As we get closer to Opening Day 2014 the number one mainstream story developing about the National League will start to get very familiar very quickly.
Certainly many strange things can happen over a 162 game season but that fact will not stop the usual slew of wiseacre know-it-alls from making their tedious predictions and prognostications (mine are below).
Three NL teams look to dominate in 2014 and each just happens to be in different Division: the Washington Nationals in the NL East, the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and the LA Dodgers in the NL West. How very tidy.
If that scenario holds, the battle for the two National League Wild Card spots will be a ferocious free for all among the rest of the best: six second tier teams who also happen to be equally divided up into the three Divisions: Atlanta and Philadelphia in the NL East, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the Central, and Arizona and San Francisco in the National League West.
The only potential upstart team in the National League with any chance of upsetting this conveniently symmetrical prediction would be the San Diego Padres. The Pads are somewhere in that murky transitional zone between "emerging", "about to get seriously good", and "who the hell knew they would win 90 games in 2014?".
I believe the next strongest teams after the projected Division winners are both in the NL Central: the Pirates and the Reds. But here's the thing. Being in the same Division means they will play each other 19 times, which is great news for the Giants, D-Backs, and Braves– let Pitt and Cincy knock each other in and out of contention all year long.
Philadelphia is by far the weakest team of the second tier six, leaving Atlanta more elbow room to pile up wins behind the Nationals. Despite a number of weaknesses, both Arizona and San Francisco have legitimate scenarios that put them right in the middle of the Wild Card hunt.
It's interesting to note that only the NL Central Division had three teams in 2013 with plus run differentials (runs scored versus runs against): St Louis (+187, second best in 2013 after the Red Sox +197), Pittsburgh (+57), and Cincy (+109).
In the NL West only the Dodgers were on the run differential plus side at +67, and the Nationals rounded out the League plus group with +30. The American League (the DH, smaller ballparks) had eight teams with plus run differentials.
Most relevant to the upcoming battles for the NL postseason is this: of the top three projected teams and the second tier six, which teams improved the most this off-season?
The obvious top two picks here are the Washington Nationals (SP Doug Fister, RP Jerry Blevins, OF Nate McLouth) and St. Louis (SS Jhonny Peralta, CF Peter Bourjos). In particular the Cardinals get high scores for targeting and getting pretty much the exact run-producing shortstop and defensive center fielder they needed.
It's hard to tout the Nationals after they fell short of expectations in 2013, but you can't argue with adding Doug Fister to their starting rotation– a 200+ innings horse who matched the Nats' biggest need and may have rounded out one of the two or three the best rotations in baseball (with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann).
The other big NL dog is the Los Angeles Dodgers who made the best offseason deal of all by extending ace starter Clayton Kershaw (7 years, $215 million). LA also may have made the best offseason non-deal of all by deciding to keep center fielder Matt Kemp.
Arizona was criticized for giving up too much young pitching to get slugger Mark Trumbo from the LA Angels, but the D-Backs still have a number of very talented young pitchers moving up through their farm system (Archie Bradley, Zeke Spruill, Braden Shipley). As it stands, the Snakes' offense looks good up and down the line-up, and their bench is solid.
The Giants signed veteran Tim Hudson to beef up their starting rotation and filled the black hole in left field with veteran Michael Morse. As always with San Francisco you can't discount the value of having two of the best top of the rotation starters in the game in Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
The question for San Francisco is so institutionally ubiquitous it should be printed on their tickets: will they score enough runs?
The Wild Card battles in the National League won't really heat up until August. But if any of the second tier six teams are too far off the pace before September 1st it will be hard to catch up because the competition this season will be unrelenting.