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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...PLAY BALL! 2014 NL "FUTURES" TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor, and Daniel M. Gray, TGS Baseball Consultant


Believe it or not, baseball season is just around the corner (and has even started for two teams)!

As we like to do at this time each spring, we're offering our previews of both the American and National Leagues, focusing upon the "futures" (over/under wins) recommendations. And remember that beginning next week, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on Top Choice and Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring the daily TC plus two other featured releases, available online at www.goldsheet.com.

First up is our look at the NL; our next issue on Friday will preview the AL. As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions. Play ball!

NL EAST: BEST BET...Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. So it goes with the Philadelphia Phillies (76 1/2 ) after we heartily endorsed a bounce-back and an "over" last season, only to see them flop to a 75-87 mark, and not even get a whiff of the division or wild card chases beyond early June. Moreover, the expected offseason housecleaning of an aging roster never took place, and the Phils' familiar lineup now has five regulars who will be 34 or older on opening day. It's the baseball version of George Allen's old "Over The Hill Gang" Washington Redskins, with the likes of 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley, and SS Jimmy Rollins still hanging on from the glory era; we almost expect to see Mike Schmidt at third base, and Greg Luzinski emerge from Bull's BBQ in Ashburn's Alley to pinch-hit in the late innings. Howard and Utley, in particular, have been breaking down physically the past couple of years, and Rollins is now seven years removed from his MVP season of 2007. Continuing the geriatric theme, 36-year-old RF Marlon Byrd was the top offseason position addition. Meanwhile, the staff is already dealing with an injury to co-ace Cole Hamels (biceps tendinitis) that will have him on the DL to start the season, and we have to wonder how the recently-signed A.J. Burnett will adjust to the bandbox dimensions of Citizens Bank Park after his recent revival in Pittsburgh. After being tempted do so last July, maybe this is the year that GM Ruben Amaro begins to break up the old gang at the trade deadline. Although, curiously, Phils fans, much as they might like to watch reruns of their old favorite TV shows, don't seem to mind Rollins, Utley, and Howard sticking around into the twilight of their careers, reminding of past glories. In his first full season as skipper, Ryne Sandberg might wonder what he has gotten himself into. It's an "under" for us at CBP.

OTHERS: The Phils weren't the only NL East side we missed on in 2013, as all the Miami Marlins (69 ½) had to do last season was avoid 100 losses to make our "over" call a winner. Didn't happen. So why are we bullish on the Fish once again? Well, for once the Marlins went outside of their organization to add some much-needed offense in the offseason. No All-Stars have been enlisted, but serviceable sorts such as C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Rafael Furcal, and 3B Casey McGehee do collectively appear to provide some upgrades to the lineup, and perhaps add a little more protection for all-tool RF Giancarlo Stanton, whose numbers dipped last season after a big 2012. Mostly, however, we like the arms in Miami, with last year's NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA) now a Cy Young candidate and young flamethrowers Jacob Tuner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs considerably better than 4.00 last season. A front office shakeup might also provide dividends; longtime talent evaluator Dan Jennings has been promoted to the GM job, and the organization continues to pump out MLB-level talent. It's the potential of the pitching staff, however, that we believe gives the Marlins a chance to make a run at .500. Which would make it an easy "over" in Miami.

Flying well under the radar lately have been the New York Mets (73 ½), who have become almost unthinkably irrelevant in recent seasons, and whose only national headlines seem to be generated by news relating to owner Fred Wilpon's financial issues. We don't think the Mets are any closer to a playoff berth this season, but they have set the bar pretty low in Queens, and manager Terry Collins has proven himself a sort-of modern-day Gene Mauch, astute enough to get the Mets to avoid 90 losses. Even without injured staff ace Matt Harvey, who will miss all of 2014 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery after starting for the NL in the All-Star Game last July, there is a collection of live young arms in Collins' rotation that includes the promising Zack Wheeler, Jenry Mejia, and Dillon Gee (as well as a live "old" arm, FA signee Bartolo Colon) to suggest the Mets can probably win their share of 2-1 and 3-2 decisions. Defense also figures to improve with newly-signed outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young patrolling CitiField's wide expanse of real estate and run down the fly balls that fleet CF Juan Legares can't catch. We're not sure the Mets can make a run at .500 unless Granderson delivers big and 1B Ike Davis (32 homers two years ago) regains some of the power stroke that disappeared in an injury-plagued 2013. But with the division not exactly loaded, there's no reason New York can't win in the mid-to-high 70s. Mets fans who enjoy that Shake Shack in the outfield concourse can also probably look forward to an "over" at CitiField.

Things are changing for the Atlanta Braves (87 ½), who are now looking forward to a move into a new stadium north of town in suburban Cobb County, just beyond the I-285 perimeter, in 2017. So, enjoy Turner Field, and the homage to Hank Aaron's 715th homer in the adjacent parking lot on the site of old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, while you can. Meanwhile, we suspect the Braves' ability to draw clear in the division last season might be more of an indictment of the competition in the East than anything else. After all, Atlanta managed to qualify handily for the playoffs with a lineup featuring two regulars (2B Dan Uggla and CF B.J. Upton) who couldn't hit their weight, as each ended up far below the .200 level. That wasn't enough for manager Fredi Gonzalez to pencil either out of the lineup for 2014, however, and now Fredi must deal with life after C Brian McCann (FA Yankees), who was the unofficial on-field sheriff for the Bravos, and their unquestioned leader. With the offense featuring many soft spots and strikeout machines such as Uggla, both Uptons (B.J. and Justin), and Freddie Freeman, the offense tends to dry up for long stretches. Last season, Fredi found enough pitching to camouflage those shortcomings, but we are unconvinced there is enough depth on the staff to do the same this season, especially with the rotation already encountering injury problems (Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy already both out for the season after Tommy John surgeries), with few ready reserve arms in waiting at AAA Gwinnett. Late signee Ervin Santana is going to be under extreme pressure to produce. We're hardly convinced that Chip Caray will be doing play-by-play for a playoff team this year; it's an "under" for us at Turner Field.

By our calculations a few years ago, 2014 was likely to be the "arrival" date for the Washington Nationals (89 ½), who instead reached the playoffs a bit earlier than we expected (2012) before backing up a year ago, down to 86 wins. Now, the fiery Matt Williams takes over in the dugout from the aged Davey Johnson, and many in D.C. believe that spark on the bench will offer "Matt-tastic" results this summer, especially after the Nats generated a lot more offense in the second half of last season when making a belated run at a wild card berth. We're not so sure of a return to the playoffs, however, because the offense still does not make consistent contact, a problem that runs through most of the batting order. Outside of CF Denard Span & SS Ian Desmond, the team remains full of strikeout hitters, and Desmond still has not mastered the art of using his speed to advance on the base paths. Keeping gung-ho LF Bryce Harper from running into outfield walls and in one piece is another challenge. Still, we cannot summarily dismiss a team with as much quality pitching as Washington, whose 1-thru-4 starters match any (Dodgers included) in the NL. Especially with Doug Fister arriving in an offseason deal with the Tigers and providing an apparent upgrade from the erratic Dan Haren in the rotation. Yet some questions remain in the bullpen, especially closer Rafael Soriano, who was a mild disappointment in 2013. The dominoes could fall either way at Nats Park, so instead we'll sit back and enjoy a chili-smoke from Ben's Chili Bowl down the third base line, and watch what unfolds next to the Anacostia. No call for us in D.C.

NL CENTRAL: BEST BET...At this time last year we wondering if our favorite color analyst, Steve Blass, was ever again going to have a chance to describe a winning season, and if the Pittsburgh Pirates (83 ½) were forever doomed to mediocrity after 21 straight sub-.500 campaigns. Now the experts seem to have a collective "let's see you do it again" attitude about the Bucs after their dramatic rise to 94-68 and a playoff berth in 2013. While we acknowledge the slight slips that seem to inevitably happen after breakthrough years, we don't think that GM Neal Huntington should be crucified for mostly standing pat in the offseason, and not over-reaching for upgrades. He remained patient mostly because he can wait for the Pirates' improving farm system to begin delivering ready-made MLB talent; sometime before the All-Star break, expect OF Gregory Polanco and SP Jameson Taillon to reinforce the roster after promotion from AAA Indianapolis. Last year's rookie sensation, Gerrit Cole, now figures as the ace of the staff after A.J. Burnett's departure to the Phillies in the offseason. The staff, under the shrewd tutleage of pitchign coach Ray Searage, should remain solid; with a solid comeback year now under his belt, lefty Francisco Liriano will realize he doesn't need to strike out as many hitters with that solid defense behind him. Searage now tries to work his magic with ex-Ranger, Red and Padre Edinson Volquez. Remember, the Bucs allowed the fewest runs in the bigs last season. And their ballpark, pitching, and defense give them a chance to defend that accomplishment in 2014, and make another playoff run if CF Andrew "Mr. Excitement" McCutchen approaches his contributions from his season. Look "over" at our all-time favorite, PNC Park, where ticket prices remain remarkably reasonable.

OTHERS: Apparently, there's a lot of "prove it" among the oddsmakers regarding the NL Central this season, which partly explains why the Cincinnati Reds (83 ½) have been priced so much below last season's 90-72. Which admittedly felt a bit worse, as the Reds stumbled down the stretch last September and were then dispatched quickly in the wild card game by the Pirates, prompting the dismissal of skipper Dusty Baker. New manager Bryan Price, promoted from pitching coach, still has a staff that posted the fourth-best team ERA (3.38) in the bigs last season, and his organizational and communicative skills helped win him the assignment as Baker's successor. The transition has been smooth this spring in Goodyear with a roster mostly intact from a year ago, although the scary injury suffered by fireballing closer Aroldis Chapman caused hearts to skip a few beats in the desert. Still, the Reds might have the best collection of young starting pitchers in franchise history, with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, and last year's rookie find, Tony Cingrani, more than compensating for Bronson Arroyo's FA departure, and there is depth in the bullpen with Jonathon Broxton and J.J. Hoover to handle any closer duties until Chapman returns. As the inimitable Marty Brennaman likes to occasionally remind us on the Reds radio network, Cincy does have some inconsistency with its offense, which is why it could not take a chance on dealing grumbling 2B Brandon Phillips, still good for 90-100 RBIs, and we're still not sure if rookie CF Billy Hamilton, who stole an eye-popping 155 bases in the minors last season, can get on base enough at this level to use his demon speed. But there are enough pieces in place for the Reds to make a playoff run and for some nice summer evenings for their fans at Great American Ballpark, where a seat in the top deck offers an expansive view of the adjacent Ohio River and the many barges floating by. Along with a drink and a few cheese coneys from Skyline Chili, does life get any better? At this modest price, it's an "over" for "us" in Cincy.

It's still too early to tell if Theo Epstein's re-boot of the Chicago Cubs (69 ½) organization is any closer to a breakthrough than the past few seasons, when the Cubbies didn't even give their fans a whiff of the playoff chase. Epstein has also changed managers, with Dale Sveum out after two woeful years and former Padres bench coach Rick Renteria, noted for his patience with young players, enlisted as a replacement. Renteria will need that patience, as the problem with the current crop of Cubs' youngsters is that we're not sure if they're good enough, especially the likes of once-touted sorts such as SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo, who appeared to regress last season. Reinforcements from Epstein's reloaded farm system might begin to start paying dividends later in the summer (watch for 3B Kris Bryant and SS Javier Baez), but we're not talking about projections for 2015 or 2016 seasons at the moment. In 2014, Chicago's offense has too many holes, and we can envision Epstein making his next moves in the rebuild of the franchise at the trade deadline, where he will be tempted to move sorts such as ex-Notre Dame WR, and what qualifies as the ace of this pitching staff, Jeff Samardzija, and perhaps well-traveled arms such as Edwin Jackson and James McDonald, to contenders for more reinforcements at the minor league level, with expected payoffs down the road...not this summer. Sorry Cubs fans, but we're looking "under" again at Wrigley Field

Under the gun is Milwaukee Brewers (79 ½) manager Ron Roenicke, who barely survived a second straight disappointing season and might need a quick start to keep GM Doug Melvin from hitting the eject button prior to the All-Star break. Not that the Brewers' slip has been any more the fault of Roenicke than of Melvin, who has searched, without much success, to find a successor to the long-departed Prince Fielder's bat in the lineup, while 3B Aramis Ramirez has been breaking down physically in recent campaigns (Ramirez played only 92 games last season). Prospects were so desperate in the offseason of finding some power at the corner infield positions that Melvin is gambling that journeymen Lyle Overbay and strikeout machine Mark Reynolds might provide some relief. We'll see. Of course, getting RF Ryan Braun back from his suspension related to the Biogenesis scandal should prove a plus, but can he resemble the player who produced MVP-type numbers in his first six seasons? (Remember, Braun was struggling before last year's suspension.) On the plus side, pleasant surprise SS Jean Segura should be able to handle leadoff duties after Norichika Aoki's trade to the Royals, and the Brewers could have the makings of a decent staff, with FA addition Matt Garza joining last year's bargain signee, Kyle Lohse, along with Yovani Gallardo in a potentially better-than-average rotation. But bullpen issues have been acute in recent seasons, and we are hardly convinced the Brew Crew has enough offense to make a run at .500. It's an "under" for us at Miller Park.

As in the old Timex commercials, the St. Louis Cardinals (90 ½) take a licking, but keep on ticking. Like clockwork, the Redbirds have consistently been able to reshuffle their deck on the fly, adjusting for injuries and departures by filling in mostly from within their ranks, a testament to one of the bigs' best overall operations, and a tribute to shrewd GM John Mozeliak. This season, Mozeliak has gone outside of the organization to add a few potentially-useful pieces, such as ex-Angel CF Peter Bourjos, who was good enough defensively to keep Mike Trout in left field. He'll cover a lot of ground in the expansive Busch Stadium outfield to compensate for some of the limitations of corner OFs Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. True, Mozeliak was a bit out of character when signing FA SS Jhonny Peralta, suspended 50 games last term for his part in the Biogenesis scandal, but it's part of a reconfigured infield that now features the versatile Matt Carpenter at 3B and touted rookie Kolten Wong (displaying no apparent emotional scars this spring in Jupiter after his baserunning blunder cost St. Looie a World Series game vs. the Bosox) now at 2B as the final piece of the reshuffle after the trade of David Freese, the price needed to pay the Angels for the defensive upgrade Bourjos hopefully provides in the outfield. But what we really like about the Redbirds is their pitching depth. To wit: Lance Lynn topped 200 IP for the first time in 2013, and his 33 wins over the past two years are tied with teammate Adam Wainwright for the most in the NL, but his spot in rotation isn't even guaranteed because of all of the live and mostly-young arms at manager Mike Matheny's disposal. And when closer Edwin Mujica imploded late last summer, into that role Matheny was able to seamlessly slot Trevor Rosenthal, who did not allow an earned run in ten postseason appearances. We don't see the Cards losing five games from last year's 95-67, NL pennant campaign; it's another "over" for us at Busch.

NL WEST: The Los Angeles Dodgers (92 ½) have been throwing around more money than Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary on Shark Tank since the Guggenheim Partners scared away even middle-east oil barons with their overbid for the franchise two years ago. Money is thus no object in the Blue ever losing a key player in the foreseeable future. There are still some trip wires laid at the big league-level, however, mostly related to mercurial RF Yasiel Puig, who did light the fuse that would eventually trigger a stunning 42-8 summer hot streak (the best such MLB 50-game stretch in over 60 years) that allowed the Blue to run away with last year's NL West, but whose antics on and off the field are said to be wearing very thin in the clubhouse, especially with manager Don Mattingly. Fortuitously for the Dodgers, however, a potential logjam in the OF (and inevitable bruised feelings for whomever is out of the lineup) have been alleviated by Matt Kemp's ongoing injury concerns, meaning Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Puig should continue to get their at bats. Though too much attention is being paid to the undisciplined Puig (who reported overweight to spring training in Glendale and whose 2013 numbers in a half-season did not really translate to anything spectacular over a full year), not enough might be paid to the under-the-radar re-sign of 3B Juan Uribe, who delivered many key hits last season, or the league's dominant pitching staff, led by the modern-day Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, and the rejuvenated Zack Greinke. So effective was the pitching last summer that the Blue were able to survive an offensive downturn and win many 2-1 and 3-2 decisions during the July and August surge. Moreover, the Dodgers now seem to intimidate the rest of the West, a scary thought for the Giants, D-backs and the rest, with 24 of L.A.'s first 26 games within the division (and already a 2-0 start after the sweep of Australian pair of games vs. Arizona). By Cinco de Mayo, the Dodgers should be in firm control of the West, and unless injuries hit the pitching staff hard, the Vin Scullys might have the division clinched by Labor Day. Pull up a chair, and watch the Blue threaten 100 wins and an "over" at Chavez Ravine.

OTHERS: With the Dodgers intimidating all others and possibly trampling the division, the rest of the West is a bit hard to project. But if we're going to go out on a limb with any of the other entries, perhaps it will be the San Diego Padres (78 ½), who have seemed to make enough upgrades to suggest they can improve several games from last year's 74-88 and maybe even emerge as a stealth wild-card contender. The reason is pitching and the expansive Petco Park dimensions that help make young lefty Andrew Cashner a potential All-Star and could greatly contribute to a couple of one-time aces at other locales, Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson, rediscovering their old form. Johnson, along with reliever Joaquin Benoit (a nice potential bridge to closer Huston Street) and OF Seth Smith, could be very useful off-season roster additions by GM Josh Byrnes, although there will be speculation that Byrnes will be tempted to move 3B Chase Headley and his expiring contract before the trade deadline, where San Diego has been a notorious "seller" in recent years. By June, however, the Padres should get CF Cameron Maybin back from his biceps tendon injury, and SS Everth Cabrera is in the fold from the outset after his 50-game Biogenesis scandal-related suspension last season. Byrnes also might have some added flexibility by summertime if prospects such as OF Rymer Liriano and RHP Matt Wisler make the jump from the minors. But the bottom line is that pitching and defense give San Diego a legit chance to make a move up the NL West table. So, we'll enjoy another year of the ageless Dick Enberg describing the action on Padres TV in what could be a breakthrough "over" summer at Petco Park.

While the Padres threaten to make a move with their pitching, the Colorado Rockies (76 ½) will try to base their resurgence around hitting. Which might have a better chance of triggering a playoff push if skipper Walt Weiss had a bit more to rely upon with his staff. Which, unfortunately, he doesn't, as the only upgrades of note for a staff whose 2013 ERA among the starters was 4.57 (almost 1½ runs worse than the Dodgers) was ex-A's lefty Brett Anderson, who has battled injury problems in recent years, plus journeyman LaTroy Hawkins, who inherits closer duties. Complicating matters further is the shoulder strain suffered at Talking Stick this spring by co-ace (such as they are labeled for the Rocks) Jhoulys Chacin, who likely opens the season on the DL. True, Colorado can outscore foes if SS Troy Tulowitzki can stay healthy, and if offseason additions 1B Justin Morneau (teamed again with an old pal from Twins days, RF Michael Cuddyer) and LF Drew Stubbs (acquired in trade from the Reds) can rehabilitate their careers at Coors Field, a proper place for hitters to get well. But without an upgrade from the staff, it's hard to see Colorado doing any better than last year's 74-88. It's an "under" for us in Denver.

A chic pick to re-emerge as a serious contender this season has been the San Francisco Giants (86 ½) , who bounced back from the post-championship doldrums in 2011 to win the World Series again in 2012. A repeat scenario after last year's collapse to 76-86 might is a bit harder to project, however, because skipper Bruce Bochy will have far fewer cards to play if starters Tim Lincecum (re-signed after two very subpar seasons, with a 20-29 record and 4.76 in 2012-13, a far cry from his former Cy Young-winning form) and Ryan Vogelsong (who missed more than two months with a broken thumb last summer as his wins dropped form 14 to 4 and his ERA skyrocketed to 5.73 ERA), counted upon in the middle of the rotation, can't deliver. Bochy is also hoping that aging FA signee Tim Hudson (who long ago starred across San Francisco Bay with the A's) bounces back from his injury concerns of 2013. The offense could also use healthy years from 3B Pablo Sandoval (who is hopefully motivated to control his weight problems by his contract year), 2B Marco Scutaro, and a return to All-Star form of C Buster Posey, as well as a healthy Michael Morse, ex of the Nats and Mariners who could add some much-needed pop in LF if beyond his own injury woes that limited him to 88 games with Seattle last season. Given past successes from the core of the roster, and with Matt Cain (reportedly beyond some personal problems) and Madison Bumgarner two potential dominators at the top of the rotation, we cannot summarily dismiss the Giants. We're simply not convinced, so it's a no-call for us at AT&T Park as we enjoy another season of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow entertaining us on Giants TV, and Jon Miller and Dave Fleming doing the same on KNBR 680 AM, whose blowtorch signal can be heard throughout the West.

We're assuming the Arizona Diamondbacks (80 ½) are second-guessing themselves like crazy for insisting upon the opening two-game series in Australia and sacrificing two home games with the Dodgers in the process. After losing both games down under last weekend, it made for a long flight back to Sky Harbor Airport. We're simply not sure what is going on in Phoenix after we were expecting a bounce-back to the 2011 playoff form a year ago when the D-backs could do no better than .500, and skipper Kirk Gibson, in a monument to instability, used a staggering 138 different lineup combinations. There might be more structure to the batting order this season now that LF Mark Trumbo (34 homers in 2013) has been added from the Angels to likely bat clean-up and provide some protection for All-Star 1B Paul Goldschmidt, who should be a fixture at the three spot. Maybe. "You guys fill in the rest," Gibby has suggested to the assembled media in March at Talking Stick regarding the rest of the lineup, hardly reassuring Phoenix-area fans that things are going to be much different in 2014. GM Kevin Towers did more than add Trumbo in the offseason, inking Bronson Arroyo as a late signee to bolster the starting pitching rotation. And ex-White Sox closer Addison Reed was a trade addition who should assume the same role at Chase Field. We still think there is plenty of upside with the D-backs (especially if C Miguel Montero bounces back after an injury-hampered 2013), but we're not sure, so we instead take a pass in Phoenix.

Next issue: AL Preview!


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