2016 Division Preview – National League Central

NL Central

Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central, home to one of the most intriguing teams heading into 2016 – the Chicago Cubs.

Defending Champion

St. Louis Cardinals

Past Five Champions

2015 – St. Louis

2014 – St. Louis

2013 – St. Louis

2012 – Cincinnati

2011 – Milwaukee

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 96.0

Best Player

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

2015 was just another normal year in the incredible career of McCutchen.  For the fourth year in a row he was named to the NL All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger award, and finished in the top-5 of MVP voting.  Most important to Pirates fans, it was the third year in a row he led the team to the playoffs.  Although his numbers were down a little bit last season (.292 / .401 / .488 / .889, 23 HR, 96 RBI), McCutchen has blossomed into the unquestioned leader on a true contending team.  And finally, as we enter 2016, he has a dynamic supporting cast behind him, meaning another MVP-calibre season should be just around the corner.

Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Jason Heyward, Cubs

Best Pitcher

Jake Arrieta, Cubs

There are other pitchers within the division who have been better for longer (Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright come to mind), but it’s hard to argue against the reigning Cy Young winner.  Arrieta won the award for the first time last season after an incredible year in which he either finished first or second in the NL in wins (22), WAR for pitchers (8.7), ERA (1.77), WHIP (0.865), IP (229), CG (4), Shutouts (3), HR/9 (0.393), ERA+ (222)and FIP (2.35).  It was his second straight solid season for the Cubs, a stunning career turnaround after being dumped by Baltimore and labeled a failure.  Now he fronts a rotation that includes Lester and Lackey, on a team that is the favourite to win the World Series.  Not bad.

Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Gerrit Cole, Pirates

Three Storylines For 2016

1. The Cubs – No Longer Lovable Losers

Death, taxes, and the Cubs losing.  For over a century those have been certainties.  But these are not your father’s (or grandfather’s, or great-grandfather’s) Cubs.  Mired in an aggressive rebuild, the team arrived a year or two ahead of schedule last season, winning 97 games and making the playoffs as the second Wild Card team, before taking out the Pirates and the Cardinals en route to the NLCS.  Joe Maddon expertly guided a lineup that included four regulars under the age of 25, and a pitching staff made of mostly journeyman.  But all of that is set to change this year.  The Cubs are no longer the underdog – in fact they are the Vegas favourites.  Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler are no longer rookies with little expectations.  And with the acquisitions of John Lackey (to join Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester in the rotation), Adam Warren (to join excellent closer Hector Rondon in the ‘pen) and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist (to join the aforementioned youngsters, Anthony Rizzo, and Dexter Fowler) anything less than a World Series will be considered a disappointment.

2. Desperate Pirates 

Poor Pittsburgh.  After 20 straight losing seasons and several failed rebuilds, the Pirates finally emerged from the rubble as a legitimate contender….but at the worst possible time.  First they ran into a Cardinal juggernaut that averaged 96 wins in each of the past three years.  Now, just as St. Louis looks ripe for the picking, along comes the Cubs, a team that looks poised to dominate the NL for years.  The result has been three straight trips to the lottery that is the Wild Card game, a result extremely unfair for the team and the city.  But that’s not to say that they are destined for the same path in 2016.  This is a team with a stacked outfield with McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte; a solid infield; a top-notch bullpen; and one of baseball’s best young pitchers in Gerrit Cole.  They also have extra motivation to challenge the Cubs for the division crown: after two straight losses, they are desperate to avoid the Wild Card game.

3. Falling Cardinals?

St. Louis fans call themselves the best in baseball, and while that may be debatable, what is without question is that the Cardinals are a model franchise.  Since 2000 St. Louis is 337 games over .500.  In those 16 seasons they have finished with a winning record 15 times, won nine division titles, three Wild Card births, four National League pennants, and two World Series crowns.  But maybe, just maybe, 2016 will be the end of the line.  First – Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina all missed significant time in 2015 and are getting older.  Second – Jhonny Peralta and Lance Lynn are injured, with Lynn expected to miss the entire season.  Third – John Lackey and Jason Heyward both left town and signed with the division rival Cubs.  Fourth – the only reinforcements brought in were an average SP (Mike Leake) and a disappointing IF (Jedd Gyorko).  And fifth – they reside in the same diviison as the Pirates and Cubs.  These are still the Cardinals, so count them out at your own risk.  But a 2016 playoff birth might be too tough of a challenge.

Interesting Stat

On July 5, the Cincinnati Reds lost to the Milwaukee Brewers 6-1.  Joey Votto went 0-for-4 to drop his batting average to .273 and his OBP to .387.  Beginning the next day he went on a crazy streak that only ended because the Reds ran out of games.  In his final 79 games, Votto reached base via walk or hit 182 times, an absolutely outrageous .530 OBP.  There were only four games that he failed to get on base.  In the second half of the season (post All-Star break) Votto sported a .535 OBP, 78 points higher than the next best player.  Votto put up those numbers despite having Todd Frazier, one of baseball’s best sluggers, hitting behind him.  Frazier now plays for the White Sox meaning the Reds now have nobody to offer even the tiniest bit of protection for Votto.  With Frazier, Votto’s .459 OBP was the 134th best single season mark in baseball history.  Without him, a mark above .500 (top-20 in history) is definitely within reach.

Who Should Win

Chicago

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

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