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What Could Derail the NL Favorites?

Last week, I took a look at the top contenders in the AL, and the weaknesses that could derail them. Each of the presumptive division favorites, the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros looks strong on paper, but each did possess a vulnerability that could hamper them next season.

Turning our attention to the National League, it becomes much harder to pick out weaknesses among the favorites. By FanGraphs’ projections, the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers are clear favorites in their respective divisions. All three are coming off excellent 2016 campaigns, and moved this offseason to solidify their rosters.

Still, there’s no such a thing as a lock to win a division, so there must be something that could take down the favorites. Let’s take a closer look to find the weaknesses among the NL’s best.

Washington Nationals

Potential downfall: Veteran albatrosses

After a disappointing 2015, the Nationals came back and ran away with the NL East, winning 95 games. Despite a strange come-down season for 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, the Nationals were still top-to-bottom one of the league’s best teams.

The Nationals spent most of the winter linked to seemingly every big name, from trade targets like Chris Sale to free agent hurlers like Mark Melancon. They consistently came up short in the bidding, but did manage to make some additions nevertheless: they paid a hefty price for new center fielder Adam Eaton, and eventually inked Matt Wieters to start at catcher after the veteran saw his market dry up.

However, Washington has been left with two glaring holes thanks to a pair of veteran albatrosses: Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. Werth is in the final year of a seven-year, $126 million deal, while Zimmerman still has three years and $48 million on an extension signed back in 2012. Neither are worth anything close to their current salary.

Werth, whose contract immediately looked disastrous after a poor first year in Washington, actually rebounded in his mid-30’s to provide the Nats with quality production. The past two seasons, however, have seen Werth decline rapidly. Werth has been below average by OPS+ since 2015, and has been below replacement level by rWAR. Entering his age-38 season, it’s hard to see Werth reversing that trend.

Zimmerman, once the face of the franchise and a young star, has spent the last three seasons battling injury and ineffectiveness. He’s missed over 200 games combined the past three years, and his batting line slipped to a dreadful .218/.272./.370 in 115 games last year.

Both are too expensive to realistically be moved, and apparently too entrenched to take out of the starting lineup. But during an offseason where corner-power bats went cheap, that appears to have been a mistake. The Rangers signed Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez for a combined $20 million. Corner infielders like Brandon Moss and Luis Valbuena couldn’t crack $8 million annually on the market. During an offseason in which serviceable sluggers went for cheap, having albatrosses like Werth and Zimmerman weighing down the roster severely hampered the Nationals’ ability to improve.

Washington is stacked with talent otherwise, but having so much money tied up into replacement level players leaves Washington with major holes. Picking up even average players to fill those holes on the cheap was doable this offseason, but the Nationals opted against unseating their albatrosses, and the team is worse off for it.

Chicago Cubs

Potential downfall: Regression to the mean

This is a bit of a cop-out, but it underscores how balanced and talented the Cubs remain a season after breaking their 108-year title drought. The roster is spotless, devoid of holes. Sure, one could argue Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson aren’t sure-things in the fifth starter role, but it would be disingenuous to call that a major weakness: there isn’t a team in the majors whose fifth-starter situation isn’t at least a bit shaky.

Instead, all that could possibly derail the defending champs are injuries and one big round of regression to the mean. Regression to the mean speaks to the concept of extreme outcomes and outliers. If we see a sensational outcome, we expect the next data point to be closer to the mean. When it comes to the Cubs, that sensational outcome pertains to their run prevention in 2016.

Over at The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh examined why projection systems see the Cubs coming down to Earth after their fantastic 2016, and concluded that the forecasting systems called for the Cubs’ outstanding pitching and defense to regress dramatically. Specifically, the Cubs appear likely to see their opponent’s BABIP increase in the coming year.

Last year, the Cubs allowed a BABIP of just .255, out of sight of the league average of .298. Lindbergh found that, compared to league average, the Cubs’ BABIP allowed last season was the lowest in history. That is an extreme outcome, and naturally, projection systems (and we observers) should expect that to regress.

Specifically, Steamer projections forecast the Cubs for a .293 BABIP, still good but far from last year’s historic figure. If the rate at which the Cubs allow hits on ball increases by nearly four percentage points, that would likely be worth dozens of runs, and several wins. Hundreds of outs would turn into singles, doubles, and triples, the Cubs’ pitchers’ ERA’s would rise, and the Cubs would win fewer games.

Will the Cubs’ BABIP allowed really increase that much? It’s hard to say, given the fickle nature of balls in play. With a strong pitching staff and excellent defenders, it seems unlikely the Cubs BABIP will regress all the way to .293 like Steamer expects. But the extent to which the Cubs’ run prevention regresses to the mean might determine whether Chicago is vulnerable at all in 2017.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Potential downfall: Starting pitching health

The Dodgers trotted out a nearly unimaginable number of starters last season, as injuries across the board resulted in 15 (15!) Dodgers taking the ball to start a game. The only pitcher to stay fairly healthy and record 30+ starts was, ironically, Kenta Maeda, who signed with the Dodgers despite tons of concern regarding the health of his elbow, concern which led the Dodgers to only allow him to throw 175 innings last year.

Brett Anderson, who accepted the qualifying offer before 2016, only made three starts. Alex Wood managed 10. Brandon McCarthy only started nine times returning from Tommy John surgery, while Hyun-Jin Ryu started just once. And, of course, the worst-case scenario occurred when Clayton Kershaw was hampered by, and ultimately sidelined because of, a back ailment.

The Dodgers’ rotation was somehow still effective despite the laundry list of injuries. It helps to have Kershaw, who was having perhaps his best season prior to being injured. Maeda, phenom Julio Urias, and Rich Hill were also quite good when on the mound. Thanks to a tremendous amount of depth, the Dodgers survived 2016.

It looks like they will have to do the same in 2017. Already, Scott Kazmir has suffered an injury. The likes of McCarthy, Ryu, Maeda and Wood are still highly questionable to stay healthy. Same goes for Hill, who suffered from blisters down the stretch in 2016, and heaven forbid Kershaw’s back problems flare up again.

Los Angeles still has depth, but it’s already being tested with Kazmir’s injury and the trade of top pitching prospect Jose De Leon for Logan Forsythe. In all likelihood, injuries will force unproven players like Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling to step up and provide innings.

This strategy of compiling a plethora of talented but injury-prone starters held together last year, and projections expect to again this year. FanGraphs depth charts peg the Dodgers’ pitchers as the number one unit in the game. If things go as planned, the Dodgers will scrape through once again.

But there is unquestionably downside. If Kershaw runs into problems and Hill’s blisters recur, the Dodgers will have real issues to grapple with. There’s simply a lot of variance and unpredictability when it comes to pitcher health, and the Dodgers have exacerbated that by seemingly targeting pitchers with lengthy injury histories. Because of their depth and employment of the best pitcher in baseball, the Dodgers should survive. But there are certainly scenarios in which the starting rotation is reduced to shambles, leaving the Dodgers’ title hopes in tatters.

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Jake Devin fell in love with the game of baseball as a child, watching the Yankees of the late nineties and early aughts dominate the league. The Yankees don't dominate anymore, but Jake's passion for the game is as strong as ever, with exciting new ways to view and analyze the game popping up seemingly all the time. Jake recently graduated from Binghamton University where he completed a degree in mathematics and economics, as well as a four-year track and field career.

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