Forecast: National League preview

Welcome to our first ESPN MLB Forecast.

In the days ahead, we'll roll out a preview for all 30 teams as well as our predictions for how each team will do this season, including the six division winners, four wild cards, league championship series winners and World Series winner. We'll also hand out predictions for all of the traditional awards -- rookie of the year, Cy Young and MVP.

For our results, we surveyed our Forecast panel on each topic.

Let's begin with a look at the league that was the runner-up in last season's World Series.

Here goes ...

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National League East

1. Washington Nationals

David Schoenfield @dschoenfield: They might have been the division favorite even before the Braves suffered season-ending injuries to two starting pitchers, but now the predictions will sway even more in the Nationals' direction. A popular World Series pick last year, the Nationals disappointed with an 86-76 record, a mark salvaged only with an 18-9 record in September. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and offseason acquisition Doug Fister lead a rotation many believe is the best in the National League, although Fister missed some time in spring training with elbow inflammation. Two reasons to expect the Nationals to score more runs: Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. Harper is healthy after offseason knee surgery; at 21, this could be the year he hits 35 home runs. Rendon had a solid rookie season last year, but everyone loves his stroke and he should improve. If the bench and bullpen don't let the team down like they did a year ago, the Nats should win the East.

Christina Kahrl @ChristinaKahrl: The potential for a league-dominating romp in 2014 is here, but it requires health from the rotation quartet of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister. If the lineup gets on track as Bryce Harper busts out while Denard Span and Adam LaRoche rebound, 100 wins could be in reach.

2. Atlanta Braves

Jayson Stark @jaysonst: The Braves led the league this spring in two categories nobody saw coming: 1) Tommy John surgeries (for ace Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy) and 2) megamillion extensions for almost their entire young core ($270.7 million's worth). So the future is now as bright as ever, with a youthful, star-studded nucleus all locked up for years. But the present? That wouldn't seem quite so bright. Not with Medlen and Beachy gone for the year and reliable Mike Minor still a few weeks from being ready after offseason urinary-tract surgery. So even with Ervin Santana galloping to the rescue and fellow free-agent signee Gavin Floyd a potential option down the road, there are worries about this rotation. Not to mention about the defensive capabilities of Evan Gattis behind the plate. And about the ongoing struggles of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, who last year turned the Braves into the first team in history to make the postseason with two regulars who hit under .185. With it all, this is still a really talented team. But another 96-win season feels a little too optimistic.

Christina Kahrl: Unless you think innings-eater Ervin Santana will single-handedly repair a rotation devastated by injuries, the Braves' contender status is in jeopardy. You can add in concern over whether B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla can come back. Hope resides in what Justin Upton and Jason Heyward can do at full speed.

3. New York Mets

Jim Bowden @JimBowdenESPNxm: The Mets have to deal with not having their ace, Matt Harvey, for the season after he underwent Tommy John surgery last year and with Jon Niese, who continues to have shoulder and elbow problems. The rest of the rotation is strong, led by Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee. Noah Syndergaard will start the season in the minors, but he most assuredly will affect this rotation in the second half. The Mets should be able to finish in third place for a second straight season as newly acquired Curtis Granderson will give David Wright much-needed lineup support. The Mets still need to get an every-day shortstop and an impact cleanup hitter to contend.

Christina Kahrl: Absent Matt Harvey, the Mets go from must-see to must-be. Sure, watching them will teach us whether Chris Young and Ike Davis can return to stardom, and Travis d'Arnaud should be a treat behind the plate. Mostly, just like Bartolo Colon, all the Mets will do is fill a lot of space ... on the schedule, that is.

4. Philadelphia Phillies

Dan Szymborski @DSzymborski: The Phillies still retain a number of players who led the team to the playoffs from 2008 to 2011, but that core has aged considerably and is missing some of the key contributors, such as Roy Halladay and Shane Victorino. Philadelphia had a central group of homegrown talent, but that minor league system has slowed down in the Ruben Amaro Jr. era and the team no longer is developing significant talent to replace its losses at the major league level. The starting rotation, the unsung key to Philly's playoff teams, is no longer a significant plus, both weak and shallow at the back end. Although the team's playoffs hopes haven't completely evaporated, it'll require a lot of best-case scenarios from players such as chronically overpaid/underplaying Ryan Howard for those hopes to come to fruition.

Jayson Stark: Let's start with this: What the Phillies are attempting to do has never been done. Their projected lineup includes five position players 34 or older. And no team in the history of the National League has ever had five guys that old play in 130 games (or more) in one season. So age will be a nonstop topic for this team, whether it enjoys that conversation or not. The Phillies also scored the fewest runs of any offense in baseball this spring, had a bunch of key players flirting with the Mendoza Line and then lost two important bench players -- Freddy Galvis (MRSA infection) and Darin Ruf (oblique) -- in the final days of camp. The good news is, they still start their rotation with three dominators -- Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett. The bad news is, Hamels (shoulder tendinitis) is likely to miss the first month. Rotation depth is an issue. And with closer Jonathan Papelbon looking shaky this spring, the bullpen is overstuffed with unknown quantities. So, the Phillies might not win the NL East unless everything goes right. But they'll win every Most Likely to Be Selling in July pool.

5. Miami Marlins

David Schoenfield: After 2012's spend-and-splurge strategy flopped, the Marlins returned to being the Marlins in 2013, dumping salary and playing kids. The offense was historically abysmal, averaging 3.17 runs per game and getting shut out 18 times and held to one run 27 times. The good news: Jose Fernandez emerged as one of the best pitchers in the majors in his rookie season, beating out Yasiel Puig for NL Rookie of the Year and finishing third in the Cy Young voting. He makes the Marlins worth watching every fifth game. The young outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna should be exciting and Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones will provide more power, but the offense remains subpar. Still, an underrated rotation that features hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, both 24, could actually be pretty good and get the Marlins close to .500.

Dan Szymborski: Lost in the turmoil of yet another Marlins fire sale was that the team's starting rotation last year was actually quite respectable. Of the team's six most-used starting pitchers, five actually prevented runs at a better clip than a league-average pitcher. What made this team a doormat was the offense, scoring barely three runs per game, a dreadful tally that was actually incompetent on a historic level. The Marlins will score more runs in 2014 with a healthy Giancarlo Stanton, the addition of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and some low-risk signings among the scraps of the free-agent market (Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones). It won't be enough to push the Marlins into being serious contenders, though, even with significant contributions from some of their high-level prospects such as Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. It might push them up to 70 wins, but the long-term outlook for Miami still looks bleak without an owner willing to make long-term investments in the team.

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

David Schoenfield: The most well-rounded team in baseball, the Cardinals enter 2014 without any obvious weaknesses. The thing to like best about them is the depth across the 25-man roster, a big improvement from last year's World Series team, when a weak bench was exposed. The Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran to free agency and traded David Freese, but they have guys ready to step in. Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis will play second with fourth-in-the-MVP-voting Matt Carpenter moving back to third. Peter Bourjos was acquired to improve the defense in center, and rookie Oscar Taveras will be ready soon enough to take over right field. The rotation has plenty of depth behind ace Adam Wainwright and second-year righties Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. The bullpen is deep behind 100 mph closer Trevor Rosenthal. OK, if we're going to nitpick, the team's power could be an issue as it ranked just 13th in the NL in home runs in 2013. Still, the Cards are heavy favorites in the Central and a good bet to return to their third World Series in four years.

Jerry Crasnick @jcrasnick: File the Cardinals under an "embarrassment of riches." They have the best top-to-bottom lineup in the National League and the game's best two-way catcher in Yadier Molina. The bullpen is filled with gas throwers, and the rotation is so deep that Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez were staging a spirited competition for the No. 5 spot late into spring training. Jhonny Peralta will help lengthen out the batting order, and he's going to be better in the field than his reputation suggests. If Peter Bourjos can make enough strides at the plate to warrant 500 at-bats in center field, he's going to give the Cardinals a big lift with his defense and baserunning. One interesting development in camp: While mega-prospect Oscar Taveras was testing the Cardinals' patience with his halfhearted conditioning and questionable effort, former Stanford outfielder Stephen Piscotty made a big impression in Florida with his solid all-around play. If the Cardinals need to dip into the minors for a bat this summer and Taveras thinks he'll be the guy, he might be in for a wakeup call.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

Christina Kahrl: What's your second act after ending a multi-decade losing streak and going to the playoffs? A full season from Gerrit Cole and health among the vets might cover for A.J. Burnett's departure, but the failure to add a big bat at first base or right field places the burden of repeating on their lineup regulars.

Dan Szymborski: It's very tempting to call the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates a fluke. You could do so, but you'd be wrong. The Pirates' front office, headed by Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, have taken the long view, incrementally improving the team after 15 years of chronic mismanagement. The Pirates have an excellent minor league system, and the amazing thing in last year's performance is that they did so well without many of their top prospects, names such as Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, being ready for the majors. The 2013 season was built on patience and low-risk, high-upside signings, and the best is still yet to come for the Pirates as the best of their prospects push their way into starting gigs. The Pirates did mismanage the A.J. Burnett situation, by not offering their veteran innings-eater a qualifying offer and by then guaranteeing Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who hasn't been a significant contributor since 2008, $5 million for this season. It won't keep the Pirates from grabbing a wild-card spot and making the Cardinals sweat at least a little in 2014.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Christina Kahrl: Are they still contenders? The offense is a problem: How much better will everybody have to be to pick up the slack with Shin-Soo Choo gone? Last year, Reds right-handed hitters produced a collective .617 OPS against right-handed pitchers, accounting for 37 percent of all their at-bats. That's a recipe for offensive failure, so big bounce-back seasons from Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier are absolute musts. Billy Hamilton's basepath razzle-dazzle dominated early spring headlines, but, if he's more Brian Hunter than Vince Coleman and never on base, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce might struggle to create runs beyond plating themselves. It's more likely that the Reds' path to contention now rests more on their deep, talented rotation and whether all five starters bust out for big years for pitching coach-turned-manager Bryan Price. However, losing closer Aroldis Chapman for an uncertain amount of time after he got hit in the face by a line drive creates late-game danger that J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall might struggle to patch.

Jim Caple @jimcaple: Can Bryan Price follow John Farrell and Bud Black to become the third active and successful pitching coach-turned-manager? Yes. He knows his stuff and has enough talent on the field that Pete Rose might be betting on the Reds to win again.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Jerry Crasnick: The Brewers are an intriguing team for a bunch of reasons. They're strong up the middle with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez. Ryan Braun swung the bat with authority in the Cactus League, and, if anyone is resistant to the abuse that a lengthy PED suspension will invite, it's the Hebrew Hammer. Braun and Aramis Ramirez combined for only 529 at-bats last season. If they can give manager Ron Roenicke 1,200 or so ABs this season, it will provide a major boost to an offense that was middle-of-the-pack in most categories a year ago. The big questions, as usual, revolve around pitching. The Brewers spent $50 million on Matt Garza this winter, and his performance this spring didn't exactly advance the narrative that he's a great fit as staff leader. It's imperative that Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada eat innings so the bullpen isn't overtaxed again this season. The Brewers could challenge the Reds and Pirates for second place if a lot of things go right. More likely, they'll have to settle for fourth in a challenging NL Central.

Jim Bowden: For the second year in a row, owner Mark Attanasio got personally involved in landing significant free agents. Last year it was Kyle Lohse, and this year it was Matt Garza. The Brewers suddenly have a solid rotation led by Yovani Gallardo, who should have a bounce-back year, and Wily Peralta, who is due to finally break out. The middle of the diamond for the Brewers is one of the best in the National League, with underrated Jonathan Lucroy at catcher, Jean Segura at shortstop and Gold Glove center fielder Carlos Gomez. Ryan Braun should have another MVP type season with the PED issues behind him, and the Brewers should be in a tight race with the Reds and Pirates for second place in the NL Central as well as a wild-card berth.

5. Chicago Cubs

David Schoenfield: They haven't had a winning season since 2009 and won't get one this year after losing 96 games in 2013. The big offseason acquisition was ... umm, trading for Justin Ruggiano? Instead, it's all about the young players, beginning with shortstop Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo improving on their 2013 performance. Castro has to prove he's not an enigma going backward, and Rizzo has to show his good approach at the plate can translate into better results. After that come the prospects, starting with shortstop Javier Baez, who impressed in spring training with some long, loud home runs. He'll start the year in Triple-A but eventually will push for a call-up. The rotation is led by Travis Wood and Jeff Samardzija, and both come with question marks. Is Wood as good as the 3.11 ERA he posted last year? Is Samardzija going to be traded? As Cubs fans ponder those questions, they can look ahead to 2015 ... when "Back to the Future II" predicted a World Series championship.

Jim Caple: This will be the 100th season at Wrigley Field and also will be the 100th season without a new world championship pennant earned. The Cubs are rebuilding, and the question is whether they will finish before another big Wrigley birthday.

National League West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Jim Bowden: The Dodgers have the highest payroll in the National League, and they'll have the largest attendance in baseball. Team minority owner Magic Johnson has made it clear the goal for this team is a world championship, period. The Dodgers have the most talented lineup in baseball, led by Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. The rotation is anchored by two former Cy Young winners, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The bullpen is deep and strong, led by three closers: Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson and Chris Perez. The Dodgers and the Cardinals were the two best teams in the National League last year. They are again this year, at least on paper.

Jerry Crasnick: If you picked April 1 as the over/under on Yasiel Puig causing problems in Dodgerland, you were overly cautious. The Dodgers have the talent to win 100 games and make a deep run into October. But if Puig's antics aren't causing unnecessary drama, it's bound to be something else this summer. Can Matt Kemp find a way to stay on the field? If Kemp, Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier are all healthy at once, can manager Don Mattingly juggle their playing time enough to keep them all happy and productive? And will the "new and improved" Hanley Ramirez hold up for 140-plus games at shortstop while the specter of a big free-agent payday awaits? Clayton Kershaw leads a stacked rotation, and the bullpen ranks among the deepest in the game. But expectations are high, and we can look forward to a few spats and distractions between now and the postseason. All those millions helped buy the Dodgers a killer roster. That doesn't mean the road to October will be a smooth one.

2. San Francisco Giants

Jim Caple: The Giants haven't made many changes from the 2012 championship team, which might not be good. Matt Cain had a good second half last season and Tim Hudson will help, but Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong need big comebacks because Barry Bonds' seven days as guest instructor won't solve the offensive problems.

David Schoenfield: The Giants have quietly transformed from a pitching-first team to a team built around its offense. In 2013, Giants position players ranked eighth in the majors in FanGraphs WAR and the pitching staff ranked 27th. Any chance of the Giants climbing back into the playoff race is dependent on Matt Cain having a bounce-back year (a good bet, given that he was very good from June 1 on last season), Tim Lincecum pitching better after two down years, Ryan Vogelsong coming back from a 5.73 ERA last season, and 38-year-old free agent Tim Hudson pitching well and remaining healthy. To exacerbate all those questions, there is next to no depth behind the Giants' five starting pitchers. They should score runs with Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Pablo Sandoval, although some of that ability is masked by playing in AT&T Park. Like the pitching staff, however, the Giants lack depth offensively, so they'll need to remain healthy. Many see the Giants returning to the playoffs, but I see that a lot must break their way for that to happen.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

David Schoenfield: Losing No. 1 starter Patrick Corbin for the season is a big blow for the Diamondbacks' playoff hopes, considering the rotation was already viewed as mediocre at best as they were counting on injury-prone Brandon McCarthy and free agent Bronson Arroyo, who had back issues in spring training. That might force the Diamondbacks to feed top prospect Archie Bradley into the rotation, and, although he has one of the best arms in the minors, whether he's ready to throw enough strikes remains an issue. MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt and trade acquisition Mark Trumbo could combine to hit 80 home runs, but the lineup is righty-heavy and dependent on catcher Miguel Montero hitting better than he did last year. Trumbo is also a liability defensively in left field, although A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra are plus defenders in center and right, respectively. The D-backs look like a team with as wide a range of outcomes as any team. If the rotation stays healthy and performs, they could win 90 games and contend for the playoffs, but you could easily see them morphing into a 90-loss team just as easily.

Christina Kahrl: There's plenty of name recognition and depth in the rotation to survive Patrick Corbin's injury, but to keep up in the NL West they'll need rookie Archie Bradley to break through. The offense starts and ends with Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo. If the Snakes struggle, you can bet Kirk Gibson's yen for scrappers will need scrapping.

4. San Diego Padres

Jerry Crasnick: It didn't take long for a worrisome run of injuries to dent the early sense of optimism in San Diego's camp. The Padres were excited about their starting pitching depth, but it's no longer a strength now that they've lost Cory Luebke to Tommy John surgery and will be without Josh Johnson (strained flexor tendon in his forearm) and Joe Wieland (elbow) for extended periods. In addition, Cameron Maybin tore his biceps early in the spring and can't seem to get over the hump. The offense could be OK if Chase Headley has a bounce-back year, Will Venable and Jedd Gyorko approximate their 2013 numbers, and Yonder Alonso returns from a hand injury to flash his old doubles power and hit 10-15 home runs. If history is any indication, Bud Black and Darren Balsley also will get the most out of the pitching staff. It's easy to see the Padres improving on their 76-86 record and finishing third in the NL West. But it's a stretch to envision them challenging for a postseason spot.

Jim Bowden: The Padres are capable of finishing anywhere between second and fifth place in the NL West, but to finish second they will need healthy and successful seasons from Josh Johnson, Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin. Johnson was signed as a free agent after a dismal season with the Blue Jays. Pitching coach Darren Balsley has made adjustments to his delivery that Johnson thinks will help him turn things around. Headley is hoping to stay healthy and bounce back to the All-Star, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger caliber player he was two years ago. He'll be a free agent at season's end and will get traded in July if the Padres aren't in contention. Quentin's 20-homer power is desperately needed in the lineup, the trick is trying to keep him healthy. The rebuilt bullpen should be the strongest part of this team as the offseason acquisitions of Joaquin Benoit via free agency and Alex Torres via a trade with the Rays should be able to shore up the seventh and eighth innings getting to closer Huston Street.

5. Colorado Rockies

Jim Bowden: The Rockies are one of the most interesting teams in the National League and perhaps have the best chance of being a surprise team in 2014. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are healthy again and make up one of the best back-to-back duos in the game. Nolan Arenado and Wilin Rosario are ready for offensive breakout seasons, and Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau definitely have more in the tank. The key to the Rockies will be their starting rotation. They are strong at the top with Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood. If Brett Anderson and Juan Nicasio can stay healthy and pitch to their potential, the Rockies could be a threat. And if they're in a race in the second half, don't be surprised if rookie starters and top prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler are promoted as both have the potential of making an impact for the Rockies like Michael Wacha did last year for the Cardinals and Gerrit Cole did for the Pirates.

Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN: Colorado faces its age-old problem: piecing together enough pitching to compete for the NL West title. But at least this time around the Rockies appear to have a couple of high-end options on the way in Jon Gray and Eddie Butler. If those two can translate, the Rockies can contend.