National League Preview: Nationals enter season as favorite for pennant

Pat Higgins | Sports Editor

NL East: Nationals

Of all NL teams, the Nationals surely looked ahead on Opening Day at the easiest path to the postseason of any team in the league. After clinching the division just under two weeks before the end of the season, the Nats were sunk by the eventual champion in the Giants in four games in the Division Series. But a team that still features veterans Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, and not to mention MVP candidates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon (injured currently) shouldn’t have any trouble scoring any runs. And that’s before you get to their starting rotation, which is filthy. They went five deep last year, with four starters logging at least 14 wins. No starter finished with an ERA above 3.60, and they still went out and signed 18-game winner Max Scherzer to start on Opening Day.

That’s not enough about the Nationals, but they’re the only team that has a chance to contend out of the East. The Marlins and Mets are getting somewhere in developing prospects, but neither of those teams has the talent or depth just yet to compete for a Wild Card consistently for five full months. That’s not necessarily a knock on those teams, but the NL Central is still full of talent and the West’s division race always ends with a Wild Card consolation.

The Phillies will be among the worst teams in baseball this year, and have finally gotten around to at least start rebuilding. It took two or three years, but the nostalgia of the 2008 World Series is gone, and the rebuild has begun. It’ll be another two years before the Phils should have enough developed talent to combine with a big-time free agent or two.

NL Central: Cardinals

Where the East is an easy pick, the Central is quite the opposite. The Cardinals will remain among the elites, but the Pirates have another year of experience and what seems to be a continuous pipeline of excellent prospects flowing at each position. The Cubs made a splash signing starter Jon Lester in the offseason while also luring Joe Maddon away from Tampa, but that excitement has been tempered by Wrigley renovations and Lester’s “tired” arm.

The season is a marathon, not a race. So the Cubs will likely show signs of promise, the Pirates and Cardinals are the two teams most capable of catching fire and sustaining it. Like the West, the second-place consolation here will likely be a berth in the Wild Card game, which needs to be lengthened to a three-game series.

NL West: Dodgers

The team that spends the most money on its payroll never tends to experience the most success, but the Dodgers are loaded with talent with or without the dollar signs on paper. They’ll try to squeeze a few more years out of 36-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who terrorized the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series in both 2008 and 2009 in Philadelphia, after trading Dee Gordon to the Marlins. Yasiel Puig returns, and if he can learn to minimize fielding and baserunning mistakes by playing the game at just a tad slower pace, he’ll be an MVP candidate. They brought in Howie Kendrick to solidify the center of the infield alongside Rolilins at second base.

Clayton Kershaw will probably find it tough to match his 2014 numbers (21-3, 1.77 ERA, 198 innings, 232 strikeouts and just 52 walks), but he’s still the best pitcher in the game. Behind him, Zack Greinke is a solid No. 2 starter, but the Dodgers’ biggest weakness will be the question marks at the end of the rotation, as well as in the bullpen. They have the bats to take the division, but games and series are won in the postseason with lights-out pitching.

Wild Cards: Pirates, Giants

NL MVP: Bryce Harper

Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

NL Pennant: Washington Nationals