NL Central Preview: Can Anyone Catch The Cubs?

Ryan Mayer

Spring is slowly sweeping its way across the country, which can only mean one thing: baseball season. The boys of summer are back and, with Opening Day right around the corner, it’s time to dust off your glove and maybe catch up on some of the expectations for the 30 MLB teams this year. That’s where CBS Local Sports’ division preview series comes in. We’ll take you around the league giving you an overview of each team and their expectations heading into the year.¬†

Today, we look at the NL Central, where there appears to be a Cubs dynasty in the making. Can anyone jump up to slay the defending world champs?

**Win totals courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook

[graphiq id=”laBCgTgggy9″ title=”2016 Chicago Cubs” width=”600″ height=”954″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/laBCgTgggy9″ ]

Chicago Cubs

Last year: 103-58, 1st place NL Central, Won World Series 4-3 over Indians

Vegas Win Total: 95.5

The Cubs are the lovable losers no more. A dramatic comeback in the World Series ensured that the franchise ended its championship drought that has lasted longer than a century. Theo Epstein has constructed one of the scariest lineups in the league and the Cubs look to be the team to beat once again in 2017.

We’ll start first with the lineup. The losses from last year are Dexter Fowler (Cardinals) and Jorge Soler (traded to the Royals). However, don’t fret, the Cubs just have another top prospect (Albert Almora) set to platoon with veteran John Jay in center to fill Fowler’s shoes. As for Soler? Remember that Kyle Schwarber guy? Yeah, he’ll be playing some left field, catcher, etc. Jason Heyward is manning right field and has overhauled his swing in hopes of improving on a disastrous year at the plate last season. If nothing else, Heyward brings exemplary defense to the table. Ben Zobrist remains as a play-anywhere-on-the-diamond guy.

As for the infield? Oh, just last year’s NL MVP Kris Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and the double-play combo of Addison Russell and Javier Baez. Willson Contreras looks to have locked up the starting job behind the plate after a breakout rookie season. The easiest way to describe this lineup is this: the average age is 27 and they scored over 800 runs last year. Imagine what they can do with another year of seasoning.

gettyimages 621094866 NL Central Preview: Can Anyone Catch The Cubs?

Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The rotation is veteran laden as the Cubs don’t have nearly as many pitching prospects as they have young hitters, but that’s not to say the rotation isn’t good. Their starters had the best ERA in baseball last year (2.96) and the bullpen ranked 8th (3.56). They lost Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees, but replaced him with former Royals closer Wade Davis. Jason Hammel is gone, but there’s a couple of options to fill his spot in the rotation. Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jon Lackey and Kyle Hendricks are penciled in 1-4. So, the fifth starter’s spot is up for grabs between lefties Mike Montgomery (also a bullpen option) and Brett Anderson, and righties Eddie Butler and Jake Buchanan. Young lefty prospect Rob Zatrynsky hoped to be in the running too, but he’s had a rough spring (7.36 ERA). Right now, Butler, the former Colorado Rockies prospect, has performed the best posting a 3.07 ERA with opponents hitting just .207 against him and a 0.95 WHIP.

As for the bullpen, Davis has struggled this spring (18.00 ERA), but manager Joe Maddon doesn’t seem too concerned. Plus, the Cubs have young flamethrower Carl Edwards Jr., along with Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Koji Uehara in the pen as of now. Davis should settle in, but if he doesn’t the bullpen should be able to find someone to take command of the closer role.

I’m trying desperately to find holes in this team and the best I can come up with is that Arrieta and Lester have had rough springs and maybe they won’t recover? Yeah, I’ve got nothing. Short of down years across the board, I don’t see how the Cubs fail to hit the over here. Oh, by the way, last year’s 103-58 record actually was an under performance of their Pythagorean win expectation of 107 wins. So, yeah, the Cubs theoretically underachieved projections last year, and they still won the World Series. Over 95.5

Rotation

Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, Eddie Butler

Lineup

(C) Willson Contreras/Kyle Schwarber, (1B) Anthony Rizzo, (2B) Javier Baez/Ben Zobrist, (SS) Addison Russell, (3B) Kris Bryant, (LF) Ben Zobrist/Kyle Schwarber, (CF) John Jay/Albert Almora, (RF) Jason Heyward

[graphiq id=”l9h6TiOllfT” title=”2016 St. Louis Cardinals” width=”600″ height=”976″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/l9h6TiOllfT” ]

St.Louis Cardinals

Last Year: 86-76, 2nd NL Central

Vegas Win Total: 84.5

The Cardinals have been one of the more consistent franchises in Major League Baseball since 2000 with nearly as many World Series appearances (4) as seasons where they’ve missed the playoffs (5). Last year ended a run of five straight season making it to the playoffs after the team had some players struggle in both the lineup and the bullpen. This year, they look to get back to the postseason, but will be without one of their top young arms.

Right out of the gate this spring the Cardinals got bad news. Alex Reyes, their top pitching prospect and Baseball America’s 4th ranked prospect, tore his UCL, meaning he had to undergo the dreaded Tommy John surgery. He will miss all of this season and likely the first few months of 2018. That leaves the Cardinals rotation a little more shorthanded than they thought they would be. However, they still have young fireballer Carlos Martinez along with veterans Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Mike Leake and Adam Wainwright. Martinez, Lynn, Wacha and Leake have looked good this spring while Wainwright has battled some issues (7.78 ERA).

The bullpen has some good depth and has the closer situation figured out with Seung-hwan Oh (19 saves). Former closers Johnathan Broxton and Trevor Rosenthal are also available along with lefty Brett Cecil and second-year pitcher Matt Bowman.

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Credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As for the lineup, Matt Holliday was allowed to walk in free agency and they brought in Dexter Fowler from the rival Cubs. The rest of the lineup remains the same with Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty filling the corners alongside Fowler. Then the always steady Yadier Molina behind the plate with Matt Carpenter/Matt Adams at first, Kolten Wong at second, Aledmys Diaz at short and Jhonny Peralta at third.

St. Louis is certainly hoping to get bounce back seasons from their young guys (Grichuk, Piscotty, Wong, Adams) while adding Fowler’s consistent excellence with the bat should help them at least match last year’s win total which would put them over here. Over 84.5

Rotation

Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake

Lineup

(C) Yadier Molina, (1B) Matt Adams/Matt Carpenter, (2B) Kolten Wong, (SS) Aledmys Diaz, (3B) Jhonny Peralta, (LF) Randal Grichuk, (CF) Dexter Fowler, (RF) Stephen Piscotty

[graphiq id=”2qcvrQVM3OJ” title=”2016 Pittsburgh Pirates” width=”600″ height=”976″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/2qcvrQVM3OJ” ]

Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Year: 78-83, 3rd place NL Central

Vegas Win Total: 82.5

At this point, you start to feel bad for the Pirates. They broke their playoff drought in 2013 and came up just short in the NLDS losing to the Cardinals. Then, in 2014 and 2015, they earned a Wild Card spot, but lost in the one-game playoff to the Giants and Cubs. Just when it looked like they might be on the ascent and in position¬†to overtake the Cardinals, the Cubs brought their army of young prospects up and the Pirates found themselves trying to play catch up. The biggest thing they’ll need this year? A return to form from their star outfielder Andrew McCutchen and some help from their young pitching prospects.

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Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

First, the lineup, where the aforementioned McCutchen switches positions, moving to a corner spot. He’s replaced in center by Starling Marte, with Gregory Polanco remaining in left field. The question is whether McCutchen is in full decline or, if he just had an off-year. This spring, he’s played just eight games and hit .227/.217/.455 in those games and has missed time nursing a back injury.

In the infield, Josh Bell takes over the first base job, with Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer at short and right now David Freese at third. Jung-ho Kang was supposed to be part of this infield, but he’s currently embroiled in legal trouble in Korea due to another DUI arrest, his third. Francisco Cervelli will be behind the plate. There are a couple of young outfield prospects still in the pipeline that could make an impression with Austin Meadows (.326/.420/.558 this spring) leading the way.

The rotation is led by Gerrit Cole, who looks to bounce back from a year in which he made just 21 starts and posted a 3.88 ERA. Behind Cole, the Pirates hope top prospect Jameson Taillon can build on his strong showing after coming up in June last year. The rest of the rotation is well, iffy.

Pittsburgh hopes Ivan Nova can be another Ray Searage reclamation project (1.29 ERA in 4 starts this spring), that youngster Chad Kuhl can improve on his decent showing (4.20 ERA, 70.2 IP, 1.392 WHIP last year), and that either veteran Drew Hutchinson or prospect Tyler Glasnow can grab the fifth spot. Right now, neither Glasnow nor Hutchinson have shown they should get the spot (5.65 ERA, 10.05 ERA respectively) this spring but, they remain the favorites after the team sent down Steven Brault earlier this week.

The closer role right now falls to lefty Tony Watson after Mark Melancon left in free agency. Antonio Bastardo, Aj Schugel, Juan Nicasio and Jared Hughes are all back from last year’s pen group and the team added former Diamondbacks reliever Daniel Hudson.

The bullpen should be okay, but the closer spot is an interesting spot as Watson has just 20 career saves with 15 coming last season. Overall, I like the lineup, but the rotation outside of the top two could go either way. I have a lot of faith in Searage considering his history, but it’s hard for me to project more than 82 wins with that group. Under 82.5

Rotation

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Drew Hutchinson/Tyler Glasnow

Lineup

(C) Francisco Cervelli, (1B) Josh Bell, (2B) Josh Harrison, (SS) Jordy Mercer, (3B) David Freese/Jung-ho Kang, (LF) Gregory Polanco, (CF) Starling Marte, (RF) Andrew McCutchen

[graphiq id=”4tMMy5QVpqt” title=”2016 Cincinnati Reds” width=”600″ height=”578″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/4tMMy5QVpqt” ]

Cincinnati Reds

Last Year: 68-94

Vegas Win Total: 70.5

This is where we get to the rebuilding teams part of this preview. Both the Reds and the Brewers are in the midst of a rebuild at basically the same stage. The Reds have sold off all their valuable assets outside of Joey Votto, while the Brewers have largely done the same with the exception of Ryan Braun. Will the Reds trade Votto this year? Unlikely considering he’s still got about seven years and $172 million left on his contract with a team option of $20 million for 2024. Kind of hard to convince someone to take that type of deal with a 33-year-old player who will be 40 by the time the contract ends.

gettyimages 611849466 NL Central Preview: Can Anyone Catch The Cubs?

Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The biggest changes from last year’s lineup are the departures of Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips (both via trade) and in their place steps youngsters Jose Peraza (2B) and Scott Schebler (RF). Peraza is an intriguing player in the middle of the diamond who slashed .324/.352/.411 in 72 games last year while Schebler wasn’t too shabby either posting a .265/.330/.432 line in 82 games. In expanded roles, it will be interesting to watch whether they can replicate those performances. Also in contention in the outfield is former Cubs prospect Arismendy Alcantara who was traded to the A’s last year when the Cubs picked up Chris Coghlan.

Alcantara has been pretty good this spring with a .297/.303/.590 line with four homers and 16 RBI. Joining Schebler/Alcantara in the outfield is center field speedster Billy Hamilton and breakout left fielder Adam Duvall. Votto remains the mainstay at first surrounded by Peraza, Zack Cozart at short and Eugenio Suarez at third with Taylor Barnhart behind the plate until Devin Mesoraco is ready to return. Top third base prospect (9th Baseball America) Nick Senzel is waiting in the wings, but has been hurt this spring so he likely won’t be up to start the year.

The rotation returns Brandon Finnegan and… that’s it. Anthony Descalfani has a sprained UCL and won’t be ready for Opening Day. For the rest of the spots, the team brought in Scott Feldman and will rely on rookies, Rookie Davis and Amir Garrett, along with sophomore lefty Cody Reed. That’s a lot of inexperience. It’s great to get these guys experience and hope they develop into rotation mainstays for the future, but it doesn’t help the current team much.

The bullpen has the potential to be lights out with last year’s closer Tony Cingrani, flamethrower Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and former Nationals closer Drew Storen. Despite the bullpen being solid, the rotation scares me and the lineup has a few holes in it. It’ll be exciting to watch the young kids, but still a rebuilding year for the Reds. Under 70.5

Rotation

Scott Feldman, Brandon Finnegan, Amir Garrett, Rookie Davis, Cody Reed (Anthony Desclafani once he’s healthy)

Lineup

(C) Tony Barnhart/Devin Mesoraco, (1B) Joey Votto, (2B) Jose Peraza, (SS) Zack Cozart, (3B) Eugenio Suarez, (LF) Adam Duvall, (CF) Billy Hamilton, (RF) Scott Schebler/Arismendy Alcantara

[graphiq id=”hQQ6zmnV7Tf” title=”2016 Milwaukee Brewers” width=”600″ height=”976″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/hQQ6zmnV7Tf” ]

Milwaukee Brewers

Last Year: 73-89

Vegas Win Total: 69.5

The Brewers entered 2016 without much hope of contending and most people were just wondering when they would trade Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun. Well, Lucroy was gone at the trade deadline for a pretty good haul. Braun is still here due to his trade clause and ability to pick which teams he can be traded to. This year, the Braun watch continues while the Brewers start to phase in some younger players.

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Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Domingo Santana (RF), Keon Broxton (CF), and Orlando Arcia (SS) are all expected to crack the starting lineup and get plenty of at bats. Top outfield prospect Lewis Brinson (acquired in the Lucroy trade) could make his debut at some point this year as well if Braun is traded. The rest of the lineup is filled out by 3B Travis Shaw, SS/2B Jonathan Villar, C Jeff Bandy, and either Eric Thames or Jesus Aguilar at first. Aguilar has mashed this spring, .463/.525/.889, in 54 at-bats with 6 homers and 16 RBI. Thames’ line has been more timid at .245/.356/.367 with just one homer and 9 RBI.

The rotation has everyone back from last year which is good and bad. Good in the sense that there’s not much turnover, bad in that the Brewers rotation was 17th in starters ERA at 4.40. The best hope is that Zach Davies continues to develop into a top-end starter. Outside of that, Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson are okay, same for Junior Guerra and Matt Garza is no longer the pitcher he once was. In fact, Garza is having a dreadful spring with an 8.59 ERA and opponents hitting .385 off of him. Granted, Guerra (6.79 ERA, .324 BAA) hasn’t been much better. Nelson and Davies’ ERA’s look bad (5.68 and 4.50) but their peripherals are better (.204/.235 BAA, 0.95/1.29 WHIP).

Help for the rotation is still about a year away but the team does have LHP Josh Hader (maybe 2017 ETA), RHP Luis Ortiz (2018 ETA) and RHP Brandon Woodruff (2018 ETA) all in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list.

The bullpen isn’t going to be much better. The Brewers sold off most of their quality guys like Jeremy Jeffress and Tyler Thornburg over the past year, but they did sign Neftali Feliz to try and man the closer role. Carlos Torres, Jacob Barnes and Corey Knebel are back.

Overall, this is a Brewers team that is attempting to get younger and give more time to young players to hopefully contend in a few years. It makes for exciting baseball, but more than likely a bad record as the young guys take their lumps. Under 69.5

Rotation

Junior Guerra, Zach Davies, Matt Garza, Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta

Lineup

(C) Jeff Bandy, (1B) Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar, (2B) Jonathan Villar, (SS) Orlando Arcia, (3B) Travis Shaw, (LF) Ryan Braun, (CF) Keon Broxton, (RF) Domingo Santana

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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