MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Nary a runaway race in balanced National League

Padres, Cubs, Reds, Mets among clubs armed to challenge favorites

Nary a runaway race in balanced National League

After all the moving and shaking, the National League still has three clear-cut division favorites: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers. Yep, three repeat champions.

But here's where it gets interesting: The Cardinals and Dodgers are not without significant questions. Also, the gap has closed in all three divisions, and at least eight other teams look good enough to make the playoffs.

For instance, the Padres. Putting aside their newest acquisition, James Shields, let's say they get 100 starts from Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy. If that happens, the Padres will be in the playoffs.

OK, it's never that simple. The Padres have plenty of questions, too, especially regarding Wil Myers and Will Middlebrooks. Both were once viewed as future stars. Both are coming off frustrating seasons. If they're the real deal, the Padres could be special.

And the Reds. They're hoping for healthy and productive seasons from Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey. If those four have big seasons -- and that isn't a huge stretch -- the Reds might be one starting pitcher away from winning the NL Central.

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The Pirates? What if A.J. Burnett has one more big-time season in him and rookie outfielder Gregory Polanco fulfills all his promise? The Pirates were already solid. They might be playoff-solid with those two.

And we haven't even mentioned the Cubs. They're the NL Central's most interesting team. Actually, the Cubs might be the most interesting team on the planet because no team has more coveted young players, from Kris Bryant to Javier Baez to Addison Russell.

Young players can thrill you one minute and break your heart the next. But the Cubs have so many good ones that they may not be a year away or two years away from contending.

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They might just do it in 2015. Part of new manager Joe Maddon's genius is putting youngsters in a position to succeed and nurturing their confidence. He's going to be remembered as the right hire at the right time.

And there are the Mets.

The Nationals will begin the season with the title of "Best Team in Baseball." They've got scary-good pitching depth and have played enough October baseball the past three seasons to understand it's different than May or June baseball. This could be their time to take a step forward.

To pick any other team to win the NL East would be a stretch. But the Mets have what every team in the game covets most: young Major League-ready pitching.

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Where the Cubs have young position players, the Mets have pitching, and lots of it. Like the Cubs, there's simply no way of knowing what they'll deliver in 2015. As Maddon said, "We're not going to put limits on our guys."

The Marlins are in the conversation as well after a huge, impactful offseason. They were one of the surprise teams of 2014 by staying in contention into September. Now they've added Michael Morse, Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, Mat Latos and Ichiro Suzuki. And they hope to get their ace, Jose Fernandez, back from Tommy John elbow surgery at some point.

Are we leaving out anyone? Oh, right, the team that has won the World Series three times in five seasons.

Questions? The Giants have a few, from Matt Cain's health to replacing Pablo Sandoval's bat. But general manager Brian Sabean had a nice offseason in filling holes and accumulating pitching depth. He also held on to his best prospects.

The Giants might already be good enough to go back to the playoffs, but if they're not, no one is better than Sabean at adjusting his roster to fill needs.

So, yes, the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers are the division favorites in the National League.

And this has never meant less.

Do the Cardinals have enough offense? Will Matt Adams and Kolten Wong be productive, everyday players? Is Michael Wacha healthy? Are those kid pitchers as good as advertised?

The Dodgers aren't a slam dunk, either. They need Carl Crawford to stay healthy and Joc Pederson to take the center-field job and run with it. They need Jimmy Rollins to have one more great run left in him.

Some postseason berths might be decided by the overall strength of the divisions. The NL Central is so balanced that it's difficult to imagine a club getting enough wins to earn one of the Wild Card berths.

But what if the Phillies hold on to Cole Hamels and he ends up facing contenders down the stretch? There's a similar story in the NL West, where the Rockies (Jon Gray and Eddie Butler) and D-backs (Archie Bradley and Braden Shipley) have high-end arms on the way to the big leagues. They could have a huge impact on postseason berths.

Last Sept. 1, 17 of the Major Leagues' 30 teams were within 5 1/2 games of a postseason berth. In the past five seasons, 20 of the 30 teams have played in at least one postseason series, and 12 franchises have been to the World Series in the past 10 seasons. If you're managing a team or constructing one, it's about persevering, evaluating and being able to adjust. If you're a baseball fan, this is as good as it gets. Welcome to Major League Baseball in 2015.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.