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National League Central Preview: It’s the Cubs Division to Lose in 2018

Senior Writer Austin Bloomberg breaks down the rosters and season outlooks for the National League Central teams in 2018.

The start of the 2018 season is one of optimism for the Cubs. The narrative of a World Series hangover from last season was replaced this year in Arizona with refreshment, optimism, and a renewed focus.

Without question, the Cubs are the clear favorites to win the division. Milwaukee and St. Louis are the biggest threats, but each maintain significant weaknesses that weren’t entirely addressed during the off-season. The Pirates are clearly in rebuild mode, while the Reds have an intriguing team that won’t compete, but may show some potential. Let’s look at each team with some depth.

Milwaukee Brewers

Additions/Losses

The Brewers made a huge splash in one day, trading a wealth of prospects (headlined by Lewis Brinson) for Christian Yelich, and hours later, signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million dollar deal. They also signed Jhoulys Chacin to a two year deal to help augment the rotation, and also added Matt Albers on a two year deal to buttress the bullpen.

Starting Pitching

The rotation for the Brew Crew is without question their biggest weakness. Ace Jimmy Nelson is still rehabbing from shoulder surgery last fall, with a return date that remains unknown. Chase Anderson will anchor the rotation in his absence, a very solid (and underrated) starter in his own right.

Zach Davies will assume the second slot in the rotation, and while he’s a nice rotation piece (think poor man’s Kyle Hendricks), he’s better served to round out the rotation, not help front it. Newcomer Jhoulys Chacin, fresh off a solid season in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, and lefty Brent Suter currently round out the rotation. With Wade Miley on the DL, expect Brandon Woodruff to fill in as the fifth starter when needed until further notice.

Clearly this rotation lacks any form of inspiration. The Brewers seemed destined to land a big-name starter this off-season, but instead let the likes of Lance Lynn sign with the Twins for cheap, Jake Arrieta to the Phillies on a deal they could’ve afforded, and while seemingly interested in Alex Cobb, they never put together a competitive offer for him before he signed with the Orioles. The rotation is shaky, at best, and will make or break their season. It’s unconscionable they did little to augment their biggest need.

Relief Pitching

Anchored by closer Corey Knebel and veteran Matt Albers, the Brewers have a sneaky-good bullpen with quality depth. The newest addition of Dan Jennings gives them a second lefty option while Boone Logan is sidelined. Simply put, the bullpen should be able to close out games for the Brewers with consistency.

Infield

Defensive whiz Orlando Arcia fronts an underrated infield, complimented by out-of-nowhere star Travis Shaw at third. Eric Sogard will likely platoon the keystone with Jonathan Villar, while it appears Ryan Braun will be getting his share of starts at first base against lefties, relegating Eric Thames to an awkward time share at first. The infield should be productive offensively, with league average defense overall to boot.

Outfield

Photo: LA Times

The outfield is both star-studded and impossibly crowded. Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Domingo Santana will see the bulk of playing time from left to right, and comprise one of the best outfields in all of baseball.

The problem? This forces Braun to first (where he’s not comfortable) while pushing Keon Broxton (a legitimate everyday outfielder) and Brett Phillips (see last parenthetical statement) to Triple-A. This outfield will produce at a high clip; it’s also insane that Broxton and Phillips will toil in the minors when they could’ve been trade pieces for a solid starting pitcher.

Catching

With Stephen Vogt on the DL, Manny Pina will see the bulk of playing time behind the dish. He’s quietly adequate offensively (for a catcher) while above average defensively. Behind him will be Jett Bandy, who, well, is just fine for a backup.

Potential impact prospects

For the Brewers it’s all about pitching prospects in 2018. Woodruff will presumably be the first to have his chance in the rotation, with Luis Ortiz and perhaps Corbin Burnes getting extensive looks as starters should further injuries or ineffectiveness plague the rotation. Should the Brewers happen to rely upon any of these three, their success (or failure) could very well determine the season.

Season Overview

Even with the awkward outfield depth and thin rotation, the Brewers are in my mind the second best team in the division. They’ll likely deal with some losing streaks, but will also show spurts as one of the best teams in the league — thanks to what will be a prolific offense. While one could certainly argue they end up with a sub .500 record, I think it’s more likely that they piece together a solid season, one in which they eke into the second Wild Card slot.

St. Louis Cardinals

Additions/Losses

Traded a bevvy of prospects (including Sandy Alcantara) to the Marlins for Marcell Ozuna. In separate deals, Randal Grichuk and Aledmys Diaz were sent to the Blue Jays for prospects (including bullpen newcomer Dominic Leone).

Luke Gregerson was signed to a one year deal to anchor the bullpen, while Miles Mikolas was inked for the rotation, returning to the majors after a successful stint in Japan.

Starting Rotation

The Cardinals rotation is one of intrigue. The electric Carlos Martinez fronts a young, talented staff that includes youngster Luke Weaver, off-season signing Mile Mikolas, and the oft-injured but highly talented Michael Wacha. With veteran and clubhouse leader Adam Wainwright on the DL to start the year, prospect Jack Flaherty will fill out the rotation.

Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

There’s a ton of talent here, but also a lack of track record. If everyone pitches up to their potential, this could be one of the more underrated rotations in all of baseball. Things rarely pan out that way, however, so while Martinez may become a dark house Cy Young candidate and Weaver establishing that 2017 was no fluke, expect some growing pains as the season unfolds.

Bullpen

The ‘pen is likely the Cardinals biggest question mark. With Gregerson on the DL to start the year, and potential closer of the future (if he’s not ultimately a starter) Alex Reyes still recovering from Tommy John, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Brett Cecil and Bud Norris are vets that should help stabilize the relief core, but it remains a mystery the Cardinals have yet to ink star closer Greg Holland while he’s still available. The ‘pen will likely be a huge factor concerning the Cards fate — and that’s not a good thing.

Infield

Around the horn it’s Jed Gyorko, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Matt Carpenter. This is an offensively talented (and defensively adequate) unit that has the ability to provide consistency on both sides of the ball. Carpenter will continue to be on OBP machine, while Wong and DeJong both look to follow-up excellent 2017 campaigns. Gyorko had a bit of a career year last year as well, though I think he’ll resemble more of his previous self: quality power with a lower batting average.

Outfield

Tommy Pham‘s move to center pushes Dexter Fowler to right field, while newcomer Ozuna will man left field. This is a highly talented unit, though it remains to be seen if Pham will see the bulk of playing time in center, and if so, how well his defense will hold up there. Expect these three to put up quality numbers all around — power, speed, and average. This has the potential to be a sneaky-good outfield unit.

Catching

Veteran and first ballot Hall of Famer, Yadier Molina will once again get the lion’s share of playing time behind the dish. Injuries and decline have certainly affected him, however, so backup Francisco Pena should see more playing time than a Cardinals’ backup catcher often would. It’s also likely top prospect Carson Kelly returns to the majors at some point, but his status with the team is currently in flux as Molina is locked up through 2020.

Potential impact prospects

Dominic Leone could very well emerge as a late-inning stalwart, while Carson Kelly could see increased playing time behind the dish as the season progresses. Alex Reyes‘ role will likely be fluid as he returns this summer, and Jack Flaherty will probably have a very real chance to establish himself in the rotation.

Season Overview

The Cardinals will, in all likelihood, remain a competitive team in spite of the several question marks surrounding their team. Dealing with a transition from franchise heroes and budding newcomers, they’ll find a way to remain in the playoff raise while juggling the past and future. Expect growing pains with the rotation, and a bullpen that sorts itself out as the season unfolds. They’ll be in the mix for a Wild Card spot, finishing slightly above .500 but once again missing the playoffs.

Cincinnati Reds

 

Additions/Losses

Lost shortstop Zack Cozart to free agency. Signed reliever Jared Hughes to a two year deal.

Starting Rotation

This rotation is quite young, and while talented, will certainly show that youth as the team struggles. Homer Bailey is the de facto ace, but he’s never lived up to the hype that existed when he was a top prospect. Luis Castillo will be worth keeping an eye on, as he could develop into one of the game’s best young aces, while prospect Tyler Mahle will get an extended look in the rotation. There’s upside here to be sure, there’s also going to be inconsistency and ugly outings.

Bullpen

Raisel Iglesias had a tremendous 2017, and you can expect him to be among the game’s best closers this year. The bullpen is otherwise comprised largely of youngsters and journeyman, and it’s hard to expect much out of them.

Infield

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The great Joey Votto anchors the infield, both offensively and defensively. Eugenio Suarez should have another productive year at third, Scooter Gennett will likely regress from last year but roughly be league average, and Jose Peraza will provide stellar defense at short with little offensive production.

Outfield

Adam Duvall will man left, where his defensive is an afterthought due to his ability to mash. Billy Hamilton will provide great defensive because of his speed, but continue to lack on base ability offensively that is nothing short of maddening. Scott Schebler will see the bulk of time in right, playing much in the manner as Duvall.

Catching

Tucker Barnhart will be the Opening Day starter, and likely split time with Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco has never fully recovered from injury after an outstanding 2014 campaign, while Barnhart pieced together a solid 2017 season. Catching should be adequate for the Reds this season.

Potential impact prospects

Top prospect Nick Senzel should get a look at some point this season, which could ultimately force Suarez back to shortstop. Mahle, another highly touted prospect, will be an intriguing player to watch in the rotation.

Season Overview

It’s no secret the Reds will struggle this year. Projections tend to suggest they’ll win less than 70 games, which is probably a fair assessment. However, if things play out as best they can, you’ll see a team develop its youngsters, prospects showing signs of readiness, and the continued greatness of Votto. Best case scenario? They break 70 wins and beat the Pirates for fourth place.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Additions/Losses

Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were each traded, clearly starting the rebuild in Pittsburgh. Those trades netted several players, most notably prospect Colin Moran and newcomer-to-the-rotation Joe Musgrove. Corey Dickerson was also picked up via trade with the Rays.

Starting Rotation

The rotation is a bit of a hodge podge, with Ivan Nova fronting a unit that includes promising youngster Jameson Taillon, the inconsistent Chad Kuhl, and the aforementioned Musgrove. This rotation might be good at times, but for the most part expect to see plenty of struggles. Simply put, this rotation is not very good.

Bullpen

The ‘pen will features stud closer Felipe Rivero, and is otherwise a mixed bag including the likes of Giants castaway George Kontos. Former starting pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow may flourish in the bullpen, but that both remains to be seen and alone will not dramatically alter the bullpen. This unit will likely struggle, sometimes badly, outside of Rivero.

Infield

Youngster Josh Bell should be a lot of fun to watch at first base, and he’ll be joined by utility man Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer at short, and expect Moran to see plenty of time of action at third. Overall this group is fine; there’s talent, certainly, but don’t expect any of these guys to be all-stars outside of perhaps Bell.

Outfield

The outfield, even sans team icon McCutchen, should be quite good. Dickerson will anchor left field with Starling Marte in center and Gregory Polanco in right. Defensively this should be a very good unit, and offensively will be the bright spot in the Pirates lineup.

Catching

Francisco Cervelli will be the everyday starter, providing adequate defense and, as one would expect, sub-par offense. Elias Diaz will back him up, and at age 27, his career likely depends on him sticking as a serviceable backup catcher.

Potential impact prospects

Austin Meadows will undoubtedly get his first taste of big league action this year. It’s a matter of when, not if. Expect him to be a perennial all-star for Pittsburgh. The aforementioned Moran will have a chance to stick at third, and top pitching prospect Mitch Keller will likely be called up this year — and he has the stuff to become a front-line starter.

Season Overview

Like the Reds, the Pirates will struggle mightily this season. While projections like PECOTA peg them for 77 wins, I imagine they’ll be slugging it out with Cincy to stay out of the basement. The rebuild is clearly happening in Pittsburgh, and while the big trades from the off-season didn’t necessarily net the type of haul that one might expect, they have a farm system in place that could help them compete within the next several years.

Division Outlook

This is clearly the Cubs’ division. I’ll eat my hat if the Cubs don’t win the division for a third straight season, and this year you can expect them to essentially (if not mathematically) lock up a playoff bid come September.

St. Louis and Milwaukee will both be quite competitive however, and I fully expect them to both compete for the wild card — with the Brewers ultimately landing the second slot behind the Diamondbacks.¬†Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will both have ugly seasons, each of which flashing the promise of their youngsters while mired in the basement of the league.

It feels like the narrative for the National League Central has been written before the season has started. Anything can happen, of course, but the smart money is on that narrative being fulfilled.

Feature Photo Credit: Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

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