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Around MLB: NL Preview, Mets, and the WBC

The New York Mets continued their Grapefruit League season on Friday, hammering the St. Louis Cardinals 16-2 at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, FL. IF Wilmer Flores led the Mets’ attack with a second-inning grand slam against Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright; Flores had 6 RBIs on the day. The Mets scored ten runs against Wainwright, and forced him from the game in the second inning, after the veteran right-hander permitted seven hits and four hits. Every Mets starting position player recorded a hit and either scored or knocked in multiple runs. LHP Steven Matz fared much better for New York, going 3 2/3 innings and only surrendering one run to the Cards. Matz struck out three batters and picked a runner off first base, using a re-tooled pickoff move that he has worked on for the upcoming season.

In defeating the Redbirds, the Mets moved to 11-11 on the spring. The Mets will travel to Jupiter, FL, on Saturday to take on the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. RHP Robert Gsellman will get the start for New York. Left-handed relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Josh Edgin, competing to be the second lefty in the Mets’ bullpen (with Jerry Blevins), are scheduled to pitch. Mets’ ace RHP Noah Syndergaard will stay back in Port St. Lucie to pitch in a minor league game; Syndergaard is on schedule to take the ball for the Mets at Citi Field on Opening Day, April 3rd, against the Atlanta Braves.

With only two weeks left in Spring Training, it’s time to preview the National League in 2017. Let’s swing around the Senior Circuit and take a look at the Mets’ competition in the season ahead, in order of their 2016 finish and with their 2016 record in parentheses:

National League East:

Washington Nationals (95-67). Talented and deep, the Nationals are looking for OF Bryce Harper (.243, 24 HRs, 86 RBIs, 21 SBs) to return to his MVP-form of 2015. With a full year from SS Trea Turner (.342, 13 HRs, 40 RBIs, 33 SBs in 73 games) and 2B Daniel Murphy (2nd in the MVP voting; .347, 25 HRs, 104 RBIs), the Nationals should be strong offensively, although there is some age with LF Jayson Werth (38) and 1B Ryan Zimmerman (32, and a host of injuries). Washington needs 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner RHP Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA, 284Ks) and RHP Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 3.60 ERA, 183Ks, only 24 starts) to be healthy in October – and to find a closer.

New York Mets (87-75). We talk about them every week – this team is ready to win. It will be all about starting pitching and keeping the everyday lineup healthy. Bench production and some depth in the bullpen will help.

Miami Marlins (79-82). This franchise looked ready to contend under Manager Don Mattingly in 2017 – then they lost ace RHP Jose Fernandez in a tragic boat accident last September. They have a strong lineup with OF Christian Yelich (.298, 21 HRs, 98 RBIs, 9 SBs), OF Giancarlo Stanton (.240, 27 HRs, 74 RBIs), 3B Martin Prado, 2B Dee Gordon, and C J.T. Realmuto. The bullpen is stocked with power arms. But, it will all be about starting pitching. The Marlins have a rotation full of #3 and #4 type starters – LHP Adam Conley, LHP Wei-Yin Chen, RHP Edinson Volquez, RHP Dan Straily, RHP Tom Koehler – but now, no true #1. Miami will host the All Star Game on July 11th.

Philadelphia Phillies (71-91). Team President Andy MacPhail and General Manager Matt Klentak continue the long rebuild. The Phillies are just about completely torn down. That said, they do have plenty of major league ready young pitching – including RHP Aaron Nola, RHP Vincent Velasquez, and RHP Jerad Eickhoff. The farm system is strong, and the Phils added some veteran help in the offseason with the acquisitions of 2B/LF Howie Kendrick (Dodgers) and OF Michael Saunders (Blue Jays). Manager Pete Mackanin did an excellent job navigating his young team through 2016, and he’ll have to do even better in 2017 to avoid Philadelphia’s third straight last place finish.

Atlanta Braves (68-94). The Braves’ move into Sun Trust Park this year. It will be the Majors’ first new park in five years (Marlins Park in 2012). Atlanta’s leadership – Team President John Hart and General Manager John Coppolella – have restocked the organization with talent over the past two years, like SS Dansby Swanson, and more is on the way. Meanwhile, the Braves went out and acquired some veteran talent last season at the trade deadline in OF Matt Kemp (.280, 12 HRs, 39 RBIs in 56 games with ATL), and then, this offseason, Atlanta traded for 2B Brandon Phillips (Reds; .291, 11 HRs, 64 RBIs, 14 SBs). The Braves are building a bridge to their next generation of pitching with 44-year old RHP Bartolo Colon (Mets; 15-8, 3.43 ERA in 34 starts) and 42-year old RHP R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays; 10-15, 4.46 ERA in 29 starts). Led by 1B Freddie Freeman (.302, 34 HRs, 91 RBIs), Atlanta will be improved and may even push for its first winning season since 2013.

National League Central:

Chicago Cubs (103-58). The Cubs are the defending World Series champions for the first time since 1909. Let that marinate some more. This deep is young and deep in the everyday lineup, led by 25-year old 2016 NL MVP 3B/OF Kris Bryant (.292, 39 HRs, 102 RBIs, 8 SB) and 27-year old 1B Anthony Rizzo (.292, 32 HRs, 109 RBIs). Manager Joe Maddon’s biggest challenge may be generating the same high level starting pitching in 2017 out of a staff that includes 38-year old RHP John Lackey (11-8, 3.35 ERA in 29 starts) and 33-year old LHP Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA in 32 starts); both have a lot of innings under their major league belts and pitched into November in ‘16. The Cubs acquired former Kansas City closer RHP Wade Davis (2-1, 1.87 ERA, 27 SVs) in exchange for OF Jorge Soler; Davis replaces LHP Aroldis Chapman who went back to the Yankees in free agency. The Cubs are primed to repeat.

St. Louis Cardinals (86-76). This team was uncharacteristically led by its power in 2016 (225 HRs led the NL), but it struggled to manufacture runs. The Cardinals only went 38-43 at home in 2016, the franchise’s first losing season at home since 1999. The Cardinals were porous defensively and could not replicate a pitching staff that had an aggregate ERA under 3.00 in 2015. All that said, the Cardinals finished just one game out of the NL Wild Card. In the offseason, St. Louis signed OF Dexter Fowler (.276, 13 HRs, 48 RBIs, 13 SBs, .393 OBP) away from the Cubs, giving them some athleticism on offense and improved defense up the middle. The Cardinals will get RHP Lance Lynn back from 2016 Tommy John surgery, but have already lost 22-year old RHP Alex Reyes (4-1, 2.57 ERA, 5 starts) for the 2017 season, also to TJ surgery. RHP Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA) is their ace, and they’ll look for 35-year old RHP Adam Wainwright (13-9, 4.62 ERA) and 25-year old RHP Michael Wacha (7-7, 5.09 ERA, 24 starts) to bounce back to previous form. Manager Mike Matheny will have the Cardinals, as always, in the hunt.

Pittsburgh Pirates (78-83). After three consecutive NL Wild Card berths (2013-2015), the Pirates regressed last year to 78 wins and were out of the playoffs. OF Andrew McCutchen (.256, 24 HRs, 79 RBIs, 6 SB) had a down year, and at age 30, was the subject of offseason trade rumors; he is signed through 2017 with a $14.5M team option for 2018. If the Pirates get off slowly and fall out of the race, McCutchen will almost certainly be traded. In 2017, McCutchen will move to RF, with Starling Marte (.311, 9 HRs, 46 RBIs, 47 SBs) moving to CF, while improving LF Gregory Polanco (.258, 22 HRs, 86 RBIs, 17 SBs) helps make up arguably the game’s best OF trio. Pittsburgh will need RHP Gerrit Cole (7-10, 3.88 ERA, 21 starts) to bounce back and stay healthy, and its young pitchers RHP Tyler Glasnow and RHP Jameson Taillon (5-4, 3.38 ERA, 18 starts) to take a step forward in order to contend.

Milwaukee Brewers (73-89). Led by GM David Stearns and Manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers are rebuilding and are on the right track. They have some good young talent, led by 2B Jonathan Villar (.285, 19 HRs, 63 RBIs, 62 SBs), OF Domingo Santana, and IF Hernan Perez (.272, 13 HRs, 56 RBIs, 34 SBs). OF Ryan Braun (.305, 30 HRs, 91 RBIs, 16 SBs) returned to his former MVP-caliber form, and may provide Stearns a vehicle and asset to trade for more young talent. Milwaukee can score runs, but after RHP Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81 ERA, 20 starts), they have #5 and Quad-AAAA type pitchers at the major league level.

Cincinnati Reds (68-94). GM Dick Williams is engineering a methodical rebuild after Cincinnati went to the playoffs three out of four years (2010, 2012-2013). 1B Joey Votto still anchors the lineup. At 33, after a slow start to the ’16 season, Votto had a huge second half and finished strong at .326, 29 HRs, and 97 RBIs. As Votto went, so did the Reds, who went 32-57 in the first half, but went 36-37 in the second half. Cincinnati pitching allowed a major league record 258 home runs, allowed the most walks (636), and hit the most batters (78) in baseball. The Reds traded 2B Brandon Phillips (Braves) and their best pitcher, RHP Dan Straily (Marlins) in the offseason. Cincinnati tied with San Diego for the NL’s worst record in 2016 – and it will not be much better in ’17. Something to watch: Manager Bryan Price plans to utilize both RHPs Rafael Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as closers, with both able to throw multiple innings. The last time two relievers on the same team threw over 100 innings was the Reds, back in 1999, with RHP Danny Graves and RHP Scott Sullivan throwing 224 2/3 combined innings and finishing 72 games between them.

National League West:

Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71). The Dodgers re-signed 3B Justin Turner (.275, 27 HRs, 90 RBIs) and closer, RHP, Kenley Jansen (3-2, 1.83 ERA, 47 SVs) in the offseason, and traded for 2B Logan Forsythe (.264, 20 HRs, 52 RBIs) from Tampa. Led by all-world LHP Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69, 21 starts, 11 BB, 172 Ks in 149 IPs) and Rookie of the Year SS Corey Seager (.308, 26 HRs, 72 RBIs), Los Angeles is primed to make its first run at a World Championship in 29 years. The Dodgers need to stay healthy, and to have depth emerge behind Kershaw in the rotation with some type of combination that will include LHP Rich Hill, RHP Brandon McCarthy, and LHP Scott Kazmir. For LA, the time is now.

San Francisco Giants (87-75). The Giants blew 30 of 73 save chances in 2016, most in the NL and 9th most in MLB history. To address this, Team President Brian Sabean and GM Bobby Evans signed free agent RHP Mark Melancon (47 SVs) away from the Nationals. Evans and San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy will need to rebuild their bridge to the closer, as the stalwarts (Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt) that helped them to three World Series titles (2010, 2012, 2014) are all gone. LHP Madison Bumgarner, 27, will again anchor the rotation after going 15-9 with a 2.74 ERA in 34 starts, including a complete game shutout in the NL Wild Card game to defeat the Mets. After Bumgarner, the Giants will rely on RHP Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA, 32 starts), RHP Jeff Samardzija, LHP Matt Moore, and hope for a healthy RHP Matt Cain. Cain (4-8, 5.64 ERA in 17 starts) has been beset by injuries over the last three seasons, but will make $21M in ’17. On offense, the Giants need more from CF Denard Span (.266, 11 HRs, 53 RBIs, 12 SBs), and healthy years from 2B Joe Panik (.239, 10 HRs, 62 RBIs) and RF Hunter Pence (.289, 13 HRs, 57 RBIs in 106 games). C Buster Posey (.288, 14 HRs, 80 RBIs in 146 games) showed signs of wearing down last year and it bears watching. The Giants will go as far as their pitching, but also need an infusion of youth and speed into their lineup.

Colorado Rockies (75-87). The Rockies continue to receive a lot of buzz this spring. With an already strong offense led by 3B Nolan Arenado (.294, 41 HRs, 133 RBIs), Colorado signed IF/OF Ian Desmond (Rangers) in free agency to play 1B. Desmond, who signed a one year deal with Texas after leaving Washington in the ’15 offseason, hit .285 with 22 HRs, 86 RBIs, and 21 SBs over 156 games in Arlington and parlayed it into a 5-year, $70M deal in Mountain Time. Last Sunday, Desmond sustained a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch in Cincinnati during a Cactus League game; Desmond underwent surgery on Tuesday of this week, and will be out until early May. For the Rockies and new Manager Bud Black, it will come down to pitching. Young, homegrown starters in RHP Jon Gray (10-10, 4.61 ERA, 29 starts), RHP Tyler Chatwood (12-9, 3.87 ERA, 27 starts), RHP Chad Bettis (14-8, 4.79 ERA, 32 starts), and LHP Tyler Anderson will be counted on heavily to take a step forward and catapult Colorado into contention. Bettis will miss time battling offseason diagnosed cancer; we wish him health and a speedy recovery. The Rocks bullpen will be led by free agent acquisition RHP Greg Holland (Royals) who missed time the last two years with arm problems, LHP Jake McGee, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Carlos Estevez and RHP Adam Ottavino. In Colorado, with the toll that both altitude and their ballpark takes on starters, the Rockies bullpen will serve as a barometer for this team’s performance.

Arizona Diamondbacks (69-93). The Diamondbacks were one of the NL’s biggest disappointments in 2016, but could be one its biggest surprises in 2017. In the offseason, Arizona shook up its front office and on-field leadership once again, relieving GM Dave Stewart and Manager Chip Hale of their duties, and then hiring GM Mike Hazen from Boston and Manager Torey Lovullo. Sidelined most of the year after suffering a fractured elbow at the end of spring training, the Diamondbacks will look for CF A.J. Pollock to return to his 2015 form, a season where he hit 20 HRs with 76 RBIs and 39 steals. OF David Peralta battled a wrist injury that eventually required August surgery. After hitting .312 with 53 extra-base hits and 78 RBIs in ’15, he only appeared in 48 games in ’16. Nonetheless, 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.297, 24 HRs, 95 RBIs, 32 SBs), OF Yasmany Tomas (.272, 31 HRs, 83 RBIs), and 3B Jake Lamb (.249, 29 HRs, 91 RBIs) helped the Diamondbacks score the 5th most runs in the NL in ’16. For Arizona, it will come down to pitching. RHP Zack Greinke started out well, but battled an oblique, and overall had a disappointing first year (13-7, 4.37 ERA, 26 starts) in the desert. RHP Shelby Miller, who came over from Atlanta in the Dansby Swanson deal, was a disaster in ’16, going 3-12 with a 6.15 ERA in 20 starts. If Greinke and Miller can rebound, and a young bullpen comes together quickly, Arizona could be a pleasant surprise and hang around in the race for the NL’s second Wild Card.

San Diego Padres (68-94). Two years ago, GM A.J. Preller spent in free agency and looked to contend right away. Disappointing performances and injury de-railed those plans, and now San Diego is in a full rebuild. 1B Will Myers, 26, is someone the Padres can build around after a strong season where he hit .259 with 28 HRs, 94 RBI, and 28 SBs. After that, San Diego will look for help from its flush farm system, and particularly from its AAA affiliate, the Pacific Coast League champion El Paso Chihuahuas, who had C Austin Hedges, 2B Ryan Schimpf (20 HRs in 89 games for Sand Diego), OF Hunter Renfroe, and OF Manuel Margot anchor their lineup in West Texas and move to the big club throughout the ’16 season. Interesting to watch: C Christian Bethancourt (.228, 6 HRs, 25 RBIs) who will look to split time as a catcher and a pitcher. On the pitching side, Manager Andy Green will rely on an inexperienced staff led by LHP Christian Friedrich (5-12, 4.80 ERA) and Rule 5 pickup, RHP Luis Perdomo (9-10, 5.71 ERA). The Padres will head into the season with a projected rotation that was a combined 17-33 with a 5.05 ERA in 71 starts last year. San Diego is a long, long way away from contention.

World Baseball Classic Update:

· Tremendous baseball between Puerto Rico, the United States, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. The US won a big game against Venezuela on Wednesday night, 4-2 behind the 8th inning home run heroics of OF Adam Jones (Orioles) and 1B Eric Hosmer (Royals). LHP Drew Smyly matched up well with his Seattle Mariner team, “King” Felix Hernandez and the US was able to win it late.

o On Friday night at Petco Park in San Diego, Puerto Rico had 6 consecutive singles in the bottom of the 1st against US starter, RHP Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays) and jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Puerto Rico never did trail in the game. The US battled back though, and brought the tying run to third in the 9th, before falling 6-5.

o Puerto Rico, who beat the Dominican Republic earlier in the week, is undefeated in this year’s tournament. They have clearly been the best team in the tournament and with its win against the US – PR advances to the semi-finals next week in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.

o One game showdown. The US will play the Dominican Republic on Saturday night in the battle for the last remaining berth in the semi-finals.

· Standing by. Japan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands have advanced through Italy and Cuba and will compete in the semi-finals next week in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.

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