2016 MLB Preview: NL Central

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Over the last few years, there have been no two divisions more competitive throughout the MLB than the Central.

Both in the American League and the National League teams coming out of the Central have become teams to beat.

In the National League things are slightly different though as the competition in the division is unlike any other in the NL.

The St. Louis Cardinals have sat at the top of the division for three straight years but they haven’t won the division without a major battle.

The past few years have seen more competition than most other divisions as teams that were once forgotten began becoming relevant again.

The Pittsburgh Pirates arrived from the basement to become one of the biggest challengers over the years.

With a great bullpen and some young superstars they began fighting the Cardinals for the top spot in the division.

It became a constant battle for the postseason berth and despite losing the Pirates consistently took a wild card spot.

In that respect, they were often joined by the Cincinnati Reds who had been up and down and where the last team to win the division before the Cardinals three-peat.

With the Reds in the hunt, it became common in the NL wild card to see two Central teams make their way to the elimination game.

Last year the Reds fell off of the pace but that didn’t make the race any easier for the Cardinals as the loveable losers made good on an off-season full of change and promise.

The Chicago Cubs became contenders for the first time in a long time and brought, at least, half of a city back into the craziness that is the postseason.

The Central division continues to be an interesting one as they head into the new season as the Cardinals remain the most consistent team in the MLB.

They are a team that never seems to enter a rebuilding phase as their farm system is simply too good.

Every year they enter the season looking like the most well-rounded team despite losses and additions.baseball-sidebar

The same may be said this year but like the last few years, it doesn’t mean they are going to walk through the rest of the division for the title.

The Pirates are still hanging around even if they may not be the same team that pressured the Cardinals for the last few years.

The Reds may very well return to their old ways and find a spot in the division battle to make things more interesting.

The Milwaukee Brewers may not have been a powerhouse team recently but they were a powerhouse team at one point and usually those teams find ways to win eventually.

Then there is the Cubs who will enter the season, according to many, as the World Series favourites.

With a young and very good team, many believe that they will find their way to the World Series after missing out losing in the NLCS last year.

If many of the things that are predicted for teams in this division can actually happen they will continue their great reputation.

The Central could continue to be the best division in the National League and one of the best in the MLB.

It is almost a certainty that the division will be a battle but what remains the major question is how many teams are going to be a part of that race.

It could be only two teams or it could be every team, at least until a certain point in the season.

Either way this division is going to be an interesting one to watch as the season moves on and another Central team tries to take home a World Series title.

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The Chicago Cubs spent all of 2015 finally finding their way out of the basement and closer to that ultimate prize than they had in years. After sitting at the bottom of the league for years they built a strong farm system and handed over promising young talent to Joe Maddon, who had been great in managing a young Tampa Bay team years ago. There was excitement for the Cubs and although they weren’t World Series champions they did have a massive improvement from 2014. This year the predictions seem to be the same as many have them winning it all thanks to their young corps and a few veteran signings. Kris Bryant returns to the club for a full season this year and hopes are high along with other young stars Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. Meanwhile, 26-year-old Anthony Rizzo will look to lead the team again while potential stars, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez, try to break onto the team. New additions Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist may not be the superstars they once were but they are still effective and will provide a veteran presence. On the pitching staff, Jake Arrieta has emerged as a potential star winning the Cy Young after a great second half. The concern for him is whether that is his new norm or his years of less than great pitching will return for 2016. Jon Lester didn’t have his best season but he was a big signing last year and the Cubs expect big things which he can achieve. He will be reunited with teammate John Lackey who is coming off of a good year in St. Louis while Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks fill out a good rotation. The bullpen is a bit more of a mystery though as the trio of Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, and Hector Rondon did pretty well last year. This spring training though they have blown saves multiple times leaving some to wonder how effective they might be this season. The Cubs will bet on last season for all three where they were great in helping Chicago to the postseason. The Cubs are in a good spot for 2016 as they seem to be a well-balanced team but their biggest danger might be the fallback. Plenty of players had great seasons last year but some of the numbers won’t be able to keep up the question will be how far the regression goes. The Cubs are still a good team and unless there are some disastrous seasons they will take the division and go on a deep run.

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The Cincinnati Reds were a big part of the battle for the division and the increase in the fight every year. Although they were a big part of the start of that great fight they have recently fallen off the pace and have clearly realized where they stand. After two losing seasons and their worst record since 1981, the Reds are rebuilding. The 2016 campaign won’t be a pretty one but it is all about the future as they hope to at least stay somewhat competitive while they await their farm system talent. To stay somewhat competitive they will need some improvement from certain players including Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton. For Bruce, it might be just improving on his average numbers in hopes that the Reds can trade him to a competitive team. For Hamilton, the talent is there when it comes to the bases as he has the speed to make life difficult for pitchers but if he can’t get on base he can’t use those talents. The lone bright spot might remain Joey Votto who continues to be one of the better hitters in the league and will be one of the only true offensive threats on the team. They will keep an eye on Scott Schebler and Eugenio Suarez as two young players that could factor into the future of the team. On the pitching front, the Reds are not going to be anything specials as they are full of mid to bottom rotation talent. Anthony DeSclafani will likely lead the way and he can be a great pitcher but has yet to prove anything. As good as he can be he still isn’t that typical ace teams are looking for and he isn’t going to be a pitcher that will almost guarantee a win every time he is on the mound. The rest of the group is full of a number of good but not great pitchers that aren’t going to help win a lot of games although they could have their moments. The biggest changes for the Reds came in the bullpen where their biggest star is gone in order to bring some younger talent to the team. Aroldis Chapman leaves a massive hole at closer that J.J. Hoover will likely try to fill. Although there are some pieces in the bullpen overall it won’t be the most reliable which will only put more pressure on the starters. The Reds are looking to the future which doesn’t mean much for this year as another losing season is in store and another year out of the postseason.

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The Milwaukee Brewers are one of the only teams in the division that hasn’t been a part of the recent battles. They were once at the top of the division but controversy with their best player and letting other stars leave have pushed them to the bottom. Now they sit at the bottom look to rebuild a team that can compete once again but it all starts here. When the Brewers were on top, Ryan Braun was the best player in baseball but since he failed a drug test he has dealt with injuries that have kept him off of the field. He seems to be slowly returning but everyone will be watching to see what he can do. With Braun trying to recover Jonathan Lucroy took over the leadership role and had a great 2014 bringing hope to the future of the team. Last year injuries hurt his chances of getting back to those numbers as he was no longer the explosive player many thought he could be after his breakout year. Both Braun and Lucroy need to be better if the Brewers want to be even slightly more competitive as they can change this offence. The addition of Chris Carter this year should provide more power but he is a typical power hitter that struggles to do anything but hitting home runs. Another new addition in Aaron Hill should provide a bit more of a balanced power bat while Domingo Santana has the same potential. The offence is not terrible but injuries have really put them back in recent years and if they see those injuries again they won’t be far away from the bottom. The same issues have faced their pitching staff as the veteran on the staff, Matt Garza is a good pitcher but he has struggled to stay on the mound. Meanwhile, the Brewers are just still waiting for Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta to meet the potential that both pitchers have yet to meet. In the bullpen, Will Smith leads the way as a great closer but behind him, there isn’t much to provide late-game confidence. Aside from Smith, every relief pitcher posted an ERA more than 3.00 last year and for relief pitchers with little room for mistakes that isn’t great. The Brewers are trying to rebuild and although they made some decent acquisitions that might make the offence better it won’t be enough. They will sit near the bottom of the league competing with the Reds to stay out of last place as they miss the postseason again.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the most exciting teams in the division as they have really pushed for the division title for the last few years. Since 2013, they have become a constant factor in the division fight but now they will try to make a run in the postseason which has proven difficult. The strength of this team during their run has been the pitching staff and although their rotation isn’t top to bottom dominant it is a good one. Gerrit Cole has proven that he can be the leader and an ace with another great year and alongside Francisco Liriano they are a good one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Bringing in Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong may not seem smart after some rough years but the Pirates have made a habit of reclamation projects. Year after year they seem to have veteran starters that are on their way out only to see them come back and perform well. If they can do the same with these two the top four pitchers are not going to make it easy for anyone. The pitching strength doesn’t stop in the rotation though as the bullpen was one of the best in the league last year. Their bullpen ERA topped that of even the Royals and a lot of that has to do with their late inning guys. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are a scary duo while the addition of Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio only strengthen an already deep group. The pitching staff but their offence is not something that drags them down. They aren’t the most powerful team, only one player hit over 25 home runs, and with losses this off-season some of their power is gone. Power isn’t everything though and the Pirates are a great mix of players who can hit for power and get on base. The perfect expression of that is Andrew McCutcheon who can hit for power but also gets on base and hits runners in. That’s what the Pirates are based on and the addition of David Freese gives them another batter that can do what they do. The rest of the line-up, save for Starlin Marte, is good but will likely change throughout the season with players returning from injury and others were given a chance to prove themselves or else they will be removed. The Pirates are once again a strong team with a balanced attack and they will make a run at the postseason. The bigger question will be if the limited changes they made will be enough to produce a deep run into the postseason.

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There is no franchise steadier than the Cardinals in almost any sport as they consistently sit at or near the top of the division. Despite the recent battles for the division and any number of challengers to their title, the Cards have won three division crowns in a row. They enter another season with a roster that lacks any major superstar but has a team full of great players. The pitching staff has always been a strength and although not many talk about them, they are a scary group. Adam Wainwright is an ace and now that he will be back for a full season he will lead this group again. Behind him, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia are all solid starters when healthy. Their newest addition, Mike Leake, is not a pitcher that is going to dominate all the time but he is a good pitcher and a pitcher that continues to put up innings which has been an issue down the stretch for this team. In the bullpen, the Cards have built a strong group centred around one of the top relievers in Trevor Rosenthal. The Cards also made sure Jonathan Broxton didn’t leave while signing Korean star Seung-hwan Oh in what looks like a deep group that won’t give anyone much of a break. The pitching staff is again going to be a big reason for any success but it won’t be the only reason. The offence is also a deep group and although they don’t have anyone that will be considered for MVP they still have a group that is not easy to play against. Matt Carpenter continues to be a steady hitter that can do a bit of everything while Matt Holliday could do the same if he can stay on the field. They lost their big power bat in Jason Heyward and losing Jhonny Peralta to a spring training injury isn’t going to help. In typical Cardinals fashion though they look for help from within their own ranks as they watch Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk closely to see if they can improve on their rookie seasons. The Cardinals do have injury worries throughout their lineup as at any moment some of their veteran players that play a massive role could miss any number of games. For the Cards that has never been a problem though as their system just keeps bringing in new players to fill those holes. For that reason, the Cardinals will once again be in the fight for the division until the end but may end up in the wild card instead of on top.

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Prediction:
The Central is a division home to the biggest battle in the league and it is not going to stop now as this season seems to be yet another great fight. Many of the usual suspects will be involved again but unlike last year, the end will be different. The Cubs seemed ready to compete last year but with some improvements to a young team, they will be a favourite to win it all this year. The Cardinals and Pirates will fight it out for second and it could be a toss-up to who gets the spot. The Cards will take it with a slightly better offence but that is going to be a fight to watch all season long. The Red and the Brewers will fight to stay out of the bottom and it will be another, not so exciting, fight. Both are rebuilding but the Reds seem to be less ready to compete and will finish last. There is no shortage of great battles in this division as their reputation continues on for another year.

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