Spring NL Central Preview
As the season starts to gain some steam here, is the last division, the NL Central, because opening day doesn't really count that much for the rest of the season, unless your closer has a mental breakdown he can't come back from.
It's not a big surprise to have the Cubs here, they essentially don't change much with their team, swapping out a few ancillary players here and there, but keeping the same championship moving pieces in place. They are odd that they are spending so much for Jason Heyward to be a defensive replacement/platoon outfielder, but the team is built to move players around the field based on the match up of the pitcher they are facing and the tendencies of their own rotation. Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist move between 2B, RF, LF, and probably SS and 3B depending on where their defensive expertise are required. Albert Almora and newcomer Jon Jay handle CF with Heyward depending on whether they need speed, an arm, or a righty or lefty hitter in the lineup. They replace the back of their rotation with lefty Brett Anderson who is known as a reliable contact pitcher despite an injury history, and replace Chapman as their closer with former Royal Wade Davis (whose non-strike out rates are equal or better than Chapman's) and former Red Sox set up man Koji Uehara.
Pittsburgh will probably be living without 3B Jung-ho Kang in the middle of the lineup due to legal and visa problems but equal his fielding skill with David Freese moving from a bench role, and rookie Josh Bell whose offense over replacement could bridge the gap. A comeback year from McCutchen and a coming of age from the young rotation of Garret Cole, Jamison Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow to supplement newly solid vet Ivan Nova means the Bucs could have an electric rotation. The bullpen could have some issues but it's not as glaring a hole as the Cardinals rotation where Wainwright, Leake and Wacha are all coming off of a pretty ugly 2016 all with ERA's over 4.60. They pretty much just add CF Dexter Fowler from the Cubs in the offseason, but they lose the power of Matt Holliday who left for the Yankees.
The Brewers will have an easier time rebuilding this season than the Reds as they add power and experience from Eric Thames who comes over from international play and former Red Sox 3B Travis Shaw. Their rotation is a little more stable than the Reds although their "ace" Junior Guerra is a little banged up to start the season and they add a new closer in Naftali Feliz. The Reds didn't add many players this season and they see themselves playing a lot of rookies including the aptly named SP Rookie Davis and SP Amir Garrett. Longtime players SP Homer Bailey, SP Anthony DeScalfani and C Devin Mesoraco are hurt and they no longer have long time players from just a couple of years ago OF Jay Bruce (NYM), 2B Brandon Phillips (ATL), and 3B Todd Frazier (CHW).
Kris Bryant (CHC)
Every team in this division with the exception of the Cardinals has a homegrown former NL MVP currently in their lineups. The Brewers have OF Ryan Braun, OF McCutchen for the Pirates, 1B Joey Votto for the Reds and the reigning NL MVP 3B/OF Kris Bryant. Starling Marte of the Pirates and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs also have skill repertoires and history of solid stats over the last couple of years to make a run for MVP, but Bryant doesn't look like he's going anywhere for a while. His 65 homers, 201 RBI, 66 doubles, .282 AVG and 375 OBP over his first two seasons in the majors bode well for him as he plays this season as a 25 year old.
Cy Young Candidate
Arrieta's season last year was a down year where his ERA was still only 3.10, and his WHIP just 1.08. Judging by his previous two seasons of ERAs of 2.53, and 1.77, WHIPs of 0.99 and .087, and the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, his expectations to bounce back to being untouchable are realistic enough. He might have been recovering from his incredible second half of 2015 when his ERA was juts .075, 0.73 WHIP, 2 shut outs, 9.5 K/9 and a .148 AVG against that powered him to leading the league with 22 W's, 4 CG, 3 SHO, 5.9 H/9, 0.4 HR/9 on the season. The highlight for his 2016 was winning 2 World Series. Although, he might his highlight was that he hit .262 with 2 homers in 65 ABs in the regular season and hit another three-run homer in the NLDS.
The Cubs have a trio of pitchers that could all be in the top voting of the Cy Young award this year with Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks probably should have won the award last year because he won the ERA crown for the majors by 0.31 at 2.13 and second in WHIP by 0.01 at 0.98. He ended up finishing third in the voting and Lester finished second in voting, second in ERA at 2.44, and second in wins with 19. The Pirates Gerrit Cole looks to upset this trio by bouncing back from only 21 starts last year and a pedestrian 3.88 ERA. Cole's healthier 2015 might give a better example of what he can do this year with a full season when he went 19-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 202 K's and 4th in Cy Young voting.
Rookie of the Year Candidate
Josh Bell (PIT)
The Pirates have the best crop of players, playing time opportunity, and opportunity to win for their young players. Taillon and Glasnow have great chances to pile up some wins in the rotation and Taillon can even establish himself as a top young pitcher in the league. Taillon was the 2nd player taken in the draft the year before Cole was taken first overall and it finally seems like this is the year they make take on the league as a dynamic duo. I do think that Josh Bell, a monster of a young athletic 1B (converted from their crowded outfield) might make a bigger impact on the Pirates lineup and on the leader boards for NL Rookies.
Bell is a big target at first base at 6'2", 230 and the 24 year old from Dallas looks like he fit in on a football field. His home run numbers in the minors haven't been all that eye popping, but his doubles numbers the last four years of 37, 30, 24, and 31 (combined AAA and minors last year) show some power potential. Those last four seasons he also had an average around .300 or higher and an OBP over .360 each year. He has nice metrics that back up his abilities and this switch hitter's swing is quick and smooth to pass the eye test. I'm hoping the nickname of "The Executioner" catches on so it's not just me yelling it at my TV.
Dark Horse Player
Eric Thames (MIL)
In the last three seasons in Korea, Eric Thames hit 37, 47 and 40 homers and he takes that ability to lift the ball to first base at the hitter friendly Miller Park in Milwaukee. Peraza now has a position to play full time in Cincy with the departure of Phillips at 2B with a chance to build on his 2016 of 72 games with .324 AVG, and 21 SB's. Raisel Iglesias continues his transition from the starting pitcher he was in Cuba to a reliever expected to pitch up to two innings or more per game, after sporting a 2.53 ERA last year and starting the season in as the Reds closer. As a 24 year old super utility player in 2016, Adam Frazier hit 301 AVG, .356 OBP over 160 at bats and played all over the field. He wasn't expected to be the young Pirates player to fill that role but he had no trouble embracing it.
Most likely to be suspended for a fight
Jon Lester (CHC)
Arrieta is such a militaristic guy and it doesn't help him that he seemed pretty fired up for Trump during the election. I was thinking Braun not because I think he'll look to get into anything, but I feel like everyone wants to take a swing at him just for being Ryan Braun. Joey Votto is also a bit of madman, it didn't help last year when he came into the season with a freshly shaved head and a crazy look in his eye. I don't like the fact that he has a tendency to come back and apologize for his actions for this category, however.
There was a little concern coming into this season that the loss of David Ross could get Jon Lester into trouble because apparently one of his main roles was to keep Lester from getting to heated with umpires. Apparently Ross had the role of bringing some levity to his interactions with the umpires and would know when to put his body between Lester and the officials. There is a worry that with a young catcher, Contreras, this season Lester's odds of popping a man in blue have gone up just a bit.