The battle for second place...
We're back with more divisional preview things! This time we shift over
to the NL Central, which boasts the defending World Series champions for
2017. Besides those guys, there are some other interesting teams
lurking around, but we have to start with those guys. Because they are
the champs. The lovable, lovable champs.
Chicago Cubs (2016: 103-58)
We Can Be Heroes
In the history of professional baseball, has there ever been a team that could potentially do no wrong to their fans than the 2017 Chicago Cubs? I mean sure, if the whole team was somehow surprisingly implicated in some bizarre freakish criminal activity, then that would obviously dim the lustre (please don't let that happen. The world is messed up enough right now). But in actual baseball terms, this is a team that could suffer the indignity of a 40 game losing streak during the season, and it would be forgiven because of the magic that happened one autumn night in Cleveland.
That's really probably not going to happen though. This is a really fun, young team with exciting players and a bucket full of talent. Losing Dexter Fowler is gonna hurt (at least the 2016 version of Fowler) as will the retirement of lovable baseball grandpa David Ross, plus there was a moronic gunslinger named Chapman who gave them some good relief innings down the stretch. But they've filled those holes with solid players: Jon Jay is not quite the caliber of Fowler but he's a solid option on a team loaded with outfielders, Wade Davis is aboard to replace Chapman (and if he's healthy... good lord), and human lottery ticket Brett Anderson is also around to add some rotation depth. There's a solid chance this isn't the juggernaut squad we saw in 2016, since they don't seem quite as deep and one of these amazing young players surely has to have a hiccup at some point. Even with those nibbling weaknesses though, they're far and above the best team in the division and they'll win it easily again.
Prediction -- 98-64, NL Central Crown
St. Louis Cardinals (2016: 86-76)
The Famous Unknowns
The Redbirds have some weird contracts. They stole Dexter Fowler away from the Cubs for a ton of cash, they're gonna pay Mike Leake over 60 million more bucks to do Mike Leake things (he's basically if Casey Janssen had been slightly better as a starter and got to face opposing pitchers) and they gave Brett Cecil a four year commitment. It's a strange payroll setup where most of the highest paid players are the complementary pieces, while the core of the team is cheap and controllable. Guys like Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Michael Wacha, Seung-hwan Oh and Greg Garcia will all earn the MLB minimum in 2017 while figuring to be prominent pieces on this squad for the upcoming season.
This was a quality team in 2016 that perhaps should have been much stronger (not "challenge the Cubs" strong, but that next level). So what went wrong... ish? Primarily it was three important pieces all simultaneously suffering down years: starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and then-closer Trevor Rosenthal. Wacha, a 17 game winner in 2015, seems to have had severe difficulty limiting extra base hits last season. He allowed 15 home runs in 138 innings, which isn't great but not horrible, but he allowed 41(!) doubles in that span, which is definitely horrible. Wacha has only allowed 103 doubles in his career, meaning nearly 40 percent of them came just last season. As such, opponents slugged .459 off Wacha in 2016, compared with a career .385 mark (which includes 2016).
Rosenthal perhaps isn't as much of a concern for the 2017 Cardinals, considering that first he was more on the "good" than "elite" side of relievers (lots of free passes), and the work Seung-hwan Oh did in Rosenthal's absence/ineffectiveness is arguably more impressive than anything he has done in his career thus far anyhow. Wainwright's 2016, however, is much more of a worrisome eyebrow raiser. The lowdown on Wainwright of course has always been when he's healthy, he's a top starter in the National League. He's like Garfield on lasagna with innings, his curveball is a tiny notch below the King Kershaw Division of Curveballs, all while being completely immune to the home run ball. His weakness has always been a roughly 1 in 4 chance that he's gonna miss most of the season by injury. Well 2016 was truly the first bad season of Wainwright's MLB career: he allowed two more extra hits per nine innings than usual (and led the NL in hits allowed), also led the senior circuit in earned runs allowed, and his vaccine against home runs wore off a bit (1.0/9 instead of 0.6 in his career). Now sure, even great pitchers have bad years, but Wainwright will be 35 for most of this season (turning 36 in August) and he wouldn't be the first star starting pitcher to lose some or perhaps all effectiveness in his mid-30s for whatever reason. But I hope that isn't the case here. I love that curveball.
It's hard to predict what will happen in St. Louis for 2017. I mean, these guys just churn out quality unknown big leaguer after quality unknown big leaguer, it's hard to keep track. If Wacha and Wainwright bounce back with solid years, mixed in with that usual Cardinals magic, they'll be in the playoff hunt to the end. If everything goes completely right they could, maybe give the Cubs a scare for the title. A little scare.
Prediction -- 92-70, 2nd NL Central *Wildcard*
Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Kodos
The Ray Searage Magic took a bit of a vacation in 2016: Jeff Locke, Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano combined for about 350 very bad innings, an 14 start flyer on Ryan Vogelsong turned out to be junk mail, while young ace Gerrit Cole battled injuries and a truly dreadful August (1-3, 6.08, 1.875 WHIP). Pittsburgh was able to remain a respectable outfit during the season thanks to some unexpected offense from the likes of Matt Joyce (.866 OPS in 293 PAs) and Sean Rodriguez (18 HRs and a .510 slg% in 342 PAs. Seriously), both of whom now play for other teams.
Another important bat for this team is Korean import Jung Ho Kang, though his presence on the Buccos for the upcoming season is also questionable for a very different reason. In December, Kang crashed his car into a guardrail in his home country and was charged with a DUI, his third over there (that's... definitely not good man). While the case is being processed, Kang has been unable to obtain a travel visa to return to the United States and join his team, making it increasingly unlikely he'll be in the black and gold for opening day and perhaps significantly longer than that.
Overall, even with the potential absence of Kang (who led the 2016 Pirate regulars in OPS+ with 128) there are the makings of a solid team in here. They have a truly dynamic outfield trio of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen, all of whom provide defense, plus speed and solid pop. McCutchen is coming off a much publicized down season at the plate in 2016 and isn't quite the defender he once was, but Pittsburgh is optimistic his bat will rebound and that a move to an outfield corner can better hide his declining glove. At least, Pittsburgh is optimistic about these things because they weren't able to trade him in the offseason, which was also much publicized. They also have a big-time outfield prospect in Austin Meadows knocking on the door, suggesting Cutch's days might be numbered at PNC Park. The big question for the Pirates though, as is the big question for most MLB teams, is starting pitching. Gerrit Cole is looking to return to Cy Young contending form, Jameson Taillon is an intriguing young pitcher (and arguably was their best starter in 2016), Ivan Nova was given a bundle of cash in the hopes he and Searage can turn his promise into something, while Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, Chad Kuhl and Juan Nicasio will battle for the final two rotation spots. If most of this goes right, they could sniff around for a wildcard spot, but there's a lot of variance here. I think all together they'll be better in 2017, but only slightly.
Prediction -- 81-81, 3rd NL Central
Cincinnati Reds (2016: 68-94)
You heard it here first. The 2017 Reds will not finish last in the National League Central. Will they actually be a good, respectable major league team? Heavens no. The starting rotation is a complete mess of struggling youngsters/retreads beyond Brandon Finnegan and the possibly injured Anthony DeSclafani, catcher Devin Mesoraco has played 39 games combined the past two seasons, Billy Hamilton is about as good a player as one can be with a career 73 OPS+ (also about as visually exciting as such a player can be), while the Homer Bailey contract is playing out about as well as Batman's first fight with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (Bailey looks a damn lot like Christian Bale, if you're wondering about the reference).
But there are some young pieces beginning to emerge. Adam Duvall came out of Nowhere Land and instead of laying down his nowhere plans for nobody, smashed 33 homers and drove in 103, both of which led the team. His slash line was rather Joe Carter-esque (.244/.297/.498), but he grades as a positive defender in left-field and if he keeps up anything resembling that level of production I'm sure the Reds will take it. Jose Peraza is another young (22) player Cincinnati picked up from Chicago in the Todd Frazier deal. Peraza turned in a productive 72 games for the 2016 Reds, slashing .324/.352/.411 (aided by a .364 BaBIP) while swiping 21 bases. With Brandon Phillips traded (finally) to Atlanta and Zack Cozart still around, Peraza figures to be in the second base equation for Cincinnati. In the minors, outfielder Jesse Winker may emerge to take the right-field job at some point in 2017, lefty Amir Garrett is close after splitting 2016 between AA and AAA with equal measures of success, and third baseman Nick Senzel (the #2 pick of the 2016 Draft) is primed to move up quickly through the system this summer.
Also a former Blue Jays alert: this offseason the Reds signed both Drew Storen and Scott Feldman to big league deals, cornering the market on well-known-but-grotesquely-disappointing relievers who pitched for Toronto in 2016 (where's Jesse Chavez damnit?). In the hopefully-a-future-Blue-Jay category, Joey Votto still plays for Cincinnati. He's still awesome, still one of the most fun at-bats to watch in all of baseball (He. Just. Doesn't. Chase.) and the intricately unique way he approaches his craft is both admirable and amusing. Look up some Votto stories if you aren't aware.
As for this squad, they won't be good. But I think signs of hope are starting to emerge. If Duvall is for real, Cozart and Mesoraco can play something close to a full season, Eugenio Suarez rediscovers whatever magic spell he was using in the first half, and a young starter like Jake Lamb or Cody Reed can provide something, this could end up being... okay. It's a tough division and these guys are still a few years away if the kids actually turn into something. But they won't finish last!
Prediction -- 74-88, 4th NL Central
Milwaukee Brewers (2016: 73-89)
Look, the reality here is that Milwaukee has traded away most of their interesting players during the past little while. The Jean Segura trade looks like a disaster thanks to Professor Hindsight, Jonathan Lucroy and Tyler Thornburg and Jeremy Jeffress and Chris Carter are all gone, all while Matt Garza still exists to pitch terrible innings, earn a dozen million bucks and say dumb things. I mean, seeing what Eric Thames can do in his return from Korea should be cool (I'm so pulling for this to work out), Jonathan Villar had a really nice season out of nowhere and looks good at the WBC so far, and I guess if you're into Ryan Braun doing Ryan Braun things then you can squeeze out some enjoyment from this team. But I'm not one of those people. Maybe if they changed their jerseys back into something resembling their 80s duds... because their uniforms now are damn lame. The slanted numbers, the thin letter fonts, the bland whatever-shade-of-whatever colour they wear. It really makes no impression, which is how I also feel about this team. They won't even be bad enough to be interesting.
Prediction -- 69-93, 5th NL Central
That's it for now. I'll catch yall later in the NL East sometime... soon.