Baseball is Back! – Season Preview: National League Central

Baseball is back, they call it America’s Summer Game so it’s always a sign of better weather ahead. Andy Turner brings you all you need to know ahead of the new season. Today he looks at the defending Champion Chicago Cubs and the National League Central…

The story of last season was undeniably the Chicago Cubs ending 108 years without a championship with a World Series victory.  The pressing question is can they repeat that glorious season. The early answer would appear to be a resounding yes, as they are absolutely ‘loaded’.

They have one of the best managers in Joe Maddon and he leads a team that has everything.

They have offence, led by league MVP Kris Bryant, who in only his second year lived up to all the hype.  They lost Dexter Fowler a reliable OF and the leadoff man in the batting order to free agency.  It’s no biggie, they will push OF Ben Zobrist or Kyle Schwarber (who they lost for most of last season) into the leadoff role. Veteran catcher David Ross retired but his replacement C Willy Contreras is ready to plug in.

The starting pitching rotation contains four players who won 11 or more games last season, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendrick finished 2nd and 3rd in voting for the CY Young award, while the previous season’s CY Young winner Jake Arrieta is also in the rotation. He had a down year, but only by his historic 2015 season. 

The Cubs lost closer Aroldis Chapman, who returned to the Yankees, but signed Wade Davis from Kansas City where he was the top man in one the game’s best bullpens.

It wouldn’t be fair not to mention Theo Epstein, who was GM for the Redsox when they broke their own curse, twice in four years in the noughties and has repeated the trick with the Cubs, building what looks like it could be a dynasty. Surely a place in the hall of fame beckons.

The St. Louis Cardinals are the Cubs historic rivals. It’s been a rivalry in name only for many years due to the hapless Cubs, but now however, they find themselves looking up at their second city cousins.  The Cards are a flagship franchise whose reputation was tarnished by the revelation they had hacked the Astro’s player data and they were punished by the MLB powers that be.  So last year was very much a down season, missing the playoffs for the first time in 5 years after being decimated by injuries.

Pitching ace Adam Wainwright returned from long term injury but had a less than stellar year and has been superseded in the Cardinals rotation by Carlos Martinez. The Cardinals have always had a reputation for the quality and quantity of prospects in their farm system but they also mix in veterans. Matt Carpenter will permanently play 1B, a move they hope will reinvigorate his production. Dexter Fowler was signed from the Cubs, and along with existing veterans like C Yadi Molina the Cardinals hope that the younger players will improve both output and consistency.

The Cards hit the most home runs in the NL last season, but other than Wainwright and Martinez the rest of the rotation is full of question marks, likewise the bullpen. It would appear the playoffs seem a long shot.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, after three consecutive playoff appearances, had a losing record last year.  The positive spin is that the process of blending young prospects into a veteran team involved teething problems.  The downbeat spin is that superstar outfielder Andrew McCutcheon is getting older and that explains his down year, while injuries to pitching ace Gerrit Cole exposed the lack of depth in the rotation.

So what the Pirates need is McCutcheon to have a year like he normally has while his young outfield chums Sterling Marte and Gregory Polanco prove that they have the potential to be one of the best outfields in baseball. They need Gerrit Cole to be healthy, for young pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon to kick on from 2016’s promise, and for Tony Watson to continue to impress in place of closer Mark Melancon, now with San Francisco.

If not then the dreaded ‘r’ word, rebuilding, is staring the Pirates in the face.

The Milwaukee Brewers have seemed to be perennially rebuilding but without an actual instruction sheet.  New GM David Stearns has a plan and it is the one his old employer in Houston used to get back to relevance; trade away veterans to acquire young prospects.

This led to a team that hit 180 home runs and stole 181 bases and is packed with young talent such as 2B Jonathon Villar (who led baseball with 62 stolen bases) and SS Orlando Arcia (an outstanding fielder). 

There is still Ryan Braun, a veteran drug cheat, with an enormous contract that makes him un-tradeable. He had a productive year and is looking to be a leader, but they will miss 1B Chris Carter and his 41 HR’s, who at $10 million a season was out of the Brewers price range.

Looking at their pitching the first response would be ‘who’?  Other than Matt Garza – who I was surprised was still on the go – the rest of the rotation is, well… the presumed number one is a converted reliever who overachieved last season, Junior Guerra, so this is an area of concern.  As for the bullpen it matches the starting rotation; area of concern.

As has been mentioned rebuilding is the vogue in baseball and the Cincinnati Reds are in full rebuild mode.  On the offensive side of the ball they have Joey Votto, perennial all-star 1st base man, who still turns out big numbers. He is a Cincinnati legend and is constantly mentioned in trade rumours. He is mentoring a number of promising young players, such as OF Adam Duvall, 3B Eugenio Suarez and OF Scott Schebler. 

They also have some young pitchers such as Anthony DeSclafini and Brandon Finnegan.  They need the young pitchers to mature now, as the Reds gave up 258 home runs which I believe is a major league record. They also allowed 636 walks (the most in the league) and hit 78 batters (also most in the league).  You would probably not be surprised to hear that the Reds have major issues in the bullpen given it allowed the most runs, HRs, walks and hit most batters. 

This will not be a pretty season in Cincinnati.

Andy Turner

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Andy Turner
College Football Anorak from Britains Steel City. Boomer, GO Jets
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