2018 NL Central Preview

The Chicago Cubs have won the division in back-to-back seasons, and although it looks like they have a good chance at the three peat, it’s not going to be easy. The Brewers and Cardinals both made some big moves and will be breathing down Chicago’s neck all year long. 1st Place: Chicago Cubs 2017 record: 92-70, first in NL Central, lost in NLCS to Los Angeles My 2018 prediction: 95-67 Key acquisitions: Yu Darvish (RHP), Brandon Morrow (RHP), Tyler Chatwood (LHP), Steve Cishek (RHP) Key departures: Jake Arrieta (RHP), Wade Davis (RHP), Alex Avila (C), Koji Uehara (RHP) This team has all the talent in the world, it’s just a matter of putting it all together like they did two seasons ago. A lot of people refer to a Championship hangover in the season following a team winning it all. In 2016, the Cubs won the World Series, in 2017, they definitely saw some regression. In the regular season, they had the least wins by a division winner, and they made it to the NLCS, which is impressive in any season, but were eliminated in five games. This team is entering the season healthy, and should be hungry once again now that they aren’t living off of the high from winning a championship. Willson Contreras is one of the best catchers in the league, and this is only going to be his third MLB season. Last year, Contreras suffered an injury during the season, which led to the team acquiring Alex Avila at the trade deadline. Before Contreras was injured, in 117 games, he had 21 home runs, 74 RBI and slashed .276/.356/.499. Now that Contreras is healthy and should see around 130-140 games, he’ll have a chance to hit 30 home runs, which will put him in contention for the league lead among catchers. Anthony Rizzo is the model of consistency for first basemen. In the past three seasons, the fewest games he’s played has been 155. In those three years, he’s hit 31, 32 and 32 home runs along with 101, 109 and 109 RBI. To go along with that consistency at the plate, he also has an average of ten stolen bases over the past three seasons. That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s impressive when you consider the fact that among first baseman, ten stolen bases puts you in the top five on a yearly basis. In 2018, Rizzo and Edwin Encarnacion are the only first basemen in the league who are trying to hit 30-100 for a fourth straight season, which would be an impressive feat to accomplish. Javier Baez has shown over the past couple of years how good he is as a defender, which due to his versatility has proven him to be one of the most important players for the Cubs. In 2017, he played 503 2/3 innings at second base, 43 innings at third, 573 1/3 inning at short stop and even four innings in the outfield. To go along with his defensive skills, he’s also a very good at the plate. Baez was tied for sixth most home runs by a second baseman last season, with 23, and will look to hit around the same amount this year. It’s not going to be long before Addison Russell is a regular name in any “Top 5 short stops in the MLB” articles, but he has some work to do. Russell is a very good defender. In his three big league seasons, he has registered 10, 19 and 15 Defensive Runs Saved. Where he struggles is in the hitting department. 2016 was an incredible, All-Star season for Russell. He had 21 home runs, which was tied for fifth in terms of short stops, and 95 RBI, which was second. Aside from those two stats in 2016, he’s had trouble with everything else. 2015 was his next best season, which was only 13 home runs and 54 RBI and his average slash line over his three seasons is .240/.312/.408. He needs to clean things up if he wants to be considered one of the five best at his position. In Kris Bryant’s three MLB seasons he has a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, two All-Star nods and hasn’t finished worse than 11th in MVP voting. Bryant has averaged 31 home runs, 91 RBI, hit .288/.388/.527 and has had fWARs of 6.5, 8.3, 6.7 in his career thus far. Like usual, he should be in the MVP conversation at the end of this season. Kyle Schwarber may be the most polarizing bat in this lineup. In 2016, he tore his ACL and LCL in the second game of the season. He missed the entire regular season, NLDS and NLCS, only to return in the World Series and hit .412/.500/.471 to help the Cubs win the championship. Last season was as up-and-down as it gets. He was the Opening Day lead-off hitter, but less than three months later, he was being demoted to Triple-A due to his poor play. He only spent about two and a half weeks in Triple-A, but it turned out to be a much needed move for him. Before his demotion, in 261 plate appearances, he had 12 home runs, a batting average of .171 and an OPS of .673. After his return to the MLB, in 225 plate appearances, he had 18 home runs, an average of .255 and an OPS of .903. Over the off-season, Schwarber lost around 20 pounds and looks like a completely different person. It’s hard to look at his weight loss and not think that it’s a major contributor to him carving up Spring Training pitching over the past few weeks. Much like Baez, Ian Happ is a big part of this team due to his defensive versatility. In 2017, his rookie season, he registered 260 1/3 innings at second base, 17 innings at third, 113 innings in left field, 346 2/3 innings in center field and 75 innings in right field. In less than 400 at-bats, Happ had 24 home runs and 68 RBI. Happ should be an everyday starter for this team, which is bad news for either Albert Almora or Jason Heyward.

Top to bottom, this is an incredible starting rotation. Jon Lester had his worst season since 2013, as he went 13-8 with an ERA of 4.33 and 180 strikeouts in 180 2/3 innings. Most pitchers would kill to have a stat line like that, but for a top of the rotation pitcher like Lester, he needs to be better. I think he’s going to have a major bounce back year, and should receive some Cy Young consideration. The most interesting thing to watch in terms of Lester is his pickoffs to first. As many know, he rarely ever throws over to first base, and when he does, its cringe worthy. However, this season, he’s said that he might start bouncing throws over to first. He’s still going to barely throw/bounce to first, but it’s only worth watching to see if he can get somebody out by bouncing a ball to first, that would be an all-time hilarious moment. After Lester in the rotation, the Cubs have big-time free agent signing, Yu Darvish. In the off-season, Darvish had to wait until mid-February to finally find a team. Even though he had to wait so long, he still ended up with a six year, $126 million contract. Ever since coming to the MLB from Japan prior to the 2012 MLB season, Darvish has been one of the better pitchers in the league. In his major league career he has averaged an 11-8 record, an ERA of 3.42 and 204 strikeouts per season. Last season, Darvish had what were probably the two worst starts in a single World Series in history. In two starts for the Dodgers, he went a combined 3 1/3 innings with 8 earned runs and zero strikeouts. After such an embarrassing performance in the World Series, Darvish couldn’t have found a better team for himself. He’ll only be asked for be a 2/3 starter, and will have a chance to redeem himself in the postseason. Kyle Hendricks has been very good over the last two seasons. In 2016, he finished third in NL Cy Young voting, and although he saw a decent amount of regression in 2017, he still had a solid season. His ERA- have been 51 and 69 in those two seasons, which are in the elite category of pitchers. Hendricks had a 50% ground ball rate last season, and he barely strikes anybody out, so he’s not a “sexy” pitcher, but he gets the job done. 2017 was an “off” year for Jose Quintana, but much like Lester, a bad season for Quintana is still a better season than most. Quintana spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox, until they traded him to the Cubs in the middle of last season. In 18 starts for the White Sox before the trade, he went 4-8 with an ERA of 4.49 and a K/9 of 9.4. After joining the Cubs, Quintana started 14 games, had an ERA of 3.74 with a K/9 of 10.5. Quintana would be either a number one or two pitcher for the majority of teams, but for the Cubs, he might be their fourth best pitcher, which is crazy to think about. Rounding out this rotation is my biggest sleeper of the season. On the surface, 2017 looks like a bad season for Tyler Chatwood. He went 8-15 and had an ERA of 4.69. I know you’re probably thinking “Seriously? This guy’s your biggest sleeper?” Why yes, yes he is. If you want to know why I have such high expectations for Chatwood, look no further than his home-road splits.

Home: 3-8, 6.01 ERA, 81 hits, 47 runs, .302 opp avg, 1.678 WHIP, 142 sOPS+ Away: 5-7, 3.49 ERA, 55 hits, 32 runs, .200 opp avg, 1.228 WHIP, 81 sOPS+ As you can see, when Chatwood was pitching in the thin air of Colorado, he was terrible. When he was pitching away from Coors Field, he was a completely different pitcher. Wrigley Field is hitter friendly, but it’s not as crazy as Colorado. Now that Chatwood is going to pitching close to 30 games outside of Coors Field, I see him winning around 11-13 games, with an ERA in the mid-3s. In the bullpen, the Cubs lost a great reliever/closer in Wade Davis to Colorado, but they did a great job in finding replacements. To start things off, they signed Steve Cishek who had a 2.01 ERA in 44 2/3 innings between Seattle and Tampa last year. To close games out, they signed Brandon Morrow who proved to be incredibly valuable to the Dodgers in the postseason last year. In the postseason, Morrow appeared in 14 of the Dodgers’ 17 games, including all 7 games of the World Series. Although he only has 18 career saves, two since 2010, he has the stuff to be an effective closer and should slide nicely into the role. This team has the potential to make a World Series run every year, and this year should be no different. Player to watch: Kyle Schwarber If healthy, Schwarber has the power to hit 40+ home runs. Two seasons ago, when the New York Yankees were trying to trade Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline, it was rumoured that they asked for Schwarber in return from the Cubs. The Cubs declined, even though Schwarber was slated to miss the entire season with a torn knee. That’s how much faith this organization has in his talent. He’s lost a lot of weight, has been raking in Spring Training, and should be in for a career year.

2nd Place: Milwaukee Brewers 2017 record: 86-76, second in NL Central My 2018 prediction: 91-71 Key acquisitions: Christian Yelich (OF), Lorenzo Cain (OF), Jhoulys Chacin (RHP), Matt Albers (RHP), Boone Logan (LHP) Key departures: Anthony Swarzak (RHP), Neil Walker (2B) From 2016 to 2017, the Brewers had a 13 win jump. This team is expected to be much better than the 2017 team, and will challenge for their first division title since 2011. The Brewers have a good combination of catchers going into this season. Manny Piña and Stephen Vogt, who was acquired mid-season, will be splitting catches duties, and should allow the Brewers to have a good player behind the plate for all 162 games. The two of them combined hit 21 home runs, 83 RBI and a .258 average. Combined, those two would’ve been tied for fifth among catchers in home runs and second in RBI last season. Eric Thames was one of craziest stories of last season. In his first MLB stint, in 2011 and 2012, he was a pretty bad player. In those two seasons, he had a total of 21 home runs, 62 RBI and hit .250/.296/.431. In 2013, he spent the entire season in the minors, in 2013 he played in Venezuela, and then in 2014, he made the best decision of his career and went to Korea. Thames spent three seasons in Korea and these were his numbers:

2014: 514 PA, 95 R, 152 H, 37 HR, 121 RBI, 11 SB, .343/.422/.688, 1.111 OPS 2015: 595 PA, 130 R, 180 H, 47 HR, 140 RBI, 40 SB, .381/.497/.790, 1.288 OPS 2016: 529 PA, 118 R, 140 H, 40 HR, 121 RBI, 13 SB, .321/.427/.679, 1.106 OPS

Pretty good, eh? After setting the Korean League on fire, he finally got his chance to return to the MLB. He signed with the Brewers and was one of the best hitters at the beginning of the season. In his first 63 games of the season, he hit 20 home runs with an OPS of 1.017. In his last 75 games of the season, he only hit 11 home runs with a .755 OPS. It’s tough to know which version of Thames we’re going to see this year, but the Brewers sure are hoping that it’s the one from the first 63 games. Jonathan Villar might not be a starter on Opening Day, but he’s going to be getting a lot of playing time solely based on his base stealing ability. In 2016, he led the major leagues with 62 stolen bases. He only had 23 in 2017, but he had 200 less plate appearances than he did the year before. Travis Shaw had a very good first full year in the league back in 2016, when he was with the Red Sox. After the season, Boston traded him to Milwaukee for some pitching help. As of right now, it has been a completely one sided trade. Tyler Thornburg, who Milwaukee traded for Shaw, didn’t pitch a single game in 2017 for the Red Sox, due to injury. Shaw, on the other hand, hit 31 home runs and 101 RBI in his first season with the Brew Crew. Now that the Brewers have made some significant lineup improvements, Shaw is going to have much more RBI opportunities, and should exceed his 2017 production. Speaking of those lineup improvements, here’s the biggest one; Christian Yelich. The Brewers decided to take advantage of the Miami Marlins’ fire sale, and were able to acquire one of the best young players in the league, who is on an incredibly team friendly contract. Yelich is only 26 years old, and he hasn’t come close to reaching his potential. Since 2016, he has averaged 171 hits, 20 home runs and 90 RBI a season, to go with a .290/.373/.460 slash line. I’ve been saying for a couple of years that Yelich will win a batting title someday. I think that that day is going to happen sooner than later, possibly even this season. If you needed another reason why Yelich is in line for the best season of his career, here you go; in 2017, Marlins Park, where Yelich played his home games, was a bottom five ballpark for hitters. Miller Park, where Yelich will be playing all his home games this season, was a top ten ballpark for hitters. Yelich will be the center piece of this team for at least the next five seasons, and it’ll be amazing to watch. The other big move that Milwaukee made was when they signed Lorenzo Cain to a five year, $80 million contract. Over the past five seasons, Cain has been great in center field. His Defensive Runs Saved in those years have been 23, 22, 18, 11, 5 and his UZRs have been 20, 17.6, 14.1, 9.2, 1.6. His numbers have declined in each of the five years, but I have reason to believe that he’s going to return to great defensive numbers in Milwaukee. Why? The field dimensions. In Kansas City, where Cain played for those five seasons, center field was 410 feet while left and right center were both 387. Miller Park, Cain’s new home, is only 400 feet to center, 370 in left-center and 374 in right-center. These numbers don’t seem like they would make much of a difference, but they will. Cain is also no slouch at the plate. Over the same five seasons that he put up those defensive stats, he has hit an average of 10 home runs, 55 RBI, .291/.345/.767 and 22 stolen bases a season. He should be batting near the top of a very good lineup, and might put up some career best numbers in his age 32 season. Domingo Santana had quite the breakout year in 2017. Prior to last season, he had a total of 19 home runs, 58 RBI, 6 stolen bases and slashed .239/.331/.423. In his breakout campaign alone, he hit 30 home runs, 85 RBI, 15 stolen bases and slashed .278/.371/.505. He’s turning 25 years old in August, and should be in for another great season. The biggest question mark on this team is where does Ryan Braun fit in? The former MVP missed a lot of games last season, and was nothing more than average when he was playing. With the acquisitions of Yelich and Cain, and the breakthrough of Santana, there isn’t an outfield spot for him. He’s been playing first base in Spring Training, but that would mean that you’re taking Thames’ bat out of the lineup. My guess is that Braun will start the season as the team’s first baseman, but they’ll make sure to have a rotation of him in the outfield as well, in order to give Thames some at-bats. If it turns out that Braun is struggling at first, then at least they have a good backup plan in Thames. It’s unfortunate, because whatever their decision is, it’s going to result in a pretty good hitter being on the bench, whether it’s Braun, Thames or Domingo Santana, if they decide to start Thames at first and Braun in the outfield, which seems unlikely. Another option would be to have Braun play first against lefties, and Thames against righties. Last season, Thames hit .182 against left-handed pitchers, as opposed to .265 against righties, while Braun hit .264 against lefties. That seems like the best way to get both Braun and Thames a decent amount of playing time. This lineup, with the help of their two big off-seasons moves, should be able to do some serious damage against opposing pitchers.

The pitching staff might surprise some people with how good they can be this season. Chase Anderson was incredible last year. Anderson went 12-4 and had an ERA of 2.74, which was better than Chris Sale, Luis Severino, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom. If not for an injury that cost him all of July and most of August, he would’ve probably received some Cy Young consideration. Anderson is healthy and will be the Opening Day starter for the Brewers. He’ll be looking to get a full year in, and prove that he deserves to be a number one pitcher. Zach Davies just turned 25 years old in February and he already has back-to-back seasons with more than 10 wins. In his two full seasons as a major leaguer, he has yet to have an ERA over 4, or an ERA- over 100. He’s young, he was one win shy of being tied for the league lead last season, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t improve on what he did last year. Jhoulys Chacin was the only real addition that the Brewers made to their rotation, and I’m not sure how I feel about him this year. I think that Chacin is a decent pitcher, and could have a very good year, but his splits from last season scare me. Last year, Chacin was on a team that won a total of 71 games. Despite being on one of the league’s worst teams, Chacin still managed to have a record of 13-10 with an ERA of 3.89. On the surface, those numbers look great, but when you dig a bit deeper, it gets quite ugly. Chacin’s season was the complete opposite of Tyler Chatwood’s, who I talked about earlier. Chatwood was hurt because of his home field, while Chacin greatly benefited from his. Petco Park is one of the most pitcher friendly ballparks in the league, and it shows in Chacin’s home-road splits: Home: 9-3, 100 1/3 IP, 1.79 ERA, 61 H, 22 R, 0.977 WHIP, 52 sOPS+ Away: 4-7, 80 IP, 6.53 ERA, 96 H, 60 R, 1.638 WHIP, 122 sOPS+

As you can see, when he was pitching away from Petco, Chacin was a terrible pitcher. It gets even worse for Chacin; where does his new team play their home games? In one of the more hitter friendly ballparks in the league. The one thing I can find solace in for Chacin is that from 2009-2014, he played for the Rockies, in Coors Field, and he actually had a decent amount of success in those years. I’m definitely hedging my bets on Chacin; I wouldn’t be surprised if he does well this year, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if his ERA sky rockets. Although I just laid out a bunch of questions surrounding Chacin, Jimmy Nelson might actually be the Milwaukee pitcher with the biggest question marks. Nelson was great last season, and ended up finishing ninth in Cy Young voting. He went 12-6 with an ERA of 3.49 and 199 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings. The problem is that Nelson underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in September and there is no concrete timetable for his return. Some reports have said that he’s not expected back until June, but seeing as how it’s an issue with his throwing shoulder, it can’t be rushed. It sucks to say, but he’ll be ready when he’s ready. If he does come back in the middle of the season and return to his 2017 form, it’s going to give this team a solid rotation. Player to watch: Jhoulys Chacin and Jimmy Nelson Chacin needs to prove that last season’s success wasn’t solely because on his home field. Nelson needs to get healthy, and pitch at the same level he did last season. If Chacin sucks and Nelson has trouble getting on the field, this rotation becomes incredibly shallow.

3rd Place: St. Louis Cardinals 2017 record: 83-79, third in NL Central My 2018 prediction: 86-76 Key acquisitions: Marcell Ozuna (OF), Luke Gregerson (RHP), Miles Mikolas (RHP), Bud Norris (RHP) Key departures: Trevor Rosenthal (RHP)*, Stephen Piscotty (OF), Lance Lynn (RHP), Randal Grichuk (OF), Seung-hwan Oh (RHP) The St. Louis Cardinals are that team that never seems like they have one of the league’s best rosters, yet they always seem to find success. Here’s a list of MLB teams who have had ten consecutive winning seasons: New York Yankees - 25 St. Louis Cardinals - 10 End list. Just think about that. Thirty teams in the league and the Cardinals are one of two who have had sustained regular season success for the past decade. They made a huge acquisition in the off-season, and judging by the current version of the 2018 Cardinals, I don’t see their streak ending this year. I’ll start things off with the seemingly ageless Yadier Molina. In July, Molina will be turning 36 years old, and he’s still one of the league’s premier catchers. Last season, Molina hit 18 home runs, which was the second most of his career, and 82 RBI, which was the most of his career. Molina’s batting average (.273) and on base percentage (.312), were both lower than we’re accustomed to seeing from Molina, but his slugging percentage (.439), was the highest it’s been in five years. As good as Molina is offensively, he’s still more known for his defensive abilities. In 2017, Molina was fourth among MLB catchers in base stealers thrown out, at 36% of the time. Although Molina is getting up there in age, he should be in for yet another very good season on both sides of the plate. 2017 was a pretty good season for Matt Carpenter. He hit over 20 home runs and 65 RBI for the third straight season, while setting a career high in walks and on base percentage. Carpenter needs to get his batting average back up to the .270s, but other than that, he should have another successful year for the Cardinals. Paul DeJong had an incredible rookie season. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, and if it wasn’t for Cody Bellinger having a record breaking rookie season, DeJong might very well have won the award. In only 413 plate appearances, DeJong had 25 home runs and 65 RBI, to go along with a stellar .285/.325/.532 slash line. The biggest problem with DeJong’s first major league season was that he struck out 28% of the time. That number should reduce now that he’ll be comfortable at the big league level, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Jedd Gyorko had the best overall season of his career in 2017. Although his home run total of 20, was only the third best amount of his career, he had career highs in RBI, walks, batting average, on base percentage and OPS. Gyorko has never been up to the plate more than 525 times in a season, but he should get a chance to do that this season since he’s coming off of the best year of his career. One of the biggest moves of the off-season was made by the Cardinals, when they showed up to the Miami Marlins’ fire sale and left with Marcell Ozuna. Last season, Ozuna was an absolute monster at the plate, but his season was overshadowed by his then teammate, Giancarlo Stanton. In 2017, Ozuna had 191 hits, which was tied for fifth most in the MLB, 37 home runs, tied for eighth, 124 RBI, third most, and a .312 average, tied for eighth most among qualifiers. Ozuna spent a lot of last season batting after Dee Gordon, Stanton and Christian Yelich, so it’s hard to see him matching his RBI output from last year, but he should still hit at a near .300 clip with 30-40 home runs. This next guy is somebody I am extremely excited about for this upcoming season. Tommy Pham wasn’t known by many in the baseball world going into last season, but by the end of the year, he had put his name on the map. 2017 was Pham’s first full year in the majors, and it was a great one. Pham had 23 home runs, 73 RBI. 25 stolen bases, a batting average of .306 and an on base percentage of .411, which was the fifth best in the MLB among qualifiers. Pham definitely has the potential to have a 30-30 season, or even a 30-40 season, which will make him one of the more electrifying players to watch this season. Dexter Fowler is a player that I’ve been confused about for years. He’s always been a decent hitter, but he’s a bad defender, who has limited success as a base stealer. Yet, after the 2016 season, the Cardinals signed him to a five year, $82.5 million contract. Last year was a good season for Fowler as a hitter, as he had a career high in home runs and RBI. His slash line of .264/.363/.488 is about what I would expect from Fowler. But, defensively, he wasn’t good, which seems to be a yearly thing for him. He had -18 Defensive Runs Saved along with a UZR/150 of -9.9. Regardless, he’s the Cardinals best option in right field, and still has that huge contract to play through, he’s just not somebody that I’m excited for.

Carlos Martinez has been one of the better under-the-radar pitchers over the past three seasons. He’s been an All-Star in two of the years, and continues to put up great numbers across the board. Over his three seasons as a full-time starter for the Cardinals, he has averaged a 14-9 record, 193 innings pitched, with a 3.24 ERA and 192 strikeouts per year. Due to the amount of pitching talent in the National League, it’s hard to see Martinez ever getting serious Cy Young consideration, but that’s not going to stop him from continuing to be one of the more reliable pitchers in the league. Michael Wacha has been an up-and-down pitcher over the past three seasons. In 2015, he went 17-7 with an ERA of 3.38 and received the first All-Star nod of his career. But, he followed that up with a 7-7, 5.09 ERA year. Last season was somewhere in the middle of those two years. He had a respectable 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA while registering the most strikeouts of his career, with 158. 2017, as a whole, was a positive sign for Wacha, and seems to be the type of production that we should expect from him, as opposed to his great 2015 season, or his terrible, 2016 season. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. That’s referring to Adam Wainwright, of course, who has gone from being a perennial Cy Young candidate to being a bottom of the rotation guy, in a matter of a few years. From 2009 to 2014, Wainwright was named an All-Star three times, while finishing either second or third in Cy Young voting four times. Over that span, he was averaging an 18-10 record, 226 innings pitched, a 2.83 ERA and 201 strikeouts a season. How has he done the past two seasons? An average record of 12-7, which is actually surprisingly good, but that record goes along with an ERA of 4.81, 161 innings pitched and only 128 strikeouts per year. Wainwright turns 37 years old in August, so it’s tough to envision the right hander producing much more than he has the past two years. Luke Weaver only started ten games for the Cardinals last season, but he managed to have a 7-2 record, with a 3.88 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. He’s only 24 years old, so he has a lot of room to grow, and he should have no problem solidifying the third rotation spot for himself, or even pushing Wacha out of the second rotation spot. Probably the most interesting part of this rotation is the addition of Miles Mikolas. If you don’t know who he is, you’re not alone. Mikolas pitched for the Padres and Rangers, primarily in the minors, from 2012-2014, but wasn’t very good. He then went over to Japan for three seasons and dominated. In his three years in Japan, he had a 31-13 record, an ERA of 2.18 and a 5.5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. There’s no way to know what to expect from Mikolas in his first year back in the majors, but maybe he’ll be the pitching version of Eric Thames. The team no longer has Trevor Rosenthal as their closer, so they’ll be handing the ball over to off-season signing, Luke Gregerson. He’s only a few years removed from having 31 saves with the Astros in 2015, so he has some closing experience, but he wasn’t used as one this past season, so it may take some time to get acclimated, but it shouldn’t take long.

Player to watch: Marcell Ozuna I’m choosing Ozuna because he no longer has Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich or Dee Gordon hitting around him. There’s a chance that he’ll have lots of RBI opportunities since he won’t have the likes of Stanton and Yelich driving in runs before he gets his chance at the plate, but there’s also a chance that he won’t have as many runners on base since he doesn’t have Gordon, Stanton or Yelich getting on for him. If I had to guess, I would say that he has close to no chance of producing the same numbers as last season, but he’ll still have a great year as a whole.

4th Place: Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 record: 75-87, fourth in NL Central My 2018 prediction: 69-93 Key acquisitions: Corey Dickerson (OF) Key departures: Andrew McCutchen (OF), Gerrit Cole (RHP) The Pirates didn’t make many changes in the off-season, but the one they did make were major. They started off by trading their best pitcher, Gerrit Cole, to the Houston Astros. They followed that up by trading one of the best players in their franchise’s history, Andrew McCutchen, to the San Francisco Giants. Despite those two moves, they didn’t get that much worse, but I still see them somewhere around the 70 win mark.

Francisco Cervelli isn’t your ideal starting catcher. He’s more suited for a backup role, which is why he’s been splitting a lot of time behind the plate, despite being their “starter”. Cervelli does get on base at a pretty decent clip, but other than that, he doesn’t provide much. Josh Bell had a very impressive 2017 season, which was his first full year in the majors. Bell played nearly every game of the season, 159 out of 162, and showed lots of power and potential. The 25 year old belted 26 home runs, which was second on the team behind McCutchen, and 90 RBI, which was the team lead. Bell walked quite a bit, while having a relatively decent amount of strikeouts, as he only struck out 19% of the time, which is great for a rookie power hitter. I expect him to make a significant jump this season, where he should experience his first 30-100 year in the MLB. Josh Harrison was an All-Star last season, but it’s pretty surprising that he’s still on this team. Over the course of the off-season, his name was mentioned in trade rumours on a regular basis. Due to his ability to play five defensive positions, while hitting 15 home runs, it seemed that he would be dealt, but his current salary seems to have been the main reason for him still being a Pirate. Harrison is a decent player, as I pointed out, he plays just about every defensive position, has shown some power, and is good for 10-20 stolen bases. He’s nothing special, but he’s not a bad player to be “stuck” with. Corey Dickerson is a pretty good replacement for Andrew McCutchen in the outfield. 2017 was the first All-Star season for Dickerson, and although he may not be as good as McCutchen is, he’s going to put up similar numbers, with around 30 home runs. In center field is the best player on this team. Marte was popped for PEDs before the start of the 2017 season, which caused him to miss the first 80 games. After returning from suspension, Marte wasn’t very good. His 21 stolen bases and .275 batting average were both the worst he’s had since 2012, when he only played in 47 games. Now that he’s facing no suspension for this season, Marte should return to his pre-2017 form. So far in Spring Training, Marte has been on a man on a mission, as he has been tearing up opposing pitching. If all goes well, Marte will be batting north of .300, and should have no problem stealing around 50 bases. He truly is a game changer, as long as he stays out of trouble. Gregory Polanco rounds out what should be a very good outfield for the Pirates. Polanco should be a 20-20 player this year, but is going to have to find a way to get on base more often than he did last season.

With the loss of Gerrit Cole, this rotation takes a big hit. The “Ace” of this team is Ivan Nova. Nova has actually been good since being acquired from the New York Yankees during the 2016 season. The problem with Nova is that he’s more of a third pitcher, as opposed to a number one, so he doesn’t really have a chance of producing at the level that is unfairly expected of him. Jameson Taillon is this team’s number two pitcher, but has a chance to take over the number one duties if he has a good year. He’s only 26 years old, so he has tons of room to grow, which we will see in a year that he should be able to pitch around 175 or so innings. Chad Kuhl, much like Taillon, is pretty young, only 25 years old. He’s shown potential over the past two seasons, and should be in for a breakout year as he fights for the third spot in the rotation. The man he’s fighting is another young pitcher, Joe Musgrove, who was acquired from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole deal. Musgrove is actually younger than both Taillon and Kuhl, but has been used primarily as a reliever over the past two years for Houston. Now that he’ll have a solidified rotation spot, we should see why he was one of the main pieces that the Pirates traded Cole for. This rotation will be interesting due to their 2-5 starters all being young arms, but not much can be expected from them as a whole. The shining star of this team’s pitchers is closer, Felipe Rivero. He is one of the nastiest pitchers in the game today, and as long as the team gives him a lead going into the 9th inning, they should have no problem winning the game. Player to watch: Starling Marte 2017 was a disappointing season for Marte, due to the suspension and because of his performance after returning from suspension. As I said above, he’s a game changer when he’s playing. With the departure of McCutchen, Marte is now the team’s best player, and he’ll look to be great at the plate, while terrorizing opposing pitchers and catchers on the base paths.

5th Place: Cincinnati Reds 2017 record: 68-94, fifth in NL Central My 2018 prediction: 62-100 Key acquisitions: N/A Key departures: Zack Cozart (SS) This team wasn’t very good last season, and they did absolutely nothing in the off-season to convince me that they’ll be any better this year. I’m a big Tucker Barnhart guy. 2017 was the best year of his career, in terms of offensive performance. He had 7 home runs and 44 RBI, to go along with a career best slash line of .270/.347/.403. He’s also very good defensively, as he led the MLB in percentage of base runners caught stealing, at 44%. I think he’s in for a big jump in offensive production, so much so that I think he’ll hit around 15 home runs, with 60 RBI. What can I say about Joey Votto that hasn’t already been said? A good ol’ Canadian boy, who has an MVP under his belt, and is in the conversation for the award in just about every season he plays. 2017 may have been his best season yet, and that’s including his MVP year. Votto was tied for ninth in the MLB in runs scored (106), tied for tenth in hits (179), tied for ninth in home runs (36), tied for fifteenth in RBI (100), led the league in walks (134), tied for fifth in batting average (.320), led the league in OBP (.454) and was third in OPS (1.032). Votto is about as consistent as they come, and will definitely be in the MVP hunt at the end of the season. Scooter Gennett had himself quite the breakout season. Prior to 2017, his career highs in home runs, RBI and batting average were 14, 56 and .263. In 2017, he hit 27 home runs, 97 RBI and a .295 batting average. The craziest part of his season was that from April 14th to June 5th, over the course of 39 games, he hit 0 home runs. He ended that cold streak on June 6th, when he hit 4 home runs and 10 RBI in one game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Following that game, he hit 20 home runs in the next 94 games to close out the season. Gennett will prove to be a valuable piece of this team if he can duplicate that type of power for a full season. Jose Peraza is going to have his hands full at short stop as he tries to fill in the shoes of Zack Cozart, who was an All-Star last season. Peraza is only 23 years old, and had a successful year with the big league club last year, and will aim to get around 30 stolen bases this year. Eugenio Suarez is only a week removed from signing a seven-year, $66 million extension with the Reds. Suarez has had back-to-back solid seasons, but with a new contract comes new expectations. He’s averaged 24 home runs and 76 RBI over those two seasons, and seems locked in to improve on those numbers now that he has to play up to his brand new contract. Adam Duvall is your typical power hitter. He’s averaged 32 home runs and 101 RBI over the past two seasons, but he’s also averaged 167 strikeouts and a .245/.299/.489 slash line over the same amount of time. It goes without saying that he’ll need to cut down on the strikeouts, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll prove to be a nice compliment to Votto in the middle of the order. Scott Schebler is similar to Duvall. Lots of home runs, lots of strikeouts, and a bad batting average. Billy Hamilton is arguably the most exciting player in the game today, but he still needs to become a better overall hitter. Over the past four seasons, Hamilton has averaged 57 stolen bases a season, which is the most in the MLB over that period of time. That speed is also incredibly helpful in the field. Over those same four seasons, his Defensive Runs Saved by year have been 14, 8, 15, 9 and his UZR/150 are 21.7, 18.8, 17.2 and 10. The problem with Hamilton is his slash line. His average slash line the past four years is .246/.297/.333. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it. The most comparable player in the league to Hamilton is Dee Gordon. They both steal a lot of bases and lack power. So, for comparison’s sake, here’s Dee Gordon’s slash line over the past four years: .304/.336/.382. The difference between their slash lines is laughable. I’m not expecting Hamilton to hit anywhere near as well as Gordon does, but if Hamilton could just have a batting average around .270, he would be a much bigger threat, and he would also be stealing 70-80 bases on a yearly basis.

This rotation doesn’t seem like they’ll be very good. This is definitely the team’s biggest need, and they will need to address it if they ever want to contend. Anthony DeSclafani might be the best pitcher on this staff but he can’t seem to stay healthy. In 20 starts last season, he went 9-5 with an ERA of 3.28 and 105 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings. Unfortunately for him and the Reds, he suffered a strained oblique last week and is expected to miss a chunk of time. Brandon Finnegan has been a good pitcher since debuting in the big leagues in 2014, but much like DeSclafani, he has trouble staying healthy. In fact, he’s currently trying to recover from a biceps strain that he suffered last week. The team isn’t sure if he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but it’s not looking good. Louis Castillo had a good rookie year last season. His record was 3-7, but that doesn’t tell the story of his season. He had an ERA of 3.12 with 98 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings, to go along with an ERA- of 72. With the injuries to DeSclafani and Finnegan, Castillo might actually become the team’s number one for the time being. Homer Bailey is no longer a good pitcher, yet he’s owed $44 million over the next two seasons. The Reds would be better off giving his starts to younger arms, as long as they’re healthy. Raisel Iglesias proved last year that he can be an effective closer, after he converted 28-of-30 save opportunities. He’s probably the only part of this pitching staff that I’m absolutely sure of. He’ll have north of 30 saves and should strikeout close to 100 batters.

Player to watch: Billy Hamilton He needs to become a better hitter and get on base more often. He’s such a threat on the base paths that he needs to get on as much as possible. He doesn’t need to hit .300, but he needs to hit better than .247, it’s as simple as that. He’s going to continue to be must-watch TV when he’s on base and will finish top 3 in stolen bases for the fifth straight season.

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