For the first time since there were 46 states in the union, the Chicago Cubs will enter a season as the defending World Series champions. The Cubbies got the 108-year-old monkey off their back last year, so now the dynamic has changed. Theo Epstein & Co. arenât trying to break the curse. Now theyâre trying to build a dynasty.
Like last year, the Cubs came into spring training as heavy NL Central favorites in 2017. Heck, they arenât just NL Central favorites. Theyâre World Series favorites, and not only because they won it all last season. Their roster is loaded with high-end talent and the organization is very deep. We saw it all last year. Nothing has changed, really.
So, needless to say, the rest of the NL Central has an uphill climb ahead of them. It very well might be a race to second place this year. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates have both made several postseason trips in recent years, though their 2017 rosters appear weaker than previous iterations. That doesnât mean theyâre bad, necessarily, just that they arenât quite as strong as they were in 2015. At least on paper.
The rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are not all-in on this season. Theyâre looking towards the future. I like the talent the Brewers have accumulated and think they could surprise some folks this year. Enough to make the postseason? Probably not. But theyâll be a fun and energetic team, and a trendy postseason pick come 2018.
Hereâs how the division race went down last year:
2016 W-L Record
Record in 1-Run Games
Geez, imagine how much better the Cubs would have been last season had they performed a bit better in one-run games. A teamâs record in one-run games gets far too much attention these days. It doesnât measure heart or the will to win or anything like that. One-run games are largely a toss up, where one freakly little play like a bloop single or an elite reliever hanging a slider can change everything.
This is the far more telling stat about the 2016 Cubs:
Holding at least a four-run lead in 72 games is absolutely insane. The Cubs were not kind to their opponents last season. They bludgeoned them. Their plus-252 run differential was baseballâs best since the 2000 Seattle Mariners went 116-46 with a plus-300 run differential. The Cubs were a top run-scoring and run-prevention ballclub in 2016. A powerhouse, through and through.
Now, will the same be true in 2017? The easy answer is yes because the roster is still so strong, but keep in mind the potential for a World Series hangover effect. The clubâs top four starters (Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey) all threw a ton of innings last year and they could feel the effects this year. It happens each and every season. Some deal with it better than others.
That said, it appears injury and the World Series hangover effect are the only things standing in the way of another NL Central title for the Cubs.. Hereâs how the various projection systems see the 2017 NL Central race playing out:
SportsLine Proj. Wins
Sportsline Div. Odds
Westgate Div. Odds
Sportsline Playoff Odds
Yep, the completely objective computer simulations still put the Cubs at the top of the division, and by a not small margin too. Surely this doesnât surprise anyone. This is baseball and weird things can happen, thatâs what makes it fun, but right now it sure looks like the Cubbies are in a class all by themselves. The real question in the NL Central this year is whether the Cardinals or Pirates can make a run at a wild-card spot.
The Cardinals still have a strong roster -- they poached Dexter Fowler from the Cubs, remember -- though their core is getting up their in years. Guys like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, while still very good, arenât performing quite at the level they did a few years ago. The Pirates need Andrew McCutchen to rebound from his poor 2016 season. Itâs that simple. Without McCutchen performing at a near-MVP level -- and young starters like Tyler Glasnow breaking through -- contention will be nearly impossible.
The NL Central race very well might be baseballâs most predictable and boring race in 2017. The Cubs are the clear favorite and, frankly, itâll be a major upset if any of the other four clubs are within a handful of games of the division lead come September 1. Baseball has a way of making the unexpected happen though, and thatâs why we all tune in every night.
Now that weâve taken an overview look at the division, hereâs more on each NL Central club individually going into the 2017 season.
How long until the Reds are relevant again? Zack Cozart, Scott Feldman, and Devin Mesoraco could all be demand. Would they entertain offers for Joey Votto? Thatâd be interesting. Cummings looked at Jose Peraza as a .. Cincinnati might not have much chance to contend in 2017, but they could be a major player at the trade deadline.
The Brewers have an awful lot of young talent and Ryan Braun remains productive and is the clubâs elder stateman, though you can be sure Milwaukee will continue engaging in trade talks. His contract and performance-enhancing drug history are obstacles, however. Is Eric Thames going to be a Fantasy asset? ..
. If he has a typical Andrew McCutchen season, the Pirates will be a dangerous team. If he repeats his 2016 season, the Pirates will be in trouble in more ways than one. Their chances of contention will take a hit, and so will his trade stock. Cummings examined Josh Bellâs .
St. Louis Cardinals
The addition of Fowler and an improved team defense could be enough to get the Cardinals back to the postseason, Alex Reyes, however. The potential impact rookie will miss the season following Tommy John surgery. Follow-up seasons from Aledmys Diaz, Seung Hwan Oh, and Stephen Piscotty are the focal points of .. The club is dealing with the loss of