In part two of our divisional preview series, we look at 2015’s best division, the National League Central. The St. Louis Cardinals won a tightly-contested division last year, finishing with an MLB-best 100-62 record. Close behind were the Pittsburgh Pirates, (two games back), and Chicago Cubs, (three games). After a busy offseason of trades and signings, much of the same is expected this season, although with a different favorite.
The Cubs won 97 games in 2015, but finished only third in the division, earning a wild card spot against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs decided that wasn’t good enough, and made some major additions to this year’s squad.
SP Jake Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young award, and returns to anchor a rotation that added some firepower in the form of former Cardinal RHP John Lackey. The team also made improvements at the plate and in the field; with OF Jason Heyward and utilityman Ben Zobrist joining the cause, and resigned OF Dexter Fowler.
With these additions and probable improvements from youngsters like 3B Kris Bryant, SS Addison Russell and C/OF Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs have arguably the best lineup in the National League. If there’s a weakness to this team, it’s the bullpen, but only minor changes have been made to the best bullpen in the NL in 2015. Between the impressive offense, improved defense, solid rotation and bullpen, the Cubs could be the best team in the majors in 2016.
Often times, when one team in a division has the best record in the majors, another team in the same division has the worst record. That appears to be a possibility with the Cubs and Reds in 2016. The Reds are in full-on rebuild mode after trading away some big names for prospects in the offseason. Gone are familiar faces like closer Aroldis Chapman, 3B Todd Frazier, and OF Jay Bruce.
They also tried to move 2B Brandon Phillips, but he exercised his no-trade clause to stay in the Queen City. The Reds rolled with an all-rookie rotation in the second half of 2015, and will again lean on youngsters there this season. The “ace” of the staff is probably Anthony DeSclafani, who pitched to a 9-13 record and 4.05 ERA over 185 innings in 2015. Homer Bailey has ace-like ability when healthy, but is recovering from Tommy John surgery last year.
Phillips and All Star 1B Joey Votto anchor a lineup that will also feature many young players, including former Los Angeles Dodgers OF Scott Schebler, who has made a big splash early in Spring Training. However, the inexperience across the board and lack of known firepower is likely leave the Reds with a last-place finish in the standings.
The Brewers are another team that’s in rebuilding mode, and are likely headed for a rough finish in the standings in 2016. Although they still retain some veteran presence, key players such as 1B Adam Lind, IF Jean Segura, OF Khris Davis, and 3B Aramis Ramirez are gone. C Jonathan Lucroy is likely to be dealt this year by the trade deadline.
The Brewers return four of their five starting pitchers, only Kyle Lohse is gone, from a team that went 68-94 in 2015, and added some good young prospects. But the lineup, apart from Lucroy and former “unclean” MVP OF Ryan Braun, is either unproven or just not very good.
One highlight could be veteran IF Aaron Hill, who came over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in return for Segura and hopes to return to his 2012-13 form that saw him hit near .300 with 37 home runs in around 1000 at-bats. Also gone is closer and 2015 saves leader Francisco Rodriguez, who will likely be replaced in the 9th inning by Will Smith (if he isn’t traded too). There just aren’t enough quality pieces here to expect better than a losing season.
The 2015 Pirates won 98 games, but only managed second place in the best division in baseball. Two key losses doomed the Pirates in late 2015: first, SS Jung Ho Kang suffered a broken leg in a collision at second base, and then the Pirates lost the wild card game to the Cubs. Kang will be back, likely at third base this year, and the Pirates look poised to make a run at another great season.
SP Gerrit Cole will lead the way in the rotation after a great 2015, and should continue to improve at just 25 years old. SP Francisco Liriano has experienced a career rebirth in Pittsburgh, and also returns to the rotation. On offense, in addition to Kang, the Pirates are led by perennial MVP candidate OF Andrew McCutchen, and All Star OF Starling Marte.
2B Neil Walker has moved on, but the Pirates have super-utility player Josh Harrison ready to step into an everyday role. Closer Mark Melancon experienced a breakout last year and should continue to be a saves machine. The Pirates look ready to contend with the Cubs and Cardinals for the division crown again in 2016.
St. Louis Cardinals
The 2015 Cardinals got off to a hot start and never slowed down, ending the season with an even 100 wins. This year’s team will probably be hard-pressed to match that total, but the Cardinals weren’t expected to be that good last year, either.
Lackey and Heyward departed for the Cubs, but those are the only major departures from last year’s 100-win team. They also added 1B Brandon Moss and SP Mike Leake, who threw a complete game two-hitter in his last start of 2015. They’ll also be getting a healthy Adam Wainwright back into the rotation, and he has Cy Young potential when he’s healthy. SPs Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha round out an impressive front four.
Heyward will be difficult to replace, and the Cards will use a combination of young talent to do it, with OFs Stephen Piscotty and Randall Grichuk. Elder statesman OF Matt Holliday should produce well if he can stay healthy. The bullpen is full of flamethrowers, including 100 MPH closer Trevor Rosenthal, and Korean star Seung Hwan Oh. If there’s one thing we should’ve learned over the last 10 years in the NL Central: “never count the Cardinals out.”
Like the NL West, the Central will be a three-team race all season long. The Cubs, Pirates and Cardinals all won at least 97 games in 2015; next best in the NL was the Dodgers’ 92. Unlike the NL West, however, there appears to be an actual front-runner.
While the Cardinals and Pirates will be very, very good once again, the Cubs appear to have taken another step with major additions in the off-season, and tremendous depth throughout the roster. The Cubs are likely to be the best team in baseball in 2016.
Statistics provided by: MLB.com and FanGraphs.com
Images thanks to: MLB.com, baseball brains, Chicago Sun Tribune, Riverfront Grumble, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Fox Sports, CBS, intheivy.com