MLB – National League Central Preview 2017

As the 2017 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time.

In this installment, we meander back over to the National League to check in on the defending champs and their competition in 2017.

1. Chicago Cubs 

2016 record: 103-58

So the Cubs finally went and did it, winning the World Series last season. Now, to get to the pesky business of trying to repeat. The top four of the rotation in Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and Lackey return, while the five spot looks like it will be a competition between a couple of lefties in Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson. Anderson comes to the Cubs after a successful-ish stint with the Dodgers, where he was good when he was actually on the mound. Gone is their closer Aroldis Chapman, having signed a mega-deal with the Yankees, so veteran Wade Davis will take over. A perfectly competent closer, he still has to be seen as a little bit of a downgrade from Chapman.

On the offensive front, the Cubs return all of their biggest guns, but former center fielder Dexter Fowler now dons a Cardinals uni, so young Albert Almora Jr. will take over. A former first round pick in 2012, Almora Jr. comes with the skills and pedigree to slide right into the Cubs line up, and it’s not as if they’ll be hurting for firepower. Kyle Schwarber returns, and it looks like he’ll probably be used in some sort of loose platoon with veteran Ben Zobrist in left field.  It would be a huge help if Jason Heyward remembers how to hit, but Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are studs, so they’re going to score a bunch of runs regardless.

Key player: OF Jason Heyward (1.5 WAR in 2016, down from career average of 5.1). He won a Gold Glove last year, which is nice, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for his bat work, which saw his oWAR actually land at a -0.3. He’s making $28 million this year, so the Cubs have to hope for a lot more bang for their buck. If he can find his prior form, the offense will be that much better for it.

2017 projection: 102-60, #1 seed in NL 

 

 2. St. Louis Cardinals

2016 record: 86-76

2016 was a bit of a down season for the Red Birds. St. Louis is one of the model organizations in major league baseball and they always compete, but they may have a little bit of an uphill battle once again in 2017 toward a playoff birth. The rotation will be lead by Adam Wainwright, but at age 34 and considering his down 2016, one must wonder if he’s beginning to run out of gas. Carlos Martinez will be the #2, at least in order, but he’s probably their best starter now days. Reliable if uninspiring vets Mike Leake and Lance Lynn will back them up, with the fifth spot in the rotation currently a bit in flux. Michael Wacha, who was great in 2015 but has been injury plagued since, is most likely to land the gig, but former closer Trevor Rosenthal and top (healthy) prospect Luke Weaver are in the mix too. Top prospect Alex Reyes would have been in the rotation, but he’ll now miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Korean vet Seung Hwan Oh will close out the proceedings for the Cards after going 19 for 23 in save opportunities last season.

The newly acquired Dexter Fowler will take over in center field this season, having been signed in free agency after he won a ring last year with the Cubs. He’ll be bracketed by Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, who are both solid if unspectacular ball players. Elsewhere in the field, the Cardinals have a bit of a battle for their third base job, which seems as though it will go to either Jedd Gyorko or Johnny Peralta. Gyorko lead St. Louis with 30 home runs last season, but struggles with getting on base without hitting the ball over the wall. Peralta is a fine ball player, but health issues in recent years have kept him off the field too much. In a line up that lacks power, I’d give the edge to Gyorko. The ever steady Yadier Molina will once again be behind the plate.

Key player: SP Adam Wainwright (4.62 ERA in 2016 was highest of career by almost a full run). At age 34, when a pitcher who’s faced more than his fair share of injuries starts to fall off, it’s not that unusual. But for the Cardinals to challenge for a playoff spot (let alone the division title), St. Louis needs for Wainwright to at least be close to the Waino of old.

2017 projection: 85-77

 

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

2016 record: 78-83

The ole’ Buccos. Basement dwellers for so long, they had a handful of nice years there before back sliding a bit in 2016. A myriad of issues lead to that downturn, but none more so than metric tons of injuries and disappointment among the starting rotation. Gerrit Cole, who should be the ace of this staff, missed significant time last year and wasn’t that good when he was pitching. Behind him, young Jameson Taillon was actually quite good in 2016 and looks to be a solid #2 in the rotation. He’ll be followed by veteran Ivan Nova, who was good enough in Pittsburgh in 2016 to warrant an extension. But what’s next? Chad Kuhl (5-4, 4.20 ERA in 16′)  looks like smart money for one spot. The other is anyone’s guess. Top prospect Tyler Glasnow has a shot at rounding out the rotation, but he’s yet to pin down control issues that have plagued him through his still-young career.

The offense has questions of it’s own. Andrew McCutchen, who has been the face of the organization since it’s resurgence, saw a dramatically down 2016 season that resulted in the Pirates trying like hell to trade him in the offseason. They failed, so he will return to PNC Park, but he’ll be moved to right field as his defensive skills in center have diminished greatly. Former right fielder Gregory Polanco has been shifted to left, while left fielder Starling Marte has moved to center. Cue the merry-go-round. Elsewhere on the diamond, young slugger Josh Bell looks as though he will be the (almost) every day first baseman. He can hit the ball a mile, so that’s fun. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang was arrested for a third DUI in the offseason in his native South Korea, so whether or not El’ Presidente Trump will allow him back into the US is uncertain at this juncture. If not, veteran David Freese figures to man the hot corner when he’s not spelling Bell at first against lefties.

Key player(s): RF Andrew McCutchen (-0.7 WAR in 2016). A -2.6 dWAR in center field necessitated a move to right field at PNC Park, which is small and playable due to a high wall and short porch. He’s only signed through this season with the Pirates holding a team option for 2018 that has a measly $1 million buy out… So his very future depends on a big rebound.

2017 projection: 82-80

4. Milwaukee Brewers

2016 record: 73-89

So… Who’s on this team again? Ryan Braun is still there, but looking elsewhere on the roster it’s sorta tough. Rickie Weeks is gone, Jonathan Lucroy is gone, Yovani Gallardo is long gone. 34 year old Junior Guerra looks to be their #1 starter, and he has just two seasons of experience in the majors. He was pretty good last year though, sporting a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts. The most interesting pitcher on the team is probably young right hander Zach Davies, who racked up 34 starts last year, posting a 14-9 record and a sub 4 ERA. Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta and Matt Garza round out an uninspired rotation. Garza used to be good. Now? Not so much.

Ryan Braun remains as the face of the Brewers organization, but 25 year old second basement Jonathan Villar is by far the club’s most interesting player. In his first season as a full time starter in the bigs, Villar hit 19 home runs and lead the NL with 62 steals. Not too shabby for a guy most people have never heard of. Young Dominican Domingo Santana looks to be the opening day starter in right field, and he has some intriguing potential as a prospect with decent power.

Key player: 2B Jonathan Villar (3.9 WAR in 2016). One of the lone bright spots on a club that seems a pretty long way from competing, Villar was excellent last season and could be a long term building block if the Brewers choose to build around him. While he did lead the NL in steals last season, he also lead the NL in times caught stealing, so that will be something he’ll want to work to improve.

2017 projection: 72-90

 

  5. Cincinnati Reds

2016 record: 68-94

Well, Homer Bailey would probably be the #1 starter on this team, but he’s kind of failing at that whole having a functioning elbow thing again. He’s only compiled eight starts over the past two seasons, and will miss the first 4-6 weeks of 2017 with another elbow procedure. In his place, Andrew DeSclafani is likely the opening day starter and he pitched pretty well in 2016, going 9-5 with a 3.28 ERA in 20 starts. Young lefty, and former first round pick, Brandon Finnegan will follow, along with Scott Feldman, Tim Adleman and another former first rounder, Robert Stephenson. Stephenson struggled in his first eight major league starts last season, but he has talent and potential. Overall, the pitching is going to be pretty bad.

Joey Votto still plays for the Reds, which is highly unfortunate for him. The man loves to take a walk and was overall quite good at the plate last year, but his defense took a nose dive to the tune of a -2.4 dWAR. Ouch. Not good in the NL where you can’t hide him at DH. Right fielder Adam Duvall, who participated in the 2016 Home Run Derby, hit 30 home runs last season and is probable to pace the team once more this year. Billy Hamilton, who runs really, really fast, returns to center field and the lead off spot, but gone is Cincinnati stalwart second baseman Brandon Phillips, who was recently traded to Atlanta. Jose Peraza (a former Atlanta farm hand), will now play second for the Reds. This team is going to lose a LOT of games… But hey, 2018 #1 overall pick maybe?

Key player: LF Adam Duvall (3.2 WAR in 2016). Duvall got the long ball stroke down, but the Reds play in an almost comically small ball park, and he otherwise hit .240. Duvall is a bit of a late bloomer, having not enjoyed any success until he was 27, so it will be interesting to see if he was a flash in the pan, or just a player who took a while to find his stroke. He’s not eligible for free agency until 2022, so the Reds have a while to figure it out.

2017 projection: 66-96 

If you missed our earlier installments, you can check them out below.

NL East HERE

AL East HERE

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