Leading Off: NL Central previews
The offseason ins and outs and what to expect in 2017 for the world champion Cubs and the rest of the National League Central.
Manager: Joe Maddon (third season).
Projected Lineup: LF Kyle Schwarber (missed nearly all of last season due to left knee injury; .246, 16 HRs, 43 RBIs, .842 OPS in 69 games as rookie in 2015), 3B Kris Bryant (.292, 39, 102, NL MVP), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.292, 32, 109, Gold Glove), 2B Ben Zobrist (.272, 18, 76) or Javier Baez (.273, 14, 59), SS Addison Russell (.238, 21, 95), C Willson Contreras (.282, 12, 35), RF Jason Heyward (.230, 7, 49, Gold Glove), CF Albert Almora Jr. (.277, 3, 14 in 47 games) or Jon Jay (.291, 2, 26 in 90 games with Padres).
Rotation: LH Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, 197 Ks), RH Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10), RH Kyle Hendricks (16-8, MLB-best 2.13), RH John Lackey (11-8, 3.35), LH Brett Anderson (1-2, 11.91 in 4 games with Dodgers).
Key Relievers: RH Wade Davis (2-1, 1.87, 27/30 saves in 45 games with Kansas City), RH Hector Rondon (2-3, 3.53, 18/23 saves), RH Pedro Strop (2-2, 2.85), LH Mike Montgomery (4-5, 2.52 with Mariners and Cubs), RH Koji Uehara (2-3, 3.45, 7 saves in 50 games with Boston).
Hot Spot: Center Field. Almora and Jay get the first shot to replace Fowler after he signed with the rival Cardinals. The righty-batting Almora, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, made his major league debut last year. Jay is a solid defender who bats from the left side. If they falter, Maddon could move Heyward to center and Zobrist to right, allowing him to put Baez’s potent bat and slick glove at second base.
Outlook: The Cubs are in great shape as they try to become baseball’s first repeat World Series winner since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000. Montgomery likely will get a few starts to help keep Anderson healthy and lessen the load on the rest of the rotation. Chicago also will be cautious with Schwarber and his powerful left-handed swing after he missed most of last year following major left knee surgery. Davis replaces Chapman as the closer after the lefty signed with the Yankees in free agency. The 6-foot-5 Davis was limited to 43 1/3 innings last year with the Royals because of a forearm injury, but Rondon and Uehara also have closing experience. The Cubs once again have one of baseball’s deepest rosters, with prospects Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario waiting in the wings should there be a rash of injuries.
St. Louis Cardinals
Manager: Mike Matheny (sixth season).
He’s Here: CF Dexter Fowler, LHP Brett Cecil.
Projected Lineup: CF Dexter Fowler (.276, 13 HRs, 48 RBIs), SS Aledmys Diaz (.300, 17, 65), 1B Matt Carpenter (.271, 21, 68), RF Stephen Piscotty (.273, 22, 85), C Yadier Molina (.307, 8, 58), 3B Jhonny Peralta (.260, 8, 29 in 82 games) or Jedd Gyorko (.243, 30, 59), LF Randal Grichuk (.240, 24, 68), 2B Kolten Wong (.240, 5, 23).
Rotation: RH Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA, 174 Ks), RH Adam Wainwright (13-9, 4.62), RH Michael Wacha (7-7, 5.09), RH Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03 in 2015; missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery), RH Mike Leake (9-12, 4.69).
Key Relievers: RH Seung-hwan Oh (6-3, 1.92, 19/23 saves), LH Brett Cecil (1-7, 3.93 with Toronto), RH Trevor Rosenthal (2-4, 4.46, 14 saves), RH Jonathan Broxton (4-2, 4.30), LH Kevin Siegrist (6-3, 2.77), LH Zach Duke (2-1, 2.36, 2 saves, 81 games with White Sox and Cardinals), LH Tyler Lyons (2-0, 3.38).
Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. The Cardinals missed the postseason last year for the first time since 2010, thanks in large part to injuries that caused the pitching staff’s ERA to rise from a National League-best 2.94 in 2015 to 4.08 last season. This time, St. Louis expects its rotation to enter the season healthy and recovered from last year’s woes — even with the loss of hard-throwing rookie Alex Reyes to elbow surgery early in spring training. Despite Reyes’ injury, the Cardinals’ rotation is still anchored by a potential Cy Young Award candidate in Martinez along with veterans Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn and Leake. Wainwright’s devastating curveball has appeared back in form this spring, while Lynn looks fully recovered from an elbow injury that forced him to miss all of last season. What’s left to see is how Wacha’s offseason of shoulder training helps him hold up over the course of the season, because St. Louis needs its rotation to perform the way it did in 2015 if the team hopes to challenge the defending World Series champion Cubs in the NL Central.
Outlook: The Cubs own the preseason national spotlight, and deservedly so. That said, the Cardinals — bolstered by a mostly healthy rotation and the signing of Fowler away from Chicago for five years and $82.5 million — are expected to make their division rivals work for everything they earn in 2017. Fowler brings a new element of athleticism to St. Louis, both offensively and in the field, and Matheny is counting on the center fielder to aid what has been a largely station-to-station approach by the Cardinals, who were last in the National League in steals last season.
Manager: Clint Hurdle (seventh season).
Projected Lineup: 2B Josh Harrison (.283, 4 HRs, 59 RBIs, 19 SBs), 1B John Jaso (.268, 8, 42) or Josh Bell (.273, 3, 19 in 45 games), RF Andrew McCutchen (.256, 24, 79), CF Starling Marte (.311, 9, 46, 47 SBs, Gold Glove in LF), LF Gregory Polanco (.258, 22, 86, 17 SBs), 3B David Freese (.270, 13, 55) or Jung Ho Kang (.255, 21, 62), C Francisco Cervelli (.264, 1, 33), SS Jordy Mercer (.256, 11, 59).
Rotation: RH Gerrit Cole (7-10, 3.88 ERA), RH Ivan Nova (5-2, 3.06 with Pirates; 7-6, 4.90 with Yankees), RH Jameson Taillon (5-4, 3.38), RH Chad Kuhl (5-4, 4.20), RH Tyler Glasnow (0-2, 4.24) or RH Trevor Williams (1-1, 7.82).
Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. Pitching was the main reason Pittsburgh’s run of three straight postseason appearances ended in 2016 as the team ERA rose from 3.21 in 2015 to 4.21 last year. The Pirates didn’t really do much to address the issue other than re-signing Nova to a relatively inexpensive, $26 million, three-year deal to serve as the No. 2 starter behind Cole. Taillon showed flashes during his rookie season, but the final two spots in the rotation are serious question marks. Kuhl was serviceable at times but hardly a difference maker, and Glasnow’s once-promising stock has taken a hit with concerns about his control.
Outlook: Pittsburgh didn’t exactly throw cash around in hopes of keeping up with the World Series champion Cubs or rival St. Louis. Instead, the Pirates shopped longtime franchise cornerstone McCutchen and then pulled back when other teams didn’t want to meet their asking price. The five-time All-Star has tried to take the high road while ultimately accepting a move to right field, though the soap opera concerning his future will likely only heat up again if the Pirates fall off the pace early. Pittsburgh’s margin for error is small if it wants to rebound. Nova needs to sustain the momentum he built after arriving in a trade-deadline deal with the Yankees. The young arms behind him in the rotation must mature quickly, and McCutchen needs a quicker start than the sluggish first three months that marked his disappointing 2016 season. Cole returning to the All-Star form he showed in 2015 would help. So would the return of Kang, who spent the offseason dealing with a DUI arrest back home in South Korea. His status remains uncertain as he tries to secure a work visa to get back to the United States. Pittsburgh needs more power in the middle of the lineup, and Kang is the team’s best bet to provide it.
Manager: Craig Counsell (third season).
Projected Lineup: 2B Jonathan Villar (.285, 19 HRs, 63 RBIs, MLB-high 62 steals), CF Keon Broxton (.242, 9, 19, 23/27 steals), LF Ryan Braun (.305, 30, 91), 1B Eric Thames (.317, 40, 118 with NC Dinos in Korean Baseball Organization), RF Domingo Santana (.256, 11, 32), 3B Travis Shaw (.242, 16, 71 with Red Sox), C Jett Bandy (.234, 8, 25 with Angels) or Manny Pina (.254, 4, 12), SS Orlando Arcia (.219, 4, 21).
Rotation: RH Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81 ERA in 20 starts), RH Zach Davies (11-7, 3.97), RH Matt Garza (6-8, 4.51), RH Jimmy Nelson (8-16, 4.62, MLB-high 86 walks in 179 1/3 innings), RH Wily Peralta (7-11, 4.86).
Hot Spot: Braun. Will he stay or will he go? Now the team’s longest-tenured player, Braun might still be able to fetch a cache of prospects for the rebuilding Brewers, especially if he remains productive by the trade deadline. He could also be a lineup stabilizer in Milwaukee to help take pressure off younger players. Plus, the Brewers already have one of the lowest payrolls in the majors. The team needs a new closer, with offseason signee Feliz a favorite to get the job. Bandy, Pina and Andrew Susac could all be in the mix at catcher.
Outlook: General manager David Stearns’ rebuilding project appears to be on schedule after the team’s five-win improvement last season. The slick-fielding Arcia is the first member of Milwaukee’s potential future core to arrive in the majors, while top prospects including outfielder Lewis Brinson and left-handed starter Josh Hader could get looks by September. For now, the top of the lineup looks intriguing with the speedy Villar and Broxton likely hitting ahead of Braun and Thames. Hernan Perez returns to a super-sub role off the bench. The pitching staff could be bolstered if Guerra and Davies continue to develop, and Nelson and Peralta rebound for a full season. The bullpen is a bit more of a question mark than in recent years. Feliz, the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year after saving 40 games for Texas, will likely get the first call to close. Contending in the competitive NL Central is still a ways away, though the franchise is headed in the right direction.
Manager: Bryan Price (fourth season).
Projected Lineup: CF Billy Hamilton (.260, 3 HRs, 17 RBIs, 58 SBs), 2B Jose Peraza (.324, 3, 25), 1B Joey Votto (.326, 29, 97), LF Adam Duvall (.241, 33, 103), 3B Eugenio Suarez (.248, 21, 70), RF Scott Schebler (.265, 9, 40), SS Zack Cozart (.252, 16, 50), C Tucker Barnhart (.257, 7, 51).
Rotation: RH Scott Feldman (7-4, 3.97 ERA in 5 starts, 35 relief appearances with Blue Jays and Astros), LH Brandon Finnegan (10-11, 3.98), RH Rookie Davis (10-5, 3.82 at Double-A and Triple-A), LH Amir Garrett (7-8, 2.55 at Double-A and Triple-A), RH Bronson Arroyo (hasn’t pitched in majors since Tommy John surgery in 2014).
Key Relievers: RH Drew Storen (4-3, 5.23, 3 saves with Blue Jays and Mariners), RH Michael Lorenzen (2-1, 2.88), RH Raisel Iglesias (3-2, 2.53, 6 saves), LH Tony Cingrani (2-5, 4.14, 17 saves), RH Blake Wood (6-5, 3.99, team-high 70 appearances).
Hot Spot: Starting Rotation. The Reds opened last season with five starters on the disabled list, contributing to their first-half fiasco (32-57). They were hoping for a healthy rotation this time around, but it’s a huge problem again. Projected opening day starter Anthony DeSclafani will be on the disabled list for the second year in a row, this time because of a sore elbow. Homer Bailey had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow and isn’t expected back until June. The Reds are trying to cobble together a competitive rotation for at least the first two months.
Outlook: After losing 98 and 94 games the past two seasons while trading away the core of their team, the Reds are hoping to level off this year. They brought in Storen to stabilize an historically bad bullpen, which converted only 28 of 53 save chances and gave up a major league-record 103 homers. They traded Phillips to Atlanta, opening a spot for Peraza to play and develop. They gambled by trading Straily — thier top winner last season — for a couple of pitchers who might help in the future. The injury setbacks with DeSclafani and Bailey leave the rotation in a tough spot as the season opens. Hamilton had his best season and reclaimed the leadoff role last year. Votto showed he’s still one of the league’s best hitters. Oft-injured catcher Devin Mesoraco is hoping for a part-time role as he recovers from his second hip operation. If the rotation doesn’t crumble from injuries the way it did last year, the Reds could move up in the standings — fourth-place Milwaukee was only five games better.