N.L. Central Division Preview (03/30/17)

By Frank Brank @realfrankbrank

Our fifth installment of MLB Divisional Previews features the N.L. Central, where it would take a monumental effort (and some luck) from any team to dethrone the World Series Champion, Chicago Cubs.

It's no surprise the Cubs are the best team in the N.L. Central and the best team in the Majors overall. They have 84.5% odds of winning the division and 19.7% chance, nearly one in five, of winning the World Series. Their lineup ranks second overall in baseball with few changes from a powerhouse lineup a season ago. The departure of Dexter Fowler to the division rival Cardinals certainly downgrades the outfield; however, an entire season of Kyle Schwarber roaming around in left field is likely a net positive. The biggest rival to Kris Bryant's second straight N.L. MVP may be their other corner infielder, Anthony Rizzo. With an extremely talented bat in Willson Contreras penciled into the seven-hole in the lineup, the Cubs' offense is nothing short of ridiculously good.

The only change to the Cubs rotation is the departure of Jason Hammel, who will be replaced by a combination of Mike Montgomery and Brett Anderson. The trio of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks is as good as they come. Though Hendricks doesn't have the look of a standout, he pitched to a 2.13 ERA and induced some of the weakest contact by starting pitchers last year. We could envision John Lackey taking a step back this season, but he is still as good as any fourth starter in the league.

Wade Davis will take over the closer role from Aroldis Chapman, who departed to the Yankees. Hector Rondon will continue to be the set up man, while Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards will bridge the rest of the important innings. The only real question mark in the pen is with Edwards. Joe Maddon has given Edwards more leash than you'd expect from a player with a career 3.76 ERA over two seasons; however, he's vastly underperformed his 2.92 FIP and 37.7% strikeout rate. With other capable arms like Justin Grimm and Koji Uehara rounding out the pen, this Cubs squad has more depth than any team in recent memory.

Dexter Fowler is the newcomer to the Cardinals lineup, while everyone else has stayed put. The key to the Cardinals offensive success this season will be the production of the young bucks; Randall Grichuck, Stephen Piscotty, and Aledmys Diaz. All three proved to be plus hitters last season and productive players overall. Diaz struggled in the field last season but still has plenty of room to improve at 26-years-old. The lineup isn't as deep as that of the Cubs, but still pretty good overall. St. Louis will count on Matt Carpenter to put together another solid season in the middle of the order if they hope to keep pace with Chicago.

The rotation will also welcome one newcomer but not of the type that you'd typically expect, as Lance Lynn is returning from Tommy John surgery. It seems many have forgotten just how effective Lynn was at the Major League level prior to surgery. Lynn supports a career 3.37 ERA in four full seasons where he threw at least 175 innings in each. The biggest question mark will be Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is getting older at 35 and age regression hit him hard last season. He did nearly reach 200 innings; however, it wasn't productive at a 4.62 ERA. Michael Wacha was also a disappointment at 5.09 ERA but his 3.91 FIP suggests he was very unlucky. Luke Weaver is a great sixth option to have if the back-end of the rotation struggles in the early going.

The bullpen got a major overhaul over the last season. Trevor Rosenthal is slowly on his way out, and expected to be out until mid-April with a bad back. Seung-Hwan Oh will handle the closer role after throwing to a 1.92 ERA, 2.13 FIP last season. Hard-throwing lefty Kyle Siegrist will likely be the set up man, but Jonathan Broxton or Brett Cecil could move up and down throughout the bullpen depending on the match up and rest situations. St. Louis' bullpen is not what we would call "lights out", but they are solid nonetheless. Thanks to the Cubs, the Cards have only a 13.1% chance of winning the division, but their odds of making the playoffs are closer to a coin flip. This is a really good baseball club playing in the wrong division.

The Pirates lineup took huge steps last year after working more walks and hitting the ball in the air more often; however, they already took a setback for 2017. Jung-Ho Kang has been denied a visa to work in the United States due to multiple DUIs in South Korea. This will stress the need of Andrew McCutchen to put together a full season closer to his post-deadline production last season. The Pirates will hope and need the continued progress of now center fielder, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco as well. Prospect, Josh Bell, showed extreme patience at the plate last season but has struggled so far during the spring, after a small setback from injury. Regardless, Bell could potentially be hitting in the two-spot this season and is more than capable of coming alive with the bat.

Pittsburgh's rotation could have widely variant results. Ivan Nova was brought back after yet another revitalization by pitching coach, Ray Searage, and will sit in the middle of the rotation. Youngsters like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and company may not be entirely there yet as far as Major League production goes, but the Pirates will have control of all of these young arms for the next six seasons, at least. Their performance this season will be a huge step forward to see who can compete at the MLB level. The rotation is anchored by an elite arm in Gerrit Cole, but there is major uncertainty across the board.

The bullpen has been slightly shaken up, as well. All-star closer, Mark Melancon, was moved at the deadline for Felipe Rivero. Rivero, in fact, is the guy to watch in the bullpen this year for the Bucs. He's allowed a total of one hit in the spring to date. He shows an upper-90s fastball, a wipeout slider, and an unhittable changeup when he's throwing strikes. Daniel Hudson, who struggled in Arizona, will be throwing late innings as well, but if he struggles to any degree, the Pirates have the ability to move past him with arms like Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio ready to fill in. There's a lot of uncertainty with a bit of upside with this Pirates team but we don't like their projection just yet. They have a mere 1.5% chance of winning the division and 9.3% chance of making the playoffs.

The back end of the N.L. Central doesn't have much going for them. Starting with the Reds, they lack any real chance of competing with this roster. Joey Votto is the only trustworthy hitter at the moment; though, Billy Hamilton has shown to be a plus player using his insane speed, despite lacking the ability to consistently reach base. Adam Duvall has shown some power in left field, but he only came up with 104 wRC+ last season (4% above average) despite hitting 33 home runs. Votto is already 33-years-old and is on the books until at least 2023. It's fair to assume he's on the verge of a decline as he reaches his mid-30s; thus, one would guess the Reds are going to be trying to move his salary during the season, especially if he begins the season on an upswing.

You'll be hard pressed to find a worse group of pitchers than the Reds staff. Scott Feldman, Brandon Finnegan, and Cody Reed are the only recognizable names in the rotation, and they aren't very good. The bullpen does show some promise after having one of the worst years for bullpens in recent memory last year. Raisel Iglesias is their best overall arm and should probably be in the rotation to boost his future trade value. There really isn't a whole lot to be excited for in Cincinnati this season.

The Brewers are equally as bad as the Reds. We expect their lineup to strikeout a ton following last season, where they led the league with a 25.5% K rate. The corner infielders are the new guys in town. Travis Shaw has come over from Boston and Eric Thames has joined from the KBO. Let's focus on Thames as he's the most exciting player of the bunch. There are typically huge uncertainties that come with signing players who excel in foreign leagues; however, projection systems like Steamer, ZiPS, and Davenport have done well recently in projecting players like Jung-Ho Kang and Byung-Ho Park. Thames is currently projected to hit 25 to 30 home runs for Milwaukee by these projection systems in just under 500 plate appearances. If he got a fuller season, around 600 plate appearances, he'd likely be projected near 30 in all cases. For reference, Thames hit 87 home runs over the last two seasons in Korea with a triple slash of .348/.450/.720 in his three seasons there. Thames could potentially match the output of Ryan Braun, but there are significant issues at the top and bottom of this order.

The starting rotation isn't as bad as the Reds', but they'll have their own struggles nevertheless. The entire rotation has returned from last year and will host Junior Guerra as the “ace.” Guerra did pitch to a 2.81 ERA last season over 121.2 innings where he showed a plus splitter that induced a lot of swings and weak contact. However, his 3.71 FIP does suggest a bit of regression may be on its way. Zach Davies showed some promise, as well. Davies pitched to a 3.97 ERA, 3.89 FIP in Miller Park in 2016, but that's better than it seems. If we adjust for the effects of pitching in that park (ERA-, FIP-), Davies was about 8% better than league average in run prevention. The rotation will be rounded out by Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta, who are less than desirable at this point in their careers.

After trading Tyler Thornburg to Boston and Jeremy Jeffress to Texas, the Brewers bullpen is decimated. Neftali Feliz was signed in the offseason after having a good year for the Pirates and he'll fill the closer role. However, there's nothing left after him and the closer doesn't mean much when the team wins so few games. If Feliz has another good year, he'll be a target by many contenders looking for bullpen help where the Brewers can add to their depleted major league roster. Milwaukee simply isn't built to compete this season.