No matter which way you slice it, the Chicago Cubs are the odds-on favorite to win the National League Central in 2017.
Be it projections, gambling odds, or old fashioned power rankings, the reigning World Series Champions are – to most – the team to beat.
But still, the relative distance between them and whoever is in second place (we’ll get to that in a second) is important. The division might be the Cubs’ to lose, but it won’t be handed to them on a silver platter.
To that end, Tony Blengino has created a very robust statistical preview on the NL Central (and the rest of the divisions in baseball) and you’ll want to give it a look.
Before even getting into the 2017 projections, Blengino starts with a detailed analysis of last year’s win-loss records. Namely, where each team ended up versus where they should have ended up, according to some underlying statistics.
I don’t want to get too bogged down by this – even though it’s fascinating, worth-your-time-stuff – but I would like to point out that based on the underlying exit speed, launch angle, strikeout, and walk data for both the hitters and the pitchers, the Cubs probably should’ve won something closer to 107 games in 2016, not 103. Throw in their best in baseball defense, as well, and it’s something closer to 111 games.
But with that said, although the final win totals change for three out of the five NL Central teams, the relative order remains the same. If you have the time though, the whole first part of Blengino’s piece (which serves as a backbone for the rest) is well worth the read. There’s a lot of good stuff there.
Turning his attention to the upcoming season, then, Blengino begins with the FanGraphs Projections:
- Chicago Cubs: 95-67
- St. Louis Cardinals: 84-78
- Pittsburgh Pirates: 82-80
- Milwaukee Brewers: 70-92
- Cincinnati Reds: 70-92
Not unlike last year, then, the Chicago Cubs are projected to win the Central in a landslide, with none of the other teams even sniffing the postseason. In fact, even the relative order of the projected finishes is the same as last year.
But beyond the projections, Blengino also discusses some key issues and importance changes from 2016 to 2017 for each club.
For the Cubs, he even makes some relatively bold claims. For one thing, he suggests that the addition of Kyle Schwarber should make us all “shudder” when we think about how good the Cubs can be. Why? Because he suggests that Schwarber might actually be the team’s best hitter. Yeah. Better than reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant, better than perennial MVP contender Anthony Rizzo, and better than reigning World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. There’s a whole lot of power, patience, and professional approach bottled up in those three bats, so that is quite the statement.
However, with that said, Blengino wonders whether Zobrist’s bat is due for a significant fading here at age 36, and whether the move from Dexter Fowler to Jon Jay (and Albert Almora) will push the Cubs’ overall run scoring potential way down. As a matter of fact, he thinks the Cardinals will score more runs than the Cubs in 2017.
I can’t see that happening, but I suppose anything is possible.
Not stopping there, Blengino seems to really like the Cardinals overall: “Despite the departure of Holliday, the Cards possess a Swiss Army knife lineup full of tough outs who impact the baseball. Quality bats such as Matt Adams and Jedd Gyorko aren’t even guaranteed everyday roles.”
Blengino even believes the Cardinals had a fighting chance at taking down the Cubs this year, if it weren’t for the loss of Alex Reyes. Which, yes, Reyes is really good and his injury significantly hurt the Cardinals’ chances in 2017, but … again, nah. According to the very projections he just shared, the Cubs have an 11-game edge on the Cardinals this season.
Let’s be generous and say a healthy Reyes would have had a KILLER year. Even with 5.0 WAR (which would’ve been top 10 last season, nestled between Madison Bumgarner and Corey Kluber), that brings the Cardinals within six games of the Cubs (assuming, of course, Reyes’ replacement is truly replacement level and the Cubs don’t outperform projections themselves). Given that he wasn’t likely to be quite that good, and a “chance?” I mean, sure, but not a very realistic one.
But there’s more to the NL Central than the Cubs and the Cardinals, and technically everyone has a shot. After all, the Pirates may have plateaued, but still have some very good players, the Brewers seem like a team on the rise, and the Reds, well, they technically are a team in MLB.