What to Watch In NL NL
Ten things to watch in the National League:
Go Big or Go Home: The free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers were knocked off in the NLCS last season by St. Louis, falling short of their World Series goal. They remain all in, including a $215 million contract extension for ace Clayton Kershaw, and falling short again will not be looked upon kindly by management. Not when you have a $230 million payroll.
The Cardinals Way: St. Louis had the look of a budding dynasty in making it to the 2013 World Series. The Cardinals seem to crank out hard-throwing pitching prospects at will, with Michael Wacha earning the headlines down the stretch and into the postseason. With that kind of pitching and an offense built around reliable role players, this team has staying power.
Under the Magnifying Glass: No player will be scrutinized more than Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, who ended a year and a half of lying about his involvement with PEDs by accepting a season-ending, 65-game suspension in 2013. Braun put himself in this no-win position: If he falters, critics will say he can’t play clean. If he plays great, they will say he must still be cheating. Tough row to hoe.
One and Done? The Pittsburgh Pirates snapped a record 20-year losing streak in 2013 and made it to the playoffs as a wild-card team, led by NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. But the Pirates frustrated their fans by staying mostly quiet over the winter while losing veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett to free agency. Was last year the beginning of a long run or a fleeting return to glory?
Braves’ Building Blocks: The Atlanta Braves spent the off-season giving contract extensions to everyone but the night watchman at Turner Field. They also announced plans to move to a new palace in the ’burbs. Injuries picked apart their pitching staff, however, and they will try to regroup behind budding ace Julio Teheran.
Wrigley Birthday Party: The Cubs will spend as much time as possible celebrating the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field, but at some point they need to put a representative team on the field. They’ve built a dazzling array of prospects by gutting previous rosters but after consecutive 100-loss seasons, long-suffering fans want something to raise a beer to other than the Friendly Confines.
In It to Win It: Consecutive 81-81 seasons prompted the Arizona Diamondbacks to make some bold moves over the offseason, adding right-hander Bronson Arroyo, closer Addison Reed and outfielder slugger Mark Trumbo. They were dealt a tough blow in spring training when lefty Pat Corbin blew out his elbow but highly touted pitching prospect Archie Bradley might help fill that void.
The Nationals Debt: No team was more disappointing in 2013 than the Washington Nationals, who went from playoff team to also-ran in the last year under manager Davey Johnson. When you have young stars such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, expectations present the kind of pressure to which local resident Barack Obama can relate.
Back in the Saddle: Folks will be watching to see when Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman returns from the facial injuries suffered when he was struck hard by a line drive during exhibition season. When pitchers are beaned in such horrific fashion, getting past it mentally can be just as tough or tougher than the physical rehab. Chapman is the hardest thrower in the game and therefore an unparalleled talent.
Time to Blow It Up: The Philadelphia Phillies have one of the highest payrolls in the league but a cast of aging, decaying veterans might force management to consider a complete overhaul at some point. Offseason additions Burnett and Marlon Byrd did nothing to lower the average age of the club. Another down year and the demolition crew could be summoned.