Forecast: Can The Bucs Get Past The Brew Crew For The N.L. Central?

MILWAUKEE: I figured the Brewers were going to look more impressive on paper than they do. I know they sure looked good in spring training after they came back from a huge deficit to pull out a win over the Dodgers. But, that’s spring training.

Offensively, I wonder how they were able to have so much success last year. Then two words spring to mind: Christian and Yelich. Milwaukee certainly benefited from the addition of center fielder Lorenzo Cain who can get on base and who can steal bases incredibly well for a big man. After Yelich you’ve got Jesus Aguiar (.274 with 35HRs last year) but after that you’ve got a diminishing Ryan Braun, good power in Mike Moustakis and the very uneven Yasmani Grandal. If pitchers can figure out in a hurry not to throw him any fastballs it’s going to be a really long year for him at the plate. Defensively I have no idea what happened to him for the Dodgers but he just stopped being able to catch the ball. And that’s a problem. Hopefully he gets whatever cause that straightened out out. On the mound , you have a Jimmy Nelson who got injured and is trying to make a return. He could be their number-one starter but after that you have Jhoulys Chacin as a number two and Chase Anderson as a possible number three. Their pitching should match up with St. Louis and the Cubs.

Projection: You have two MVP candidates going head-to-head with Yelich and Paul Goldschmidt in St. Louis. I don’t see that big of a difference between any of the top teams in the division. It’s a race to the bitter end: 93 wins.

CHICAGO: Offensively, it was great to see Ben Zobrist hit .305 last year after a .232 campaign the year before. He walks almost as often as strikes out. Too bad he can’t steal you a base. He works great in the two, three or five hole though. Is Kris Bryant okay? Two stints on the D.L. with “shoulder stiffness” doesn’t sound good. I love Anthony Rizzo. He’s decreased his strikeout total almost every year since 2013. Speaking of K’s, 2B Javier Baez swung at everything and hit quite a bit of it but there’s no way he it’s .288 again unless he is the reincarnation of Vladimir Guerrero Sr., who actually is not dead. I think that’s what they call a career year. Jason Heyward is still good in right field but has lost all power with his bat. Kyle Schwarber is still living off a fantastic post season when the Cubs won the World Series after his return from injury. But he could just as well turn into Chris Davis as he could Khris Davis.

On the mound, the Cubs come off a 95-win season and definitely have more established starters than the Brewers. “Established” though also means old. Will it be Cole Hamels with a4.72 ERA with Texas or a 2.36 ERA with the Cubs? Yu Darvish is coming back from injury. He seems fragile. Kyle Hendricks has a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which I love and Jon Lester is no worse than a fourth starter even when he’s struggling. So there’s pluses and minuses here. The club had the third-best ERA last year, but with the relief corps, I don’t know if they back that up.

Projection: Manager Joe Maddon is smart enough not to mess with a bunch of talent by doing a bunch of crazy stuff that he had to do when he was with the (Devil) Rays. Some players are going to be up, others down. All told, it sounds like 92 wins.

PITTSBURGH: Everybody told me I was crazy last year to even consider that the Pirates could finish at .500. They went on to win 82 and contend for a playoff spot. Not only did I like them last year but I like them even more this year. Their offense may not have the most .300 hitters in the world but they’ve got a bunch of guys who hit .260 to .280 with 10-25 home runs.

On the mound you have Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams. Both won 14 games last year with ERA’s under 3.20. Those are two number-one starters for most teams and Chris Archer has the talent to post similar numbers. Most teams are lucky if they have even one. Add to that an up-and-comer in Joe Musgrove and a bullpen of Felipe Vasquez (37 saves 2.70 ERA last year) and some solid middle relief and you’ve got the makings of a pretty good team.

Projection: it’s a tough division with the Brewers, Cubs and the Cardinals but I still think they end up winning 90, maybe more if the Cubs’ pitching struggles.

ST. LOUIS: It felt like the Cardinals under-performed last year. They rallied at the end to win 88. But when I went back to see how poorly they performed, it turned out I picked them to win 86. So, they over-performed? That doesn’t bode well for this year.

Paul Goldschmidt would have to help, though, right? I mean, he’s only an MVP candidate every year. But the guy this team relies on more than any other is YadierMolina. He still controls the game from behind home plate. But, he also turns 37 this year. The Cardinals have not done anything to move him prolong his career. He has as many Gold Gloves (8) in his career as he does games at first base in the last 3 years. The knees have to go at some point, so this may be their last chance to win a title with him behind home plate.  Marcell Ozuna had a good year last year. Matt Carpenter wears pitchers out in the postseason. I think he gives away at-bats during the regular season. He still produces though.

On the mound, starter/long-reliever Carlos Martinez was effective in both roles, but is out with injury. Miles Mikolas finished sixth in the Cy Young Award voting. The numbers were great, particularly a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ration. But he gives up hits.  Jack Flaherty was really good in his first full year (1.11 WHIP in 154 innings.) Michael Wacha has two good years, then struggles, then a good year, then injury. Hard to bet on the guy. Adam Wainwright has not been the same guy he was through 2014. I don’t know if he’ll ever be more than a cagey veteran in the five spot.

If they’re all healthy they could dominate. The problem is they seem to be unable to be healthy all at the same time. 

Projections:  Call me old school, but a running game can win you games. Last year St.  Louis was ninth in the N.L. in walks and 14th out of 15 in stolen bases. The pitching will take them as far as they will go, maybe to the playoffs and a wildcard.  I don’t think they have a good enough team to challenge for the division: Even with Goldschmidt, 89 wins.

CINCINNATI: The Reds’ second half was certainly better than the first,  during which they were possibly the worst baseball team anyone has ever seen and their manager got fired. So which is it? The team we thought was going to be fairly good the team that stunk or the team that was kind of O.K. at the end?

Offensively it was nice they got hitting coach Turner Ward from the Dodgers and, oh yeah, Dodgers outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp and pitcher Alex wood. That’s not a bad way to start a rebuild. This team can mash; there’s no doubt about it. You’ve got Scooter Gennett who hit .310 with 23 bombs, Eugenio Suarez had 34 homers and there are a host of guys in double digits who hit at least .280. If Joey Votto returns to being Joey Votto, this team will definitely slug their way to some 10-9 wins

That’s not exactly the recipe for a playoff run, however, because on the mound you have Wood followed by Luis Castillo Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray. All had season totals that would put them in fifth starter or even long relief/6 starter category. At least Castillo had a really good second half  the ERA was around 3.2.

Projection: this team finished dead last with 95 wins last year. Worst-to-first stories are fun to talk about when they happen but they don’t happen very often. And I don’t think it’s going to happen this year. They very well could be in the playoff race in August but I don’t see more than 73 wins.

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