Can Cardinals, Pirates stop Cubs from running away with the NL Central?

Can Cardinals, Pirates stop Cubs from running away with the NL Central?

It's been a little over a year since the changing of the guard atop the National League Central.

When the Cubs took down a 100-win Cardinals team in the 2015 NLDS, they did something the Pirates were never able to fully accomplish: Take sole control of the division.

Whether the Cubs retain control of the NL Central is still up for debate, however.

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Neither the Cardinals nor the Pirates are in rebuilding mode and USATODAY pegged them at 88 and 81 wins, respectively, in the season projections.

However, neither team had a very active offseason with only four players acquired that figure to play big roles on the 25-man roster. Dexter Fowler's five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Cardinals was the most high profile of those, cashing in on back-to-back big seasons with the Cubs.


Fowler's signing was the biggest move within the division this winter as the Cardinals got a shot back in on the Cubs after Theo Epstein's front office stole Jason Heyward and John Lackey the year before. 

Fowler is a perfect fit for the Cardinals in 2017 as they needed a leadoff hitter and tablesetter, allowing Matt Carpenter to move down in the order and help make up for the loss of Matt Holliday in the middle of that lineup.

Here's how RosterResource (which is awesome, btw) pegs the Cardinals' Opening Day 25-man roster, as of right now:

Brett Cecil is the other big acquisition, inking a four-year, $30.5 million deal, which seems like a lot of money for a 30-year-old reliever who has averaged just 51 innings a season over the last four years and has 11 career saves.

The Fowler and Cecil contracts may not look so hot a few years from now, but they absolutely make the Cardinals better in 2017. 

Cecil figures to play a big role in the bullpen in a left-handed role after Zach Duke — acquired late last season in a trade with the White Sox — underwent Tommy John surgery in October and will miss all of 2017. The only other lefty in the Cardinals bullpen is Kevin Siegrist, who has actually been tougher on right-handed batters than lefties over his career.

Cecil's arrival should help solidify a bullpen that looks to be one of the better units in the NL behind closer Seung hwan Oh, the guy he beat out for the job in the middle of last season (Trevor Rosenthal) and another former closer (Jonathan Broxton).

The starting rotation is another story.

After serving as the strength of the team in the 2015 season, the starting staff took a step back with Carlos Martinez the only guy to post an ERA under 4.62. Martinez just signed his first big contract and looks to be coming into his own as an elite starter at age 25.

One of the main issues with the rotation was Adam Wainwright's regression as the 35-year-old veteran posted his highest ERA, WHIP, H/9 and HR/9 rates of his career while leading the league in both hits and earned runs allowed.

If Wainwright can return to form, the rotation may be a strength once again as Lance Lynn returns from Tommy John surgery and top prospect Alex Reyes is waiting in the wings. 

Biggest question: Can the new regime find their footing?

Beyond the starting pitching uncertainty, it'll be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle a changing of the guard within their own roster.

When Heyward migrated north, he pointed to the Cardinals' aging core as one of the reasons why and he's got a point.

Holliday is gone while Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta will turn 35 during the season and Wainwright is already 35. 

The Cardinals have some nice young players — led by Stephen Piscotty (26), Aledmys Diaz (26), Martinez (25) and Reyes (21) — looking to take the torch as the leaders of the new regime, but there will inevitably be something of a learning curve.

In the meantime, the Cubs are primed for another big season with a young pre-prime core and a full year of Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis before they become free agents in November.

X-Factor: Matt Adams

Adams can no longer go by the (mean) moniker of "Fat Adams" as he's dropped a bunch of weight this offseason. If that helps him on the field remains to be seen, but if he can return to the guy who hit .287 with an .800 OPS, 32 homers and 48 doubles in 2013-14, that would be a welcome sight for the Cardinals in the middle of the order.

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The Pirates were one of baseball's best stories for a few years there before floundering last season and finishing 78-83.

But it would not be wise to overlook them just based on last season. The Pirates have a nice blend of a young core plus veteran leadership and a quality coaching staff to bring it all together. 

Their window of contention has not closed just yet, even if setup man Daniel Hudson was the only real acquisition of the winter.
Here's RosterResource's projected 25-man roster:

Gerrit Cole leads a starting rotation that is just coming into its own with only Ivan Nova (30) older than 26. After Cole — a bonafide ace at 26 — and Nova, the Pirates have a host of youngsters in Jameson Taillon (25), Chad Kuhl (24), Tyler Glasnow (23) and Steven Brault (24) to fill out the final spots of the rotation. Drew Hutchison (74 career big-league starts) and Wade LeBlanc (79 career MLB starts) provide veteran depth if any of the kids aren't ready to step into full-time roles.

The lineup is underrated with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco forming the middle of the order behind Andrew McCutchen and top prospect Josh Bell finally getting a chance to play every day.

A huge question surrounding the Pirates is the status of Jung Ho Kang's personal life, as the South Korean star infielder will miss part of spring training while at trial for his third DUI (he was arrested in December in Seoul). Kang will turn 30 in April and has played a vital role in the Pirates lineup over the last two seasons, posting an .838 OPS, 36 homers and 120 RBI in 229 games.

Biggest question: What happens with Andrew McCutchen?

McCutchen — who has been the face of the franchise for nearly a decade — just finished up his worst year in the big leagues (.766 OPS, poor defensive metrics) but this is the same guy who finished in the Top 5 in NL MVP voting four straight seasons from 2012-15 and won the award in 2013.

The Pirates were shopping McCutchen this winter and even if he sticks around, the 30-year-old would have to make a move out of center field for the betterment of the defense.

History indicates McCutchen would return to normal levels at the plate and he still put up solid power numbers (24 homers, 79 RBI) last year hitting in the middle of the order.

If GM Neal Huntington does find a taker for McCutchen before the final year of his contract is up, it could change the course of the future for the franchise but it may also mean 2017 is another playoff-less season. It would be hard for the Pirates to put together a championship-caliber team capable of dethroning the Cubs without Cutch.

X-Factor: Gregory Polanco

Polanco's emergence could help ease the pain of McCutchen's regression (or eventual loss if he is traded). 

The 25-year-old Polanco looked primed for an explosive breakout season when he hit .287/.362/.500 (.862 OPS) in the first half before slumping to a .220/.267/.414 (.682 OPS) line after the All-Star Break while battling a shoulder injury.

As it was, he finished with 22 homers, 86 RBI and 17 stolen bases and very well may take the next step and blossom into a superstar in 2017.

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.



Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.