By: Jeffrey Newholm
For the last five years the St. Louis Cardinals have been the premier team of the NL Central, advancing to four National League Championship Series and winning three division crowns. The Pirates have been the only consistent challenger while Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Chicago and Houston have spent most of those years in the cellar (Houston has since moved to the AL). Cincinnati and Milwaukee don’t figure to be contenders but the Cards have a new challenger to deal with. And not just the Cards, but the whole National League. The Cubs are legitimate contenders to win the pennant. No I didn’t copy and paste that sentence from the script of Back To The Future 2. I really mean it, and so does Vegas. The Cubs are 2-1 favorites to win the pennant and 4-1 favorites to win everything. But St. Louis isn’t going to give up the title without a fight, and the Pirates will have a say in who wins the title as well. With the division champ being excused from the one game wild card playoff, there’s now a huge incentive to finish in first. I think fans deserve a closer look at this division, and I’ll cover all five teams because if nothing else the Reds and Brewers will have plenty of opportunities to play spoiler. I’ll begin with Chicago and move down based on each team’s prospects for success.
After the Cubs’ 2009 collapse, several very lean years followed. But in 2011 new owner Thomas Ricketts shocked the baseball world by poaching Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to be the team’s president of baseball operations. Epstein took a draft-and-develop approach to rebuilding, and the next three years weren’t much to holler about either. But after the 2014 season ownership again stunned baseball by lifting manager Joe Maddon from Tampa. Behind rookie of the year Kris Bryant and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, the team raced out to a 97 win campaign and advanced all the way to the NLCS, where it finally ran out of gas. But the team added more talent in the off-season. They signed Jason Heyward as the presumed outfield replacement for Dexter Fowler, then stunned the Orioles when Fowler spurned the O’s in favor of Chicago. Add in the signings of second baseman Ben Zobrist from the Royals, veteran pitcher John Lackey from the Cards and several good bullpen acquisitions, and suddenly the NL Central doormat has much bigger designs then just a division title. Sure the seemingly cursed franchise could suffer postseason heartbreak, but that’s not much solace for the teams that have to compete with the Cubs in the regular season.
Saint Louis Cardinals
The Cards did win 100 games in 2015, but with ace Adam Wainwright missing most of the season there wasn’t as much excitement for the playoffs in St. Louis and the team was quickly defeated by the Cubs. With the Cards’ biggest free agent move being the signing of solid but unspectacular starter Mike Leake, having Wainwright return to his dominant self will be critical if the team wants to contend. There’s talent on the roster, but Heyward still spurned the club because he thinks the dynasty is waning. Indeed, Wainwright is 34, catcher Yadier Molina is 33 and outfielder Matt Holiday is 36. This squad’s window of opportunity is closing, but not yet fully closed. The Cards figure to be a contender for a few more years, but eventually a painful rebuild may be necessary.
Cubs fans who thought they suffered for a long time have nothing on Pirates fans: the club didn’t make the playoffs at all for 21 years. When the team finally made it as a wild card in 2013, fans were happy just to be in-it wasn’t necessary for the club to make a deep run. However, the last two years have also been wild card years, with the team losing the play-in game to another team’s ace. By now fans are habituated to just making the playoffs and are hungering for postseason success. Unfortunately that hunger may go unfulfilled. This winter the Pirates lost first base stalwart Pedro Alvarez and all they have there now is a committee of unremarkable John Jaso, Michael Morse and Jason Rogers. Pittsburgh traded second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets for solid pitcher Jon Niese, but the problem is they also traded pitcher Charlie Norton, who shares similar numbers with Niese, for just a single A “lottery pick” pitcher. The Cubs have made bold moves to improve this off-season, while the Pirates have at best just tweaked at twigs. Making the playoffs is still a strong possibility, but fans may have to sweat out another d0-or-die one game playoff.
The 2014 Brewers set a team record for number of days in first place and still managed to finish completely out of the playoffs. The team didn’t make any notable changes in the off-season and the result was a April and May catastrophe that lead to the firing of the manager and a massive sell-0ff of Gold Glove center-fielder Carols Gomez, outfielder Gerardo Parra, closer Francisco Rodriguez and shortstop Jean Segura. The good news is the team has many young, promising prospects, foremost among them shortstop Orlando Arcia, who should be called up sometime this summer. The bad news is most starting position players are either green and unproven or are just holding a spot for one of those prospects. The rotation has a couple of veteran stalwarts but most spots will also be held by unproven pitchers. The crew could be a playoff contender in a few years, but few have honest hopes of success for this year.
The last team to win the NL Central other than St. Louis was a 97 win Reds squad in 2012. Since then the team has tanked, losing 98 games last year, their worst finish since 1982. The team was a seller in the off-season, trading away third base cornerstone Todd Frazier and “Cuban Missile” closer Aroldis Chapman (sadly their return for Chapman was diminished in light of his alleged domestic violence in the off-season). The team was looking to trade right-fielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Brandon Phillips and the only big name they considered signing was 38 year old hurler Bronson Arroyo to a minor league contract. Clearly any impeding move would be to unload a key player, not to add one. There’s no reason to think Cincinnati will be ready to contend in 2016, and there’s not much to get excited about for the future until the remaining veterans are dealt for prospects.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.