We are five weeks away from actual baseball. While Spring Training games still haven't started, it is time for my second divisional preview, this time focusing on the National League Central. (I did the NL East last Saturday, so check that out too.) This division is a competitive one, with three teams bunched closely at the top.
1. Chicago Cubs -- 2015 Record: 97-65; 2016 Projection: 100-62
The Cubs took the third-best team in baseball and made it even better this offseason. The team went 97-65 last season, and though they finished third in this very division, the team raced through the playoffs before being eliminated by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. The Cubs just did not have the deep rotation they needed to outlast the Mets and that showed. The Cubs were swept.
Naturally, the first thing the Cubs did this offseason was add John Lackey, an established veteran starter and at a pretty good rate too. Lackey, now 37, cannot be expected to repeat his great 2015 (2.77 ERA in 218 IP), but still should be more than capable as the third best starter in the Cubs' rotation, behind reigning NL Cy Young Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester.
The Cubs also added Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist this offseason, as well as re-upping Dexter Fowler's contract, giving them an absolutely stacked lineup. I knew Chicago had a good lineup, but after looking at it again, I'm astonished at the actual result. It includes: Heyward, Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Fowler, Miguel Montero, and Addison Russell. This team is built to steamroll everyone else.
2. St. Louis Cardinals -- 2015 Record: 100-62; Projection: 94-68
The Cardinals were the best team in baseball last season, and they became the first team to win 100 games since the 2011 Phillies won 102. Their offseason was more about subtraction than addition, and in such a competitive NL Central division, they will be a bit worse in 2016 as compared to their unstoppable 2015 squad. It's still hard to pick against a team that has made the postseason five years in a row and 12 times since 2000, so I have them taking a Wild Card spot in the National League.
This offseason, the Cardinals did add three underrated pieces: Mike Leake, Jedd Gyorko, and Seung-hwan Oh (otherwise known as "The Final Boss" in Korea). The Cards took a hit with the losses of Jason Heyward and John Lackey to their division-rival Cubs. Their pitching staff should still be one of the best, though, as Adam Wainwright will be completely healthy, and the addition of Leake makes him their No. 4 starter, flashing the amount of depth they have there. The bullpen should be anchored by Trevor Rosenthal, Oh, and others. The Cardinals' pitching staff, as always, is great.
As for their lineup, the loss of Heyward hurts. The "oomph" in the middle of the order has to be picked up by Jhonny Peralta, who posted just a 102 OPS+ in 2015. Matt Adams also becomes completely healthy in 2016, but as a whole, the lineup may have some weaknesses. They are going to need increased production from young players like Randal Grichuk (who was great last year), Kolten Wong, and Stephen Piscotty to make up for the loss of Heyward.
Overall, the Cardinals will need to win a lot of games 4-3 or 3-2 if they want to remain competitive. Knowing the Cardinals, that will probably happen, as they find themselves in a bullfight with the Pittsburgh Pirates for second in the National League Central.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates -- 2015 Record: 98-64; Projection: 93-69
The Pirates have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and it almost appears that the fans in Pittsburgh have completely forgotten the two decades of terrible to mediocre (at best) Pirates teams. The National League is very top heavy, so it may be tough for the Pirates to beat out other likely Wild Card contenders, like the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Giants, Dodgers, Mets, or Nationals. They did win 98 games last year, and most of their team is returning in 2016, so there's no reason to believe that this year will be any sort of regression for the team, even if they do miss the playoffs.
The biggest losses for the Pirates come in the likes of J.A. Happ, Aramis Ramirez, and Neil Walker. The biggest of those three is Walker, who the Pirates traded to the Mets for Jon Niese. Projected to replace him is prospect Alen Hanson until Jung-ho Kang returns from injury. As a whole, the lineup is still centered around five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen, but needs increased production from Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to have any chance of catching the Cubs.
The biggest question mark for the Pirates is the rotation, which is solidified with Ryan Vogelsong and the aforementioned Niese. I'd be even more worried if the Pirates did not have Ray Searage, who is probably the best at fixing up pitchers and giving the team value in ways that other teams just don't have. The rotation, led by budding ace Gerrit Cole may have the biggest upside for the team just because of Searage. In general, the Pirates will still win 90 games, but a few things have to go their way in order for them to eclipse the 95 mark like they did last season.
4. Cincinnati Reds -- 2015 Record: 64-98; Projection: 65-97
The Reds finally began to embrace a rebuild over the summer, trading Johnny Cueto to the Royals. This narrative continued over the offseason, dealing star closer Aroldis Chapman to the Yankees and third baseman Todd Frazier to the White Sox. Perhaps the only exciting part of the 2015 Reds was the return of Joey Votto's dominance. After a 2014 where he only played in 60 games, Votto had the best OPS+ of his career (min. 500 at bats), posting an even 1.000 OPS, good for a 174 OPS+. Votto finished only behind Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt in the NL MVP voting.
Besides Votto, there's not much to like about the 2016 Reds. Their biggest additions this offseason were all prospects, coming in the form of Jose Peraza, Eric Jagielo, and Rookie Davis. Cincinnati's minor league system may actually be more fun for fans to watch than their Major League club. Besides those three, Tyler Stephenson, Jesse Winkler, Cody Reed, and may others give the Reds a promising future.
The Reds could end up even worse in 2016 than projected if they decide to complete their teardown, which may mean dealing outfielder Jay Bruce and catcher Devin Mesoraco. Other than that, the 2016 Reds season is all about the development of their top prospects and the possibility that they begin to make their way up to the Majors, meaning that they will suffer in the win column.
5. Milwaukee Brewers -- 2015 Record: 68-94; Projection: 64-98
Like the Reds, the Brewers are in the midst of a rebuilding phase. They are under new leadership in the front office, hiring David Stearns to be their general manager last September. Stearns took the rebuild to heart this offseason, getting rid of any players that carried legitimate value. First baseman Adam Lind, outfielder Khris Davis, closer Francisco Rodriguez, and infielder Jean Segura are all in new homes.
Again like the Reds, the Brewers still have a couple big names on their roster, in catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder Ryan Braun. Lucroy in particular would net the Brewers a large return, but it appears that the team is waiting until his value is a little higher before pulling the trigger, if they decide to do at all. I liked Stearns' additions of Chris Carter, Will Middlebrooks, Garin Cecchini, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis this offseason; they are all guys that could prove valuable for future Brewers teams or could be trade deadline pieces. All of them serve a purpose, and I don't think it's just to "eat" at bats in 2016.
As for their pitching, I'm interested in Jimmy Nelson, who had a fairly solid rookie season last year, worth 2.1 fWAR. He struggled against left-handers, but with experience, may be able to turn into a fairly solid pitcher. For Brewers fans, though, this season is all about seeing prospect growth and hoping they'll be ready to contend in 2017 or 2018.
Next up: NL West.