The Chicago Cubs are world champions! As you’ve probably heard by now, the 2016 season ended with the Cubs winning their first championship in 107 years. With the longest drought in history snapped, that leaves none other than the reigning runner-up Cleveland Indians’ 68-year skid as the longest active dry spell. Defending their championship won’t be easy though. The Cubs face stiff competition in the NL Central before they start to consider other potential division champions. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are proud franchises that boast historic resumes near the top of the MLB. Meanwhile the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds have been stuck in the lower half of the league for the past few years and want to turn their luck around. Let’s take a look at how the NL Central might shake out…
Cincinnati Reds (2016: 68-94, 5th Place)
Lineup: Despite what looks like a decent roster on paper, the Reds finished 2016 in last place in the National League. This in large part was probably due to a horrid pitching rotation. I know I say that a lot, but just wait. As for the lineup, longtime Red Joey Votto is still one of the top sluggers in the league. Last year, he was only topped by Miguel Cabrera and Freddie Freeman in OWAR for first baseman. Votto also routinely contributed the majority of his team’s run support until Adam Duvall came out of nowhere and actually surpassed Votto in home runs and RBIs. A pleasant surprise for Cincinnati, Duvall is sure to be the future face of the franchise. You may have also heard of the speedster Billy Hamilton. Probably the fastest player in the league, Hamilton is on pace to top 75 bases throughout a full 162-game season. In fact, even though he’s only played 368 games in his career, his 184 bags are good for 23rd of all active players. If not for his atrocious batting average and his lack of durability, who knows what he could be capable of? He deserves to be in the conversation for potentially breaking the all-time stolen base records throughout his career.
Pitching: If you were wondering why there is no comment on veteran Brandon Phillips, it’s because he finally got traded after years of rumors. The longtime second baseman was sent to Atlanta for a pair of pitching prospects. This move was desperately needed as the Reds are left with a severe dearth of talent due to the fact that their two best pitchers will start the season on the DL. One won’t return until at least June, and the other is in danger of missing the season with Tommy John surgery. So, that leaves Scott Feldman as the ace. Who?? Feldman who was relegated to bullpen duties in Houston last year. Feldman who has never posted an ERA below 3.81 since his rookie season of 2005. That’s the best the Reds have. Yikes. With opposing teams expected to score 6 runs per game, there is no way the offense will be able to keep up, even on their best days. To try to explain just how bad this rotation is, their 3rd best pitcher (I won’t mention his name for fear of embarrassing him) went 0-7 over his 10 starts while posting an astronomical 7.36 ERA. And somehow it still gets worse from there. The Reds could have a very rough season.
2017 Goals: I imagine the Reds are just trying to gather some talent. Besides the 33-year-old Votto, Cincinnati is relatively young. It’s clear that the organization does not have hopes of anything too exceptional in the next few years, as they are preparing for the new era of Reds baseball to be as strong as possible. In order to gain leverage in the trade market, I think Cinci will need to win as many games as possible to show that they have aspirations of being contenders someday. With more value on their current players, the better the chance they have to milk their men for as much as they can.
My Expectations: With that in mind, I do not recommend tanking. Often teams with little hope of success will purposefully underperform to get a better draft pick. This is more prevalent in the NBA and NFL, but it happens in MLB too. Sometimes it’s a good strategy, and while it’s sketchy, it is technically legal. But for the Reds, whom already own the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 draft, they do not benefit from staying in the cellar any longer. Hopefully they can fight hard to improve in 2017 despite their horrible rotation, but with a lack of morale Cincinnati could be trending in the wrong direction if it’s possible.
Milwaukee Brewers (2016: 73-89, 4th Place)
Lineup: When 2017 is in the books, Brewers fans may not be any happier than Reds fans. While they have a mediocre pitching staff, the batting is where the real trouble lies. Yes, Ryan Braun is a stud. Braun leads his current teammates in home runs, RBI, batting average and slugging percentage. With the departures of Chris Carter and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers don’t have much else to lean on. Many suspect rookie Eric Thames could be the NL Rookie of the Year, but as of now, he’s just an unproven young talent. The only other known variable is Jonathan Villar. He’s a nice utility man who has a similar game to Ian Kinsler and Logan Forsythe. If those names don’t mean anything to you, basically he’s got a quick glove and a solid batting average. He won’t kill you with speed, but if a pitcher ignores him, he’s been known to rack up a few steals throughout the season. But besides Braun and Villar, I just don’t see a lot of production from the rest of the Brew Crew. With so many 1st and 2nd year players in the starting lineup, it’s anyone’s guess how the games will go day in and day out.
Pitching: Milwaukee’s rotation is a little more steady. Junior Guerra pitches first, but the rotation seems pretty even. Guerra has a respectable career ERA of 2.81, and the rest of the rotation floats around a 4.00. Nothing special, but it’s certainly nice to know what to expect each game. If the hitters can rely on giving up four runs max per game, that goal could drive up the hitting numbers with some small ball. Another issue will be the bullpen. Veteran closer Neftali Feliz probably pitched his last good season many years ago. Still, he’s always imposing on the mound, and his blazing fastball’s reputation precedes him. Everyone else follows suit with the inconsistency. Relievers like Taylor Jungmann and Tommy Milone have bounced around the league through plenty of different kinds of roles. so even if the starters can set up the Brewers to close out some games, the bullpen might not be reliable enough to get the job done… and that can be very demoralizing to a young squad.
2017 Goals: The Brewers are in full rebuilding mode. Shipping two of their three top players is proof that they’re starting from scratch. 2017 will be the first step in this process. Expect a lot of playing time for a litany of players as they work formulas and set up their roster for the future. Hopefully the season-long tryout is enough to keep morale high in Milwaukee.
My Expectations: In a way, I expect catastrophe with all of the instability, but that’s fine. After underperforming last season, even with their key players, they could definitely challenge the Reds for last place in the division. As bad as it looks in Cinci, maybe the Brewers can salvage fourth place, but it’s going to be embarrassingly close.
Pittsburgh Pirates (2016: 78-83, 3rd Place)
Lineup: Speaking of underperforming, many expected the Pirates to make their fourth straight playoff appearance. Instead, they finished below .500 and after a chaotic offseason, Pittsburgh could be in a heap of trouble for 2017. The tension is palpable between the Pirates and 5-time All-star Andrew McCutchen after a tumultuous offseason. McCutchen has spent his entire 8-year career in the Steel City, but there were rumors throughout the winter about trading him. None of these talks came to fruition, but surely it left McCutchen feeling unwanted by the Pirates organization. The 4-time Silver Slugger has also earned an NL MVP and Gold Glove award during his tenure. So why in the world would Pittsburgh risk unrest with their star player? Well, he had a down year last year, and there is fear that his best days are behind him. Also, he too will be a free agent in 2018 along with seemingly most of the MLB, and the Pirates might have been afraid that they’d have to let him walk and get nothing in return. Besides Cutch, the Pirates will be known for their scrappiness. Starling Marte and Josh Harrison are excellent base runners who are always a tough out at the plate. Rookie Josh Bell performed exceptionally at the end of 2016, so the Bucs hope he can keep up his average in 2017. Unfortunately, the Pirates could be without embattled third baseman Jung Ho Kang who was unable to obtain a visa to return to the U.S. after some more off-the-field incidents, and is in danger of missing the entire season. So, all in all, the Pirates will continue to be fighting adversity in the form of tough opponents… and themselves.
Pitching: Gerrit Cole is the entire story of Pirates pitching. What I mean is, they have a staff that has potential to throw great games, but sometimes collapse late. At just 26 years old, Cole has potential to be one of the best pitchers in the league. When wondering why his ERA skyrocketed in half as many innings as his MVP candidate year in 2015, just look at his right arm. On and off the DL three times throughout the season due to elbow inflammation and tricep tightness, there’s no question as to why he couldn’t find his rhythm. When the third injury arose in September, the Pirates shut him down in hopes he can be 100% for 2017. The best news is that he avoided Tommy John surgery and can hopefully be a Cy Young candidate for Pittsburgh again soon. Also, Pittsburgh has a relatively rock-solid bullpen. Veterans Juan Nicasio and Antonio Bastardo will hold down the late innings for closer Tony Watson. That said, Watson has a very short leash after a disastrous end to his 2016 in which he posted a 2-5 record, a 3.06 ERA, and only got 15 saves across 67 2/3 innings. With even more unknown throughout the pitching staff, the Pirates need to figure out their identity quickly.
2017 Goals: Pittsburgh wants to win. They’re the city of champions for a reason, and the Pirates haven’t put a trophy on the mantle since 1979. In fact, besides the 2013 Wild Card game, they haven’t even won a playoff series since ’79. However, it doesn’t look like the Bucs will be getting any closer this year. The Pirates probably thought they could compete in October before this offseason, but now it’s more realistic to just stay within 10 games of .500 and save some money for 2018.
My Expectations: If indeed the Pirates don’t push themselves too hard to make the playoffs, I think a 70-win season will be a success provided there isn’t too much injuries or other drama. It’s clear that the front office is trying to shake things up, so it’ll be interesting if they’re buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. One thing’s for sure, in eight months time, all hell will break loose.
St. Louis Cardinals (2016: 86-76, 2nd Place)
Lineup: The Cardinals are a staple of postseason success. Their 11 World Series titles are 2nd all-time behind the New York Yankees. They’ve made the postseason all but just 4 times since 2000, trailing only New York. But even more impressive, they went one-and-done just twice in that span. They could’ve made the playoffs a 13th time too, if not for one game. Just two well-timed runs throughout the season would’ve been enough to flip an L to a W and take the San Fransisco Giants’ playoff spot. St. Louis will hope to come back strong and maybe even surprise their arch-rivals at the top of the division. They definitely have the tools to do so, as they are as even a team as any in the MLB. All 9 players work harmoniously to get run support and help each other. The downfall of perfect balance is they don’t have that leader that can come in and deliver that clutch hit. That pressure is on everyone. The oldest and perhaps most recognizable player is Yadier Molina. His bat has slowed in recent years, but his cannon behind the plate is still feared around the league. He has an incredible 42% pickoff rate for his career. That is 5 points higher than the next best active catcher. That’s a huge advantage for St. Louis pitchers because they can keep their focus squarely on the batter knowing that Molina can handle any steal attempts. I could mention any of the other 8 players too, but if I have to choose a couple, look out for Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, and newly-acquired Dexter Fowler to be difference-makers.
Pitching: It almost seems as though the Cardinals rotation never changes. That goes to show just how dominant and durable manager Mike Matheny keeps his staff. The aging Adam Wainwright will give way to Carlos Martinez to be the ace in 2017. The promotion is well-earned as the 25-year-old is quickly becoming a dominant force in the MLB. As his ERA dips and his WAA climbs, his best years are still to come. Wainwright is no slouch either, as he’s still one of the most savvy pitchers in the game. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha round out the rotation. At similar points in the career, they routinely get double digit strikeouts. However, that takes a lot of pitches and leaves them unable to go the full 9 innings. So, the Cardinals rely on their veteran bullpen to close out games. After Trevor Rosenthal’s sudden fall from grace, Seung Hwan Oh has done a masterful job as the new closer. Thriving in the new role, the Cards will hope Oh’s good fortune continues. And if Rosenthal can gain Matheny’s trust again, that’s a huge boost to an already solid group of relievers.
2017 Goals: The Cardinals have every intention of making it back to the postseason. Falling one game short has to hurt. Expect that pain to drive them. There is an unbelievable spread of talent throughout their roster, and they have every intention of improving upon last year’s 86 wins.
My Expectations: I think they can certainly improve upon last year. In order to unseat the defending champs, they’ll need a lot of luck, but they have a great chance of gaining some ground and earning a Wild Card spot. Knowing their track record, it’ll be tough to knock them out in that elimination game. Barring any more injuries, St. Louis will easily be in the hunt for October.
Chicago Cubs (2016: 103-58, 1st Place)
Lineup: The Cubs bring back their historic lineup, except for two small notes. Obviously the beloved David Ross retired after the World Series victory, but you may have forgotten that Kyle Schwarber is no longer injured. After missing the entire 2016 season with a knee injury, he will replace Dexter Fowler in the outfield. The move replaces speed with power and adds another dangerous threat to the lineup. This lineup featured a record-tying 7 All-stars, including 5 starters. These stars are led by Anthony Rizzo and reigning MVP Kris Bryant. It’s hard to comprehend how young and talented this team is, and scary to think they may not have even peaked yet. With playmakers from top to bottom, Chicago is loaded. The only team that can beat them is themselves. While the former lovable losers will try to go back-to-back, the main concern would be that they might lack the hunger that a 107-year drought provides. If they find themselves celebrating too much and losing focus on the big prize, there are quite a few other teams vying for that trophy. It’ll be very important to avoid the dreaded hangover.
Pitching: As stacked as Chicago’s lineup is, their rotation could be even better. Headlined by former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, the Cubs don’t have single pitcher that opposing teams hope to face. If they’re lucky enough to avoid Arrieta, they’ll still face veteran fireballs Jon Lester, John Lackey, or Kyle Hendricks. All excellent students of the game, coached by future Hall of Famer John Madden, the sky remains the limit for the Cubs. It doesn’t get any easier as they turn to the bullpen. Even though they lost Aroldis Chapman to free agency, they saved enough money to scoop up Wade Davis. Davis is also a World Series champion with the Royals, and he can hit triple digits like Chapman. It’s a slight downgrade, but Davis is one of the best values in baseball. And hey, even if he struggles on his new team, the Cubs have 3 former closers in their bullpen who could take over. I cannot put into words how talented of a group president Theo Epstein has put together. It took over a century, but Chicago suffocates opponents because it’s so hard for them to have a bad day. If they’re having trouble hitting, the rotations throws a shutout. If a starter has a bad day, the big bats can make up for it. Look out world, the Cubs are here to stay.
2017 Goals: There is no doubt the Cubs will settle for nothing less than a championship. After waiting so long for their 3rd ring, they want a 4th.. and a 5th.. and a 6th.. you get the idea. If you can believe it, the team in 2017 could be better than 2016. You know they want to repeat, but do they want it as bad as other top contenders?
My Expectations: I think the Cubs could definitely repeat. They have the talent along with some of the best fans in baseball. However, there is a huge target on their back, and there’s a reason no one has repeated as champions since 1999-2000. It’s hard to be focused when your dreams have already come true, and with so many enemies, it won’t be so easy to fly the W again…