How They Can Win: Each NL team's guide to a 2016 World Series title
Want to know how your team can win the World Series? You've come to the right place. Below, you'll find just how each team in the National League can play its way to a title this season. Some fixes are easy; some are a little more complicated. But if your team follows my advice, then 2016 will be a season to remember.
Teams are listed alphabetically. For the American League teams, go here.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Homegrown players must carry some weight
No team surprised the industry last winter the way Arizona did, signing Zack Greinke to a six-year deal and trading last year's No. 1 overall pick to the Braves for Shelby Miller. If they're going to win the World Series, though, they're going to need homegrown Diamondbacks to make significant contributions, and not just stars like Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Patrick Corbin, nearly two years past Tommy John surgery, has to be the All-Star-caliber pitcher he was in 2013. Third baseman Jake Lamb is a critical piece now that the trade of Ender Inciarte leaves the team short of lefthanded bats. Chris Owings, a first-round pick in '09, has to find plate discipline to match his excellent glove at second base. A leftfielder has to emerge from the battle between Socrates Brito and Yasmany Tomas. Arizona now has a championship-caliber core, but it's the next five or six roster spots that will determine its fate in '16.
Atlanta Braves: Put defense first
The Braves are looking at 2016 as a transitional season, their final one at Turner Field before decamping to the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Only Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran remain from a core that won 96 games in 2013. Still, the Braves have surprised us before, as in 1991, when they went worst to first and won the NL pennant behind a young rotation and a vastly improved defense. For the Braves to exceed expectations like that, defense is once again their path to success. The team added Ender Inciarte, one of the best-fielding outfielders in the NL, from Arizona in the Shelby Miller trade. Rookie speedster Mallex Smith can play center while stealing bases and recalling Otis Nixon. The Braves have Gordon Beckham available to back up at third base, if he doesn't start there. They won't strike out many batters, but they have the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the league and, through that, to shock us all.
Chicago Cubs: Meet the high expectations
The simple answer to how the Cubs will win the World Series is, Show up. The betting favorite in Las Vegas, Chicago has become baseball's consensus best team by combining smart free-agency acquisitions such as Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey with exciting young talent like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. To build on last year's success, the Cubs will need those great young players to manage their strikeout rates; the three mentioned above whiffed a combined 425 times last year, or more than 30% of their trips to the plate. Overall, Chicago struck out 1,518 times, third most in MLB history. Other teams exploited its problems making contact in leveraged spots, as Chicago was 28th in batting average with runners in scoring position, and no team had a lower average (.237) or slugging percentage (.398) with a runner on third and less than two out. This season, more contact should lead to more runs.
Cincinnati Reds: Let the young rotation lead the way
The Reds have mostly moved on from the 2010–13 era that saw them reach the playoffs three times in four years but never win a postseason series. They began the rebuilding process a year ago, using a rookie pitcher to start every one of their final 64 games of the season. That experience creates hope for 2016. Raisel Iglesias struck out 26% of the batters he faced and showed command of three pitches. Anthony DeSclafani had a fantastic 77–14 strikeout-to-walk ratio after the All-Star break. Throw in the return of Homer Bailey and the possibility of top prospect Robert Stephenson's arriving in the second half, and you can dream on the Reds' young rotation providing excellent run prevention and leading the team into October. Keep in mind that new GM Dick Williams didn't strip the roster completely: superstar Joey Votto is still here to help the cause, as are Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Devin Mesoraco.
Colorado Rockies: Embrace and emphasize power
Even the worst teams in baseball have a path to the World Series. Strikeout rate is important for the Rockies because, at Coors Field, making contact produces better results than it does anywhere else. For Colorado to win, it has to be near the top of the league in pitcher strikeouts while having among the fewest batter strikeouts in the game. The team has to emphasize power pitchers who can miss bats with their fastballs—such as relievers Jake McGee, Scott Oberg and Chad Qualls—and hitters who put the ball in play. Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and DJ LeMahieu, the team's core hitters, all have good contact rates. It would be a miracle if the Rockies won a title this year, but the foundation for that miracle is a roster that can take advantage of the unusual conditions at altitude, with an eye toward being the best home team in baseball. More K's from the mound and fewer at the plate is that foundation.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Get help for the starting rotation
It was never going to be easy for the Dodgers to fill the Zack Greinke-sized hole in their rotation. It got harder this spring, as Brett Anderson suffered a back injury that will sideline him for most of the first half and Scott Kazmir showed up missing 4 mph off his fastball. L.A. will start the year with a patchwork group behind Clayton Kershaw, but that's all right. To win, the team just needs to stabilize their rotation for the second half. Anderson, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy should all be healthy by then. Prospects Julio Urias and Jose De Leon will be pressing for rotation slots later in the season. This is the Dodgers, so you know they'll be in the market to make trades in July to bolster the staff—Tyson Ross, Julio Teheran and even pending free agent Stephen Strasburg could be available. L.A. can muddle through three months figuring out their pitching so long as they spend the final three months riding it.
Miami Marlins: Get the most out of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez
The Marlins have two of baseball's brightest talents in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, players who by themselves can push an average team into the playoffs. Injuries to Fernandez's elbow and Stanton's wrist have kept the two from playing together since May 2014; for Florida to win the World Series, they'll need the pair to be both healthy and at peak form. In the wild-card era four teams have had separate players win both the MVP and Cy Young awards, and all four of those teams have won their divisions. The Marlins have improved the team around their two superstars as well, signing lefthanded starter Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year contract, extending batting champion Dee Gordon for five years and bringing in Don Mattingly, fresh off three straight NL West titles with L.A., to run the show. Those changes won't matter, however, unless Stanton and Fernandez play up to their potential.
Milwaukee Brewers: Get good years from some rookies
It was just a few years ago, in the fall of 2011, that the Brewers were two wins from the World Series. Four long seasons later, only Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun remain from the team that won 96 games and the NL Central. In its stead is a roster in transition backed by one of the stronger farm systems in baseball, headlined by top 10 shortstop stud Orlando Arcia. Milwaukee, deep into a rebuild and chasing three 2015 playoff teams in its division, is admittedly one of baseball's longest shots to win the World Series. To do so the Brewers need not only strong performances from stars Lucroy and Braun, but also big rookie seasons from Arcia (once he's called up), rightfielder Brett Phillips and pitchers Josh Hader and Jorge Lopez. Does that sound like too much to ask? The Cubs reached the NLCS last year with three rookies in their starting lineup, so it can be done. Besides, Bud Selig's old team should always have hope and faith.
New York Mets: Keep the starting rotation healthy
The Mets waltz into 2016 with the highest upside of any team in baseball. Their path to a championship is clear: Get the lion's share of their starts from the group of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler. If those five pitchers stay healthy—or in Wheeler's case, return from Tommy John surgery healthy—the Mets should allow the fewest runs in MLB and be well on their way to greatness. That's no small request; three of the five have had TJ surgery and a fourth, Matz, has a long history of health problems. The Mets need that group to be effective and durable because they don't have much quality depth behind them, though Bartolo Colon (4.16 ERA) returns to eat innings and inspire Twitter memes. There are questions about the Mets' bullpen and defense, but the rotation, which has a real shot at being the first in MLB history to strike out 1,000 batters, could erase them all.
Philadelphia Phillies: Take advantage of the youth movement
The Phillies bottomed out last season with a 99-loss campaign but one that allowed glimpses of a brighter future. Between drafting, development and trades, the Phillies now have many of the players who could lead them back to the playoffs. While it's not likely to happen this season, it is possible that the young talent could come together in a rush, as it did for the 2015 Cubs or the '08 Rays. Aaron Nola, Jake Thompson and Vincent Velasquez are as impressive a young trio of starters as you'll find south of Queens. J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Maikel Franco could—at least in theory—be the Phillies' 1-2-3 hitters by July. Young players are reaching the majors—and succeeding upon arrival—in large numbers these days, and the Phillies are well positioned to take advantage of that trend. Of the five rebuilding NL teams, Philadelphia is the one with the best chance at a championship.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Bring up the kids for the rotation
The Pirates have turned the NL wild-card game into the Clint Hurdle Invitational, hosting the contest the last three years it's been held. They've lost the last two and, for all their regular-season success, haven't made the NLCS since 1992. To win the World Series this year, they'll have to lean on their next generation of prospects, specifically a pair of pitchers who have been derailed by injuries. Tyler Glasnow might have reached the majors last year but for an early-season ankle sprain. The 6'8", 225-pound righty struck out 31% of the batters he faced in Double A and Triple A ball last year and should be in the Pirates' rotation by July. Jameson Taillon, the second pick in the 2010 draft, has had an even harder road, losing '14 to Tommy John surgery and '15 to a hernia. The back end of the rotation, Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong, is their weak spot right now, but it could be a strength by October.
San Diego Padres: Comebacks around the roster
After being the It Team of the 2014 off-season, the Padres crashed hard, going 74–88 and getting manager Bud Black fired. Perhaps chastened, GM A.J. Preller was relatively passive this winter, dealing closer Craig Kimbrel and staying away from the big-ticket acquisitions of Preller's first go-round. So for the Padres to win, they're going to have to lead the league in Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Wil Myers has to stay healthy, take to a new position (first base) and return to his '13 Rookie of the Year form. Jon Jay has to bounce back from a lost season—a .210 average in 79 games—to his usual .290 level. James Shields, Andrew Cashner and Fernando Rodney all have to pitch closer to their career norms than to last season's efforts. For a rebuilding team, the Padres have a lot of expensive veterans on the back end of their primes. Most of them will have to surprise for the Friars to move past their disappointing '15.
San Francisco Giants: Keep Denard Span on the field
The Giants' decision to sign centerfielder Denard Span to a three-year deal pulls together two interesting stats from 2015. The Nationals, Span's old team, were 36–25 when he started and 47–54 when he didn't. San Francisco, with its own injury issues in center, were 66–57 when Angel Pagan started, 18–21 when he didn't. For the Giants to end their long World Series drought, they'll have to keep Span on the field. He missed four months last year with back and hip problems, culminating in season-ending surgery in August. With a career .352 OBP and a 79% success rate stealing bases, he's one of the few true leadoff hitters in today's game. That makes him the missing piece in a San Francisco offense that was already as good as any NL team's from 2 through 8. When healthy, Span has been a good defensive player, and he's certainly an upgrade on the 34-year-old version of Pagan, who will switch to left in '16.
St. Louis Cardinals: Lean on depth and prospects
We've grown accustomed to the Cardinals' succeeding in the face of adversity, most recently by winning 100 games in 2015, despite losing ace Adam Wainwright to a torn Achilles tendon in April. St. Louis's trump card in this decade has been its ability to turn unheralded prospects into good major leaguers. To succeed this year, they'll have to do that again. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is already out for three or so months with a torn ligament in his left thumb, so the team will lean on Cuban émigré Aledmys Diaz at the start of the year. The outfield, after the departure of Jason Heyward, will be staffed by Matt Holliday and a combination of Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham, all developed by the Cards. The Redbirds were just 11th in the NL in runs last year; Getting offense from these farm products is essential to their 2016 chances—and given their track record, it wouldn't exactly be a shock.
Washington Nationals: Bounce-back years from the veterans
Dusty Baker has critics lined up from Cincinnati through Chicago and all the way back to San Francisco, but what detractors often overlook is that he's learned from his mistakes. He doesn't overuse starting pitchers as he did with the Cubs or bury young players the way he did as Giants manager. His best skill, getting the most out of veteran players, is what made him a smart choice for the Nationals. To win the World Series, Washington needs bounce-back years from soon-to-be 37-year-old Jayson Werth and 31-year-old Ryan Zimmerman, whose poor 2015 performances weighed down an offense that was too often Bryce Harper and seven guys giving Harper love after a solo homer. Baker also has some history handling superstar lefthanded hitters with personalities in proportion to their power; Harper could be the best lefty slugger the game has seen since Barry Bonds, who won three of his seven MVPs under Baker.