National League Central
Spotlight on the Chicago Cubs
Could this be the year? The Cubs took a big step forward last year behind rookies Kris Bryant (.275, 26 homers), Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber (5 postseason homers) with a historic season from Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (1.77 ERA, 22-6). Chicago exceeded expectations, winning 97 games and reaching the NLCS, but now the bar is set higher than any other team. The additions of OF Jason Heyward and utilityman Ben Zobrist made big splashes, but the Cubs did well to add depth behind their starters with OF Dexter Fowler and starter John Lackey. The Cubs could reach 100 wins, but only if their pitching trio of Arrieta, Jon Lester and Lackey excel in October will the North Siders win their first crown since 1908.
- St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals won over 100 games last year and they aren’t even favorites in the division. That is what happens when you’re in the same division as the Cubs and the Pirates, and even a solid year may not be enough for a playoff berth. Jason Heyward and John Lackey bolted north to Chicago, stripping the roster of two superstars. Top pitcher Adam Wainwright is coming back from injury but has Cy Young potential, while Michael Wacha and Mike Leake join him in a loaded rotation. The question is the offense, which ranked 24th in the majors in runs. Watch young outfielders Randal Grichuk (17 homers), Tommy Pham and Scott Piscotty (.305 AVG), all of whom made an immediate impact on the squad last year. The Cardinals are falling behind, but with a strong mix of veterans and young talent and a top-tier manager in Mike Matheny, St. Louis could make a run.
- Pittsburgh Pirates
With three straight Wild Card berths, the Pirates are now the dark horse of the National League. Pittsburgh won 98 games last year but fell to the Cubs in the Wild Card Game. Manager Clint Hurdle has a star-studded roster that has the talent to compete with the top dogs in the division, so don’t count the Pirates out. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.292 AVG, 4.8 wins above replacement) is an MVP candidate and his outfield mates Starling Marte (5.3 wins above replacement) and Gregory Polanco (27 SB) could earn All Star nods. In the rotation, Gerrit Cole emerged as a Cy Young candidate. Two players to keep an eye on- starter Jon Niese and third baseman Jung Ho Kang. Niese came over from the Mets and needs to solidify the third spot in the rotation, while Kang must bounce back from the injury that prematurely ended his stellar rookie season.
- Cincinnati Reds
While the Pirates, Cubs, and Cardinals battle it out for first place, the Reds and Brewers are in contention for the first pick of the draft. Both teams are in total rebuilds, and the priority is reloading the roster with prospects. For the Reds, that would be trading away OF Jay Bruce and 2B Brandon Phillips. Unlike Milwaukee, Cincinnati could be interesting to watch because of speedster Billy Hamilton (50+ steals the last two years) and MVP candidate Joey Votto (7.6 wins above replacement). Fiery manager Bryan Price could also make headlines.
- Milwaukee Brewers
For this summer, the Brewers will be the stomping ground of the other top NL Central squads. Ryan Braun (25 homers) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy are following Carlos Gomez on the way out as the Brewers stockpile draft picks. Milwaukee’s rotation could also be broken up in pursuit of minor leaguers.