After a historic 2015 season, no spotlight will shine brighter than the one shining on the NL Central in the coming year. Never before have we seen three such dominant teams all in one division, all so dominant they occupied the three best records in baseball. Will 2016 be a repeat of last season? The short answer is probably not; but there’s no reason to think that the NL Central won’t still be a force to be reckoned with this season, and for many more to come. Here is our NL Central Spring Training preview.
Time The Brew Crew has managed to snag some young talent. It’s probably a couple of years away, but the Brewers biggest strength at this point is time. The Cubs are poised to sit atop the Central for multiple seasons, but there’s no reason this Brewers team can’t compete with them and scrape a few playoff appearances out of it as well. Patience is definitely a virtue if you’re a Brewers fan, but the future looks bright if you can manage to stick around long enough.
Hanging on to aging talent It feels like they haven’t completely committed to the rebuild. Guys like Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy aren’t getting any younger, but there’s definitely reason to believe they could still be solid contributors on a contender. The Brewers might be hard pressed to find someone to take Braun, but I’m sure there’s an AL team that would be willing to take a risk on the aging, scandal-clad slugger, and the Brewers need to sell NOW. Hanging on to their aging stars may end up hurting them in the long run. It may be time to say goodbye while they can still get something for them in return.
The kids can play! The Reds are in full rebuild mode, but unlike the Brewers, it doesn’t seem like anyone is off limits aside from Joey Votto. Odds are you’ll be seeing Jay Bruce and/or Brandon Phillips in new uniforms before this season’s end, and that’s great news for Reds fans. It seems like Cincinnati has taken a page from Theo Epstein’s book and has accepted the fact they’ll need to accept being terrible for a few years in order to achieve long-term success. Billy Hamilton has proven to the entire league that he’s one of the best speedsters in baseball. If they can surround him with some young power hitters, the Reds may find themselves with an extremely potent offense led by Hamilton in the lead-off spot.
No pitching Boy, do they need pitching. With the departure of Aroldis Chapman and Johnny Cueto, there are noticeable gaps in the Reds pitching staff. Not only do they lack arm talent, but I have serious doubts as to any one of their starters’ ability to eat up innings. If they can’t find some guys to pitch deep into games, it will be an even longer season for the Reds and the Cincinnati faithful.
A high octane offense and a perennial MVP candidate The Pirates have quietly been one of the best teams in baseball over the last few years, and there’s no reason to think this season will be any different. Led by Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have a ton of talent on offense and can pour on runs before opposing teams know what’s happened. If they can stay healthy, there’s no reason that this team won’t be towards the top of the league in runs scored this season. They also seem to revel in being the underdog team in a division they share with the Cardinals and the Cubs, which is definitely going to play to their advantage this season.
Pitching depth Gerrit Cole and weaknesses shouldn’t be mentioned in the same category. The guy is an incredible talent. The issue lies beyond him, however, as the Pirates don’t have a ton of talent behind him. Pittsburgh has gotten by on guys over performing in the past, as it seems they have the uncanny ability to get the most out of the arms on their staff, much like their rivals in St. Louis. I’ll need to see it happen for a couple more years until I’m sold on their formula, though.
St. Louis Cardinals
Their track record It sounds a bit cliché, but the Cardinals greatest strength of all is the fact that they’re the Cardinals. St. Louis easily has the best-run organization in the entire league over the last twenty years, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down as they owned the best record in all of baseball last year. Just when you think they’re going to start to decline, they reload with guys like Randal Grichuk, Carlos Martinez, and Stephen Piscotty. At this point it would be foolish to ever count the Cards out of a pennant race; they’ve earned that kind of respect, and then some.
An aging core For all of their success and accolades, the Cardinals find themselves at a bit of a crossroads. The core players of their franchise, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Adam Wainwright, aren’t getting any younger. All three of them battled substantial injuries last season and as they get older, it will get harder for them to stay healthy. Their future is definitely in good hands, but can their big three stick around long enough to pass the torch to the blossoming youngsters while keeping up the organization’s long standing track record for excellence? We may get that answer sooner rather than later.
They have the power! The Cubs lineup is absolutely STACKED after the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The newcomers should slide into the order nicely in front of young sluggers like Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez. There’s still a chance the Cubs will bring back center fielder Dexter Fowler, and if that happens Soler and/or Baez becomes even more expendable; expect the Cubs to pursue more pitching depth if that scenario plays out.
Inexperience There’s no denying the Cubs talent, but they’re also inexperienced. The big questions this season are whether or not the youngsters can avoid their own respective sophomore slumps, and if the team has done enough in the off-season to make up for the drop in production if any of them start to slump. If any coach can handle players in that kind of turmoil, it’s Joe Maddon; but the question will be how the players respond to year two of Joe’s offbeat managerial style. The additions of John Lackey and Adam Warren definitely helped with their pitching depth, but the Cubs fourth and fifth starters still remain huge question marks, as we saw what happened in the postseason to Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel.
If you missed any of the previous installments in this series, check them out here:
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