NL Central prediction: No hibernation for Cubbies

The fields are cut, the mounds are smooth and the peanuts are primed and salted. It is that time of year again, baseball fans.

The 2017 MLB season is on the horizon. With Opening Day around the corner, here’s a look at how the National League Central will shape up this season.

Do the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs repeat in the division and start a dynasty? Are the Pittsburgh Pirates young talent ready to take the next step to contend or will it be a firesale this trade-deadline with their veteran stars? Can the St. Louis Cardinals bounce back after an injury-riddled season? (When haven’t they?) Do the Milwaukee Brewers have enough young bats to bypass their lack of pitching? Will this be the year Ryan Braun finally gets traded to a contender? How bad are the Cincinnati Reds?

The Cubs have the pieces to form a dynasty, with five 25-or-younger position players expected to start this season; plus a rotation that returns its four quality starters in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, and ace Jake Arrieta.

And don’t forget their loaded farm system ready to be called upon, should the North-Siders need mid-season injury replacements or a deadline deal to land another big name.

The return of a healthy left fielder in Kyle Schwarber will be a huge boost to the club offensively. His remarkable performance (.412, 7 Hits, 2 RBI in 17 AB) in his return from injury in the 2016 World Series will forever live in the heart of Cubs fans.

The only question mark on the Cubs roster is their outfield with Jason Heyward coming off a down year (.230, 7 HR, 49 RBI) and Dexter Fowler leaving to join the Cardinals. But the Cubs are deep enough to withstand that.

The Cubbies win total will drop from 103 wins to 94, according to FanGraphs, which has them tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers as baseball’s best team. The reason for an expected nine fewer wins for Chicago: A healthy Cardinals roster.

The Cards’ streak of three straight NL Central titles and five-straight playoff appearances ended last season and their chances of claiming another division crown are steep with the Cubs roaming. However, St. Louis is still in a class above the competition in the Central.

Injuries stymied the red birds in 2016, and it affected their record. After winning 100 games in 2015 (100-62), their win total declined in 2016 (86-76) primarily due to, Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn each seeing time on the Disabled list.

Barring injuries, St. Louis has its own young core to build around in budding ace Carlos Martinez and position players Diaz, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty. Diaz is coming off an All-Star season (.300, 17 HR, 65 RBI) and looks to be a cornerstone at shortstop.

Pepper in savvy veterans like Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter and this team cannot be counted out. The Cards haven’t dipped below 84 regular-season wins in a decade, and don’t expect that streak to stop this season, meaning they will be in the thick of the wild card race at worst.

Arguably the most talented team in the division is also most puzzling. On paper, the Pirates look like a team that can contend for a World Series but for some reason they can never get over the hump. After failing below .500 last season (78-83), the Pirates have several questions to answer this season.

First, will the face of the franchise in Andrew McCutchen (.256, 24 HR, 79 RBI) regain his old MVP form and bounce back from last season enduring a move from center field to right?

Will Jameson Taillon develop into a viable second option next to Gerrit Cole, after showing signs in a 18-start stint in 2016?

Or will the Pirates be sellers at the trade deadline?

Pittsburgh is relying on their young pitching talent in Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow, and first baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Gregory Polanco to steer the ship in the direction of a return to October baseball. It may be too much to ask the Bucs to take down the Cubs, but 90 wins and contention for the wild card are not completely out of the question.

The final two teams, the Reds and Brewers, will find themselves outside looking in, cursed with the misfortune of competing in this jam-packed division.

The Brewers are in the worst place for a franchise to be — STUCK.

Their struggling in the middle of the group trying to contend but clearly don’t have enough talent. This season will be the year (hopefully) former MVP Braun gets traded. Despite his strong 2016 at the plate (.305, 30 HR, 91 RBI) the Brewers still finished under .500 last season for the third time since 2014 going (73-89).

After dealing veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy last summer, and sending away Tyler Thornburg this winter, the Brewers have boosted their farm system a little but nothing drastic.

While they have an impressive core of young position players, led by second baseman Jonathan Villar, they don’t have anywhere near enough pitching to contend or enough prospects to rebuild properly… Unless blow it up and deal Braun.

Only the Minnesota Twins had a worse record in 2016 than Cincinnati (68-94), and it’s hard to see how the Reds get much better in 2017.

The starting pitching rotation of Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Scott Feldman and Robert Stephenson will make the Reds a tougher defeat than some might expect. But there just isn’t much to look forward to with the Reds this season except losing.

Aside from all-stars Joey Votto and Adam Duvall, there aren’t any other players on the Reds roster to get excited about.

All in all, it’ll be a long season for the Reds, and they will be lucky to exceed their projected 70 regular season wins.

Final Prediction

The Cubbies continue to roll and become a dynasty winning another division and most likely a deep playoff run. The Cardinals get back to their playoff ways with the addition of former Cub front man Fowler. While the Pirates and Brewers become sellers at the trade deadline and deal McCutchen and Braun to focus on developing their young talent. As for Cincinnati, they will try to not to have the worst record in baseball — but don’t bet on it.