Three-headed monster: Pirates, Cards and Cubs

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The NL Central Preview is the third in a series of divisional previews for the 2016 MLB season as viewed through the eyes of the indefatigable Jed Rigney.   NL EAST   AL WEST

NL Central preview
Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein have the Chicago Cubs poised to play in the World Series.

Opening day is just around the corner, and for a lot of fans, that also means it’s prime Fantasy Baseball draft season. I’m currently in three leagues – which I’m told is more than most (because most have zero) and less than some.

For me, the biggest problem created by scheduling all these drafts in such a short period of time is what the heck to do with my wife. For whatever reason, she doesn’t enjoy me spending three to four hours a pop staring at my computer screen. And get this: She doesn’t even care about my unusual draft strategies or if anything weird happened during the draft. Women! Am I right?

Each year we struggle through this difficult time together. I think it actually works out pretty good for her because I usually do a lot more chores and errands for her because I feel bad, but also because she gets these huge three-hour breaks from listening to me jibber-jabber at great length about things that admittedly can’t possibly be interesting.

Anyway, back to the team previews. To review: We’re taking a look at the positives and negatives for each team going into this season. So far, I think they’ve been pretty great – a nice blend of humor and insight. You may disagree, but then the joke’s on you because you’re the one still reading.

Next up is the National League Central. Here’s a weird thing I noticed: the Central Division is called the “Central Division.” Wait for it … It should be called the “Center Division.” The East Division and the West Division aren’t called the “Eastern” and “Western.” Boom! Grammar police in the house! (I just hope they don’t read the rest of this article.)

NL Central PreviewChicago Cubs

The Cubs have evolved into a somewhat perfect team. They’re rich, so they can afford free agents, and they have a great farm system developing players who can be used on the field or in trades to acquire other assets.

1 UP – Jake Arrieta

Last year’s Cy Young looks to lead the Cubs starting rotation on a championship run – though he probably won’t be as unbelievably historically incredible as he was through the second half last year. The Cubs got him in a trade with the Orioles, which didn’t seem like much at the time. I guess one could say the trade was a grower, not a show-er.

1 DOWN – Too Many Players

Yep, that’s where we’re at with the Cubs. Right now, their biggest concern is they have too many good players. Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez all would be starters on any other team; but for the Cubs, they’ll be sharing time and backing up other players. Get ready to start hating the Cubs.

2 UP – The Line Up

They probably won’t lead the league in scoring because the Rockies and Diamondbacks get a significant boost from their ballparks. However, the Cubs lineup is loaded with players who get on base and slug the snot out of the ball. The additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are almost not fair.

2 DOWN – Closer

The back end of the Cubs bullpen isn’t great. Manager Joe Maddon had trouble settling on the ninth inning guy last year, and they didn’t really address the situation this offseason. I haven’t been this underwhelmed by a “Closer” since Kyra Sedgwick on TNT. (This is a pop culture reference inside a sports article, which is a very trendy thing to do these days.)

3 UP – Farm System

Remember before when I was saying they had too many players? It gets worse. They also have a lineup of stud prospects in the minor leagues. Need a new catcher? Willson Contreras. What if shortstop Addison Russell doesn’t work out? Gleyber Torres. Second base needs a boost? Ian Happ. Oh, and they have pitchers coming, too.

3 DOWN – I don’t know

Maybe the one thing is just that, well, this the Cubs. It’s been 108 years since they won a World Series. Everything is looking good. Everything is lining up just right. But we’ve all seen that it just takes one Bartman (and an error by Alex Gonzalez and some dubious in-game managing decisions) to have it all fall apart.

NL Central PreviewCincinnati Reds

Two seasons ago, the Reds were serious contenders for the Central Division, but as is often the case with medium-market teams, a few bad breaks can send you down to the cellar. This year, the Reds will battling it out with the Brewers to see who can not be the worst.

1 UP – Building for the Future

I love to see a team — that doesn’t have the pieces to win now — making the right choice and doing a rebuild. Since the trade deadline last year, they’ve traded away most of their good players for future assets. I support this wholeheartedly. There’s no difference between a 70-win team and a 75-win team. I mean, besides the five wins, of course.

1 DOWN – Brandon Phillips

Well, they tried to trade their aging second baseman to the Nationals, but Phillips blocked the trade by saying he wanted some additional financial incentive. Not surprising since Phillips was bitching about his six-year/$72.5 million deal after the first year, even though the only people who didn’t think the contract was a huge overpay were people in his immediate family.

2 UP – Joey Votto

When a team is selling everything that’s not nailed down, trying to keep one or two players around for the fans is understandable. Votto is one of the most productive first basemen in the league. I don’t know what he did to deserve being stuck on this team, but with his current $250 million contract, he can cry himself to sleep at night on his big pillow made of money.

2 DOWN – Pitching Staff

There are a few really good young starting pitchers here with Raisel Iglesias, Anthony Desclafani and John Lamb. They’re going to be better as this season progresses into the next. The rest of the starters and the bullpen are a smorgasbord of mediocrity that is the hallmark of a rebuilding team.

3 UP – Billy Hamilton

Fast guys are so awesome to watch play baseball. Seeing them run the bases or chase down fly balls adds an electricity to a game which is generally pretty un-electric. Hamilton is all speed and has the potential to lead the league in stolen bases. But if he can’t cut down on his fly-ball outs, he’s going to wind up electrifying minor league ballparks.

3 DOWN – The Aroldis Chapman Trade

Trading Chapman is one reason the bullpen is so suspect. I don’t have a problem with trading away the best closer in baseball when he enters the last year of his contract. That is smart baseball. But Chapman was moved for pennies on the dollar to the Yankees so the Reds could avoid the stink of his “domestic issues.” These days, this stuff blows over in a couple days as media moves on to their next “issue du jour.” The Reds should’ve waited until after Chapman’s issues were resolved when they could have traded him for a boatload of talent. Look at what the Padres got from the Red Sox for Craig Kimbrel.

NL Central PreviewMilwaukee Brewers

Attendance may be lower this year for the Brewers, but with the team they’re going to put on the field, you can be assured that beer sales will be way up. The Brewers are also rebuilding – and doing a fine job, btw (that’s text slang for “by the way” and, as you can see, it really only works to save time and character usage if you don’t follow it up with an explanation of what it is).

1 UP – Ryan Braun

Like Joey Votto in Cincinnati, Braun is a star athlete stuck on a rebuilding team. But is that really such a bad thing? He could spend his whole career there and be a legend. A legend in Milwaukee, but a legend nonetheless. He’s recovering from back surgery, but don’t worry because he’s a quick healer (wink, wink … steroids).

1 DOWN – The Lineup

This line up is so bad! You: “How bad is it?” This line up is so bad they gave the starting first base job to Chris Carter. Ba-dum-bum.

2 UP – Rebuilding Farm System

A team like the Brewers doesn’t have money to burn like the Dodgers, Red Sox or Tigers, whom just keeps acquiring expensive players to fill out their rosters. The Brewers have financial limits. But they understand their situation well, and they’ve turned their bad farm system of just a couple years ago into one of the best in the league.

2 DOWN – Starting Rotation

There’s some pitching talent on this team, but it’s still developing. And when you factor in that Miller Park is a home run factory, it starts looking pretty grim for Brewers pitchers.

3 UP – Jean Segura Gone

Do you know that thing where you meet a special guy or girl and it’s a wonderful time full of love, laughter and … um … lollipops? But then it goes bad and you spend the next few months (or years) hanging on, hoping to regain those first few delightful moments? Well, that’s how the Brewers have been with Jean Segura and his first two incredible months in the big leagues. A couple years later and they just haven’t been able to find that magic again. So, now he’s the Diamondbacks’ problem.

3 DOWN – Making a Murderer

The events that take place in the Netflix documentary Making A Murderer all happened near Milwaukee, and fans should be mindful not to be falsely accused of murder.

NL Central PreviewPittsburgh Pirates

Okay, finally back to the good teams. Those Brewers and Reds were bumming me out. However, those two teams need to look no further than these here Pirates to see a team that used to be awful and has turned things around.

1 UP – The Four Outfielders of the Apocalypse

A Major League Baseball team only has room for three outfielders in any given game – unless it’s one of those weird Mike Scioscia alignments, in which case it can be anywhere from two outfielders to eight and the pitcher catches for himself. The Pirates have Andrew McCutcheon, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco already tracking down fly balls, but Pittsburgh also has Austin Meadows waiting in the wings. Share the wealth, you guys.

1 DOWN – First Base

They got rid of the lead-footed Pedro Alvarez but then they replaced him with John Jaso … who used to be a catcher … who was injured too often … then was a DH … and then was injured on the first play of season last year. Get your backups ready.

2 UP – Pitching Coach Ray Searage

Whatever it is that Searage knows about how to fix pitchers needs to be bottled and then injected into players while they visit foreign countries away from the prying eyes of the U.S. medical cabal. Have you seen what Juan Nicasio is doing in spring training? He’s unhittable. Searage. Ray Searage.

2 DOWN – Shortstop

Oh boy, did you see what happened to Jung Ho Kang’s knee last season? Yikes. That’s one of the reasons they changed the slide rule going into second base. Kang will return, but who knows exactly when or if he’ll be back to his performance level. As a side note, his name is pronounced the same as “dong” so, obviously, he’s one of my favorite players.

3 UP – Manager Clint Hurdle

I can’t believe I’m writing this: Clint Hurdle is a positive for this team. Seems like it was just a couple years ago when he was so bad for the Rockies that after they replaced him with the awful Jim Tracy, the team got better. Hurdle has adapted to new insights and strategies in the modern game. Yes, Clint Hurdle.

3 DOWN – St. Louis and Chicago

Pittsburgh has a good team this year, but they’re in the same division as the Cardinals and the Cubs – both of whom look to be more balanced and loaded with talent than the Pirates. Sure, they will also get to feast on the Brewers and the Reds, but it is the Pirates upon whom there will be much feasting.

NL Central PreviewSt. Louis Cardinals

In many ways, the Cardinals are the model franchise in Major League Baseball. They develop talent. They hardly ever overspend for free agents. And they win games. Lots of games. They’re a lot like the New England Patriots. They even had their own scandal last year. You probably didn’t hear about it because it wasn’t handled by the clown-show over at NFL headquarters.

1 UP – The Next Wave

As always seems to be the case with the Cardinals, when the old crop of players has moved on, here comes the next batch of high-quality players to help them win games. Last year, we saw Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty arrive and, of course, they hit the ground running … and hitting.

1 DOWN – No Offense

The team was near the bottom of the league in scoring last year. As you might imagine, in baseball, as in all sports, this is a problem since the team that scores the most wins the game. However, if there’s one team that can find their way around this, it’s the Cardinals.

2 UP – Strong Rotation

The Cardinals have a very solid five starting pitchers. Each one gives the team an above-average chance of winning each game. With their offensive struggles, they’re going to need to limit other teams from scoring. (See above.)

2 DOWN – No Ace

As good as the five starting pitchers are, there isn’t one who’s an Ace. Adam Wainwright used to be. Michael Wacha may become one. But the starters they have now just don’t have that one guy you can count on. Watch out for stud prospect Alex Reyes, though, when he comes back from his marijuana suspension. He’ll really bring this team to a higher level.

3 UP – Voodoo Magic

It is a widely known fact that the Cardinals have some kind of voodoo magic on their team. Somehow, they take ordinary players, put a Cardinals’ uniform on them and then they turn into top-level Major League talent. You, reading this right now, could walk into their clubhouse, grab a jersey and, well, probably get arrested.

3 DOWN – Manager Mike Matheny

Sometimes the wrong move works out okay. The Royals’ Ned Yost has gone to two World Series with this kind of dumb luck. For the most part, Matheny is not a very good strategist and has an old-timey way about him that, without the Cardinals’ voodoo, would probably doo him in. Ha ha ha! That’s a great one to end on.

And the winner is …

This is probably the only division with three teams that could easily win 90 games. And when you look over all three, the Chicago Cubs look to have the edge in hitting and pitching, so they’re going to take the division. Unless they don’t.

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