The National League Central is the Jessica Rabbit of divisions: top-heavy. The Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates all look like sure contenders for the division title and both wild card spots. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Reds are both in various stages of rebuild and will mostly battle it out for 2017 draft position.
Chicago Cubs (2015 record: 97-65, 3rd NL Central, 2nd Wild Card)
Manager: Joe Maddon
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
RF Jason Heyward (Note: His middle name is “Alias”!)
2B Ben Zobrist
3B Kris Bryant
CL: Hector Rondon
Cubs GM Theo Epstein has done it again. He has taken a team that has a tragic history of failure and turned it around to be the class of the division, if not all of baseball. The Cubs have a well-balanced roster of youth and experience. Maddon, the man at the helm, is coming off yet another Manager of the Year award and is regarded as one of the smartest men in that position.
The rotation boasts reigning NL Cy Young award winner Arrieta and consistent veteran Lester. Now you can add another veteran in John Lackey, who comes over from the Cardinals via free agency. People forget about Lackey, but that’s who he is: he sneaks up on you and can control the pace of the game. Hammel and Hendricks provide solid depth at the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Warren, acquired in the Starlin Castro deal with the Yankees, can start should someone go down with injury.
In the bullpen, Rondon will anchor the closer spot. He saved 30 games in 2015 and showed some good control while compiling 8.8K/9 IP. Setting him up will be some power arms in Strop and Wood. Former starter Cahill can provide some long relief inning if needed. Warren can also fit in as a swing man out of the ‘pen.
Offensive is where a lot of things should click for the Cubs. First off, they have Schwarber for a full season and they will play him in LF in order to get his bat in there every day. Fowler resigned with the Cubs at the last minute and he has always been a good glove/okay bat type of player. He may share time with Jorge Soler out there. Free agent signee Heyward joins an already-stacked lineup and will more than likely hit near the top of the order to set up Rizzo-Bryant-Schwarber, so expect a lot of early runs on the board this season. Heyward also brings excellent defense to Wrigley’s right field.
Around the horn, Rizzo anchors first base, coming off his best season to date that saw him hit 30+ home runs and drive in over 100 runs. Second baseman Zobrist, another key free agent acquisition, will provide solid defense and contact at the plate. Bryant, the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, looks to improve on an already impressive first season and is the cornerstone of the lineup at third. Shortstop Russell is a young player with a bright future, and the trade of Castro will provide Russell the opportunity to shine. Behind the plate, Montero is a solid defender with decent power and will be backed up by another veteran in David Ross.
Maddon is an expert in managing young players, as shown during his time in Tampa Bay. He has the ability to get them to focus on the bigger picture and can get them to play some small ball when needed. He may not need to do that much this season, however, as the Cubs have a lineup that can blow games open early.
Prediction: First-place in the NL Central, headed to the World Series.
St. Louis Cardinals (2015: 100-62, 1st place)
Manager: Mike Matheny
Projected Opening Day lineup:
2B Kolten Wong
CL: Trevor Rosenthal
Jordan Walden (Note: Will begin season on DL.)
The Cardinals were the winningest team in MLB last season, reaching the 100-win plateau. This did not translate into post-season success however, as the Cubs steamrolled past them into the NLCS. The Cards may need to get used to looking up at the Cubs for the next several seasons. The NL Central is expected to be a three-team dogfight this season, and the Cards just may be on the short end of the stick come October. With so much top-level competition in the National League, a lot of things need to go right in order for the Cards to make the playoffs once again.
The team leader, Molina looks like he has a chance of making the Opening Day roster, but not before a thumb injury that derailed his 2015 season, and then required multiple surgeries to repair, gave him a late start to spring training. His batting average has always been good for a catcher, but age and injuries are starting to catch up to him. He is still the best defensive catcher in the game, however. Brayan Pena will be backing him up, and could be relegate to starter if Molina has issues with the thumb.*
*Oddly enough, Pena will start the year on DL, while Molina is started his 12th Opening Day in a row earlier this week.
At first base, we’re expected to see Moss and Adams platoon, which is definitely different because they are both left handed hitters. Adams has the advantage against righties with Moss proving better against lefties. Both have 20-homer power, so whichever of them gets hot out of the gate will get the bulk of the playing time.
Wong opens as the everyday second basemen. Wong just signed a five-year extension, so there is some confidence from the Cardinals that Wong is their guy at that position for a while. He offers some pop and speed from the left side, but he needs to fill in the holes that can be found in his glove once in a while, as he committed 17 errors in 2015.
Carpenter mans the hot corner and found a power stroke in 2015, swatting 28 homers. The average dipped to .272, but he walks a lot and that OPS looks good enough to ignore the dip in average. Carpenter’s defense at third is solid, if not Gold Glove material.
Peralta would have opened the season at shortstop, but he came down with a thumb injury that looks like it will keep him out until at least the All-Star break. Gyorko may be the leading candidate to replace him, as late spring add Ruben Tejada is sidelined as well. Gyorko came over from the Padres in the off-season, and brings double-digit home run power, but questionable contact as he strikes out often. Greg Garcia is another option off the bench for second and short.
Holliday hopes to stay healthy in 2016 so he can patrol left field. Holliday was limited to 73 games in 2015, so he is a key player to watch as far as health is concerned. Grichuk will open the season in center, as in 103 games in 2015, he had an OPS of .877, however he struck out 110 times. Thomas Pham stands to see some time in center also, especially if Grichuk struggles with contact. Piscotty will play a full season in right field, since he was impressive after his July call-up and rode his success well into the stretch run, helping the Cards win the division.
In the rotation, Wainwright returns to claim his number one slot, coming off a 2015 season that was derailed early due to an Achilles injury. This is another key player for the Cardinals that needs to remain healthy if they are going to compete. Free agent grab Leake joins the rotation and he will bring his usual 12 W’s with an ERA around 3.50. Not exactly worthy of 5 years/ $ 80-million, but that’s where the market is at. Wacha won 17 games in 2015, and should be more durable down the stretch than he was last season, when he faded miserably. Garcia has had health issues his entire career, but if he can stay healthy in 2016, he could easily be the number two guy on this staff. Finally, Martinez holds down the fifth spot, and with his stuff, you can say that the Cards have a pretty stacked rotation. Martinez has a fastball that clocks in around 95 and has command issues from time to time.
In the bullpen, Rosenthal will be the closer for the 2016 Cardinals. Saving 48-of-51 in 2015, Rosenthal is in the discussion for the game’s best current closer. The only thing holding him back is not relying on secondary pitches more often. However, because of his high K rate, his job is secure. Maness will set him up. Maness is coming off a 2015 that saw his numbers inflate, which could be due to the 76 appearances he made. Broxton is a right-handed option for days when Rosenthal is unavailable. After a rough start with the Brewers, he smoothed out nicely as a member of the Cards’ bullpen. Lyons can be a swingman for the Cards. Siegrist is one of the best left-handed set-up men in the game, and should continue to miss bats late in close contests. Walden will also get a chance to make the team out of the bullpen, and recent Korean signee Seung-Hwan Oh also factors in here.
The Cardinals have all the pieces to contend in 2016. They lost Heyward and Lackey, two key components to the 2015 team, to the rival Cubs but have a solid mix of youth and experience to compete for the division. Several guys need to stay healthy, and if they do, the Cardinals could surprise and clinch a playoff spot. It’s going to be tight in this division.
Prediction: Second place in the NL Central, barely missing a playoff berth.
Pittsburgh Pirates (2015: 98-64, 2nd place, Wild Card)
Manager: Clint Hurdle
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
1B John Jaso
SS Jordy Mercer
CL: Mark Melancon
For the last two seasons, the Pirates have been in the Wild Card Game and for the last two seasons, the Pirates have been shut out by an ace in the Wild Card Game. This season, the Pirates will make a push for the playoffs once again, but in a stacked division like the NL Central, it won’t be easy. The Cubs made all the necessary improvements to overtake the Bucs, and the Cardinals still have enough roster talent to hold the Pirates at bay.
Cervelli was a surprise behind the plate in 2015. Leading the team with a .295 batting average and getting on base well (.370 OBP) was a welcome sight after the departure of Russell Martin. His defense isn’t too shabby either, along with his ability to carry the pitching staff. Chris Stewart backs him up.
The 2016 season will start with a righty/lefty platoon at first base, with Morse covering the right side and Jaso on the left. Prospect Josh Bell waits in the wings, and he may see a call-up before the season ends.
The late-2015 injury to third baseman Kang scrambled the rest of the infield a bit, but last year’s utility man Harrison will hold down second, while late spring signee Freese will man third until Kang returns. At that point, Freese could see time at both infield corners.
Mercer will open the season at shortstop. His glove is enough to keep him in there every day until Kang returns and shuffles everybody around. His lack of contact could make him the odd man out when everyone is healthy.
The Pirates outfield is on the cusp of being the best in all of baseball. Marte will be in left, where he had a solid 2015 season with the bat and on the bases. Thirty stolen bases led the team and he makes improvements in his contact rate every season. Perennial MVP candidate McCutchen patrols center and his Gold Glove is without question. After a slow start to 2015, he ended the year hitting .292 with 23 home runs and 96 RBI. Look for more of the same this season. In right field, young Polanco has the tools to be a force in the NL. He stole 27 bases last season, so the speed is there. The power will come as he makes improvements at the plate.
The rotation is an area of concern for the Pirates. Cole and Lirano offer the team a solid one-two punch out of the gate. Coming over from the Mets, Niese could benefit from a solid Pirates defense, but his outs don’t come from missing opposing bats. Vogelsong comes over from the Giants, after a 2015 that saw him demoted to the bullpen for a span. Lefty Locke rounds out the rotation with numbers that get worse every season. If prospects Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon are ready, Locke may be headed out of town.
Speaking of the bullpen, the Pirates had one of the best in MLB last year, headed by Melancon, who saved 51 of 53 games all without the benefit of a blazing fastball to strike guys out. Lefty setup man Watson had 41 holds in 2015 with a WHIP of 0.96. This made him one of the better short set-up men in the game last season. Nicasio will join the ‘pen as the Pirates hope to turn him into a right-handed version of Watson.* Hughes is a groundball specialist who figures to come in late in the game when a double play may be needed. Feliz and Caminero round out the bullpen for the Pirates, which figures to be tough once again in 2016.
*Late spring word was that Nicasio made the Bucs’ rotation instead of Vogelsong.
The Pirates have question marks at first base, while they wait for Bell to be ready and they have gaps in the rotation, but they have prospects waiting there as well. Kang’s rehab timetable is also very important.
Prediction: Third place in the NL Central, as the Pirates may miss the playoffs this season, but they will definitely be will prepared for more success down the road.
Milwaukee Brewers (2015: 68-94, 4th place)
Manager: Craig Counsell
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
LF Ryan Braun
1B Chris Carter
3B Aaron Hill
CF Keon Broxton
CL: Will Smith (Note: Will start the season on the DL; Jeffress gets first crack at closing.)
The Brewers were looking good up until September of 2014, where they were leading the NL Central. Then they hit a wall and fell out of contention, missed the playoffs and spent all of 2015 recovering from the shock. The front office traded away veterans for prospects and decided to rebuild. Well, it’s a long road to recovery for this team, and they are in the wrong division. This year appears to be another long season for the Brewers as they will battle the Reds to stay out of the basement.
Lucroy needs to rebound from an injury-riddled 2015 that saw him fracture a toe and deal with concussion issues, playing in just 103 games. He may be on the trading block come deadline time, if not sooner. Martin Maldonado is the back-up option.
Carter joins the Brewers to play first base after Milwaukee signed him to a 1-year deal in the hope that he can rebound from a .199 batting average with the Astros in 2015. He won’t hit for a high average anyway, but in Miller Park, he should be a threat for 25-30 home runs. The Brewers don’t have many other options at this position.
Gennett gets the nod at second base. He hits for an okay average, but cannot hit lefties. He has little to no power and very little speed. He brings a good glove to the table, however.
Hill will open the season at third base. He came over from Arizona with a big contract and has seen his stock drop in recent seasons. Hitting in Miller Park may help Hill bounce back to the double-digit home run hitter he was previously.
Villar steps in to play shortstop for the traded Jean Segura (who went to Arizona). Villar has some speed and may find himself hitting at the top of the order. Regardless, he’s just keeping this spot warm for top prospect Orlando Arcia.
Plenty of questions in the outfield for the Brewers. There is no question that Braun opens in left, however. Braun can still be a 20-20 guy, but needs to show he is recovered from back surgery during the offseason. He will not have much protection around him so there may be plenty of times where he won’t get anything to hit. Santana comes over from the Astros and he will get a look in right. He has the potential to be decent power bat in the middle of the order, but needs to improve his contact rate first, as he struck out 63 times in 52 games in 2015. Speedster Broxton gets the early nod in center field, with Kirk Nieuwenhuis the first option off the bench.
The rotation is anchored by veteran Garza, who had a horrible 2015, going 6-14 with a 5.63 ERA. He needs to find his stuff early in the season while the Brewers hope he rebounds so they can try and move him to a willing taker during the season. Jungmann started brilliantly last season but eventually the innings got the better of him. He will likely be the ace of this staff before season’s end. Nelson showed at times that he could be dominant, but needs to work on his control issues in order to find consistency. Peralta could not follow up his great 2014 body of work, but was also derailed with injury. He should look more like the 17-game winner from the year before. The fifth spot in Milwaukee’s rotation goes to the other piece in the Segura deal, Chase Anderson.
In the bullpen, Will Smith will be sharing closing duties with Jeremy Jeffress depending on the matchups required, per manager Craig Counsell. Smith excelled setting up Francisco Rodriguez from the left side in 2015 and may eventually win the job on his nasty stuff alone.* Jeffress also has closer stuff and had a great 2015 season as a set-up man from the right side. The Brewers bullpen is pretty solid with these two guys at the back end. Michael Blazek will have plenty of set-up chances this season, as he also comes off a solid 2015. Tyler Thornburg is best suited for bullpen work and should make the team as a middle inning guy.
*Smith sustained an LCL knee injury and will miss some time (TBD) with rest and rehab. Jeffress gets the bulk of save chances in his absence.
2016 shapes up to be a long season for the Brewers, but they will take stock of the roster and move some pieces around as they make room for some of the prospects they picked up in some off-season deals.
Prediction: This division is a three team race, and the Brewers don’t figure to slide into that group for a couple more years. The Brew Crew takes home fourth place.
Cincinnati Reds (2015: 64-98, 5th place)
Manager: Bryan Price
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
SS Zack Cozart
1B Joey Votto
RF Jay Bruce
LF Adam Duvall
Anthony DeSclafani (Note: currently on the DL)
Michael Lorenzen (Note: currently on the DL)
CL: J.J. Hoover
Reds manager Price is on the hot seat to start the season. Two straight losing seasons and an exodus of capable talent have rendered the Reds in the unenviable position of looking up at everyone else in the division. The Reds still have Votto to build around, but there are not many movable pieces left in Cincinnati to deal away to help rebuild the farm system. The rotation is young and inexperienced and most of all, unproven.
Mesoraco returns from hip surgery to hopefully regain his 2014 form when he hit 25 dingers. Hitting at the Great American Ballpark will only help him look better. Tucker Barnhart will back up Mesoraco, but if Mesoraco doesn’t stay 100% healthy, the Reds don’t have much depth behind the plate.
First baseman Votto finished third in MVP voting in 2015, one of the few bright spots for the Reds last year. However, Votto’s protection in the lineup has been reduced to the point that he may not have many opportunities to drive in runs, let alone swing the bat in any key spots.
Veteran second baseman Phillips had a surprisingly solid 2015 season that saw him hit .294 and steal 23 bases. His power is not what it once was and he is 35. The Reds attempted to deal him in the offseason but that fell through. Phillips may still garner some interest from other teams this season, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t stick around.
Suarez replaces Todd Frazier at third base, as Frazier was traded to the White Sox during the offseason. Suarez will not make anyone forget about Frazier, but he is capable of putting up solid numbers as he hit .280 with 13 HR in 97 games.
Before he went down to a season-ending knee injury, Zack Cozart was in the midst of showing off some previously unseen power, hitting 9 HR in 53 games. The trade of Frazier breathes new life into Cozart’s every day status at shortstop, as Eugenio Suarez played very well there in his place.
The Reds outfield has a problem offensively. In 2015, they compiled a collective .229 batting average. Duvall will get a crack at left field, with Scott Schebler waiting in the wings if he doesn’t catch on. In center, Hamilton is A+ on defense but has trouble getting on base. If he can improve that part of his game, his great speed will make him a headache at the top of the order. He injured his shoulder before the end of 2015, and still has a chance of not being ready come Opening Day. In right field, Bruce was another player that was being shopped around and may still be headed out the door sooner rather than later. Bruce’s 2015 was solid if not spectacular, as he hit 26 homers with 87 RBIs. He still strikes out at a very high rate, however.
With no other options, DeSclafani should open the season as the Reds number one starter. His 2015 saw him compile a 9-13 record with a 4.05 ERA. He has the potential to put up some decent numbers for a team that desperately needs someone to step up. Cuban defector Iglesias could also be a possible stud-in-the-making for the Reds, as 104 Ks in 95.1 innings is something to take notice of and Iglesias may have the best raw stuff in this rotation. Lamb came over from Kansas City in the Johnny Cueto deal and made his debut not long after, making 10 starts on the season. With very few options after DeSclafani and Iglesias, Lamb figures to get his chance to work out of the rotation. Finnegan also came over in the Cueto deal, and mainly worked out of the bullpen before being converted into a starter. He has strikeout stuff but needs to show more consistency. Lorenzen could crack the fifth spot in the rotation, but he could also work out of the ‘pen for the Reds.*
*This preview was written in early-March. The Reds’ current (as of April 3rd) rotation on RosterResource.com lists Igelsias, Finnegan, and Simon, a TBD, and then a blank space. That’s it. It’s a mess.
With the trade of Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees, that opens the door for Hoover to step up as the Cincy closer. He has command issues at times, and if he falters it could be Diaz that gets the ninth inning role. He has a blazing fastball that helped him strike out 70 hitters in 60.1 innings. Cingrani will be a left-handed set-up man but it could get dicey if he exhibits the poor control he had in 2015 (25 BB in 33.1 innings). The bullpen will be rounded out with a combination of guys like Wood, Ohlendorf, Straily and any number of young guys from the farm.
With the Reds in full-on rebuilding mode, don’t expect much from them this season. They have a few pieces that could be dealt (Phillips, Bruce) for some younger talent, so the Reds are trying to restock for the future. The Great American Ballpark is a hitter’s park, and with this rotation and bullpen in the state that it’s in, Reds fans can expect to leave the park having witnessed a high-scoring affair many times this coming season.
Prediction: The rebuilding has been badly executed, but it’s the current roster that has to play these games. The Reds end up in fifth place.
Tomorrow, we move to the American League one final time to check out the AL West.