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2017 NL Central Preview: Repeat of History?

The National League Central is home to a team that make history in 2016. Will the 2017 NL Central race start the whole process in motion again?

There’s no telling if the previously championship-starved Chicago Cubs will repeat as World Series champs this season. It’s much easier to forecast that they’ll win the division again. With the conventional wisdom holding true between now and October, they will.

Chicago spent years putting the pieces in place for the situation they’re in now. They’re young, talented, and now playoff-experienced. The Cubs will be around for a while, whether or not they hoist the trophy again this season. How do they compare with the other teams in their division?

2017 NL Central Preview: Chicago Cubs

Well, one thing is for sure: last season will be a tough act to follow.

A lot of the key players from the 2016 World Series team are back in 2017, with a few notable exceptions. One of them is clubhouse leader David Ross, retired to Dancing With The Stars. Another is Aroldis Chapman, a rental from the Yankees who went to the Cubbies for a few months and then boomeranged back to the Bronx. No matter: they still have the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Jon Lester.

Songs will be sung of the heroism of the 2016 Cubs for generations in Chicago, regardless of what happens in 2017. Yet, now that they’ve had their first taste of the sweet nectar of victory since before the Taft presidency, they’re not going to want to give it up. Winning the division will take effort, but not a Herculean one, as they are clearly the best team in the NL Central again.

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2017 NL Central Preview: Cincinnati Reds

The Big Red Machine looked more like The Little Red Wagon With Three Busted Wheels in 2016. Cincy was a trainwreck from late April on as they plumbed the depths of the MLB standings. What was their problem last year? A better question is, what wasn’t?

The 2016 Reds were average at best offensively, had terrible pitching despite several decent starters, and weren’t all that great defensively. There was no one thing at which Cincinnati stood out, except for losing a lot of games.

In 2017, they’re short one of those decent starters (Dan Straily), while another (Anthony DeSclafani) is injured. Don’t expect great things from Reds pitching in 2017.

One also wonders how long first baseman Joey Votto will hang around. It’s clearly time for the Reds to blow up whatever hasn’t been blown up and start over, but Votto remains. Perhaps nobody else can afford him, but they’re not going to build a team around a 33-year old. If they think they can, they shouldn’t. Votto is still playing well; if the going gets tough again for Cincinnati, they should explore the possibility of getting a haul for him. His gigantic contract may preclude it, but it’s worth asking.

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2017 NL Central Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

The Brew Crew have had a few years of being nothing special. Their lousy offense may in fact be lousier this season, but only in the short-term. Top home run hitter Chris Carter is off to the Boogiedown, but Ryan Braun is still good for some dingers.

Braun, one would think, is trade bait if the Brewers play like crap in July. That might not be the worst thing in the world, either, as his departure will make room for more of a new generation of players. Make no mistake, Milwaukee is still rebuilding, and it’s a process. Any hardship they endure now may pay off in the long run.

Next to Braun in the outfield are two interesting young players in Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton. They’re at the forefront of the new wave of the Brewers, along with Scooter Gennett and Jonathan Villar. Great things may not be in store in 2017, but this still likely isn’t the worst team in the Central.

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2017 NL Central Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Part of Pittsburgh falling backward in 2016 was the Cubs vacuuming up all the wins. Another part was their mediocre pitching staff never getting it together. Pittsburgh was ninth in the National League in team ERA last season, but change is coming.

Gone are Jeff Locke, Jon Niese, Francisco Liriano, and Ryan Vogelsong. That’s 72 starts from last season no longer on the roster. Not a single one of them sported an ERA under 4.80, either. Gerrit Cole is probably the so-called ace of the staff, though an ace he is not. He’ll be joined by a lot of fellow 30-and-under hurlers in the rotation. They include Jameson Taillon (25), Chad Kuhl (24), Ivan Nova (30), and perhaps Drew Hutchison (26).

You can build an offense around Andrew McCutchen, and for this year, he’s theirs. He has Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco around him, which makes for a decent 3-4-5 in the lineup, but don’t forget about Jung Ho Kang. While that’s all well and good, they’re still not as good as the Cubs in any department.

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2017 NL Central Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis is one of those teams that should be a model of consistency for others in baseball. Whether they win a title or not, they’re doing their thing every year and keeping themselves in the hunt. The Cards are good — not Cubs good, but good.

Are they make-the-playoffs good? Perhaps, though their path into the postseason most likely involves a wild card game. Their offense will be at the forefront of that effort. Yadier Molina is still one of the better offensive catchers in baseball, at least when it comes to his batting average. He’s no power hitter, but he led the Cardinals in hits last season. Others like Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko will contribute, as they are the power hitters.

The pitching staff is where St. Louis has taken some licks. Alex Reyes had Tommy John surgery, Zach Duke is out for the season with an arm injury, and Tyler Lyons may yet be gone for a few months.

The net result of all this is probably an 85-90 win team. When the Cubs will push 100, it won’t win them the division.

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