Don’t look now, but the St. Louis Cardinals are alive and well in the National League Central.
When the 2016 Major League Baseball season concluded, the Chicago Cubs were able to do something that no one in their current fan base had previously been able to enjoy. The Cubs World Series Championship marked the first time that they had won it all since 1908 and thus they became rock stars within the Windy City. Every place that the Cubs went they were adored and given the red carpet treatment. The love affair with the Cubs would continue this year in spring training as they were selling out the majority of their exhibition games. And when the regular season began last month, the Cubs were able to raise their World Series banner, while also receiving exquisite World Series rings. But one of the questions that I posed in my baseball preview for this year was whether or not that the Cubs would have a World Series hangover here in 2017; and right now it appears that they just might.
Through 43 games the Cubs find themselves with a record of 22-21 which is good for third place in the National League Central. And after the Cubs won a combined 200 games over the last two regular seasons, they are going to have to put in some work this time around.
The talent is still in place for the Cubs to be successful as they have the likes of starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and third baseman Kris Bryant who is the reigning National League MVP, while Joe Maddon is still the manager of this team. But after the Cubs spent this past winter hearing how good that they were from passers by along with the media constantly discussing them, they must now accept the fact that they’re going to play 162 World Series games this season just to make it back to the postseason.
In winning 103 games last year, the Cubs won the National League Central by 17.5 games, while they also went 50-25 within the division. This season the Cubs are 15-11 versus the N.L. Central and it appears that they’re going to be in for a dog fight as the teams within the division have improved in the hopes of overtaking Chicago.
The Cubs were able to win their series last week against the Cincinnati Reds whom they swept, but the same could not be said about their previous three series. The Cubs were swept at home by the New York Yankees, while they also dropped series’ versus the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals. And when you peel back the surface and take a look into the organs and infrastructure of the 2017 version of the Cubs, the key ingredient that is missing for them is hunger.
When Maddon joined the Cubs in 2015 after nine years as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, he was the perfect person to lead this team that was young, hungry, and playing with house money as they all were attempting to establish themselves.The Cubs were the sweethearts in 2015 as they secured a wild card berth and made it to the National League Championship Series before being swept by the New York Mets. The Cubs would use the loss to the Mets as hunger for last year, but where will that extra desire come from this year?
The Cubs team earned run average of 3.94 is fourth in the National League, but that number is deceiving. Arrieta is 5-3, but his earned run average is 4.80, and he has been unable to get past the sixth inning in any start since April 9 as this is a far cry from a man who won the N.L. Cy Young Award in 2015. Starting pitcher Jon Lester was 19-5 last year with an earned run average of 2.44, but this time around he is 2-2 with an ERA of 3.57. In allowing relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to leave as a free agent to re-join the Yankees, the Cubs didn’t skip a beat as they acquired relief pitcher Wade Davis from the Kansas City Royals. Davis already has 9 saves, but he could have more if the Cubs starters were handing him the ball with a lead in the ninth inning.
The Cubs offense is surprisingly a middle of the pack unit in spite all of their firepower. Last year the Cubs were the modern day Murderers’ Row as they decimated opposing pitching staffs. Bryant is off to another solid start as he is batting .296 with 10 home runs and 22 runs batted in. Rizzo has 8 homers and his 24 runs batted in lead the team. However Rizzo has not been consistent at the plate which is illustrated in his .222 batting average. Outfielder Kyle Schwarber is a power threat, but his batting average is south of .200. The Cubs are not getting quality production from youngsters such as infielder Addison Russell who is only batting .216, while even a dependable veteran in utility man Ben Zobrist has yet to get it going as he is only batting .252. And after the Cubs gave outfielder Jason Heyward $184 million over eight years, his signing could be one of the worst free agency deals in the franchise’s history as the oft-injured right fielder is only batting .255 with 3 homers and 17 runs batted in this season.
But little did we know of the impact that outfielder Dexter Fowler had on the Cubs lineup over the last two years. Fowler was the Cubs table setter over the last two seasons, however Chicago allowed him to hit free agency and he joined the rival Cardinals, while leaving Chicago without a guy to generate some life for their offense which is showing up this season.
The Cubs are in third place in the National League Central, but they aren’t far off of the pace as they’re only 2.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs definitely have a run in them due to the fact that at some point their offense should be able to get clicking and the same is true in regards to their starting pitching staff. And even if the Cubs can’t get it going, I expect their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein to use all of his resources to make deals in order to get this team back to the postseason.
The taste of victory was very sweet for the Cubs last year, but now that their appetite has been satisfied, will they have enough left for another helping of success this season?
X-Chicago Cubs 101-61
Life is good right now for the Chicago Cubs as they are set to embark on the 2017 Major League Baseball season. The Cubs are fresh off of winning their first World Series Championship since 1908, and the bad news for the rest of the National League is they might not be slowing down anytime soon.
The Cubs won the World Series with a solid blend of youngsters and veteran players as this team was skillfully crafted by their president of baseball operations in Theo Epstein. Epstein began the process of building the Cubs at the conclusion of the 2011 Major League Baseball season as he inherited a team that was one of the league’s bottom feeders. And in less than five years Epstein was able to lead the Cubs to World Series glory.
The Cubs possess arguably the best infield combination that Major League Baseball has seen since the 1970’s when the Los Angeles Dodgers had Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, and Steve Garvey, or the Cincinnati Reds of that same era with Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose. And heading into a new season, this unit will once again be the fuel of the Cubs engine.
It hasn’t taken third baseman Kris Bryant that long to establish himself as one of the game’s top players as in just two seasons, he has already been named as the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2015, while he took home N.L. MVP honors last year. Bryant is only 25-years of age and already he has become a household name as he batted .292 with 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in. Bryant’s swing is extremely effortless as he can carry the Cubs lineup for weeks at a time. And if Bryant were to somehow slip, he can lean on Rizzo right behind him in the Cubs lineup.
Like Bryant, first baseman Anthony Rizzo batted .292 while he launched 32 home runs and drove in 109 runs. Together Rizzo and Bryant give the Cubs two of the best power bats in the National League, while giving the fans on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues plenty to cheer about.
Russell was able to hit 21 home runs last season, but he must improve his batting average which was only at .238 last season, while he also needs to cut down on the errors at shortstop where he committed 14.
Second baseman Ben Zobrist is in the midst of his second tour of duty under manager Joe Maddon as these two helped the Tampa Bay Rays win the American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist brings a good presence to a locker room, and more importantly he knows how to win. In 2015, Zobrist was traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Kansas City Royals and he was vital in their winning the World Series. Zobrist would then become an unrestricted free agent and as he signed with Cubs, he batted .357 in the Fall Classic which led to him being the World Series MVP. And even though that Zobrist will be 36-years of age in May, expect him to once again have a solid impact on this Cubs team.
The Cubs lost outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency as he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, but they won’t skip a beat as they brought outfielder Jon Jay on board. Jay knows a thing or two about winning as he helped the Cardinals win the World Series Title in 2011, and he fits into that mode of those scrappy players that are willing to do anything to win which is something that every championship team needs.
Outfielder Jason Heyward needs to put his disappointing 2016 campaign behind him as he was only able to bat .230 with 7 homers and 49 runs batted in after signing a huge contract in free agency. The last two years have seen Kyle Schwarber be a man without a position as the Cubs haven’t committed to him as a catcher, while they’ve stuck him in left field. Schwarber has been like a deer in the headlights in the outfield, but as he plenty of pop in his bat, Maddon must find a place for him in this lineup.
The Cubs starting rotation is an embarrassment of riches as each starter has the potential to win at least 15 games. For the second time in the Major League Baseball career of starting pitcher Jon Lester, he won 19 games, and as he has a potent lineup to work with, he’ll still be one of the better pitchers in the National League. The last two years have seen starting pitcher Jake Arrieta combine to win 40 games. And with Arrieta scheduled to become a free agent at the end of this season, he should be locked in on the mound. The win total of starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks has increased in each of his three MLB seasons, and the sky is the limit for him after he won 16 games last year which included him leading the N.L. in earned run average at 2.13. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel has been a journeyman in MLB, but he’s coming off of his first 15-win campaign, while veteran starting John Lackey rounds out a staff that’ll it be tough to get wins against.
As a unit the Cubs led the National League in team earned run average at 3.15 last season and their bullpen will once again be difficult to deal with. Relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman came up big for the Cubs in their run to the World Series Championship. But when Chapman hit free agency and his asking price was too high for Chicago, Epstein got creative as he traded outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for relief pitcher Wade Davis.
Davis is another former Rays player who was under Maddon, and after arms issues took away his usefulness as a starter, he has been valuable in the bullpen. Davis was lights out for the Royals in their run to the World Series Championship in 2015, and he gives Maddon a very reliable arm to close out games.
The Cubs should expect to get every team’s best punch this season due to the fact that they are the defending champs. And unless the Cubs have themselves a World Series hangover, expect this team to be right back in the hunt to go all the way.
St. Louis Cardinals 87-75
Make no mistake about it that the St. Louis Cardinals are one of Major League Baseball’s most consistent teams. Since 2000, the Cardinals have reached the postseason 12 times, while they have a pair of World Series Championships to their credit during this span. But the Cards will enter the 2017 Major League Baseball in an unfamiliar spot as they missed the postseason for the first time since 2010, however they can take solace in knowing that the last time this happened, they would win it all in the following season.
Mike Matheny is set to begin his sixth year as the manager of the Cardinals and he’s never had a losing record. For 13 years Matheny was a Major League Baseball catcher which included a five-year stint with the Cards. And that knowledge of the game has helped Matheny have success in St. Louis. What has also helped Matheny is that he can rely on one of the best catchers in MLB to lead the Cardinals pitching staff.
The last 13 Major League Baseball seasons have seen catcher Yadier Molina control things behind the plate for St. Louis. Molina is one of the best in the business as far as calling a game for the Cardinals pitching staff, while his defensive skills are second to none. Molina has been known to throw out runners who are attempting to steal on him from his knees, while he can catch players napping at first base. Molina is a lifetime .285 hitter that always tends to get the clutch hit, and the age of 34 with him set to crack the Cardinals top 20 list for all-time wins above replacement as he’s currently at 33, it’s time to give him serious consideration to one day be enshrined into Cooperstown.
Molina’s ability to call a game will come in handy for a Cardinals pitching staff that is seeking to get back on track. Last year the Cards team earned run average of 4.08 was seventh in the National League which was a drop from where this staff has typically been in recent years.
In the off-season Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed starting pitcher Carlos Martinez to a five-year extension that is worth $51 million. Martinez is coming off of a 16-win campaign and he can be the future of the Cards rotation if he learns how to consistently bring it every fifth day. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright might no longer be looked at as a National League Cy Young Award candidate, but even the age of 35, he is still a quality hurler that is capable of winning 15 games. And although that there are question marks surrounding both Martinez and Wainwright, there are even bigger ones in regards to starting pitchers Mike Leake and Michael Wacha who have been up and down just like the stock market.
Last year would see relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal lose his status as the Cardinals closer to Seung-hwan Oh. After saving 19 games and posting an earned run average of 1.92, Oh should once again be the incumbent to get the baseball from Matheny heading into the ninth inning. But if Rosenthal is able to regain the magic that saw him combine to save 93 games in 2014 and 2015, it will add depth to the bullpen in St. Louis.
Offensively the Cardinals finished third in runs scored in the National League with 779. The injury bug really got the best of St. Louis in 2016 as only two everyday players were able to appear in at least 135 games which means that there is some optimism around this squad if they can remain healthy.
After languishing with the San Diego Padres for three years, second baseman Jedd Gyorko appears to have found a home in St. Louis. Gyorko led the Cards in home runs last season with 30 which was also a career-high for him as he appears to be another player who has bought into the “Cardinal Way”. Three of the last four years have seen infielder Matt Carpenter be an All-Star as he is one of the scrappiest players in baseball. There’s absolutely nothing that stands out about Carpenter’s ability, but he is one of Major League Baseball’s hardest workers which has allowed him to become a cornerstone in St. Louis.
Outfielder Randal Grichuk has worked his way up through the Cardinals system and after his 24 homers last year, he could be in the mix to be an All-Star in 2017. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty was the Cardinals first round choice in 2012 and he is beginning to come into his own as he hit 22 home runs, while batting .273, and driving in 85 runs last season. And just like Grichuk, Piscotty could flirt with being an All-Star this year as both players, along with the newest Cardinal in Dexter Fowler give St. Louis plenty of range in the outfield defensively.
After the Cards missed out on the playoffs last year, I expect this organization to put forth the effort to get back to the postseason while pushing the Cubs in the National League Central.
Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78
From 2013-2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a level of success that they had been denied for a very long time. The Pirates enjoyed winning baseball for the first time since the early 1990’s which also saw them postseason bound. But 2016 would be a different story in Pittsburgh as the Pirates took a step back as they limped to the finish line with a record of 78-83.
A big reason for the Pirates struggles last season was that center fielder Andrew McCutchen had a down year. McCutchen batted a career-low .256 which is a far cry from a player who won the National League MVP Award in 2013. This off-season has seen the Pirates front office flirt with the notion of trading McCutchen which has yet to happen. But where there is smoke, there is also fire, and I do believe that McCutchen’s time with the Pirates in winding down. However if things are able to be smoothed over between McCutchen and the Pirates, this outfield has the makings of one of the better units in the N.L.
Outfielder Gregor Polanco continues to emerge as a solid contributor after he hit a career-high 22 homers last season for the Pirates. Polanco also continues to flash the leather in the outfield, and if he’s able to get his batting average up, he should be able to increase his impact for the Bucs. Outfielder Starling Marte’s power numbers may have dipped last season, but he has become more of a consistent hitter at the plate with a batting average of .311, along with an on-base percentage of .362. And if Polanco is able to have a good balance this season between his power and consistency at the plate, the Pirates will be in business.
The Pirates pitching staff also needs to rebound after a down 2016. The Pirates team earned run average of 4.21 was ninth in the National League as they were ravaged by injuries.
No Pirates starter was able to make at least 22 starts last season and led by starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, this aspect must change if the Bucs want to flirt with getting a playoff berth. Cole won 19 games in 2015 and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. But Cole was never able to recover from going over the 200-inning plateau in 2015 for the first time his career as this will be something that Pittsburgh must monitor this season.
Along with Cole, there are nothing but question marks on the Pirates pitching staff which has the look of being held together by spit and glue.
With the National League Central expected to be a battle between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, it will be hard for the Pirates to not get lost in the shuffle within the division.
Milwaukee Brewers 70-92
With the recent success in the National League Central of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers have become a forgotten franchise. The Brewers have failed to make the postseason since 2011 as they are a middle of the pack team. The Brewers currently find themselves in a rebuilding process while they also have some aging players on their roster which doesn’t leave that much room for optimism heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season.
After taking over midway through the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Craig Counsell is set to begin his second full season as Brewers manager. The Brewers embody the kind of player that Counsell was during 15-year MLB playing career as they are a scrappy bunch that doesn’t mind being the underdogs. But does Milwaukee have a legitimate shot to be a postseason team in 2017?
As Brewers general manager David Stearns has spent the last year trading away most of the quality players, the 2017 team in Milwaukee will be unrecognizable to the casual baseball fan.
Utility man Chris Carter led the National League in home runs last year 41. However the Brewers elected to not bring him back as he joined the New York Yankees which leaves a hole in their lineup. The Brewers still have outfielder Ryan Braun who in spite of the fact that he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs earlier his career, is still one of the better players in the National League. At the age of 32, Braun was able to bat .305 last season, while hitting 30 homers. I was shocked to see that the Brewers have yet to trade Braun as he could be very beneficial to a contender. But in the interim Braun gives Milwaukee a solid veteran in the middle of their lineup as they look to stay afloat.
One building block that the Brewers do have for the future is infielder Jonathan Villar. After being acquired from the Houston Astros, Villar was able to lead the National League in stolen bases last year with 62 as the Brewers appear to have themselves a table setter going forward.
The Brewers pitching staff only managed to get 62 quality starts last season which was 13th in the National League and there isn’t much optimism heading into the new campaign. No Brewers pitcher last season was able to throw at least 200 innings which included starting pitcher Zach Davies who led this staff with just 11 wins. And as the Brewers don’t have a prototypical ace to rely on, it will be difficult for this team to be a contender.
More than likely the Brewers won’t be a playoff team in 2017, but they will be scrappy.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
It’s no secret that the Cincinnati Reds are in rebuilding mode as the last few years have seen them become an afterthought in the National League Central. The Reds are coming off of consecutive 90-loss seasons for the first time since 1934 and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for the current baseball futility in Southern Ohio. Manager Bryan Price is set to begin his third season as Reds manager and as he has spent the last two years on the hot seat, he could become the scapegoat if Cincinnati is unable to get it turned around.
Two of the bright spots on the Reds roster for the upcoming season are outfielder Adam Duvall and first baseman Joey Votto. Last year saw Duvall become an overnight sensation as he batted .297 with 33 home runs 103 runs batted in which led to his first All-Star Game appearance. This was Duvall’s first opportunity to become an everyday player and now it is time to see if he is ready to turn the corner and put these numbers up consistently. During the past ten years Votto has gone about his business and been the face of the franchise for the Reds as his offensive numbers put him in the mix with some of the greats who have played for this franchise. After a down 2014, Votto has once again found his groove at the plate as the former National League MVP is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball.
But as the Reds are rebuilding, it will be interesting to see how much longer that Votto will be in Cincinnati. Votto is still owed nearly $200 million on his contract which runs through 2024 and at some point you have to expect Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams to move his All-Star to a contender which would be beneficial to all parties involved.
After appearing in 159 games last season, third baseman Eugenio Suarez could be ready to become a breakout player in Cincinnati. Like Duvall, Suarez has finally gotten a consistent chance to show what he can do and he could be one of the centerpieces of the Reds rebuild. Suarez is only 25-years of age and after hitting a career-high 21 homers last season, opponents have to pay more attention to him.
But as the Reds lineup could be fun to watch, their pitching staff will once again have some questions. Last season the Reds were 14th in the National League in team earned run average (4.91), and 10th in quality stars with 67.
Starting pitcher Dan Straily led the Reds in victories last season with 14, but he was traded to the Miami Marlins in January. Starting pitcher Brandon Finnegan emerged on the Major League Baseball scene in the 2014 playoffs when he helped the Kansas City Royals win the American League Pennant. But after Finnegan was traded to the Reds, his role has been shifted to that of a starter. Finnegan does have an electric fastball, and if he is able to reach the 200-inning mark this season, there is a possibility that he could also strike out 200 batters.
As the Reds more than likely will fall short of making the postseason here in 2017, I doubt that Price will be able to save his job. However the problems in Cincinnati are bigger than Price as this organization has become a train wreck.
The calendar has yet to shift to the month of September, but you can all but pencil in the Chicago Cubs for a second consecutive trip to the postseason. From 2010-2014, the Cubs endured five losing seasons which included them dropping 101 games in 2012. But last year under the guidance of former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs took the field with young phenoms such as third baseman Kris Bryant, and first baseman Anthony Rizzo as they won 97 games en route to a berth in the National League Championship Series. And although that the Cubs fell short of making the World Series last October, they entered 2016 as one of the favorites to get there, while they are doing their part to meet the expectations.
The Cubs began this year with a record of 27-8 as they’ve been the team to beat in the National League. At the All-Star break, the Cubs were 53-35 and their entire infield were voted as starters for the Midsummer Classic. The second half of the MLB season has seen the Cubs once again catch fire as they are 29-10 and they haven’t lost more than two games in a row since July 9. And as the Cubs are currently 83-47, they’ve secured their second consecutive winning season, while they have a nice cushion to work with in the N.L. Central as the St. Louis Cardinals who are 14 games back with just 35 games remaining are their closest competition. The Cubs have to feel good about themselves as they are clicking on all cylinders with an eye on reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945, and winning it all which would be the organization’s first since 1908.
The Cubs turnaround began when Theo Epstein became the team’s president of baseball operations. In October 2011, Epstein joined the Cubs after a successful run as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox which included winning a pair of World Series Championships. Epstein got the Cubs back to the basics which meant rebuilding the organization’s minor-league system through trades and drafting. Within three months with the Cubs, Epstein acquired Rizzo from the San Diego Padres in a deal that saw him part with the likes of starting pitcher Andrew Cashner. In 2013, Epstein would acquire starting pitcher Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles, and in that same year, he would use the second overall pick of the Major League Baseball Draft on Bryant. In 2014, Bryant made a blockbuster trade with the Oakland Athletics that saw the Cubs receive infielder Addison Russell as he parted with starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija. And just like it was in the film Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come” as that is what Epstein has done with the Cubs.
When Epstein first arrived in Chicago, the Cubs were an organization in disarray that nobody from the outside wanted to touch with a 10-foot pole. But by the end of the 2014 Major League Baseball season, people that were associated with the sport were more than willing to catch a flight to O’Hare International Airport as the Cubs bandwagon began to grow.
Once Maddon had opted out of his contract with the Rays, he was more than willing to talk turkey with Epstein after they had battled each other in the American League East. Maddon’s style of keeping a clubhouse loose while also developing the young and talented Cubs roster was important. And once the Cubs began to show their potential last year, so did the baseball world. Last off-season the Cubs signed outfielder Jason Heyward and second baseman Ben Zobrist to contracts to give Chicago one of the deepest lineups in baseball. The Cubs also signed veteran starting pitcher John Lackey, and last month, flame throwing relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman was acquired from the New York Yankees to give Chicago a lights out closer that will be vital in the playoffs.
Now the Cubs have everything in place to make a run at the World Series as they have a powerful lineup that puts pressure on opposing pitchers. So far this year the Cubs are second in the National League in runs scored (663), third in slugging percentage (.434), and fifth in home runs (165). Bryant is becoming the superstar that most people expected him to be as he is batting .303 with 35 home runs and 89 runs batted in as he is on pace to become the first Cubs players to be named the N.L.’s MVP since Sammy Sosa in 1998. Rizzo isn’t that shabby either as he is batting .297 with 25 homers and 91 runs batted in. And the combination of Rizzo and Bryant fits right into a city such as Chicago that is very familiar with great sports tandems such as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Arrieta is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and although that he more than likely won’t win 22 games like he did in 2015, he still leads the N.L. in wins with 16 as he is one of the few bona fide aces in baseball.
There’s a buzz around the Cubs that hasn’t been there for quite some time as this team’s fan base travels well on the road, while there isn’t an empty seat to find at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The Cubs are on pace for their first 100-win season since 1935, but this team will be defined by whether or not that they’ll be able to get those 11 victories in October that have eluded them for more than 100 years.
The Chicago Cubs have been romanticized in books, on television, the internet, and overall fandom. The Cubs have played their home games at Wrigley Field since 1916 as the park itself is a national treasure. But more than anything the Cubs have been deemed as the “loveable losers” of professional sports as this organization has not won the World Series since 1908, while they’ve failed to advance to the Fall Classic itself since 1945. And the Cubs have had their fare share of heartache which includes blowing the lead in the National League East in 1969 to the New York Mets, failing to win the National League Championship Series in 1984 after defeating the San Diego Padres in the first two games of the series, and of course blowing the NLCS in 2003 after taking a 3-1 series lead over the Florida Marlins. In 2008, the Cubs won 97 games which was their best season since 1945. But in spite of the Cubs having home-field advantage that October in the NL, they were swept in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But after that foray in the postseason, things would change drastically for the Cubs. In the summer of 2009, the Cubs were sold to the Ricketts family after the team was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Cubs roster would be gutted as by the 2011, they had lost 91 games. Following the 2011 Major League Baseball season, Theo Epstein would resign as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox to become the Cubs president of baseball operations. Epstein’s arrival in Chicago was met with a ton of excitement as he was the architect that helped the Red Sox win a pair of World Series Titles while ending the organization’s 86-year drought of not winning it all.
Upon joining the Cubs, Epstein would bring his assistant general manager with the Red Sox in Jed Hoyer to the Chicago to be the team’s new general manager. The duo of Epstein and Hoyer had a philosophy of starting over from scratch which meant developing the Cubs minor-league system. In 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games for the first time since 1966, which was followed by a 96-loss campaign in 2013. Over this stretch the only thing that Epstein and Hoyer did to waver from their strategy was replacing managers as in 2013, Dale Sveum got the ax as the Cubs skipper, while his replacement Rick Renteria would only last one year on the North Side of Chicago.
Both firings were surprising, but in Renteria’s case, the market for managers changed following the 2014 Major League Baseball season when Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. Maddon had tremendous success with the Rays which included leading the team to five playoff appearances in a six-year span, and the organization’s only American League Pennant in 2008. On November 2, 2014, the Cubs named Maddon as their new manager and immediately the tenor of the team changed as Epstein’s plan was beginning to come together.
Maddon inherited a young team with the Cubs, in the mode that he did with the Rays. The Cubs had lost 89 games in 2014, but they were still expected to possibly contend for a playoff berth in 2015. The youngsters for the Cubs such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant would live up to their potential and then some as Chicago would win 97 games en route to their first playoff appearance since 2008. The Cubs took home a ton of individual hardware as Maddon was named the National League’s Manager of the Year, while Bryant was the NL Rookie of the Year, and starting pitcher Jake Arrieta was named the NL Cy Young Award winner.
But as good as the Cubs were, they could not win the National League Central as that honor went to the St. Louis Cardinals who won 100 games. The NL Central was so tightly contested that the Cubs finished in third place in the division behind the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubs would defeat the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game before taking down the Cards in the NLDS. But the Cubs ran into a buzzsaw in the NLCS as they were swept by the New York Mets. However that didn’t stop the Cubs who still had high hopes with their core of youngsters heading into 2016.
Over the winter, the Cubs would sign veteran starting pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward away from the rival Cardinals, while it was a Tampa Bay reunion when utility man Ben Zobrist came to Chicago fresh off helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. The Cubs entered the 2016 Major League Baseball season with a loaded team that is living up to the lofty expectations that were thrust onto them.
Through 36 games the Cubs record of 27-9 is the best in Major League Baseball while they have already distanced themselves from the pack in the National League Central as the second-place Pirates are 8 games behind them.
The Cubs began 2016 by sweeping the Los Angeles Angels and they have yet to lose more than two games in a row all season long. Within the National League Central, the Cubs are 15-3 while they’ve only lost one series this season. The Cubs already have an eight-game winning streak under their belts as they’re not only well on their way to winning 100 games, but they could also become the first Cubs team to win at least 105 games since the 1907 Cubs who won 107 games en route to winning the World Series. And of course this start by the Cubs has people in the Windy City thinking about the Fall Classic and rightfully so.
Last year the Cubs pitching staff was soley Arrieta, but things are different this year. Even though that Arrieta is 7-0 with an earned run average of 1.29, he is not the only Cubs starting pitcher that is currently sporting and ERA below 2.00. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel is 5-0 with an earned run average of 1.77 while Jon Lester is 4-2 with an ERA of 1.88. And for Lackey, he is 4-2 with an earned run average of 3.54. The Cubs team earned run average of 2.66 is the best in the National League, and if their pitching wasn’t enough, opponents still have to contend with their lineup.
The Cubs offense is leading the National League in runs scored (213), runs batted in (202), and on-base percentage (.370) as there is not a soft spot in this lineup. Rizzo is leading the Cubs in home runs with 11, while Zobrist and outfielder Dexter Fowler are each sporting batting averages above .300. After the slow start by Bryant, he is getting it going as he’s batting .275 with 6 home runs and 25 runs batted in. Injuries had slowed down Heyward upon his arrival to the Cubs, however he is currently sporting a seven-game hitting streak which has seen his batting average jumps 24 points to .236. And after finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward has shown that he is at his best when he is a part of a deep lineup that takes pressure off of him.
The success of the Cubs has some people believing that Epstein could be the best executive in Major League Baseball right now as he has not only set the Cubs up to win right now, but also for the foreseeable future. There have been renovations to Wrigley Field which has made it more modern, while the Cubs are enjoying life with their new television deal. And what the hot start by the Cubs has done is that is gives Epstein the opportunity to sit back and evaluate his team in the case of making a minor tweak at the trade deadline which could make this team that much more dangerous in October.
The Cubs transformation is the shining example of what happens when companies put the right people in place to succeed. Epstein was given free reign to build this team, and he got himself a manager in Maddon that knows how to develop young players while keeping the atmosphere in the clubhouse loose. And now what the Cubs have is a team that enjoys coming to the ballpark on a daily basis, while their opponents dread it being that this roster doesn’t have any soft spots. The Cubs are expected to go wire-to-wire in the National League Central as they’ve established themselves as the team to beat. Now it just a matter of whether or not they’ll be able to do what no Cubs team has done since 1908, which is to win it all and “reverse the curse”.
X-Chicago Cubs 95-67 (1)
2015 was a magical year for the Chicago Cubs as they became the talk of Major League Baseball. Under the watch of manager Joe Maddon, the young Cubs exceeded many expectations as they won 97 games in the regular season while they also won their first playoff series since 2003. But in the National League Championship Series, the power bats of the Cubs were shut down by the dominant starting pitching of the New York Mets. And although that the Cubs are still one of the younger teams in MLB, they feel that that they have everything in place to win the World Series for the first time since 1908.
Last season the Cubs had one of the top power lineups in the National League as they were fifth in home runs with 171 and the long ball will once again be en vogue for the North Siders. Aside from being the starting corner infielders for the Cubs, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and third baseman Kris Bryant have become the cornerstones of this lineup. Last season Rizzo and Bryant combined to hit 57 home runs with Bryant being named as the NL Rookie of the Year. Bryant did this in spite of missing the first few weeks of the 2015 Major League Baseball season as the Cubs held him back in the minors, but this combination gives Chicago one of the best three-four tandems in baseball. And what makes it even scarier is that Rizzo is only 26-years of age while Bryant is just 23.
Aside from Bryant and Rizzo, the Cubs have more young talent in their lineup with the likes of second baseman Addison Russell and catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber is a catcher by trade, but his power bat made it tough for Maddon to take him out of the lineup as he hit 16 home runs in just 69 games. With Miguel Montero and David Ross splitting time at catcher for the Cubs, Schwarber was put in left field which was a train wreck for the Cubs as he was new to the position and he quickly became a defensive liability which really showed up when they lost to the Mets in the National League Championship Series. This season however, you can expect to see Schwarber start games for the Cubs, but he will definitely be pulled in favor of a better defender in late-inning situations.
But the already potent Cubs lineup added some pop this off-season with the addition of second baseman Ben Zobrist and outfielder Jason Heyward. After helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last October, Zobrist joined the Cubs as a free agent when both parties agreed on a four-year, $56 million deal in December. Zobrist is an Illinois native while he played under Maddon with the Tampa Bay Rays which included the franchise’s only American League Pennant in 2008. Zobrist will primarily be used at second base, but he is utility player that can play all three outfield positions along with most positions on the infield. At the plate Zobrist is a contact hitter that has a career on-base percentage of .355 while he his also one of the toughest players to strike out in baseball.
The rich got richer when the Cubs were able to lure Heyward to the Windy City. Heyward spent the first five years of his Major League Baseball career with the Atlanta Braves where he finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. Last year Heyward was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and he appeared to fit in there. But even though that the Cardinals offered Heyward more money in free agency, he decided to join the Cubs which should add more fuel to one of the oldest MLB rivalries. What Heyward gives the Cubs is a solid defender in right field as he is a three-time NL Gold Glove winner while he provides even more depth in their lineup.
As good as the Cubs lineup can be, their starting pitching staff isn’t that shabby either. Last year Cubs team earned run average of 3.36 was third in the National League as they were led by starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had a breakout season in 2015 as he won 22 games to become the first Cubs pitcher since Greg Maddux in 1992 to be named as the National League Cy Young Award winner. Over the second half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, Arrieta was unhittable as he finished the year with an earned run average of 1.77 and you just have to wonder if he’ll be able to do it again. Behind Arrieta, the Cubs have veteran starting pitchers in John Lackey and Jon Lester as their postseason experience should pay dividends for the North Siders in crucial situations.
The Cubs will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season on the West Coast with a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels which will be followed by a four-game trip to the desert where they’ll face the Arizona Diamondbacks. And even in the Cubs don’t get off to a fast start, this is a team that has been constructed by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer that has the look of a contender for a very long time.
Y-Pittsburgh Pirates 89-73 (4)
The last three Major League Baseball seasons have seen the Pittsburgh Pirates be one of the better teams in the league, but success in the postseason has eluded them. The Pirates have been unable to win the National League Central as they’ve been unable to get over the hump in the division that is the St. Louis Cardinals. And now the Bucs find themselves sandwiched in the NL Central between the veteran Cardinals and the upstart Chicago Cubs, which has led to them getting overlooked somewhat in Western Pennsylvania. The Pirates are coming off of their best regular season since 1991 as they won 98 games, but they couldn’t win the NL Central due to the fact that the Cards won 100 games. The Pirates then hosted the NL Wild Card Game which they lost for a second consecutive year as it was the Cubs that ended their season. And as the 2016 MLB season is right around the corner, you can expect the Pirates to have a bad taste in their mouths.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle can be viewed as miracle worker as he has changed the culture in Pittsburgh during his five years there. Prior to Hurdle’s arrival in 2011, the Pirates had not had a winning season since 1992. But now the Pirates are a team that expects to contend for the World Series every year which can also be attributed to the fact that team general manager Neal Huntington has done a good job in giving Hurdle the talent on the field that can produce a winner.
Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen got off to a slow start in 2015 which also hurt Pittsburgh in the standings, but he still rallied to bat .296 with 23 home runs and 96 runs batted in. McCutchen is a former National League MVP and you can expect him to once again be in the conversation for the award in 2016. In seven years with the Pirates, McCutchen has undoubtedly become the face of the franchise. McCutchen is currently 14th on the Pirates all-time WAR list at 38, and a solid campaign in 2016 could see him surpass legends such as Ralph Kiner in the category.
Aside from McCutchen, the Pirates have some young talent in their outfield in Gregor Polanco and Starling Marte. Marte is coming off of winning a Gold Glove Award for the first time in his career and he could be a player that might flirt with being an All-Star this year. Like Marte, Polanco is a solid defender, but he is a player that must develop more plate discipline as he struck out 121 times last year.
The Pirates felt that they were not going to be able to sign second baseman Neil Walker to a long-term deal and thus they traded him over the winter to the New York Mets in exchange for starting pitcher Jon Niese. Walker was a solid all-around player for the Pirates, but the team was ready to move on as they have faith in their middle infielders consisting of Sean Rodriguez, Jung-ho Kang, and Jordy Mercer to get the job done up the middle.
The Pirates enjoyed the second best team earned run average in the National League and they’ll need more of the same in 2016 if they expect to be a contender. Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole is set to embark on his fourth Major League Baseball season and he’s showing all of the promise the made him the first overall pick of the draft in 2011. Cole is coming off a 19-win season and he has given Pittsburgh a bona fide ace for the first time since the days of Doug Drabek. Behind Cole in the Pirates starting rotation, there will be a veteran presence with Francisco Liriano, Ryan Vogelson, and Niese while relief pitcher Mark Melancon is looking to follow up his stellar 2015 campaign as he set a single-season franchise record in saves with 51.
The Pirates will begin the 2016 Major League Baseball season against their nemesis in the Cardinals. And if Pittsburgh is able to handle their business against the Cards, it could set the tone for them for the entire campaign.
Y-St. Louis Cardinals 88-74 (5)
In 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games, but when the postseason rolled around, they didn’t have the feel of a dominant team as the injuries that they were able to overcome in the regular season finally caught up to them in playoffs where they lost to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Divisional Series. And whereas the NL Central could once again be the toughest division in Major League Baseball in 2016, the Cardinals don’t want to get lost in the shuffle behind the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Since 2000, the Cardinals have only had one losing season and over that stretch they’ve won a pair of World Series Championships. One player that has been with the Cards for a good portion of that success has been catcher Yadier Molina. Molina has been the Cardinals starting catcher since 2004 and he’s developed into one of the best catchers in Major League Baseball as he is a defensive wizard behind the plate while also making the lives of his starting pitchers easier due to his ability to call games. But late in the 2015 MLB season, Molina suffered a thumb injury late in the regular season that limited his effectiveness along with hindering the chances for St. Louis to be successful in the postseason. Molina has undergone several thumb procedures which could see him miss the start of the 2016 MLB season as he recovers. And if Molina isn’t ready to go at the start of the season, it will put the Cardinals in a bind.
Last off-season, the Cardinals acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves in hopes that he would fit right into their lineup. Heyward was able to do that as he led the team in batting average (.293), and hits (160). The Cards knew the risk that they were running in acquiring Heyward due to the fact that he was set to become an unrestricted free agent last October. And after one season with the Cardinals, Heyward bolted in free agency to sign with Cubs.
Individually, the Cardinals lineup might not be that attractive to the casual fan, but as a team they are one of the most cohesive units in baseball which is due to their never say die attitude. Led by infielders Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, and Jhonny Peralta, the Cardinals have a team that is full of clutch hitters. And even though that the Cards might not possess one of the top offenses in baseball, you can never count them out until the final out is made.
The same can be said for the Cardinals pitching staff that is full of professionals in starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn. Wainwright missed the majority of 2015 after he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and even at the age of 34, he is player that you never want to count out as he displays nothing but grit every time that he takes the mound. Also returning to the Cardinals rotation after an injury is starting pitcher Carlos Martinez. Last year was Martinez’s first season as a starter and he was cruising until a shoulder injury in September abruptly put him on the shelf. But being that Martinez didn’t require any off-season surgery, St. Louis is hopeful that the youngster will be ready to bounce back. In Wainwright’s absence last year, Wacha emerged as the new ace in St. Louis as he led the club in wins with 17. However in three years with the Cardinals, Wacha has yet to throw 200 innings in a season and you have to wonder if the youngster will run out of gas during the stretch run. After losing starting pitcher Jon Lackey in free agency to the Cubs, the Cards were able to sign starting pitcher Mike Leake. The Cardinals are very familiar with Leake due to his time with the Cincinnati Reds and he should become a solid contributor in St. Louis at the back of the rotation.Last season relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal saved 48 games for St. Louis which was second in the National League and you can expect Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to once again rely on his rubber arm.
The Cardinals might lack star appeal in 2016, but as always this is a team that you never want to count out.
Cincinnati Reds 65-97
After qualifying for the postseason three times from 2010-2013, the Cincinnati Reds have fallen on hard times and they are now in full rebuilding mode. The Reds are coming off of their worst season since 1937 and they appear to have already waived the white flag for 2016. This off-season has seen the Reds trade All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox and All-Star relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees. And to makes matters worse is that the Reds parted with both players while not getting any quality players back in return which doesn’t leave that much optimism for the folks in Southern Ohio.
There are some people around that wanted to see the Reds part with manager Bryan Price as well, but to his credit he has been dealt a very tough hand as in his two years with Cincinnati, the team has been hit hard with injuries. And now Price will be tasked with turning water into wine for the Reds in 2016.
For the Reds they still have first baseman Joey Votto in the middle of their lineup. Votto is a former National League MVP, and along with having a career on-base percentage of .423, he is a professional hitter. But at this rate I doubt that Votto will finish the year in Reds uniform as a contender could be willing to take him and his contract off of Cincinnati’s hands.
Along with Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips is a player that does give the Reds the presence of a veteran in their lineup, but as Cincinnati appears to be in the midst of a fire sale, I doubt that he will be with the club by the August 1, trade deadline.
Last year saw the Reds have one of the worst pitching staffs in the National League and that could once again be the case this year as Anthony DeScalfani is the only starting pitcher returning to the team that won at least 9 games in 2015 as the Cincinnati bullpen will be busy this season.
With the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals expected to run things in the National League Central this year, the Reds could get lost in the shuffle rather quickly. And by season’s end, Cincinnati could have the look of a glorified minor-league team.
Milwaukee Brewers 62-100
2015 wasn’t a good one for the Milwaukee Brewers and the upcoming Major League Baseball season could be a very difficult one for them as well. The Brewers lost 94 games last season while also going through two managers as they are attempting to regain their form and once again become a contender in the National League Central. But the main problem with the Brewers right now is the fact that they simply don’t have that much talent which will find them fighting an uphill battle in the NL Central behind the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Brewers pitching staff struggled mightily last season as they were 11th in the National League in earned run average (4.28), and 14th in quality starts (63). And Milwaukee only had one starting pitcher (Jimmy Nelson) that won at least 10 games last season. Nelson was also the only starting pitcher for the Brewers to make at least 30 starts last season as this is a team that is desperate for more depth in their rotation. For Brewers manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson, they are hopeful that Nelson’s career is on the upswing while also being optimistic that veteran starting pitcher Matt Garza will be able to find the fountain of youth in order to help Milwaukee stay in contention this summer.
Like the Brewers pitching staff, the lineup isn’t loaded with that much talent which could make veterans such as outfielder Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy expendable on the trade market as Milwaukee looks to get younger and rebuild.
For Counsell, he can only hope that the Brewers don’t fall out of contention early in the National League Central which would make an already difficult job that much tougher.