NL Central Predictions

1. Chicago Cubs

Strengths - Overall the lineup is strong, especially the infield. Kris Bryant should have a bounce back year, hampered by injuries the previous year. Anthony Rizzo had his fourth consecutive season of driving in 100 runs. Those two will man the corners. Up the middle Javier Baez will either play short or second, depending on the need. He put up MVP numbers last year. When Baez is at second Addison Russell will play short and when Baez is at short either David Bote or Ben Zobrist will play second. Lots of depth with lots of bats to choose from. Wilson Contreras had a down year at catcher last year but he should bounce back. If Yu Darvish can return to health the starting rotation is a formidable five with Jon Lester, Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendriks and Jose Quintana.

Weakness - The starting outfield is either short on offense or weak on defense. Albert Almora and Justin Heyward carry silent bats but the defense is gold glove caliber. Kyle Schwarber needs his bat to produce because his defense is subpar. The bullpen has depth but it could use a closer. Brandon Morrow has trouble staying healthy and a proven closer is absent if he is not available.

Prospects to Make an Impact - This is a veteran team so it will be tough for a rookie to break into the lineup. Two pitchers have a shot if injuries to the rotation happen. Adbert Alzolay started just 8 games in AAA until a lat injury ended his year. Give him a half year of AAA pitching and he should be ready. Duane Underwood Jr. was a second round pick in 2012. He got one start for the Cubs last year after seeing 20 AAA starts. His fastball is not what it used to be but it is serviceable in emergencies.

Predicted Finish - A solid rotation with an offense that has the ability to score runs will be too much for this division.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

Strengths - The Brewers will also score a lot of runs. The outfield is especially dangerous with MVP Christian Yelich leading the charge. Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun fill out center and left and Ben Gamels is depth if you should need a fourth outfielder.

Weakness - Not a big fan of their rotation. Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes will bring youth and inconsistency. Both pitched mostly out of the bullpen for the Brewers last year. No real number one starters with Jhoulys Chacin, Freddy Peralta and Zach Davis filling out the rotation. All would be mid-rotation starters for playoff teams.

Prospects to Make an Impact - Keston Hiura is a batting title waiting to happen. Last year he hit .272 at AA with six homeruns. Mike Moustakas is playing out of position at second base. Corbin Burnes has won a spot in the rotation for the Brewers. Last year he pitched for them out of the bullpen. Mauricio Dubon was hitting .343 after 27 games at AAA until a knee injury ended his season. Another start like that and he could see a role as a utility player.

Predicted Finish - As the NL east adversaries beat each other up the Brewers should sneak into the playoffs as a wild card team.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

Strengths - The Cardinals got some pop for first base when they picked up Paul Goldschmidt. He has hit 30 or more homeruns in four of his last six seasons and driven in 100 or more runs in three of his last six. Picking up Andrew Miller in free agency and using the oft injured Alex Reyes in the bullpen gives the Cardinals three pitchers with closer like stuff when you add in current closer Jordan Hicks. Carlos Martinez may also be used out of the bullpen when he returns from the disabled list. There will be lots of swings and misses in the late innings.

Weakness - The starting rotation lacks an ace. Jack Flaherty may turn into one before the season is complete. Alex Reyes and Carlos Martinez looked like aces a couple years ago but now injuries could force them to be used out of the bullpen. Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha started just 23 games last year, not enough starts to fill one rotation spot. No defense made more errors last year than the Cardinals. Giving teams four outs in an inning can be frustrating to a pitcher.

Prospects to Make an Impact - Alex Reyes will be used out of the bullpen to start the season and could be used out of the rotation later. He has been felled by drug suspensions and injuries. Tyler O’Neil appears to have won one of the corner outfield jobs. He has the power that should exceed 20 plus homeruns. He also has the ability to record 200 whiffs. With the injury of Carlos Martinez it appears Dakota Hudson will be in the starting rotation. He pitched 26 games in relief last year for the Cardinals, limiting the opposition to a .186 average. Genesis Cabrera is a hard throwing lefthander with a mid-90s fastball who could be used in the bullpen by mid-season. The Cardinals lack depth with lefties out of their bullpen. The Cardinals are stacked at corner outfield but Adolis Garcia slugged 22 homeruns out of AA last year. The brother of Adonis is 26 and ready for the major leagues, while packing enough corners he could be surplus his rookie year.

Predicted Finish - Doesn’t appear to be enough flash or depth to pull the Cardinals into the playoffs.

4. Cincinnati Reds

Strengths - The Scooter Gennett injury puts a big dent in what was a solid offensive infield. Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball and will occupy first while Jose Peraza shifts to second. Last year Peraza increased his power numbers by close to 100 slugging points. Joey is the new human walk machine with OBAs north of .400. Eugenio Suarez homerun numbers keep on rising from 13 to 21 to 26 to 34 in the last four years. The Reds appear to be going with defensive minded Jose Iglesias at short as Peraza moves over to second. The Reds starting rotation was certainly juiced up with Sonny Gray, Tanner Rourke and Alex Wood. That is a change in pace from the young pitchers they trotted out last year.

Weakness - The outfield defense is certainly not a strength with Scott Schebler in center and Jessie Winker, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig fighting out for the corner spots. The catching could be offensively challenged with Tucker Barnhart the best of what they have for offense.

Prospects to make an Impact - Nick Senzel was going to get some more defensive experience in center. Now another injury may delay his call to the majors. The bat has the power to hit 30 plus homeruns. His original position of third base is occupied by Suarez. Jose Siri is a multi tooled outfielder who has the potential to hit 20 plus homers while stealing 20 plus bases.

Predicted Finish - Still a little too young to make the playoffs but they will make a run for it.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Strengths - They have two catchers in Francisco Cervelli and Elais Diaz who could start for many of the other 29 teams. The outfield of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson is one of the most talented in baseball, especially if you take into account the number of runs they erase because of their defense. They have one of the top closers in Felipe Vazquez.

Weakness - The middle infielders are two unproven players in Erik Gonzalez and Adam Frazier. Both may be better suited for utility roles. Adding to the offensive squalor along the infield there is uncertainty whether Jung Ho Kang can provide consistent offense at third. He hit a number of homeruns in spring training, but they were also most of his hits. Josh Bell is below average for a first baseman in pop. Back end of their rotation will be feasted upon by some of the more powerful offenses.

Prospects to Make an Impact - Mitch Keller is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Last year he struggled in 10 starts at AAA but he should make his major league debut by mid-season. There are no sure things at the middle infield positions which could open up opportunities for Kevin Kramer, Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman. None of the trio will put up better than average numbers.

Predicted Finish - They may not say they are rebuilding or tanking but they are.

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