The moment that preview walked in I knew she was trouble, like eating seven Wrigley Dogs and not being able to find a bathroom...
Back to Tommy's Tavern...
We'd taken a quick break since our NL West breakdown: Magic Mel had gone to borrow a sewing kit from the bar as a tear along his sleeve had been dipping in his drink, Mr. Familiar smoked a cigar and made a smokey case why Harold Baines was a Hall of Famer. Ashbury H still kept silent, though words seemed aching to bust outta him like a dozen squirrels thrown into a glass box. At last everyone returned to the table and we resumed.
'Okay fellas. NL Central. I'll leave it up to Northsider here to take the lead. Just nobody let him order the Triple Tavern Burger okay? I'd like to get outta here before 2019.'
Upon finishing his introduction Mr. Familiar shooed away the waitress who was coming around for a food order. With a sigh, the pleasantly plump Northsider began:
'Hrrrph. Well gentlemen, for the last three years the basement of the Central has been dominated by the pathetic Cincinnati Reds...'
A small piece of me died as he said those words, despite their truth.
'...but this is the year that changes. Because the basement will have a new champion this year, the Pittsburgh Pirates. A crew of ballplayers sailing the league that will surely not strike terror into the hearts of opponents.'
'It's hard to argue otherwise!' I chipped in, perhaps too eagerly. 'I mean, you know, with all the trades they've made. McCutchen gone, Gerrit Cole gone. Your best hitter and your best starting pitcher. They only won 75 games last year, it's hard to imagine them winning more.'
'Don't think thems gonna be a true contender, sure, but I think they'll surprise.' Mr. Familiar countered, giving me a questionable glance. 'They'll struggle to score runs, but even with McCutchen they still would've anyways. Plus Corey Dickerson and a resurgent Starling Marte could replace most of that production. Pitching wise they were middle of the pack, and ditching Cole doesn't change that much. Maybe they get good full seasons out of Jameson Taillon or Tyler Glasnow if he finds the strike zone better. Joe Musgrove I figure will get more of a shot in the rotation here than he would've on them loaded Astros. Throw in some Searage magic with the pen and don't think they finish last.'
'Damn it...' I muttered.
'Terrific and delicious points both of you.' Northsider commented. 'Insightful and savoury, like a delicate pasty over top an ice cream dessert and oh Marcy? Marcy? Can I order a double fudge sundae with extra whipped cream and...'
'Northy!' Mr. Familiar interrupted, shooing the waitress away again. 'Give your prediction here, c'mon.'
Northsider patted his belly, heard a disagreeable rumble from within and sighed. 'Harrrmh, gentlemen. I think 72 wins sounds right. As for finishing last, lets talk about the Reds first. They have some steady hitters in that lineup. Pitching seems to be a problem though.'
'Yeah. And the few good pitchers they have always get hurt.' I nodded. 'Anthony DeScalfani didn't pitch at all last year and he's already injured again. Same with Brandon Finnegan, their promising left-hander they got in the Cueto trade. Homer Bailey finally got healthy in the second half, for the first time in two seasons, but then pitched completely horribly so... he's a huge wildcard. And they had a lot of guys that are just plain bad. Cody Reed, Tim Adelman, Rookie Davis etc. Pretty dreadful stuff.'
'Yeah.' Mr. Familiar agreed. 'But they're interesting cause they got some nice bats. Scott Schebler's got some pop, Adam Duvall, Eugenio Suarez...'
'They traded away Alfredo Simon after his one okay season and got Suarez from the Tigers.' I said with a tiny baseline of pride. 'That's a nice steal deal.'
'Says a bit about the Tigers as well, ha ha. 'I chuckled. 'Prospect wise, Nick Senzel is a high pick, third base prospect they have down in AA. I figure that's why they were happy letting Zack Cozart leave. Wait for Senzel to hopefully appear later in the summer and move Suarez there. Amir Garrett is another guy, left-hander with great stuff but struggled big time in his debut last year. Then there's Hunter Greene, last year's #2 pick that wants to pitch and play the field when he's not pitching. The Reds let him do it last year in the low minors and he struggled at both.'
'Kid's like seventeen though right? Plenty of time for him to figure out at least one side of the baseball.' Mr. Familiar shrugged.
'Certainly some promising scents here, but I don't think the pie is quite ready for the windowsill yet.' Northsider said aloud, licking his lips. 'But I'll say 72 wins here also, tied with the Pirates at the bottom. If the Buccos are like a blueberry pie with not enough filling, then the Reds are a lemon meraguine pie where the cream is still being whipped. Make sense to everyone?'
None of us replied or even nodded. Even Sandlot's manic smile faded a bit.
'Hmmph. Well lets move on.' Northsider grumbled. 'Third place here in my Central is a very tough call. Thoughts?'
'I think the Cardinals find their way into third place.' Magic Mel replied. 'They had some out of nowhere offensive miracles last year that I don't see repeating themselves.'
'Them outfielders definitely leave you with a lots of questions.' Mr. Familiar nodded. 'Is Pham for real? Will Dexter Fowler need to move out of center into a corner? Does Marcell Ozuna have another 40 home run season in him or was that flukey? Plus remember they traded away guys like Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to make clear space, so them three guys are their main guys now.'
'I think the pitching situation will be big also.' I added, nibbling on a lemon garnish.' The Adam Wainwright situation is worrying, but they still have Carlos Martinez who's really become an elite starter. They're hoping Wacha bounces back a bit, since he was pretty ordinary in 2017. Then they've got Luke Weaver who looked really good last summer, the electric Alex Reyes once he returns from TJ soon, and that guy they brought back from Japan... Mikolas I think.'
'Mike Mikolas.' Magic Mel informed me. 'Sure, I agree to a point you can never discount the Cardinals' ability to summon unexpected elite pitching from the heavens above, but I wonder if this time they're asking for a bit too much. And I am one who believes strongly in miracles of course.'
'Your thoughts on the Padres sure proved that.' Mr. Familiar remarked.
'Harrmmmph. I strongly say that the health of Yadier Molina is the crucial component of their season, since he's such a big part of that pitching equation.' Said Northsider. 'Losing Lance Lynn and those steady innings he gave them, plus Wainwright's troubles really puts the pressure on the kids beyond Martinez and Wacha. So Yadier is really gonna have his work cut out for him, like a rare steak off the grill. I'm with Mel though, third place and 80 wins seems the safe bet, but I'm sure they'll be a tenderloin pain to play against regardless. All right second place, fellas! Guess we're looking at the Brewers again here.'
'They definitely surprised.' Mr. Familiar began. 'And on paper they've improved. But how much of that there 2017 success was a fluke? Lots of starting pitchers I never heard of before...'
'Older starting pitchers too.' Magic Mel added. 'Chase Anderson, Brent Suter, Jimmy Nelson all in their late 20s having career seasons.'
'Isn't Brent Suter a hockey player?'
Everyone glared at me after my comment with irritation, unsettling yet amusing. Only Sandlot laughed, though I couldn't disregard the possibility that it was because she'd just decided to save me for last.
'Anyhow, aside from them mystery men of their staff, biggest question is how Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich actually improve this team.' Mr. Familiar proposed.
'Yup that's a big meatball, no question.' Northsider nodded. 'And now you've got too many productive guys without enough spots. Assume Cain in center, you would assume, Yelich in left. Then there's Domingo Santana who broke out in 2017 with a big 30 homer, .875 OPS year in right field, and fighting his best-before-date Ryan Braun who's gotta play somewhere, then another 30 homer bat in Eric Thames and solid platoon stick Jesus Aguilar beside him. It's a good pizza to have, until you realize the sauce on the wall and see you've still got a big offensive hole at second base. A hole possibly so big that Braun volunteered to play there.'
'Geezus.' I remarked. 'That's a hilariously horrifying thought.'
'If Jonathan Villar gives ya league average stuff, there's a devastating lineup no question.' Northsider said. 'Terrific depth, good balance of power, speed with both lefties and righties. Travis Shaw really looks like the mozza ball the Red Sox let get away. If their pitching repeats its 2017 success, I could see them challenging the Cubs to the end. But I'll go with 91 wins and the top NL Wildcard. And speaking of the Cubs!'
'Here we go...' Mr. Familiar grumbled.
'Gentlemen, the Wrigley Dogs will be howling on Addison this summer, extra spicy and double the slaw. Because the Cubbies are going back to the World Series and winning it all again!'
Northsider banged his mug of beer so hard against the tabletop that the reverberation made my left hand go numb.
'Feast on the potential sight of Schwarber, Ian Happ, Kris Bryant, Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez hitting fried potato after fried potato over the ivy!' He continued, banging the mug again but I lifted my hand this time. 'The proof is in the pudding, gentlemen. Hmmmhmmph! They're already playoff tested, and if not for that Dodgers juggernaut they'd be the two time defending NL champions at least. They stole Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow away and now L.A. is weaker, the Cubs are stronger.'
'It's hard to pick a specific weakness on paper, for sure.' I said, stroking my chin as though to think but thoughts were not arriving.
'I wonder about rotation depth.' Mr. Familiar commented. 'The lead five of Darvish, Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood is mighty impressive sure, but beyond that? If two of those guys go down around the same time... trouble.'
'That would be a sour fruit, sure. But Mike Montgomery is still around to spot start if need be.' Northsider replied. 'As is Eddie Butler who filled in last summer also. Beyond that it would take some serious catastrophe for them to have to go deeper, the kind of catastrophes that were so common before sweet saint Zobrist poked that double down the left field line in Game Seven. Now we create the danger, not the other way around.'
'Um, sure...' I shrugged. 'Speaking of creating more danger, is this the year Addison Russell's bat really breaks out? I mean we know he's got serious pop he hasn't consistently shown yet, he's still pretty young at 24... or do they really even need him to bust out?'
'Not really.' Northsider answered. 'Like a pancake dinner, their lineup is already pretty stacked anyway. It's how they get away with Jason Heyward not providing much thump either. Addy could use a full season of health if that breakout is gonna happen, he's missed some games last year and that messed him up. There's the only thing that could stop the Cubbies, really. Health.'
'Sure.' Magic Mel grumbled, shaking his head. 'They're blessed and loaded.'
'Loaded with cheese. But all sorts of cheese...' Northsider began. 'Cheddar, Mozza, Guyere, Gouda, Gorgonzola, Ricotta, Feta...'
'Enough with the food talk!' Mr. Familiar demanded. 'Give us a win total already. And where did those nachos come from?'
'Nevermmphh youb mind.' Northsider insisted, his mouth already impressively filled with food. '103 wins, NL Central crown, NL Pennant and the World Series! Arrrrummmnumnum num.'
'Great stuff. All right lets take another break. I'm leaving the table for another smoke before I never want to eat again.'
Chicago Cubs -- 103-59
Milwaukee Brewers -- 91-71 (WC)
St. Louis Cardinals -- 80-82
Pittsburgh Pirates -- 72-90
Cincinnati Reds -- 72-90
(Much like the last discussion, I secretly kept my own notes under the table. Once I picked off the bits of food that had flown off from Northsider's nacho plate, here's what I'd come up with:)
Reds: Help is on the way but they're probably still a year or two away from relevance, so in the meantime I suggest somebody invent an app within MLB.tv that automatically notifies you when Joey Votto is about to bat. It is an absolute delight. The Reds could surprise some people if they can somehow pull maybe half a dozen decent pitchers out of the dark side of the moon, so don't hold your breath. Lots of 10-8 losses.
Pirates: Like mentioned earlier, the opposite problem of Cincinnati. Lots of nice pitching pieces, very uninspiring offense. Could be league average/.500ish team with simultaneous breakout years from Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell etc. Lots of 3-2 losses. I think they've given up a bit too much star power.
Cardinals: Somebody almost nobody has ever heard of is going to appear and have an incredible season for these guys. I do worry though that they're really relying on one of those guys (Tommy Pham) to do it again this year. Plus Yadi and Matt Carpenter ain't getting any younger. But they've got young pitching for days and again, the Redbirds always seem to turn young arms into productive big leaguers.
Brewers: Speaking of guys very few people have heard of, closer Corey Knebel is a sort of an NL version of Dellin Betances. Tons of strikeouts, tons of walks, not many base hits. He's a big part of an underrated Brewers pitching staff. I like them as a sleeper playoff team though I bet we'll be seeing a trade from the outfielding surplus (for a second baseman?) sometime in a couple months. Cain and Yelich will be interesting to follow as big additions with big expectations, although not really in a bigger market. Really wish they'd go back to some modernized form of their 80s uniforms with the glove "M"
Cubs: They're still young, they're fun, and they're just so damn good. Ian Happ as a bench luxury is just insanity. Their 2017 W-L record is also relatively unimpressive until you remember they were two games under .500 going into the all-star break. They lose a bit of starting depth with Lackey and Arrieta gone, Jon Lester is getting older and less effective it seems and the bullpen is good but not great. Here's some rooting for Brandon Morrow to take that closer's role and roll with it.
Chicago Cubs -- 97-65
Milwaukee Brewers -- 93-69 (1st WC)
St. Louis Cardinals -- 84-78
Cincinnati Reds -- 75-87
Pittsburgh Pirates -- 70-92
Next time it's the NL East. Hopefully the Nationals haven't already run away with it by then.