The NL Central features the Chicago Cubs, St Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds. The Cubs are a strong favorite to win the division behind young talent and guys like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. The rest of the NL Central leaves something to be desired. Oddsmakers largely have indicated that through their NL futures spreads. While consistently competitive, the Cardinals are on the outside looking in and are the secondary favorites to win the division. The Brewers could be there too. Not much is expected from the Pirates and Reds. Can anyone compete with the Cubs? Our NL Central Futures Odds preview takes a look.
Baseball fans will never forget the 2016 World Champion Cubs team. Dynamic young players led the Cubbies to 103 wins, best in baseball, before the won their first title in 108 years. They appeared to be ready to have a long run of success.
The buzz died down a bit last year. The Cubs won 92 games, still a solid mark, but not quite the dominant showing of the previous year. 2016 MVP and University of San Diego alum Kris Bryant still put up a fantastic individual season, but his home run total dropped under 30 and he finished outside of the top 5 in MVP voting. Some of the young players who had shown much promise in previous years had underwhelming seasons in 2017. The team would end up losing to the Dodgers in 6 games in the NLCS.
So the question is: which version of the Cubs will we see in 2018? Vegas believes they will be more similar to last year’s team - their over/under is currently at 93.5. I believe that they have a strong chance to be better than that.
CUBS PITCHING STAFF
First, their pitching is set to improve. True, the Cubs did lose 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to the Phillies, but the 2015 version of Arrieta was never coming back. The 2017 version of Arrieta is more than replaced by free agent addition Yu Darvish, who should fit in nicely at the top of the rotation with Jose Quintana, a mid-season addition last year who should only provide more value in a full season with the Cubs. Along with those two, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Tyler Chatwood - another free agent addition - should easily see the Cubs amongst the top 5 rotations in baseball.
CUBS BATTING ORDER
Secondly, many of the bats in the Cubs lineup have a real shot at improving on last year’s marks - shortstop Addison Russell in particular, who only just turned 24, could develop into a real star if his bat ever catches up to his glove. Jason Heyward doesn’t seem capable of living up to his once #1 prospect status, but the Cubs have to believe that he can produce better than the .259/.326/.389 line he put up last year. The Cubs also believe they can squeeze one more good season out of 36 year-old Ben Zobrist, who had a .318 OBP in 2017 after finishing above .340 every year since 2008.
CUBS BET - FINAL THOUGHTS
The Cubs already had a top 10 pitching staff and offense in 2017, and I would bet on both improving in 2018. For that reason I believe the Cubs have a real chance of approaching 100 wins again, which - not to spoil the rest of the article - would put them well out in front in the NL Central. They’ll be my best bet in this division.
This year, the depth in the pitching staff in particular will be tested with the losses of Mike Leake and Lance Lynn. The Cards hope the addition of Miles Mikolas from Japan and the potential improvement of 2014 first rounder Luke Weaver will offset those losses.
CARDINALS BATTING ORDER
One of the several stars let loose by the Marlins, Marcell Ozuna, should come in and provide some serious power for the Cardinals offense. However, there is some serious regression potential in outfielder Tommy Pham, who had been more of a 4th outfielder type in St. Louis before absolutely exploding for a .306/.411/.520 line last year, finishing 11th in the MVP voting. Projection systems like Steamer expect Pham’s walk rate and BABIP to decline and his strikeout rate to increase significantly, which would put him closer to the neighborhood of .270/.360/.450 - still a solid player, but nowhere near the dominant season he had in 2017. This decline should more or less offset the addition of Ozuna.
CARDINALS BET - FINAL THOUGHTS
To make a long story short - the Cardinals appear to be in a very similar position that they were in last year. Vegas’ over/under for them is set at 85, with most action coming in on the over. I’d probably lean that way as well, but I don’t see them finishing in the same neighborhood as the Cubs. I’ll pass on the +522 number for them to win the Central.
The 2017 Brewers were a nice surprise, crushing their over/under by 15 games. The pitching staff had a much better season than expected, riding career years from unheralded starters in Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson and an absolutely monster year out of the bullpen from Corey Knebel. The offense was kept afloat by big years from Red Sox cast-off Travis Shaw (.273/.349/.513) and young outfielder Domingo Santana (.278/.371/.505).
BREWERS BATTING ORDER
The Brewers added some nice pieces to their outfield this offseason in Christian Yelich (another ex-Marlin) and Lorenzo Cain, and really didn’t lose anyone of note - sorry, Matt Garza. So why is their over/under being set at 85, a one game decline from last year?
BREWERS PITCHING STAFF
The answer is that nearly everyone can see the writing on the wall - there’s no way that Nelson, Anderson and the rest of the pitching staff should be able to reproduce the success they found in 2017. Nelson in particular is injured and isn’t expected back until June. Anderson appeared to have gotten pretty lucky in 2017 - his xFIP being a full point and a half higher than his ERA would be one sign - and should regress substantially in 2018. Knebel should still be a reliable closer, but expecting him to perform at 2017 levels would be foolish.
The Pirates are lucky that the Marlins had one of the all-time “blow it up” offseasons to distract from their significant losses. The Pirates traded their franchise player and best hitter, Andrew McCutchen, to the Giants. They also traded the #1 overall pick in 2011, Gerrit Cole, to the Astros. It was a sad offseason in Pittsburgh.
PIRATES PITCHING STAFF
There are reasons to believe that the 2018 Pirates may not be much worse than they were in 2017 - starting pitcher Joe Musgrove, acquired from the Astros in the Cole deal, may be able to replace a lot of Cole’s production.
PIRATES BATTING ORDER
The loss of McCutchen may be replaced by a full season of Starling Marte, an improvement from 26 year-old Gregory Polanco, and free agent addition Corey Dickerson.
The Reds didn’t acquire anybody of note this offseason to add to their 68 win team from 2017.
REDS BATTING ORDER
Monstrous offensive seasons from Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Zack Cozart were really all the Reds had going for them last year. Votto and Suarez should come back down to earth a bit in 2018, and Cozart is now a Los Angeles Angel.
REDS PITCHING STAFF
The pitching staff is still in serious need of top-of-the-line starters.
The Cubs are undoubtedly the class of this division. The Cardinals may end up chasing 90 wins, but Chicago should reach that number comfortably. A second World Series title in three years for wouldn’t surprise me in the least.