(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Today, we look at the NL Central. While the Brewers have not made the playoffs since their 2011 division-winning season, and the Reds have greatly struggled since their 2013 wildcard season, the NL Central still has three playoff contenders. In 2015, the Cardinals won 100 games, the Pirates won 98 games, and the Cubs won 97. The Cardinals, however, only won 86 games in 2016, and the Pirates dropped below .500 to a 78-83 record. Will the NL Central continue to be dominated by the Cubs this year, or will the Cards and Pirates step up? Previews are given in alphabetical order; standings predictions will be released before Opening Day.
2016 Record: 103-58 (1st in NL Central)
2016 Payroll: $188,402,394 (5th)
Offseason Moves: Never one to bask in the spotlight for too long (if at all), Cubs President Theo Epstein didn’t take the winter off in honor of the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908. Granted, it was a quieter offseason than the year before, but Chicago still made up for the loss of Aroldis Chapman (signed with the Yankees) by trading for relief man Wade Davis, while also signing Brett Anderson to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Anderson should compete with Mike Montgomery for the last spot in the starting rotation. In addition to the acquisition of Davis, for which power-hitting outfielder Jorge Soler was dealt to Kansas City, the Cubs shored up their bullpen by signing veteran RHP Koji Uehara to a one-year deal. Other arrivals include Jon Jay (to make up for the loss of Dexter Fowler) and LHP Brian Duensing.
2017 Outlook: Last year’s world champions begin 2017 as the team to beat across Major League Baseball. The offense should be even better this season as Kyle Schwarber returns after missing all of 2016 due to injury, while the club expects Jason Heyward to improve upon a disappointing first campaign in the Windy City. Though the loss of Fowler will hurt, the ability to move around position-flexible players like Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant will be of help defensively.
Players to Watch: Addison Russell
Look out for 23-year-old Addison Russell. A consistently excellent defender, the shortstop has posted the 8th-highest UZR of any player in baseball since his 2015 debut. His offensive game should develop further this season, making him one of MLB’s premier two-way middle infielders. It’s not hard to find improvements in Russell’s hitting from 2015 to 2016—he dropped his K-rate by nearly 6% and raised his OBP, all while slugging 21 home runs and driving in 95 runs. This was all accomplished with a .277 BABIP, signifying that the young Cub was a victim of bad luck.
– Billy Stampfl
2016 Record: 68-94 (5th in NL Central)
2016 Payroll: $114,297,733 (23rd)
Offseason Moves: As they continue to get younger, the Reds traded fan favorite Brandon Phillips to the Braves. They also sent Dan Straily, who led the team’s staff with a 3.8 rWAR last year despite a suspiciously bad 4.88 FIP, to the Marlins in exchange for pitching prospect Luis Castillo. They made some minor signings as well, adding reliever Drew Storen and starter Scott Feldman, and giving low-risk minor league deals to Desmond Jennings, Lisalverto Bonilla, and Bronson Arroyo.
2017 Outlook: As the Reds enter the third year of their rebuild, fans will get a glimpse into the team’s future in 2017. Prospects Amir Garrett and Jesse Winker should make their debuts early in the year, and the team hopes they can make immediate impacts and become cornerstones of the franchise for years to come. Pitching prospects Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson will have increased roles this year. Both struggled as rookies in 2016, as did nearly every pitcher who took the mound for the Reds. Unfortunately, they will once again begin the season with important players on the Disabled List. Homer Bailey, who has only made 8 starts in the last 2 seasons, will be out until June with yet another elbow injury. Breakout ace Anthony DeSclafani will also miss the beginning of the year (he posted a 2.9 rWAR in 123.1 solid IP last year). The bullpen remains a liability, but Raisel Iglesias (169 ERA+) and Michael Lorenzen (149 ERA+) have proven that they are bonafide shutdown relievers, while Drew Storen is a low-risk signing that can only help the team. Joey Votto should continue to put up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (or at the very least walk ten thousand times), and if catcher Devin Mesoraco can stay off the DL, he perhaps can make a difference (that said, he is two years removed from his last good season). Billy Hamilton began working with Votto in the middle of last season, and it paid off greatly. His OBP in the second half was .369, compared to a dismal .283 in the first half, and he can be an incredibly valuable asset thanks to his speed, especially if he gets on base. Overall, the Reds will be better than last year as their young players mature, but they still won’t be ready to compete for another year or two.
Player to watch: Jose Peraza
A former top 100 prospect, utility player Jose Peraza was impressive as a rookie in 2016. In 72 games at four positions, he hit .324 and stole 21 bases, with little to no power. With Brandon Phillips gone, Peraza is the Reds’ starting second baseman moving forward. If he can continue to get on base, something fellow speedster Billy Hamilton has been unable to do for the majority of his career, he will be a very valuable player in 2017.
– Cam Cain
2016 Record: 73-89 (4th in NL Central, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $75,244,791 (29th)
Offseason Moves: Key departures include Blaine Boyer, Chris Capuano, Chris Carter, Martin Maldonado, and Tyler Thornberg. Key additions include Neftali Feliz, Tommy Milone, Travis Shaw, Eric Sogard, and Eric Thames.
2017 Outlook: A very interesting move was letting Chris Carter, 30, walk and later he signed with the Yankees. He was third in the league in ISO (.277) but was also second in the league in K% (32%). The Brewers are in full rebuild mode, and the most interesting case is Ryan Braun. He is coming off a 1.7 WAR year and still has 4 years left on his contract, in which he is owed $19 million every year. He drew a lot of trade interest last year, but the Brewers plan on keeping him. The projected starting infield for the Brewers tallied up a total of 4.4 WAR last year. That is atrocious, and 39 position players had better than a 4.4 WAR last year. There is probably no turnaround in that, and the starting rotation does not look too bright either. The lowest ERA that a starter posted last year was a 4.19. It looks it will be a very gloomy year to be a Brewers fan. The one bright side is that the #11 prospect in all of baseball, SS Orlando Arcia, will be the full shortstop this year after debuting in August of last year. Unless some unforeseen miracle happens, the most intriguing part of the Brewers season is seeing if Ryan Braun ends up getting traded.
Player to Watch: SS Orlando Arcia
As previously mentioned, he is listed as the #11 prospect in the MLB by MLB.com. He struggled in his 55 games last year, as he struck out 21.8% of the time, yet there is a lot of hype surrounding him. His defense is his best trait, and he has some sneaky speed to steal about 20 bases a year. Yet, his bat needs to improve in order to solidify himself as a star in the league.
– Hunter Satterthwaite
2016 Record: 78-83 (3rd in NL Central, missed playoffs)
2016 payroll: $105,866,826 (25th)
Offseason Moves: Not much. In fact, the only notable addition for the Pirates was Daniel Hudson who is coming off a mediocre at best year out of the bullpen. After rumors swirled for what seemed like years of dealing Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates, much like the Tigers, essentially stood still this offseason. They also lost Neftali Feliz, Matt Joyce, Jeff Locke, Sean Rodriguez, and Ryan Vogelsong which sheds many years off of the team’s average age.
2017 Outlook: The Pirates are in limbo. They have some really good pieces on this team and will likely contend for a wild card spot coming out of a division that is very good at the top with the Cubs and the Cardinals. Andrew McCutchen is looking to bounce back from a disappointing year (his -0.7 rWAR was shocking after five years in a row of 4.9+ rWAR), and Starling Marte is looking like a star in all facets of the game, whether it’s at the plate, on the base path, or in the field. The front of the rotation has two really good, young pitchers in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but the rest of the staff doesn’t look built for a playoff run. Tyler Glasnow has the potential to develop into an ace as well, but he probably won’t be quite ready this year. They should make a run at the wild-card regardless, however, unless the rotation replicates its 2016 season and not a single starter pitches more than 127.1 IP.
Player to Watch: Jameson Taillon
The number two overall pick in 2010 missed the entirety of the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Last year he started in AAA and got called up in June. He looked promising in his 18 starts and Pirates fans are hoping he can break out to his potential in his second big league season (and that is saying something, seeing that he had a 124 ERA+ and 3.71 FIP in 104 IP last year). Assuming he stays healthy this year, the Pirates should finally get the guy that was likened to Josh Beckett and Stephen Strasburg when they drafted him. He already finished with the team’s second highest rWAR in 2016 (though that is not saying much seeing that he had a 2.3 rWAR), but the sky’s the limit for Jameson Taillon.
– Josh Rusgo
St. Louis Cardinals
2016: 86-76 (2nd in NL Central)
2016 Payroll: $167,016,170 (9th)
Offseason moves: The Cardinals signed OF Dexter Fowler to a 5-year contract and young ace Carlos Martinez to a 5-year extension. They traded longtime starter Jaime Garcia to the Braves after a disappointing 2016. They lost outfielders Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss to free agency, each of whom had 400 plate appearances last season.
2017 Outlook: Last season the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Most teams wouldn’t call 86 wins a down year, but for St. Louis it was a disappointment. The pitching was disappointing, but it should be better in 2017. Mike Leake, the team’s big free-agent signing a year ago, had a 4.69 ERA, but his FIP was 3.83, a career low. His difference between ERA and FIP was the fifth highest among qualified starters in 2016, showing he is due to bounce back. Similarly, Adam Wainwright was 8th in the same category. That said, Leake posted a 4.85 ERA or higher in every month except May in 2016, a very troubling sign for the Cardinals. Wainwright’s situation is a bit different. He turns 36 in August, but he was a Cy Young candidate as recently as 2014. He will likely have to adjust to his declining velocity, as batters hit his fastball for a shocking 181 wRC+ in 2016, over 60 points higher than his career average. Meanwhile, Lance Lynn’s return from Tommy John surgery should bolster the rotation, which is now led by young ace Carlos Martinez (more later). After playing all over the infield last year, Matt Carpenter and his .380 OBP will have a spot at first base this season. He has solidified a place in the middle of the lineup alongside RF Stephen Piscotty and catcher Yadier Molina. Additionally, shortstop Aledmys Diaz came out of nowhere to hit .300 as a rookie. If the Cardinals want to compete for the NL Central with the Cubs in 2017, they will need Diaz and Piscotty to replicate their 2016 seasons, young hitters Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to bounce back from down seasons at the plate, and the rotation to improve drastically from an uncharacteristically bad year. A wildcard is probably possible with the rotation fixing its struggles and the lineup maintaining an OPS+ over 100, but just “a wildcard” isn’t the Cardinal Way.
Player to watch: Carlos Martinez
After back-to-back seasons with an ERA around 3.00, the 25-year-old Martinez has earned the nod on Opening Day for the Cardinals. With a fastball that tops out at 101 MPH and high ground ball and strikeout rates, Martinez’ potential is through the roof. However, his velocity and motion could lead to arm injuries down the line. If he can continue to improve and avoid the disabled list, Carlos Martinez could be a dark horse Cy Young candidate.
– Cam Cain