- Jim Bowden, Baseball, Insider
After touring both Arizona and most recently Florida, I have come to a relatively easy conclusion that the two best teams in the National League -- at least on paper as well as from the scouting seats this spring -- are the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals.
The Cardinals arrived in Jupiter, Florida, last month with a lot of questions surrounding their starting pitching mostly because of health reasons, but also because of the trade of Shelby Miller to the Braves in the offseason for right fielder Jason Heyward.
Every single question has been answered positively. Adam Wainwright feels great and even clarified to me he is 100 percent. Michael Wacha looks like the Wacha of 2013 according to GM John Mozeliak. John Lackey and Lance Lynn look like the pitchers who helped the Cards win the division last year.
In addition, all three starters fighting for the fifth job have pitched well enough to win the spot. Jaime Garcia has been the surprise of camp, not only completely healthy but pitching like he did when he was one of the league’s best left-handed starters. Carlos Martinez has shown that his fastball command is improving and he could start, even though he is expected to return to the eighth-inning role by Opening Day. Marco Gonzales has developed by light years this spring, adding a two-seam sinker, a cutter and a curveball, three new pitches to a repertoire that already included a solid four-seam fastball up in the zone and a plus-plus changeup he can use to get right- and left-handed hitters out.
Heyward has fit in nicely in the clubhouse, has shown his elite defensive skills and the Cardinals’ brain trust is convinced it can get another level of talent out of Heyward's bat. With a completely healthy and happy clubhouse, this will be a tough team to beat, even for the ever-improving Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Nationals entered spring training with MLB’s best team on paper, but unlike the Cardinals, they have not been so fortunate healthwise. Center fielder Denard Span will start the year on the disabled list with a right core muscle injury and is not expected to return until sometime in May. Anthony Rendon, their best position player, is also likely to start the year on the DL with a knee injury. They are waiting to see if left fielder Jayson Werth is ready for Opening Day and are cautiously optimistic according to GM Mike Rizzo, but I highly doubt he'll be ready to go either. Even when he is activated there is a big question of how much power he'll have because of the type of shoulder surgery he had.
The best news is that their top six starters are relatively healthy, with Stephen Strasburg's sprained ankle tweak being the only minor injury so far. As good as this team is, they'll have to fight off strong competition from both the Marlins and Mets, who are way better than most people think and will give them a pennant race until the end. For the Nationals to live up to their potential, their two high-ceiling talents in outfielder Bryce Harper and Strasburg will have to take their games to elite status.
Harper was recently dubbed the most overrated player in baseball by his peers in a recent ESPN The Magazine article. I can understand this because scouts and analysts like myself have been riding high on Harper’s 40-home run power ceiling. However, MLB players haven't seen him do it yet nor have they seen a consistent professional approach like his teammate Rendon's. However, make no doubt about it, he will reach his ceiling and when he does, those who call him overrated will start focusing on another player who hasn't done it yet.
Remember, Harper is just 22 years old. He also has to deal with more off-field drama than most players and it has been overwhelming for him. However, when he finally learns how to leave it at the clubhouse door and not think about it again until he heads home after the game, watch out because he will reach that potential. At least 30 home runs are needed this year for the Nats to win it all, and I think he'll provide it.
Strasburg, on the other hand, has a chance to win the Cy Young Award, despite the fact he's the Nationals’ third starter behind Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann. I think Scherzer could be the key to Strasburg's success because Scherzer brings looseness, fun and happiness to the clubhouse and the tightly wound Strasburg will have to start having fun, especially with Gio Gonzalez and Matt Thornton on the same fun team as Scherzer. If the Nats can have a little more fun this year with their starting pitching, they should be facing the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Around the league
• The Detroit Tigers might be able to bounce back and be the team to beat in the American League. After studying their team, I asked team president Dave Dombrowski if this team was as good as I thought. His response was "this might be the best team I've had in Detroit."
Don't laugh -- I think it is. I know the losses of Scherzer and Rick Porcello were huge and makes one question that premise. However, let's look at it a bit deeper. David Price was acquired in July to replace Scherzer and he's pitching like the former Cy Young Award winner that he is. Shane Greene’s stuff is off the charts and although he'll start as their fifth starter, many of their evaluators think he has the same potential as Porcello. Justin Verlander is set for a comeback after working hard this offseason on his core, which he expects to help his breaking balls and maintain velocity. Anibal Sanchez is finally healthy and looking as if he could compete for an ERA title again.
As for the lineup, with the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, last year's breakout of J.D. Martinez and the expectation that Nick Castellanos will break out this year, this is the deepest lineup they've had in Dombrowski's tenure.
The strength of their defense is up the middle, where Jose Iglesias is Gold Glove-caliber at short, Ian Kinsler was a Gold Glove runner-up at second while newly acquired Anthony Gose is elite in center field with range, speed and the arm.
The bullpen is the only question with the aging and declining Joe Nathan penciled in for the ninth inning. However, the good news is that Joakim Soria looks like the reliever who dominated for the Royals a few years back and Bruce Rondon is throwing over 100 mph again, so if they need an eraser for Nathan’s role, they might have two comeback stories that can take over the position. Of course, the health of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez is of upmost importance, but if they're fine, watch out. The Tigers could get back to the World Series again.
• The Astros are an up-and-coming team, but they might not be ready just yet to make that huge leap of winning more games than they lose. A lot of questions remain regarding their starting rotation after Dallas Keuchel, Scott Feldman and Collin McHugh. There's not much depth.
The top of their lineup will be fun, though, with Jose Altuve and George Springer expected to bat 1-2. The middle of their lineup will hit a bunch of home runs, as they beat up on fourth and fifth starters but will likely struggle against the league’s best pitching, producing a league-high strikeout total. The Astros can't wait for Carlos Correia to arrive at shortstop and I can see why, as I expect he will replace Kris Bryant next February as the best prospect in the minor leagues on Keith Law's rankings.
• The Braves are saying all the right things in hopes they can be the Royals of this year and sneak up on people, but with one of the game’s weakest lineups outside of Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and Nick Markakis, it looks like it could be a long summer in Atlanta. Freeman will find opposing pitchers pitching around him in most crucial situations without Justin Upton, Evan Gattis or Jason Heyward in the lineup. However, they still have MLB’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel and one of the game’s best young starters in Julio Teheran.
Jim Bowden provides observations thus far from spring training. He writes that the Cardinals and Nationals are the clear National League favorites.