Time was when the American League was the most predictable in baseball. Between 1947 and 1964 the Yankees won the AL pennant 15 times out of 18. But this has changed. In the last five seasons four different teams have won the AL pennant while only the Giants (2010, 2012 and 2014) and the Cardinals (2011 and 2013) have won the National League. So as a new baseball season approaches will there be change in the NL this year?
Let’s start with the team that were celebrating at the end of last season – the World Champion Giants. They have bigger problems than the fact it is an odd numbered year and the Giants don’t make the post season in those years. The offence could struggle. Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse are gone and Hunter Pence will miss the first 6-8 weeks. And it wasn’t the best offence to start with. The pitching would be awesome if all of then were at their peak but that can only be said about post season hero Madison Bumgarner. It will be interesting to see if Matt Cain can come back from injury at or near his 2012 peak but Tim Hudson ,Tim Lincecum and Jake Peavy are surely past theirs. Add to the (easy forgotten) fact the Giants won only 88 games last year in a poor NLWest (apart from the Dodgers of course) plus the fact that the Padres have improved the D-Backs can’t get worse and the Rockies must on the law of averages get a full season out of Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez and it adds up to fewer wins for the Giants and probably no post season action this year.
The Cardinals are a different case though. Baseball Prospectus 2015 (page 368) lists the things that went wrong for the Cardinals in 2014 – a list far too long to reproduce here. But they still won 90 games the division and got to the NLCS. Imagine how they could do if fewer things went wrong. They aren’t a lock to win the NL Central – three of their rivals have got to the post season in the last four years and the fifth team the Cubs are stuffed with exciting young talent – but while there is a case for saying the Pirates could win the NL Central one cannot imagine the Cardinals NOT getting a wild card. And as 2011 and 2012 showed the Cardinals with a wild card are dangerous. They are arguably the best run franchise in baseball and will be serious contenders again. Even if disaster strikes and Adam Wainwright is injured one must remember they won the 2011 World Series without him throwing a pitch all season. They find a way.
So if the duopoly is to be broken, who will do it? The obvious contenders are the cash rich Dodgers. Their off season has been fascinating – especially their appointment of Andrew Freidman as President of Baseball Operations. Going from the poor Rays to the rich Dodgers must make him feel that he has won the lottery. But as many lottery winners find out if you are not used to having money you can spend it badly. His moves have been interesting trading Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez signing Howie Kendrick and above all trading star player Matt Kemp. The move makes sense – the Dodgers had a log jam in the outfield, didn’t want to lose uber prospect Joc Pederson and probably felt the injury prone Kemp will never return to his 2011 peak. But if he does the fact he went to the division rival Padres means he could come back to haunt them and the fans at Chavez Ravine won’t like that. They should still win the NL West but have one big problem if they want to do what the owners and fans expect – win the World Series. They might have to get by the Cardinals – who seem to have the same effect on the great Clayton Kershaw as kryptonite has on Superman. This gives the Cardinals a huge advantage should they meet again.
So if the Dodgers can’t break the duopoly who can? There is one obvious candidate. The Washington Nationals won the NL East by 17 games had the best record in the NL and had the beat pitching staff in the League. But for a second time in three seasons they did not get out of the Division Series. But in the off season they showed they were determined to change this by signing Max Scherzer. They did not sign this former Cy Young winner to win the NL East. In a division where two teams are on the way up (the Marlins and Mets) but from a poor base – and the other two – the Braves and Phillies -are in decline – they would have probably won the division any way No. Scherzer has been signed to try and make the Nats post season winners. To stop them being the Oakland As of the NL. This is a declaration that “our time has come”. While nothing is certain in baseball adding Scherzer to a pitching staff so good that even though it has – according to Baseball Prospectus -the best pitching prospect in baseball Lucas Giolito of whom BP says “There are Major League teams that don’t have a better pitcher than him” – his chances of playing in the Majors are slim – means that if any team can break the Cardinals/Giants duopoly in the NL it is this team.
A previous Washington franchise – the Senators – were so bad the phrase “Washington. First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League*” was coined about them. In 2015 it could be “First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League”.
*The first two baseball franchises in Washington DC – both called the Senators – were in the American League. It was not until 2005 – when the Expos moved to DC – that Washington became a NL city.