2016 National League Season Preview

Some teams have already played three games, but here at Stats Are Beautiful, timely articles are merely a suggestion. So without getting too much further into the season, here’s the division-by-division breakdown and predictions for the major awards.

East – Mets

I picked the Nationals to win the division last week on my radio show, but upon further review, I just can’t pick against the Amazin’s. That rotation is too good, with all of their top three starters good enough to front any team. Steven Matz can be as good if he continues his progress with his changeup, and Zack Wheeler put in a solid 185 innings of work in 2014 that suggests he can contribute as a #5 starter when he comes back around midseason.

The defense isn’t going to be great, especially with Asdrubal Cabrera taking over at shortstop, but the Mets are the only team in the MLB who are projected by Fangraphs to have seven starters with 2.5 WAR or more.

Central – Cubs

This seems like an easy pick, but with the Pirates and Cardinals in the division, this is anything but a lock for the Cubs. They made the best signing of the winter and also added Ben Zobrist and re-signed Dexter Fowler, allowing them to use once-top prospects Javier Baez and Jorge Soler in utility roles. This team is literally overloaded with top talent.

And that’s just the position players. The Cubs’ rotation that posted the third best ERA in the majors last year is back, and they even added a seasoned veteran who’s won in the postseason before. John Lackey’s LOB% was ten points above league average in 2015, so expect that to regress and raise his ERA, but he’ll still provide good innings. Kyle Hendricks outperformed his 3.95 ERA last year with a 3.36 FIP and an even better 3.25 xFIP, and at 26 I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take next step and become a legit #2-3 starter.

West – Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw is the greatest pitcher in the world by a large margin, and might have already surpassed Sandy Koufax as the greatest lefty in franchise history. The rotation isn’t too deep on proven major league talent beyond that, but if Japanese ace Kenta Maeda makes a smooth transition in his inaugural stateside season and 19 year old phenom Julio Urias succeeds when he’s called up, the Dodgers could have a really scary 1-2-3 come playoff time.

My prediction assumes a return to health and form for Yasiel Puig, and for Joc Pederson recapturing some of his form from the first half of 2015. In addition to those 25-and-under stars, Corey Seager is eager (sorry, it was too tempting) to join the most talented crop of young shortstops since Nomar, Jeter, and A-Rod came up in the late 1990s.

Wild Cards – Giants, Nationals

Two excellent ballclubs have to be left out of the playoff picture in the NL, and I’m picking the Cardinals and Pirates to miss out after finishing first and second, respectively, in wins in 2015. I don’t have a great reason to leave out these two teams, other than that the Cardinals didn’t do enough to replace the wins Jason Heyward took with him to Chicago and that the Pirates don’t have much rotation depth beyond Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.

The Giants have probably the best infield in the entire league, with all four players projected by Fangraphs for over 2.5 WAR. Left field remains a big question mark, as do the #4 and #5 slots of the rotation, but this team is good enough to make a run at yet another even-year World Series title.

And the Nats could easily lead the majors in wins this year or fall to around .500 depending on injuries. My bet is that they stay relatively healthy, Stephen Strasburg has himself a Bryce Harper-like 2016 breakout, Gio Gonzalez benefits from the career-high .341 BABIP he allowed (he hadn’t yielded a BABIP over .295 in a full season before 2015) regressing to league average, and that uber-prospect Lucas Giolito provides a shot in the arm (pun intended) down the stretch.

Rookie of the Year – Julio Urias

This kid (I can call him that cause he’s two years younger than I am) posted a 2.36 ERA in High A ball at age 17 and a 2.77 ERA at AA the next year. Now 19, he might just be ready to take the next step and perform at the big league level. He’ll play for a contending team and plays in a relatively easy division, so all the pieces are there.

Cy Young (other than Clayton Kershaw) – Stephen Strasburg

As is the case with Mike Trout and the AL MVP question, it’s kind of redundant to say that Kershaw should be the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award. Now, neither of them won those awards last year, but few people are saying they shouldn’t be the favorites for 2016.

So to avoid being just another voice in the chorus, I’m picking the first overall pick of the 2009 draft. Even counting his gruesome 6.55 ERA while he was struggling through injuries in the beginning of the season, he still finished well enough to post a 3.46 ERA. His ERA estimators, though, had him pegged at around 2.75, and if stays healthy all year, I don’t see any reason he can’t improve on that number as he enters his age-27 season.

MVP (other than Bryce Harper) – Kris Bryant

Harper is the obvious choice to repeat as MVP, but Kris Bryant could easily take the award if his BABIP doesn’t dip too much and his Contact% makes improvements. He’s only 24, so it’s not out of the picture to assume that he can do just that. Put me on the record, though, as saying that Harper will win the award again (and Kershaw and Trout for that matter – there’s just nothing new to write about them).

And to sum up both previews…

World Series – Dodgers over Astros

The popular pick, for good reason, has been the Cubs winning it all. Lots of people have the Mets, and of course there are plenty who’ll pencil in the Giants in an even year. But people seem to have forgotten about the Dodgers after they lost again in the Division Series and let Zack Greinke slip through their grasp to a division rival. But because of the reasons I mentioned under the NL West blurb, this team will probably be better than last year’s version. They’ll likely have to beat the Mets or Cubs, but I think this is finally the year Kershaw matches his playoff performance with his regular season stats, which will combine with a balanced offense to bring the Dodgers their 23rd pennant.

And while the top team in the AL might not even be as good as any of the top seven in the NL, it’s clear to me that the Astros should be the favorites in the pennant chase. In a head-to-head matchup with the NL’s best, however, I see the Dodgers pulling it out. I mean, the Giants are gonna do it if LA doesn’t, but wouldn’t it be great to see Magic Johnson’s money spent on this team be validated? Guess that’s why they play the games.

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