2016 Predictions: NL Central

Let’s talk NL Central.

This division is going to be fun. The NL Central sent three teams to the postseason last year, and could do the same this season. Regardless of how you feel about the one-game Wild Card, you can’t deny that the three-headed beast of Chicago, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh is going to be a dirty bloodbath with the winner of the division winning the World Series. In the NL East preview, you read about the Mets as the heavy division favorite, but I believe in strength of schedule. Because the Cubs/Pirates/Cardinals play each other so frequently and still posted the three best records in the league, they will be more prepared than anyone else come October.

Oh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati are here too.

2015 Results
1) St. Louis Cardinals, 100-62, lost NLDS
2) Pittsburgh Pirates, 98-64, lost Wild Card game
3) Chicago Cubs, 97-64, lost NLCS
4) Milwaukee Brewers, 68-94
5) Cincinnati Reds, 64-98

Chicago Cubs
Key Additions: OF Jason Heyward, 2B Ben Zobrist, P John Lackey, P Rex Brothers
Key Losses: OF Austin Jackson, OF Dexter Fowler, 2B Starlin Castro, P Fernando Rodney, P Jason Motte, P Tommy Hunter
The North Side is cautiously excited for this season. The Cubs are the division and National League favorites, but given the Cubbies’ history, being the favorite doesn’t automatically result in success. That said, they still somehow managed to improve their roster from last season, swapping Starlin Castro out for Ben Zobrist, a better defender and contact hitter, and swapping out Dexter Fowler for Jason Heyward, and slapping the Cardinals in the face while doing so. The Cubs struck out over 1500 times last season but given the other high flying home runs from Schwarber, Rizzo, and Bryant, and many, many others, that’s a trade they’ll gladly make (remember when we talked about the Astros? Same thing).

Lineup: Joe Maddon is a master carpenter; he’s made mansions with less than what he has this year, which is why people are favoring the Cubs so heavily. Despite the strikeouts, the Cubs walked more than any other National League team, giving the big swingers lots of opportunities for RBI. This should be fun.
1) Jason Heyward, CF
2) Kyle Schwarber, LF
3) Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4) Kris Bryant, 3B
5) Jorge Soler, RF
6) Miguel Montero, C
7) Ben Zobrist, 2B
8) Addison Russell, SS

Rotation: Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks
You are all familiar with the Jake Arrieta Magic Show, and then the Cubs went out and poached John Lackey, who posted 218 innings pitched and a career best 2.77 ERA last season at age 36. He’ll be a perfect 3-starter for the Cubs.

Cincinnati Reds
Key Additions: Lots of minor league prospects
Key Losses: 3B Todd Frazier, C Brayan Pena, OF Marlon Byrd
The Reds are as bad as the Cubs are good, unfortunately. They blew up the roster in the offseason, sending hometown hero Todd Frazier to Chicago for a group of prospects that…well, aren’t really worthy of what Frazier gave the Reds, if you ask me. Dead weight all across the outfield, a shortstop coming back from major knee surgery, a second baseman that wants out, and one of the best first baseman still playing for a bad team makes for a very bad 2016.

Lineup: 1-5 is pretty good, actually. Suarez hit over .300 in 2015, Votto still gets on-base as much as Ted Williams, and Phillips is still a decent RBI. After that, however, it becomes simply dismal. Bruce has completely lost his swing and even though Hamilton got 57 stolen bases last year, his OBP is lower than most batting averages. There won’t be a lot of run production in Cincy this year.
1) Zack Cozart, SS
2) Eugenio Suarez, 3B
3) Joey Votto, 1B
4) Brandon Phillips, 2B
5) Devin Mesoraco, C
6) Jay Bruce, RF
7) Scott Schebler, LF
8) Billy Hamilton, CF

Rotation: Homer Bailey (when he returns from Tommy John), Anthony DeSclafani, Michael Lorenzen, Brandon Finnegan, Raisel Iglesias, John Lamb
This is the ugly part. Homer Bailey will have to hit the ground running when he returns in May to keep the Reds afloat.

Milwaukee Brewers
Key Additions: IF Aaron Hill, IF Chris Carter, IF Jonathan Villar, OF Kirk Niewenhuis
Key Losses: P Francisco Rodriguez, P Kyle Lohse, 1B Adam Lind, SS Jean Segura, OF Khris Davis
The Brewers made smart offseason moves, shedding some of the extra weight and acquiring good prospects for Segura and Davis. They won’t be as bad as last season, especially considering the Reds didn’t improve, either. It’s a shaky team, but they weren’t too far under .500 under Craig Counsell. I’m curious how they handle this season.

Lineup:
1) Jonathan Villar, SS
2) Aaron Hill, 3B
3) Ryan Braun, RF
4) Chris Carter, 1B
5) Jonathan Lucroy, C
6) Domingo Santana, LF
7) Kirk Niewenhuis, CF
8) Scooter Gennett, 2B

Rotation: Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Chase Anderson. Garza is growing further and further away from what he used to be a few years ago and the rest of the staff will probably find it hard to compete with the bats of this division.

St. Louis Cardinals
Key additions: C Brayan Pena, P Mike Leake, IF Jedd Gyorko
Key losses: P John Lackey, OF Jason Heyward, OF Jon Jay, IF Mark Reynolds, P Steve Cishek
Losing Heyward and Lackey would hurt any team, but what makes it worse is that they went to the one team in the league that no one wanted them to: the Cubbies. With a lot of key pieces still in place and more key pieces aging, I would be counting the Cardinals out if it weren’t the Cardinals.

Lineup: With Peralta’s recent injury, Gyorko is the next guy up in Cardinals camp. Holliday, Adams, and Molina are returning from serious injuries, and Piscotty and Grichuk are still relatively unproven despite successful 2015s. Again, it’s the Cardinals.
1) Matt Carpenter, 3B
2) Stephen Piscotty, RF
3) Matt Holliday, LF
4) Matt Adams, 1B
5) Jedd Gyorko, SS
6) Randal Grichuk, CF
7) Yadier Molina, C
8) Kolten Wong, 2B

Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, Jaime Garcia
No Lance Lynn hurts a lot, but adding Wainwright back helps just as much. The bullpen is great with Walden and Rosenthal, so theses starters will just be asked to keep the team in the game rather than win the game outright.

Division Superlatives
Best outfield: Pittsburgh
Best infield: Chicago (was a tie with St. Louis, but the injury to Peralta gives the Cubs the edge)
Best rotation: Chicago
Best lineup: Chicago
Best bullpen: St. Louis

Prediction
1) Chicago Cubs, 100-62
2) Pittsburgh, 94-68
3) St. Louis, 92-70
4) Cincinnati, 70-92
5) Milwaukee, 63-99

Header photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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