Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Washington Nationals may have the most talented team in Major League Baseball, but if you want to know who will be the last team standing for the National League, look no further than the St. Louis Cardinals.
St. Louis won its second straight NL Central title last season and advanced to the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year.
In fact, the Cards have now reached the postseason 11 times since 2000.
They are about as automatic as you can get. And the same should hold true this season as they return essentially the same squad plus one big addition.
Of course, the Cardinals go into this season with heavy hearts after prized prospect Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a drunk-driving accident in the Dominican Republic last Oct. 26. Taveras, the driver, was reportedly five times over the legal blood alcohol limit at the time of the crash.
Taveras' death was the impetus behind the Cards' biggest offseason move as they acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. Heyward fits the Cards' lineup like a glove and a change of scenery coupled with it being a contract year could be just what he needs to start fulfilling some of that promise we saw early in his career.
Although he hit a career-worst 11 home runs last season, Heyward should still help a lineup that last season finished 23rd in the majors in runs scored. They also ranked last in the NL with just 105 home runs.
Matt Holliday and Matt Adams will provide whatever pop the Cards have, provided the latter can stay healthy. Speaking of health, the one thing that could derail the Cards is if catcher Yadier Molina goes down again for an extended amount of time.
Molina might be the most irreplaceable player in the game right now.
One cause for concern could be in the rotation. On paper it stacks up with any team in the league, but ace Adam Wainwright stated over the winter that his arm was so weak at the end of last season that he was barely able to open a soda can.
After winning 20 games in the regular season, Wainwright struggled in the playoffs. He had Tommy John surgery four years ago, but since the start of the 2013 season, no pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings than Wainwright, who has logged 519 2/3 (including the postseason).
Still, a lot of teams would like to have Wainwright be their biggest concern heading into the season.
Regardless of what Wainwright delivers, the hope is that Michael Wacha regains his form from two seasons ago. Wacha looked as if he would be the heir apparent to Wainwright in 2013, as he registered a 2.78 ERA and 1.098 WHIP over his first 64 2/3 major league innings and later that year became the second-youngest player to be awarded NLCS MVP.
He seemed to be progressing in 2014 and had a 2.79 ERA through his first 15 starts until a stress reaction in his throwing shoulder put him on the shelf in mid-June. Wacha was never the same pitcher after that and was relegated to bullpen duty in the postseason and actually gave up the home run that ended the Cards' season.
But the hope is that a full offseason and a fresh start will get the 23-year- old righty back on track.
St. Louis is not as talented as Washington, but you tell me, which team would you put your money on come October? That's what I thought. And, oh by the way, let's see the Nationals even advance to a series with more than five games before we anoint them.
For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the Cards from getting to the Fall Classic in power poll form:
2. WASHINGTON: This was the best team on paper last season and they are probably even better going into this season. But if you think Max Scherzer is the guy who is going to get you over the hump, how'd that work out for the Detroit Tigers? They will probably win the most games in the league in the regular season, but it will be another October disappointment which could lead to an interesting winter.
3. LOS ANGELES: It's World Series or bust for this Dodgers team. On paper, they may have the best team and are one of a handful of teams that could win a championship. But you could have said the same thing about last year's squad or the year before. This team is deeper, though. Let's face it, a lot of teams would like to have the problem of finding a spot for Andre Ethier to play. Yasiel Puig continues to be a lightning rod and how he progresses will go a long way in determining how far this team goes.
4. PITTSBURGH: It was a nice story two years ago when the Pittsburgh Pirates returned to the postseason after 20 straight losing seasons. It was even better last year when they followed that up with another postseason appearance. Winning has again become the norm in Pittsburgh, but now is the time for this team to start winning some of these series in October. Andrew McCutchen is one of the best players in baseball, but the Pirates' season could be decided by a pair of youngsters, right fielder Gregory Polanco and right-handed starter Gerrit Cole.
5. SAN DIEGO: James Shields, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks, Derek Norris. The Padres were clearly the offseason winners. Unfortunately for them, that rarely translates into wins during the season. Regardless, they are one of the better teams in the league on paper. So if Kemp and Upton can stay healthy and Shields mentors that young staff the way he did in Kansas City, the Padres could be back in the postseason for the first time since 2006.
6. SAN FRANCISCO: We will give the Giants some respect because they are the defending world champions, but they could struggle. For a lineup that wasn't that good to begin with, they are certainly going to miss Pablo Sandoval, and Casey McGehee is nowhere near an adequate replacement. Of course, the Giants' staff may be long in the tooth, but its leader, Madison Bumgarner, is only 25. If the Giants have any shot at getting back to the postseason, though, they will need Matt Cain to bounce back from an awful injury-plagued 2014 season. But, let's be honest, it's an odd year. The Giants only win in even seasons.
7. CHICAGO: There is a lot of buzz surrounding the Chicago Cubs as they enter the season in search of the franchise's first World Series title since 1908. Not only did the Cubs add perhaps the best manager in baseball in Joe Maddon, they paired him with ace left-hander Jon Lester, who agreed to a six-year, $155 million free agent deal. So, yes, hopes may be a little too high for a Cubs team that last year lost 89 games, but the 73 wins were a seven-game improvement from the previous season. And they did so by playing a game over .500 the final two months of the year. But they seem to be banking an awful lot on their young nucleus, which probably needs another year of seasoning. One player who doesn't, however, is third baseman Kris Bryant. He is going to be a star. Whenever the Cubs finally decide to bring him up.
8. MILWAUKEE: For a good part of the 2014 season it looked as if the Milwaukee Brewers were going to win the NL Central. In fact they spent 153 days atop the division. Two awful stretches, though, doomed them. They lost 11 of 12 at one point, then went 11-25 from Aug. 20 through the end of the season and ended up finishing eight games back of the division champion Cardinals with an 82-80 mark. Milwaukee did little to help itself this offseason and brings back almost the exact same roster. On the bright side, it was a team that spent a lot of time in first place and did so with an injured Ryan Braun, but most think they overachieved.
9. MIAMI: There is some optimism floating around the Miami Marlins this season. A lot of that centers around slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who inked a monster long-term deal this offseason which could keep him in South Beach through 2027. They had a 15-game improvement last season and that was without young ace Jose Fernandez for much of the season following elbow surgery. He should be back sometime in June, but the team added Mat Latos to pick up the slack in his absence. Given how weak the NL East appears to be, the Marlins may find themselves right behind the Nationals and maybe fighting for a wild card spot.
10. CINCINNATI: The best thing you can say about the Reds this season is they are hosting the All-Star Game. Actually, it's hard to make a strong case for them to get back into the postseason as they return essentially the same team from a year ago that regressed by 14 games from the previous season. Injuries had a lot to do with that, especially in the case of Jay Bruce, who had the worst season of his career. They have a lineup that on paper looks as if it could compete and possess the most dominant ninth-inning guy in the game in Aroldis Chapman. However, after Johnny Cueto, the rotation leaves little to be desired. Plus, he is a free agent at the end of the season and may be a trade deadline candidate.
11. NEW YORK METS: There is just a different air around the Mets this season and that all centers around the return of ace Matt Harvey, who missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Harvey might be the most important player to any franchise in the sport right now. No team has as much quality young pitching as the Mets. Unfortunately one of those young arms, Zack Wheeler, was bitten by the Tommy John bug this spring and will miss the year. Still, the cupboard is plenty full. But the Mets will need a bounce back year from both David Wright and Curtis Granderson and some help from others if they want to be in the postseason mix.
12. ATLANTA: The Braves are in a rebuilding year. In fact the most exciting thing about them might be the fact that B.J. Upton changed his name back to his original moniker - Melvin Upton Jr. In case you did not know, the B stood for Bossman and the J was for Junior. Yeah, it's going to be that type of year for the Braves.
13. ARIZONA: On the bright side, there is nowhere to go but up for the Diamondbacks, who last year finished with the worst record in the sport. There is some buzz surrounding Cuban infielder Yasmany Tomas as well as the return of ace Patrick Corbin. But this is not a very good team.
14. COLORADO: The Rockies are relying on the health of star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and talented outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Sounds like a plan, but we all know how that ends. If you want to know just how bad the Colorado Rockies are, consider this: Kyle Kendrick is their Opening Day starter.
15. PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies are easily the worst team in baseball heading into the season. Depending on when they trade Cole Hamels, and, mark my words, they will deal him, they could be historically bad.
SOME OTHER PREDICTIONS
BREAKOUT PLAYER - JASON HEYWARD, ST. LOUIS: This was my pick last year and it never panned out. So you know what? This is the year Heyward becomes the star everyone thought he would be when he was drafted and then again when he blasted two home runs in his first game. Things never worked out for him in Atlanta. St. Louis is going to be a different story. Maybe the fact that he was dealt will be a wakeup call. Plus, the Cardinals are a perfect fit, as he could be the reason they get to a World Series. It's hard to believe this is his sixth season. But he is only 25 and will be a free agent at the end of the season. Something tells me he is going to be a very rich man next winter.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TRADED AT DEADLINE: COLE HAMELS, PHILADELPHIA - This can easily be Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto, but we will go with Hamels because rumors are already out there. Philadelphia's front office hasn't done much right the last few years, but holding onto Hamels at the outset of this season is absolutely the right move. There was no need to move him this offseason if there wasn't a deal to be had. Let him shine the first few months and create a bidding war. Now if he's there after the deadline, the Phillies are just lost.
FIRST MANAGER FIRED - BUD BLACK, SAN DIEGO: Truth be told, Black probably should have been fired last year. But it's hard to pin the blame on him, especially the past few seasons, because the Padres never gave him a chance to win. Plus, Black is as good as it gets with young pitchers and San Diego was loaded with them. But this year is different. Management has given him every chance to win this season with a complete overhaul of the lineup. Now it's Black's job to mesh all that new talent together. If this fails, you better believe he will be the fall guy, especially because he's not signed beyond this season.
HOW IT WILL EVENTUALLY BREAK DOWN
WILD CARD: PITTSBURGH over N.Y. METS; NLDS: PITTSBURGH over LOS ANGELES and ST. LOUIS over WASHINGTON; NLCS: ST. LOUIS over PITTSBURGH.
NL MVP - Jason Heyward (ST. LOUIS); NL CY Young - MATT HARVEY (N.Y. METS); NL Rookie of Year - KRIS BRYANT (CHICAGO); NL Manager of Year - JOE MADDON (CHICAGO); NL Comeback Player - MATT HARVEY (N.Y. METS).