Wednesday morning, Rob Neyer, Grant Brisbee and I discussed, round-table style, the 2012 National League season. Here's how it went...
Grant: National League rules! American League drools!
Rob: Interleague records over the last gazillion seasons might differ with your idiosyncratic opinions.
Grant: Spiritually, Rob. Spiritually.
Al: Which league has won the last two World Series?
Rob: No idea. Don't remember at all.
Al: Proof of our point.
Grant: So National League. Just did a fantasy draft last night. I think the third first baseman chosen was Enos Cabell.
Al: Or the first third baseman.
Grant: The league is getting even weaker. It's so strange.
Al: But the pitching! Think of all the great National League pitching!
Grant: I remember being a little peeved that the Giants' rotation was something like ninth or tenth in the FanGraphs rankings, but then I realized that was because they had something like seven or eight AL teams ahead of them!
Rob: While you guys are fooling around, I'm going to check the interleague results from last season because I don't remember what happened (honestly)...
Al: ... or Phillies.
Grant: Well, Phillies still grabbed the #1 ranking. Er, wait. #2 ranking. Angels were #1. I think Bronson Arroyo's ERA should have dropped by a full point in those projections just because he doesn't have to face Fielder or Pujols anymore.
Al: The entire NL Central should have better pitching because of that.
Rob: By my count, American League just barely won the interleague war last season: 139-130. Which supports notion that National League has been catching up. But what happened this winter probably didn't help much. In the short term, anyway.
Grant: One thing that they've caught up in, at least, is with powerhouse divisions. You can't blithely say that the AL East is the strongest division in baseball without at least acknowledging the NL East. I think the Mets and Orioles should play 162 games against each other on the moon.
Rob: I don't know ... It sort of depends on whether you believe the American League is still better. Because if you do, then it's easy to think the Yankees and Red Sox and Rays would all win 95-100 games in the National League.
Al: If you say the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays would win 95-100 games in the NL, the Phillies and Marlins could do the same in the AL.
Rob: How do you figure? If the American League is better, it follows that the Phillies and Marlins would win fewer games than they will in the National League. And neither of those teams is projected to win 95 games in N.L.
Grant: I don't know if I'd pick the Blue Jays for higher than 3rd in the NL East, though. There's a gap, but it's somewhat overblown.
Rob: Sure, but the Blue Jays are overrated. They're a .500 team in the American League, might win 85 in the N.L. East.
Which is a good division, one through four. No question. I think the interesting question is ... If the Phillies falter, who is best-equipped to take advantage? There are arguments for three other clubs, right?
Al: Yes ... but oddly enough, I think the Braves are least ready to take advantage. I'd rank them Marlins, Nationals, Braves.
Rob: Have the Braves gotten worse since last season?
Al: They are coming off a monumental collapse; I wonder about the durability of that bullpen.
Grant: I disagree. I thought the Braves were almost as good as the Phillies last year, and I was wrong, but I think it's close now.
Al: The Braves won 13 fewer games than the Phillies last year.
Grant: With Heyward not doing much and a spate of injuries to the rotation. I was certainly wrong last year, but the Braves' stubborn insistence that they were good enough to stand pat over the offseason doesn't seem that crazy to me. It's a loaded roster (Well, maybe not loaded. But good).
Al: Their problem is that they have stood pat while the teams behind them (Nats and Marlins) have improved significantly.
Rob: Nationals haven't done nearly enough, in my opinion. But if Strasburg pitches like he did last September and Harper comes up in May and wins the Rookie of the Year Award -- which I don't think he will do -- they could make a real move. I've got the Marlins and Braves roughly even, and I don't know how to separate them. If anybody knows when Tim Hudson will come back and how many games Chipper Jones will play, please let me know.
Grant: Yeah, I'm with you. I saw Edwin Jackson pitch in a spring game, and his velocity was way down. Normally, I don't care about spring stats at all, but when a pitcher struggles and his velocity is down, I get wary. Plus, Mike Morse is hurt, possibly due to regress, and that was a big part of the offense last year.
Rob: There's certainly potential there. But the numbers say they're the fourth-best team, absent big seasons from Strasburg and Harper. Also, do projections know when Utley's rejoining the Phillies? Or how well Ryan Howard's going to play, when he finally gets back? I find projections less useful than usual, this year. Speaking of which, there are a bunch of teams bunched up in the other divisions, too!
Grant: I've never seen anything like the NL Central, where there is such an even and clear split between the haves and have-nots. It's like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel. Three good teams, three bad teams.
Al: The three good teams all have weaknesses. The Brewers still have a good rotation and bullpen, but they will miss Prince Fielder. The Cardinals will miss La Russa and Duncan more than Pujols, I think. And the Reds have gone "all in"... but sometimes teams that do that wind up with trouble (see: last year's White Sox)
Rob: Right ... X-factors ... Mat Gamel might be a pretty solid replacement for Fielder, and it's impossible to know what the loss of La Russa and Duncan will mean for Cardinals. I think I'm picking the Brewers to win, though. I like Gamel, and Aramis Ramirez is a huge upgrade at third base. All the starting pitchers are back, Tony Plush is there on Opening Day ... I say they repeat.
Grant: Also, Chris Carpenter's neck. With Carpenter making 25 starts, I'm pretty comfortable picking the Cardinals. If he's out for the season or something, I go with Milwaukee.
Al: I wonder about Nyjer Morgan... seems like he had a career year in 2011. Aramis Ramirez is 34 and injury-prone. Gamel is good, but an unknown and replacing MVP-caliber play. The Brewers might repeat, but they won't win 96 games again.
Rob: Probably not. Among the bottom-feeders, can we agree the Pirates are the most interesting? With a bunch of young players who need to start showing their stuff real soon?
Al: Andrew McCutchen is a possible future MVP. The rest of that team, though ... how many young players really are even close to that caliber?
Rob: None. But some of them were supposed to be. Which is my point.
Al: Mine, too.
Grant: How many young players in baseball are close to that caliber? Kind of an unfair comparison.
Rob: McCutchen, by the way, is my pick for the league's Breakout Player of the Year.
Grant: If you compare his numbers to Barry Bonds up to the same age, it's interesting. /not saying, just saying.
Rob: I wouldn't. Defense.
Grant: Yeah, Castro fascinates me. So young. Even if he's playing third, he fascinates me.
Al: Sure, but his hitting is All-Star caliber. He just turned 22.
Grant: Can't remember if he has 1,000 at-bats in the majors yet or not, but for a guy to hit .300 in that many at-bats before he turns 22 is really, really rare.
Al: He's got a little over 1,100 MLB at-bats.
Grant: What would his numbers look like if he were in AA or AAA, like most kids his age? He'd be up there with Harper and Trout, I'd reckon.
Rob: Well, he's three years older than Harper and two years older than Trout. So, no - He wouldn't be. He's an exciting young player, obviously. If he can get his throws under control, he'll be a superstar. If not, he takes over from Soriano in left field someday.
Grant: Nope! That's how I see it, too.
Al: The Dodgers could surprise people this year. They have excellent pitching and MVP-caliber hitting in Kemp.
Rob: They could. But that's not where the smart money is. Both Kershaw and Kemp are likely to regress this season -- highly likely, in fact -- and they lost Hiroki Kuroda while not making a single consequential move this winter.
Al: I see both Kershaw and Kemp as players who can still improve.
Grant: I'm not a wholly corrupted partisan -- I'll do my damnedest to be objective when it comes to the rest of the NL West -- but Kuroda was really good. Billingsley wasn't very good last year, and Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, and Ted Lilly are perfectly good back-end pitchers, but not enough to overcome Ellis, Uribe, Gordon, and Rivera getting 500 at-bats or so.
Al: Meanwhile, the Giants won 86 games in 2011 with no offense whatsoever. With Posey back, I see them winning the division.
Rob: You have to like the Diamondbacks because a) they played so well last season, and b) they tried to get better this winter, and c) they have two excellent pitching prospects who could help this summer. That said, BP sees a huge regression for D'backs, projecting them with only 84 wins (two fewer than Giants).
Grant: Of all the moves made this offseason, the one that still stuns me is the Jason Kubel signing.
Al: Agreed, Grant. Kubel makes no sense for an NL team. He's not a good enough hitter to make up for the complete lack of defensive ability.
Grant: And he replaces a better player on both sides of the ball! For much money! Still, the Diamondbacks might or might not have a better rotation 1-5 than the Giants, but they have some hitters. That pushes them over the top for me unless Belt goes nuts, or Melky Cabrera really is the hitter that we don't think he is.
Rob: Let's remember that Ian Kennedy's going to regress, and probably Josh Collmenter too. Also: Joe Saunders.
Al: D'backs have a very good bullpen, one of the biggest reasons they won the West last year
Rob: Another regression candidate!
So that's two votes for the Giants, and a vote for the Diamondbacks from the guy who ... blogs about the Giants! Nice.
Al: I have the D'backs as one of the wild-card teams.
Grant: At least I picked the Dodgers for last place to help my street cred.
Rob: Let's get some award picks. First, MVP and I'm going with ... Wait, who did I go with? Already forgotten.
Al: MVP? Votto.
Rob: Right. Same here. Joey Votto.
Grant: Buster Posey for MVP. Hell, he'll also become the first two-time Rookie of the Year award winner, too. (For serious, though, I'll pick Justin Upton for MVP.) (Though reserving the right to declare Buster Posey as a more perfect representation of everything beautiful about baseball, humanity.)
Rob: Upton was Dave Cameron's choice, and is a good one if you believe Diamondbacks are making playoffs. Now I'm not wild about my Votto pick, because I don't have Reds in postseason. Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary because I don't love any of the other candidates. And you took Upton. How about Jose Reyes? Jose Reyes on East-winning Marlins. There. I said it.
Grant: Reyes will hit anywhere, but I have a funny hunch that Marlins Park is going to be Petco East.
Al: I don't see Reyes as a MVP-level player any more. Good, but not that good.
Rob: Haters. Cy Young? I have Halladay, I think. But my dark horse is Greinke.
Al: Kershaw. He's only going to get better.
Grant: I was surprised to see all of the Bumgarner love in the FanGraphs predictions. And I approve. But I'll still go with Cliff Lee.
Rob: Al, how many pitchers win consecutive Cy Youngs? It's uncommon for two big reasons: regression, and inconsistency of W-L.
Al: True, but I think Kershaw is that good, and he has a pitcher's park to help him.
Grant: Kershaw's magically improved control scares the absolute hell out of me.
Rob: He's young enough where it could definitely be real. I think he's a great pitcher. I just don't think he's actually greater than Halladay, Lee, maybe Greinke, maybe Lincecum, etc. He's one of many fine candidates.
Rookie of the Year?
Al: Totally off-the-wall, homer pick: Brett Jackson.
Grant: I can see that. Especially once they trade Byrd to the Nationals (Which should happen any second, dammit, just like Cespedes signing with the Marlins.) I'll go with Trevor Bauer.
Rob: Wow. You guys are picking candidates who don't even have jobs in the majors. I mean, they obviously will at some point. And they're both fantastic prospects. But I'm biased against players who don't figure to have jobs in April. Which is why I'm taking Reds shortstop Zack Cozart.
Grant: It's never those players, though. Last year it was Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman in the NL and ... can't remember who the hot pick was in the AL. But it's rarely the obvious pick.
Al: And has, several times in recent years, been someone not in MLB on Opening Day.
Rob: Of course. But that's like trying to pick the surprise team. It's just throwing darts. Which is fun, especially after a couple of beers. But it doesn't tend to lead to the right answer. Sticking with Cozart!
Grant: I think Cozart loses his job in June to Billy Hamilton, who steals 113 bases after the All-Star break to win the award!
Rob: I can see that.
Grant: Quite likely if you think about it.
Al: Should we sum up our playoff picks?
Grant: Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Phillies, Braves/Giants wild card tussle.
Al: Phillies, Brewers, Giants. Marlins/D'backs wild cards.
Rob: Giants, Cardinals (WC), Brewers, Marlins, Diamondbacks (WC).
Grant: Thinking the NL East is just going to beat each other up, eh?
Rob: I guess. Also, throwing darts. There really aren't any standout teams in the National League. The American League has six obvious contenders. The National League has ... what? Eight or nine, with none of them projected to win more than 90 games? Good luck!
Grant: Ha. Exactly.
Al: Sometimes, in a compressed league like that, a surprise team comes out of the pack. Who that would be this year, I have no idea.
Rob: Somebody definitely will win 95 games.
Grant: Padres. That's my sleeper creeper. They built a respectable lineup when no one was looking.
Al: Dodgers, possibly.
Rob: John Perrotto picked the Padres to win the West! (also, Royals to win A.L. Central)
Al: Must have been picking for 2014.
Grant: I wouldn't pick the Padres, but I wouldn't reflexively make some of fun of someone who did, like the Orioles or Astros.
Rob: Nor should you. Padres have a real shot, oddly enough. And I didn't even count them (or the Rockies) among my eight contenders. That would make 10 of 16.
Al: For whatever it's worth, I thought the best team I saw in AZ during spring training was the Giants.
Grant: /Theriot kicks ground ball into upper deck