NL Central Preview

Posted: 04/02/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

The regular season started today with a bang. When a pitcher hits two homers on opening day (as Madison Bumgarner, the first pitcher ever to do so, did today), you know it’s a fun first day. When the Yankees lose, you know it’s a fun first day (sorry, Yanks fans). And when the first Sunday Night Baseball game of the season features the World Series Champs (and not just any champions) and their big division rival, you know it’s a fun first day. The problem is that I’m nowhere near done my preseason previews. In fact, I have five divisions left. Given that there are a grand total of six divisions in baseball, I’m not doing too well. I also want to do some award previews, so I have a lot to do. The good news is that the baseball season is very long, and it’s generally wise to pay very little attention to what happens in April, anyway. If my predictions are influenced by five games of baseball, shame on me. Anyway, on to the NL Central.

Chicago Cubs (99-63): I went contrarian in the NL East, picking the Mets to win the division over the Nationals. I can’t do the same in the Central, where the Cubs, who went 103-58 last year and are returning a team that’s at least as good. I don’t have them pacing the rest of baseball by eight wins like they did last season, but that’s almost entirely because I expect them to have more injuries this year and because they may be on cruise control for much of this year after they dominated from the get-go last season. Their biggest losses this offseason were David Ross (a backup catcher who retired — more a loss of leadership than talent), Dexter Fowler (leadoff hitter and centerfielder), Jason Hammel (#5 starter), and Aroldis Chapman (closer for half the season). Ross will be replaced by more Willson Contreras, which is definitely a good thing. Contreras is a 24-year old catcher who slashed .282/.357/.488 last season in 252 at bats. Fowler will be replaced in center by Jason Heyward, a tremendous defender who’s bound to have a bounce-back season at the plate. Heyward’s vacated right field spot will be taken by Ben Zobrist, who’s moving over from left field. Now in left field? None other than Kyle Schwarber, the guy who tore his ACL after four at bats last season before coming back in the World Series and dominating. Schwarber will also take Fowler’s spot atop the lineup. Hammel, who was bad last year and didn’t make the postseason roster, is replaced by Brett Anderson, who missed most of last season with an injury but had a 3.69 ERA in 2015. If Anderson isn’t good, the Cubs have plenty of depth at AAA. They also still have Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, and Kyle Hendricks. And while Chapman was great for the Cubs, their bullpen is probably actually deeper now than it was last season. They traded young, promising outfielder Jorge Soler for Wade Davis. It’s a steep price to pay for a reliever, but Davis is one of the best relievers in baseball — probably better than Chapman. Don’t believe me? These are his numbers over the last three years: 182.2 innings, 1.18 ERA, .89 WHIP, 5.1 hits per nine innings, 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Wow. They also signed Koji Uehara, who’s now 42-years old but is still a reliable setup man. Throw in all of the returning relievers from what was a deep pen last year and you have a really good bullpen. This team has no holes. They have star power, a deep rotation, a deep bench, and a deep bullpen. Their double-play combination of Javier Baez and Addison Russell is electric, as is the 1-2 punch of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. It’s really hard for me to pick this team to win fewer than 100 games, but I do expect the Cubs to take it easy for most of the year.

Pittsburgh Pirates (85-77): Nobody’s talking about this Pirates team, largely because they went 78-83 last year. Fangraphs has them going 79-83. But I kind of like this team. Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, nominally the team’s two star players, both massively underperformed last year. I expect both of them to play a lot better this season, which should give them a big boost. The Pirates had a very quiet offseason, and I think part of that is that they’re confident in their young players. Gregory Polanco, a 25-year old left fielder who was once a top prospect, showed a lot of promise last season, hitting 22 homers, stealing 17 bases, and slashing .258/.323/.463. He should hit for a better average this season and continue to provide power out of the five hole. Then there’s Starling Marte, who may well be the best player on the team at this point. Marte’s power regressed big time last year, but he more than made up for it by hitting .311 and stealing 47 bags. And Baseball America top-50 prospect Josh Bell showed great promise in his first taste of the big leagues, walking more times than he struck out and slashing .273/.368/.406 in 128 at bats. I think the offense is going to be pretty good this season, although they could suffer from being without Jung Ho Kang, who has been denied a renewal of his visa (I still expect him to get one, but he won’t start opening day).

The pitching is more concerning. Fourteen pitchers started games for the Pirates last year and nobody threw as many as 130 innings. Part of that had to do with injuries, but there were also some really bad performances. With a full season from Jameson Taillon (who was still in AAA for part of last season before becoming Pittsburgh’s most consistent starter) and some positive regression from Cole, the rotation should be more stable. Pitching coach Ray Searage is renowned for his ability to turn average pitchers into good ones (like J.A. Happ), and he did it again with ex-Yankee Ivan Nova, who had a 3.06 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP after being traded to the Pirates. Throw in 23-year old top prospect Tyler Glasnow and you have a rotation that’s sure to be better than it was last season. The bullpen struggled after the Pirates traded Mark Melancon and probably won’t be great this season, but the rest of the team will be improved enough to keep the Pirates in the playoff race.

St. Louis Cardinals (83-79): The Cardinals just keep churning out winning seasons. They went 86-76 last season with a roster that seemed nowhere near good enough to go 86-76. This year’s Cardinals will be solid, but I don’t see enough talent on their roster to return to the playoffs. They have solid hitters up and down the lineup, and the addition of Dexter Fowler atop the lineup is a big help, but they don’t really have any power. Actually, that’s not true. Second baseman Jedd Gyorko has serious power. He smashed 30 homers in 400 at bats last season. But Gyorko will struggle to maintain a .300 on base percentage, as will Randal Grichuk, the team’s other big source of power. The Cardinals benefitted from a lot of good situational hitting last season. I think things will regress a little bit this year, which means that their best hitters — Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Stephen Piscotty — will be left on base a lot. By the way, Yadier Molina is amazing. He just signed a three year extension that’s going to be worth more than $55 million even though he’s a catcher entering his age-35 season. I don’t think it was a wise move by the Cardinals, but Molina is coming off of a season in which he hit .307. I expect some regression (reminder: his OPS was .660 in 2015), which is one of the reasons I expect a small step back from the Cardinals, but it would be dumb to count Molina out.

The pitching staff is very similar to the one we’ve grown accustomed to. The big bummer is that Alex Reyes hurt his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, so he’ll be out for the year. Reyes is one of the top prospects in baseball and looked very promising in his first action in the majors last season. Without Reyes, the rotation lacks top-end upside. Adam Wainwright is 35 and unlikely to ever be better than average again, while Mike Leake and Michael Wacha are both coming off of really bad years. If two of Leake, Wacha, and Lance Lynn (who missed all of last season) return to previous form, the rotation will be fine, especially as Carlos Martinez continues to improve. But I don’t think it’ll be good enough to carry a good-but-not-great offense to playoff contention.

Milwaukee Brewers (72-90): The Brewers probably won’t be good this season, but I think they have a greater range of expected outcomes than a lot of people think. Could they be really bad and finish beneath the Reds in the division? Sure. Their cleanup hitter is Eric Thames, a guy who’s been playing in Korea and hasn’t played in MLB since he slashed .232/.273/.399 in 2012. Their best relief pitcher (Tyler Thornburg) is gone. Their new closer (Neftali Feliz) has a 4.19 ERA and 1.25 WHIP since he missed almost all of the 2013 season due to injury. With Jonathan Lucroy gone and new starting catcher Andrew Susac on the DL, their starting catcher is a guy named Jett Bandy, who was very bad this spring and very bad last year for the Angels. There’s a lot that doesn’t look great. But then you see Ryan Braun, still one of the best hitters in baseball. You see Jonathan Villar, who exploded onto the scene last year to the tune of 19 homers, 62 steals, and a .285/.369/.457 line at second base. There’s no way Villar is hitting 19 homers again, but he’s a perfect leadoff hitter if he can keep that OBP up. Then there’s centerfielder Keon Broxton, who showed the ability to hit for power, steal bases, and get on base. And then there’s Orlando Arcia, the team’s 22-year old shortstop, who had a .753 OPS in his final 35 starts last season. If (and this is a big if) Villar, Braun, and Broxton do what they did last year, Arcia makes a leap (which I expect to happen), and Thames rakes like he did in Korea, the offense could be pretty good!

I don’t know what to say about the rotation. It could go so well or so poorly. Case-in-point: Junior Guerra is a 32-year old pitcher who had thrown all of four innings in the big leagues before last season. Then, he posted a 2.81 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 121.2 innings last season. Guerra was once an Independent league pitcher. He also once pitched in the SPANISH league. He can’t possibly be good for a second consecutive year, right? Wrong. I don’t think he’ll post a sub-3 ERA again, but his underlying numbers and his strong splitter suggest that he’ll be above-average again. Then again… he could be out of the league by July. Wide range of outcomes. Zach Davies is the “what you see is what you get” guy of the rotation. He has great control and subpar stuff. Expect a high-3s ERA. But then there’s Wily Peralta, who throws really hard but has never been able to turn his stuff into strikeouts. Maybe that changes this year! And Jimmy Nelson had a 2.88 ERA in 11 starts through May last year… but his ERA was 5.79 in his final 21 starts. There’s still some upside here, too, but also a very low floor.

What’s the most likely scenario? This is a bad team with some bright young spots like Villar, Broxton, and Arcia. I have a soft spot for Guerra, Peralta, and Nelson, but the Brewers probably need some more talent in the rotation. Josh Hader, their #2 prospect (they got him in the Carlos Gomez deal in 2015), should be up relatively early this season, which will be interesting. But yeah, I envision a fun team with some interesting young guys and a lot of losses.

Cincinnati Reds (65-97): With Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani on the DL, the Reds’ rotation to start the season is: Scott Feldman, Brandon Finnegan, Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett, and Bronson Arroyo. That’s, um, not good. To be fair, both Davis and Garrett are rookies, so we don’t know that they’ll be bad. But Fangraphs projects them to have 5.08 and 4.77 ERAs. That should give you a decent idea of what to expect. This is the youngest team in baseball and is coming off of 64 (in 2015) and 68 win seasons, so I think we know what to expect. They have two guys over 28 in their lineup in Joey Votto and Zack Cozart. They’re currently trying to trade Cozart and would love to trade Votto, their star player, except Votto won’t revoke his no-trade clause. Votto’s a darn good hitter and will win the Reds some games, but it’s going to be hard to win a lot of games with that rotation. Things will definitely get better if and when Bailey and DeSclafani return and/or top prospects Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed are moved from the bullpen to the rotation, but it’s going to be another long season. Young guys to look out for include Stephenson, Reed, second baseman Jose Peraza, speedster Billy Hamilton (he’s 26, so he might not qualify as young anymore), and… that’s about it. This team still has a long way to go.

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