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NL Central Preview and Predictions

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Teams: St. Louis Cardinals (100-62), Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64), Chicago Cubs (97-65), Milwaukee Brewers (68-94), and Cincinnati Reds (64-98)

Overview: This division, last year, was a 3-team horse race for the division title. Even before September it was heavily assumed that, unless the Nats or Giants made any major push, three teams from the NL Central would being experiencing October berths. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, had great seasons, with St. Louis having the most wins in the MLB. As for the other two teams not much can be said. Both the Reds and Brewers had potential, I suppose, to make the playoffs at the start of the season, but so doesn’t every team? Especially post-trade deadline, everyone knew the Reds weren’t going to make it and its a shame seeing as how they had a great roster at the start of the 2015 season. Speaking of which:

Reds: The hosts of the 2015 All Star game had a terrible season (ironically the Cincinnati hosted-All Star Game had terrible ratings) and were the worst team in the NL Central and second worst in the MLB, one loss from tying Philly in that department. One word can sum up the Reds’ season: disappointing. In April the Reds boasted a formidable roster, but for the second straight year they failed to qualify for the playoffs, and like 2014 they weren’t even close. The Reds’ first half (39-47) wasn’t great but it was rebound-able and, considering the three teams running the division, forgivable. But their selling at the deadline and sub-sequential second half (25-51) spelled the end for the Reds’ season. At the deadline in July, the Reds’ traded the likes of SP Johnny Cueto, SP Mike Leake, and outfielder Marlon Byrd. The bust was on and the bust was successful. But surprisingly, even though those deadline trades ruined their already broken season, the worst was yet to come in a sense. After the 2015 season, the Reds’ front office really got to work. On December 16th, in a 3-team deal, the Reds traded Home Run Derby champ, Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox. Twelve days later, they pulled off a shocker by trading hot-handed closer, Aroldis Chapman, to the New York Yankees for four prospects.

Now if you thought last season was difficult, this season is expected to be much worse. Think of it as the Reds’ second have record but average that for the whole season. I entirely expect the Reds to be the worst team in the league next year. But to make a franchise great you must go through some growing pains. I expect the 2016 deadline boast names such as second baseman Brandon Phillips (34), and maybe outfielder Jay Bruce (28) or first baseman Joey Votto (31), though I doubt the latter will be traded and I’d strongly advise against it. Whatever the case, more will change in Cincinnati in the coming season, maybe even before opening day.

Milwaukee: The Brewers, like the Reds, were just a team that did not stand a chance in the NL Central in 2015. There was just no way they would out perform the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates, with the roster they were boasting. They traded CarGo (Carlos Gomez) at the deadline to Houston, originally trying to trade him to the Mets (please don’t even get me started on that fiasco), as well as outfielder Gerardo Parra to the Orioles. Now, unlike the fire-sale that the Reds had, the Brewers’ mid-season changes stopped there.

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Fast-forward to the off-season, and things somewhat picked up. They acquired utility players, with minimal potential, in the likes of Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Eric Young, two former-Met outfielders who if given the chance may surprise people, Nieuwenhuis actually hit three home runs in one game this past season. There biggest off-season acquisition has to be first baseman, Chris Carter, who is two seasons removed from crushing 37 home runs, then boasting a respectable 27 dingers last season. With those signings one might have thought the Brewers weren’t going to give up on the 2016 season. However, on Friday, they traded left-fielder Khris Davis to Oakland. Now while that isn’t a death sentence for their October campaign, only acquiring minor leaguers as a result suggests that Milwaukee doesn’t have high hopes for the season.

Considering all of that, this writer believes the biggest piece of news coming out of Milwaukee this off-season is the fact that franchise player and starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy is disgruntled and at the prime age of 29 doesn’t want to remain on a team who’s giving into failure. My take on it, TRADE THE MAN. You owe it to Lucroy, who has given you six wonderful seasons. Lucroy is arguably one of the best catchers in the league and will garner you a significant group of future roster players. Why have an all-star caliber catcher if the rest of your roster isn’t very good. A Lucroy trade will only benefit everyone involved.

Chicago: 1907! 1907! 1907! Those who have mocked the Cubs for the past century may just eat their words. Lets first talk about the 2015 season. How does a team go from 73-89 to 97-65 in the span of a year? A 24-win jump usually doesn’t happen in one year. I’ll tell you how: years and years of mediocrity finally paying off. Performances from homegrown darlings Kyle Schwarber and third baseman Kris Bryant combined with the successful seasons of Dexter Fowler, Starlin Castro, and first baseman, Anthony Rizzo gave the Cubs a threatening batting order. But what made Chicago exceed even the most ludicrous of expectations: pitching. Behind every good team (or in front if you think of it that way) is great pitching. That’s just what the Cubs had. You had Jason Hammel and Jon Lester boasting good ERAs. Oh and Jake Arrieta won the NL Cy Young Award, or something like that. Arrieta was a BEAST! Though I was rooting for Zack Greinkie, formerly of the LA Dodgers, I am very happy for Jake Arrieta who is more than deserving of the Cy Young honor after boasting statistics like a 1.77 ERA, 22 wins, 9.3 K/9, and a WHIP under 1.000. Since his less than stellar career in Baltimore, Arrieta has systematically improved over his three seasons in Chicago on route to becoming the team’s ace and one of the biggest threats to step on the mound in baseball today.

Now I can talk all day about Chicago last season, but this season is set to be even better. The 2015 MLB off-season saw the Cubs sign and acquire the likes of veteran and World Series champion Ben Zobrist, divisional rival and outfield technician Jason Heyward, and veteran starting pitcher, also from divisional rival St. Louis, John Lackey, who is coming off his best ERA season ever at the prime age of 36.

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Now the Cubs did trade away second baseman Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees. Though Castro was great for the Cubs, his future in the organization was chancy at best. Plus, by signing Ben Zobrist, a natural second baseman, Castro was no longer needed on the team. In return they acquired SP Adam Warren and a player to be named (eventually being Brendan Ryan). Now I think the Yankees won that trade. Warren is a good mid-to-low rotation starter, but he was expendable and the Cubs eventually released Ryan, so the Yankees fared better than Chicago but Chicago in no way lost the trade. Warren should prove to be a viable addition to an already incredible Chicago rotation.

The Cubs have a starting rotation that is projected to include Arrieta, Lester, Lackey, Warren, and Hammel, with RHP Kyle Hendricks also a strong possibly to make the cut. Furthermore they have a batting order that needs no introduction, with veteran Ben Zobrist filling it out perfectly. The Cubs are poised for 100+ wins this season, and maybe just maybe after 109 years, a World Series Championship banner. Get ready to say “2016! 2016! 2016!”

Pittsburgh: The Pirates had a stupendous season in 2015, I can’t stress that enough. They’re pitching was solid, headlined by 24-year-old Gerrit Cole, who if not for the insane seasons of guys like Greinke and Arrieta, could have more than likely been the 2015 NL Cy Young winner. Furthemore, deadline acquistion, veteran J.A. Happ went 7-2 and boasted an ERA under 2.00 over 11 starts. And veteran AJ Burnett boasted the best ERA of his career. Meanwhile, Closer Mark Melacon had a great season, leading the league in saves while boasting an ERA of 2.23. On the offensive side the Pirates had just as much support. Of course there was franchise center-fielder, all-star Andrew McCutchen who batted a solid .292 with 23 home runs and 96 RBIs. Pedro Alvarez led the team with 27 dingers and men like left fielder Starlin Marte, second baseman Neil Walker, and third baseman Jung Ho Kang made up for the rest of the solid, consistent batting order.

But I have my doubts for the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates. Pitching-wise Gerrit Cole is only 24 and the pressure of an ace is something that he will slowly need to become accustomed to. J.A. Happ walked on free agency and Burnett decided to call it a career. The Pirates saved themselves by trading for SP Jon Niese from New York, but at the expense of second baseman Neil Walker. And as a Met fan I can tell you that Niese’s inconsistencies are nothing to take lightly. Niese is the type of pitcher that will give you five scoreless innings and then give up as many as 5 to 7 runs in the sixth. They lost relief pitcher, Antonio Bastardo, who later signed with the aforementioned Mets. Offensive-wise the Pirates also took a hit. As I said they gave up the reliable Neil Walker to the Mets for Niese, they lost Alvarez to free agency, and most importantly, in arguably the biggest free agent class, they failed to make any significant signings. The offense now must heavily rely on former MVP McCutchen, as well as Marte, Kang, and the young Gregory Planco.

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I don’t see the Pirates being as good this season as they were in the one that just past. But when you have an MVP hopeful like Andrew McCutchen and a Cy Young hopeful like Gerrit Cole, you can’t be counted out. The Pirates are going to have their hands full this season but they just might pull it off.

St. Louis: The Cardinals had 100 wins last season, there’s no getting around that. St. Louis led the league in wins and they deserved to win the World Series, but so do a lot of teams. St. Louis lost in the ALDS to the better team and there’s no shame in that. St. Louis last year could do no wrong. Their core of (C) Yadier Molina, (LF) Matt Holliday, and (3B) Matt Carpenter, as usual, did not disappoint. Veteran outfielder Jon Jay was injured for a significant part of the season due an unsuccessful rehabilitation on his left wrist following surgery. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta and outfielder Jason Heyward also had stellar seasons making the Cardinals one of the deepest offensive teams in the league.

Not enough can be said about their pitching, however. Veteran John Lackey posted a career best 2.77 ERA at the age of 36. Meanwhile, the 23-year-old sensation, Michael Wacha, continued his successful career in St. Louis. Furthermore, Jaime Garcia (28), Lance Lynn (28), and Carlos Martinez (23) boasted great ERAs of 2.43, 3.03, and 3.01, respectively. The St. Louis Cardinals were all around the greatest team in baseball in 2015.

This off-season saw significant change in St. Louis. Both Jason Heyward and John Lackey went to divisional rival the Chicago Cubs via free agency. Honestly the Cubs didn’t even necessarily need those guys I think they just signed them because (1) they could and (2) out of spite for the Cardinals. The Cardinals also traded veteran Jon Jay to the Padres for Jedd Gyorko, who isn’t a bad player in all honesty.

But the Cardinals will not falter in this upcoming. They replaced SP John Lackey with SP Mike Leake, they traded for Gyorko who should help the team, they briefly lost but eventually re-signed reliable relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton and most importantly, aside from Jay, they maintained there core hitters and their young pitching corps. Jason Heyward ignorantly said that he left St. Louis because their great core was getting old. While on one hand that’s true and rightfully gives the Cardinals a window to win now or in the next couple of seasons, but this pitching rotation and batting order is far from done. Men like Molina, Peralta, and Holliday have plenty left in the tank. Heyward and the Cubs may have to eat their words because as long as the Cardinals boast the roster they currently have, the Cubs are not going to be spoon fed that World Series berth I previously said they had their hands on.

Predicted NL Central Standings

1. Chicago Cubs 104-58

2. St. Louis Cardinals 101-61

3. Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78

4. Milwaukee Brewers 66-96

5. Cincinnati Reds 56-106

BOLD PREDICTIONS I AM WELL AWARE

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