Last time, we looked at how my predictions for the American League have played out to this point. This week we hop over to the senior circuit and conduct the same exercise, division by division.
Okay, so, funny thing about the NL West: I got the order of teams almost completely wrong, and it doesn’t matter even the slightest little bit. There is one club in this division worth caring about, and that’s the Dodgers. They were first in literally everyone’s predictions, they’re first in real life, and they’re probably the best team in baseball. It’s not all that interesting, but it’s just the way things are right now.
As for the rest of the division, it’s basically the sort of jumble I and many others expected, but with a really intriguing story in the way Arizona has been able to weather so many departures while moving on to a new core faster than I thought they would be able to. Part of that is how well the players they’ve received in recent trades have performed sooner than maybe expected — cough that sounds like ‘Carson Kelly’ — but it’s also the emergence of Ketel Marte as a star and Zack Greinke simply refusing to age. Greinke is gone now, but the DBacks are moving in the right direction still, and quickly. If they weren’t staring down a behemoth at the top of the division, they might be contenders as soon as 2020.
The Padres have been worse than I expected, largely due to the fact their pitching just mostly sucks. Chris Paddack was a crazy good story early on, but he’s leveled off to merely pretty good, rather than incredible, and the rest of the staff is bad, both bullpen and starting rotation. It doesn’t help Manny Machado is having a fine season, but not at all the sort of campaign that nets MVP votes. (This will come up again later in the context of the other gigantic free agent contract signed this offseason.)
I thought Colorado would regress and look more like a slightly better than .500 team, rather than a true postseason threat, but in no way did I expect this level of collapse. They still have one of the best left sides of the infield of any team in baseball, but the offense overall is weak, and the pitching has gone right back to mostly being a disaster after a 2018 season that had multiple people who should have known better trumpeting that the Rockies had finally solved Coors Field. (In fairness, Jon Gray was still really good before he got hurt.)
San Francisco will regret not aggressively selling at least their bullpen pieces this July. That’s all I’ve got to say about them.
The Central has been, to put it lightly, a strange division this year. The order I believed and predicted would come to pass has been almost exactly how things have actually worked out, minus the Pirates going completely in the tank following the all-star break. However, whereas I thought the division would be a desperate chase to 95 wins, with the Cardinals’ new and improved Goldschmidt-powered offense carrying them to the top, along with an airtight bullpen, the division has instead been a brutal slugfest, with no team able to really pull away because every club in the division is just tough enough that on any given night they’ll punch you in the mouth. Also, Paul Goldschmidt has been kind of a disaster.
The Reds have been the bizarro-world version of what I expected; rather than bashing opponents with their bats and struggling to pitch, they’ve resurrected Sonny Gray’s career and watched Luis Castillo become an ace, while the offense has gone weirdly silent many nights. The Brewers have been mostly what I thought, though when I wrote that Christian Yelich wouldn’t hit a third of his fly balls for home runs again, I was technically right, in that he’s only hit 32.8% of his fly balls over the wall in 2019, but he’s also hit way more of those balls in the air, and is actually having an even better season than he did in his 2018 MVP campaign. Nonetheless, the Brewers are underpowered on the pitching side, and several of their very smart marginal bets of the past few years (Travis Shaw, Lorenzo Cain, etc.), have not worked out nearly so well this season as they had previously.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are who we thought they were. Still a good core in Bryant/Baez/Rizzo, but outside of those guys there are serious concerns about the roster, and Bryant himself has not been the same seemingly since returning from shoulder troubles. The rotation has done enough to hold things together, but the bullpen has been a tire fire pretty much all year, even with Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler having great seasons.
As for the Cardinals, well, we talk about the Cardinals a lot here. You know the story. The offense mostly sucks, except for when it doesn’t. The rotation sucked early, but has taken off of late. The bullpen has been awesome pretty much all along, and it’s a huge reason why the Cards are on top of the division. And the defense, well, the defense is the sneaky best part of the club, and probably the biggest reason the team is where it is, even beyond the ‘pen. This club excels at run prevention, full stop. They do not allow earned runs, nor unearned runs. If the offense was anywhere close to what I thought they could be, this division would not be a race at all right now.
The less said about the Pirates, the better. The Chris Archer trade looks like an all-time misstep, and the pitching in general is a disaster. The offense is fine, but nowhere near good enough to drag the corpse of the pitching staff up this hill.
I thought this division would be a bloodbath, similar to the NL Central, and it mostly has been. The only real difference is a little more separation record-wise between the top two clubs and the rest of the scrum. I thought the Nationals would weather the loss of Bryce Harper just fine due to their insane pitching rotation, and that has mostly happened. What I didn’t expect is that the offense would actually improve, due to Juan Soto being a freak and Anthony Rendon trying like hell to wedge his name into the MVP conversation. On the other hand, I expected a bit of a slip from the Braves as sophomore slumps knocked a couple of their young stars down a peg or two, and that hasn’t happened at all. Ronald Acuna is awesome, Mike Soroka is awesome, and oh yeah, Josh Donaldson is back to being one of the best third basemen in baseball. Which yes, does in fact piss me off. Why do you ask?
The Phillies went crazy over the offseason in trying to add a whole team’s worth of value at once, and for their trouble they have a club slightly over .500, with the underlying structure of a team that is...slightly under .500. Not what they were hoping for. Bryce Harper has been a very solid, good player this year, but not, you know, the Bryce Harper Philadelphia was hoping to get, and the pitching has been horrible. The Mets, meanwhile, have had several huge breakout seasons along with continued brilliance from Jacob DeGrom, but it hasn’t been enough to really propel them much beyond a mid-80s win projection and fringe contender status.
And then there’s the Marlins. They’re bad. Really bad. How long will they stay bad? I don’t know. Some of their moves seem smart. On the other hand, it looks like they got basically nothing in return for Yelich, and the return for Marcell Ozuna looks only marginally better. They certainly don’t seem to be aggressively dumb now, the way the Marlins could have maybe been perceived, say, five years ago. So I guess things are looking up there?
I’ll be honest: predicting the order of most divisions this year was not a particularly challenging thing. There were a few surprises, sure, but most of those surprises were the degree to which a given team was one thing or another, rather than the direction in which things went. The Red Sox were a notable exception, having a really tough campaign I didn’t see coming at all, and the Rockies collapsed to a degree I didn’t expect. On the other hand, the only team which was significantly better this year than I expected is the Diamondbacks, who really have done an interesting job of transitioning out of the Tony La Russa/Dave Stewart disaster into an era with the arrow pointing up relatively quickly, even if there’s been a little pain along the way.
In short, baseball looks right now about like I expected it to in March. There are surprises here and there, of course, but those are mostly players, not teams. The teams have lined up the way we expected, particularly the teams that really matter. Is that good for baseball? Well, that’s a much tougher question, and one beyond the purview of this preview review.
Have a happy Labor Day, everyone.