Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central.
Past Five Champions
2017 – Chicago
2016 – Chicago
2015 – St. Louis
2014 – St. Louis
2013 – St. Louis
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 96.4
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
The division might be loaded with more exciting players on more exciting teams, but it’s impossible to deny the baseball genius of Joey Votto. After he missed most of 2014 and went through a prolonged slump at the beginning of 2016, many were tempted to write him off. Boy were they wrong. Last year, in his age 33 season, he was flat out dominating. He topped the NL with a .454 OBP, 1.032 OPS, 168 OPS+, and 134 BB, and finished second in both WAR (7.5) and MVP voting. Perhaps the most staggering stat? He appeared in all 162 games and only failed to reach base via hit or walk in 13 of them. As he ages he somehow gets better.
Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs
In a division with several high quality teams, there is a surprising lack of true aces in the Central. Yu Darvish hopes to emerge as one in 2018. After spending his entire career with the Texas Rangers, Darvish was shipped to the Dodgers at the trade deadline and was highly effective down the stretch, pitching to a 3.44 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. However, two disastrous appearances in the World Series (including a devastating outing in Game 7) have raised doubts as to whether he can pitch under pressure. With Chicago once again poised to contend he will definitely be faced with a lot of pressure. He’s not far removed from a top-5 Cy Young finish, and the Cubs hope that he rekindles his past success this season.
Three Storylines For 2018
1. A Good Old Fashioned Arms Race
In an offseason dominated by negative headlines about collusion, lack of spending, and tanking, it was both refreshing and exciting to watch the three top teams in the NL Central load up and go for it. In Chicago, the defending champs lost Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis to free agency but added one of the top starters available in Yu Darvish, one of last year’s most dominating relievers in Brandon Morrow, and brought in the underrated Tyler Chatwood for rotation depth. The Cardinals were heavily rumoured to be a possible landing spot for Josh Donaldson, and ended up taking advantage of the Marlins to acquire Marcell Ozuna. The Brewers followed suit by snagging Christian Yelich, then signed Lorenzo Cain to give them one of the best outfields in the game. All of it could make for a crowded view at the top.
2. Can Any Team Hang With the Cubs?
Despite the arms race within the division, let’s be honest with ourselves: this division is the Cubs’ to lose. Milwaukee should be much improved, but they have some serious questions. Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Domingo Santana, and Keon Broxton, all project as 1B/OF types, but there are only four spots to go around. Depth is a good thing, but lack of playing time could be an issue. Further, the starting rotation leaves much to be desired, especially with presumed #1 Jimmy Nelson out until July. With the loss of Lance Lynn, the Cardinals’ rotation also lacks depth and will be depending on rebound years from Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright. When you compare those starters to the rotation in Chicago (Darvish / Lester / Hendricks / Quintana / Chatwood), it’s clear who is in the best shape. And we haven’t even talked about their still loaded offense….
3. Battle for the Basement
Last season the Reds and Pirates combined for 181 losses, firmly cementing them in the basement of the division. Pittsburgh had a seven game age on Cincinnati, but looks intent on sinking lower in 2018. A tumultuous offseason saw them trade away the face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco and staff ace Gerrit Cole to Houston, fans start a petition to force the removal of ownership, and threats that other players (Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli, etc.) might be next. The Pirates will be depending on a lot of former top prospects to finally make good on their promise (Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte) but things look bleak. Cincinnati’s winter saw them lose long time SS Zack Cozart and resist the urge to bring in anybody of note, meaning a very young rotation will try to lead a promising but inexperienced lineup. But hey – they have Votto, so advantage Cincy.
Between Opening Day 2017 and June 21st, Kyle Schwarber appeared in 64 games for the Cubs, and was really bad. His line of .171 / .295 / .378 / .673 (with 12 HR and a -0.089 WPA) earned him a demotion to the minors to figure things out. Well, whatever he did seemed to work, because in 65 appearances from July 6th to the end of the season Schwarber’s line was .255 / .338 / .565 / .903 (with 18 HR and a 0.226 WPA), an OPS improvement of 230 points. From Opening Day to June 21st the Cubs went 36-35 and sat 1.5 games back in the Central, only to go 50-28 after Schwarber was recalled. With Milwaukee and St .Louis both poised to be better, the Cubs need a much better start from Schwarber in 2018.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March