With just three moves, very expensive ones at that, the Chicago Cubs have been transformed from a club just hoping to make the postseason in 2015 to being one that many experts believe will be in the World Series for the first time since 1945. If that wasn’t enough, some have predicted that the century plus championship drought will come to an end as well. However, the Cubs do not reside in a pushover division because the perennial contender St. Louis Cardinals and revived Pittsburg Pirates are their neighbors. Of the five teams in the Central, only the Brewers and Reds appear to be also-rans.
The Cards won 100 games a year ago and no matter how many times prognosticators have projected a downfall, they are always in the mix. Both Wild Card teams, the Pirates and Cubs, came out of this division although only one could be battling the Washington Nationals for one of those coveted spots this time around.
Here is how the Central shapes up for 2015 with the season opening just a few days from now.
The Cubs have a potential remake of the famed Murder’s Row with a lineup that is downright scary now that they have arguably the most balanced in baseball with the additions of Jason Heyward (8-years, $184 million) and Ben Zobrist (4-years, $56 million). They already had thumpers Kris Bryant at third and Anthony Rizzo at first although there isn’t a weak spot anywhere. They are blessed with an overabundance of talent in the outfield as Dexter Fowler returns to patrol center, but as of now two budding stars are likely to share left, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Another youngster, the appropriately named Addison Russell, the Cubs address is 1060 West Addison Street, will team with Zobrist as the double play combo.
The rotation is as solid as it gets. John Lackey (2-years, $32 million) was lured away from the rival Cardinals. His addition plus Zobrist and Heyward are a $272 million investment in winning this year and beyond. Lackey joins an already formidable staff that boasts Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, three-time All Star Jon Lester and Jason Hammel with Kyle Hendricks to round out the starters. Hector Rondon, who notched 30 saves a year ago is the closer, follows a deep bullpen.
The Cardinals never seem to skip a beat as one of the most consistent teams in baseball. They lose Lackey to the Cubs, they have a ready replacement in Carlos Martinez who is bouncing back from a torn Achilles. He will slot in as the fifth starter, for now, behind veteran Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and newcomer Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia as the lone southpaw. Lance Lynn is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The bullpen is also loaded with Trevor Rosenthal as the closer. He is coming off another stellar season with 48 saves after logging 45 the year before. He is as close to a sure thing as it gets.
St. Louis also lost Heyward to the Cubs, but with Matt Holliday expected to bounce back and big things expected from Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty they won’t miss Heywood. Matt Carpenter, coming off a 28 home run season, will be at the hot corner while at the other side of the diamond Brando Moss, with 19, will be at first. Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta is a solid double play pair and the best catcher in the game, Yadier Molina, gives St. Louis one of the best up the middle defenses in the game.
After years languishing in the second division, the Pirates are no longer a laughing stock. Two decades of futility went by the boards three years ago with manager Clint Hurdle bringing his singular brand of baseball to the Steel City. They won 98 games in 2015, the first time they have had that many since 1991. The question is whether they can duplicate that win total in a much better division?
The Buccos lineup is still anchored by Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte with Jung Ho Kang expected to be back at full strength shortly. He is coming off a broken tibia and torn meniscus suffered last year. In the meantime Josh Harrison is expected to man the hot corner.
The rotation consists of Gerrit Cole (19 wins), Francisco Liriano (12), former Mets southpaw Jonathon Niese (9, acquired for Neil Walker), Jeff Locke (8) and Juan Nicasio (1). Niese should benefit from a change of scenery, not to mention having a guaranteed spot in the rotation. In New York he was more of a swing man bouncing between being a starter and reliever on a staff loaded with young arms. Mark Melancon was unconscious out of the bullpen racking up 51 saves in 53 opportunities and it was no fluke because the year before he had 33. He will have to repeat that number if the Pirates are to make the postseason.
PREDICTION: The Cubs are the popular choice and is here as well. While they won’t have the same winning percentage, they could be baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors. When manager Joe Maddon took the job there were concerns how his quirky style would play in Chicago. No one is questioning him now and he is on the cusp of being sainted if a championship is brought to the North Side. The Cardinals should snatch up the only Wild Card slot left with the Nationals being the other entry. They are too good to miss the October fun. Sadly, that leaves the Pirates out. A 90 win season is not out of the question; however, they will miss Neil Walker (16 homers)and Pedro Alvarez (27) even though they were free agents after this season. Offense will be an issue at PNC Park.
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