How will Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs follow his Cy Young and their breakthrough season?
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By the end of 2015, there was little debating that the National League Central was the best division in baseball, as it produced the top three records in the majors.
For the second time in major league history, a division’s top three teams all reached the 97-win plateau. Due in large part to their 34-42 divisional record, the Pirates fell two games short of the St. Louis Cardinals and barely held off the Chicago Cubs down the stretch. Of course, none of that mattered much come the one-off NL wild-card game, when the Pirates were four-hit by Jake Arrieta and unceremoniously booted from the playoff picture for the second year in a row. But the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs seem to have staying power.
Here are some players and story lines to watch in spring-training camps:
St. Louis Cardinals (100-62 in 2015)
The Cardinals enter this season with considerably less polish than the 2015 club, which led the division from start to finish before fizzling out against the Cubs in the NLDS. Despite losing John Lackey in free agency and Lance Lynn to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, the Cardinals should again have a strong rotation. Adam Wainwright is expected to be fully healthy after missing much of the 2015 season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, and the Cardinals signed right-hander Mike Leake to a five-year free-agent deal to shore up the starting rotation. The Cardinals also added infielder Jedd Gyorko, but the lineup should stay intact — other than Stephen Piscotty filling in for Jason Heyward, who signed with the Cubs. Keep an eye on the first-base battle, where Matt Adams, Brandon Moss or even Matt Holliday could end up starting. Should the Cardinals stay relatively healthy, something they couldn’t seem to do last year, they should remain a strong contender for the NL Central crown.
Chicago Cubs (97-65)
Where the Cardinals may have taken a step back, the Cubs kept charging after their mad dash to the finish line ended in an NLCS defeat to the Mets. They spent just south of $300 million this offseason to continue surrounding their young, talented core with veterans, pilfering Lackey and Heyward from the Cardinals and also signing second baseman Ben Zobrist. Consider that the Cubs batting order likely will begin with the names Heyward, Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, and the Cubs will be a terrifying team to face this season and beyond. The Cubs traded away Starlin Castro to give youngster Addison Russell the starting shortstop position. Their rotation got stronger with the addition of Lackey behind aces Jon Lester and Arrieta, the reigning Cy Young winner. The Cubs bullpen, anchored by closer Hector Rondon, was shaky at times last season and could be a weak spot again this year.
Milwaukee Brewers (68-94)
The chasm between the division’s top three teams and the other two could be wider than ever this year. The Brewers traded Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez at the trade deadline last season, and moved another valuable piece in December by sending Adam Lind to Seattle. They did little of note to bolster the roster around Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun, who is still under contract for five years with an optional sixth year. The Brewers acquired slugger Chris Carter — a first baseman of the Pedro Alvarez mold — to replace Lind, and also brought in infielders Will Middlebrooks, Jonathan Villar and Aaron Hill. The rotation is similar to the one that gave the Pirates fits last year: Right-handers Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Taylor Jungmann and newcomer Chase Anderson. Orlando Arcia, one of the top shortstop prospects in the minor leagues, is expected to start the season at Class AAA — he hit .307 last year in his age 20 season at Class AA Biloxi — and could be an exciting late-season call-up for the Brewers.
Cincinnati Reds (64-98)
Maybe this is the year the Pirates can solve the Reds, those neighbors to the west. The Reds won 11 of their 19 games against the Pirates last season, and then decimated their roster, a rebuild that began when they traded Johnny Cueto to the Kansas City Royals at the trade deadline last year. Since, the Reds traded two Pirates killers — All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox and embattled closer Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees to fetch a big bundle of prospects. In their careers, Frazier has hit 18 home runs in 70 games against the Pirates, and Chapman has held them to four runs and 72 strikeouts in 40 innings — a 0.90 ERA. The Reds still have plenty of proven plus talent in Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and speedy Billy Hamilton, but there’s not much left to surround them. It’ll likely be a merry-go-round of prospects moving in and out of the Reds rotation and lineup this year.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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