Well, you’re getting this portion of the preview a tad later than expected, as Monday night was my group’s scheduled fantasy baseball draft. In case you’re curious, from this division I nabbed four: my current favorite player and St. Louis right fielder Dexter Fowler, Pittsburgh newcomer Corey Dickerson, Cubs hurler Jose Quintana and Milwaukee closer Corey Knebel. The first two were latter-round picks, so they likely won’t figure largely here, but Knebel is a highlight of the third paragraph here. Let’s dive in:
Now that the honeymoon hangover is over, the Cubs are going to try to continue their winning ways by acting like the Giants of the first half of the decade: making that even-year magic. With much of their core championship team intact, there were only a few holes to plug in the offense. Look for Willson Contreras and Ian Happ to become breakout stars on an already stacked team, replicating that same sort of revolving talent that the Giants tapped into in 2012 with Brandon Crawford and Angel Pagan. The major upgrade focus has been pitching the past two years. John Lackey has all but officially retired, while Jason Hammel left last year with Jorge Soler and Jake Arrieta signed a major deal with the Philadelphia Phillies earlier this month. The replacements for Lackey and Arrieta are top-notch: Yu Darvish snubbed a return to Texas for a chance with the Cubs, while Tyler Chatwood quietly left the Rockies to take the fifth slot. We’ll also look to see how a full year for Jose Quintana looks (hopefully great fantasy-wise, no?) The other question is how steady will Brandon Morrow’s arm be in the closer role, and how much of a clear downgrade will it be. His backup crew is still solid, but I wouldn’t expect an Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller performance this season.
Look to the southern Ohio city for a summer surprise, folks. They may not be ready to take over the division, but with attentions turned towards Milwaukee and the annual expectations from the Cardinals, no one may suspect that the Reds are ready to leap frog the standings. I’m basing this mostly on some regression for their rivals down route 64. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of impact youth that could turn this downtrodden franchise back into a Cinderella squad. Five farm players, from left fielder Jesse Winker, catcher Tucker Barnhart and a trio of pitchers: right-handers Tyler Mahle and Sal Romano, with left-hander Amir Garrett. While much of the team is untested in a high-pressure situation, the rebuild may be nearing its close, as this group seems built for the speedy model that Kansas City set forth a few years ago. With Billy Hamilton nearly leading the league in steals last year (59 to Dee Gordon’s 60), he’ll look to challenge pitchers on each side of the mound. Scooter Gennett quietly had a good all-around season last year, Raul Iglesias is one of the fastest young closers, and Homer Bailey is largely underrated. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the Cy Young conversation come summertime.
Much like many other re-building teams in the MLB, there’s a lot of hope coming into the year for Milwaukee. Before we get to that, the bad news: Jimmy Nelson is sidelined until June, and the Brewers are going with a four-man rotation, something I always advocate against. They’ve got a pair of pitchers knocking at the door down in Colorado Springs: Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, who may start the year in the bullpen and can always bounce into that fifth spot if needed. The fears should be alleviated by the news of who joined the team: Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich will fill out the outfield alongside Ryan Braun, and with them comes serious power. The mainstays from the last few years that have mired to pull the Brewers within scratching distance of a wild-card game are there, but these two could be the ones to pull them over the ledge. Jhoulys Chacin translates a strange year as ace in San Diego into a spot in the rotation, while Chase Anderson and Zach Davies continue performing lights out. On paper, not so sexy, but there’s so much buzz around this team that it’ll be difficult not to smile to see them pull through in the stretch.
It was understood by most that with the impending Giancarlo Stanton blockbuster swap between the Yankees and the Marlins, and because of that the team would be in freefall mode soon after, knocking Yelich out of the park and basically bottoming out. No one could have claimed they knew the same would be around the corner for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Andrew McCutchen has been the face of the Pirates for nearly nine years, since he arrived in the majors on June 4th, 2009. They did him dirty, despite wanting to have a full career in Pittsburgh, and sent him to San Francisco for two prospects and cash considerations. That has a more sour taste in fans’ mouths than the Stanton trade, I would guess, especially as Stanton had prepared us all for the inevitable. It was always in the back of our minds that McCutchen would be gone someday, but there’s barely a team left in his stead. Corey Dickerson was a desperate grab for power, even if I like the kid. Colin Moran is a fine upgrade from the waning David Freese, who still can fill in for several positions. There’s no one else worth talking about, and the starting pitching is in even worse shambles. Ivan Nova came here two years ago expecting to round out a stellar rotation, but now finds himself the ace of a faltering experiment. Jameson Taillon could surprise and finally prove himself a sturdy future ace, but the bullpen is full of no-name leftovers from other teams or their failed starters. If anyone has a chance to tank worse than Miami, it’s this team.
St. Louis Cardinals
The once mighty Cardinals may be looking at their third consecutive season outside the playoffs, something that hasn’t happened since last century. The 1990s Cardinals were bad until they juiced up McGwire, and now they’ll long for the days those rules were more malleable. Some speed is still there, as Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham can attest. Power exists in the park, though Yadier Molina was their highest hitting batter, at 38th in just the National League. Suffice it to say, their team is aging. Their youngest pitcher is Luke Weaver (24), and Paul DeJong (SS, 24) is the basement on the field. They added Marcell Ozuna to ignite the outfield, and I like him better than Christian Yelich, but he’s 27, typically a peak age area for hitting. Heck, the average age for the team is 29, not exactly a youthful sea change. My guess is that the Cards are on the outside looking in, and they’ll be trading some veterans to earn a few prospects to try and switch that storyline sooner than later.
Tomorrow we’ll wrap this thing up! The NL West is near and dear to my heart as it houses my beloved Rockies, so we’ll see what I think of them and their rivals! Later I’ll hand out awards and playoff predictions…