Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today we focus on the National League Central.
Past Five Champions
2016 – Chicago
2015 – St. Louis
2014 – St. Louis
2013 – St. Louis
2012 – Cincinnati
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 97.4
Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Kris Bryant has now played two complete MLB seasons and has already been named an All-Star twice, won two individual awards, and won the World Series. In 2016 Bryant became only the fourth player in history to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in back-to-back seasons, joining Cal Ripken Jr. (1982/83), Ryan Howard (2005/06), and Dustin Pedroia (2007/08). The Cubs 3B/LF improved his already stellar offensive numbers in every category finishing in the top-10 in the NL in WAR (7.7), OBP (.385), SLG (.554), OPS (.939), Runs (121), Hits (176), HR (39), and RBI (102). What’s scarier for the rest of baseball is that Bryant just turned 25 meaning he probably has yet to reach his prime. He is the lynchpin of a Cubs team that is positioned to be a force for years to come.
Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
Though Bryant won the MVP, and Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey were bigger names, an argument can be made that the real hero behind Chicago’s World Series triumph last year was Kyle Hendricks. The 26-year old righty came into his own in his third big league season, posting a 16-8 record with 170 strikeouts in 190 IP, and leading the league with a 2.13 ERA. He kept up his dominance in the playoffs, pitching to a 1.42 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in five starts, including a 2-hit, 0-run masterpiece in the NLCS clinching Game 6 vs. the Dodgers. Hendricks finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and will look to build on his 2016 success as one of a trio of Cubs aces.
Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Carlos Martinez, Cardinals
Three Storylines For 2017
1. Beginning of a Dynasty?
It was one of the greatest stories of the sports year: the Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of futility and heartbreak by winning the 2016 World Series. But instead of simply resting on their laurels and basking in the glory of ending sports longest title drought, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and co. got straight to work towards winning another title. Yes, the Cubs lost several significant pieces over the offseason. Gone are leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler, fireball closer Aroldis Chapman, clubhouse leader David Ross, and pitchers Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Jason Hammel. But Chicago replaced Chapman with former KC closer Wade Davis, signed former highly rated prospect Jon Jay, and brought in Brett Anderson and Koji Uehara to solidify the bullpen. Oh, and they also return many of baseball’s best (and youngest) position players in Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Wilson Contreras, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Jason Heyward, not to mention Lester, Hendricks, and Arrieta in the rotation. Add to that one of baseball’s best managers, a still loaded farm system, and a ton of resources, and you have the recipe for a potential dynasty.
2. The Saga of Andrew McCutchen
Entering 2016, Andrew McCutchen was riding four consecutive stellar seasons in which he earned four Silver Slugger awards, four All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove, an NL MVP, three playoff appearances, and a 26.4 WAR. But things went downhill in a hurry. McCutchen posted a career worst batting average and OPS, and was awful in the field (-28 DRS), leading to a -0.7 WAR and a disappointing sub-.500 record for the Pirates. Then came the offseason and the seemingly daily rumours that he would be traded to give top prospect Austin Meadows a chance to play. Despite all the turmoil, McCutchen begins 2017 as a member of the Pirates, albeit with a new position (LF). However, all eyes will be on Pittsburgh: a rough start by the Pirates will likely bring a lineup of suitors hoping to acquire the former MVP.
3. MVP Exile
Andrew McCutchen isn’t the only former MVP from the NL Central seemingly poised to be on the move in 2017. The 2010 and 2011 winners could also find themselves in new uniforms at some point during the season. The Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are both undergoing rebuilds/retools and are in the process of compiling young, controllable assets and turning their rosters over. Cincinnati has already shipped out Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Mike Leake, and Aroldis Chapman over the past few years, while Milwaukee has bid adieu to Jonathan Lucroy, Chris Carter, Jeremy Jeffress, and Carlos Gomez. With neither team expected to contend in 2017 and with prospects seemingly set to take over the starting lineups, it seems odd that Ryan Braun and Joey Votto still remain. Both men’s names have been involved in trade rumours for more than a year, and with the Brewers and Reds seemingly buried by the still solid Pirates, always competitive Cardinals, and champion Cubs in the division, 2017 seems like the time when those rumours may finally become reality.
No teams in baseball stole more bases in 2016 than Milwaukee (181) and Cincinnati (139). The Brewers’ Jonathan Villar led all of basebal with 62 SB, followed closely by Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton with 58, and Villar’s teammate Hernan Perez with 34. But the teams also featured two other speedsters who racked up SB: Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton (23 SB in only 75 games) and Cincinnati’s Jose Peraza (21 SB in 72 games). No major league team has reached the 200 SB plateau since the 2007 New York Mets. But with Hamilton, Peraza, Villar, Perez, and Broxton running wild, it’s not inconceivable that two teams top that mark in 2017.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March