Forecasting the 2016 Season: NL Central

Chicago Cubs: If one team could absorb – rather easily – the loss of a Kyle Schwarber-type loss, it’s the Cubs. Jorge Soler struggled through a rather disappointing 2015, hitting .262/.324/.399, but he’s only 24 and owns a career .303/.381/.542 minor league line.

Chicago, nonetheless, remains remarkably steady around the diamond. Dexter Fowler is barely average defensively, but he should see a bounce back against RHP in 2016 and should be worth about 2.5 wins. Brand new right fielder Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and Miguel Montero should help round out one of the most potent offensive lineups in the game.

The rotation is one of the more unheralded groups, as well. Jake Arrieta blossomed into a legitimate, true #1. Jon Lester is coming off of two of his best seasons in his career. John Lackey’s been incredibly consistent since coming back from injury in 2013. Nothing screams “fluke” with respect to Kyle Hendricks’ 2015 season. And Jason Hammel, the club’s fifth starter, is a nice league average arm.

And just like the rotation, the bullpen will likely emerge as a Top 10 or so unit in baseball. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Adam Warren, and Travis Wood offer up plenty of options. This could be the year that Theo Epstein helps end another long World Series bout.

Bottom Line Record: 91-71

St. Louis Cardinals: The team’s success will largely be tied to their ability to prevent their opponents from scoring. The rotation is remarkably deep with Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Jaime Garcia. And the rotation is equally impressive in terms of shear depth: Trevor Rosenthal, Seung Oh, Kevin Siegrist, one of the best southpaw relievers in the game, Jonathan Broxton, and Seth Maness giving manager Mike Matheny plenty of mix-and-match options.

Offensively speaking, well, they could have one bat top the 3.0-win mark in 2016: Matt Carpenter.

Backstop Yadier Molina has seen a dramatic downturn in production over the past two seasons as he’s dealt with injuries. His fWar totals have dropped from 5.5 to 2.9 to 1.3. Matt Adams is a bat-only first baseman. Kolten Wong is a solid complementary player on a championship squad. Jhonny Peralta is out for the next couple months, and his replacement, Jedd Gyorko, hasn’t hit since 2013. Carpenter, of course, has tallied more than 16 wins over his previous three seasons.

The outfield has a 36-year-old Matt Holliday. A BABIP-inflated center fielder in Randal Grichuk, who should be worth about 2.5-win. And another BABIP-inflated player in Stephen Piscotty.

Bottom Line Record: 89-73

Pittsburgh Pirates: Such an oddly built team, the Pirates showcase one of the best young outfields in the game – Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte – with an infield currently cobbled together with the likes of John Jaso, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese, and Francisco Cervelli. The system does have some reinforcements in place with Jung-Ho Kang, who’s expected back in a couple weeks, and minor leaguer first baseman Josh Bell bidding his time in Class AAA.

The rotation is fairly strong, particularly at the top, with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Juan Nicasio, the club’s latest reclamation project looking stellar as hell.

The bullpen has late-inning firepower – Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Neftali Feliz, Arquimedes Caminero – and plenty of multiple-inning arms (Cory Luebke, Kyle Lobsteinm etc…).

Pittsburgh should easily contend for a playoff spot in this season, but expect them to see a dramatic decline from last year’s 98-win team.

Bottom Line Record: 87-75

Cincinnati Reds: The Reds stopped delaying the inevitable – finally – and started shipping off some of the club’s more expensive veterans during the offseason. Johnny Cueto was flipped to the Royals for three minor league southpaws at the deadline last June (Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, and John Lamb). Mike Leake was dealt to San Francisco for Keury Mella and Quad-A slugger Adam Duvall. All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier followed suit in mid-December when he was traded to the White Sox as part of a three-team deal that brought back Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler, and Brandon Dixon. And, of course, Aroldis Chapman is now wearing New York pinstripes, a move that shipped Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, Tony Renda, and Caleb Cotham back to the Reds.

What’s left?

Well, the organization is caught in this quasi-rebuild mode with several high-priced veterans – Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and the injured Homer Bailey – playing mentor to the youngsters.

Backstop Devin Mesoraco, who underwent season-ending surgery to repair a labrum tear and remove a bone spur in late June, is finally back in the lineup. When he’s healthy, like 2014, the former first round pick is an impact player with 3.5-, or better, win potential.

Votto, of course, is Votto. Brandon Phillips, in what’s likely going to be his final year tasting Skyline Chili on a regular basis, is clearly in decline but remains a two-win, league average-ish player. Zack Cozart hits like your grandmother and merely keeping the shortstop position warm for (the overrated) Jose Peraza. Eugenio Suarez is better suited as a role player. Billy Hamilton swings a wet noodle. And Jay Bruce hardly resembles the player he was destined to be.

Add it all up – on one hand, basically – and the Reds won’t be scoring a lot of runs this year.

Their rotation is a surprisingly strong point. Anthony DeSclafani, whom I was quite high on as a prospect entering last year, is dealing with an oblique injury but has #2/#3-type upside – as does Raisel Iglesias and hard-throwing southpaw Brandon Finnegan. Homer Bailey is due back sometime in June. And Michael Lorenzen/John Lamb fall into the 1.5-win category.

Bottom Line Record: 73-89

Milwaukee Brewers: And this is what a team knee-deep in rebuilding mode: Kirk Nieuwenhuis is in center; Aaron Hill is manning the hot corner; Jonathan Villar is playing shortstop; Scooter Gennett and Chris Carter helping to round out the infield.

The Brewers are likely going to be the biggest surprises of the 2018 season. But it’s going to long season in Milwaukee in 2016.

Jonathan Lucroy is likely to be traded. The entire infield – Carter, Gennett, Villar, and Hill – could very likely total 2.0 wins above replacement. Center field is likely going to be replacement level until Brett Phillips comes up. Domingo Santana is somewhere between 1.0- to 2.0-wins. And what’s left? Ryan Braun.

Depending upon when the rookies come up and how fast some of the club’s veterans tank, the everyday players will likely total only 4.0- to 6.0-wins above replacement. And to put that into perspective: the Phillies’ everyday players tallied 8.8 fWAR in 2015, good enough for 29th in baseball.

The rotation could have as many as five league average starters: Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, once he returns from the DL, Jimmy Nelson (likely the best of the bunch), Chase Anderson, and Taylor Jungmann (likely the worst of the bunch). The bullpen is likely…horrible.

Bottom Line Record: 69-93


About

After serving as a video scout/analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Joe Werner began writing at his original site, ReleasePoints.com. He’s since transitioned into his current niche, prospect analysis, at ProspectDigest.com. He has been fortunate — and incredibly blessed — to have some of his work published and mentioned by several major media outlets, including: ESPN, Cleveland.com and the Baseball Research Journal. He can be reached at: JosephMWerner@yahoo.com.