Rian Watt is previewing every division in baseball. You can read them all here.
The biggest story in the 2017 NL Central—hell, the biggest story in baseball this year—is the Cubs, and their quest to become the first repeat champions in nearly two decades. But that doesn't mean the North Siders are the most interesting story in their division. That distinction probably belongs to the small-market Brewers, adrift for much of the last decade, and now smack-dab in the middle of a smartly-designed rebuild. The Brew Crew won't win the division this year (that'll be the Cubs, or maybe the Cardinals, if things break just right for them), but Milwaukee might still give the rudderless Pirates and hapless Reds a run for third place, setting them up to go after Chicago in the years to come.
So, about those Cubs. The core of last year's title squad returns intact to Chicago, That stability means the key questions for Joe Maddon's squad this spring will likely be mental, rather than physical (are they healthy?) or procedural (who'll win which roster spot?). The challenge will be to adequately prepare for a year during which complacency will be their biggest enemy—and to pace themselves.
Maddon, for his part, has already unveiled a series of cultish catchphrases directed squarely at this problem, chief among them "Don't Forget The Heartbeat" and "Be Uncomfortable"—last year's was "Embrace the Target". Those'll help (a little), but what'll matter most is the talent the Cubs put on the field day in and day out. And that talent is better than pretty much everyone else's. Fangraphs projects the Cubs will have 95 wins, and Baseball Prospectus projects 91, and there's reason to suspect both numbers might end up being soft.
Fact is, the Cubs don't really have any holes in their roster—the back half of the bullpen is maybe the closest to it, and even that group isn't half bad, with studs Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards, Jr. backing up an elite top four relief arms—so the North Siders will have to either suffer some major injuries, or dramatically underperform their true talent level across the board, to fall short of a division title this year. The rotation was unusually healthy in 2016, and injuries there and in the 'pen are always a real possibility, but they're no more a risk for the Cubs than they are for any other team, so it's hard to ding them for that.
The position in most flux for Chicago is catcher, where Miguel Montero—the incumbent for the last two seasons—is ceding the spotlight to youngster Willson Contreras, while October hero Kyle Schwarber is waiting in the wings, in case of emergency. The transition has been a little awkward (Maddon, sensing the tension, made a point of inviting Montero to a well-publicized one-on-one dinner this month) but, if the Cubs are going to make this decade their decade, they'll need to learn to break in at least one young newcomer every year. Contreras is this year's model, and he'll step into a starring role for a franchise on the cusp of a dynasty.
St. Louis Cardinals
Were Alex Reyes healthy right now instead of prepping for Tommy John surgery, we'd likely be talking about a very different division race in the Central, with St. Louis right there behind the Cubs in second place, and with an outside shot at claiming the division if things broke right. As it is, things broke very wrong, right out of the gate: the Cardinals' young righty will spend the year in recovery, and St. Louis's strengths—a strong bullpen, top to bottom, and a solid mix of dependable, professional veteran talent in a relatively strong lineup—-are unlikely to be enough to push them over the top in 2017.
The team's marquee addition this winter, Dexter Fowler, will shore up center field for St. Louis, which had been a weakness for last year's Cardinals squad. At age 31, a lot of Fowler's overall value going forward will be tied up in his defense, which took a step forward the last two seasons on the back of some improved positioning (he stopped playing quite as shallow as he had in Houston, which allowed him to come in, rather than go back, on a lot of fly balls). His bat remains a pretty sure bet to improve the top of the already-potent St. Louis lineup this year.
Fowler's presence allows veteran Randal Grichuck to move from center to left, which means that defense in left field—where Matt Holliday had been playing in 2016—will also likely take a step forward this year. Right field will stay in the capable hands of Stephen Piscotty, who quietly put up very solid numbers last year at age 25. The question mark for the Cardinals, positionally, is at second, where Kolten Wong is still trying to put together his first solid season as a professional and has already run into injury trouble this spring.
Still, the Cards' biggest weakness right now is the rotation, where Reyes was expected to step up big-time and take pressure off of Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha at the back end. That won't happen now, so St. Louis will have to hope and pray that nobody else goes down. If they do, the Cards could be in big trouble, as the rotation depth just isn't there to protect them. Their lineup, good last year, will be better in 2017. But if the pitching falls apart, it won't matter. There's little margin for error when you're up against the Cubs.
Two years ago, the Pirates were coming off a 98-win season and their third straight playoff appearance, and looked as if they might be just a player or two away from a championship-calibre club. Instead, the team inexplicably sat the 2015-16 offseason out, and spent last year plummeting to a 78-83 finish. With Andrew McCutchen, the Steel City's charismatic star, clearly entering a declining period of his career, it's not clear which direction the Buccos want to go. If they'd spent this offseason retooling, they might have had a chance to finally get past the Wild Card game and make a run through October. Even a full selloff would have been defensible. Instead, the brass spent the winter doing mostly nothing, and left fans wondering what might have been.
That's not to say there aren't some things to like in Pittsburgh. McCutchen can still turn it on, and alongside Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and the oft-underrated Jung Ho Kang makes for a formidable quartet mostly still in or entering their primes. The problem is that the offense doesn't go too much further than those four. Without too much depth, there's a lot of ways things could go wrong and send the Pirates offense careening into weeks-long tailspins.
And then there's the rotation, where the Pirates have raw talent to spare, but—with the exception of Gerrit Cole—not a lot of proven, durable starters to eat up innings and keep them in games. Sure, Jameson Taillon put up a perfectly solid year last year, and Ivan Nova may be one of the most underrated talents in the game, but all told there's not a lot of certainty. If everything goes right, the Pirates' starting pitchers could be very, very good. But when has everything ever gone perfectly right for any big-league rotation? More likely than not, something doesn't quite click for one or more of the Pittsburgh starters and the rotation spirals into inconsistency, punctuated by occasional brilliance.
That'll be the story of the season for Pittsburgh, in a nutshell. You can squint and possibly see a 90+ win team here. But blink your eyes a few times more, and it's not hard to see a Pirates squad that just as easily can lose 90 games.
I am, apparently, required to write about the Cincinnati Reds as part of this divisional preview, but the truth is that there's very little of interest going on in Cincy this year. Star second-baseman Brandon Phillips, who could always be counted upon for a good quote and a healthy dose of get-off-my-lawnism, has finally been traded (to Atlanta), which leaves fans rooting for the brilliant, languishing Joey Votto, the very fast Billy Hamilton, possibly Jose Peraza and Devin Mesoraco, and then a whole bunch of other people who I guarantee you wouldn't recognize. The rebuild is proceeding, but not with any particular urgency.
So instead of writing about the Reds, a tout, let's stay focused on Votto. Did you know that he hit .408 in the second half of last year? Watch and appreciate him while you can. The next good Reds team is long way over the horizon.
In Milwaukee, the most compelling story won't be with the Brewers' big league team—which will probably be bad in 2017, though not depressingly so a la Cincinnati—but in the minors, where talented youngsters are plying their craft in Biloxi, Carolina, and Helena, ready to put the next generation of Brewers baseball on the map. The Brewers had a run there, back in the late 2000's, when a Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder-led squad won one division title and made the playoffs one other time. But that team is nearly all gone now—only Braun remains, and he'll be traded soon. A few years ago, the Brewers wisely decided to enter a full rebuild, bringing on widely respected exec David Stearns from Houston to lead the effort.
Stearns promptly traded nearly everyone of note on the roster away for parts, building in the process a minor league system that's as good as or better than any other in baseball. Lewis Brinson, a stud center fielder, leads the charge, but there's also pitching in droves—Josh Hader, a tall lefty, is the standout—and impact talent way down the line. Isan Diaz, one of the best shortstop prospects in the game, might only be the fifth-best talent in Milwaukee's system right now. They're that good.
Now, having a lot of good prospects is no guarantee of future success. But it sure beats not having them, and Milwaukee's crew has a good a chance to make good on its potential and come of age as a group just as the Cubs' own young crew is getting expensive in arbitration and starting to leave in free agency. At worst, this squad will likely be able to compete for division titles in the last part of this decade—2018 at the earliest, and continuing into 2019 and 2020—and that's' very, very good news for a franchise that probably can't afford to go out and buy big bats or arms in free agency.
The Cubs have rightly drawn a lot of press in this division for their near-total teardown and rebuild over the last half-decade. But Milwaukee is doing the same thing right now, except with fewer resources and much less fanfare. If you root for underdogs with a punching chance, well, the Milwaukee Brewers are exactly that right now. They might be the future of the NL Central.