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MLB Opening Day 2016: NL Central preview

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Three powerhouses vie for dominance.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.

With the Cubs' entrance into contention, this division offers three legitimate playoff teams. The Cardinals conjure victories out of thin air and a pipeline of prospects. The Pirates still have Andrew McCutchen, and the Cubs have a plethora of young players looking to take the next step. The Brewers are in full-on rebuilding mode, while the Reds are sort of rebuilding but not quite all the way. It's possible this division sends three teams to the playoffs.

Cardinals

Make or break stat: Offensive run production

2015 value: 647 (24th)

Last season the Cardinals won 100 games with an offense that ranked in the bottom six of baseball in not just runs scored, but a number of power-oriented stats like ISO, slugging, and home runs. To give credit where it’s due, they ranked 23rd in runs scored in 2014 but drifted from third in 2012 and 13th in 2013. While a stock of young pitching talent should hold opposing batters down, St. Louis could use more production from its hitters to return to the top-10 offense the team has enjoyed for the better part of the last decade.

The Cardinals are known for developing high-ceiling, low-floor hitters into fringe elite players and finding decent replacements to plug holes that pop up. For the offense to come around they’ll turn to power prospect Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty to have breakout years and hope Kolten Wong trends toward Matt Carpenter’s success. If St. Louis continues to develop these players as it has done in the past, the offense will start making up for sharp 2015 declines from Matt Holliday and Matt Adams and the departure of Jason Heyward while offsetting aging declines of other lineup stalwarts.

-Jerry Burnes

Pirates

Make or break stat: Number of Ray Searages

2015 value: Still 1, not 0.

In this, the era of projections, certain teams have made names for themselves as forecast beaters. The Royals are probably the best known, but the Orioles also seemed immune to ZiPS, Steamer, and PECOTA for a multi-year stretch, right until they weren't. The Royals again led the ranking of teams that beat their projections in 2015, but right behind them in second place was a team that hasn't been viewed in the same way: the Pirates, with 13 wins more than their FanGraphs projection and 18 more than their Baseball Prospectus projection. Kansas City has sent analysts scrambling to find a more satisfying explanation than good luck, but Pittsburgh has an explanation ready-made, in the form of their apparently magical pitching coach Ray Searage.

At this point, I probably don't need to give much of an intro to him, as his mystique and reputation have grown considerably over the last few years. That's not to say that it's undeserved; the numerous pitchers who have revitalized their careers with the Pirates offer good outcomes as evidence, but there are also clear indications that Pittsburgh's approach to pitching differs meaningfully from that of the rest of the league.

2013–15 Value 2013–15 Rank
Inside Fastballs 8.8% 1
Out-of-Zone Rate 56.5% 1
O-Swing% 32.1% 2
GB% 50.4% 1
Soft Contact Rate 20.1% 1


From 2013 through 2015, the Pirates threw more inside fastballs than any other team, as has been ably documented elsewhere. But they paired that, somewhat unintuitively, with the highest rate of pitches outside the zone. Together, those have led to more swings at pitches outside the zone than all but one other team, more ground balls than any other team, and more weak contact than any other team. Add that to an infield that shifted at one of the highest rates in the league, and you have a recipe for the revitalization of a pitcher's career.

In 2016, the projections are again unconvinced by the roster the Pirates have put together, resulting in projections of 83 wins at FanGraphs and 80 wins at Baseball Prospectus. That's good for borderline playoff contention in most years; in 2016's top-heavy NL, that's good for fourth place in the Wild Card race. If the Pirates are going to surpass that, a big reason why will likely be Ray Searage working his craft on the two new additions to the back end of the Pirates' rotation, Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio. FanGraphs' depth charts project the two for a combined 1.6 WAR; Baseball Prospectus's, for 0.7 WARP. If Nicasio and Vogelsong outperform those pessimistic projections, and the Pirates end up finally advancing past the Wild Card game and making a real run at the World Series, perhaps their unique approach to pitching won't be unique much longer.

-Henry Druschel

Cubs

Make or break stat: Average age of the core

Value: 24.5

The Cubs are projected to be the best team entering into 2016 for a variety of reasons, none more important than their young core of highly valuable position players. Addison Russell is only 22 years old, Kyle Schwarber just turned 23 a few days ago, and Kris Bryant is only 24. Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo are the oldest of the five despite both going into only their age-26 seasons.

These five players alone are projected by FanGraphs’ Depth Charts to amass 20 wins above replacement, which is more than the entire offense of 14 teams and a projected higher fWAR than the entire Phillies team. The Cubs' young core will be supplemented by a strong starting rotation, including Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and the forgettable but highly effective John Lackey, but the success of the team will hinge on the young positional players staying healthy and productive. The players on the North Side’s young core are in their prime and should be the envy of the rest of the league.

-Steven Martano

Brewers

Make or break stat: GM David Stearns' age

Value: 31

The Brewers do not have an enviable 25-man roster going into 2016, but for a team that won only 68 games in 2015, finished 27th in hitter fWAR and 17th in pitcher fWAR, and never sniffed a playoff berth, they do have one big advantage over other teams: 31-year-old General Manager David Stearns.

Stearns has already made a long-term impact with the club by initiating a full rebuild and restocking what was one of the shallowest farm systems in baseball. Since being tapped to be the game’s youngest GM, Stearns has orchestrated trades for prospects by selling veterans (which is how Milwaukee landed the 57th ranked prospect per Baseball America and their number two prospect per MLB.com: Brett Phillips) and acquired young international talent, including shortstop Orlando Arcia (Baseball America’s number 8 prospect in baseball, and the organization’s top prospect per MLB.com).

The Brewers are highly unlikely to reach the postseason in 2016, but with major league assets such as Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun, they can make mid-season divestitures and improve their team for the future. The keys to the kingdom are in Stearns' hands, and continuing to build for the future in an incredibly deep division will be a huge success for the Brewers.

-Steven Martano

Reds

Make or break stat: FIP from pitchers who were rookies last year

2015 value: 4.52 (21st)

Heading into the 2016 season, the Reds don't have any realistic hope of contending for the playoffs. Sure, anything is possible, but barring a complete and historic collapse by Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, Cincinnati will be fighting with the Brewers for fourth place (and potentially the first overall pick in the draft).

While there is no one "make-or-break" aspect to the Reds this season, it's imperative that they start to figure out what their rotation is going to look like going forward. Homer Bailey is likely a part of that future, as he's signed through 2019; barring an injury or a decrease in production, Anthony DeSclafani and Raisel Iglesias will be there with him.

Brandon Finnegan should get a prolonged look in 2016, and while he got roughed up in 30.1 innings in AAA with Cincinnati (6.23 ERA, 4.34 FIP), he still profiles as an above average starting pitcher or a high-leverage reliever. He struggled with his command in 2015, but at just 22 years old, there's plenty of time for Finnegan to iron out his mechanics. The Reds also have Cody Reed, who could be close to making his major league debut. In 150 AA innings last season between Cincinnati and Kansas City, he posted a K/9 of 9, a BB/9 of 2.64, and an FIP of 2.93.

The Reds' 2016 season won't be remembered by pennants and rings, but it could be remembered as the year their pitching core took a step forward.

-Matt Goldman