NL Central 2017 preview: Don't count on anyone taking down the Cubs

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. aren’t trying to break the curse. Now they’re trying to build a dynasty.

Like last year, the Cubs came into spring training as heavy NL Central favorites in 2017. Heck, they aren’t just NL Central favorites. They’re 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 doesn’t mean they’re bad, necessarily, just that they aren’t 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. They’re 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 they’ll be a fun and energetic team, and a trendy postseason pick come 2018.

Here’s how the division race went down last year:


2016 W-L Record

Run Differential

Expected W-L

Record in 1-Run Games

Cubs

103-58

+252

107-54

22-23

Cardinals

86-76

+67

88-74

24-23

Pirates

78-83

-29

78-83

20-21

Brewers

73-89

-62

74-88

23-28

Reds

68-94

-138

68-94

22-27

Geez, imagine how much better the Cubs would have been last season had they performed a bit better in one-run games. A team’s record in one-run games gets far too much attention these days. It doesn’t 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 baseball’s 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 club’s 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. They have a chance to make NL history this year. Here’s how the various projection systems see the 2017 NL Central race playing out:


SportsLine Proj. Wins

Westgate Over/Under

Sportsline Div. Odds

Westgate Div. Odds

Sportsline Playoff Odds

Cubs

102.4

95.5

94.7%

85.7%

99.1%

Cardinals

86.9

83.5

4.5%

12.5%

49.2%

Pirates

80.7

82.5

0.8%

11.1%

14.9%

Brewers

72.6

69.5

0.0%

1.0%

1.3%

Reds

63.1

70.5

0.0%

1.0%

0.0%

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 doesn’t surprise anyone. This is baseball and weird things can happen, that’s 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, aren’t performing quite at the level they did a few years ago. The Pirates need Andrew McCutchen to rebound from his poor 2016 season. It’s 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 baseball’s most predictable and boring race in 2017. The Cubs are the clear favorite and, frankly, it’ll 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 that’s why we all tune in every night.

usatsi-9882220.jpg
Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein are now looking for their second World Series title together. USATSI

Now that we’ve taken an overview look at the division, here’s more on each NL Central club individually going into the 2017 season.   

Chicago Cubs

Resident Cubs expert Matt Snyder wondered how the club will fare without Fowler, who ignited the offense from atop the lineup. Then again, a full season of Kyle Schwarber should help mitigate the loss. On the Fantasy side, Heath Cummings examined potential playing time for Schwarber and Javier Baez .

Cincinnati Reds

How long until the Reds are relevant again? That’s the question Dayn Perry asked. Cincinnati might not have much chance to contend in 2017, but they could be a major player at the trade deadline. Zack Cozart , Scott Feldman , and Devin Mesoraco could all be demand. Would they entertain offers for Joey Votto ? That’d be interesting. Cummings looked at Jose Peraza as a potential impact Fantasy player.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have an awful lot of young talent and R.J. Anderson writes they’re a year away from being a very exciting team. Ryan Braun remains productive and is the club’s 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? Chris Towers attempted to answer that question.

Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s all about McCutchen. 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 Bell’s viability as a Fantasy first baseman.

St. Louis Cardinals

The addition of Fowler and an improved team defense could be enough to get the Cardinals back to the postseason, writes Dayn Perry. The club is dealing with the loss of 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 Cummings’ Fantasy outlook.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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