With the 2018 MLB season less than a month away, it’s time to take a look and preview the season ahead. We’re going division by division to try and project every teams’ strengths, weaknesses, and questions heading into the season. Here are the projections within the NL Central.
2017 Record: 92-70, Lost in NCLS to Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s hard to pick out the one biggest strength for a team that has made the NLCS each of the past three years, but we’re going to have to go with their rotation. From top to bottom, it looks like the Cubs could potentially have the second or third-best rotation in the National League. They already had three solid starters in Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks, and adding Yu Darvish definitely didn’t hurt their chances to win the Central once again.
The Cubs added Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow in free agency, but will it be enough to stop some of the late inning struggles from last season? Morrow was a workhorse for the Dodgers bullpen last season, so it will be interesting to see how it affects him this year. Carl Edwards Jr is still around with his fantastic strikeout rate (12.8 K/9), but he was also used in 73 games in 2017, making him one of the more used relievers in the league.
Question: The Cubs have most of their core under contract through 2020, will they be able to add another championship and start a dynasty?
Projected 2018 Record: 94-68
St. Louis Cardinals
2017 Record: 83-79, Did not make playoffs
Even after trading away Randall Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals could do a lot worse than Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Marcell Ozuna. If Pham and Ozuna play anywhere close to their 2017 levels, you could have one of the best NL outfields at Busch Stadium. That wouldn’t be including Jose Martinez, who can play infield as well. Prospects Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill could also break into the lineup at some point this season. Both had similar numbers in the minor leagues, so it will be up to Mike Matheny on which one plays.
At first glance, it might not seem like an obvious weakness, but there are a lot of questions with this pitching staff. Adam Wainwright is 36-years old, and is coming off the worst statistical season of his career with a 5.11 ERA. Along with lowered velocity due to coming off of an injury last year, the outlook isn’t great. Miles Mikolas is an unknown commodity coming from Japan. Michael Wacha has had health issues and has had problems going deep into starts. Behind ace Carlos Martinez, the rotation is a giant question mark.
Question: A three-year playoff drought isn’t something Cardinals fans have been accustomed to recently. If the rotation doesn’t come through and they miss the playoffs once again, will it cost Matheny his job?
Projected 2018 Record: 87-75
2017 Record: 86-76, Did not make playoffs
The signing of Lorenzo Cain and signing of Christian Yelich immediately improves the depth in the Brewers outfield, giving them two extra stars in that department. Having Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana among others could give them an even better shot at making the playoffs this season. Eric Thames and Travis Shaw on the infield corners isn’t shabby either, and Eric Sogard and Hernan Perez can move around the infield. Calling up one or two more prospects that could make an impact still couldn’t hurt.
Jimmy Nelson will be out for at least a month or two to start the season. He’ll be expected to be at the top of the rotation when he comes back, but he is coming off a torn labrum, and there’s no guarantee he will perform like he did last season. Chase Anderson and Zach Davies did well in 2017, but both seem due to regress this season. There are a few depth options for the Brewers here, but none are seen as stars. They could still add an arm before the season starts, but GM David Stearns seems done making moves.
Question: Milwaukee was one game away from playoff baseball in 2017, going down on the final day. Will their new additions be enough to carry them there for the first time since 2011?
Projected 2018 Record: 78-84
2017 Record: 75-87, Did not make playoffs
The Pirates have several players in their system, which has only gotten better after trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Although not all of them could be called elite, they can still make an impact this season. Austin Meadows, 22, once seen as an heir apparent to McCutchen, has had injury issues the past few seasons and will need to fill in more with McCutchen gone. Josh Bell, 24, and Colin Moran, 25, will likely be the corner infielders. Top pitching prospect Mitch Keller could be in the mix as well, along with Tyler Glasnow potentially filling a rotation spot. Starling Marte and new addition Corey Dickerson will need to contribute, but whether or not Pittsburgh exceeds expectations could come down to their youth movement.
For all the good a new young core could do for the Pirates, they are still inexperienced in the major leagues. Some of them haven’t yet played a major league game, while others have struggled. Glasnow struggled in his stint in the majors in 2017, going 2-7 with a 7.69 ERA in 15 games. While Meadows has only played over 100 games in a season on one occasion, which was in the minor leagues in 2015. They will also have to hope that the mechanical changes of Colin Moran translate well in the majors.
Question: Now that their two best players are gone, who will fill a leadership role in the clubhouse?
Projected 2018 Record: 76-86
2017 Record: 68-94, Did not make playoffs
More specifically, Joey Votto. Despite their last place NL Central finish in 2017, the Reds actually finished in the top half of the league in hits, home runs, and total bases. As always, Votto was a huge part of those numbers. He led the league in OBP and OPS and is a perennial MVP candidate, even in losing seasons. He’ll get some help from Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez, and even top prospect Nick Senzel could help produce later on in the season. With some help from the pitching staff, the Reds could make a jump over their projected 2018 win total. But…
This franchise was the worst in the NL in 2017 in regards to ERA (5.19), walks (631), and home runs allowed (248), and plagued by an inconsistent rotation. The health and reliability of the pitching staff could be the difference between exceeding expectations, or another last place finish. Tyler Mahle could be a prospect to watch if/when things start going south.
Question: Votto will be 35 before the season ends. Will the Reds be able to put together a contender before he leaves for good?
Projected 2018 Record: 72-90
All projected records according to fangraphs.