2017 Recap: NL Central

This is the third installment in a six-part series in which I will go division by division and recap the biggest storylines of each team’s season. To find the recaps for other divisions, follow the links below.

NL East
AL East
AL Central (Coming soon)
NL West (Coming soon)
AL West (Coming soon)

All WAR metrics are fWAR unless otherwise stated.

Chicago Cubs (92-70, .568)

The Cubs were pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the World Series this year, which would have marked the first time since 1907-1908 that the franchise repeated as World Series Champions. That task was made a little more difficult by their first-half hangover; the Cubbies went into the All-Star break sitting two games under .500 and trailing the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games. They picked it up in the second half, though, going 49-25 (.662) and trailing only the Dodgers in the National League for the lead in hitting WAR. They ended up capturing the division title by a full 6.0 games over the Brewers, and then went on to dispatch the Nationals in five games in the NLDS.

It was a tale of two halves this year for the Cubbies. As I mentioned, the season started off a little rocky for the defending champs, but, surprisingly, they were never more than two games under .500 at any point. The team as a whole ranked in the middle third for both offense and pitching in the first half, but rectified that in the second half thanks to reigning MVP 3B Kris Bryant turning it on (.269/.399/.529 first-half triple-slash; .325/.421/.548 second-half). It wasn’t only Bryant that seemed to wake up after the first half. The team OPS rose from .745 in the first half to .811 in the second half. Take a look at the difference in stats between the first and second halves for the Cubs hitters:

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 1.38.43 PM

Those improvement numbers are all positive, and over half of them are in double digits. Jon Jay, who isn’t in the above graphic, is the only regular whose OPS decreased from the first half to the second half, and he was used as a defensive replacement on numerous occasions, so in that sense, his hitting matters less. Regardless, I’ll take an improvement by nine guys if the trade-off is one player getting a bit worse. Way to wake up by the Chicago hitters, but that wasn’t the only improvement from the first half to the second half.

Jake Arrieta, a former Cy Young winner, improved his 4.35 first half ERA to 2.25 in the second half. His K:BB ratio increased, his WHIP fell from 1.30 to 1.09, and lowered his OPS against by nearly 70 points. This was all a product of a great run Arrieta had in the second half (from July 15th to August 29th) in which he lowered his ERA from 4.35 to 3.36 by going 9 consecutive starts with at least 5.2 IP and 2 or fewer earned runs allowed. In eight of those nine starts, he went at least six innings, and in five of those nine starts, he registered at least as many strikeouts as he did innings pitched. Basically, Arrieta woke up, but much like the hitters, he wasn’t the only one.

John Lackey improved his ERA from the first half to the second half by nearly a run and a half (5.20 to 3.75) and Kyle Hendricks also improved, albeit not nearly as much (3.20 ERA in the first half, 2.83 in the second half). Jon Lester‘s ERA actually got a little worse, but Lester managed to lower his OPS against, and his decline from the first half to the second half was only marginal.

The Cubs didn’t just play good baseball this year; they were also very active on the trade market. Theo Epstein and co. kicked off trade season by dealing away a package of four prospects, including MLB Pipeline’s #4 prospect OF Eloy Jimenez, to the White Sox for LHP Jose Quintana. They also acquired southpaw reliever Justin Wilson and veteran C Alex Avila from the Tigers in exchange for MLB Pipelines top-100 prospect 3B Jeimer Candelario and another low-level prospect. The Wilson acquisition came just a few months after acquiring former Kansas City Royals closer Wade Davis to bolster the bullpen. Needless to say, the Cubs were gearing up for another stretch run, and they got there. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t finish the job this time.

National League hitter ranks: 822 Runs scored (2nd), 223 HR (2nd), 62 SB (12th), .255/.338/.437 triple-slash (6th/t-1st/t-4th), 26.7 WAR (2nd)
National League pitcher ranks: 3.95 ERA (4th), 23.6% K% (4th), 1.28 WHIP (4th), 15.9 WAR (7th)

Milwaukee Brewers (86-76, .531)

The Brew Crew disappointingly missed the postseason after being in the driver’s seat in the NL Central for most of June and July. They led the division by 5.5 games on July 15th but it was all downhill from there; they relinquished the division lead on July 26th and then wound up missing out entirely on the playoffs. That’s not to say it was a lost season for the Brewers; they won twelve more games than they were expected to and got solid performances from a handful of young players. Plus, they made moves in free agency and on the trade market that should pay dividends for years to come.

Let’s begin by examining their offseason. The Brewers made a splash at the Winter Meetings by trading away right-handed relief pitcher Tyler Thornburg for 3B Travis Shaw, who would end up leading the Brewers in WAR on the heels of a .273/.349/.513, 31 HR campaign, SS prospect Mauricio Dubon, and two other low-level minor leaguers. The trade was a highway robbery for the Brewers and it may not have even been the best deal they struck in the offseason. That very well could have been the deal they made with Eric Thames.

After playing three seasons in Korea, Eric Thames decided to return to baseball stateside. Prior to his trip to Korea, he was a career .250/.296/.431 with 21 HR in 181 games. He went to Korea, posted an OPS well over 1.000, hit 144 HR in 394 games, and even added a 40/40 season in which he took home KBO MVP honors. The Brewers, on November 29th, inked Thames to a three-year, $16MM contract, with a team-friendly club option for a fourth year.

The contract paid immediate dividends. Thames lit the baseball on fire in April and the beginning of May, triple-slashing an obscene .345/.466/.810 while knocking 11 HR in only 24 games. He cooled off significantly after that month and ended the season with a far less impressive .247/.359/.518 triple-slash, but still not at all bad for a journeyman getting paid less than six million dollars per year who came into the season with negative career WAR.

Aside from Thames, Travis Shaw was probably offensive breakout story of the year for the Brewers. After the team picked him up from the Red Sox (who, ironically had trouble at 3B all season until calling up youngster Rafael Devers to man the hot corner) in the preseason, he posted career-bests in every offensive category.

On the pitching side, starters Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson, and closer Corey Knebel all broke out in big ways. Check out their stats from 2016 and 2017:

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 11.04.27 PM

Lots of improvement here from the Brewers pitching staff. Unfortunately, two starters and one reliever does not a postseason-caliber pitching staff make. The Brewers recognized this and got some relief help at the deadline, picking up impending free agent Anthony Swarzak in a deal with the White Sox. They also added free agent-to-be Neil Walker (not a pitcher, but a very solid second baseman) in a post-July 31 deal with the Mets.

The Brewers also enjoyed breakout performances from outfielders Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana. Broxton put up a 20 HR/21 SB season, albeit while hitting .220 and striking out over 33% of the time, and Santana posted an .875 OPS while jacking 30 long balls and swiping 15 bags. Santana, who was acquired in the deal that sent Carlos Gomez to Houston, figures to slot in to the middle of the Milwaukee lineup for the next four seasons at the very least.

Though the Brew Crew may not have gotten an opportunity to play in October, they greatly exceeded expectations and improved on their 2016 season. Additionally, the team has a slew of young prospects like the aforementioned Dubon, as well as Luis Ortiz, Lewis Brinson, Corbin Burnes, Isan Diaz, and Keston Hiura, who all figure to make an impact at the MLB level either next season or in the near future.

National League hitter ranks: 732 Runs scored (11th), 224 HR (t-1st), 128 SB (1st), .249/.322/.429 triple-slash (11th/10th/9th), 16.5 WAR (10th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.00 ERA (5th), 21.8% K% (4th), 1.34 WHIP (6th), 18.1 WAR (5th)

St. Louis Cardinals (83-79, .512)

The Cardinals were expected to deliver an average season, and they did exactly that. Baseball Prospectus’ Third Order win percentage (that I have mentioned in previous articles) actually put the Cardinals at 87-75 on the season, which, according to them, would have gotten them into the NL wild card game. Their offense ranked in the top third of the National League in OBP and wRC+, and their pitching ranked in the top third of the NL in K:BB ratio. Obviously cherry-picked stats, but the team was all-around solid, and the categories in which they weren’t in the top-5 in the NL, they were close.

The Cardinals begun their year by adding bullpen reinforcements in the form of thirty-year-old lefty Brett Cecil. They continued their roster additions by poaching free agent CF Dexter Fowler from their division rivals in Chicago, then trading away lefty starter Jaime Garcia to the Braves in exchange for three minor leaguers. The team got bad news when they found out that young fireballer Alex Reyes, who registered a 1.57 ERA in 12 appearances at the MLB level last year, required Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL in his pitching arm. They ended their offseason by inking veteran catcher and eight-time All-Star Yadier Molina to a three-year, $60MM contract extension, and RF Stephen Piscotty, who has actually gotten worse on offense every season of his young career, to a six-year, $33.5MM extension. Then the games began.

St. Louis started the season off by bouncing between six games over .500 and six games under .500 for the first two months. The team basically hovered around .500 the entire season and their season was largely unexciting. They were in a playoff spot for zero games the entirety of August and September, and this came after essentially being silent at the trade deadline, when they held on to guys like Lance Lynn, who garnered a pretty hefty amount of trade interest. They did, however, trade 1B Matt Adams to the Atlanta Braves for a prospect, and pitcher Marco Gonzales to the Seattle Mariners for one of their top prospects, OF Tyler O’Neill. Neither move was a huge splash, which was pretty characteristic of the Cardinals season; not a ton of huge splashes in St. Louis this year. There were a few bright spots, however:

  • CF Tommy Pham led the team in WAR by a wide margin, and finished 10th in all of baseball in fWAR among hitters. Coming off a season in which 38.8% of his trips to the plate ended in a strikeout, Pham triple-slashed  .306/.411/.520 with 23 HR and 25 SB in 123 games. He produced on offense at a clip 48% above league average, all while playing plus defense in center field. The Cardinals likely didn’t think Pham was the answer in center until this season, but it looks as though they may have found their guy.
  • 1B/OF Jose Martinez, a 28-year-old rookie, broke out in a big way as well. After toiling away in the minors from 2007-2017, Martinez finally got the call to the bigs and made the most of it, triple-slashing .309/.379/.518 in 307 plate appearances at the big league level. Martinez ranked tied for 16th in the major leagues (among hitters with at least 200 balls in play) in average exit velocity this season (90.6 mph). He also had the 5th-highest xwOBA of any hitter in baseball this year, behind Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, J.D. Martinez, and Mike Trout. Not bad company. And just a side note for those of you who don’t know what xwOBA is, it’s similar to FIP in that FIP measures how lucky a pitcher has been compared to his ERA, while xwOBA measures how lucky (or unlucky) a hitter has been compared to his wOBA (which, very simply put, is a much fancier version of OPS). If you want to read more about Martinez, Fangraphs did a great piece on him here, and if you want to read more about wOBA, click here.
  • Carlos Martinez finished in the top-25 in baseball in pitcher fWAR. He threw over 200 innings for the first time in his career (he’s only 26) and struck out a career-high 9.6 batters per nine innings while maintaining a 3.06 K:BB ratio (also a career-high).
  • Lance Lynn bounced back nicely from Tommy John surgery, throwing up a 3.43 ERA over 186.1 innings and a National League-leading 33 starts. He didn’t put up outstanding strikeout or walk rates, but his WHIP was the lowest it’s been since his rookie year in 2011.

Aside from not making the playoffs, there was a handful bad as well. Trevor Rosenthal, a former closer for the Cardinals, recaptured the closer’s job and it seemed as though he had returned to his dominant self. Then he tore his UCL. Season over, and he will likely miss a large chunk, if not all, of 2018. Rosenthal wasn’t the only negative in the bullpen though; the entire bullpen seemed to have issues this year. St. Louis pitchers in the 8th and 9th innings allowed the fourth-highest wOBA of any ballclub this year. They were also in the bottom third of the league for ERA in the 8th and 9th innings. Not a good look for the bullpen. Fortunately for the Cardinals, that was really the only glaring negative on their team this year, so provided that they bolster their bullpen in the offseason, they should finish no worse than they did this year in 2018.

National League hitter ranks: 761 Runs scored (7th), 196 HR (8th), 81 SB (7th), .256/.334/.426 triple-slash (5th/t-3rd/10th), 24.6 WAR (5th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.01 ERA (6th), 22.0% K% (5th), 1.30 WHIP (5th), 16.7 WAR (6th)

Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87, .463)

I feel bad for Pirates fans because the team has been good in the recent past, but the owners aren’t willing to spend any money to make the team better, so they either end up exiting early in the playoffs or not even making it there at all. This was one of the “not make it there at all” seasons. The team was over .500 for a grant total of two games this season, and to add insult to injury (or, rather, suspension), star outfielder Starling Marte was suspended half the season for failing a PED test. South Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang was also not allowed to play this year due to his inability to get a work visa. Why was he unable to do that? He had legal troubles in his home country. 2017 was a year to forget for Pirates fans.

The Pirates stayed off the radar in the offseason, as they tend to do due to their unwillingness to spend money. They signed veteran pitcher Ivan Nova to a three-year pact worth a little under $9MM annually, and that was just about it.

Gerrit Cole, their opening day starter, had yet another disappointing season, though he did throw over 200 innings for the second time in three seasons. He finished the year with a 4.26 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, neither of which are good enough for an MLB ace, but both still solid numbers, especially given the quantity of innings he gave the Pirates. Despite Cole’s solid performance, the most impressive story on the pitching staff belonged to Jameson Taillon.

Taillon got off to a torrid start in 2017, throwing 30.1 innings of 2.01 ERA ball through his first start in May. After that, though, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and had surgery to fix the issue. Taillon is a fighter, though, and managed to make his way back to a professional game three weeks later, where he gave up one run in three innings in a rehab start. He wasn’t able to return to his prior success once he returned to the majors, finishing the season with a 4.44 ERA, but the important part of Taillon’s season is that he is still able to pitch. Taillon 1, cancer 0. That’s really the only score that mattered for the Pirates this season.

There’s not much else to say about the Pirates season except that they were involved in one of the wackiest games in recent memory on August 23rd. Rich Hill, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher, took a no-hitter into the tenth inning. Josh Harrison, who only has 44 career HR in seven seasons, took Hill deep before Hill recorded an out in extras, making Harrison the first player ever to break up a no-hitter on an extra-innings walk-off HR. Unfortunately for the Pirates, that was probably the highlight of their season. I don’t really have any encouraging words for the future either, seeing as the Pirates do not have a particularly well-stocked farm system. It’s not one of the worst in baseball, it’s simply just average, and their top hitting prospect, Austin Meadows, has already had to deal with a plethora of injuries in the minor leagues, which is never a good start to a career. On the pitching side, though, they have Mitch Keller, who figures to slot into the two or three slot in the Pirates’ rotation in his prime and be a solid innings-eater. Aside from those two guys, they don’t have anyone particularly exciting coming up through their system, so my outlook for the Pirates’ future is this: meh.

National League hitter ranks: 668 Runs scored (13th), 151 HR (14th), 67 SB (11th), .244/.318/.386 triple-slash (14th/12th/14th), 11.0 WAR (13th)
National League pitcher ranks: 4.23 ERA (7th), 20.3 % K% (12th), 1.37 WHIP (7th), 13.9 WAR (8th)

Cincinnati Reds (68-94, .420)

I have a soft spot for the Reds, mostly because I really like Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton. That being said, I can’t sugarcoat the truth. This team is not good. This team does not figure to be very good in the near future. It doesn’t help that they’re playing in the NL Central with the Cubs, Cards, and Brewers. They don’t have a ton of solid talent coming up through the minor leagues, save for Nick Senzel and Hunter Greene, and they are rather hamstrung with regard to their payroll, so improvements will have to come in the form of trade.

They did make a couple of improvements via trade this year, trading Dan Straily to the Marlins for three prospects, one of whom was named Luis Castillo (no, not dropped pop-up Luis Castillo). Castillo made his debut in the middle of the season for the Reds and threw 89.1 innings of 3.12 ERA ball. He had a 9.9 K/9 and a K:BB of 3.06. If Cody Bellinger didn’t put on a clinic this year, Castillo would be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year in the National League as a dark horse candidate. The team definitely wasn’t expecting to get an ace out of the Straily trade but it looks like they have their opening day starter for the next couple of seasons in Castillo.

The team was pretty bad the entire season, seeing as they finished nearly 30 games under .500, but Joey Votto was the opposite of bad the entire season. At age 33, Votto had one of the best years of his career. He walked 7.3% more than he struck out (19.0%!!!! to 11.7%) and triple-slashed .320/.454/.578. If the Reds were any good, Votto and his 36 HR would be in the MVP conversation, but unfortunately he’ll probably finish behind Paul Goldschmidt of the DBacks, Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, and Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies in the MVP race this season.

Billy Hamilton had another solid season, and while he didn’t even close to a league-average clip (66 wRC+, league average is 100, so he hit 34% below that), he did swipe at least 55 bags for the fourth consecutive season (he stole 59, one more than his previous career high of 58). If Hamilton were his own team, he would have stolen as many or more bases than six other teams stole during the entire season (Rockies, Phillies, Mets, A’s, Jays, O’s). He also played spectacular defense in center field, and I would highly recommend searching up his season highlights on Youtube.

In addition to Votto and Hamilton, the Reds enjoyed the rather unexpected breakouts of both Scott Schebler and Scooter Gennett.

Schebler was acquired by the Reds from the Dodgers in the three-team deal that sent Todd Frazier to the White Sox, a package of prospects went to the Dodgers, and in return, they received a package of prospects. Schebler was not the headliner, that was incumbent 2B Jose Peraza, who had a rather disappointing first full season in the bigs. Schebler finally broke out this year, though, getting the opportunity for regular playing time and making the most of it. He triple-slashed .233/.307/.484, which is not eye-popping, but is certainly above league average, and showed off his power with 30 HR in 141 games played. As evidenced by his OBP, he didn’t walk a ton, which doesn’t couple well with the fact that he struck out in nearly one fourth of all his PA. He did, however, hit at a league-average rate (100 wRC+), which is pretty solid for a 27-year-old getting his first taste of regular playing time, especially given the power he displayed. I don’t know if Schebler will be a regular fixture in the lineup, or whether he’ll platoon and ride the pine versus lefties (career 106 wRC+ versus righties; 86 wRC+ versus lefties), but either way, it looks like the Reds hit here on the prospect they probably weren’t expecting to hit on in the Frazier deal.

Now comes perhaps the most surprising breakout player of 2017, Scooter Gennett. Gennett was waived by the Brewers and then claimed by the Reds less than a week before the season started. He appeared mostly at second base for the Reds this season, but also saw time at third, left, and center. He also became the seventeenth player ever to hit four HR in a game, and stands alone as the only player to hit four HR in a game and pitch in the same season (thanks, @MLBRandomStats on Twitter). He didn’t only do gimmicky things this year, though; he triple-slashed .295/.342/.531 (124 wRC+) and slugged a career-high 27 long balls. For reference, in 1637 plate appearances prior to this season, he had only hit 35 HR, and it only took him 497 PA in 2017 to hit almost 80% of that total. Considering the Brewers’ woes at second base this season with 2016 breakout Jonathan Villar struggling mightily, I’m sure they’re not happy they let Gennett get away and develop into a very good utility player.

The only other particularly noteworthy thing that the Reds did this season is develop former starter Raisel Iglesias into a very solid relief pitcher. Considering the Reds’ salary situation this upcoming offseason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cincinnati shop him around and see if they can get a haul similar to what the Phillies got for Ken Giles a few seasons ago. The market for relievers is extremely seller-friendly right now, so look for the Reds to cash in one of the most valuable trade chips they have that they would be willing to part with in an effort to further their rebuild.

As I mentioned earlier in the Reds blurb, I don’t see a lot of good for this team in the near future, but they have some solid minor league pieces and good, young building blocks, so at least the team is headed in the right direction. And if nothing else, fans will keep tuning in just to watch Joey Votto.

National League hitter ranks: 753 Runs scored (7th), 219 HR (6th), 120 SB (2nd), .253/.329/.433 triple-slash (8th/t-7th/8th), 22.7 WAR (6th)
National League pitcher ranks: 5.17 ERA (last), 20.7 % K% (10th), 1.45 WHIP (14th), 3.7 WAR (last)

Up Next: American League Central

(Image credit: Cut4 at MLB.com)

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