2016 National League Central Preview: A Title on the North Side?
Will the curse finally end in the north side of Chicago?
In 2015, Theo Epstein’s rebuild of the Cubs finally ended, and what appears to be a long run at the top began with an unexpected trip to the National League Championship series that saw the Cubs lose to the New York Mets.
Still, the Cubs will have to topple the Cardinals and the Pirates to capture the NL Central crown in 2016. The division is regarded by many as the most competitive division in baseball and will likely not be decided until late September.
How might things unfold in 2016?
1. Chicago Cubs
Projected Record: 89-73 (1st in NL Central)
Can a team this young handle expectations so high?
Last season, the Cubs saw Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell each make their Major League debuts and make an instant impact on the team. Considering the Cubs already had one of the best hitters in the game in first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the offseason additions of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward should make the Cubs one of the best all-around teams in the MLB.
However, the Cubs could be held back in 2016 if they do not resolve an issue that was exposed in last season’s playoff series against the Mets. The Cubs possessed the worst contact rate (74.8%) in baseball last season. In order for the Cubs to neutralize the power pitching they will likely encounter in October, they must find a way to put the ball in play more frequently or they will be exposed again in the playoffs.
The Cubs' pitching rotation will return reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, and newly signed John Lackey (who was signed away from the Cardinals this offseason). While it is unlikely that each of the Cubs' starters will make 30 or more starts this season, the organization has done a good job adding starting pitching depth in the event that a starter goes down.
The Cubs acquired Adam Warren from the Yankees this offseason in exchange for Starlin Castro. Warren will likely function as a swingman between the rotation and the bullpen depending on the Cubs' needs during the season
One strength that is often overlooked when talking about the Cubs -- between their strong pitching and powerful hitters -- is how strong defensively they performed as a team (particularly in the infield). Addison Russell (at both shortstop and second base) and Bryant, according to FanGraphs.com, each made strong defensive contributions in their rookie seasons, leading the Cubs in defensive runs saved (Russell 17.1; Bryant 7.1). Adding a premium defensive talent like Heyward (14) to right field should make a strength even stronger in 2016.
Most are fixated on Schwarber, Russell, Bryant, or Jorge Soler, but let’s review Jason Hammel’s tale of two halves. Hammel had an amazing first half in 2015, posting a 2.86 ERA, a 25.6% strikeout rate (K%), and a 4.4% walk rate (BB%). He limited batters to a .206/.251/.361 slash line. Through the first 103 innings of the season, Hammel looked nearly as good as Jake Arrieta (2.66 ERA in first half) did in 2015.
However, the second half of 2015 was as poor as the first half was good. Hammel was lit up over 67 innings to the tune of a 5.10 ERA and a slash line of .283/.341/.515. Despite the terrible results, Hammel still had pretty strong peripheral numbers, maintaining a 22.3 K% and 7.3 BB% in the second half.
Is there anything to explain Hammel’s poor second half?
Yes. Batters crushed Hammel's sinker in the second half of the season, his home run per fly ball ratio (HR/FB%) jumped from 10.2% in the first half to 16.9% in the second half, and opposing batters made hard contact 38.8% of the time in the second half rather than just 28.8% of the time in the first half.
The precipitous decline in Hammel’s effectiveness is reflected in the chart below, from BrooksBaseball.net, showing the month-to-month batting average against Hammel’s four-seam fastball and sinker. As you can see, when the sinker was bad so was the fourseam.
Hammel’s slider, while not a massive strikeout pitch, was very effective throughout the entire season and will play up in 2016 if Hammel is able to command his sinker and four-seam fastball like he did in the first half of 2015.
According to NFBC, Hammel is the 240th pick off the board in fantasy drafts. He is still an intriguing late-round flier for your fantasy staff.
2. Saint Louis Cardinals
Projected Record: 84-78 (2nd in the NL Central)
Ever watch the show The Tudors on Showtime? The Cardinals' offseason reminded me of Catherine of Aragon losing Henry VIII to the younger more enchanting woman, Anne Boleyn.
The offseason saw the Cardinals lose John Lackey and Jason Heyward to their arch nemesis -- the Chicago Cubs. Heyward, after spending the entire 2015 season learning the “Cardinal Way,” decided to spurn the Cardinals and sign with the Cubs for less money and more opt outs. Lackey couldn’t resist signing with the Cubs, despite having one of the best seasons of his career with the Cardinals in 2015. To top it all off, the Cardinals came in second to the Red Sox in the David Price sweepstakes. Pretty rough for a team coming off a 100-win season.
The Cardinals did go out and sign Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 million deal to the excitement of no one. Leake, who has been a very solid number-four starter during his career with the Reds and Giants will be plugged into Lackey’s old role.
The Cardinals offense in its current form is a blend of the old ( Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter) and the new (Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty). Carpenter, in 2015, stepped up as one of the game's premier third baseman, hitting .272/.365/.505.
The overall lineup on paper is nothing remarkable, considering no one left on the roster slugged more than .460 in 2015 or possessed a batting average of less than .251. It’s a lineup of productive, unsexy hitters with virtually no speed on the base-paths ( Kolten Wong is the returning stolen base leader with 15 in 2015) or major flaws in the assembly line. With the loss of Heyward at the top of the lineup and Molina regressing as a hitter, more will be needed from Wong, Grichuk, and Piscotty if the Cardinals expect to keep pace with the Pirates and Cubs this season.
That's why Piscotty could be the key to the Cardinals' season.
Last year, he slashed .305/.359/.494 with 7 home runs and a 139 wRC+ in 256 plate appearances in 2015. It appears that Piscotty has made some mechanical adjustments to tap into power that eluded him as a prospect. Piscotty is one of the few players in the game who is able distribute the ball to all fields.
|34.6 %||31.3 %||34.1 %|
Piscotty’s balanced approach should result in an above-average BABIP as he ages. Due to the high offensive standards set for corner outfielders and first basemen, it will be paramount for Piscotty to hit for average and maintain a high walk rate if he is unable to tap into his power completely. There is optimism around the baseball community that Piscotty will be able to hit between 17 and 22 home runs per season if his power and hit tool come together. We project him for 14 this season.
The narrative this offseason for the Cardinals has been that Wainwright will be the missing link that the Cardinals sorely needed against the Cubs in the playoffs. After missing nearly all of 2015, in addition to a strikeout rate that dropped 3% from 2013 to 2014, it will be interesting to see if Wainwright is able to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA in 2016. We project Wainwright to post a 3.47 ERA in 2016, which looks about right for a pitcher whose stuff was already in decline before the Achilles injury last year.
In addition to Wainwright, the quartet of Martinez, Wacha, Leake, and Garcia represent one of the strongest rotations in the National League when all are healthy (which is not a given).
If the Cardinals' young players are able to take small steps forward in their growth and the veterans are able to stay healthy and avoid falling too far down the aging curve, the Cardinals should once again be in position to make an October run.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Record: 82-80 (3rd in NL Central)
The Pirates went into the 2015 playoffs as the hottest team in baseball. After one game against the Cubs, they were unceremoniously dismissed from the playoffs, courtesy of a Jake Arrieta complete game shutout at PNC Park.
The Pirates' style of play is one of the most visually appealing in baseball. The trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are possibly the game’s most exciting outfield blend of speed, power, and athleticism. Any one of the three is capable of playing center field, which provides the Pirates quite a bit of flexibility and offers comfort to Pirates pitchers knowing that the outfield can track down shots into the gap or down the line.
|Player||2015 wOBA||2015 wRC+||2015 fWAR||2016 Steamer WAR Projection|
The Pirates made some small additions to the Major League roster this offseason, namely signing John Jaso to platoon with Mike Morse at first base, and trading away Neil Walker in exchange for three years of left-hander Jonathon Niese. The Pirates also added Neftali Feliz to provide bullpen depth behind closer Mark Melancon.
The Pirates' rotation is definitely missing some bite, even after acquiring Niese from the Mets in the offseason. Gerrit Cole is a bonafide ace, and Francisco Liriano is capable of shutting any team in baseball out on any given night, but the backend of Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jeff Locke leaves a lot to be desired. Pitching coach Ray Searage will really have to earn his paycheck for the Pirates to hold serve in a series against the Cubs or the Cardinals.
One impact player to watch for is Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates' fifth-round draft pick back in 2011. Glasnow is one of the most physically imposing pitchers in professional baseball, standing 6’8” and 225 pounds. Glasnow's height creates a natural plane for his fastball that lives in the mid-90s. Glasnow also features a really nice 12-to-6 curveball, which should help him keep hitters off balance at the plate. His third pitch is a fringy changeup.
Glasnow will need to make strides with the changeup to be an effective starter long-term, but in the short term, his command will be the greater concern when he is called up to the big leagues.
In 2015, Glasnow walked 12.6% of the batters he faced over 41 innings for Pirates Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis. It is hard to see the Pirates sticking with Vogelsong very long, as he has not posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2012 and is 38 years old. It would not be surprising if Glasnow is called up sometime in May to give the Pirates a shot in the arm. Given that they play in the same division as the Cardinals and Cubs, they need a bit more than just a shot to compete in the NL Central.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Record: 74-88 (4th in NL Central)
The Brewers barely edged out the Reds for fourth place in our projections.
Instead of going into the 2016 roster details, let’s analyze some of the offseason moves general manager David Stearns made to improve the organization’s long term health.
The first move of many was trading closer Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers in for infield prospect Javier Betancourt. There is no reason to pay a closer upwards of $10 million dollars when you are committing to rebuilding.
In return for K-Rod, the Brewers received a high-contact batter and solid defender in Betancourt, who is still several years away from the Major Leagues but could develop into a utility player who is capable of filling in anywhere in the infield.
The team also acquired Rymer Liriano, who was designated for assignment by the Padres, an ultimate buy-low in baseball. Liriano is a former top prospect who struggled in his first cup of coffee in the Big Leagues and then was pushed down the depth chart prior to last season when A.J Preller acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers to patrol the outfield in San Diego.
Liriano is still only 24 years old and will get a long opportunity with the Brewers to showcase his talents. If Liriano is able mature at the plate and tap into his power potential, this acquisition may be viewed as one of the best transactions of the offseason in a few years.
They traded outfielder Khristopher Davis to the Athletics in exchange for catching prospect Jacob Nottingham. By doing so, the Brewers exchanged current value in Khris Davis (who still has four years of team control) in exchange for future value in the form of Nottingham.
The Brewers were going to possess a very crowded outfield between Liriano, Davis, Ryan Braun, Domingo Santana, and prospects on the cusp of the Majors in Brett Phillips, and Michael Reed. Davis was expendable.
Nottingham is mostly noted for his ability to hit for power to all fields. He will likely start the 2016 season in Double-A, where will continue to develop defensively. It has been speculated that he will eventually have to move to first base due to his questionable receiving skills.
The Brewers parted ways with Segura, who never quite lived up to the billing he received when he came over in the Zack Greinke trade a few years ago.
In return, the Brewers received several years of team control over Chase Anderson, who possesses a great changeup and should be able to eat up innings for the Brewers at a time when they do not offer many high-end pitching prospects and will likely need someone to throw in many non-competitive innings over the next couple seasons.
The Brewers also received Isan Diaz, who won MVP of the Pioneer League while with the Diamondbacks. Diaz is a lottery ticket very much like Liriano and Nottingham but could potentially explode as a prospect as he makes his way through the minor leagues.
They signed first baseman Chris Carter. This is an obvious sign-and-flip situation for the Brewers. If Carter is able to regain his power in 2016, the Brewers will almost certainly trade him to a contender in need of a right-handed power bat before the deadline in exchange for a future asset. If he fails, the Brewers can simply cut him for relatively nothing.
The Brewers are likely to trade away Jonathan Lucroy at some point this season once they find the right deal on the table. Ryan Braun, due to a combination of his contract, PED issues, and injury history, will be much more challenging to trade in the near future. Despite the considerable turnover and uncompetitive roster, the Brewers' future appears bright because of their strongest asset, general manager David Stearns.
Because the season doesn't seem likely to end up with a playoff berth, Domingo Santana might be the story to watch.
Santana was acquired last July in the Carlos Gomez deal. Santana, in his 52-game audition, hit .238/.337/.431 for the Astros and the Brewers. Santana biggest issue is contact. In 2015, he posted a 67.7% contact rate. The Major League average was 78.9%.
Perhaps what is most concerning about Santana’s profile is he is not only swinging and missing at pitches outside of the zone but also swinging and missing at an alarmingly high number of pitches in the zone.
|Year||MLB Avg O-Contact%||Santana O-Contact%||MLB Avg Z-Contact%||Santana Z-Contact%|
O-Contact% takes is the percentage of pitches thrown outside the strike-zone that were contacted by the hitter’s bat, and Z-Contact% is the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike-zone that were contacted by the hitter’s bat.
As you can see from the table above, Santana is below Major League average in terms of outside the zone contact and zone contact, which will make it difficult for him to maintain success. Santana is young enough to make strides in this area (Astros' outfielder George Springer, prior to last season, had similar issues), and despite swinging and missing outside of the zone, he does not actually attempt to swing at pitches outside the zone that frequently (only 24.7% where the MLB average is 31.3%).
no hope for Domingo in 2016.
We project him for the following this year:
5. Cincinnati Reds
Projected Record: 73-89 (5th in NL Central)
The window has officially closed.
Heading into the 2015 season, the Reds' front office made the decision to make one last run for the playoffs. They came up about 40 games short of their target. Homer Bailey went down early in the season with Tommy John, Devin Mesoraco was lost for the season due to a hip injury, and Zack Cozart was lost for the season in June after sustaining a major knee injury. The firesale started in July and has not stopped.
Right fielder Jay Bruce is the next Red likely to be traded. Brandon Phillips has been unwilling to waive his no-trade clause even when presented with the opportunity to play for old Reds manager Dusty Baker in Washington. It will be interesting to see how this is received by fans, given the expectations for this team and the need to evaluate young position players, like Jose Peraza, who was acquired in the Frazier trade.
The Reds' lineup on opening day will consist of Joey Votto and seven other very flawed players. Unless traded during spring training, Phillips will man the keystone, and Bruce will still be in right field. Mesoraco had a spectacular 2014 season that saw him hit .273/.359/.534. It will be interesting to see what the Reds do with Mesoraco because he is signed through the 2018 season. Given that he should be entering his power peak, is still only 27 years old, and may not be a catcher much longer, it may be wise choice for the Reds to package him for prospects if he does regain 2014 form.
Centerfielder Billy Hamilton is entering his third full season in the Majors and has answered none of the questions about his bat that were raised when he was a prospect. Eugenio Suarez will likely see time at third base, shortstop, and left field after showing promise in the second half of last season. Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall, and Yorman Rodriguez will all also see time in the outfield, or at least until prospect Jesse Winker is called up.
The Reds' pitching staff, despite being quite young and inexperienced, may be the most intriguing area of the Major League roster. The Reds have Anthony DeSclafani returning from a strong rookie season that saw him make 31 starts and post a 3.1 fWAR. At some point in May, Homer Bailey should re-join the rotation. Given that Bailey is returning from Tommy John surgery and still has several expensive years left on his contract, he will likely be with the Reds through the entire rebuilding phase.
Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch on the Reds in 2016 is Raisel Iglesias. His 2015 marks show promise.
As you can see from the table above, Iglesias has a very high strikeout rate to go along with a league average walk rate. It will be interesting to see if Iglesias is able to make strides pitching out the stretch this season. In 2015, his LOB% was just above 70%. For a full fantasy breakdown check out Ben Bruno’s fantasy profile of Iglesias.
In addition to Iglesias, the Reds expect for heralded Robert Stephenson to make his Major League debut sometime this summer. Stephenson was the Reds' first-round draft pick back in 2011. He has an arsenal not all that dissimilar from Pirates prospect Tyler Glasnow, possessing a mid-90s fastball, a yellow-hammer curveball, and fringy changeup with minimal command. However, like Glasnow, if Stephenson is able to put it all together, the Reds should have one more piece set for their eventual return to contention.
Overall, the Reds will probably struggle to win more than 70 games this season, especially if they are able to move Bruce and Phillips at some point during the season.
Overall, the Cubs have to be seen as the heavy favorite in the division despite the strength of the Cardinals and Pirates. The Cubs have the best combination of hitting, pitching, defense, platoon options, and minor league depth -- as well as a front office prepared to do whatever it takes to win the division and go deep into October.
Our initial projections give the Cubs a 60.4% chance to win the division and a 9.8% chance to win the World Series.
The Cardinals and Pirates will likely battle it out for the two NL wild card spots. Our algorithm likes the Cardinals (45.1%) a bit more than the Pirates (31.8%) to make the playoffs this season. However, both of these teams have the talent and experience to go deep into the playoffs should they get into the postseason.
The Brewers and Reds will likely do all that they can to find a happy balance between developing young Major League talent and remain competitive for the number one overall pick in the 2017 amateur draft.