National League preview: $300-million men could make big difference
The marquee storyline(s) of the NL East and West divisions differ now than from when spring training began. A pair of $300 million-plus contracts sure can change things.
The Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres might or might not be great teams this season, but many eyes will be on them after their signings of outfielder Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) and infielder Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million). Philadelphia hasn’t had a winning season since 2011; for San Diego, it’s been since 2010. Each franchise is hoping a new superstar ends those streaks.
The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, though, are the defending division champions in the NL East and West. The Colorado Rockies also were a playoff team in 2018. Many will say the Washington Nationals and New York Mets have rosters talented enough to make the 2019 postseason.
In addition to signing the two biggest free agents from last season (albeit, each from division rivals), the NL East and West combined to have the seven youngest players in MLB last season: Washington’s Juan Soto, Atlanta’s Bryse Wilson, Ronald Acuna, Kolby Allard and Mike Soroka, San Diego’s Luis Urias and Washington’s Victor Robles — each of whom played at age 21 or younger last season.
Superstars plus youth would seem to be a formula that the arrow is pointing up for much of the NL East and West.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Everyone was tracking where Harper and Machado would end up and how much they would make. But the third-most valuable free-agent contract given out over the winter might surprise you. It was Corbin, the bat-missing 30-year-old lefty who got a six-year, $130 million deal.
Once thought to be “a Pirate for life,” McCutchen was the property of four organizations during the 2018 calendar year. He inked a three-year, $50 million contract with Philadelphia in December. With Harper (and others) taking all the attention in Philly, McCutchen can quietly cruise into his mid-30s in relative anonymity.
It’s fair to say Acuna lived up to his significant hype in 2018, winning NL Rookie of the Year by way of 26 home runs, 16 steals and a .918 OPS over 111 games as a 20-year-old. Extrapolating that out to Year 2 with another year of physical maturity represents some mind-boggling projections.
If Harper and Machado were the prizes of this past offseason’s free-agency class Colorado made a preemptive strike to ensure Arenado didn’t become the apple of a big-spending team’s eye next winter via a $260 million, eight-year extension. The third baseman piles up extra-base hits, and he’s one of the sport’s premier defenders.
TRENDS TO WATCH
Can L.A.’s reign continue?
The Dodgers have dominated the NL West, winning it each of the past six seasons. They’ve made the past two World Series, too, only to lose both. But the Rockies pushed the Dodgers to a one-game playoff for the division title in 2018. Can Colorado (or perhaps the Padres) end L.A.’s division reign?
The Nats without Harper
The Nationals arguably were the biggest disappointment in the majors last season, finishing 82-80 after entering the campaign with outsized expectations of World Series contention. With Harper gone (to a division rival, no less), so is the pressure to win the NL East. But Washington still has a roster capable of doing so.
Bochy’s last season in S.F.
The Giants’ pattern for winning the World Series in every even-numbered year has long since expired, and San Francisco’s (ultimately successful) strategy of loading up on veterans likely is a thing of the past, too, as it heads toward a rebuild in what will be manager Bruce Bochy’s final season.
How low can the Marlins go?
There were four teams that lost as many or more games than Miami last season (98). But it was another offseason of cutting payroll, most recently shipping catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies. Is 100 losses possible?
What each team needs to win its division
Adding former AL MVP Josh Donaldson to what might be the best young team in baseball only supports the assertion the Braves are World Series contenders. But Donaldson and No. 1 starter Mike Foltynewicz are among those who must stay healthy through significant injury concerns.
The only way the rebuilding (again) Marlins contend for the division title this season is if team president Derek Jeter subtracts 15 years from his age — and somehow signs 20-something versions of old friends Bernie Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera & Co., too. Oh, and former Pirates Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have career years.
New York Mets
Plenty of new blood was added (former Yankee Robinson Cano chief among them), and if the likes of Cano and Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie can support cornerstones Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and up-and-coming Brandon Nimmo, the Mets might be on to something.
If the additions of J.T Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper to the lineup can help the Philadelphia offense catch up to the level of its starting pitching, the rest of the National League better look out. The Phillies have emerged as a slight favorite in what can be a very competitive (top four in the) NL East.
It seems paradoxical, but the Nationals have legitimate reason to believe they will be better than their disappointing record last season Harper. If so, they’ll need their remaining former wunderkind, Stephen Strasburg, to stay healthy and pitch like an ace.
The Diamondbacks returned to mediocrity after a 93-win season in 2017 — and then over this past winter dealt franchise cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt and allowed top starting pitcher Patrick Corbin and top outfielder A.J. Pollock to walk via free agency. Several players need to overachieve to contend in 2019.
The Rockies won the second-most games in their 26 seasons of franchise history (91) last season and have stars in the middle of their lineup (Nolan Arenado) and in the rotation (Kyle Freeland). They made some smart offseason additions, and while pushing the Dodgers again might be asking a lot, second place is well within their grasp.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The kings of the west are the favorites (via the sportsbooks and the sabermetricians) to make a third consecutive World Series appearance. Their roster is so deep, it seemingly can survive Clayton Kershaw’s uncertain injury status without missing much of a beat. At some point, though, attrition will take its toll so the Dodgers.
San Diego Padres
In winning the Machado sweepstakes (or was it being one of the few that seemed to WANT to win the Machado sweepstakes?), the Padres seek to become an NL West force. Hopefully for them, Machado works out better than last season’s big-money signing, Eric Hosmer, a $144 million man, needs to be better than an average player (.720 OPS in 2018) this season.
San Francisco Giants
As the most promising of the dwindling number of remaining faces from the franchise’s recent glory days, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner need to 1) stay healthy and 2) return to the form of their primes. That’s an unlikely but not completely-impossible proposition for players who are 32 and 29 years old.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .