2017 MLB Preview: NL Central

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There really isn’t any question about what the story is in the National League Central as the story is somewhat similar to how it has been in the past although at the same time so different.

The story has and it will continue to rotate around the Chicago Cubs but in 2017 the storyline is slightly different.

In the past, the story was all about the longest drought in sports and, what many consider to be the most loyal fanbase in all of sports.

After all the Cubs fans withstood over 100 years of fandom without a World Series title yet Wrigley Field was always a destination to catch a game with great fans.

They suffered through some tough years and some even tougher finishes as teams have been on the bottom of the standings or have finished within one out of making the World Series.

Every year the new rolled around and everyone wondered if the Cubs could make it to the World Series and break the drought.

Some years the thought was laughable and other years it was a legitimate consideration.

In fact, the last few years saw the expectations rising for the Cubs as another rebuild seemed to make them one of the more promising teams in their last few decades.

They had made the postseason in 2015 and in 2016 a lot of people saw them as a favourite aside from the fact that something always seemed to happen to prevent them from breaking that drought.

2016 will mark the year that the story turned to something else though as the Cubs did make good on the promise of their roster.

The Cubs were expected to be great and there really wasn’t a time when they weren’t one of the top teams in the league.

They took that all the way to the World Series where the 108-year World Series drought ended and one of the biggest parties in Chicago history began.

The Cubs now enter the 2017 season as the defending champions and that is a very new thing for them to be.

Yet despite their championship, the Cubs are still the main story although this time the story is far more positive.

Instead of people asking whether or not they can finally do it, the story is all about where they go from here.baseball-sidebar

The Cubs are still a young team and still very talented with few major changes throughout the roster.

That makes them an early favourite to win another World Series meaning that the Cubs could go from no World Series in over a century to two in two years.

Beyond that, there are also some that believe this could be the start of something as the Cubs seem to be built to last.

If they can keep this team together or continue adding pieces the newest team to rule the league making them the next dynasty.

That could be but they aren’t going to be given the division as the cubs are a good team but the Central is still a good group of teams.

The biggest competition of all will always be the St. Louis Cardinals who may have down periods but they rarely last long as they are still one of the best franchises in the league.

If they can rebound from missing the postseason for the first time in six years they are a team that could challenge the Cubs.

The Pirates are off of their rise but there are some pieces that could make things interesting for the team.

The Brewers and the Reds are still a little ways away from challenging for the top spot but there are always a few surprising teams in the league every year.

The Cubs have gone from a team that couldn’t seem to find any way of winning a championship to the team to beat in the division and the league.

They are the defending champions for the first time in over a century and that is reason enough to watch closely.

They could be just beginning a new era in Chicago baseball as the Cubbies could be the new dynasty.

They also may have broken the streak and are about to start another drought, although likely not as long as the previous one.

2017 could be another defining moment for the team that used to be known as the Loveable losers although there are a few teams looking to end that talk quickly this season.

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The Cubs will be glowing in the World Series titles for years to come but they also face the overarching question that arises when a century-long drought ends. What now? The Cubs have been chasing that title for so long that this is a brand new experience for everyone, even the majority of the fans. As important as 2016 was for this franchise 2017 could be a bigger one as they pursue something more than just a World Series title. They are now hunting for that level of success that only comes around once in a while for very few teams. The San Francisco Giants had it in 2014 they took their third title in five years, as they were the new dynasty. The Cubs are pursuing that dynasty title now and looking at the team they have a good shot at getting there if the right moves are made over the next few years. Another title in 2017 could set them well on the path to a dynasty but they will need to overcome some losses and the dreaded World Series hangover. The pitching staff will remain relatively intact which is a big thing for this team. They lost Jason Hammel but that will give Brett Anderson a chance to prove he belongs in the rotation. Meanwhile, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta lead the group as a very tough top two that were both in the top ten of Cy Young voting last year. Behind them, the bullpen will look a little different as well with Aroldis Chapman leaving and Wade Davis coming in to take over the closer role. They replaced one great closer with another so there shouldn’t be a massive drop-off although Davis is a little older. The rest of the group is much the same and just as good as last year making the pitching staff one of the best. The offence will be led by the young stars again as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russel and Javier Baez are going to have to get over a short offseason and get back to business. They have help with Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Jon Jay are all around to help the young guns continue to adjust to the majors. The big difference that they will notice is the departure of Dexter Fowler without a replacement that can provide the same type of offensive output. Despite that loss, the offence is still deep enough to overcome the loss of a key player. Although there were some key losses the Cubs are still the best team in the division and they should take the division title even if it isn’t as easy as 2016.

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The Reds are only one of the many teams in the middle of a rebuild and like most of those teams the future is bright but the present is pretty bleak. After years of putting together losing seasons, the Reds are beginning to pick apart a veteran core and bringing in young talent to take over. Last year they never really had a chance in the division and they sunk to the bottom while they prepared for the youth movement. 2017 is a complete focus on that youth movement as they will look to some unproven player to help lead them out of the basement. It may not pay off but they will realise what they have as they continue to move forward. One of those players that will be taking over is Jose Peraza who is now the everyday second baseman after the team traded away Brandon Phillips. Peraza is just one of a few talented young players as Billy Hamilton has already established himself as one of the top young players especially after a rebound in 2016. Depending on moves made throughout the season prospects like Dilson Herrera might get a chance to show what they have in the majors. One of the most valuable trades could come if the Reds are willing to part with Joey Votto, who remains one of the best hitters in the league. The Reds might want too much for him though as he is their best player and it will be tough to part with him. The pitching staff might also see some changes this year but for now, the team is led by young arm Brandon Finnegan while veterans Scott Feldman and Anthony DeSclafani help to keep this rotation somewhat on track. The Reds might move these veterans eventually though as they are anxious to see how Amir Garrett and Robert Stephenson perform in the big leagues. Both are very promising young arms and the Reds might want to get a look before the season is over. The bullpen was one of the worst in the league last year and hasn’t been great for years. They hope that they can change that somewhat with the addition of Drew Storen who could settle the mid to late innings. Raisel Iglesias will close for the team and hope to improve on last year. The Reds are about to see a lot of young faces on the roster making them a big target for trade rumours this year. They won’t be in the postseason hunt so trading veterans will allow the prospects to make their way to the big leagues and give a glimpse into the future of this team.

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The Milwaukee Brewers have seen a massive change in their team as the veterans are almost all gone and the new generation is here. The last few years the Brewers started getting rid of their veterans to bring in young talent as they rebuilt to try to find their way back. They are still caught in an awkward spot though as they aren’t ready for their best young talent to rise into the major leagues but they don’t have a great group in the majors. That is the battle for this group of executives as they need to find the right time to bring those young stars up without pushing them in too deep. They will face that question a lot in 2017 as the Brewers still don’t seem ready to compete with the top teams but it could be the year that the youth movement finally takes over. The pitching staff is a group of mainly veterans but no veterans that are overpowering. Junior Guerra is an interesting veteran as he is truly just starting his career at 31 years of age. He spent years waiting for a contract and he got his chance to stick around with the Brewers, which is a chance he took to heart. Guerra had an unexpected season in 2016 and now he enters the s2017 season looking to prove it wasn’t a fluke as he tries to lead this group. The others around him have some questions as Matt Garza, Wily Peralta and Chase Anderson are all ageing while Zach Davies represents one of the younger arms they are hoping can come through. They could also see Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff and Jorge Lopez make an appearance as some of their top prospects. The bullpen will rely heavily on their biggest addition in Neftali Feliz who will be relied upon to close out games. He has late season support in Corey Knebel while Carlos Torres and Jhan Marinez hope to continue their surprise rise. On offence, the transition to new talent has already begun with Ryan Braun as one of the few remaining MLB veterans in the lineup. Braun will be the leader again but the excitement could be in the infield where one of their brightest prospects in Travis Shaw takes over third and a star in Korea takes over at first. Eric Thames was a superstar in Korea hitting 124 home runs in his three seasons there and the Brewers are hoping that power can translate to the MLB, even if slightly reduced. The Brewers are not fighting for a postseason spot but they could be interesting as there are some interesting players to watch as they build for the future.

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It seemed like good times for the Pirates as they were finally beginning to be a team that competed every year. If wasn’t always that way as they struggled to find the postseason for a long time but eventually broke that drought and began a new era in Pittsburgh. The Pirates were now a contender and the question moved from the postseason drought to the World Series drought. They looked like a team that could continue to compete but 2016 had different plans for them as they fell. They enter 2017 looking to show that it was just one bad season and that they are still a team that can compete with the best of them. They will look to a spot that has given them a lot of help over the last few years, the pitching staff. Good pitchers come to Pittsburgh and become great pitchers and the Pirates need that to happen again this year. Gerrit Cole is one of the products of the Pirates’ system and he continues to be the ace for this team. James Taillon and Ivan Nova are also established as great starters but beyond them, the rotation might fall off. That is because of the young talent that has been unproven in the major leagues. Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams could all see some time but there are serious questions about the last two spots in the rotation. Last year the bullpen was a big reason for the struggles of the team as they went from a dominant group to just alright. The loss of Neftali Feliz takes away some depth but the addition of Daniel Hudson could be big especially if he gets some of that Pittsburgh magic and returns to his old ways. Meanwhile, Tony Watson will be the closer from day one after taking over last year and they need him to step up to get back to greatness. On offence, the Pirates will be looking to Andrew McCutcheon to return to his old ways. He had a down year in 2016 and it was another reason for their issues throughout the season. If he returns to what he can be he is one of the best hitters in the league and the Pirates need that from him. They still have Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte that can support but the fact is that McCutcheon makes this team work and he needs to be at his all-star level to get them there. The Pirates have plenty of talent and if they step up the Pirates could be headed to the postseason but it seems like a tough road for them.

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There may be no better franchise as a whole than the St. Louis Cardinals as they have had one of the longest periods of success in the sport. They aren’t a team that generally goes out to sign all of the free agents but instead they develop from the inside and find talent from the farm every year. They have been a franchise that other franchise that others try to be as they are almost never out of the hunt for the postseason. At some point, many thought this would have to come to an end though and to some, it might be doing that. 2016 wasn’t a terrible year but it wasn’t a great one as they missed the postseason and in the process started to trade away some of their great prospects. Now they enter 2017 without the depth that they used to enjoy although they are still a team that has plenty of talent. The worry for some is in the pitching staff as the depth of talent they used to have left when the Cards traded one of their top prospects and the other underwent Tommy John Surgery. It doesn’t leave them without talent though as Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez can still be great pitchers and if they can turn back to 2015 they will steady the worries. Michael Wacha will look to do the same after a great spring that got him the final spot in the rotation. The bullpen also suffered last season and their improvement will depend on the performance of Trevor Rosenthal in an expanded role while they hope to see much of the same from one of the positives in 2016, Seung-hwan Oh. On offence, the Cards still have a lot of talent all led by the best catcher in the league, Yadier Molina. This year they also made a splash in signing Dexter Fowler from the rival Cubs and they are hoping that he can continue his run as one of the top outfielders in the league. They could see a bit of a power struggle though as their top home run hitters are gone which will change the face of the team as they need players like Fowler to continue to get contact and possibly begin playing small-ball. The Cardinals did have a bad year but they are still a talented team and they know how to remain good. It is hard to think that it is the start of a pattern for a team that never sinks so expect them to fight for the division at least for part of the season and battle for a postseason spot.

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Prediction:
The NL Central has a new king and the entire division will be aiming for that king in another season where they seem to be the favourites again. The Cubs are a favourite and not just for the division as they have a strong team as the defending champions. They will head into 2017 with high expectations but for the division battle, there might not be a lot of teams ready to challenge them. The Cardinals are still a strong team and can never be counted out but they aren’t as deep as they once were and after 2016 there are some serious questions to answer. The Pirates are in a very similar boat as they had a tough 2016 and there is little to say that they can bounce back in 2017. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers and Reds won’t be competing this year as they continue rebuilding their teams and looking to the future. That leaves the Cubs as a favourite to take the division and it looks like their path is clear to another deep run.

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