Predicting the NL Playoff Picture 2018
With Opening Day finally upon us, Brett Borzelli offers his pre-season playoff predictions for the Senior Circuit in 2018.
A lot can happen between March and October. Nonetheless, last week I offered my pre-season playoff predictions for the American League. This week, I present the NL teams that appear best on paper to make the postseason in 2018.
NL East: Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals claimed four NL East titles in the last six years. In 2017, they were the only team in the division with a winning record. Led by Anthony Rendon (6.0 WAR) and Bryce Harper (4.7), the club won the East by 20 games.
The Nationals will once again be the strongest team in a weak division. Atlanta continues to rebuild around a young core, while Miami just began its retooling efforts. The Mets continue to appear directionless, while the Phillies may be the East’s most improved team. Still, after losing 96 games last year, Philadelphia is not quite ready to challenge Washington’s supremacy.
Washington boasts a trio of solid starters at the top of its rotation in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez. The bullpen improved, thanks in part to last year’s trade-deadline deal with Oakland that landed the Nats Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. They also retain a solid lineup that led the NL with a .782 OPS last season. Poised to three-peat as division champs, Washington should do so easily.
NL Central: Chicago Cubs
Following the dramatic end to their 107-year World Series championship drought in 2016, the Cubs seemed to experience a bit of a hangover last season. Despite appearing the best team in the division on paper, Chicago got off to a slow start and managed to win the Central by only six games over the upstart Milwaukee Brewers.
Although they lost Jake Arrieta and John Lackey via free agency, the Cubs landed the biggest prize of this winter’s class in Yu Darvish. Chicago also signed Tyler Chatwood and Drew Smyly to bolster the rotation. Plus, the Cubbies will enjoy the services of Jose Quintana for a full season, having acquired the starter from their crosstown rivals last July. Relievers Wade Davis and Hector Rondon departed, while Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek headline a revamped bullpen.
The Cubs can hit. Last year they finished second in the league in runs scored (822), and third in homers (223) and OPS (.775). Kris Bryant (6.2 WAR), Anthony Rizzo (4.3 WAR), and Willson Contreras (4.0 WAR) return to fuel Chicago’s run-scoring machine. The Brewers will once again challenge (see my Wild Card prediction), but the Cubs should have no trouble winning their third straight NL Central title.
NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers led the majors in 2017 with 104 wins and tallied the National League’s best run differential (+190). Although they sprinted out to a 91-36 record and looked to threaten the all-time single-season win mark, the Dodgers cooled considerably before finally wrapping up their fifth straight division title. Still, Los Angeles reached its first World Series since 1988 and pushed it all the way to Game 7.
The club remains solid in every phase of the game. Justin Turner (5.8 WAR), Corey Seager (5.6 WAR), Chris Taylor (4.8 WAR), Cody Bellinger (4.2 WAR), and Yasiel Puig (3.7 WAR) propel a potent offense. Clayton Kershaw is arguably the best starter in the game today, while Kenley Jansen may be baseball’s best closer.
The NL West sent three teams to the playoffs last year. Arizona lost one of its big run producers when J.D. Martinez departed via free agency, but should still be competitive this season. Ditto with Colorado, while the Giants and Padres also took steps to improve. This may be baseball’s toughest division, but none of these teams will seriously challenge Los Angeles in the divisional race. The Dodgers should win 100 plus games again en route to their sixth consecutive NL West crown.
Wild Card: Colorado Rockies
Last season, the Colorado Rockies posted a 12-win improvement to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. The club led the NL with 824 runs scored and posted the second-best OPS (.781).
Nolan Arenado (7.2 WAR) paced Colorado’s high-powered offense. The third baseman smacked 37 home runs and produced his third straight 130-plus RBI season. Charlie Blackmon (6.0 WAR) won the NL Batting Title, while also smacking 37 homers and driving in 104 runs.
The club stands poised to take another step forward in 2018. Colorado’s core group of young starting pitchers will improve with experience. To bolster the bullpen, the Rockies signed reliever Bryan Shaw and closer Wade Davis this winter.
Wild Card: Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers won 86 games in 2017, finishing one game back in the Wild Card race. Milwaukee added talent this offseason, hoping to take that next step. I think they will.
Christian Yelich arrived via the Miami fire sale. The left-handed-hitting outfielder averaged 4.2 WAR over the last four years. The Brewers also inked Lorenzo Cain (5.3 WAR) to an $80 million five-year deal. Veteran starter Jhoulys Chacin signed a two-year contract, while Matt Albers and Boone Logan join the bullpen.
The Brewers might not pose a serious challenge to the Cubs for the division title, but they should claim one of the league’s Wild Card berths. Owner Mark Attanasio also promised to “keep the powder dry for midseason acquisitions.”
Honorable Mention: San Francisco Giants
Things looked bright for the Giants, until the injury bug bit. The starting rotation suffered a setback when Madison Bumgarner fractured a finger and Jeff Samardzija strained his pec. Closer Mark Melancon is questionable for Opening Day with arm trouble after pitching on consecutive days.
Every team deals with injuries. That’s baseball. If the Giants can weather these setbacks, they might turn out to be baseball’s most improved team in 2018.