A Quick Look At The NL Central

Monday, March 28 2016 @ 08:36 AM EDT

Contributed by: Eephus

There ain't room in this town for the three of us...

The division preview tour continues. Featuring wacky uniform changes, super teams, grand entrances, contract years, retirement tours, fire... sales, and of course perpetual futility! We continue through the senior circuit (that young whippersnapper American League, doesn't look a day over 110) into the National League Central, maybe the toughest division in all the majors. Try saying that ten years ago. Or... three years ago. Or... yeah here goes.

(*plus-minus indicates how many runs they outscored/were outscored by)

---Pittsburgh Pirates (2015: 98-64, 2nd, 2 GB, *+101)---

Raise The Jolly Roger

The very trendy choice these days is to anoint that superteam in Northern Chicago as favourites to win the NL Central crown. One major objection: we are still talking about the Chicago Cubs here, super justice league team or no. So I'm going to take the slightly more difficult case by arguing how the Pirates are going to win the division. I say slightly, because Pittsburgh also has a very very good baseball team.

The only real question is whether they can score enough runs. They'll miss Pedro Alvarez's home run cuts (though surely not his clunky steel glove over at first), Neil Walker's consistency, and John Jaso (he's still around but with Jaso I just assume he's gonna get hurt and miss half the season). If Josh Harrison can't recover from a meh 2015, Gregory Polanco still doesn't quite break out and Mike Morse continues to have the weirdest up and down career ever, this could be a team forced to win a lot of 3-2 games. But even so, they're very well equipped for those types of situations. The starting staff looks to be good, Established Closer(TM) Mark Melancon is back for likely his last go around with the Buccos, as he'll be a free agent after the season, and he's backed up by a gang of Pirate relievers ranging from useful to excellent like Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero (that name, man. That name.)

It wouldn't be the Pirates of the 2010s if there weren't some reclamation projects for pitching coach/Transfiguration teacher Ray Searage to play around with. This year it's Neftali Feliz and (to a lesser extent) Jon Niese. Feliz has been pretty bad/hurt for a while now, but if Searage can salvage Joe Blanton (Joe Blanton!) into something effective then I fully expect the former Texas closer to strike out 100 guys and have an ERA just over one. Or at least, not be as pretty bad/hurt as he has been lately.

To be honest, I'm not one hundred percent convinced they can finish second in this wild division, never mind take the crown. But this has been a good team for multiple seasons now, they're still young and getting better, and that pitching staff/Searage magic ensures that they'll be in the hunt all year. So why not I say. This is the year they finish behind nobody.


---Chicago Cubs (2015: 97-65, 3rd, 3 GB, *+81)---

Join The Justice League

The Cubs of 2015 disappointed everybody who followed the Back to The Future prediction that they'd be World Series champions, but seeing as I'm still waiting for my hoverboard (it's stuck in shipping they said. A month or two more they said) I suppose a classic 80s movie can't always be right. And besides, 2015 was an incredible year for the North Siders. This was a squad that improved by 24 wins (!!!) from 2014 to 2015 and while they finished third in the NL Central, they would've won any other division in baseball with their 97 victory high-fives. In the playoffs, they wiped out the Pirates in the one game wildcard thanks to new superpitcher Jake Arrieta, then eliminated another rival in the Cardinals to take the NLDS, only being stopped in the NLCS by the Mets because a bunch of guys who never hit home runs suddenly went nuts (you know who you are... *cough* *cough*)

So instead of resting and waiting on what was a very young and exciting team and seeing where that could go, the Cubs front office decided to lose their minds. But in the best possible way. This was like a squad of elite superheroes sitting around thinking: "Yeah, we're probably good enough right now to fight off most crime and injustice. But why don't we check if Green Lantern or Batman want to join us?" And so along came Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey into an already strong fold of young big league stars.

But will the streets be completely safe? It might not be as completely so as one would think, since crime (or injuries, for the sake of my runaway metaphor here) will always find a way to pop up. Maybe their bullpen doesn't look as "lock down" as other strongish teams, but the biggest danger in predicting another deep Cubbies run is the assumption that their young players will continue their march towards stardom without any set-backs. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber all stepped into big league shoes in 2015 without any missteps, providing big contributions right away to a 97 win team. This is not to suggest that any of these three will take a step back, it's just to remind that their continued improvements are not guaranteed. But anyhow, when the weakest thing you can find about a team is to poke holes at a good(ish) bullpen or pull a Captain Obvious and say how young players don't always develop or sustain initial success, you're usually talking about a really good team. The 2016 Cubs will probably be a really good team. I just can't give them the crown because they're the Cubs, which isn't their fault.


---St. Louis Cardinals (2015: 100-62, 1st (!), +2, *+122)---

No Molina, Mo Problems

I may have looked this up in depth around the end of last season, though I didn't write anything down and I'm much too lazy to look it up again, but the 2015 Cardinals may have been the best MLB team at preventing runs of the last 25 years. Again, I'm not completely certain of this and granted, much of that time period covers an era when home runs were an inflated economic resource. But hey, only allowing 525 runs over 162 games definitely catches your attention. I've played on hardball teams that have allowed 150+ runs in 10 games, so I am personally impressed when someone demonstrates the other end of that spectrum.

The outlook for the 2016 Cardinals does not look as rosy as a team coming off a 100 win year would like. John Lackey and Jason Heyward pulled a David Price and left town as free agents to a division rival (as much as we've been moaning about Price in these parts, the Cardinals lost two(!) good players to a division rival this offseason. And a playoff team rival no less. If Price wants to play for a team in last that's his business). More bad news: rotation stalwart Laynce Lynn and his reliably good 200 innings is gone for the whole year thanks to Tommy John, shortstop Jhonny Peralta is gone likely until the all-star break and Matt Holliday's home run power seems to have completely disappeared (4 in 2015 over 277 PAs and none in the spring).

But the biggest concern in Redbird land has to surround their all-world backstop, Yadier Molina. Yadi has been battling injuries the past couple seasons and is currently questionable for opening day against Pittsburgh because of a thumb issue. But something else is also significant. Take a look at this sequence:


Those are Molina's slugging percentages by season from 2012 onward, while his plate appearances have steadily remained around 500 each year. Now to be fair, that three year run where Yadier had an OPS over .800, a batting average around .310, combined with his defensive skills made him look like the greatest catcher of all time. I think a FOX broadcaster might have suggested that during an endless anecdote. Thing is, that's a lot to expect year after year from a catcher. Even so, the sudden drop in power production is concerning, especially for a 33 year old playing a demanding position not known for it's offensive bounce backs. He'll still be a good everyday player if his defensive value remains (which it has for now) but he's looking a lot like what he was when he first came into the league, which is a singles hitter who doesn't walk or strikeout. If it was the 80s they could just move him to left-field and tell him to lead off... right? Right? Where'd everybody go?

This team seems like a good bet to take a step back. How big that step ends up being is what will decide whether or not they return to the postseason. With a healthy Molina, Matt Carpenter corkscrewing swings all over the place (one of my favourite players to watch, big fan) and Mike Leake optimistically replacing Lackey's innings, this is still a good team in a very tough division. They'll be a nuisance at the very least, a wildcard danger at the very best.


---Milwaukee Brewers (2015: 68-94, 4th, *-82)---

Chew Through The Brew Crew

I confess I was very surprised when I looked up (or down rather) to see the 2015 Brewers lost 94 games. In my mind I knew they weren't good, but I'd assumed they were in that 73-80 win area (also known as the Gord Ash Effect. Zing!) But only 68 wins? That's genuinely bad. So I looked at their 2015 season and... yup they were genuinely bad. But a lot of that can be traced to their absolutely dreadful start. They lost 13 of their first 15 games, and by the end of April were 5-17. May was nicer (they went 12-17) but another bad stretch left them at 25-46 on June 21st. Then they regained some respectability, as not completely wretched teams often do. A 13-6 run was interrupted by the all-star break, and after winning their first four out of the break they stood at 42-52. Not at all good, certainly. But least enough to... um... maybe... anyway! Then came the inevitable Death Spiral. They went 19-24 onward until September 7th (which is bad) and then finished the spiral by finishing 7-18 (which is extremely bad).

So for 2016 they decided enough with that inconsistency! Lets just lose all the time. Seriously. Of their top OPS+ guys with at least 300 plate appearances in 2015, four of the best five are gone. That's Gerardo Parra, Adam Lind, Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez for you folks keeping score at home. In their place are Aaron Hill (runner up for the Mike Morse award for weird careers) and swing+miss connoiseur Chris Carter. Ryan Braun is still around, but only because he's expensive and lots of people don't like him anymore on account of the PEDs thing from a few years ago.

To be honest, I completely underestimated how bad these guys could be in 2016. There's a strikeout heavy offense (Carter helps with that!), nothing in the way of good starting pitching (Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse pitched a ton of innings and were completely dreadful, proving that, um... old pitchers will break your heart) and not much in the way of young talent. Bizarrely enough, the 2016 Brewers could be a terrible team with a very good bullpen, which is about as useful as training wheels for a Tour de France cyclist. You don't need a luxury mini-grill when you're inbetween apartments, broke and don't even have a fridge. These Brewers are between apartments right now. They only won 68 games last year and they'd be really fortunate to even match that low total in 2016.


---Cincinnati Reds (2015: 64-98, 5th :( :( , *-114)---

Vottomatic For The People

Well there's no avoiding it any longer. The Cincinnati Reds are a bad ballclub right now and will almost surely finish in the basement of the NL Central. They have a decent chance of being the worst team in baseball. On paper, I genuinely like them a lot better than the Brewers. They actually have young intriguing pitching in Anthony DeScalfani, Rasiel Iglesias, John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan, one of the very best hitters in baseball still plays for them, and they're strong defensively up the middle with a healthy Cozart, Phillips and Billy Hamilton. They could be better than the Brewers, could be. But there's literally nothing else here, and the difference between the Brewers and Reds is that by trading almost everybody regardless of immediate dividends, the Reds have announced to the world "we're gonna suck for a while!", to which other MLB teams will respond "Sure! Can we play you next?" Again there are some interesting young names on this team, but barring a Cubs-like "everybody makes their debut and is awesome right away" thing, they won't sniff even 70 wins. The offense is a one man show now, and that one man prides himself on his ability to draw walks, a habit which the rest of the league will surely oblige. But speaking of that one man...

It should be no secret by now that I'm a big Joey Votto fan. I even emulated a Vottoesque "swing only for the one pitch you're really waiting for" approach for an entire season. I batted like .188 or something but did finish top five in on-base percentage. Sabermetrics baby! But in seriousness, 2015 was a big year for Votto. There was significant uncertainty about him coming into the season after injury claimed 100 games of his 2014 campaign, and when healthy he only hit .255 with six bombs in 250ish appearances. Votto put those questions to rest in 2015 with an OPS of exactly 1.000, 29 home runs (his most since 2011) and a completely bonkers second half that saw him put up a .362/.535/.617 line. At this point, you can make the argument that he's the greatest Canadian hitter to ever play in the majors. Let's take a quick and dirty look because hey, it's better than talking about why the Reds are bad.

Larry Walker (17 years: 1989-2005): .313/.400/.565 - 965 OPS, 141 OPS+ - 383 HR, 1311 RBI, 1355 R, 230 SB

This is the man to beat, and Walker was a genuinely great player for most of his career. If you go by overall value it's not close (yet?) as Walker was also a terrific outfielder while Votto is a good but not great first baseman. But as hitters, their numbers are very close, especially when you factor in the environment Walker's best years came in (Coors Field, offense crazy 90s). If you're an OPS+ guy, Votto has Walker easily beat (156 to 141) but that's with the benefit of Votto still being relatively in his prime without any declining seasons. Walker adds more value on the bases and with the long ball (big grain of salt there of course) while Votto gives you more in terms of durability, on base ability and of course playing in an era where pitchers with ERAs over five aren't allowed to roam wild and free. I'd personally give the edge to my man Joey here, only because of era, but it's very very close. It's easy to forget what a great player Larry Walker really was, and if not for all the injuries he might have knocked on the Hall of Fame doors.

Justin Morneau (13 years: 2003- ): .283/.349/.483 - 832 OPS, 121 OPS+ - 241 HR, 960 RBI

Yeah, sorry Justin but this isn't even close. Aside from some counting numbers (Morneau has 241 homers to Votto's 192, 960 RBIs to 633) the man from Richview Collegiate has him beat in every way, even on the bases! (59 SBs for Votto to Morneau's 5). He's still a fine player though and hopefully being released by the Rockies (ouch) allows him to recover from an elbow injury and help a contender down the stretch. As an aside, my favourite Justin Morneau story was about ten years ago. I was in the sweaty bleachers of the Dome with some friends and the Twins were in town. Morneau came to the plate and somebody nearby us yelled:
"Hey Justin! Go back to Canada!" which makes such little sense we still talk about it to this day.

Back to the Reds, where Joey Votto happens to play currently. They could be really disgustingly dreadful, like 2003 Tigers dreadful (where's Shane Halter these days?), or if their young arms impress, they could merely be bad, avoid 100 losses and/or last place. But they'll be bad. Probably for a while too. Do me a favour, Mark Shapiro. Heaven knows I don't ask for much. If you can't bring back Edwin because he wants 20+ million a year or whatever, go and save Joey from a terrible team and bring him home. Imagine the positive PR, the local boy comes home narrative. It'd be like when we signed Russell Martin, except better because Votto is a true and absolute beast. The Reds might even kick some money in to avoid paying him 24 million bucks when he's 39. Make it so, Shapiro, make it so, and maybe some of those fans who've hated you from the beginning might come around a bit, for what little that's worth.


And that's that, Mr. and Mrs. That's That. In next few days the NL East will be tackled, and then... the AL... or the league most of yall really care about.