2018 MLB Preview: NL Central

nlcentralThe National League Central has often been seen as a division of constants with one team constantly on top and another constantly on the bottom.

The St. Louis Cardinals have been the picture of consistency at the top of the league with a franchise that rarely sees long periods of bad play.

They were constantly replenishing their team and usually were competing for the top spot in the division.

It became a constant that they were going to be in the fight for the World Series and if they didn’t get it one year the next could be theirs anyway.

On the opposite side of that coin was the Chicago Cubs who were always known as the loveable losers.

They weren’t always the worst team in the division but they couldn’t find their way to the World Series.

That drought lasted for over 100 years and no matter how good they were it was just known that they were not going to win the World Series.

In between these two teams is a lot of uncertainty with good and bad seasons from the Reds, Pirates and Brewers.

None were ever the focus of the division though as everyone watched to see if the Cardinals could continue their dominance or if the Cubs could finally break through.

Despite the fact that the other teams all rose at some point and had some success in recent years these two have always been the focus and have always stayed in the same roles.

Things are changing though as the division was turned on its head a couple years ago when the Cubs began looking like the best team in the division and the league.

Although the expectation was that they would fall short like the century before they did eventually break through.

The Cubs took the World Series in 2016 and that year ended the two straight years where the Cardinals were the best team in the division.

The Cubs took the division title in 2017 as well taking their own back-to-back titles and becoming one of the best teams in the league.

The Cardinals meanwhile, were on the losing end finishing second to the Cubs in 2016 and third in the division the next year.

Both years they missed the postseason entirely and their shining franchise began to sink into the middle of the division.

The concentration will always be on these two teams but their roles seem to be reversed now while the rest of the division looks to get their own spotlight.

It is never easy when two franchises with larger than life followings are in the division but there are reasons to watch all of these teams with plenty of talent throughout the division.

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It seemed like the Cubs were never going to win a World Series as they extended their streak year after year until it reached the century mark. It was the longest drought in North American sports and there always seemed to be something that got in their way. In only a few years they have gone from a team that was destined to suffer to a team that is among the best in the league. Breaking the drought in 2016 the expectations were high chicubsfor the 2017 season with hopes that they could get back and make it back-to-back championships. They couldn’t quite get there but the still won the division and made it to the NLCS for the second straight year proving that they were not a lucky team. Still, without a championship, the season seemed to be slightly disappointing and those expectations remain high for the 2018 season. They certainly lost some talent as most great teams do with some players choosing to go a different way. The most important losses that they will need to get through will be in the rotation that will look pretty different from a year ago. Both Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are no longer with the team leaving two pretty big gaps that the Cubs had to fill. They did their best to fill those holes and did a good job of getting the people they needed. They signed Tyler Chatwood and one of the biggest free agents out there, Yu Darvish. Chatwood will fill his role well while Darvish won’t have to be the man that the team depends on which could be big for him to settle in. Both will pitch behind Jon Lester while Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks create a good group up front. The bullpen is a bit of a question as they are made up of players that have great potential to do well but have also missed significant time in recent year including new closer Brandon Morrow. On offence, the Cubs are very strong keeping that World Series core together for another year. Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant are the heart of the lineup while Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez provide great support around the power. Albert Almora will need to play a bigger role as the Cubs still lack any true leadoff hitter and Almora has that potential. Last year most of that lineup struggled at the start of the year but after the all-star break they shook off the World Series hangover. If they can have a season closer to that second half they will see the postseason again and could make a deep run.

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The rebuild continues in Cincinnati but it could go down as one of the biggest wastes of talent in the history of the league. Joey Votto has been one of the best players in the league for years and is constantly a part of the MVP conversation. Yet he is on a team that has been going through a long rebuild and one that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. At 34-years-old Votto is not getting any younger and although he is still one cinredsof the best players in the league there are no signs that he will be playing an important game in the next few seasons. The Reds are a team that seems to be good with just losing for right now and that is not a good thing for the career of Votto. It doesn’t seem like they will be out of it anytime soon either as they went into the off-season in desperate need of talent in a lot of places but did little to get help. The Reds were quiet throughout the off-season adding few people to help boost their standing for the new season. It is all a part of their plan though as they continue to build from the farm system and as a result, the outlook for the new season is not very good. They added nothing to help Votto on the offensive side of the ball as he will once again be the leader and the player that they depend on to drive production. They aren’t without talent altogether behind him as Billy Hamilton remains one of the fastest players in baseball while Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez both had good years in 2017. The rotation will be a bit of a mystery this year as injuries have removed some of the main starters and opened up spots for some of the younger talent. With Anthony DeSclafani on the sidelines, Homer Bailey will be the leader of the group. Behind him is a group of pitchers all under 25 and with limited experience including Luis Castillo, Brandon Finnegan and Sal Romano. How this rotation does will be a big indication of what the Reds’ future will hold as their ability to step in and perform will show that they are on the right track. The Reds are a team not entirely without talent and potential as they have 5 of the Top 100 prospects in the game. Still, the plan is clear as they are willing to wait for the talent to develop and for their star it will mean another year of sitting at the bottom of the division.

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The Brewers were once a powerhouse led by one of the best players in the game until that great player was hit by a PED scandal and the Brewers seemed to follow his lead. The team began to sink and the great players they had all began to leave. They required a rebuild the franchise began that rebuild from the top hiring a new GM to try to rebuild a winner in the division. That move has worked out well although like every rebuild it has milbrewerstaken some time to get to a point where positivity reigns. Last year seemed to be the turning point for the Brewers as the rebuild finally began to pay-off with a surprisingly good season that nobody saw coming, not even the Brewers. The rebuild was ahead of schedule and as a result, they took steps to try to make sure they don’t miss this window. That window is something special as GMs need to take advantage when they see their investments pay off. The small players that they signed who stepped up and the prospects that made good on their potential might only be around for a few years. Taking the chance to get the most out of them when you can is not an easy thing to do. The Brewers will look to do that this year and in hopes of getting to the postseason they went out to get two of the bigger free agents in the market. The Brewers signed Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain which should provide a big boost to both the offence and the defence. They will be added to a group with some power coming from unexpected places last year. Travis Shaw went off for 31 home runs, almost double his best output, and reclamation project Eric Thames added his own 31 home runs. Altogether that offence is a solid one as long as the production stays up to what they got the year before. As much as they did to the offence they needed to focus more on their pitching staff and losing Jared Hughes did not help that group. In the rotation, there are serious questions about whether or not Zach Davies or Chase Anderson are good enough to lead the group. The Brewers are a better team than a year before but it might not result in a lot of extra success this year. Although their offence took a step up with their additions they still lack the pitching prowess to compete at the highest level. Unless their starters can step up in a big way, the Brewers might be forced to sit outside of the postseason for another year.

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Things were looking up in Pittsburgh as they had been a struggling tea for years only to start seeing a lot of promise throughout their roster. They began rising through the ranks and were able to get past the Cardinals to find their way to multiple postseason runs. In 2017 injuries hurt their chances but the flashes that they showed proved that they had the talent to be a good team and to compete. That gave them some hope for the 2018 pitpiratesseason but that hope was taken away in the matter of two big moves by the team. The Pirates traded their best player in Andrew McCutchen and their ace Gerrit Cole. It was a move that the franchise claimed was to save them money in the future with McCutchen becoming a free agent after 2018 and Cole eligible for Arbitration after this season. The Pirates wanted to get something for them while they could and it did not sit well with the fans who were looking forward to a year that could have seen them back in the postseason. The trades have led to some pretty bleak predictions for the 2018 season with not many seeing them as any kind of competition. Although they did lose their two best players this team is not out of it entirely as they still have a lot of talent throughout the roster. The outfield remains a strong spot for the Pirates as McCutchen will be missed by Corey Dickerson provides a solid replacement. Meanwhile, Gregory Polanco and Starlin Marte are still patrolling the outfield and providing offence. They will look to the potential of Colin Moran and Josh Bell to provide more offence. In the rotation, Cole was a true ace and the Pirates now lack that person but Ivan Nova will do his best to try to take over that role. The rest of the group is a question as they are young an haven’t proven much but with pitchers like Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, the potential to be great is there. Meanwhile, in the bullpen, the Pirates have built a pretty good team with George Kontos and Michael Feliz forming a formidable group and Felipe Rivero looking to improve on his 21-save 2017. The Pirates definitely lost a lot of fans with the moves that they made this year in trading away the faces of the franchise. It has made them a team with less firepower but the fact is that they didn’t lose all of their talent. They are a young group and mistakes will be made but with the potential on this team, their time could come sooner than expected, although maybe not this year.

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The Cardinals have been the most stable team in the MLB for decades as they are consistent competitors no matter what happens to them. They have created a franchise with a farm system that continues to pump out great players and as their veterans begin to slow down they seem to always have a replacement ready. It has kept them in the fight for years so it was a bit of a strange thing to see them out of the postseason. Even stlcardinalsstranger was the fact that 2017 marked their second straight year outside of the playoffs which is not something that happens to the Cardinals. It wasn’t the reason for panic in St. Louis but that is mainly because they are confident in what they have built over the last few years. It certainly did put some urgency into the team though and as a result, they went out to get some help. They were one of the teams that were able to grab one of the top players available from the Miami Marlins who were simply getting rid of all of their talent. The Cards picked up Marcell Ozuna and immediately got their most powerful hitter, which is not the way that the Cardinals have been built in the past. That addition is an attempt to keep up though as they hope that the talent throughout the lineup can carry them and the addition of that power bat can push them over the hump and into the postseason. They have been a team built on great hitting for years but it has never been great hitting with power. They get on base and move people around so Ozuna provides a new wrinkle to the offence with someone that can drive everyone home with a swing of the bat. It will take the pressure off of the rest of the group as Yadier Molina, Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter and rookie of the year runner-up Paul DeJong can continue to play small ball. The rotation will see a change as well with the loss of Lance Lynn who was one of their best pitchers. He leaves a hole that the Cardinals are hoping can be filled by the bounce back of a few players. Adam Wainwright leads the group hoping to return to his ace ways while Michael Wacha once looked like a future ace but has struggled in recent years and hopes to provide support. The true ace of the group though will be Carlos Martinez who has taken over the role and hopes to continue to develop. The Cardinals didn’t panic but they did make changes and they are hoping that those small tweaks and the bounce back of some players will help them find their spot in the postseason which is a possibility.

Prediction:
The Central continues to transition and as a result, much of the concentration will be on the two teams everyone was going to watch anyway. The Cubs are once again one of the strongest teams in the league and without the drought hanging over their heads the hopes for another World Series are there. The Cardinals are struggling to keep up with their division rivals but a few changes will keep them in the fight for at least part of the season. These two teams will fight for the top spot but the Cubs will come out on top in the end while the Cards struggle to get a wild card among a very improved National League. The Pirates are on their way to competing at the top but the youth on their team leaves too many questions to have them in the postseason this year. The Brewers are going to have a fun offence to watch with the adjustments they made but without a pitching improvement, they are not going to be able to compete. All of them will be miles away from the Reds who are still rebuilding and even with promise won’t be able to find their way out of the basement.

nlcentral-prediction

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