[Central Intelligence will be a day early this week, since the Cardinals and Pirates begin the 2016 season on Sunday. – Editor]

2016 will be another intruging year in the NL Central. The young rising starts in Chicago are the new favorites, but the Cardinals and Pirates are right there as well. The Cardinals have won the NL Central for three consecutive years, while the Pirates have been the NL #1 wild card for three consecutive years. On the flip side, there appear to be two clear bottom dwellers in the division, as the both the Brewers and Reds are committed to rebuilding.


Chicago Cubs

2015: 97-65, 3.0 GB, 3rd place, NL #2 wild-card
2016 Fangraphs projection: 97-65, 1st Place

Redleg Nation 2016 Cubs preview: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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The Cubs won 97 games last season, and they look like they’ll be even better in 2016. The Cubs didn’t lose any big pieces, while they added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey.

The Cubs lineup top to bottom has zero holes, with all eight hitters projected to have an OPS above .720. The Cubs rotation is solid, headlined by 2015 Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta. The bullpen is improved, and the Cubs bench is very good with Jorge Soler (.782 projected OPS) and Javier Baez (.744 projected OPS). Baez will start the year on the DL, but should be back soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2015: 98-64, 2.0 GB, 2nd place, NL 1st Wild Card
2016 Fangraphs projection: 83-79, 3rd Place

Redleg Nation 2016 Pirates preview: Part 1 | Part 2

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It is still amazing that the Pittsburgh Pirates have made the postseason three consecutive years. They had 20 (!) consecutive losing seasons prior to the start of their recent run. Still, the Pirates have to be hungry going into 2016. They have lost in the wild card game in three consecutive seasons, and in front of their home fans nonetheless.

The Pirates lost a lot of players over the offseason. The list includes: A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Pedro Alvarez, J.A. Happ, Antonio Bastardo, Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, Vance Worley, and Travis Snider. While none of those players are superstars, that is a lot of guys to replace.

The Pirates outfield, bullpen, and top two starters are very good. Andrew McCutchen will be an MVP candidate, and Gerrit Cole could make a run at the Cy Young. The rest of the Pirates team has lot of question marks. The big keys to the Pirates will be production from the back end of their rotation, and a good return from Jung Ho Kang when he comes back towards the end of April from the DL.

BATTING ORDER ROTATION
1 — 1B John Jaso (L) Francisco Liriano (L) — SP1
2 — CF Andrew McCutchen (R) Gerrit Cole (R) — SP2
3 — 3B David Freese (R) Jonathon Niese (L) — SP3
4 — LF Starling Marte (R) Juan Nicasio (R) — SP4
5 — C Francisco Cervelli (R) Ryan Vogelsong (R) — SP5
6 — RF Gregory Polanco (L) BULLPEN
7 — 2B Josh Harrison (R) Tony Watson (L) — ST
8 — SS Jordy Mercer (R) Arquimedes Caminero (R) — ST
Mark Melancon (R) — CL

Milwaukee Brewers

2015: 68-94, 4th place, 32.0 GB
2016 Fangraphs projection: 71-91, 5th place

Redleg Nation Brewers 2016 preview: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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The Brewers, like the Reds, are in a full rebuild mode. In September of 2015, the Brewers hired a new GM, David Stearns to begin the rebuild. Stearns is a Harvard graduate who looks to drastically change the Brewers philosophy more towards analytics. Stearns has wasted no time this offseason, as he has already made 38 moves for mostly minor leaguers.

The Brewers will almost assuredly be really bad  while they wait for their young talent to develop. The biggest thing to watch with the Brewers will be if they decide to ship off what few veterans they have left at the deadline. Most of that will depend on how good players like Braun, Lucroy, Hill, and Garza are in the first half.

BATTING ORDER ROTATION
1 — 2B Scooter Gennett (L) Wily Peralta (R) — SP1
2 — C Jonathan Lucroy (R) Jimmy Nelson (R) — SP2
3 — LF Ryan Braun (R) Matt Garza (R) — SP3
4 — 1B Chris Carter (R) Taylor Jungmann (R) — SP4
5 — RF Domingo Santana (R) Chase Anderson (R) — SP5
6 — SS Jonathan Villar (S) BULLPEN
7 — 3B Aaron Hill (R) Blaine Boyer (R) — ST
8 — CF Keon Broxton (R) Corey Knebel (R) — ST
Jeremy Jeffress (R) — CL

St. Louis Cardinals

2015: 100-62, 1st place
2016 Fangraphs projection: 85-77, 2nd place

Redleg Nation 2016 Cardinals preview: Link

Leake Cardinals

The Cardinals enter 2016 as the three time defending champions in the NL Central. The Cardinals look like contenders again this season, but it might not be as easy as in years past. They lost Jason Heyward and John Lackey to the rival Cubs, and once again will have to deal with injuries.

The Cardinals will be without Lance Lynn in 2016, and will have to start the year without Jhonny Peralta. The Cardinals lineup looks good, but they’ll have to rely heavily on young outfielders Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Thomas Pham. The addition this off-season of Mike Leake will help the Cardinals rotation be solid 1-5.

BATTING ORDER ROTATION
1 — 3B Matt Carpenter (L) Adam Wainwright (R) — SP1
2 — RF Stephen Piscotty (R) Michael Wacha (R) — SP2
3 — LF Matt Holliday (R) Mike Leake (R) — SP3
4 — 1B Matt Adams (L) Jaime Garcia (L) — SP4
5 — CF Randal Grichuk (R) Carlos Martinez (R) — SP5
6 — C Yadier Molina (R) BULLPEN
7 — 2B Kolten Wong (L) Kevin Siegrist (L) — ST
8 — SS Ruben Tejada (R) Jonathan Broxton (R) — ST
Trevor Rosenthal (R) — CL

Preseason Predictions:

The NL Central has gotten three teams to the postseason in two of the last three years. It will be difficult to do that again with the NL East having two really good teams (Mets/Nationals), and the NL West having three good teams (Dodgers/Diamondbacks/Giants). Still, with the Reds and Brewers being as bad as they are, the top 3 in the NL Central should be able to rack up a good win total.

So here is my prediction: I think the Cubs will win the NL Central, but they won’t run away with the division like many think. The Cubs will have some growing pains along the way, but in the end their talent is too much. The Cardinals will give the Cubs all they can handle, but will have to settle for one of the wild card spots. I think this is the year the Pirates wild-card train comes to an end. They will compete all year long, but in the end their lack of starting pitching depth will do them in. I also have the Reds just edging out the Brewers for 4th place, mainly because I think the Brewers will trade more pieces at the deadline.

  1. Chicago Cubs

  2. St. Louis Cardinals

  3. Pittsburgh Pirates

  4. Cincinnati Reds

  5. Milwaukee Brewers


Preseason All-NL Central team

  • Outfield – Jason Heyward, Cubs
  • Outfield – Starling Marte, Pirates
  • Outfield – Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
  • Third Base – Kris Bryant, Cubs
  • Shortstop – Addison Russell, Cubs
  • Second Base – Ben Zobrist, Cubs
  • First Base – Joey Votto, Reds
  • Catcher – Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
  • Starting Pitcher – Jake Arrietta, Cubs
  • Starting Pitcher – Gerrit Cole, Pirates
  • Starting Pitcher – Francisco Liriano, Pirates
  • Starting Pitcher – Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  • Starting Pitcher – Jon Lester, Cubs
  • Bullpen – Mark Melancon, Pirates
  • Bullpen – Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
  • Bullpen – Tony Watson, Pirates
  • Bullpen – Hector Rondon, Cubs
  • Bullpen – Pedro Strop, Cubs
  • Bench – Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
  • Bench – Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
  • Bench – Kyle Schwarber, Cubs
  • Bench – Ryan Bruan, Brewers
  • Bench – Matt Holliday, Cardinals

 

All projected lineups, rotations, and bullpens are courtesy of ESPN. All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.