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NL Central Preview: Can the Cardinals or Brewers Challenge The Cubs?

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The National League Central is poised to be a competitive race deep into September with the Cardinals and Brewers looking to challenge the Cubs.

It is arguable that the National League Central has been the most active overall when it comes to acquiring talent. After the Yu Darvish signing, the Chicago Cubs are hoping that his inclusion in the starting rotation will more than compensate for the loss of star pitcher Jake Arrieta. Meanwhile, the Cardinals made an aggressive bid to improve their offense with the addition of Marcell Ozuna while the Brewers stole the headlines in January — signing Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich in the span of an hour — and are also one of the finalists to sign Arrieta.

Last year, only the Chicago Cubs made the postseason from the National League Central. However, the Milwaukee Brewers were surprisingly good, falling just one game out of a Wild Card berth, while the St. Louis Cardinals failed in their late-season push for the postseason.

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ESPN

Meanwhile, the Pirates and the Reds didn’t add any significant players to their existing cores. For the Pirates, their only major moves involved trading franchise icon Andrew McCutchen and star pitcher Gerrit Cole. For the Reds, they lost Zack Cozart to the Angels and likely plan on installing the young Jose Peraza to take his spot.

Here are my thoughts and predictions for the upcoming 2018 season:

First Place: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs were clearly observing the aggressive moves the Brewers had been making because they countered with a big move of their own. In February, they signed Yu Darvish to a six-year deal, erasing any doubt that they are the team to beat in the division.

With all of their position players still under contract, Chicago returns the same lineup they had last year.

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Strengths: Depth. This is a team that has Javier Baez and Ian Happ on the bench. These are two players that would be starters on many other teams. Baez and Happ also are incredibly versatile and can play numerous positions if the situation called for it. Happ can play all three outfield positions while Baez is able to play at second base, shortstop, or third base.

Weaknesses: Left field and bullpen. The Cubs are making a mistake in left field. Let’s be honest, Kyle Schwarber is a terrible outfielder. Defensively, he is an incredible liability and had a -9 defensive runs saved (DRS) last year, which was one of the worst in baseball. Meanwhile, on the offensive end, while he does have power, he is a low average and low OBP guy who clogs the basepaths if he does get on base. He is best suited for a DH role in the American League due to his limited range defensively. Since Ian Happ, Schwarber’s would-be replacement, clobbered 24 home runs in 2017 in 115 games, Schwarber would be adequately replaced with a young player who could provide a similar offensive impact while playing better defense. Therefore, Happ would be a better option.

Schwarber could be a potential trade chip to a needy AL club in return for much-needed bullpen help. Although Brandon Morrow is penciled in as the closer right now, the Cubs ideally would want another option as a late-inning pitcher following the departure of Wade Davis.

Key Position Battle To Watch: Outfield Bench. Ian Happ figures to be the favorite early but the Cubs will probably want another outfielder to compete for a bench role. Victor Caratini may be an option, but he is more of a catcher. Peter Bourjos, who signed with the Cubs on February 1st, would be another name that makes sense due to his exceptional defense in center fielder. He would be a perfect late-inning defensive replacement for the club. However, if Caratini becomes an option in the outfield, the Cubs will have three bench outfielders for most likely only two spots.

Prediction: If the Cubs did not sign a frontline starter like Darvish, their first place ranking was tenuous at best. However, the Cubs signed Darvish, who gives the club a frontline starter that replaces the outgoing Jake Arrieta. The Cubs currently have the necessary depth that will be useful in the event of an injury, and the star tandem of Bryant and Rizzo will power the Cubs lineup which is well-balanced and strong from one to eight. The Cubs should make the playoffs again and are the easy favorites to win the division.

Second Place: St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals, after missing the postseason for the second straight year, were in a position to make a splash in the offseason. After finishing the 2017 season seventh in the National League in runs scored (761) and eighth with a .760 OPS, the Cardinals sought offensive upgrades this offseason. Although their offensive statistics are around the league average, the hope was that a middle-of-the-order slugger would propel them from an average offense to an elite one.

Enter Marcell Ozuna. The Cardinals first tried to trade for his ex-teammate Giancarlo Stanton, and I argued previously why that would be a sensible fit. However, he refused to waive his no-trade clause for them, forcing the club to move on. Stanton’s rejection of a trade to St. Louis led the club to Ozuna, who was one of the best sluggers in the game last year, batting .312 with 37 homeruns and 124 runs batted in. The hope is that his addition to the lineup will result in an offense capable of competing with the top teams (Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals) in the National League.

With Ozuna in the fold, the Cardinals 2018 lineup now looks like this:

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Strengths: Top of the Order. The Cardinals have two high-OBP players at the top of the lineup. Since 2012, Carpenter and Fowler are ranked 11th and 14th respectively in OBP (Carpenter at .378 and Fowler at .371). Their ability to get on-base should open up opportunities for breakout star Tommy Pham and Marcell Ozuna to inflict serious damage on opposing pitchers.

Weaknesses: Third Base. Jedd Gyorko is not a bad player by any means and carried a wRC+ of 112 over the past two years, which is slightly above the league average. However, Gyorko’s slugging percentage has also declined over the past two years. For a team looking to make a playoff run and hoping to score more runs than in 2017, the Cardinals may want to acquire another slugger to pair with Ozuna in the heart of the lineup. I expect the Cardinals to open with Gyorko at the hot corner, but if his slugging percentage continues to decline, the Cardinals may inquire (again) about the availability of Josh Donaldson in July.

Key Position Battle To Watch: Starting Rotation. The position players are pretty entrenched in their roles. However, the Cardinals may need to analyze their starting rotation. Jack Flaherty is an enticing prospect, but can he make his way into the starting rotation? Right now, the only locks for the rotation are Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Mike Mikolas. Luke Weaver had a good year in 2017, pitching to a 7-2 record with a 1.26 WHIP and a 3.88 ERA. It is his spot to lose, but Flaherty performing well in Spring Training can make this an interesting decision. Besides Martinez, a competition in Spring Training may change the remaining rotation order.

Prediction: The Cardinals were not a bad team by any stretch last year; they just were not good enough to make the postseason. With Marcell Ozuna in the fold, this is a team that is significantly stronger offensively. With a strong pitching staff that is returning intact, the Cardinals are once again a strong favorite to earn a Wild Card spot.

Third Place: Milwaukee Brewers

After finishing 86-76 last year and one game out of the postseason, the Brewers decided it was time to go for it and compete. Although many, including the oddsmakers, expect some regression from the Brewers, it is hard to argue that after examining their lineup. Manager Craig Counsell is going to be able to mix and match his lineups frequently this year. With the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers suddenly have a great problem: too much depth. How the Brewers finalize their Opening Day roster will have numerous implications not only for them, but for other clubs that have expressed interest in some of their players, mainly their excess outfielders.

Since the Brewers have the depth to constantly change their starting lineup, it makes it very difficult for me to project what their usual daily lineup will be. However, assuming nothing changes from now until Opening Day (which is incredibly unlikely), this is the Brewers’ projected lineup for 2018:
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Strengths: Position Depth. The Brewers currently have Domingo Santana, Jesus Aguilar, Hernan Perez, Eric Sogard, and Manny Pina on the bench. Santana is a starter on any other team besides the Brewers unless they move Ryan Braun to first. If Villar struggles, Sogard can be substituted in. Jesus Aguilar can replace Thames against left-handed pitching. Hernan Perez can give Shaw a few more days off this year and potentially replace him when the club plays against left-handed pitching. Manny Pina will platoon with Stephen Vogt. The depth the Brewers have is a manager’s best-case scenario. Craig Counsell will be able to roll with the hot hand throughout the season and play whoever he wants.

Weaknesses: Pitching depth. They need starting pitching if they want to contend with the Cubs and Cardinals. Jake Arrieta would be a perfect signing for them. With Jimmy Nelson out for the start of the 2018 season, the Brewers will have a rotation consisting of Zack Davies, Chase Anderson, Yovani Gallardo, Jhoulys Chacin, and Brent Suter, with Wade Miley also being in the mix. Many of these pitchers have not been reliable on a consistent basis.

Key Position Battle To Watch: Many. The Brewers could have a lot of roster turnover and lineup shakeups throughout Spring Training. The outfield needs to be sorted out, but Brewers GM David Stearns will probably look to trade a couple of players for a quality starting pitcher. However, I think the starting catcher role is an interesting battle to watch. I debated whether to put Stephen Vogt or Manny Pina as the starter, and I went with the veteran, but a strong Spring Training performance from Pina could easily change the projected lineup above; it is an open competition.

Prediction: The Brewers are definitely the most enigmatic team right now because they are the most likely team to make significant moves before Opening Day. Even if they stand pat, this is a team that should at least perform similarly to last season. If they add more pitching to their rotation, however, the Brewers could be quite good. Although I think the Brewers will fall in the standings, they should be contenders for one of the Wild Card spots in 2018. Expect a close race to the finish just like the previous year.

Fourth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates

It is easy to feel sorry for Pirates fans. They had arguably one of the roughest offseasons in recent history. They watched their team trim payroll even more and watched as their ace pitcher, Gerrit Cole, and face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen, get traded away. In fact, this offseason was so torturous for Pirates fans that they even started a petition to remove their owner.

Pirates fans are fed up with losing, and unfortunately, the Pirates made no substantial upgrades to inspire any confidence in a club that won 75 games last year. This season, the Pirates return a similar lineup to last year, the only difference being the absence of McCutchen:

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Strengths: Balanced Defensive Lineup. The Pirates may not have anyone that can be considered a star, but they do have a lineup with no obvious defensive holes. Marte in center will be an upgrade over McCutchen, who was worth a -.1.1 DWAR at the position last year. Although Bell and Polanco grade out as average players defensively at their respective positions, Frazier is a slightly above-average left fielder, Harrison is a solid second baseman (1.1 DWAR), and Mercer (0.6 DWAR) and Freese (0.9 DWAR) can hold their own.

Weaknesses: Offense. The Pirates had a lineup last year that ranked 28th in OPS and runs scored and 29th in homeruns. Their move to fix it was to trade Andrew McCutchen, arguably their best offensive player. Then they added nobody to help their offense. The Pirates are going to have a tough time putting runs on the board, and if the team grants Josh Harrison a trade, this problem will just get worse.

Key Position Battle To Watch: Fifth Starting Pitcher. Without Gerrit Cole in the mix, a rotation spot has opened up. It looks like Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams have spots, but an open competition between Joe Musgrove, who was a part of the Gerrit Cole trade, Tyler Glasnow, and Steven Brault will probably determine the last spot. Glasnow made the starting rotation out of Spring Training last year but was demoted after 12 starts. Brault pitched well in Triple-A Indianapolis, but then was unspectacular in four starts at the Major League level, sporting a 4.50 ERA. Musgrove, despite his rough time as a starter, proved to be a solid reliever with a 1.44 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 31 ⅓ innings last season. Manager Clint Hurdle could have a tough decision to make.

Prediction: The Pirates will not be a playoff team this year. Their division is too strong and the team’s glaring weaknesses still remain. This is a team that is closer to jockeying with the Reds for last place in the division than competing with the likes of the Cardinals and Brewers. At least 90 losses seems incredibly realistic.

Last Place: Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds were terrible last year, finishing with a 68-94 record. Yet despite their record, the lineup remains pretty unchanged, aside from swapping in Jose Peraza at shortstop while allowing Zack Cozart to walk to Anaheim in free agency.

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Strengths: Joey Votto. This is pretty straightforward, right? Joey Votto was arguably the best all-around hitter in all of baseball last year. In fact, some argued that he should have won the NL MVP Award instead of Stanton despite his team’s record. Joey Votto is an offensive threat that has significant power, can get on base at a high frequency, and can carry a Reds lineup on any given night.

Weaknesses: Leadoff hitter. Billy Hamilton is a very fun player to watch. His speed and quickness make him a threat on the basepaths. His speed also makes him one of the best defensive center fielders in all of baseball. However, for Hamilton to be more effective, he needs to get on base more. A .299 OBP is not going to cut it and is simply unacceptable from a leadoff hitter. Hamilton is going to need to make some major improvements offensively this year or else he may be in trouble of losing not only his spot at the top of the lineup, but his starting job in center field.

Key Position Battle To Watch: Outfield. Jesse Winker remains a tantalizing prospect for the Reds. He will be in Arizona during Spring Training looking to possibly steal one of the starting outfield spots from the current starters. Scott Schleber can possibly move over to center should Hamilton bottom out, but then it makes the Reds outfield significantly weaker defensively. A strong defensive performance from Winker in Spring Training may convince manager Bryan Price to tinker with the starting spots.

Prediction: The Reds have one of the best hitters in the game stuck on a team with a weak supporting cast and a lousy pitching staff. Cincinnati can maybe leapfrog the Pirates in the standings, but it is still more likely that they are in the National League cellar and have another season of at least 90 losses.

(All statistics and information came from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

SQuiz
When is the last time the Milwaukee Brewers won the National League Central division title?
Created 2/19/18
  1. 2007
  2. 2011
  3. 2004
  4. 2013

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