2017 MLB Season Preview: The NL Central

The Chicago Cubs are reigning World Series champions, and are heavy favorites to win the NL Central again. Can anyone stop them? We examine each team’s prospects ahead of Opening Day.

#1 The Chicago Cubs

For the first time in over a century, the Chicago Cubs are reigning World Series champions, and they have a clear path to winning the NL Central and getting right back into the playoffs again. 24 year old 3B Kris Bryant had an incredible year with 121 runs, 102 RBIs, and an astounding 7.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Considering it’s only Bryant’s second year, he could reasonably continue improving and become one of the greatest players in the league and continue to propel the Cubs offense. Even if Bryant simply returns to his rookie year performance, he’ll still be a great asset for the Cubs. 1B Anthony Rizzo and 2B Ben Zobrist were also great at the plate last year, with 94 runs each and slugging .544 and .446 respectively, creating one of the most explosive offenses in the league. The Cubs also had one of the best bullpens in the league, with Starters Jon Lester (19 Ws, 2.44 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks (16 Ws, 2.13 ERA). Overall, if the Cubs are able to merely reenact their previous season, they will be well on their way to 100 wins and another shot at the World Series.

The Cubs open on April 2nd against the Cardinals, and have their home opener on April 11th against the Dodgers.

#2 The Pittsburgh Pirates

For the Pirates, it all depends on Pitcher Gerrit Cole and now-right fielder Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen had an uncharacteristically average year last year, with his WAR dropping from 5 in 2015 to -0.7 in 2016. That means McCutchen was a net negative for the Pirates last year, for the first time his career, and is likely why he has been moved from Center to Right Field in the offseason. His lightning speed was seemingly gone last year, with his stolen bases dropping down to 6 last year from a high of 27 in 2013 and him grounding into more double plays last year. There is possibly no other team who’s fortunes rest so heavily on one man: if McCutchen rebounds back to previous form the Pirates will be playoff contenders, but if he remains in mediocrity the Pirates will remain lost. Another Pirates player who had an off year: Starting Pitcher Gerrit Cole. Cole’s ERA jumped from 2.60 to 3.88 last year, and his wins sunk from 19 to 7. Cole’s mediocrity hit the Pirates bullpen hard, and if he rebounds the Bucs will have a threatening rotation again. The Pirates may be one of the hardest teams to predict this year, as they can either completely collapse or jump into greatness depending on how a few key players perform.

The Pirates open on April 3rd against the Red Sox, and have their home opener is April 7th against the Braves.

#3 The St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals had a disappointing 2016 season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and have gone through a reshuffle in an attempt to better their playoff chances. Matt Carpenter has been bumped to 1st Base, their 3rd base spot is still up in the air, and the Cardinals acquired Dexter Fowler from the Cubs in an attempt to bolster their defense and batting. The Cardinals were 11th in the NL in defensive efficiency (how many hits are converted to outs), which the Cardinals need to improved if they want a playoff shot this year. On the mound, their pitching was mediocre outside of Carlos Martinez, who had 16 wins and 3.04 ERA. This was a huge downturn from the bullpen that had been dominant throughout 2015, and was another factor in the Cardinals worsened performance. At the plate, the Cardinals are going hoping to continue improving Rookie of the Year candidate Aledmys Díaz, who batted .300 with 71 runs last season. Overall, this season for the Cardinals will depend on if they can improve their defense, both on and off the mound, and continue to develop their young players.

The Cardinals have their home opener on April 2nd against the Cubs.

#4 The Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers continue to make progress in their rebuilding efforts, as they’ve picked up stellar outfield prospects Lewis Brinson and Corey Ray through trades and the draft, respectively. Their best starting pitcher is also very young, as 23 year old Zach Davies had 11 wins and 3.97 ERA last season. 31 year old Junior Guerra also looked fairly good in the 12 games he started last year, with 9 wins and 2.81 ERA. On offense, 25 year old Shortstop Jonathan Villar lead the team with 92 runs, largely because of his crazy 62 stolen bases. Overall, don’t expect greatness from this Brewers squad this year, but keep an eye on them in the future as their rebuild starts to show results.

The Brewers have their home opener on April 3rd against the Rockies

#5 The Cincinnati Reds

I’d recommend Reds fans watch the Cavaliers and Blue Jackets and avoid baseball if they want to root for winning teams. The Reds went a dismal 68-94 last year, and yet managed to have the 22nd-best WAR of players acquired in the draft and have only the 13th-best farm team in MLB. Their starting pitching was nothing to write home about outside of 23 year old Brandon Finnegan, who had 10 wins and 3.98 ERA and should improve as he ages. On offense, only 32 year old 1B Joey Votto played well, with a .326 batting average and 101 runs, and he may end up getting traded to further the Reds’ rebuilding efforts. Cincinnati is likely going to bottom out this year unless something unusual happens, and they’ll have to fix their draft and farm processes if they want to come back and compete.

The Reds have their home opener against the Phillies on April 3rd.

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