14– Number of days until Opening Day
80,663– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday
Washington Nationals Preview
Key Additions: Doug Fister, Jerry Blevins, Nate McLouth
Key Departures: Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina
The Nationals were everybody’s pre-season darlings going into the 2013 season. In fact, I picked them to represent the National League in the World Series. They just never got it going, struggling to reach .500 deep into August. A late-season run in which they went 32-16 in the final 48 games gave fans a glimmer of hope that they could grab a Wild Card spot, but they ultimately fell short and missed the playoffs. One big reason why the Nationals struggled compared to 2012 was their production at second base. Danny Espinosa struggled, primarily due to a broken wrist and he eventually lost his job to Anthony Rendon.
OFFENSE: The Nationals essentially return the same lineup from last season, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Denard Span, the speedy outfielder who hit .279 with 20 steals, heads back to the leadoff spot in front of the impressive Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth trio. Those three guys combined for 71 home runs. Backed by Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Anthony Rendon there's plenty of potential for this lineup to be one of the highest-scoring units in baseball.
STARTING PITCHING: The starting rotation is the strength of the Nationals. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have each had a year worthy of Cy Young consideration within the past two seasons while Stephen Strasburg was better than Gonzalez and Zimmermann in ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate last season. There are some that might point to his 8-9 record, but the Nationals scored two runs or fewer in 16 of Strasburg's 30 starts. Now, add in Doug Fister and the Nationals could have the best rotation in baseball. Fister was 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA with the Tigers. He's been one of the stingiest pitchers in the league in terms of home runs allowed and now he's switching over to the league that is easier on pitchers.
BULLPEN: Despite signing closer Rafael Soriano in 2013, the Nationals' bullpen was a league average unit last year. Soriano saw a huge drop in strikeout rate as his ERA climbed by nearly a full run. Despite the red flags, there are several reasons why he will keep his job in 2014. Setup man Tyler Clippard will continue to be amazing, but Drew Storen was awful in 2013 and it's difficult to know what he will do this year. Left Jerry Blevins was the latest pitcher in the Oakland-to-D.C. pipeline when the Nationals traded for him this offseason and will be a strength in the Nats pen.
2014 PREDICTION: If last year was World Series or bust, this season could be labeled as better late than never. Yes, the Nationals were predicted to win it all by many experts last season, but just because they failed doesn't mean they have lost their chance with this nucleus. This group is as talented as any and showed as much in the final third of the season in 2013. The most likely scenario is the Nationals engaging in a two-horse race with the Braves throughout the season in the NL East. I'm picking the Nationals to win that race.
Final Record (88-74 First Place in NL East)
18– Number of days until Opening Day
76.296– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday
Chicago Cubs Preview
The big question - Is the wait almost over? It has been 105 long years since the north side of Chicago last celebrated a World Series title and in seven months that number will be pushed to 106. Let’s get it out of the way: this 2014 edition of the Cubs is hopeless. There’s not enough firepower in the lineup, not nearly enough quality arms on the pitching staff, and they’ll play in a five-team division that features four much better squads. The Cubs are waiting for several top prospects to make it to Wrigley Field. A total of seven Cubs prospects appeared in last month’s Baseball America Top 100, tied for the second-most of any organization. Javier Baez looks like a star in the making and will likely work his way into the major league infield mix by the end of this summer. He batted .282 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft, could also become a starter — at third base — by the end of 2014. Right-handed starter C.J. Edwards and Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler were among the other Cubs prospects. Until these guys arrive, it might as well keep snowing in Chicago.
Key Additions: Jason Hammel, Jose Veres, Wesley Wright, Justin Ruggiano, George Kottaras
Key Departures: Scott Baker, Kevin Gregg, Dioner Navarro, Matt Guerrier
OFFENSE: The lineup isn’t formidable. Anthony Rizzo has promising upside at first base, but his park-adjusted batting numbers were nearly league-average for that premium offensive position during the 2013 season. Fifth-year shortstop Starlin Castro was a complete disaster last summer, hitting .245. Luis Valbuena, Nate Schieholtz, Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, Wellington Castillo, and Darwin Barney make up this lackluster lineup.
STARTING PITCHING: As loaded as the Cubs' system is offensively, it leaves a lot to be desired for pitching prospects. Fortunately, the Cubs already have some nice pieces in place. Jeff Samardzija wasn't quite as effective as he was in 2012, but he topped the 200-inning and 200-strikeout marks for the first time. Edwin Jackson's ERA was a full point higher than Samardzija. Travis Wood broke out with a 3.11 ERA in exactly 200 innings. Wood made his first All-Star appearance. Jason Hammel was not as effective in an injury-riddled 2013 season as he was in his injury-riddled 2012 season. Jake Arrieta struggled once again to keep the ball in the park in 2013 and he is just as injury riddled as Hammel. The Cubs also have Chris Rusin, James McDonald, Carlos Villanueva, and Kyle Hendricks in the mix for Arrieta's spot.
BULLPEN: The Cubs ranked 25th in the MLB in bullpen ERA last season with a 4.04 mark, but they look to be an improved group heading into 2014. Jose Veras showed he has the stuff to close during his time with the Astros before serving as one of the Detroit Tigers' primary setup men in the postseason. James Russell has been solid since moving to the bullpen full-time, while Blake Parker quietly enjoyed a breakout season of sorts in 2013. Hector Rondon showed flashes as a Rule 5 pick last season, and he should be in a good position to land a bullpen spot once again. Pedro Strop could be the X-factor here, as he has the stuff to close.
2014 Prediction: There are some interesting pieces in place at the big league level, and the progress of Castro and Rizzo will be an intriguing storyline throughout the season. However, "interesting" only takes you so far in baseball. The Cubs currently lack the talent to get out of the cellar of their division, and it may be another season or two before we start to see them climb up the standings. Given the holes on their roster and the talent atop the Central, a 70-win season would be a huge step in the right direction for Epstein and company.
Final Record: (66-96 Last Place in NL Central)