Cubs poised to three-peat as NL Central champs

Raymond Kim, Staff Writer


The Cubs had a short yet ambitious to-do list: bolster their bullpen and find an adequate replacement for the departing Jake Arrieta.

Check marks were made immediately with signings of Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Brian Duensing (re-signed), who were all effective relievers in the past year. Although the closing role is shrouded in ambiguity, the overall strength of the late-inning corps is among the highest in the majors.

When the standout ace of the starting rotation is still uncertain heading into Spring Training, it speaks volumes to the strength of the overall pitching staff. New signee Yu Darvish, who is the former longtime ace of the Texas Rangers, is bringing his powerful arm underneath Chicago’s blue pinstripes. He joins elite performers in southpaws Jon Lester and Jose Quintana, along with the emerging star Kyle Hendricks.

With the acquisition of former Rockies pitcher Tyler Chatwood, who is considered to have high upside with his exceptional pitch arsenal, manager Joe Maddon may be looking at the best rotation of his career. From ace to fifth starter, the entire starting group is rife with talent, effectiveness and the potential to outperform their division rivals by a wide margin.

The lineup still consists of the young infield stars that includes standouts Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who look to extend their upward trends after a successful 2017 campaign. With the offensive game remaining solid for another year, the Cubs may be at their best formation in years.

It’s ambitious to jump to extremes, but the Cubs’ grip on the NL Central may be solid for another year.


Mid-January marked a significant push by the Brewers, who added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to their roster in the span of two hours. With their outfield now being considered well above average, one would expect the Brewers to ride their solid rotation to a postseason appearance.

There are a few variables, however, that calculate a regression down to a norm lower than last year. Unusually high production from their lineup boosted their record for the first half of 2017. Nearly every starter experienced career highs in ERA, wins, and innings pitched, despite the hitter-friendly nature of Miller Park. Thus, statistical estimates see the Brewers declining despite their offseason acquisitions.

Projections are fickle and ignore intangible variables on their own, however, and it is unwise to deny the emerging strength of the Brewers. After all, they are expected to be shoppers at the July trading deadline, which would boost their possibilities for a successful postseason surge.

Any regression will place the Brewers at a distant second, so it is up to their individual players to disprove pundits who believe their past season was fraudulent. If the Milwaukee rotation remains as effective while their lineup opposes the regressing predictions, they may be looking towards October baseball should the Cubs falter. At the very least, the Brewers are favorites for one of two NL Wild Card spots.


Except for a trade for the Marlins’s star center fielder Marcell Ozuna, St. Louis has remained relatively silent this off-season.

Their outfield corners of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty were traded for a cumulative output that nearly matched Ozuna’s cost. Both were average or below-average at best, so their departure is expected to have a minimal effect.

Although Carlos Martinez is an effective standout among the league’s starters, he can only contribute every five days. The rest of his comrades in the rotation have battled injury and old age: Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright have struggled during his past two years. Miles Mikolas relegated himself to Korea to revive his career before his contract with the Cardinals, and already looks vulnerable in Spring Training.

Luke Weaver, their top pitching prospect, is expected to be the fifth starter in their rotation. His talent and electricity could be offset by the injury risk, inexperience and inconsistency typical of rookies. Overall, the Cardinals rotation is simply not as heralded as it was. It’s continually degrading as more arms succumb to injury and surgery.                                                                                          

Signing Ozuna reinforces a lineup that leaned heavily on a few stars, namely Jedd Gyorko and Tommy Pham, who are expected to decline after their strokes of luck in 2017. If leadoff man Dexter Fowler stays healthy, their lineup can be effective enough to compete.


After years of clutching to among the most talented squads in the league, several variables began to corrode the team’s foundation. Jung Ho Kang, who was a key player for their 2015 postseason rush, is still battling visa issues and thus cannot play in the United States for now. Starling Marte was suspended earlier in 2017 for his use of performance enhancing drugs. Players were overall unhappy with the organization’s unwillingness to pursue free agents and trades in the past, despite their success and postseason potential.

With the remnants of their successful 2015 season fading, the Pirates are now turning towards a rebuild process. After trading their longtime franchise face in Andrew McCutchen and their ace in Gerrit Cole, it is safe to assume that the Pirates are putting up a white flag. Their major league depth is now miles from the Cubs, Brewers and even the Cardinals.

In any division, a rebuilding team is simply fodder to the winning records of its playoff-contending brethren. With the Pirates entering an era of darkness, the Cubs and Brewers have found new prey to feast on.


For the past few years, the Reds have been the little brother to the rest of the Central. That trend is, for the most part, not looking to change.

Outside of their MVP-contending superstar in Joey Votto, Cincinnati is looking at a meager lineup and an underwhelming pitching staff. They may be even worse than last year, with breakout shortstop Zack Cozart having departed for free agency, and few of their lineup mainstays posting supposedly unrepeatable, unusually high numbers last season.

Like the Pirates, their strengths will never be penciled into a major league lineup card; they hover in the minor leagues, waiting for the rebuilding storm to pass. For now, they will be an easy target for the elites that rule the division.

Projected standings:

  1. Cubs (95 – 67)
  2. Brewers (86 – 76)
  3. Cardinals (82 – 80)
  4. Pirates (73 – 89)
  5. Reds (62 – 100)