We are 25 days away from the beginning of the 2017 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Wednesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. This week: The National League Central.
Allow me to indulge the fantasy/nightmare scenario one last time. It's the bottom of the ninth at Progressive Field. It's Game 7 of the World Series. Joe Maddon has inexplicably sent Aroldis Chapman, who is clearly exhausted and rattled after giving up a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis the inning before, out to face the top of the Indians' order.
Chapman is so winded and out of it that he can't even throw his fastball, perhaps the most terrifying fastball in baseball history. No one knows why Maddon has him out there, particularly with Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery and all sorts of other live arms still available. This is also an inning after Maddon tried to take the lead with a squeeze bunt, to disastrous results. Chapman is tossing nothing but sliders; it's either all he can or all he's willing to throw.
He hangs one to Francisco Lindor. Lindor whips that bat through the zone. You can hear Indians fans erupt all the way from Chicago, and Mars.
Maddon spends the whole season attempting, and failing, to justify his decisions in that Game 7. The Cubs, having lost their leadoff man and spark plug, feel the pressure from Day One. How could they blow that lead? Are they really cursed? Is this team going to blow this opportunity? Is Maddon really the manager for this team?
That didn't happen. It could have. But it didn't. So here we are instead.
Now the Cubs are just getting started. One inning, one pitch, changes everything. Baseball rules.
NL Central predicted order of finish
5. Cincinnati Reds, 68-94
Of all the teams going through the Cubs/Astros tank-and-rebuild strategy -- Phillies, Brewers, White Sox, Braves, Padres -- you could argue the Reds are the furthest behind in the cycle. They've traded away a few of their veterans, but they haven't brought in massive hauls for any of them. (There are prospects on the way, but the system is more praised for its depth than its top-shelf talent.) They haven't traded away their most valuable chip, Joey Votto, partly out of stubbornness and mostly out of his massive (but still probably worth it) contract. They're still two or three years away from seriously contending, and even then it's not obvious who the superstars of that theoretical 2019 juggernaut are going to be.
In fact, even if you grant the Reds the rosiest scenario -- Jesse Winkler, Nick Senzel, Amir Garrett, et al, all become stars -- it's still difficult to see how they're in better shape than, well, any other team in the division, not just that year, but moving forward. The Brewers have so far been better than the Reds at stocking the farm system shelves. The Pirates have a ton of young talent coming. The Cardinals, even during a "down" period, are formidable in the present and moving forward. And the Cubs are the Cubs. The Reds can do everything right and still be last in this division.
The one thing we haven't seen yet from these fall-then-rise strategies is a team that trades away all its veterans and loads up on draft picks and prospects … and still never actually contends. It's a lot to ask of your fans to suffer through multiple losing seasons in a row, but they'll do it if they believe there's a reward for them at the end. But what happens if they wait, and there's no reward. The Reds are being smart right now. It might not be enough. Then what?
4. Milwaukee Brewers, 76-86
The Brewers have two teams to aspire to: The 2014 Cubs and the 2016 Yankees.
The 2014 Cubs were not a good team -- they finished 73-89 -- but by the end of that season, they had the undeniable look of a franchise on the rise. After the dark period of rebuilding, the young talent was beginning to emerge by September. Anthony Rizzo was already a stud to build around. Jorge Soler and Javier Baez were showcasing their talent. Jake Arietta was becoming an ace. And there was an energy around the franchise that was scary: You knew they weren't there yet, but it was obvious they were improving, and that the breakthrough was coming soon. It turned out: It was coming the very next year.
The 2016 Yankees were a middling team that mostly made headlines in the first half before finally cutting ties with Alex Rodriguez. But at the Trade Deadline, they made their move, shipping away their veteran pieces for some of the top young talent in baseball. Then, no longer obliged to play those vets, they played the young kids and got … better. The Yankees made the smart moves for their future and improved the current roster in the process.
This is the goal for the 2017 Brewers. The Brewers have young talent on the roster -- Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Zach Davies, Orlando Arcia -- but even more young talent on its way, particularly in the outfield in Lewis Brinson and Corey Ray. The always underrated Brewers fan base is going to have a blast watching those guys, and many more, this year and in the years to come. 2017 will be a terrific opportunity to watch that talent blossom. But it's also an opportunity to trade Ryan Braun -- who seems certain to be the most valuable trade deadline commodity -- or Matt Garza or anyone else who isn't part of the future and who isn't nailed down. This is the year we find out if the Brewers' competitive window opens in 2019, or sooner. The Brewers won't contend this year. But if everything goes right, it will be clear to everyone that they are coming.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates, 82-80
The Pirates finally went back to their once-familiar world of under .500 last year, but there's little reason to think they're going to stay there. All the young talent they've been compiling is starting to all come together at the right time, both in the outfield (where Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte are two players any other organization would kill for) and in the rotation (where there's a ton of big arms in their early 20s all trying to emerge). The Pirates still seem a year off from truly ascending, but there is enough lightning-bolt talent here to make a run. If all those pitchers mature at the same time, this could be a downright terrifying rotation, particularly if Gerrit Cole can rebound from a tough 2016 and Ivan Nova can be the steadying force they think they just signed.
But the real question, and the one that might let us know what the plan for the Pirates is truly going to be, of course involves Andrew McCutchen. Already one of the best players in franchise history, McCutchen is the guy -- like Jose Altuve in Houston -- who was there when things were horrible and was able to transition into the star during a time of contention. 2017 is the last year under contract for McCutchen -- the team has an $18.5 million option for next season -- and he's coming off the worst year of his career. Also, Austin Meadows, one of the top prospects in the game, is nearly ready. So do the Pirates let McCutchen walk? Do they trade him this year? It's a massive decision outside of just its roster ramifications: The Pirates have built around McCutchen and could be walking away from him the minute it looks like it's about to all turn around for them. It's particularly noteworthy because McCutchen didn't seem all that pleased that he had to move to right field this year, even if it was the right move.
Every franchise has to make decisions like this, but few players are as tied to their franchise -- and currently experiencing such discord during what should be a time of excitement -- as McCutchen to the Pirates. What happens with him is one of the more fascinating, and momentous, decisions any team will face this season.
2. St. Louis Cardinals, 87-75
First things first, as frustrating as it was to lose Alex Reyes right before the season began -- losing a pitcher as good as him is always going to be a negative -- it is not like the Cardinals were completely counting on him this year. He was always going to be a fifth starter, at best, and there were even some thoughts that he might start the year in Triple-A. The Cardinals have starting pitching depth -- Michael Wacha has looked fine this spring, and Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake have looked even better -- and if anything, Reyes was a luxury item. They'll need him in 2019. But they can survive without him this year.
The timing of Reyes' injury led to some unnecessary doom and gloom about the Cardinals' prospects in 2017. This is still a very solid team. Dexter Fowler fills so many holes the Cardinals needed filled: OBP guy at the top of the lineup, speed, outfield defense (not only helping in center field but giving the Cardinals a plus-glove in left in Randal Grichuk) and clubhouse leadership (he's already the most popular guy on the team). If Aledmys Diaz can repeat his breakthrough season and play even average defense, the infield looks deep and flexible, with Jedd Gyorko as a super utility man who can hit 30 homers. And the bullpen is deeper than it has been in a couple of years, with Brett Cecil added to Final Boss Seung-Hwan Oh and a mix of arms, including Trevor Rosenthal in what the Cardinals see as an Andrew Miller role.
The Cardinals don't have the top-shelf talent that the Cubs do -- there is a belief around the organization that they are saving up cash to go get one in the next couple of years, with them particularly eyeing Manny Machado -- but they are average or above-average essentially everywhere. They have some questions to answer for the future -- most notably what they're going to do about Yadier Molina's next contract -- but this is a better team than they're given credit for this season. If the manager can stay out of the way, this looks like a playoff team.
1. Chicago Cubs, 95-67
Reasons to be down on the Cubs this year:
a) The rotation looks thinner and older than you'd like it to be.
b) There's no leadoff man on the roster.
c) The outfield defense, one of the primary strengths of 2016, looks to be considerably worse.
d) It is super-hard to win 103 games and even the most talented teams often don't come close.
e) Maybe they partied too much in the offseason?
Reasons to be up on the Cubs this year:
Pretty much everything else. All the young hitters who emerged last year should be even better this year, and plus they get a full year of Kyle Schwarber. Is there a more terrifying 1-2-3 in baseball than Schwarber/Bryant/Rizzo? And the rest of the lineup is scary, too. They also have money to spend and prospects to burn if they need to make a move, and they have a resourceful, hungry front office that is now even further emboldened to make whatever move they feel inclined to make. The Cubs have built a monster. This division has four smart organizations with wise, savvy people making good decisions for the present and the future. But they're still way behind the Cubs, and they'll be chasing them for a long, long time.
Next week: The American League West.
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