Baseball season is almost upon us. Spring training is almost upon us which means it is time for us to start taking a look at the upcoming season. Just like we did last year, every weekend leading up to the Major League’s Opening Day GameDaySportsBlog.com will be taking a look at each division, but instead of just looking at the 3 people that will be deciding the division race, we will look at each individual team’s X-Factors. We kicked off by looking at the NL West last week, and this week we check out the NL Central, home of the defending World Champs. As for whether or not this division will have yet another World Champion, these 5 players are the best hope for each team trying to win the division and possibly the World Series.
Chicago Cubs: Javier Baez
Cubs 2B Javier Baez had a breakthrough performance during the 2016 postseason for the Chicago Cubs. He was a human highlight reel on defense and his clutch hitting helped get the Cubs to their first World Series Championship since 1908. But now there will be even more pressure on him now in 2017 to continue improving his play on offense and defense. And how Baez plays will determine whether his team repeats as champs.
The reason is because the Cubs are loaded at just about every spot in the lineup. Young players such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell will make sure that the Cubs remain competitive over the long haul. But for the organization to repeat as World Series Champs in 2017, they will need Baez to perform the way he did in the playoffs.
Baez still has inconsistent plate discipline, but throughout the first two rounds of the 2016 postseason, Baez was a changed hitter. He was one of the sole bright spots for the Cubs during their inconsistent offensive postseason.
That is…until the Cubs reached the World Series, when Baez reverted back to his usual self. Against Cleveland, Baez batted just .167 and even committed two costly errors. This is why the less talented Indians were able to take the Cubs 7 games in one of the best World Series ever. And if Baez can get his sh*t together look for him to be yet another key cog in the Cubs to be an unstoppable lineup. If he can’t look for the Cubs to struggle to get back to another World Series.
Cincinnati Reds: Tim Adleman
Last year, the Reds were one of the worst teams in the Majors. And the pitchers were the reason why. The 2016 Cincinnati Reds had their season fall apart when their rotation did and they haven’t done much to alleviate that issue for the upcoming season.
Four of the five starting pitchers for this year’s team were in the rotation last season, but only Homer Bailey is proven and even he has started just 8 games over the past two years, with an ERA over six. So what does that leave us with? Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan and Robert Stephenson are in the starting rotation along with hopefully a healthy Bailey, but that is a group of inconsistent, injury prone arms who are likely not able to start even 100 games between the 4 of them.
Luckily the Reds have some young studs taking the hill for the farm system, and they are hoping that Tim Adleman will be that 5th starter that rights the ship for the organization. Adleman started 13 games for Reds a season ago, and finished with a 4-4 record, producing a decent rookie season. Adleman is a solid pitcher right now, but he has the arm talent to be a good one for the Reds and if that doesn’t happen the Reds are talented enough in the minors to bring along another young pitcher like Rookie Davis, Amir Garrett, or Vladimir Gutierrez. But until proven otherwise Adleman is the Reds’ best hope, with a good arm and major league experience.
Of course, if Bailey and Stephenson stay healthy and return to their pre-2016 form Adleman could be less of a factor. However, with that being a major “if”, Adleman is certainly a huge wild card for this team. And either way the Reds will only go as far as the starting rotation can carry them. And with what we saw last season, the Reds will need Tim Adleman to step up if they want their rotation, and their season, to be a solid one.
Milwaukee Brewers: Domingo Santana
The Brewers are expecting outfielder Domingo Santana to add a little power to a lineup that finished 2016 middle of the road in home runs and 25th in runs scored. Santana only played in 77 games for the Brew-Crew last season, but his numbers were nothing even remotely close to what the Brewers need to see from him if they want to make a run at the postseason this year.
Last year Santana hit just .256 and struck out 91 times despite not even playing half of last season. This year the Brewers need their 24-year old right fielder to bump up his average and his mediocre power numbers. Many projections have Santana batting clean-up, and after Jonathon Villar, Ryan Braun, and Travis Shaw the Brewers are short on hitters that can drive in what has the potential to be a solid top of the lineup.
If the Brewers can get this player going and playing up to his potential Milwaukee could be a team that makes a major jump from their disappointing 2016 campaign.
St. Louis Cardinals: Michael Wacha
There are many questions facing this year’s Cardinals. Many of them factor around their lineup, with questions about Matt Holliday and Johnny Peralta being foremost among them. But neither one of these veteran bats are this year’s X-factor for the Cardinals. And that is because last year there was very little problem with the lineup.
In 2016 the Cardinals ranked 4th in runs scored and 2nd in home runs, so we know it wasn’t the lineup’s fault that the Cardinals didn’t win the NL Central. So what was the problem? Part of it was a pitching staff that ranked just 12th in ERA, and a lot of it was the fact that there was absolutely no stopping the Cubs last year. But’s let’s start at where St. Louis can make themselves better, and that is with that starting rotation.
And that is where Michael Wacha comes in. The 25-year old righty has the stuff to be a dominant pitcher. Wacha’s 5.09 ERA was the highest on the team, and quite a far cry from his 3.38 ERA the year before when he went 17-7 and voted to the All-Star game. So if 2016 is proof of just how rough the All-Star can play, Cardinals fans are hoping 2017 looks a lot more like 2015. Because the franchise that used to rely so much on pitching certainly needs help with their ace Wainwright turning 35 this year.
The Cardinals have been one of the best organizations in baseball over the past decade, and much of that is due to their pitching. Between 2010 and 2014, the team ERA never deviated from a range of 3.42 to 3.74. Run prevention was a relatively bankable commodity, stabilizing everything around it and keeping the Cardinals perpetually in the hunt for a World Series year after year. If the Cardinals want to keep this tradition of winning going, they need to have Michael Wacha step up and continue this standard of pitching, because the lineup is already championship level.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Tyler Glasnow
Some may think it a bad omen that the X-factor for the Pirates is such a young player, but Tyler Glasnow is no ordinary young gun. The 23-year old righty is an absolute stud despite his poor outings last season. And this season Glasnow is older and more experienced, which should pay off, as this writer fully expects to Glasnow to take over the 5th spot in Pittsburgh’s starting rotation sometime this season.
And the Pirates absolutely need that 5th starter to emerge. Last season the Pirates ranked 18th in ERA, which was the 2nd worst in the division. Their bullpen last season had an average ERA of 3.12 which means the relievers weren’t the problem. The starters on the other hand last season had an average ERA of 4.64, a mark that needs to improve. If the Pirates can improve on that they will go from 3rd in the Central to once again competing for a playoff spot.
And the key to that is they young pitcher stepping in for Francisco Liriano, who was traded to the Blue Jays after a poor season (6-11 5.46). If Glasnow can simply win 10-12 games and keep his ERA below 4, the Pirates will finish much better than the 25 games back of the Cubs they ended last season with.
This writer is expecting Glasnow to be put into the rotation a couple of months into the season, and for the youngster to lead the Pirates to a much better record than last year’s 78-83 mark. Of course it would also help if ace Gerrit Cole can improve his 7-10 record.