also mixes young (Nolan Arenado and Wilin Rosario) with old (Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau). While I didn’t like the Dexter Fowler trade, Jordan Lyles joins Eddie Butler and Jonathan Grey as a triumvirate of young arms that could help the Rockies this season. The Rockies will never win any ERA titles, but Jorge De La Rosa and Brett Anderson aren’t exactly pushovers, either. With some luck, they could still be hanging around come October.

Of all the teams that were decimated with arm injuries this spring, the loss of Patrick Corbin for the Arizona Diamondbacks seemed to hurt the most. Without Corbin, Arizona’s once bright playoff hopes seem shaky, much like their remaining starting rotation. Combined with an uneven offense, the Snakes might need a Strasburg-ian performance from Archie Bradley to save their season. The bullpen should be strong, and that’s good, because they’re going to get a lot of work.

I don’t typically buy into teams that depend so heavily on injury-prone players and the San Diego Padres are certainly no exception. Carlos Quentin and Josh Johnson will need to be a big part of this team’s success and both are dinged up to start the year. The Padres haven’t won more than 80 games since 2010 – the heat is on for Josh Byrnes and Bud Black.

NL Central

Baseball’s best division is headlined by perhaps the best organization in the game: the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals, losers of last year’s World Series, return mostly in tact with one key change: 2011 World Series hero David Freese was traded in the offseason to Anaheim for centerfielder Peter Burjos, he of the light bat and magnetic glove (who I still don’t think is much better than Jon Jay, but I guess it’s nice to have options). The loss of Freese will be managed with NL hits leader Matt Carpenter shifting to third and Kolten Wong taking Carpenter’s old spot at second. The sinkhole at short will now be manned by free agent signee Jhonny Peralta — not exactly a great glove man, but the offense gained will be a dramatic improvement over whatever David Eckstein wannabe they had there last year. The starting pitching depth is just unfair, but one wonders if the Cardinals have enough in their bullpen.

The Cincinnati Reds* stumbled into last year’s post-season looking like a team on the brink. Over the winter, the Reds said goodbye to manager Dusty Baker and hello to Bryan Price. Price inherits a pretty strong team that ended the season with a disappointing five straight home losses and starts this season with eight players on the DL. Despite the bad signs, it’s easy to like the Reds offense even with the loss of Shin-Soo Choo. If Billy Hamilton can get on base at least 35% of his at bats, he’ll be a dramatic addition to the team. Yes, their bullpen makes me nervous, especially with the injuries to Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman (oof), but here’s hoping those are all short term problems.

Try to remember the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs in the same year the Pittsburgh Steelers missed them. Time’s up: it was 1991. The Pirates look like they’ll continue to put pressure on their next-door neighbors again in 2014. Pittsburgh returns most of last season’s 94-win team minus A.J. Burnett. The loss of Burnett hurts, but a full season of stud Gerrit Cole and perhaps the call-up of Jameson Taillon should ease the pain. Prospect Gregory Polanco will eventually find a way to bust into a crowded outfield that features reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and potential All-Star Starling Marte. Pittsburgh’s out to prove 2013 was no fluke and with this roster, they’ll continue to push the Cardinals and Reds deep into the summer.

Milwaukee’s grasp of fourth place is fleeting: as much as I love the Brew Crew, they’ve hit their talent ceiling and with little to no young help on the way, they are destined to be over taken by the young juggernaut being built by Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs. Barring career years from each of Milwaukee’s starting five, the Brewers will struggle like Ryan Braun trying to pass a pee test.

NL East

This season I get the feeling the Washington Nationals will learn the two greatest words in the English dictionary are “de-fault.”  Last season, the Nats entered April as the consensus World Series favorite and despite a disappointing (and really boring) 86-win season, not much has changed in 2014. The Nats will get a mulligan for last year’s showing and just to make it a little easier on them, the rest of division is getting out of their way. GM Mike Rizzo tried to level-out the rotation by robbing Detroit of Doug Fister (seems to be happening a lot these days), but now Fister is hurt. Nonetheless, the team is deep enough and young enough to cruise to 90 wins, which in this division of broken elbow tendon dreams, should be plenty.

I think people are making two very bad assumptions about this division in 2014: 1) Atlanta’s decimated rotation is still good enough to compete for the playoffs and 2) the New York Mets will actually be competitive. That being the case, the Philadelphia Phillies stand to emerge as Washington’s loan challenger this season. People clowned on Ruben Amaro all offseason (with good reason), but people forget the Phillies still possess two of the best starting pitchers in baseball: Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. With the aforementioned Burnett slotting into the third rotation spot, the Phillies will pitch well on most days. Yeah, I get that their offense is old, but take a look at who else is out there…

With a young, energetic core of talent, most of baseball was excited to see what the Atlanta Braves could do this season with another year of experience under their belt. Unfortunately, catastrophic injuries will likely derail any serious hopes of playing deep into October. Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are gone for the year and Mike Minor starts the season on the DL trying to recover from a shoulder injury. Julio Teheran looks good, but beyond him the Braves must hope Ervin Santana is healthy and ready to go. On offense, the Braves are trying to replace an All-Star at catcher with Evan Gattis – a great story, but also a guy who couldn’t hit for three months last year. At 34, Dan Uggla probably isn’t getting much better and I think the ship has just about sailed on B.J. Upton. While there is still great potential in Justin (still only 26 years-old) and Andrelton Simmons, they’ll have to have monster years to keep the Braves competitive with the rest of the NL.

So the New York Mets think they’ll win 90 games this year. A list of things that will happen before that:

  1. I’ll enjoy a television program that features a Kardashian or Lena Dunham
  2. Academy Award-nominated major motion picture, “Sabotage”
  3. President Chris Christie
  4. A wedding reception DJ that doesn’t play “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas
  5. Mark Sanchez, starting quarterback

The Montreal Expos are back! I think? They played a game there, some guy wrote a book… it’s all very confusing but in the interest of not offending the new Montreal Bureau at Bugs, I’ll just put them here and get back to you on this. Très Bon!

And with a flute up its nose, it’s the Miami Marlins! I dislike the Marlins for oh so many reasons: greedy creep of an owner, ego-driven president, stupid stadium, dishonest ticket pricing, and much more, but to be honest, I could live with all of that if they just weren’t such a big, sad, orange bore.

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