NL Central Preview

With the season less than a week away, the guys focus on the five teams in the NL Central. In case you missed it, here’s everything you need to know about the AL EastAL CentralAL West and NL East heading into this season.

Cubs

Key Offseason Moves:

Acquired Wade Davis from the Royals for Jorge Soler

Lost Aroldis Chapman, Dexter Fowler, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood to free agency

David Ross retired

Signed Brett Anderson, Jon Jay, Koji Uehara and Brian Duensing to one-year deals

Season Outlook:

The Chicago Cubs were the World Series Champions in 2016. The Chicago Cubs were the World Series Champions in 2016. The Chicago Cubs were the World Series Champions in 2016.

If you’re anything like me, no matter how many times you say that sentence to yourself, it still does not sound real. When Joe Maddon was brought on to manage the Chicago Cubs in November of 2014, I made my cautious (yet simultaneously optimistic) predictions well-known to all of my friends who love baseball as much as I do. The Cubs would win 80-85 games and miss the playoffs in 2015. They would win 85-90 en route to a wild card spot in 2016. They would win the division and 90-95 games en route to an NLCS appearance in 2017. Finally, in my wildest dreams, the Cubs would win 95+ games in 2018 and make a World Series appearance at last.

So, you can only imagine my combination of awe, enthusiasm and cautious hope as a Cubs fan as the Cubs made a late surge in 2015, followed by a devastating sweep to the Mets in the NLCS. I could not have felt better to start 2016. I had a feeling the division was ours. Jake Arrieta was pitching like an ace. Kris Bryant was the real deal as a rookie. Then, adversity struck. Kyle Schwarber went down for the year. The bottom line is, I could write an entire 500-page novel about the rollercoaster ride of 2016. But, true champions don’t dwell on the past; they only continue to look forward. So, let’s get after it.

Dexter Benedict Arnold Fowler has decided that he wants to be a Cardinal. Fair enough… We finally win a World Series and the Cardinals get to laugh knowing they got the better of the two outfielders we swapped. On a serious note… Who can blame Fowler? We told him he wasn’t worth what he thought he was in 2016 all the way through spring training. He proved his worth, and so now he gets paid. I couldn’t be happier for Dex, and I will miss him a ton. When he went, we went. But, as the saying goes, out with the old and in with the new.

Regardless of what the final lineups look like, I think the key to Dexter departing will be seeing if World Series MVP Ben Zobrist can act as more of a catalyst atop the order rather than another run support generator behind Bryant and Rizzo. Speaking of catalysts… I’d like to re-introduce those of you who only tuned in for the World Series to our not so little friend who was absent for most of 2016.

Regardless of where Joe Maddon ends up slotting Kyle Schwarber, many baseballs will be given the privilege of losing their lives at the powerful hands of this man. I was incredibly excited for Kris Bryant’s debut in 2015. But, Schwarber’s return in 2017 brings a completely different essence of excitement. We already have a fairly good idea of what we are getting, and I could not be more ecstatic to have him back.

However, this excited is matched with great loss, as the joy of watching the David Ross farewell tour has ended, and it is now time for Willson Contreras to take the reigns. Building rapport with this staff full of aces and bullpen workhorses will be crucial as Contreras continues to develop. The raw ability and talent is there, but being a catcher is about so much more than having a quick pop time and a solid bat. In my mind, Contreras’s development in the next few years will be the X-Factor to whether the Cubs are able to win another championship by 2020.

Sadly, Jason Heyward will more than likely be a laughing stock again in 2017. Trading Jorge Soler this offseason certainly didn’t do our outfield depth any favors, but it gives us a 50/50 chance at adding another dominant piece to our bullpen after Chapman returned to the Bronx Bombers. While I am not fully convinced that Wade Davis will ever return to form, there is one thing I am convinced of: The Cubs playoff bullpen will be rock solid. Adding a healthy Brett Anderson could easily be the biggest move the Cubs made in 2017 as he provides reliable back-end help if starters are unable to go deep. Also, Mike Montgomery has gotten a pretty important out or two in November (haha…thanks for sending out Michael Martinez as a gift, Terry).

The bottom line is…half the people who just read this article are probably looking for my current address so that they can smack some humility or a piece of their mind at me. But, guess what… The Cubs won it all in 2016, so the jokes end here. This isn’t rebuild mode any more. It’s win now, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Theo Epstein knows this team has a chance to be special in 2017 and will pull out all the stops necessary to get them back to the promised land.

So, to those who love the Cubbie blue… Cherish the excitement. This is no longer a team of promise and hope, this is a team that already fulfilled the promise. And to those of you who can’t wait to never have to read about the Cubs again: I hear Charlie Wooding and Henry Hostettler are now running group therapy session every Saturday over at the Field of (Broken) Dreams. Frequent guest speakers will include Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox, as well as Zach Duke and Alex Reyes of the St. Louis Cardinals. Face it…you won’t be hearing the end of the Cubs any time soon, so get over it already.

Projected Opening Day Lineup (This will change early and often throughout the year… Joe loves to change it up):

  1. Ben Zobrist, OF
  2. Kyle Schwarber, OF
  3. Kris Bryant, 3B
  4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  5. Willson Contreras, C
  6. Addison Russell, SS
  7. Jason Heyward, OF
  8. Javier Baez, 2B
  9. Pitcher Spot

Pitching Staff

  1. Jon Lester
  2. Jake Arrieta
  3. Kyle Hendricks
  4. John Lackey
  5. Mike Montgomery/Brett Anderson

Cardinals

Key Off-Season Moves:

Signed Dexter Fowler to a 5 year, $82.5 million deal

Signed Brett Cecil and John Gant 

Season Outlook:

The Cardinals’ disappointment in 2016 was two-fold: not only did St. Louis miss an opportunity to play in the Wild Card game by one game in the standings, but they watched long-time rival Chicago win its first World Series in 108 years. St. Louis was quick to strike back, however, poaching talented center fielder Dexter Fowler away from the Cubs via free agency. Fowler’s propensity to get on base should help an offense that was in dire need of a consistent spark last season. However, expect his numbers to regress in 2017 without Chicago’s version of Murderer’s Row hitting behind him. Fowler’s greatest impact might be on the Cardinals’ defense, however. His signing allows St. Louis to push speedy Randall Grichuk over to left field, where he will replace an aging and below-average defender, Matt Holliday.

As the only significant signing outside of the bullpen, the addition of Fowler is emblematic of GM John Mozeliak’s approach to the 2017 season. St. Louis is counting on improved health throughout its lineup and rotation to improve its offensive, defensive, and pitching performance. One-time NL ROY candidate Aledmys Diaz had a breakout year in 2016 before a fractured thumb cut his season short. The Cardinals are counting on Diaz to continue his offensive production and improve his defense, but his minor league track record indicates that last year may have been a fluke. Matt Carpenter has turned himself into one of the most consistent bats in the NL, which bodes well for a franchise that is looking to pass the mantle of Cardinals leadership on from an aging Yadier Molina. Yaddy looked sprite in the World Baseball Classic, but years behind the dish have started to take a toll on his bat. St. Louis will need Stephen PiscottyRandall Grichuk, and a healthy Jhonny Peralta to contribute on the offensive end for the Cardinals to have any chance of going toe-to-toe with the Cubs in 2017.

After another injury-plagued season, St. Louis looks to maintain a healthy rotation entering the season. Carlos Martinez takes over as staff ace with electrifying stuff. The Cardinals will rely on Martinez to be the consistent workhorse that Adam Wainwright has been for so long. Those days are numbered for the World Series champion, however, as Wainwright has been spotty throughout spring training. Mike Leake looks to have a bounce back year after a disappointing season, while Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn look to return to form after recovering from arm injuries. Losing Alex Reyes to Tommy John certainly hurts as the injury pushes Wacha into the fifth rotation spot rather than the bullpen, where he’s probably best suited after years of nagging shoulder injuries. As has been the case for the past few years, health will dictate how far this group can carry St. Louis.

Projected Lineup:

  1. Dexter Fowler, CF
  2. Aledmys Diaz, SS
  3. Matt Carpenter, 1B
  4. Stephen Piscotty, RF
  5. Yadier Molina, C
  6. Jhonny Peralta, 3B
  7. Randall Grichuk, LF
  8. Kolten Wong, 2B
  9. Carlos Martinez, P

Starting Rotation

  1. Carlos Martinez
  2. Mike Leake
  3. Adam Wainwright
  4. Lance Lynn
  5. Michael Wacha

John Hayes

Reds

Key Off-Season Moves:

Traded Brandon Phillips for 2 minor league pitchers

Signed Drew Storen to 1 year deal

Season Outlook:

2017 will be a continuation of Cincinnati’s much-needed rebuilding effort that began midway through the 2015 season. Long-time franchise favorite Brandon Phillips is gone after GM Dick Williams dealt the All-Star second baseman to Atlanta for two middling pitching prospects. The Reds look to continue developing talented youngsters Billy Hamilton, last year’s stolen base champion, and Jose Peraza, who can play both middle infield and outfield. Joey Votto remains the key to an offense that will struggle to score many runs. In his age 32 season, Votto led the National League in on-base percentage and OPS+ after the first baseman hit a blistering .408/.490/.668 after the All-Star break. The All-Star’s most important contributions, however, may be the strides he has made as a teammate to put more time into mentoring some of the Reds’ younger players, including Hamilton. Cincinnati will need Votto’s stabilizing presence in the lineup and in the locker room if the franchise wishes to avoid a complete disaster of a rebuilding season.

Adam Duvall is out to prove that 2016 wasn’t a fluke after hitting 33 home runs and driving in 103 runs last season. As a dead-pull hitter, Duvall will need to modify his approach if he hopes to avoid becoming another victim of defensive shifts. Third baseman Nick Senzel, Cincinnati’s first pick in the 2016 draft, is still at least two years away, so the back end of the lineup will rely on a group of veterans to provide additional pop behind Votto and Duvall.

At first glance, the Reds’ pitching situation seems dire. Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani are out with elbow injuries. Cody Reed has been inconsistent throughout spring training. Scott Feldman is the Opening Day starter. However, the future is bright, as MLB.com Top 100 Prospects Amir Garrett (#66) and Robert Stephenson (#87) will likely earn rotation spots coming out of camp. While they won’t be competing for Cy Young votes in 2017, they should earn some valuable experience this season that can push them to become a potential 1-2 combo for Cincinnati in the future. The bullpen is solid but nothing special with Michael Lorenzen, free-agent signing Drew Storen, and Raisel Iglesias closing things out in the later innings. 2017 will see its fair share of growing pains, but the Reds should be better in the long-run because of it.

Projected Lineup:

  1. Billy Hamilton, CF
  2. Jose Peraza, 2B
  3. Joey Votto, 1B
  4. Adam Duvall, LF
  5. Scott Schebler, RF
  6. Zach Cozart, SS
  7. Eugenio Suarez, 3B
  8. Devin Mesoraco, C
  9. Scott Feldman, P

Starting Rotation

  1. Scott Feldman
  2. Brandon Finnegan
  3. Robert Stephenson
  4. Amir Garrett
  5. Cody Reed / Tim Adleman

John Hayes

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key Off-Season Moves:

Re-Signed Ivan Nova to a 3 year deal

Signed Daniel Hudson 

Season Outlook:

The Pirates had one of the calmest off-seasons you will ever see for an MLB team, which isn’t great considering they went under .500 last year and plan on contending in a division with the reigning World Series champions. There is certainly reason to question Neil Huntington’s crew. However, there are also a variety of reasons to look for development in 2017. First and foremost, Andrew McCutchen was total garbage in 2016, tossing up a 0.7 win season playing a crappy CF and offering up a pedestrian 106 wRC+. The projection systems believe in a bounce back season, and while its hard to imagine him putting up 5.8 WAR season he put together in 2015, its fair to believe in a 3-4 win season, just like Steamer, ZIPS and Depth Charts do. So there’s the first piece of good news. Also positive, moving Starling Marte to CF should really improve their team defense, and Marte is coming off a 4 win season in LF. Thats a superstar in the making. The other OF, Gregory Polanco, is the ideal breakout candidate here in year 3, and looked great in the WBC. And hey, if any of those 3 all star caliber OF’s aren’t great, top 10 prospect in baseball Austin Meadows seems ready to go (more on him later). The Infield is quite as loaded, but top prospect Josh Bell should be an upgrade at 1B, Josh Harrison is a solid MLB contributor, and you could do a lot worse than Francisco Cervelli behind the dish. The legal status of their 3B Jung Ho Kang will go a long way in deterring the thump of this lineup. Overall, there is no reason to think this isn’t an above average lineup. The star power is their and the depth is more than acceptable. The pitching staff is much more volatile.

The 2017 Pirates will once again be led by top pick and ace, Gerrit Cole. The Pirates are dreaming two other homegrown large right handers could join him at the top of the rotation, as big seasons from Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow could transform this Pirates team from pretender to contender. Taillon seems like the safer bet, but if Glasnow can harness his stuff bit and find some control he could really change the outlook of this team. The 3 of them in combination with Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl should make for a solid, passable rotation. The problem for the Pirates however is if they ever want to advance past a WC game and make a run at the division, its gonna take more than passable to pass the Cubs. Hence, the frequent Jose Quintana rumors. There’s no doubt giving up 6 years of a cost controlled star like Austin Meadows is a tough pill to swallow for a team like the Pirates, but the possibility of swapping Meadows and a top minor leaguer like Mitch Keller for Quintana could totally change the complexion of the NL Central. The formidable Pirates lineup with Cole and Quintana the top of the rotation might actually give the Cubs a scare. As currently constructed, its hard to believe in more than another WC game and early exit for the Bucs. Will the small market Pirates be willing to cash in on their minor league depth though and get a front line starter or maybe a SS? We will see. Lets hope Neil Huntington goes for it.

Projected Lineup:

  1. Josh Harrison, 2B
  2. Starling Marte, CF
  3. Andrew McCutchen, RF
  4. Gregory Polanco, LF
  5. Josh Bell, 1B
  6. David Freese, 3B
  7. Francisco Cervelli, C
  8. Jordy Mercer, SS
  9. Gerrit Cole, P

Starting Rotation

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Jameson Taillon
  3. Chad Kuhl
  4. Ivan Nova
  5. Tyler Glasnow

Fuck the Cubs

Milwaukee Brewers

Key Off-Season Moves:

Traded RP Tyler Thornburg to the Boston Red Sox for 3B Travis Shaw and 2 prospects.

Signed 1B Eric Thames

Season Outlook:

Few teams are more openly “re-building” than Milwaukee’s own. The Brewers had no plans of winning games last year, and once again have absolutely no plans on competing here in 2017. GM David Stearns comes from the Astros so he is more than willing to play the long game. In the mean time, there are certainly reasons to get excited if you’re a Brewers fan, and they all aren’t stashed away on various minor league teams. Yes, the next Brewers team is absolutely being led by an OF punch of Lewis Brinson and Corey Ray and will have Josh Hader and Luis Ortiz on the bump, but some of the next great Brewers team is already up. Jonathan Villar has been one of the great breakout stories in the past few years, and looks like the long term up the middle with recent top prospect Orlando Arcia. Sure, his debut didn’t go swimmingly, but that’s to expected with a young, glove first SS. His first full year as the Brewers SS is certainly worth tracking. So are the many other possible breakout candidates on this Brewers team, with guys like Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana and Travis Shaw all being real possibilities to break out and take a step forward in 2017. Combine that with the return of Eric Thames stateside and an established All-Star performer in Ryan Braun and you got the makings of a totally watchable Brewers lineup.

There is a reason their O/U is 69 though, and a reason this team will be hard to watch some months. The pitching staff ain’t much. Its no Padres rotation or anything, it features 5 real MLB arms, it just lacks any kind of difference maker or star power.

Projected Lineup:

  1. Jonathan Villar, 2B
  2. Keon Broxton, CF
  3. Ryan Braun, LF
  4. Eric Thames, 1B
  5. Domingo Santana, RF
  6. Travis Shaw, 3B
  7. Orlando Arcia, SS
  8. Andrew Susac, C
  9. Junior Guerra, P

Starting Rotation

  1. Junior Guerra
  2. Matt Garza
  3. Zach Davies
  4. Chase Anderson
  5. Willy Peralta

Fuck the Cubs

Predictions

Steve

  1. Cubs
  2. Cardinals (WC)
  3. Pirates
  4. Reds
  5. Brewers

Hayes

  1. Cubs
  2. Cardinals (WC)
  3. Pirates
  4. Reds
  5. Brewers

Wooding

  1. Cubs
  2. Pirates (WC)
  3. Cardinals
  4. Brewers
  5. Reds

Bold Predictions

Steve: Eddie Butler turns into Theo Epstein’s next great project as he, Montgomery and Anderson end up being the keys to a dominant Cubs bullpen in 2017 that contributes to another 100 win season.

(Not-So-Bold Prediction: Charlie Wooding throws up in his mouth reading that prediction.)

Editor’s Note: What is Theo’s next great project? He is a President. He has nothing to do with the physical development of players. And of the WS roster, the only player who could even be relatively considered a reclamation is Jake Arrieta. Fuck Theo Epstein. (Me)

Hayes: The Cardinals will win 90 games. It will take a major deadline acquisition to do it, but the additional offensive firepower will push St. Louis past the 90-win mark and to a Wild Card berth.

Wooding: Addison Russell puts up a lower WAR than his Chicago counterpart Tim Anderson. Suck it.

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