Pitchers and catchers start reporting Feb. 17 with other teams doing the same later in the week. This means that baseball season is fast approaching.
With that in mind, it is time to offer up an early look at how I expect the National League Central to shape up. Will the St. Louis Cardinals continue its dominance atop the division?
1. Chicago Cubs 88-74
Key additions– Jason Heyward (FA), John Lackey (FA), Ben Zobrist (FA), Adam Warren (trade/Yankees)
Key departures– Starlin Castro (trade/Yankees), Dexter Fowler (FA), Jason Motte (FA)
Off-season assessment– Jason Heyward went for the money by signing with the Cubs, which left St. Louis Cardinals fans upset and betrayed. Heyward had a good season last year. He is a good defender with an excellent arm. His WAR was highest among all Cardinals players last season. Lackey will slide right into the middle of an experienced rotation. He is coming off a 13-10 season and will bridge the gap between Jake Arrieta and John Lester up top and Kyle Hendrick in addition to Jason Hammel likely serving as the final two starters. Lackey is 37, which is a concern in terms of repeating his 2015 success. Warren could be used as a starter or reliever appearing in 43 games overall last season and posting a 7-7 record. His addition will be a good one. I may be in the minority here, but I am not a fan of the Ben Zobrist signing. He is better than what the Cubs had however, and no one will know better how to use him than Joe Maddon. Starlin Castro’s trade shows the team believes in Addison Russell and allows him a better chance to play in position instead of being used as an experimental second baseman.
Overall– The Cubs will rely on young talent. This could be a blessing or a curse. Kris Bryant is dynamic but can frustrate given he is a high-strikeout guy. He has shown the ability to be flexible playing third base or the outfield. Anthony Rizzo is coming off a great season and finishing in fourth place finish in the MVP voting. He will have to be pitched to because this team has too many weapons. Jorge Soler showed some promise but after an injury did not seem to have Maddon’s full trust. Hector Rondon had 30 saves last season and that number should rise this season. Kyle Schwarber is something else offensively, but needs to improve defensively whether he is catching or in the outfield. This Cubs team has the potential to do some very good things but could easily flame out and be a bust. The young players will show some ups and downs but will do enough to win the division.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates 86-76
Key Additions– Neftali Feliz (FA), John Jaso (FA), Jon Niese (trade/Mets)
Key Depatures- Pedro Alvarez (FA), Neil Walker (trade/Mets), A.J. Burnett (retirement?)
Off-season assessment– A lot of people are still upset that Neil Walker was traded but it was the right move. It was clear that his stay in Pittsburgh would not be much longer and they got value in Jon Niese for him. I do think Niese will benefit from a constantly shifting Pirates defense, a luxury he did not have in New York. The Pirates have signed several bounce-back candidates. Of them, Neftali Feliz is the most likely to pan out, though Eric O’Flaherty, Cory Luebke and Daniel Bard are some of the other names. I am also a fan of the Juan Nicasio signing. He could be stretched out as a starter or play just about any role in the bullpen that the Pirates desire. John Jaso was a nice out-of-the-box signing. Pedro Alvarez was a hard worker, but overstayed his welcome. A.J. Burnett said last season was his final act, but he has not officially filed the retirement papers. He could easily pull a Roger Clemens and join a team midseason. If that happens, the Pirates could certainly be interested.
Overall – The NL Central is down this year but quietly, I feel the Pirates had a nice off-season. Gregory Polanco will be the MVP for them this season, he has to be. The power numbers need to go up, and he will show improvement on the defensive end. Jung Ho Kang’s health is a very important part of this equation. Recently he posted a video of him taking grounders. If he can be ready for Opening Day, that would be crucial but if not, Josh Harrison, Sean Rodriguez and Jason Rogers will be ready. This is Jeff Locke’s final chance. He needs to get it right this year or else the Pirates will move on. Ryan Vogelsong was an interesting acquisition. Perhaps a temporary solution for Tyler Glasnow but he can hold his own for a couple of months. Michael Morse/John Jaso will not be a power platoon, but an efficient once and certain upgrade over Pedro Alvarez. April was the month which ultimately hurt the Pirates last season, a much better start is needed.
3. St. Louis Cardinals 82-80
Key Additions– Seung Hwan Oh (FA), Mike Leake (FA), Brayan Pena (FA)
Key Departures– Jason Heyward (FA), Carlos Villanueva (FA), John Lackey (FA), Tony Cruz (trade/Royals)
Off-season assessment – Cardinals I feel will be hurt by loss of Tony Cruz. I am not a Brayan Pena fan, though he was above average at catcher last season. It is a big leap of faith that Yadier Molina can stay healthy. Mike Leake knows the NL Central well so that could be an underrated sign though I am sure Pirates fans were not happy. Jason Heyward’s loss means Stephen Piscotty is expected to take his place. He will be an OK replacement, but the Cardinals will miss Heyward. Seung-hwan Oh is a wild card. He appeared in 63 games in the JPCL and posted a 2-3 record and 2.73 ERA.
Overall – The Cardinals are a mix of age and youth. Often this is a benefit, but I am not sure that will be the case here. Adam Wainwright is a dominant pitcher when healthy, but is coming off an injury. Jaime Garcia is an injury risk every time he toes the rubber, and Michael Wacha became ineffective as the 2015 season drew to a close. Carlos Martinez is coming off a major injury and Lance Lynn is likely out for the season. In short, the starting pitching is a big question mark. Matt Carpenter is the MVP of this team and a very underrated player. Matt Holiday (36) and Jhonny Peralta (33) do not get any younger and their offensive production will likely decrease. Players such as Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk and the Matt Adams/Brandon Moss situation at first base will need to step up. If anyone can figure it out, though, it is this team, which was essentially called old when Heyward passed over them. The Cardinals will have a chip on their shoulder.
4. Milwaukee Brewers 70-92
Key Additions– Chase Anderson (trade/Diamondbacks), Aaron Hill (trade/Diamondbacks), Chris Carter (FA)
Key Departures– Khris Davis (trade/Athletics), Jean Segura (trade/Diamondbacks), Adam Lind (trade/Mariners), Francisco Rodriguez (trade/Tigers)
Off-season assessment – It is clear that the Brewers are rebuilding, but trying to remain somewhat competitive while doing so. The current talent on the roster was not going to compete with the class on the NL Central, so instead of forcing things, the Brewers recognized this and retooled. Will there be growing pains? Sure, but there is a good mix of veterans who can motivate some of the younger faces. Chris Carter is Pedro Alvarez 2.0, and Aaron Hill has some declining power but enough to be a threat.
Overall– The Brewers have an OK rotation though Jimmy Nelson is not a number two or three starter. I am a fan of Taylor Jungmann and think he will have the best year of all the starters. I would not be surprised if Ryan Braun’s power numbers go down because he will be pitched around. The off-season eliminated a lot of his protection. Chris Carter strikes out often and Hill will not scare opposing pitchers. Jonathan Lucroy should have a bounce back 2016 and can play first base if needed.
5. Cincinnati Reds– 62-100
Key Additions– Jose Peraza (Todd Frazier trade)
Key Departures– Todd Frazier (trade/White Sox), Aroldis Chapman (trade/Yankees)
Off-season assessment – How does this benefit the Reds? Right now, it does not. They are clearly in rebuilding mode and this will be a rough season. Getting rid of both Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman was expected as this team looks to hit the reset button.
Overall – This will be a tough season and the Reds will not be done dealing. It would be reasonable to expect Jay Bruce to depart at the trade deadline and the team likely would entertain offers for Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips could have joined Dusty Baker in Washington, but decided not to do so. As Phillips gets older, his distractions will continue to overshadow his play which is a shame because he is a gifted defender. The rest of the pitching staff should never be more than penciled in. Zach Cozart will return from injury, and Eugenio Suarez will take over at third base.