Who are the National League's Top Title Contenders in 2015?
Is starting pitching the key for every postseason run?
The importance of having ace starting pitching should not be underestimated when teams are trying to make a significant postseason run. Last year's postseason appeared to go against that trend however, with the two most successful teams combining to have only one pitcher put together a postseason performance that is typically associated with a top of the rotation starter. Instead great defense and great relief pitching were most often featured by the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals during last season's playoffs. While the MLB postseason may not play out exactly the same ever year, trends established for success seem to continue when other teams make their best efforts to replicate that success. The Los Angeles Dodgers for example, have been a great regular season team the past two years, and their elite top of the rotation would suggest that they would be likely to enjoy plenty of playoff success. However, without great defense or great relief pitching, they have only been able to win one playoff series after finishing each of the past two regular seasons with large expectations. A further look at some of the other teams expected to be involved in this year's pennant race, will help to determine which teams have positioned themselves to make a significant postseason run.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have the proven postseason ace in Adam Wainwright, that every team needs in order to help win a very even playoff series. When Wainwright takes the mound in a series deciding game, he becomes very likely to pitch nine innings without having the bullpen getting involved in the matchup. The Cardinals also have three other solid options with postseason experience to turn to behind Wainwright in their playoff rotation. John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have all made multiple postseason starts throughout their careers with plenty of success to show for their efforts. This just creates the foundation for the Cardinals to have postseason success though, as other areas of the team are what can set them apart from teams with expectations but no postseason success to show for it.
The Cardinals have the bullpen depth and talent to have success in the late innings even under the pressure of a playoff atmosphere. Closer Trevor Rosenthal leads what could be a strong bullpen for the Cardinals in 2015. With Carlos Martinez possibly losing the battle for the fifth starter's job in the Cardinals rotation, he could join Trevor Rosenthal near the back end of the bullpen for St. Louis. Jordan Walden figures to hold down the Cardinals setup role after multiple strong seasons with the Angels and Braves in recent years. Matt Belisle offers a strong seventh inning option, while Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness figure in as quality arms who can either help in setup roles or in long relief. Randy Choate will be joined by Kevin Siegrist as the left handed relievers in a bullpen that can match up with any of the opposition's best hitters.
The Cardinals have strong defensive range in nearly every area of the field, with the exceptions of first base and left field. With Matt Adams as the starting first basemen, he may lack the range that elite defensive first basemen have, but he has a good enough glove to field anything he can reach, as well as scooping most throws in the dirt. The Cardinals athleticism in right field, centerfield, third base, shortstop and second base allow them to play the type of defense that made the Kansas City Royals a title contender last season. Yadier Molina's abilities behind the plate are well documented, as he has one of the best throwing arms in baseball and excels in every other area of the catching game defensively. Even though the Cardinals do not have homerun power up and down their lineup, they remain among the league's top title contenders because of these three things that they do so well.
The Washington Nationals are a title contender in the National League because they have a starting pitching rotation that rivals what made the 2011 Phillies a title contender. While the 2011 Phillies ultimately did not win a title, that does not have to be the fate of this talented group the Nationals have. Former American League Cy Young Award winner, Max Scherzer gets the start on opening day, but Washington could have easily gone with young aces Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmerman for that role. With three of the top starting pitchers in the game, the Nationals have what many believe is Major League Baseball's best starting pitching rotation. They round out the rotation with two more starters who have performed at a level that would put them at the top of the rotation for many other teams. Doug Fister and Gio Gonzales give the Nationals a chance to win every time out, and its not out of the realm of possibility for both of them to collect more than 15 wins in the coming season.
The bullpen was a sore spot for the Nationals on the back end a season ago with Rafael Soriano struggling in the closer's role. The Nationals added to their bullpen by promoting former top prospect Drew Storen to the closer's role, and bringing in former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen to be their new setup man. Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett offer the team great options as left handed setup men, while Blake Treinen, Tanner Roark and Craig Stammen all can pitch in long relief or help with the setup duties after the starter leaves the ballgame. With very little weakness being apparent in the Nationals' bullpen before the season starts, it appears that they may have what it takes to help fuel a significant playoff run.
With Adam LaRoche departing as a free agent this past offseason, the Nationals may have re-shuffled their defense to make it even better than it was before, despite the great glove work from LaRoche at first base. Ryan Zimmerman now plays first base after moving across the diamond from third, with young star Anthony Rendon taking over at the hot corner. Ian Desmond remains at shortstop, but former shortstop Yunel Escobar is in position to win the starting job at second base for Washington. This gives them well above average range at every position defensively around the infield. In the outfield, Denard Span remains in center while being flanked by the great athleticism of Bryce Harper and Jason Werth manning the corner outfield positions. With great range and strong throwing arms, its easy to see why the Nationals have the defense of a title contender, despite the fact that Wilson Ramos is only a little above average behind the plate.
The Pittsburgh Pirates enter the season with multiple solid options in their rotation, which should help them win games this season because of the run support they will get. With another playoff appearance, they have starting pitchers to turn to that have previous postseason experience. With the Pirates though, only Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole have earned playoff wins as members of the team over the past two seasons. They also have solid starters such as Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett to turn to, among their starting pitchers with previous playoff experience. With a trio of quality prospects scheduled to debut this season, the Pirates have a nice mix of veteran talent and young phenoms to help their pitching staff to success in 2015. With Gerrit Cole as the stopper that they are likely to turn to when they are in need of a series win in an elimination game, the Pirates are in good hands with a strong group of talent taking the field behind their pitching staff.
Last season the Pirates bullpen led all of baseball in the blown saves category, but with very few of them in the eighth inning or later, the back end of the bullpen was not in need of significant upgrades this past offseason. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been among baseball's elite in the eighth and ninth innings over the past two seasons, but the Pirates may have been able to find the upgrades necessary to strengthen their middle relief. After adding Dominican flamethrowers Radhames Liz and Arquimedes Caminero this past offseason, the Pirates middle relief staff should be in great position to compete with those two joined by Jared Hughes, Jeff Locke and Antonio Bastardo. With three left handed relievers in the bullpen, and multiple options for long relief duties, the Pirates figure to have the bullpen of a title contender as they head into the 2015 season.
Like the other teams on this list, the Pirates have a great defensive team behind their starting pitchers, and it all starts in the outfield. Andrew McCutchen possesses an average throwing arm in centerfield, but that is the only average throwing arm in the Pirates outfield with Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte both having fantastic throwing arms. All three have the speed to put on a fantastic display of range in the outfield, as Marte in left field may be the team's best defender. Around the infield, the Pirates have athletic defenders with good gloves in Josh Harrison, shortstop Jordy Mercer and second basemen Neil Walker. After throwing issues forced Pedro Alvarez to move across the infield to first base, the Pirates have a similar situation to the Nationals now, with a good glove man who has plenty of range at first base. One of Francisco Cervelli, Tony Sanchez and Elias Diaz will be available all throughout the season to provide the Pirates with strong defense from the catching position. All of this adds up to the Pirates having the defensive prowess to join the group of title contenders in the National League this season.
Are there any more title contenders in the National League?
The Dodgers as a team entering the season with high expectations, probably have too much uncertainty in their bullpen to be considered a title contender right now. With the recent injury to Ryu, their rotation depth has already taken a hit as well. However, the Dodgers are not the only other team in the National League that enters the season with expectations. One strong candidate to join the group of title contenders in the National League, is the Miami Marlins after the return of Jose Fernandez. If recent trends continue, the blueprint for having a title contender in the National League, will be to have an ace starter, a strong bullpen and great defense. Whatever teams are consistently able to excel in these areas throughout the regular season and playoffs, will have a great chance to make a deep postseason run.