Our tour of Major League Baseball continues, this time in the home of the World Champs.
Honestly, it’s probably the most boring division in baseball, although the intrigue here lies in the potential fall of the Cardinals, a rebound for Pittsburgh, and the continuing rebuilds for both Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
All teams are listed in predicted order of finish.
2016 Record: 103-58, 1st in NL Central, Won National League Central, Won World Series, 4-3, over Cleveland Indians
Big Questions: 1. Can the starting pitching encore, given that John Lackey is 38, Kyle Hendricks may have just had his career year, Jake Arrieta even struggled a bit, and Brett Anderson is a pretty unreliable fifth starter?
3. Is a World Series hangover worth considering? Baseball teams rarely repeat nowadays, especially with the Wild Card increasing parity and making the playoffs more random. Heck, the last team to repeat as World Champs was the Yankees in 2000 and 2001. Prior to that? The 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays. The last NL repeat winners? The Cincinnati Reds in 1975-1976.
Synopsis: The reigning World Champion Chicago Cubs are built to repeat…several times. The offense is built on a solid foundation of young, athletic, on-base machines. We still have not seen the best of most of these core players, a scary thought considering the numbers Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo put up last year!
If there are concerns, it’s the outfield and a couple of individual arms on the staff. Fowler’s defection to the Cardinals hurts, as Jon Jay is not on Fowler’s level offensively or defensively. While Jason Heyward can handle center if he has to, his lost season at the plate still draws concerns. Add to that the liability of Schwarber in left, and there are some minor cracks in the Cub armor.
Lackey had a great year, but he’s 38 and can’t do this forever. Wade Davis’ elbow could explode with any pitch, although that is somewhat balanced by the fact that erstwhile closer Hector Rondon is still on board, and the Cubs wound up with just 38 saves last year anyway.
Most Important Player(s): 1. Bryant. He’s been a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a World Champ in just two years. He’s the poster boy for the New Cubs World.
2. Schwarber. Notwithstanding the mega-crush the Fox broadcasting team put on him last fall, the slugger needs to mash well enough to make up for the runs he’ll give back on defense at the Cubs’ full-time left fielder.
3. Jay. He’s a huge downgrade from Dexter Fowler. The Cubs have the offensive firepower to take that hit, but it’ll be noticeable.
2017 Predicted Finish: 1st place
St. Louis Cardinals
2016 Record: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central
Big Questions: 1. Can Carlos Martinez step in the role of ace?
2. Will last year’s whispers of clubhouse discord get louder?
3. What will Fowler bring to one of the NL’s best offenses?
Synopsis: Last year, the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, largely due to a pitching staff that imploded, posting a 4.08 staff ERA just two seasons after leading baseball with a 2.99 mark. With current ace Adam Wainwright turning 36 in August, the team needs 25-year-old Martinez to improve even more. The Cards will also need rebounds from Mike Leake and Michael Wacha. A strong showing post-Tommy John from Lance Lynn would go a long way too.
The offense appears pretty damn good, with Fowler joining Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to give the Cards a really solid outfield. With 30-homer bat Jedd Gyorko relegated to the bench (or a second base timeshare), St. Louis has one of the deepest lineups in the league.
Most Important Player(s): 1. Lynn. After missing all of last year, a strong comeback by Lynn would help solidify the St. Louis rotation.
2. Grichuk. A poor first half (.226/.287/.425) was rescued by a power surge in the second half (.255/.290/.536). His power all year long is crucial to the middle of the Cards’ starting nine.
3. Yadier Molina. The longtime backstop turns 35 in July, so he’s working on borrowed time as a starting catcher. His defense and bat are still very good, though, but more rest is a must in 2017.
2017 Predicted Finish: 2nd place
2016 Record: 78-83, 3rd in NL Central
Big Questions: 1. Can Andrew McCutchen bounce back?
2. Can the pitching and/or defense get back to pre-2016 levels?
3. Will Jung-Ho Kang ever play for Pittsburgh (or in this country) again?
Synopsis: The Bucs made a series of moves last offseason with the best of intentions, but those all blew up, plus franchise icon McCutchen had the worst full season of his career. It didn’t help that the Pirates went 4-14-1 (yes, a tie) against the Chicago Cubs; heck, reverse that and you’ve an 88-win team.
Last year, everything that could go wrong did, as the Pirates’ defense let them down (25th in defensive efficiency at .693) and, predictably the pitching (4.21 ERA) did too. The offense was largely middle-of-the-road.
With few offseason adds of note, and the for-the-time-being loss of Kang, the Pirates need rebounds of incumbent personnel to be a factor in the NL Wild Card race, something they should very much be in.
Most Important Player(s): 1. Jameson Taillon/Tyler Glasnow. The continued development of these two arms into quality rotation-mates for ace Gerrit Cole is a big determiner in the future of the Buccos.
2. Josh Bell. He’s still got rookie status (barely), but the first baseman is slated to bat second in the Pirates’ lineup. A key spot for a key bat.
3. McCutchen. There was some talk McCutchen was hurt, some talk he had mechanical issues, and some talk of trading him. Whatever happens, a rebound is a necessity for contention.
2017 Predicted Finish: 3rd place
2016 Record: 73-89, 4th in NL Central
Big Questions: 1. How much will the rebuild progress throughout 2016?
2. Does Ryan Braun get traded? Where? When? For how much?
3. Can post-Korea Eric Thames justify his three-year deal?
Synopsis: The Brew Crew is settled in nicely on this rebuilding thing, building their farm system from 30th to 5th in MLB in just four years, per Baseball Prospectus’ rankings.
GM David Stearns has made low-key, shrewd talent pickups all along the way, giving Milwaukee a hopeful foundation of young, talented bats and a handful of good arms. While the system still is not on the level that helped the Cubs break their curse last autumn, the Brewers have the right perspective for a long-term run starting soon.
Most Important Player(s): 1. Braun. Like so many other vets on rebuilding clubs, the importance that Braun carries is twofold. He’s still a drawing card for the Milwaukee fans, and his eventual trade can hasten the rebuilding efforts.
2. Orlando Arcia. He’s a touted shortstop in a Golden Age of touted shortstops. Long-term stability up the middle is a hallmark of winning teams, so here’s hoping.
2017 Predicted Finish: 4th place
2016 Record: 68-94, 5th in NL Central
Big Questions: 1. Can this team stave off a worst-record-in-baseball finish?
2. How amazing will Joey Votto be again?
3. Will GM Dick Williams make any more rebuilding deals?
Synopsis: This team stinks on ice. No lie. An awful pitching staff (4.91 ERA, 258 home runs allowed with 636 walks) did them in for sure.
While the offense had a few bright spots (Votto, Scott Schebler, and Adam Duvall’s first half) there’s not enough depth to cover for those mound-men. It’s a real shame how Votto is going to be wasted, as the 32-year-old most likely will not be a part of the next good Reds team.
With a rotation full of young Wait-and-Sees, it is going to be a long, ugly summer in Cincy.
Most Important Player(s): 1. Joey Votto. Because everyone loves watching him hit.
2. Billy Hamilton. He cannot hit, but he’s a thrill anytime he gets on base.
2017 Predicted Finish: 5th place