Tectonic Shift In National League Central

It pains me to join the growing cluster of people who have realized that this time, this year, the Chicago Cubs look like the class of their division and, perhaps, all of baseball. Last year, it seemed a bit premature for all of those self styled experts to be predicting big things for the Cubs. However, Joe Maddon‘s delicate maneuver of Starlin Castro out of the shortstop position and Addison Russell into it coupled with the astonishing excellence of Jake Arrieta propelled the Cubs into a strong finish and the best postseason performance among the three tough N.L. Central teams. Now, it appears that the Cubs have gotten stronger while the Cardinals, who actually won the division in 2015, and the Pirates, who finished second, are looking stagnant.

It stands to reason that Arrieta cannot repeat his Cy Young performance of last season (22-6, 1.77 E.R.A.), doesn’t it? Yet it did not look like that on Opening Day. Kris Bryant lived up to all of the hype with his rookie of the year performance and it seems safe to say that he will only improve, especially if they keep him at third base. Jorge Soler should also improve and he can’t even crack the starting lineup. Anthony Rizzo became the guy many people expected he would a few years ago—an MVP candidate. The biggest thing for this season, though, is the acquisition of Jason Heyward. This improves the Cubs while simultaneously hurting the Cardinals, for whom he had a healthy and very productive 2015. Heyward is the premier right fielder in baseball and he can back up Dexter Fowler in center field as needed. Kyle Schwarber is sort of the left handed version of old Cliff Johnson. He will not win a gold glove anywhere, but is an adequate catching backup who tortures right handed pitchers the way Johnson used to hurt lefties. The starting pitchers after Arrieta are not great, but John Lackey  and Jon Lester, the Steve Sax of pitchers, have lots of big game experience and the bullpen is deep and good.

Russell and old Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist make a very good combination up the middle and Javier Baez is there in case Zobrist has to play outfield or pitch or whatever. Miguel Montero did not look like his old self behind the plate last year but he is still better than most and just 32 years old.

Even though St. Louis won 100 games in 2015, dark clouds circled overhead and they appear to be lingering. Right handed ace starter Adam Wainwright was limited to 28 innings by injury, promising first baseman Matt Adams played only 60 games, and then their postseason was marred by a nasty  thumb injury to their MVP, catcher Yadier Molina. Now, Wainwright is back but  Lance Lynn, who started 31 games last season and was very good, is out for the year. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, no Marty Marion or Ozzie Smith, had good pop in his bat as usual last year but begins 2016 on the disabled list as does new backup to Molina Brayan Pena. However, the Cardinals proved last year what a deep and strong organization they have, so let’s not just write them off. Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk are young outfielders who helped a lot last year and could keep getting better. Matt Holliday is 36 years old and missed 89 games last year but perhaps he still has something left to give. Mike Matheny is the equal to Bruce Bochy in getting the most out of his roster so stay tuned.

Cincinnati was a win at home away from big things in 2012 and has faded far from that ever since.  The Brewers were contenders not that long ago but now , like Yahoo! , they are”rebuilding”. Pittsburgh won our hearts in 2013 by bursting into contention after a couple of decades of futility. The Pirates broke hearts with wild card game losses the past two seasons and still have a lot of good weapons, but postseason games may be out of reach in 2016 as they have seemed to level off.  The great Andrew McCutchen anchors both the offense and what is likely the best fielding outfield in the game. Gerrit Cole is a potential Cy Young award winner. Francisco Cervelli almost made Bucco fans forget Russell Martin. Tony Watson and Mark Melancon continue to be stellar out of the bullpen. Francisco Liriano gives excellent, if short, efforts as a veteran starting pitcher. Nevertheless, the overall depth doesn’t seem to be there. Winter arrivals Matt Joyce and David Freese do not hurt but neither do they strike fear into opponents,and a platoon of Michael Morse and John Jaso at first base will not fare much better than the departed Pedro Alvarez. The outfielders on either side of McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, have many good qualities but 55 walks versus 121 strikeouts (Polanco) and 27 walks versus 123 strikeouts (Marte) detract from their Hall of Fame potential. I’m not saying that they should be made over into Matty Alou, but that needs to get better because the Pirates’ pitching is not what it once was, unless suddenly Jeff Locke becomes consistent and the Pittsburgh coaches work some of their magic on veteran journeymen Ryan Vogelsong and Jon Niese. The infield defense will tend to make pitchers go for strikeouts.

National League Central was great fun last season. Let’s hope I’m wrong and it is again this year but I am afraid that I have jumped on that crowded Cubs bandwagon for now.

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