National League predictions: Mets repeat as East champs, Giants continues even year magic

San Francisco's pitching, St. Louis' consistency key factors key to National League playoff race.

Let’s face it – who ever could have thought the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs would play for the National League pennant?

What seems like a moment right out of a movie was actually last year’s scene in the NLCS. These two teams, pitted with a rocky track record in the past, are the proven clubs that now lead the NL youth movement. The NL is stacked with young talent, elite pitching and future All-Stars on nearly every team.

These young studs are spread all across the league – making for even matchups and thrilling storylines throughout the year.

But which teams will be playing through October?

NL East: New York Mets

For the first time in years, the Mets have taken the spotlight away from the crosstown-rival Yankees.

The Mets, fresh off their first pennant since 2000, bring back most of the cast of characters that rolled over nearly every team in the second half of last season and into the first two rounds of the playoffs. They didn’t just roll over those teams – they dominated. The Mets went 37-20 in their final 57 games.

New York has perhaps the most dominant pitching staff in all of baseball. It’s arguable by the summer, the Mets will have five aces in Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler when he returns from Tommy John surgery.

The story of the offseason was outfielder Yoenis Cespedes – the Mets’ mid-season acquisition that opted to take less money to continue a winning atmosphere in Queens. The additions of infielders Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker also assure a more potent middle infield and create a deeper bench.

The bullpen still needs work, but the trio of Hansel Robles, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia creates a solid 7-8-9 combo.

It’s really hard to count out the Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper is the best player in the NL and Max Scherzer could be a Cy Young contender again this year. Washington is a complete team and barring a collapse, they would have been the NL East representatives last year.

Still, there’s no doubting the Mets. Their dominant ways will carry into this season and are primed to make a deep run once again.

NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals

Nothing ever goes as planned, so I’m going against the “super team” for a consistent team.

Everyone is riding the Chicago Cubs’ bandwagon. It’s almost as if the Cubbies are the only team in the Central because they are touted as the World Series favorites. I’ve said it before and I’ve been right – you can’t put together a team of All-Stars and expect results in the first year.

The Cubs are great, but the Cardinals are consistent. They were the only team that reached the century mark in wins last year and haven’t finished with fewer than 86 wins since 2007.

They are a well-coached team with key players that make them dangerous, like catcher Yadier Molina and third baseman Matt Carpenter.

St. Louis also has one of the most dangerous rotations without all the star power. Adam Wainwright leads the way for a rotation that isn’t elite by any means, but the rotation has enough quality pitchers to overcome the injury to fellow starter Lance Lynn.

The Cardinals aren’t scared of the Cubs. Chicago has been the foot of everyone’s jokes for quite some time. As much as I’d like to see the Cubs sweep the central, the Cardinals have something about them that I can’t overlook.

NL West: San Francisco Giants

Baseball fans, welcome back to an even year.

It’s the time where every NL team steps aside and watches the magic that occurs in Northern California. The Giants have won the World Series each of the last three even years (2010, 2012, 2014). It’s arguable this year’s team is better than any of those previous championship teams.

San Francisco may have the most complete team in the entire league this year and is only made up of a few household names. Everyone knows what Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner can do. Not many people know they have a second basemen who hit .312 with 27 doubles last year in Joe Panik. What about first-year All Star Brandon Crawford at shortstop?

The veteran outfield of Angel Pagan, newly signed Denard Span and Hunter Pence make for a quality trio. All of those players are effective both on the field and with the bat.

Of course, every team needs to upgrade. For the Giants, it was pitching. Aside from Bumgarner, the rotation was nothing to get excited about with an aging Matt Cain and Jake Peavy at the backend. The additions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija automatically give San Francisco one of the most formidable rotations in the NL.

The West will be a dogfight. The Arizona Diamondbacks and their new ace in Zack Greinke will be dangerous as well. The Dodgers didn’t change much from their NL West-winning team last year aside from losing the aforementioned Greinke. But I believe in even-year magic.

NL wildcard No. 1: Chicago Cubs

I don’t think they are winning the division, but there’s no way this team is missing the playoffs.

The Cubbies are downright filthy. They have elite talent led by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. They were already a dangerous team last season when they made it to the NLCS, but the Cubs are in win-now mode.

Chicago went out and added John Lackey to the rotation to accompany Arrieta and Jon Lester. The Cubs signed Jason Heyward to patrol right field, which even helps the outfield alignment. Heyward was going to play center field until Chicago signed Dexter Fowler. That move allows Heyward to play his natural right field position. Ben Zobrist was also signed to fill a void at second base.

Every position is filled with star power and has depth as well. I didn’t even mention Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, who will be part of the future of the franchise.

For the first time in years, there’s reason for excitement in North Side Chicago.

NL wildcard No. 2: Washington Nationals

There are a lot of teams that could fill this position, but I went with the team that will challenge in its division the entire year.

Barring a second-half collapse, Washington should have been in the playoffs. They have a deep offense led by MVP Bryce Harper, aging, yet productive first basemen Ryan Zimmerman and a full season from Anthony Rendon.

It’s even arguable the Nationals have a better rotation that any of the aforementioned arms.

Max Scherzer could easily win the Cy Young and Stephen Strasburg comes back stronger following an injury-riddled season. I’m not a fan of Gio Gonzalez, but there’s reason to be excited in the backend of the rotation with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. The loss of Jordan Zimmermann to the Tigers hurt, but it won’t be as detrimental as many may think.

Washington executed only a couple signings this offseason, but all were fair and smart acquisitions. With Ian Desmond gone, Danny Espinosa switches to shortstop and then signed NLCS hero Daniel Murphy to patrol second base. The biggest acquisition was Ben Revere, a true leadoff man who was rotting away in Philadelphia. He gives Washington a true leadoff hitter and one of the better defensive center fielders in the game.

Last season was an anomaly. Nothing simply went right down the stretch. Barring a repeat, the Nationals will be in the playoff picture again.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.