2016 NL Central Preview: Cubs Favorites In Top-Heavy Division

Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports

Opening Day is right around the corner. As the calendar gets ready to turn to April, we prepare for another spring/summer full of the thrills of the diamond. With spring training games starting to wind down and teams heading back to their hometowns to get the season started, it’s time for some previews of how we project each division to play out. Follow along with us throughout the week as we go around the horn.

The St. Louis Cardinals are routinely one of the best teams in baseball and are coming off of a 100-win season in 2015. Yet somehow, they aren’t remotely close to being the focal point of the NL Central in the eyes of most baseball pundits going into 2016. All of us – fans, analysts, historians, ETC… – have our eyes firmly planted on the North side of Chicago, looking directly at the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs and their collection of stellar young players won 97 games last year along with a wild card game against the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates before being beaten by the New York Mets in the NLDS in five games.

Now, the Cubs are retooled and ready to go. Ready to go and break a 108-year-old curse? We’ll find out.

2015 Champions – St. Louis Cardinals

2016 Projected Order Of Finish

1. Chicago Cubs

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

3. St. Louis Cardinals

4. Cincinnati Reds

5. Milwaukee Brewers

Chicago Cubs

Last year’s Cubs team was stellar across the board and somehow, some way, GM Theo Epstein managed to improve the Cubs heading into this season in basically every single department.

The Cubs’ big three additions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey shore up the team’s outfield, infield and their starting rotation and should be enough to get them well over the 100-win plateau and past the Cardinals and the Pirates and to the top of the NL Central.

Heyward received the biggest deal (eight years, $184 million) and is the marquee name of the group and will be a steadying presence in the outfield for the Cubs. Heyward has saved 122 runs since 2010, which is the highest number in baseball over that stretch of time. In that period, he’s also won three Golden Glove awards for his work in right field. He’s no slouch at the plate either and is capable of hitting a long ball when called upon to do so. On top of that, he’s a base-stealing threat as well with 86 so far in his career.

In Zobrist, the Cubs have themselves a true utility infielder who can hit. Zobrist can play virtually any position in the infield more than capably and as he proved last postseason, he can get it done when it matters most.

Speaking of getting it done in the postseason, let’s not forget about Lackey. Lackey is a gamer and a grinder and knows his way around the postseason better than almost any pitcher in the majors today. At 36 years old, Lackey put up his best ERA in his 13-year career at 2.77 in 33 appearances, proving he’s still got plenty left in the tank and is ready to help the Cubs out on long postseason run.

Mix in those three with Kris Bryant, who has his first year under his belt and can only get better, Jake Arrieta, who I can’t possibly imagine can improve on last year’s 22-win, 1.77 ERA, Cy Young award-winning season but will still be a bulldog off the mound, and young stars in the making like Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez and you have all the makings of a stellar, history making year.

Good luck, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates are good. They have been good for a while now. The question is are they finally ready to extend their playoff run past the NLDS after falling short of that goal for three straight years?

The easy argument here is no. The Cubs have gotten better and the Pirates – for all of the plus players on their roster – haven’t done anything notable to improve past a 90-win one-and-done team this coming season.

But that’s a relatively unfair argument considering that the Pirates are among the youngest teams in baseball. A little bit of an improvement from a bunch of their younger players could go a long way towards pushing this team over that hump.

mccutchen 2016 NL Central Preview: Cubs Favorites In Top Heavy Division

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The main contributors if the Pirates are going to push the Cubs and the Cardinals for NL Central supremacy will have to be Pittsburgh’s outfielders.

Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are all either stars or on the path to stardom and can get it done in the field and at the plate for the Pirates.

The unit is of course lead by McCutchen, the former NL MVP and five-time All-Star who belted 23 home runs and batted .292 last season while leading the Pirates to the playoffs for their third straight season.

Still, as evidenced by their quick playoff exits of late, they need more from other key players and that’s where Polanco and Marte have to come in.

Marte has more than held up his end of the deal and is coming off his best big league season in 2015 where he hit 19 home runs with a .287 average while also claiming his first Gold Glove award for his work in the outfield.

Now, it’s on Polanco, the highly-touted prospect to overcome a relatively ineffectual rookie year and become the player the Pirates know he can be.

If he can do that and ace Gerritt Cole can continue to lead the Pirates’ upgraded rotation there’s no reason the Pirates can’t give the Cubs a run for their money and do some damage in the playoffs this year.

St. Louis Cardinals

Death, taxes and the St. Louis Cardinals being a competitive team. Those are about the only certainties in life these days.

While some expect the Cardinals and their aging core of Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina – combined with the departure of Jason Heyward – to take a step back this year but that may not be the case.

How far the Cardinals go this year will largely depend on those guys of course, but also a new wave of players like Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Kolten Wong and offseason acquisition Jedd Gyorko.

In roughly 100 games a piece last year, Grichuk and Piscotty proved they’re ready for the majors. Grichuk sported a .276 average and had 47 extra-base hits along with 17 home runs last season. Piscotty batted .305 in the regular season but perhaps more impressively had a .375 average in postseason play, including three home runs in four games for the Cards.

Wong spent the entire year in the majors and hit .262 in 152 games, an average he’ll surely look to improve on in his second full season in the bigs.

If those three guys can complement the aforementioned vets and slugger Matt Adams there’s no reason the Cardinals can’t claim the NL Central once again this season.

Especially if newcomer Mike Leake can cement the Cardinals’ No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez can continue to evolve into solid MLB starters.

Don’t let the hype around the Cubs or the Pirates being ranked above the Cardinals here fool you, if all goes well for the Cards, they’ll be World Series contenders once again.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds lost Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier the offseason after they finished with just 64 wins – 36 games back of the NL Central-champion Cardinals. Things are not looking up in Cincinnati these days.

Joey Votto remains the centerpiece of the Reds and the team seems unlikely to deal him even though they’re essentially in rebuilding mode. Unfortunately for Votto, at age 32 his prime years are slowly eroding and if he stays put they’ll be spent losing for quite a while.

Still, Votto regained his health last year and looked like himself again. He started in 158 games and finished third in the NL MVP voting, which is a great sign.

votto 2016 NL Central Preview: Cubs Favorites In Top Heavy Division

Rob Tringali/Getty Images

However, Votto doesn’t have much help around him in the lineup; a major reason why he finished last year’s stellar campaign with just 80 RBIs.

Scoring runs will likely continue to be a problem for the Reds, who ranked 26th in the league in runs scored last year and the outlook for runs allowed isn’t much better.

The Reds were also 26th in ERA last season at 4.33 and they’ll be without ace Mike Leake this season. While the Reds do have young talent in the majors this year in Raisel Iglesias, Anthony DeSclafani and Brandon Finnegan, it’ll likely be trial by fire for them much of the year – especially considering run support won’t be at a premium.

If there’s reason for optimism, however, it comes from the young arms in the rotation now and the ones working their way up. MLB.com ranked the Reds’ pitching prospects No. 4 in baseball, meaning the future is bright at some point, but that point is not in 2016.

Milwaukee Brewers

At the bottom of a top-heavy NL Central we find the Milwaukee Brewers, who like the Reds, have a lot to look forward to eventually, just not yet.

After shipping out big name players like Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Jean Segura, Khris Davis the Brewers’ roster on opening day will be one of the worst in baseball.

Besides Ryan Braun, it’s Jonathan Lucroy and former Houston Astro Chris Carter that will largely be expected to carry the load for the brew crew.

While Braun put together his best season since his 41-home run 2012 campaign (25 HR, .285 average) he’s still far removed from reaching those heights again, especially at the age of 32.

Not to mention the fact that Braun doesn’t have the support around him in the lineup to generate those numbers anyway.

On the mound, the Brewers are counting on Wily Peralta to regain his form from 2014 when he went 17-11 as a starter with a 3.53 ERA as supposed to last year’s injury-plagued season where he 5-10 with a 4.72 ERA.

Outside of Peralta, Jimmy Nelson is being tabbed as the next great Brewers pitcher by many and he’ll have his chance to prove it in the No. 2 starting slot this season. Nelson finished last season with an 11-13 record and a 4.11 ERA, numbers he’ll have to improve upon to prove he’s capable of fulfilling those lofty expectations.

Ultimately, similarly to the Reds, the Brewers’ future is bright and calling up star shortstop in the making Orlando Arcia will help the club, but not this year.

The number of wins between the Brewers and the Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals will be made up of two digits – it’s just a matter of how big that first one will be once the season comes to an end.

Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.

Questions or comments? Feel free to follow Bryan on Twitter or send him an email

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