3 x 5 NL Central Preview by Todd Vandenberg and Lee Vowell

Three questions for each team and Predictions


Chicago Cubs

Question: How much will Jon Lester improve this team?

Lee: Over the last seven years, Lester has averaged a 4 WAR. Lester will improve the Cubs. He’s a definite number one. The problem won’t be his value, but it might be difficult to determine his specific value based on the young Cubs improving across the board. If Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, etc., progress as expected the whole team will be much improved, and not just on Lester’s start day. Lester will anchor the staff, though, and his leadership and experience might have even more value off the field.

Todd: You can look at it through sabermetric glasses: Jon’s total WAR for 2014 was 4.5, so he adds 4 or 5 wins to the Cubs. He isn’t replacing their best pitcher, he’s replacing their fifth.  Lester brings them 6 wins, I’d say. And that can be huge in this division.

Question: With all their youth, will Kris Bryant have the biggest breakout year for the Cubbies, and how soon will we come up?

Lee: Bryant should be the Cubs third baseman on Day 1. Even though he has hit for power and average at every minor league stop, he might still have a learning curve with major league pitching because almost everyone does. But if he does struggle at the plate, he will be worth playing every day because he is a stud defensively. This is really a two part question anyway. How soon will he be called up? Probably May or June. The Cubs want the service time on their side. And will he have the biggest breakout year of all the young Cub hitters? I don’t think so. He has the talent to, but Baez and Soler have seen (and missed) major league pitches and have a leg up. I think Soler has the biggest breakout year.

Todd: Yes, Bryant is the best of the group. If the Cubbies look like they have any chance to contend early, we’ll see Bryant in May. If that happens, he’s the Rookie of the Year.

Question: What do the Cubs need to do make the playoffs?

Lee: They need their starting staff to remain healthy, first. The Cubs have a lot of young positional talent ready to go, but their depth with pitching is much less so. Secondly, they need someone on the field (Anthony Rizzo?) or on the coaching staff to make sure that these kids just go out and have fun. The Cubs have the raw talent to make the playoffs, but it is still too early to tell if they live up to expectations. Thirdly, they have Joe Maddon. If Maddon isn’t the best manager in the game, he is top three. He was the biggest offseason pickup for Chicago. The players just need to trust him.

Todd: If Edwin Jackson pitches like a major leaguer again, Lester performs as he has basically every year, and the kids come through, it will be fun on the North Side at last.

Cincinnati Reds

Question: Will Joey Votto ever come close to being Joey Votto again?

Lee: Look, I was a huge believer in Votto. He’s a guy who could get on base extremely well (he led the league in OBP 4 straight years), but his power numbers have gone down a bit, he has been hurt two of the last three years and he is on the wrong side of 30. Could he bounce back and have a tremendous season and come close to earning his huge contract? Yes. Will he? Probably not. At least not on the level we have come to expect from him.

Todd: Sure he will. Last year was the first year he’s been under .900 OPS since 2008. He played in all 162 games in 2013. Votto, his bat, and his leadership, will be back.

Question: Is this a team in transition or a team in long decline?

Lee: The Reds finished 10 games under .500 last year with a hurt Votto and a great Johnny Cueto. The overpaid Homer Bailey is still trying to come back from injury, and after Mat Latos’ commented that he thought the Reds rushed him back last year, Bailey will probably be given has much time as he needs to be completely healthy. The Reds farm system is ranked 17th by Keith Law at ESPN to begin 2015. As he states the system has a Top 10 of which all the players could be good, but all ten can just as easily not pan out. The Reds are not contending this year or next. They are not, however, a team in long decline. I would still trade Cueto for several prospects, though. If you are going to build back sooner rather than later with the farm, then just add to the farm.

Todd: Decline. Or transition to decline. It’s less about what’s going on in the Queen City, and more about what’s happening elsewhere in the division. The Cubs should be much better, the Pirates will be even better, the Cards will seemingly never decline. No room at the top for the Reds and their anemic offense.

Question: Will the starting rotation be good enough to not waste the investment in Aroldis Chapman?

Lee: Chapman is good enough to be a highly paid closer on a bad team, and the Reds are simply mediocre, not bad. The rotation should get Chapman enough opportunities to prove his worth.

Todd: In a word, no.  It isn’t their pitching, it’s their hitting that’s the problem. Byrd helps, a healthy Votto helps, but they still have a leadoff man who gets on base at a “blistering” .292 clip. Their starters should be really good, but how many 2-1 games can you be expected to win?

Milwaukee Brewers

Question: Which Brewers will we see this season, the Brewers of the first half or second half of last season?

Lee: The one at the All Star break last season, meaning right in the middle. The Brewers are not as good or bad as they showed in their season of extremes last year, but they will be good (or bad) enough to finish fifth in the division. The problem is they did not improve at all, and they lost Yovani Gallardo. Every other team in the division was either already better than Milwaukee or improved so that they are currently better. And if the Brewers get any of their starting staff hurt, they might finish far back.

Todd: I think we’ll see the second half Brew Crew. On June 28th they were 51-32; they promptly dropped 11 of their next 12, and went 30-37 the rest of the way. They were the surprise team of MLB through June; they came back to their true level after that.

Question: At 31 and (possibly) non-enhanced, can Braun be anything close to an MVP candidate again?

Lee: Ryan Braun. What a disappointment. Even more than Alex Rodriguez ever was, Braun was held as the standard of what a clean player, good guy could be. Then he lied about PEDs. Now he is hurt. And he is 31. His numbers last year with 530 at bats were .266/.324/.453. Can he be what he was? No. Can he be an MVP-caliber player? Possibly. But I doubt it.

Todd: Unless he finds a new undetectable source of spinach he’s done. By the way, you can still send your 2011 MVP to Matt Kemp, you lying cheating miserable scumbag. Oh, and good luck this season.

Question: The Crew has some decent bats, but only two starters with over 10 wins last year. Do they have enough pitching to contend?

Lee: The starting staff of Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta and Matt Fiers is not bad. It’s just average. And the closer at this point is Jonathan Broxton*. Broxton. Jonathan. So, no. The Brewers might be an entertaining team to watch hit, but they will not contend.

Todd: See my answer for the Reds. Not in this division. No chance. It’s a good staff, but when your catcher is your best offensive player, you aren’t going anywhere. Lucroy’s a stud, Gomez is really good, but that’s it.

(*Note – Since the writing of this blog the Brewers have resigned Francisco Rodriguez to be their closer again. This was obviously an attempt by the Brewers to defame and ridicule us. However, the predictions below will stand.)

Pittsburgh Pirates

Question: Pedro Alvarez and Josh Harrison will both have solid roster spots (1B and 3B, respectively). What numbers should we expect from their bats?

Lee: I think Alvarez became a lesser hitter because his fielding went all to hell. His move to first will help both. He became so focused on his throwing (he had 22 throwing errors) that it, pardon the pun, threw everything else off. He will have to think less about what he has to do in the field and can focus again on hitting .240 with 35 HRs. I think he will hit 30 HRs. I think Harrison surprised everyone last year. He’s projected by FanGraphs to decline this year. They have him projected at 2 fewer WAR than last season. That is a lot for someone who had a 5 WAR anyway. He is still a decent player, but he will not put up the numbers to prove his worth of being an everyday third baseman.

Todd: I think Alvarez will push his HR back over 30, and his OPS to nearly .800 with the lighter defensive responsibilities, while Harrison will really blossom with a permanent home at his best position. Josh tallied 5.3 WAR last year; I fully expect him to match that this year.

Question: When will last year’s Korea Baseball Organization (come on, guys, they’re called leagues, not organizations) MVP Jung-ho Kang break through and have an impact on the pennant race?

Lee: Kang put up silly numbers in Korea last year: 40 HR in 501 AB and a slash line of .356/.459/.739. There is no way he puts up those numbers in MLB. But I have seen his swing and he has good size, he could be a guy who hits 25-30 HR next year. He fits really well in the Pirates lineup too. If he does not start right away, he will by the end of April. And he should have an impact simply because the team is already good and he will have opportunities to succeed.

Todd: Hurdle says he expects him to earn his way into the lineup, and who are we to disagree with the 2013 (and almost 2014) Manager of the Year? Kang’s a big guy, and a lot of people have been saying he’s too slow to play SS. Yeah, and Cal Ripken didn’t post some of the best defensive seasons ever. Oh wait; he did. Not saying this guy is Ripken, but defense is as much about positioning yourself as it is quickness. He’ll play, and he’ll matter.

Question: Will these Pirates forever be also-rans or will they get enough production to win a World Series?

Lee: I want the Pirates to win (other than the Mariners or Dodgers) simply because their fans deserve it. Everything would absolutely have to break right for the current team to win a World Series, or maybe they would need to add some pieces (like starting pitching) at the trade deadline, but as we have seen if a team can make the playoffs they have a chance. And the Pirates will be good enough again to make the playoffs. And they have a very good farm system, so there is more help on the way in the future. Are they my pick to win the Series? No. But I hope for their fans’ sake, they get there.

Todd: Wow, tough question. First they have to get past those Redbirds; okay, so they don’t have to win their division anymore, but you get the point. Win the Series? That’s a tall order, but I think they’re on their way. They do seem to be improving year after year; listen, if the Royals can make it in, surely a team that’s demonstrably better (the Buccos) can win it. So yes, they can win a Series. In fact, why not go for it: your 2016 World Series Champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates (‘cause 2015 isn’t quite their year).

St. Louis Cardinals

Question: Seems like Jason Heyward has been one of those “potential” guys forever, but he’s just 25. Will the move help him break through at last?

Lee: Heyward was a 6 WAR guy last year, so he is already good, just not flashy. He would be a good fit for nearly every team just because of his defense. This season is important for him, though, because he is a free agent at the end of it. I can see the Cardinals re-signing him before he reaches free agency because they seem to know a players value.

Todd: If by “break through”, we can count a .290 avg, 30 HR, 90 RBI – sure. Whatever crazy mojo the Cardinals have, I expect it to work for Heyward too. His WAR last season was a very respectable 6.4, so it’s as much a matter of the expectations generated by his terrific rookie year as it is actual performance. He can still be a star, and with the seeming ironclad guaranteed postseason reservation in St. Louis, I expect him to have the stage he deserves.

Question: Who’s the number five starter?

Lee: The number five starter will be different at the beginning of the season than at the end. I would not be surprised if Jaime Garcia starts the season there, but I expect Marco Gonzales will be number five at the end. Gonzales is 23 years old, was a former round one pick and has good stuff. The other option, Carlos Martinez, might spot start, but he is valuable in the bullpen and I think he stays there.

Todd: By August it’ll be Michael Wacha, because they’ll have traded for either Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee by then.

Question: The Cards ranked 23rd in runs and 11th in ERA last year, yet still finished first. How do these guys do it, year after year?

Lee: The Cardinals win in the postseason, so I am not slighting them, but they get to the playoffs every year because their division stays mediocre. If they were in the East or West, they would battle for the playoffs and would not make it every year. Still, the players do the small things, and that pays off more in the postseason. Once they get there, they are always difficult to beat. Oh, and they also signed the club’s baseball soul over to the Devil. So, there’s that.

Todd: Pixie dust, duct tape, and the ghost of Branch Rickey. Seriously, I think Rickey sneaks out to the batter’s box and nudges their bats *juuust* enough to induce those P7s we all love.



*Cardinals 90-72

*Pirates 89-73

Cubs 83-79

Reds 76-86

Brewers 75-87


*Cardinals 91-71

*Cubs 88-74

Pirates 86-76

Reds 80-82

Brewers 76-86

*-denotes playoff team

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