Links to the other divisions: AL East, AL Central, AL West, NL East
The Cardinals are starting from so far up that I’m not sure anyone can catch them. Like with Josh Donaldson, I’m not sure that Matt Carpenter will be a 7-win player again, but he might well still be a 4-win player. Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday look to be about the same. Meanwhile, they get a lineup with both of Matt Adams and Allen Craig, as well as the additions of prospect Kolten Wong (who, I must admit, has encouraged me with his fast start) and Jhonny Peralta (taking over the only real weak spot from last season, shortstop). I liked the Peter Bourjos pickup, and combined with Jon Jay and Mark Ellis, they have a plethora of options in case of injury. It should more than make up for the losses of David Freese and Carlos Beltran. On the pitching side, Adam Wainwright might regress some, but with Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly, and Trevor Rosenthal behind him (as well as the return of Jason Motte in the bullpen), there’s enough depth and potential there that I don’t mind projecting the pitching staff as above-average or better. Teams with 100ish wins are usually good bets to fall back some, but projecting the Cardinals as at least a 90-win team seems more than reasonable.
The Pirates worry me some. Marlon Byrd was a great pick-up, and they have a hole in the outfield without him (at least, until top-prospect Gregory Polanco gets called up). Also, first base looks bad, but they didn’t get any production from there last year. Meanwhile, the base of Starling Marte/Russell Martin/Neil Walker/Pedro Alvarez looks like they could easily match up with what they did last year. Andrew McCutchen might regress some (his 8-win campaign from last year could easily fall to a good, yet “only” 6-win mark). It’s a solid enough collection of hitters I guess, but there isn’t a lot of room for error. If they had plugged at least one of first base or right field, I would have much better feelings.
Pitching-wise, a full Gerrit Cole makes up a little bit for the loss of A.J. Burnett. That’s still a net-loss though, and with Jameson Taillon now out for the year, I’m not sure where they’re going to make it up. I’m thinking they’ll have another year with an upper-80s win total, which is close enough to strike out at the playoffs.
I think the Reds are maybe as good as the Pirates. They return most of their lineup from last year, and I’m not sure if a lot of those parts will improve. Joey Votto is sort of at the ceiling of what you can expect from an MVP player, so maybe he improves one or two WAR, but maybe not. Jay Bruce is good but not quite and All-Star, given his problems getting on base. Brandon Phillips seems to be getting worse, which makes sense given his age. Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier…just kind of are. They aren’t bad, but they’re really just average. They lost Shin-Soo Choo, which is huge; he and Joey Votto were the only Reds batters with OBPs over even .330 last year. Ryan Ludwick will be healthy this season, but he hasn’t been more than an average, 2-WAR player for the better part of a decade now.
Meanwhile, the rotation looks more or less the same. Mat Latos is hurt to start the year, and they lost the dependably average Bronson Arroyo, but Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Tony Cigrani are all varying levels of above-average. However, they were all more or less at that level last year, and there’s not much if any of them goes down. Really, the only two places for improvement are in hoping young Billy Hamilton and Devin Mesoraco break out. I have trouble separating them from the Pirates in my mental playoff race.
I think the Brewers could surprise some people-they have a solid core to build off of. I like all of Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, Jonathan LuCroy, Aramis Ramirez, and Carlos Gomez (although maybe not Gomez as a 7-win player again, but 4-5 wins seems reasonable). Scooter Gennett and Khris Davis might be not bad. Mark Reynolds…could be worse, I guess, but it’s not like they got much out of first base last season. The pitching side should be much improved, though. Matt Garza should bring a handful of extra wins, and I expect Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse to bounce back a little. I seem them as a middling, .500 win team, which, with some good breaks, might bump them up to the Reds and Pirates’ levels.
The Cubs will be bad. There’s at least hope for the future, though. If Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo could undo how they got worse last year, they could be surprisingly good. There’s not really a lot else on the major league team this year, though.
This is more or less exactly what I said. The Cardinals and Cubs are separated from the middle pack in their own directions. The middle three are going to be reasonable close, but I’m just not confident in the Red’s ability to overcome the loss of Choo; Joey Votto stands alone as an on-base threat.