ST. LOUIS -- The best part of the baseball season isn’t the pennant stretch, and it isn’t October. It’s right now. It’s the final few days before spring training begins, when the boundless optimism of the coming season stretches across an infinite horizon, just out of view.
We’re in the blissful period preceding workout reports, lineup debates, and stories of aging veterans being “in the best shape of their life.” The season can still be anything; end any way we care to imagine
So rather than ruin this optimistic tranquility with predictions, let’s take a trip around the National League Central storylines. It’ll be a fun year in the division, and each team has something worth watching, even if the on-field product is less than captivating.
Last year: 68-94, 4th in NL Central
The thing to watch: Farm system
We’ll skip past the major league team for a moment and get right to the interesting stuff. The Brewers have completely flipped perceptions of their farm system. Different publications rank organizational strength differently, but Milwaukee is consistently listed among the top 10, after being at or near the bottom for the last four years.
For the SABR crowd, Fangraphs recently released their KATOH rankings (a system for grading each team’s farm system), and Milwaukee is tops in baseball.
You can check out how they compile those rankings if you’re interested, but even if you’re not, the fact the Brewers were ranked 28th last year in that same system should catch your eye.
The turnaround was fast, and the Brewers now have four of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects.
Leading that group is shortstop Orlando Arcia (8th overall). The 21-year-old is expected to reach the majors this year and bring his slick fielding and .300 batting average with him. Additionally, a couple of strong arms have already been to the show, and a fresh batch of outfielders will be rolling off the line within a year or two.
The Brewers dumped a ton of talent in the last year, priming themselves for a roster rebuild. They probably won’t win, place, or show in the division race, but it will be fun to watch a new set of names in Milwaukee.
Last year: 97-65 (3rd in NL Central, lost NLCS)
The thing to watch: Injuries
The Cubs had an exceptionally fun season in 2015, blowing past expectations to win 97 games and bounce the Cardinals from the postseason in the NLDS. They then summarily plundered the Redbirds in the offseason (Jason Heyward and John Lackey) and added Ben Zobrist to assemble a roster many peg as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series.
However, baseball tends to derail even the best-laid plans, and Chicago was exceptionally blessed in the injury department last year. They had two players go on the 60-day DL (Tommy La Stella and Jack Leathersitch) compared to six from the Cardinals (not counting Matt Holliday’s two extended absences).
Neither their key contributors nor their rotation missed any significant time. The odds of that happening two years in a row aren’t very good, and if their rotation loses one of its big three, things could look much different on the north side.
Examine for a moment All-Universe starter Jake Arrieta. The 29-year-old carried the Cubs into October with an incredible second half, but threw 238.2 innings by year’s end. That’s 83 more innings than he had ever thrown. If he goes down for an extended stretch, and is joined by Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant, the narrative darkens considerably.
The Cubs have assembled a terrifying baseball warship, but if enough of the guns jam, they’ll sink all the same.
Last year: 64-98 (5th in NL Central
The thing to watch: Netflix
The 2016 Reds are in a full tear-down, and are demonstrably worse than the squad that lost 98 games last year. It’s tough for any team to cross into 100-loss territory, but Cincinnati has a legitimate shot.
Unlike the Brewers who added established MLB talent in their sell-off, the Reds snatched two young prospects from the Dodgers in the Todd Frazier trade. This is a forward-looking move, and one that was necessary, but it means the on-field product will look more like a training exercise than a competitive team. They have a handful of names in their system that are ready for their shot in the next two years, but the Reds are and will be several years away from competing.
Alternatively, Daredevil, House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Orange Is The New Black all have new seasons coming out. So, you know, the choice is yours.
Last year: 98-64 (lost in WC game)
The thing to watch: Is the formula roster-proof?
The Pirates have harried the Cardinals every year in the Central since they broke their playoff drought, and paced the Cubs the entire way last year. They are consistently competitive despite not enjoying anywhere near the cash flow of either of their main division competitors. Pittsburgh built a winning organization on pitching and combined that with enough reliable hitters to cover the slack.
But the Pirates have had some pretty significant roster turnover. While Gerrit Cole returns to lead the starters, AJ Burnett and Charlie Morton are gone. Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong will back up Cole, none of whom threw more than 175 innings last year.
Clint Hurdle likes to get to the bullpen early, but this rotation may not be strong enough to keep runs off the board until then. Add to that the departure of Aramis Ramirez, Neil Walker and Cardinal-slayer Pedro Alvarez, and it’s fair to say the formula will be put to the test this season.
The roster certainly has some explosive elements, but with the equilibrium disturbed, will the solution be stable enough to get the Bucs to October?
Tomorrow we will take a look at the St. Louis Cardinals and what to watch in 2016
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