The Dodgers alreday are 2-0 and will play face the Padres on Sunday, but the majority of the baseball world begins playing games that count on Monday. Here’s a look at the National League, with teams in order of projected finish within their respective division.
1. Atlanta Braves
Even with starters Mike Minor, Gavin Floyd and Kris Medlan on the shelf, this team has it all. Julio Teheran, Ervin Santana and Alex Wood can handle the load, as can its loaded lineup featuring Freddie Freeman, the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward. The best closer in the game, Craig Kimbrel, will be finishing off plenty of Atlanta victories. However, they’ll probably battle Washington for the division crown until the end.
2. Washington Nationals
Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg are the cornerstones of the lineup and rotation, respectively, and their growth alone makes this team better than the 86-win Nats of 2013. Toss talented hitters (Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth) and stud pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann) into the mix and this is a terrific ballclub that can make a run at the pennant.
Sandy Alderson said he thinks this team can win 90 games. Don’t be fooled, Mets faithful. This is an improved team, but only slightly better than a year ago. Starting pitching will be expected to carry them even without Matt Harvey, and it will do a passable job without working miracles.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
This once-mighty group is a shell of its former self with Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley aging. Although Domonic Brown provide a powerful bat, it will be up to Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels to pitch the Phils to victory most nights at a hitter-friendly home ballpark.
5. Miami Marlins
They won’t lose 100 games again . . . probably. But this is still a work in progress. Young Jose Fernandez will challenge for the Cy Young Award again, and he might win it this time. But too much youth makes this another year simply of getting the kids some big-league experience.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
The NL champions of a year ago will pick up right where they left off thanks to one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball. Players such as Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter are coming off career years, and there will be some slight regression, but they’re still top notch. Ditto for ace Adam Wainwright, who is joined by young, talented starters Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
With the postseason monkey off their backs, the Pirates now know they can compete with NL’s best. Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and Washington Heights’ Pedro Alvarez will drive in tons of runs, but they’ll miss departed ace A.J. Burnett. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are capable of filling his void and turning in some standout seasons on the hill.
3. Cincinnati Reds
This team will live and die with it’s talented rotation, which needs to stay healthy. Opening Day starter Johnny Cueto suffered serious injuries in each of the past two seasons, and Mat Latos won’t be ready to start the season. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce make this lineup dangerous, too, but there won’t be room for everyone in the playoffs.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers’ place in the standings is the most volatile. They could find a way to win or lose 90 games. Figure closer to 74 as they did a year ago when Ryan Braun was suspended for the final two months of the season. Milwaukee’s pitching isn’t special, but its lineup might come through for them.
5. Chicago Cubs
One day, the Cubs will win a World Series. But at this rate, it would seem the players to do it aren’t born yet. There’s very little to like here. The most interesting thing about them is the question, “Will the Cubs trade pitcher Jeff Samardzija?” The front office likely just wants to see young guys like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo have a good year.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
The high-priced Dodgers will go largely unchallenged through the season in the West. They’re too talented not to run away with this division. Whether it’s ERA kingpin Clayton Kershaw, the exciting Yasiel Puig or any number of well-paid stars, the Dodgers can win in so many ways. If they’re not dominant this year, manager Don Mattingly will return to the hot seat, regardless of whether he deserves it.
2. San Francisco Giants
They’ll return to respectability this year after 76 wins in 2013, and Pablo Sandoval will have much to do with it. He’s shed some weight and will return to All-Star production. Buster Posey be terrific again, and the pitching staff should recover from its 2013 struggles, especially Matt Cain. Adding Tim Hudson to the back of the rotation will help, too.
3. Colorado Rockies
The heart of the lineup — Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer — is as potent as any in baseball. Signing Justin Morneau should make up for Todd Helton’s retirement, and a healthy Brett Anderson gives this club a legitimate front-end starter. Really, this team could turn some heads if it catches a few breaks along the way.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo will bash plenty of homers in the dry Phoenix air. That much is for sure. But this team will struggle on the mound. Losing projected ace Patrick Corbin for the year was a big blow and will make it tough to repeat the 81 wins it earned a year ago.
5. San Diego Padres
Not much to like here. Someone — whether it’s third baseman Chase Headley or pitcher Ian Kennedy — must return to 2012 form and forget 2013 ever happened. Yonder Alonso living up to the expectations that came with him when he was acquired for Mat Latos two years ago would be a boon, too. Their destined to pull up the rear.