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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: NL Central

Lots of teams made moves this offseason. Who will win out?

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Left to right: Kris Bryant (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports), Carlos Martinez (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports), Ryan Braun (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports), Starling Marte (Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports), Joey Votto (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports).

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

Chicago Cubs

2017 record: 92-70, first in NL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 91-71, first in NL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 94-68, first in NL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in NL Central (16/18)

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at Washington Nationals
They’re the power couple we need.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed RHP Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million contract.
  • Signed LHP Drew Smyly to a two-year, $10 million contract (Smyly is on the 60-day DL, recovering from elbow surgery).
  • Signed RHP Brandon Morrow to a two-year, $21 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Steve Cishek to a two-year, $13 million contract.
  • Re-signed LHP Brian Duensing to a two-year, $7 million contract.

Beyond the signing of Darvish, the Cubs didn’t really make any major splashes this offseason. Darvish, however, was a sneaky good signing, at a reasonable price. He’ll be a good — if not better — replacement for Jake Arrieta, whose performance has been getting discernibly worse. It’s likely Darvish’s 2018 is better than Arrieta’s, and this ends up being a major upgrade for the Cubs.

Beyond Darvish, Chicago inked Chatwood. Although he won’t be a top-of-the-rotation starter, he has a reputation as a ‘spin-rate’ guy, who has had trouble putting good numbers into good results. A tinkering with his arm slot or other mechanics could yield significant fruit. For under $40 million over three years, there’s solid upside here.

In addition to the starters, the Cubs revamped their bullpen as well, signing Morrow and Cishek and re-upping Duensing’s contract. While these pieces are nice to have, they are not differentiators in any way compared to the league’s elite and second-tier relievers. More on the bullpen below....

Position to watch: The bullpen

While the Cubs seemingly upgraded their bullpen on the cheap, the relief corps probably is still in need of some additions. Morrow is slated as the Opening Day closer, through the veteran Cishek has been in that role previously with the Marlins and Mariners, and could be the understudy waiting in the wings.

Neither Morrow nor Cishek inspire that much confidence, but then again, relief pitchers can always be found at the trade deadline. It’s doubtful the current Cubs bullpen construction will carry them through August, and I would certainly expect them to make some moves. In the meantime, the thing to watch is how these relievers perform early in the year, especially considering Chicago’s soft early-season schedule.

2018 outlook

The Cubs’ main advantage in the National League is their powerful lineup. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are as good as any power duo, and the rest of the cast behind them are all better than average players. With strong bats (to varying degrees) such as Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber sprinkled throughout the lineup, the Cubs bring a gauntlet of offensive firepower from the leadoff spot through the eight-hitter.

With the addition of Yu Darvish, the Cubs rotation doesn’t look that different from the World Champion 2016 starting five. Despite a riskier profile due to age (Lester) and health (Darvish), the ceiling and potential for this rotation to be one of the best in the National League is there for the taking, and against a fairly weak NL Central, the Cubs should have no problem winning the division by more than five games.

Last season, the Cubs got out of the gate fairly slowly, trailing the Brewers in the standings until the summer. Chicago ended up leaving the Brewers in the dust, outplaying Milwaukee by 13 games in the second half to win the division fairly easily. Expect 2018 to be quite different. Chicago does not play a 2017 playoff team until a two-game set against the Indians on May 22nd, after which, they play another 16 games against sub-.500 teams, including the Giants, Mets, Pirates, and Phillies.

The Cubs are the best of the NL Central until proven otherwise; the question is how they’ll fare in the postseason against a perennially underachieving Nationals team, and the reigning National League Champion Dodgers. With a strong, young, offensive core, and a consistent group in the rotation, the Cubs should bring enough offensive firepower to overcome a questionable bullpen (which can always be upgraded in-season).

Expect the Cubs to continue to make noise in the National League, beating up on the other four divisional teams that simply did not do enough this offseason to keep up with an already good North Side club.

Steven Martano

St. Louis Cardinals

2017 record: 83-79, third in NL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 85-77, second in NL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 85-77, second in NL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in NL Central (11/18)

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals
Sometimes a hat just isn’t enough.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded LHP Daniel Castano, RF Magneuris Sierra, RHP Sandy Alcantara and RHP Zac Gallen to the Marlins in exchange for LF Marcell Ozuna.
  • Traded SS Aledmys Díaz to the Blue Jays in exchange for OF J.B. Woodman.
  • Traded OF Randal Grichuk to the Blue Jays in exchange for RHP Conner Greene and RHP Dominic Leone.
  • Traded OF Stephen Piscotty to the Athletics in exchange for IF Yairo Munoz and IF Max Schrock.
  • Signed RHP Luke Gregerson to a two-year, $11 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Bud Norris to a two-year, $11 million contract.

If you listen to any Cardinals broadcast, at some point you’re likely to hear talk about “depth.” Their farm system is great, and it allowed them to trade players who were once at the forefront of the next era of Cardinals baseball.

St. Louis was pretty active in the trade market this offseason, sending Diaz and Grichuk to Toronto. Diaz will be replaced by Paul DeJong, who just signed a six-year extension with the club, and Grichuk was part of a very crowded Cardinals outfield — an outfield that also included Piscotty, who now plays right field for the Oakland Athletics.

The Cardinals acquired Muñoz from the As, and he’ll start the season as one of their bench players. They also received one prospect from the Athletics, and an outfield prospect from the Blue Jays. In return for Grichuk, the Cardinals acquired Leone and another pitching prospect. After the release of Trevor Rosenthal, Leone is a candidate for the Cardinals’ open closer role.

As far as free agents go, the Cardinals focused on pitching with the acquisition of Gregerson and Norris. Gregerson would most likely have been their closer, but he will begin the season on the DL.

The biggest move of the offseason, however, was acquiring Ozuna. The Cardinals gave up the flamethrowing Alcantara and the speedy Sierra, but they needed a slugger, and that’s exactly what they got. Ozuna won the Gold Glove last season in left field as well, meaning they spruced up their outfield defense as well. Outside of landing Giancarlo Stanton, reeling in Ozuna was the best deal St. Louis could have made.

In my (heavily biased) opinion, I think the most important thing is what the Cardinals didn’t do. They did not trade for a big-name starter like Chris Archer, or sign a top-tier free agent pitcher like Lance Lynn. If Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha miss more than, say, three starts … the Cardinals will find themselves relying heavily on inexperienced starters. And, to quote basically every Cardinals broadcast ever, “Good pitching beats good hitting every time.”

Player(s) to watch: Tommy Pham and Adam Wainwright

There are so many potential picks! St. Louis really has a team that needs everyone to perform up to expectations, especially considering they’ll be fighting the Cubs as well as the new-and-improved Brewers offense. For the Cardinals to succeed, they have to do what they always do: pitch well. But they also have to score runs, which has been a problem for them over the past two seasons. I narrowed it down to two key players, whose success will likely determine whether the Cardinals can reclaim the division title.

Pham had a fantastic season last year, one that began with him considering a permanent departure from baseball. He was a 20/20 man, with 23 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He has power and speed, and is well aware of just how valuable he can be. However, he has to live up to his 2017 for the Cardinals to have a good shot at reclaiming the division title.

Pham is prone to injuries; last year was as close as he’s ever gotten to a full major-league season. (He became a 20/20 man after spending the first six weeks of the season down in Triple-A Memphis. That is bananas.) Will there be some fatigue? Perhaps, but he definitely did not give himself a break during the offseason:

21.5 mph #cardinalnation #Phamtastic @adidasbaseball

A post shared by Tommy Pham (@tphamlv) on

Wainwright is in the final year of his contract with the Cardinals. This is weird for me, as Waino has been a Cardinal for as long as I have cared about baseball. It’s his age-36 season, and FanGraphs lists his best hope as performing at league average. I think he can prove he still has value as a starter, but I am also blinded by some combination of nostalgia and “devil magic.”

Last year, Wainwright pitched to contact a lot, with only 7.01 strikeouts per nine innings, and he issued 3.28 walks per nine innings, indicating some trouble with control. With Wainwright currently on the DL, the staff’s veteran starter is … Michael Wacha? We live in a strange timeline, my friends. The Cardinals need Wainwright’s experience in their rotation, and they need him to pitch well.

2018 outlook

This season is both better and worse for the Cardinals. It looks better because they have a great offense, solid pitching, and no Andrew McCutchen to compete with. It’s worse because now they have to keep up with both the Cubs and the Brewers. The Brew Crew added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to their outfield, so good luck hitting anything more than a single in Milwaukee.

Depth is a genuine strength for the Cardinals, though. Alex Reyes will return to the team sometime this year, and they just made a major bullpen swap by bringing up Jordan Hicks and sending John Brebbia to Triple-A. They have a great outfield and a versatile infield, so they should be more competitive this year. As long as they pitch up to expectations, the Cardinals have a great shot at returning to the postseason.

Audrey Stark

Milwaukee Brewers

2017 record: 86-76, second in NL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 84-78, third in NL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 78-84, third in NL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in NL Central (10/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers
The Brew Crew outfield is suddenly super dangerous.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed OF Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract.
  • Traded OF Lewis Brinson, OF Monte Harrison, IF Isan Diaz, and RHP Jordan Yamamoto to the Marlins in exchange for OF Christian Yelich.
  • Signed RHP Jhoulys Chacin to a two-year, $15 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Matt Albers to a two-year, $5 million contract.
  • Signed LHP Boone Logan to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP J.J. Hoover to a minor-league contract.

The Brewers made a big splash toward the end of a long, cold month of January, bolstering their lineup and defense by adding Yelich and Cain, two elite outfielders, on the same day.

Though Yelich expressed an unwillingness to continue his career with a tanking Miami squad, it still took a pretty significant haul to get him into a Brewers uniform. In Brinson, Diaz, and Harrison, the Brew Crew gave up three top 100 prospects. But you don’t often get the chance to acquire a player like Yelich, who ranked 23rd in fWAR last year and is under control through 2022 at team-friendly prices. Plus, with the move to Miller Park, there’s reason to think Yelich could improve even more in 2018.

Cain returned to the team that drafted him, signing the largest free-agent contract in Brewers’ history. Because speed is such a big part of Cain’s game, there is a fair amount of risk baked into the last couple years of the contract, which will take him through his age-36 season. Nonetheless, Cain is coming off five strong seasons in a row, including a 6.5 fWAR/7.2 bWAR performance that took him to No. 3 in the MVP voting in 2015.

The Brewers were reportedly in on most of the highly-ranked free-agent starters this offseason, but they elected to make more modest additions rather than a big splash. Chacin turned in a solid 2017 with the Padres, achieving a career-high ground ball rate while also increasing his strikeout rate to its highest level since 2010. Chacin is a reasonable back-of-the-rotation option, who came to Milwaukee for a reasonable price.

Finally, the team took steps to shore up a bullpen that saw Anthony Swarzak, Carlos Torres, and Jared Hughes move on to greener pastures, signing Albers, Logan, and Hoover to modest deals. With the core group of Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress still intact, the ’pen looks to be in good position for another strong year.

Players to watch: More young guns

As the Brewers emerge from their rebuild ahead of schedule, look for a second wave of graduating prospects to rejuvenate the club in 2018.

Jimmy Nelson’s shoulder injury last September may well have been the coup de grâce for the Brewers’ 2017 chances, and his recovery is an albatross over this season even before it begins. But making do without Nelson for the first couple months of the season may be a blessing in disguise, as some of the system’s better pitching prospects are reaching major-league maturity.

Brandon Woodruff showed significant potential in eight starts at the end of last season, and he’ll begin the season as the team’s fifth starter. 23-year-old Corbin Burnes emerged from relative obscurity to become the club’s minor league pitcher of the year last year, making it from Low-A to Double-A by the All-Star break. Burnes will start the year at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and I would be surprised if we don’t see him pitch in the big leagues this year.

Behind Burnes and Woodruff, there’s a group of highly rated prospects, including Luis Ortiz, Freddy Peralta, and Adrian Houser, that appear close and could demonstrate readiness this year as well.

As for position players, the additional payroll makes the roster much less flexible this year than it was last year, but 23-year-old second base prospect Mauricio Dubon is coming off a strong spring and has sustained his stellar production at every level up to and including Triple-A. With Jonathan Villar’s severe regression last year, second base is probably the biggest question mark on the roster, so look for Dubon to get a shot if Villar cannot right the ship quickly.

2018 outlook

The Brewers were one of the feel-good stories of baseball in 2017, holding first place in the NL Central for more than two months, contending for a playoff spot right up until the last weekend of the season, and beating their PECOTA projection by a full 10 wins. Now, they’ve added better players to that team — and yet the projections show them in the 78-83 win range.

That makes quite a bit of sense, though: So many Brewers players overperformed last year, from Chase Anderson and Zach Davies to Travis Shaw, to Brent Suter, to Eric Sogard and even Jesus Aguilar. It’s certainly possible that last year’s showings were an indication of true talent for all of these guys, but with the information we have at the moment, they look like a bunch of regression candidates.

With the Pirates moving into full-on tank mode, there’s some chance that wins are a bit easier to come by in the division. There’s a lot of room for variance here; it’s possible that all the regression candidates do in fact regress, the new prospects don’t pan out, and the team doesn’t compete enough to justify additional in-season expenditures. But I think the Brewers end up closer to their best-case scenario than their worst-case scenario, and I predict they beat their projections and contend again this year.

Ross Drath

Pittsburgh Pirates

2017 record: 75-87, fourth in NL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 77-85, fourth in NL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 76-86, fourth in NL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in NL Central (10/18)

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates
Cutch is gone. Are their days numbered, too?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded RHP Gerrit Cole to the Astros in exchange for OF Jason Martin, IF Colin Moran, RHP Michael Feliz, and RHP Joe Musgrove.
  • Traded OF Andrew McCutchen and cash to the Giants in exchange for RHP Kyle Crick, OF Bryan Reynolds, and $500,000 in international bonus pool money.
  • Traded RHP Daniel Hudson, IF Tristan Gray and cash considerations to the Rays in exchange for OF/1B Corey Dickerson.

No, the above list doesn’t have any omissions — the Pirates, to this point, have not made a single big-league signing since last season ended. (According to MLBTR’s transaction tracker, at least.) The sole player of note they signed is Ji-hwan Bae, for a meager $1.25 million, and the only reason they got him is that MLB took him away from the Braves.

Then there’s the trades Neal Huntington made, which are so-so at best and Marlins-esque at worst. McCutchen has one year to go before free agency, and Cole has two, so the Pirates weren’t going to get blue-chippers here, but this is still a pretty uninspiring return for the team’s best pitcher and its stalwart hitter.

The only semi-legitimate prospect of the bunch is Moran, who was ranked No. 9 in a shallow Houston system, and he’s a 25-year-old with 34 big-league at-bats. Feliz and Musgrove are projects; maybe Ray Searage can make something out of them, or maybe they’ll flame out. The rest are just depth pieces and lottery tickets, far less than what Cutch and Cole were worth.

Oh, and they traded for Dickerson — because the Rays are even more cheap than the Pirates. Don’t expect him to do much in the NL, without the ability to DH.

Players to watch: Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco

Cutch has said goodbye to Pittsburgh, but his two outfield neighbors remain. Marte is under contract for two more years, with a pair team options after that; overall, he’ll be paid a maximum of $42.16 million through 2021. Polanco has four seasons and $30.4 million left on his extension, then two team options for a combined $26 million. If you’re a team that’s looking to contend, these are the players you’d build around.

But the Pirates appear to be rebuilding, so these are instead the players they might shop. While Polanco struggled last season, slashing .251/.305/.391 with lackluster defense, he’s still a toolsy left-handed outfielder that was once a top prospect. Marte was one of the better players in MLB from 2013 to 2016, racking up 16.4 fWAR in the Pittsburgh outfield; if he can return to that form after his PED-shortened 2017, he’ll be a hot commodity as well.

2018 outlook

After three years of making the postseason (and two Wild Card game losses), the Pirates took a step back in 2016. Then they took another step back in 2017. The farm system is still pretty solid — no thanks to the McCutchen and Cole trades — but there won’t be much help coming from the minors. This looks to be another mediocre campaign in Pittsburgh; if anything, these mid-70-win projections seem pretty optimistic.

With that said, the Bucs do have some upside, if their young big-leaguers fulfill their potential. A year ago, Josh Bell and Tyler Glasnow were both consensus top-100 prospects; they combined to earn 0.2 fWAR in 2017. Bell is working on hitting from the right side, which would complement his smooth lefty stroke, and Glasnow is starting the year in the bullpen. Those two have the potential to make waves this year as sophomores.

If the Pirates lag around .500, they’ll probably sell off some players come July. Marte and Polanco have the potential for a Christian Yelich-sized return, but there are other players who are more obvious fits to be moved — Sean Rodriguez, whose contract expires at the end of the year, and Francisco Cervelli and Ivan Nova, who will be free agents after the 2019 season. These players could find themselves on the block if they live up to their expectations (and if the team lives down to its expectations).

Ryan Romano

Cincinnati Reds

2017 record: 68-94, fifth in NL Central

PECOTA 2018 projection: 75-87, fifth in NL Central

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 71-91, fifth in NL Central

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in NL Central (10/18)

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Los Angeles Angels
Helmets — who needs ’em?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Let SS Zack Cozart (Angels) leave in free agency.
  • Signed RHP David Hernandez to a two-year, $5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Jared Hughes to a two-year, $4.5 million contract.

I’ll put it bluntly. The Reds didn’t make any key offseason moves. The Reds are, very simply, a bad team who lost some significant contributors. In response, they acquired a few guys — unspectacular guys, to say the least — to fill some holes.

Cozart is undoubtedly the biggest loss. Their long-time shortstop is coming off a career year. Cozart posted a bWARP about 3 wins more than his career high, which was largely due to a TAv that was 65 points above his career average. The newfound pop in his bat complemented his sure-handed nature at the shortstop position. Despite the strides he made, the Reds were not willing to bring back the 32-year-old for another campaign. Given the state of their franchise, it’s not surprising that they would move on from a player on the wrong side of 30 — career year or not.

The Reds also lost a few pitchers in Scott Feldman, Bronson Arroyo, and Drew Storen. The only one of the group that seems to be worth the grief is Feldman. He may not be a long-term piece for the Reds, but he served a purpose by eating innings in a not-so-terrible fashion. That’s something Arroyo couldn’t quite say last season. As far as Storen goes, this may have been the final stop on his confounding career. He couldn’t quite settle in with the Reds last season, and it marks a second consecutive year of disappointment for the reliever, whom Cincinnati replaced with Hernandez and Hughes.

Player to watch: Eugenio Suarez

Prior to last season, Suarez had proven himself to be a quality contributor who could hold down the hot corner. However, in 2017 he was able to leap forward and have a breakout year. He posted career bests in most major categories, including TAv and bWARP, where he placed eighth and 10th among third basemen, respectively. His performance was enough to earn him a seven-year, $66 million extension in mid-March.

With that said, the departure of Cozart and the rapid rise of Nick Senzel has placed a question mark on who exactly will be the Reds’ long-term third baseman. Suarez has certainly staked a strong claim to the position, but the Reds invested a considerable amount of capital in Senzel.

Suarez, who almost exclusively played shortstop in 2014 and 2015, may have a chance to return to his natural position. But with him effectively being away from it for two seasons, it’s worth watching how he adjusts if given the chance. Players making positional moves are usually candidates to experience some offensive regression. Despite his experience at the position, Suarez would be no different.

2018 outlook

The Reds are going to be bad again. I’m sure this doesn’t shock anyone. However, the team’s longtime pitching woes may see some clarity this season as they attempt to trot out a cadre of young starters.

Luis Castillo is the most prominent of the bunch. The right-hander, who was acquired in the Dan Straily deal last offseason, burst onto the scene in mid-2017; his 3.36 DRA over 15 starts was easily the most impressive among Reds starters. His electric stuff gave everyone in Cincinnati something to dream on from the mound, where they haven’t found a particularly exciting starter since Johnny Cueto debuted.

Along with Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, and Amir Garrett broke the club in 2017. Mahle and Romano impressed in limited time last season. The former was able to post a 2.70 ERA in four starts, although his peripherals were a bit of a mess in that small sample. Romano trotted out there 16 times and proved to be serviceable. On the other hand, Garrett — who was the most highly touted prospect of the bunch — struggled mightily in just over 70 innings last season. Those three should get an extended look again this season.

Also, the Reds have Joey Votto. He’s not a starting pitcher, but he’s very fun.

Anthony Rescan