Pitchers. Catchers. This week.
It’s arguably the best time of year for baseball fans. When players begin to report, it means that Spring is coming. And when Spring is coming, that means nicer weather is coming. And when nicer weather arrives, the 2018 baseball season will be upon us.
A few weeks ago, I previewed the NL East. Today, I discuss the NL Central. At the end of 2015, we had a logjam atop the NL Central standings, with the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all winning at least 97 games. Can history repeat itself this season? Don’t think 97 wins a piece is in the cards but could each team win at least 90? Let’s find out.
Chicago Cubs (92–70)
- Jake Arrieta
- John Lackey
- Brian Duensing (re-signed: two years, $7 million)
- Yu Darvish (six years, $126 million)
- Tyler Chatwood (three years, $38 million)
- Brandon Morrow (two years, $21 million)
- Drew Smyly (two years, $10 million)
- Steve Cishek (two years, $13 million)
The defending NL Central champs didn’t need to make any major moves, but they did. Welcome to Chicago, Yu! It’s beautiful this time of year in the city upon the lake. The snow never melts, the wind never stops, and the temperature never exceeds 32 degrees. The Cubs did need to retool this offseason with a major concerted effort to upgrade the pitching department after the likely departures of free agents Jake Arietta, John Lackey and Wade Davis. Darvish gives Chicago at least a top-four rotation in the league, if not the best because of the top-to-bottom depth. The Dodgers are top heavy — plus they lost Darvish — Houston has three good pitchers, and Washington has Scherzer and Strasburg. Now if Arrieta goes to the Nationals, that would put them in the top spot since that means Gio Gonzalez becomes their fourth starter.
Signing Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal was a great, cost-effective move (keep thinking Bryce Harper next year Cub fans). Moving away from Coors field will enable Chatwood to use his breaking pitch more often, and the Cubs infield defense will help him out because he induces so many ground ball outs. This, along with Darivish, was a great signing. Lester, Hendricks, and Quintana round out the other spots in the rotation.
The goal for the bullpen this offseason was simple: find anyone who could throw strikes. The Cubs were awful in this department as the season wore on. Adding Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek will help out greatly, as they combined to surrender only 23 walks in 88.1 innings last season. Look out for a big bounce-back season from Carl Edwards Jr. under new pitching coach Jim Hickey.
The Cubs return an offense that scored 822 runs last season, good for fourth in the majors. Chicago only figures to improve with bounce-back seasons from Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Jason Heyward. The rest of the lineup is a litany of young stars with Ian Happ, Javier Baez, and Albert Almora all getting more playing time this season. Then, of course, you have those two guys named Bryant and Rizzo. Joe Maddon will still use his revolving door of lineups in order to maximize matchups while keeping his young team fresh for what will undoubtedly be another postseason run. Look for this team to once again be in the top 5 in the majors in runs scored, possibly challenging for the top spot.
Milwaukee Brewers (86–76)
- Jhoulys Chacin (two years, $15.5 million)
- Matt Albers (two years, $5 million)
- Lorenzo Cain (five years, $80 million)
- Christian Yelich (acquired via trade with Miami)
Look out baseball, here comes the BrewCrew! Milwaukee has really made a splash this offseason by acquiring Christian Yelich from the now AAA Miami Marlins and signing free agent Lorenzo Cain. Both these deals are fantastic for this young team and lock each star up through the window this team has for winning.
Cain and Yelich join Ryan Braun in the outfield — rumors of moving him to 3rd base should stay as a rumor considering he is flat out an awful defender at 3rd — while last year’s breakout sluggers Eric Thames (31/63/.247) and Travis Shaw (31/101/.273) provide some thump on the infield and suddenly, this offense is very formidable. Domingo Santana had a great season (30/85/.278) in right field for Milwaukee, but now looks to be the odd man out and could either serve in a super sub type situation or be dangled perhaps for a starting pitcher?
The middle part of the infield is intriguing. Former top prospect Orlando Arcia took over at shortstop and played very well in his rookie season with a 15/53/.277 slash line, which also includes 14 stolen bases. Can he take another step? If he takes that step, this offense can go from very good to very very good.
On the pitching front, things aren’t so clear-cut and this is what will keep them from contending with the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central this season. Having a collection of number three starters is nice, but not ideal. Chase Anderson pitched like a number two last season but is more of a third starter on a contending team. The Brewers are sorely lacking a front of the rotation starter. They should be all in on Jake Arrieta. A trade for Chris Archer is also a possibility, albeit a long one after trading away a good portion of their systems top prospects for Yelich. If the Brewers want to win deep into October, forcing that weird scheduling of an Ed Sheeran concert on October 23rd, they need to get an ace pitcher to lead them.
The bullpen part of the pitching equation is set in one area, with Corey Knebel returning after a terrific season: 39 saves, 1.78 ERA along with an outstanding 126 K’s in 76 IP. Losing lefty Anthony Swarzak will sting, but shoring up a bullpen spot will be much easier and cheaper than that ace starter. Right-handed options Jacob Barnes and Jared Hughes will return as options late in the game as well.
This team is close. A few pieces here and there and Milwaukee will have something and a real reason for Bernie the Brewer to keep sliding down that big, yellow slide.
St. Louis Cardinals (83–79)
- Marcel Ozuna (acquired via trade with Miami)
- Luke Gregerson (two years, $11 million)
The Chicago Cubs will still be favored once the 2018 season starts, but look for the St. Louis Cardinals to make some major inroads this season. St. Louis will challenge the Cubs and the newly improved Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Central and quite possibly a NL Wild Card spot. They have a deep roster and some payroll flexibility to make a splash before the season begins or a key addition possibly for the stretch run.
The Cardinals lineup is a great mixture of veterans and promising youngsters. I don’t think many people realize just how good of a season Tommy Pham had. In 444 at-bats (a little over 2/3 of a season) he slashed .306/23/73 with 25 stolen bases. Extrapolate that over a full season and you have a bona fide All-Star and MVP candidate. Paul DeJong was another guy who made his presence felt with a very solid rookie season, slashing .285/25/65. While Pham is 29, Dejong is only 24 and has time on his side to get better over the next few seasons. Veterans Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Dexter Fowler, and Yadier Molina contribute to a very formidable St. Louis lineup. Oh and then there’s the addition of Marcel Ozuna… you know, the guy that slashed .312/37/124 with that new AAA team in Miami. This is a very good lineup.
Where the Cardinals seem vulnerable on paper is the starting rotation. Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright will occupy the top three spots in the rotation, but the last 2 spots are up for grabs. Who knows what they will get out of Wainwright anymore after posting a career-worst 5.11 ERA last season. It doesn’t look like they will re-sign Lance Lynn, who is looking for Jordan Zimmerman type money (five years, $110 million) and promising rookie Alex Reyes is coming off TJ surgery and is most likely out till mid-season. Jake Arrieta would look awfully good to Cardinals fans to take over a spot. Are the Cardinals willing to shell out that type of money though?
The bullpen will need some retooling after the departures of Seung Hwan Oh, Juan Nicasio, and Trevor Rosenthal through free agency. The addition of Luke Gregerson to take over the closer role and holdovers such as Tyler Lyons, Brett Cecil, and Matt Bowman returning help keep the bullpen in good shape. Some minor additions and holes need to be filled over the next week or so, though, as pitchers and catchers report.
Pittsburgh Pirates (75–87)
- Andrew McCutchen
- Gerrit Cole
- Joe Musgrove (acquired via trade with Houston)
- Michael Feliz (acquired via trade with Houston)
- Colin Moran (acquired via trade with Houston)
- Jason Martin (acquired via trade with Houston)
- Kyle Crick (acquired via trade with San Francisco)
- Bryan Reynolds (acquired via trade with San Francisco)
The Jolly Roger has some rough seas to sail through this winter, but not all is lost and the sea could be more forgiving if taking a closer look. Fan favorites and homegrown products, Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen were both traded this offseason to contenders (or at least the Giants think they are) and the return, while not splashy with household top prospects, was pretty good. Cole brought back four prospects from Houston, with right-handed pitcher Joe Musgrove and third baseman Colin Moran headlining the package. Musgrove has a power arm and posted a 1.44 ERA with a 31:5 K/W ratio in 31 innings out of the bullpen. I don’t see him pitching out of the bullpen for Pittsburgh because of Musgrove’s potential as a starter and the Pirates’ need for a starter after trading Cole.
Former sixth overall pick Moran has had a bit of a bumpy road to the majors. He finally looked like he was getting it figured out late last season in AAA and MLB before fouling a ball off his own bat to his face, requiring extensive surgery. He is still only 25 years old. Feliz is near elite level in every pitching category as a reliever in his brief time in the majors except for one area: the gopher ball. Leaving Minute Maid Park behind as a home ballpark will certainly help this out.
Martin is a nice fourth outfielder. He can do a lot of things good, just not one area great. McCutchen will certainly be missed in Pittsburgh. Let’s face it, though, he wasn’t getting any younger and there was very little chance the Pirates were resigning him come next offseason. Kyle Crick is a hard-throwing relief pitcher and a nice addition to the Pirates bullpen. Reynolds is a switch-hitting outfielder with speed and a knack for getting on base. He has a while before making an appearance in the majors but this was about as good a deal McCutchen was going to bring back before his walk year. With all this retooling going on, I don’t see the Pirates being Marlins level bad, but rather turning out a team that might surprise some people.
The pitching staff has some quality there. The rotation isn’t daunting, but there is a lot of young, controllable pitching with live arms. Jameson Taillon and newly acquired Joe Musgrove will look to lead a group of unproven youngsters like Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, and Nick Kingham. Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, and Ivan Nova should some affordable sources of innings. Felipe Rivero signed a four-year, $22 million contract extension this offseason, locking up the closers spot. Behind him is serviceable relief with the likes of George Kontos, Daniel Hudson, and newly acquired youngsters Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz.
The offense still has young talent in Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison, and Josh Bell. Throw in a mid-season arrival from top prospect Austin Meadows and a breakout season from newly acquired Moran, and you have something. Will they contend for the division and a postseason birth? No. Will they be respectable and better than people think? Yes. Don’t abandon the Jolly Roger just yet, Pittsburgh faithful.
Cincinnati Reds (68–94)
At least the Cincinnati fans still have their Skyline Chili, right? Oh, and “Mr. Why would I ever want to play for a winner” Joey Votto.
Sorry Reds faithful, your team is going to be quite the mess this upcoming season. Losing shortstop Zack Cozart to free agency doesn’t sting so bad because it will open up room for former top prospect Jose Peraza. Scooter Gennett will be out to prove his 27 home-run power surge last season was no fluke. The rest of the offense has some question marks, but on the bright side, they are young. Jesse Winker (.298/7/15 in 121 at-bats) will get regular playing time in the outfield. Fellow top prospect Nick Senzel will most likely arrive sometime during the season. Billy Hamilton is still manning center field, but for how long? If the Reds are looking to go young and rebuild, trading him should be a must.
The pitching has so many holes, a doughnut would be jealous. Yes, I know the joke is bad, but the pitching situation truly is awful. Their starting rotation is headlined by Anthony DeSclafini. Yes, he is projected to take the ball opening day. Homer Bailey, Brandon Finnegan, and Luis Castillo round out the top four with the fifth starter coming from a number of options. Last season, the Reds starters allowed the most homers in baseball while also finishing with the second-highest ERA and walk rate. Things need to improve in this area to stay out of the NL Central basement.
The bullpen is another disaster altogether. Outside of closer Raisel Iglesias, no one had even a respectable season, as the Reds bullpen combined to set bad records. They need a complete overhaul. It wouldn’t shock me to see Cincinnati make a few free-agent signings in this area to help out a bit because Michael Lorenzen, Wandy Peralta, and Ariel Hernandez are not going to do it.
Enjoy that Skyline Chili and that guy named Joey Votto, Reds faithful.
St. Louis Cardinals