2017 NL Central Preview: Who's Contending with the Big Bad Cubbies?
With Spring Training in full swing, it’s getting time to get back into baseball mode.
This is part of a season primer series, that’ll take you through what to watch for over the course of the season.
The last couple of years featured some great competition in the NL Central.
The Cardinals have dominated the division for a while until recently, but saw their division title whisked away from them by the world champion Cubs (still weird to write).
Each of the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates have seen both sides of the coin in the last few years, between contending for a wild card spot, and contending for a top draft pick.
Last season was by far the least competitive in recent memory, with the Cubs running away with the division flag early, and never letting anyone else near it.
This season figures to be similar, but it wouldn’t be baseball unless something weird happens. You never know...
Coming into this season: Hey, Chicago, whaddya say? That song was probably the most overplayed song in America, let alone Chicago, for the entire month of November, and maybe the entire winter.
Well, I guess that’s what happens when you break the most notorious “curse” in North American sports history. The Cubbies were favorites to win the Series, and did just that for the first time since 1908, and boy was it a legendary run.
They are now the defending champs for the first time in most people’s lifetimes, and they will do so with mostly the same roster. The only big differences are in center, with Jon Jay, and closer, with Wade Davis. They are still probably favorites to win again, and they easily could repeat, just like they did in 1908 (go figure).
Storyline to watch: How long does the hangover last? For most of the core, they haven’t been around long enough to really appreciate the suffering of the franchise.
Anthony Rizzo is the longest tenured Cub, joining the team in 2012. But can Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and company prove that they are really for real? I mean, they are, but you know...baseball.
X-Factor: Jason Heyward. He’s got Gold Glove defense, but last season, he couldn’t hit for a lick.
He was paid the big bucks, and forgot to pack his bat with him to Chicago. If he can return to the form he had with the Cardinals last year and the Braves before that, it makes the Cubs that much deeper, and that much scarier.
“Bold” prediction: NL Central champs by leaps and bounds. Kyle Schwarber breaks a panel in the scoreboard.
Coming into this season: The Reds of 2016 did something that’s never been done before, and something stat mavens would love to point out to you.
The pitching staff became the first ever to have a collective WAR (wins above replacement) below 0, according to Fangraphs.
I’m not entirely sure how WAR is really calculated, but it doesn’t take a pundit to know that negative numbers are not good.
Joey Votto had an excellent year again, and Adam Duvall became a pleasant surprise in the home run department, but not much else went positive for the Reds last season, and a lot of it had to do with the putrid pitching.
Storyline to watch: Joey Votto. There’s not much else to watch this season for the Reds. Joey Votto is an MVP candidate every year, seemingly, and he’s doing his best to make the Reds worth watching.
The Reds have been cleaning house for a couple of years, and Votto’s trade value can’t get much higher, but I can’t see them dealing him anytime soon.
X-Factor: Billy Hamilton. A player so fast, he can run through time (the stolen base leader in the 1890’s was a guy named Billy Hamilton).
The present day Billy Hamilton is speed with a glove, and a toothpick at the dish. If he can improve his on base numbers, his stolen base prowess can cause trouble for opposing defenses.
Bold prediction: Battle for the basement, surprising no one.
Coming into this season: The Brewers are another rebuilding team, built around a star of a few years ago who’s still got plenty left in the tank, Ryan Braun.
However, the future is starting to pop up in a couple of places. The shortstop of the future in Milwaukee is Orlando Arcia, who got in 55 games and showed a little promise. Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton both emerged as solid players, with potential to break out in 2017.
Junior Guerra emerged as a good pitcher in the front of the rotation. But the Brew Crew didn’t have the season as a team that they wanted, and landed toward the bottom of the division.
Next year, they will rely on some youth, and hope to start their way back to the top.
Storyline to watch: Will they trade Ryan Braun? It’s been talked about for a couple of years now that the Brewers have been out of contention for a while.
Braun still has good years in him, and is coming off another great year. But he can fetch big value now that will help the Brewers in the future, now that they have some of the pieces in place.
X-Factor: Keon Broxton. The team is really high on this kid, for good reason. He has a good tool set all around, and is just now putting it all together.
Milwaukee higher-ups want to see him start to hit in front of Braun, because they feel that would help his development as a solid top of the order multi-talented hitter.
If they can get that out of Broxton, it’ll pay off big time in the near future.
Bold prediction: A small improvement over last season, and Braun stays in Milwaukee at season’s end.
Coming into this season: For the first time in a long time, the Pirates have been good.
However, things in 2016 got a little shaky, and the Bucs fell out of contention for the first time in a couple of years. Andrew McCutchen slumped a good chunk of the year at the plate, ace Gerrit Cole got hurt and missed significant time, and the rest of the rotation was not very good.
Starling Marte emerged as a star, though, and Gregory Polanco also had a fine year. A couple of got future pieces also saw some action, in Josh Bell and Adam Frazier, and gave more hope for the future in Pittsburgh.
With a re-tooled and recovered rotation, they can give the Cubs a possible challenger.
Storyline to watch: The starting pitching. We know that Gerrit Cole is a stud at the top of the rotation, but what’s really interesting is who comes after him.
Both Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have been up and coming prospects for a while now. Taillon will be in the rotation, and Glasnow is showing the Pirates at spring training that he’s worthy of the show.
If both can come good this year, it gives pitching depth that can help a resurgent ball club.
X-Factor: Andrew McCutchen. The former NL MVP had a really tough season in 2016. He is the heart and soul of the Pirates, and can carry the team to success.
But his early season struggle didn’t help things, and the team was even considering trading him over the winter. A bounce back season would mean the world to the Bucs.
Bold prediction: Wild Card contention, but coming up just short.
St. Louis Cardinals
Coming into this season: The Cardinals have been one of the most successful teams in recent times. They’ve finished at 1 or 2 in the division in each of the last eight seasons.
Last season, though, it started to catch up to them. Injuries ravaged the team, with many key cogs in the machine missing time, such as Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Randall Grichuk, and Matt Holliday all missing significant time.
The starting rotation also got roughed up, with only Carlos Martinez finishing with an ERA under 4.62. They also featured arguably the best nickname in baseball, closer Seung-Hwan Oh, AKA the Final Boss, which is important to note.
The team will look similar to their 2016 structure, only with the addition of Dexter Fowler from the rival Cubs, which could mean another step toward a .500 record.
Storyline to watch: Can they stay on the field? The MLB season is a long, grueling grind of 162 games, and it wears players down.
The Cardinals were exhibit A, losing big parts to the DL in 2016. It’s imperative for their younger core, like Aledmys Diaz, Stephen Piscotty, and Randal Grichuk to stay on the field.
They already lost young prospect Alex Reyes to Tommy John surgery for the year, so it’s not starting off well.
X-Factor: Adam Wainwright. Before missing most of 2015 with an injury, Wainwright was a perennial Cy Young candidate.
Last season, he had by far his worst season in the bigs. On a team that had pitching problems last season, it’s really important for their big game pitchers to help carry the team and steal wins every now and again.
If Waino can’t, it’ll be nearly impossible for the Cards to contend.
Bold prediction: Third place, but still not an easy team to play against.
What do you think?