The Race -

The Race

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(Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) By Raymond Boyd (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) By Raymond Boyd

ST. LOUIS, Mo.-- The buses are loaded with bats and balls.  Shoulders have been rubbed, and hamstrings stretched.  What used to be a six week exercise to get players in shape is now an adventure to keep them healthy, and lower the handicap on the golf course.  Before the first pitch is thrown in Mesa, before the first text of "you should be here, it's sunny and 85,"  before the first time we hear the dreaded phrase "tommy john," here is the way the race shapes up for October, nine months in advance.  Of course, the Cubs have been known to look better in February than they do in October.


There are two teams to beat in the National League:  Washington and Los Angeles.  Not only are both good, but both will benefit from playing in the easier East and west divisions.  Washington gets the top seed, if for no other reason than the rest of the division has fallen apart.  It would be a stretch to see where a wild card would come from out of the East, and Atlanta and Philly both have a chance to be the worst teams in the league.  Considering that both have them have been solid franchises for a long time, it changes the dynamic of both the division and the league.  Florida and New York look like .500 teams, the Marlins with interesting young players, and the Mets with pitchers on the rise.  But both have offensive issues, and it would be a major surprise to see them challenge the Nationals.

Washington added Max Scherzer to the top off the rotation to go with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman.  That's as good as anybody in baseball at the top.  When Gio Gonzalez is your fourth starter, summer should be fun, although Drew Storen is still a bit iffy at the end game.  The Nats, like everyone but the Phillies in that division, play in a big park, so their offensive numbers won't be as high.  The offense is still focused around the development of Bryce Harper, and they could use a bounce back year from Ryan Zimmerman, but make no mistake, it's all about the top of the rotation. Nobody wants to face that in the playoffs.

The Dodgers remain what they have been:  the top team out West that keeps watching the Giants win the World Series.  Like Washington, it's all about top shelf pitching in LA, with Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Hyun Jin-Ryu.  But LA doesn't have the rotation depth that Washington does, and the bullpen is really iffy before Kenley Jansen in the 9th.  It's a new, veteran infield with Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins, but Matt Kemp is gone.  The Dodgers are a more veteran version of the Nationals, pitching heavy in a pitchers park. 


This is still the Cardinals division until somebody takes it.  St. Louis has probably come down a step in relation to the Nationals and Dodgers, but they still rate as the team to beat in the Central.  The top of the rotation is basically Adam Wainwright only, and much of their success will be how well Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales progress.  Trevor Rosenthal is established at the end game. and they can run out a solid player at every position.  Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday are all getting up there, so the development of the young pitchers is crucial.  The Cardinals are sitting on cash, and they will certainly be in the race come July, so they loom dangerous as a team that can add a premiere player if needed.  But unlike in past years where St. Louis had to deal with one team to win the division, this year looms a little more crowded behind them.

You have to start with Pittsburgh, where the young talent has made the Bucs a yearly contender.  But when you think of them, you think of the outfielders, not the pitchers.  Starling Marte, Andrew McCutcheon and now Gregory Polonco give them baseball's best outfield.  But the infield is average at best, and they lost Russell Martin at catcher.  And now you look at a pitching staff that pins it's hopes around a Gerrit Cole comeback, a signing of A.J. Burnett who is pushing 40, and the continued health of Francisco Liriano.  And the bullpen has a different veteran closer each year.  The outfield is fantastic, enough to contend.  But probably not enough to win.

The Cubs slot next, a big jump up from the cellar dwellers of years past.  Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta give them two arms at the top if Arrieta holds his 2014 form.  Hector Rondon looks solid in the 9th. But there are young players scattered everywhere, and how they produce will determine if the soup is ready.  Like the Cardinals, the Cubs will be more able than most to make a deadline deal if they are close in July, and with the young players, the Cubs figure to have more to offer if they decide to make a big move.  There are so many keys for the Cubs, it's hard to list just a couple.  But they need Arrieta and Jorge Soler to be what we saw last year.  If they are, the Kris Bryant can put them near the top when he arrives.  After that, it's up to Theo in July.

Milwaukee has gone from serious contender to .500 team.  The loss of Prince Fielder, and the decline of Ryan Braun have been too much for the Brewers to overcome.  The pitching staff is led by vets Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, and they're not sure who is closing games, so they're short across the board in the arms race.  Like Pittsburgh, with Braun, Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis they have a dynamic outfield.  A bounce back year from Jean Segura would help.  Anything can happen, and the Brewers are still a solid team.  They just don't have enough weapons to be a top team.

Cincinnati is in the same position Philadelphia was a couple of years ago.  A contending team, getting older, starting to slide, with salary issues.  Philly let the slide continue, and is now stuck with bad contracts.  It's more likely that Cincy will move players if they see they cannot contend.  But with the Cardinals coming back to the division, and The Reds still having a lot of pieces, they could stay in the race through July and then take their chances.  There is still much to like here, with Johnny Cueto at the top of the rotation and Aroldis Chapman at the back end.  Like the Cardinals, they can run out a nice player at almost every position.  They need a bounce back from Joey Votto, and who knows the ceiling for Billy Hamilton.  Talent wise, you might put them second or third in the division.  But they have the feel of a team that is about to blow things up due to escalating salaries, and if they do, they will sink to the bottom.    


The World Champion Giants and the Padres certainly loom as contenders, not just for their divisions, but for wild card spots.  It would be no surprise seeing both of them in October.  Any rotation with Madison Baumgarner in it is good enough for me, although they will keep rolling the dice on comebacks for Matt Cain and Tim LIncecum.  The same faces in the pen keep swapping roles.  Pablo Sandoval is gone, and they haven't added much.  The lineup is pretty mundane once you get past Buster Posey and Hunter Pence.  But they have a great manager, play in a pitchers park, and there's too much history to not think they will contend. 

Padre fans have an entire new roster to look forward to.  New general manager A.J. Preller took a bulldozer to the San Diego snore fest, and has come up with what appears to be a very interesting team.  Like the Cubs, it may take them a while to jell, but consider the pieces:  James Shields to go with Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy at the top of the rotation is baseball's best pitching park, to go with Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Juston Upton in a completely new outfield that can bat 3-4-5.  There are still issues everywhere else, but the top end talent should give the Pads enough to hang in the race throughout the summer.


This is where the Marlins and Mets live.  They will certainly get some wins because they play in the same division with the Braves and Phillies.  With Miami, or Florida, or whatever they are calling themselves this year, there is always uncertainty because of the young players.  But their farm system keeps producing.  So much depends on Jose Fernandez coming back from Tommy John.  But they appear to be a team without much to surround Giancarlo Stanton, that every time he launches one, the other manager should just slap his head and wonder why he pitched to him. 

To me, the more interesting team is the Mets.  Big market, lots of cash, pitchers park, with as many quality young arms in the system as anybody in baseball.  In many ways, in the prospect game, they are opposite of the Cubs, who have position prospects, but lack the pitchers.  Can you say "trade?" Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard assure that the Mets will contend someday, but like the Cubs, perhaps not just yet, because their everyday lineup is pedestrian at best.  A comeback by David Wright would help, but the reality is the Mets are short everywhere on the field.  But their day is coming if they keep those pitchers healthy.


But no more, baby!  Now, this is the homestead for the Phillies, Braves, Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Phillies are in complete free-fall, after years of denial.  Their players have aged, production has dropped, but of course, their salaries have increased.   Philly has waited too long to move the players, and now they are stuck.  They look like the worst team in the league, after contending for the World Series just a few years ago.  You could make an argument that Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are top shelf, but it's more likely they will be moved.  Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are now the poster child’s of the organization.  And if Hamels and Lee go, this is a team left with almost nothing. 

Nobody has fallen faster, farther, and harder than the Braves are about to.  With a new ballpark looming, they ushered out one of their better young players in Jason Heyward.  It's been a long time since I felt the Cubs were better than the Braves.  Probably since Greg Maddux headed south.  But we are now.  Young pitchers trying to get the game to Craig Kimbrel, a nice first baseman in Freddie Freeman, and absolutely nothing else.  Incredibly, they traded away Upton and Heyward without bringing in replacements.  This is going to be hard for Braves fans to take.  I know the feeling.

We all know the story in Colorado, because it's been the same story every year.  Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are wonderful players who will get hurt, sending the season into a tailspin.  No pitchers to speak of in a hitters park, like it's been forever, which means no chance.  The Rockies have balked at trading either player, and now with both injury prone, their values have declined.

The Diamondbacks now have Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan pulling the strings.  They are caught in between trying to contend with veterans, and trying to build and control payroll.  They do have some pop in the dessert with Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, but their most interesting player this year figures to be Yasmany Thomas, who has the chance to be the next great Cuban player, especially playing in that ballpark.  The Snakes will scramble to assemble a dozen major league pitchers, and like every other team, that will be their downfall.

About the author: Bob Cyphers has 35 years experience as a journalist in newspaper, radio and television.  Sadly, he has even more experience as a die-hard, heartbroken, beaten down Cub fan.  And although he promises that his beloved Cubs, as Ernie Banks predicted, will be "Supreme in 2015," deep down Bob understands that life, and the Cubbies, offers no guarantees. 


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