NL Central thoughts today. I’ll have something up on the AL Central on Thursday.
- It was surprising to see the Cubs do essentially nothing over the winter after tumbling to 84-78 and missing the postseason last year, but given that ownership obviously wasn’t willing to expand the payroll, staying put probably was the team’s best option. Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber could have brought nice returns, but the Cubs no longer have their old depth and would struggle mightily to replace their bats. Jose Quintana wasn’t going to fetch much, and the team would have had to add a veteran to replace him anyway. I’m not all that optimistic about the Cubs’ chances for 2020 as is, but they still have quite a bit of talent, probably more than they’d have had they started making deals.
- That the Cubs did so little was good news for one of my favorite breakthrough candidates, Ian Happ. The 25-year-old Happ struck out 25% of the time upon returning from the minors last year, and while that’s not great, it’s a big improvement over his 31% mark as a rookie or his horrible 36% mark as a sophomore in 2019. Good things happen when Happ makes contact; he has a .329 BABIP and he’s homered on 23% of his flyballs in his career. The Cubs’ plan seems to be for Happ to get a shot as the regular center fielder, though they do have alternatives if he struggles. I thought he was a good bet for 32-35 homers in a 162-game season.
- Tyler Chatwood is in line to serve as the Cubs’ fifth starter after getting off to a nice start this spring (1.86 ERA, 11/2 K/BB ratio in 9 2/3 innings). That’s the right call, but I was holding out some hope that Alec Mills would get the gig. I don’t think Mills is a better bet than Chatwood from a run prevention standpoint, but he would be stronger in WHIP and strikeouts, making him more intriguing for fantasy purposes. Mills is out of options, so he’ll probably open up in middle relief.
- It didn’t appear as though the Reds had any plans to ease the logjam created by the Nick Castellanos signing, so they’ll likely have two outfield spots available for Shogo Akiyama, Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker, Aristides Aquino and Phil Ervin. It seemed that Senzel would start off on the IL or in the minors as he finished his recovery from shoulder surgery, but now he should be at full strength by the time play begins. Akiyama is nearly certain to start against righties initially, and Winker has a career .307/.396/.511 line against righties, so it’s going to be awfully difficult to stick him on the bench. Ervin should also be a lock for the team, given that he’s out of options and he’s hit .313/.371/.536 in 197 career plate appearances against lefties. It wouldn’t seem to bode well for either Senzel or Aquino this year.
- That’s too bad, because I had high hopes for Senzel before the Reds added Akiyama and Castellanos. I thought he was overhyped in fantasy leagues a year ago, since he was coming off just a 44-game season in 2018 and was trying to learn a new position in center. In the end, he played about as well as expected, finishing in at .256/.315/.427 with 12 homers in 104 games. He’ll almost certainly drag down his strikeout rate and hit for a better average going forward. He’s not going to be a huge power guy, but he’ll be solid there and he has the speed to steal 25 bases. There’s plenty to like about him as a long-term keeper.
- Akiyama settled for a rather modest three-year, $21 million contract over the winter because of questions about how his power would translate and whether he’d be an average defensive center fielder in the majors. I don’t know about the latter subject yet, but unless there’s a significant change in the baseballs, I imagine he’ll hit some homers in Cincinnati. Akiyama gets the ball in the air plenty frequently, and he collected 108 doubles and 17 triples to go along with his 69 homers for Seibu the last three years. Since he’ll sit against lefties and he probably won’t be a big steal guy, I don’t think he has all that much fantasy upside. Still, he should work fine as a fifth outfielder in mixed leagues.
- The Brewers also have playing time issues after going for quantity over quality last winter. Avisail Garcia, Justin Smoak and Ryan Braun will be fighting for two lineup spots most days, and Luis Urias, Orlando Arcia, Eric Sogard, Jedd Gyorko and Brock Holt will all be competing for playing time on the left side of the infield. It’s hard to be very optimistic about any of those guys as is. Garcia has enough power and ability to hit for average to be really interesting as a full-time player in the middle of the Brewers lineup, but he seems destined to lose a couple of starts per week to Braun. Smoak and Urias would also be nice end-game picks if assured of regular at-bats, but as is, I always seem to prefer other options while drafting.
- Arcia had a stunning start to his spring, hitting five homers in 27 at-bats. I argued that he should have taken a non-tender rather than agree to a one-year, $2.2 million deal in arbitration, but maybe he can hold off Urias and keep the starting job at short in Milwaukee, at least for a little while. He’s still just 25, and he didn’t seem hopeless offensively through his first 1 ½ years in the bigs. He lost his power during his dreadful 2018, but he actually got some of it back last year; the problem was that he had just a .253 BABIP, compared to .317 and .305 the previous two years. I don’t believe that Arcia will bust out, but he’s still capable of 15 homers and 15 steals. Had he ended up with the Orioles or another rebuilding team, he could have been an option in deeper leagues,
- Eric Lauer’s shoulder impingement seemed to mean that either Freddy Peralta or Corbin Burnes would open up as the Brewers’ fifth starter, but Lauer should be back in the mix now. It probably makes the most sense to see what Peralta can do, especially since the team just gave him a five-year, $15.5 million contract. Burnes, though, was off to a terrific start this spring, having allowed one run and struck out 13 in 10 innings. He appeared destined for the bullpen or Triple-A initially, so it’s a good thing that he’s put himself back in the conversation, even if his momentum is gone now. I still love his upside. Lauer really should be a fallback to those two; he’ll be needed as a starter eventually and he’ll probably hold his own once the time comes, but let’s see what the higher ceiling guys can do.
- I wonder if any team in baseball would care less than the Pirates if there were no baseball this year. They didn’t do anything over the winter to improve, and they’re going to be without their best pitcher anyway after Jameson Taillon required Tommy John surgery. They were hoping their young players would keep developing and that Chris Archer and Keone Kela would pitch well enough to generate some trade value over the summer. That’s pretty much it.
- Since they have Ke’Bryan Hayes on the way, the Pirates declined to upgrade from Colin Moran at the hot corner over the winter. Moran has been decent offensively in two years since coming over in the Gerrit Cole trade, amassing a 101 OPS+, but he’s been awful defensively at third base. Since he obviously belongs at first, he needs to take a real step forward offensively in order to stay in the league. The first two months of this year was supposed to be his last, best chance to make it happen. Hayes isn’t all that interesting as a fantasy prospect, but his glove will be a massive upgrade for Pittsburgh.
- I thought Gregory Polanco was being underrated in drafts this spring. 2019 was a bust for him after shoulder surgery, but he hit .254/.340/.499 with 23 homers and 12 steals in 130 games in 2018 and he’s still just 28 years old. He’ll probably wind up hitting third or fourth in the Pirates lineup, and while it’s not a very good lineup at all, they’re should be sufficient OBP at the top of the order and additional support provided by Josh Bell. The upside isn’t what it seemed to be a few years ago, but I think he’ll be useful as a fourth or fifth outfielder in mixed leagues.
- The Cardinals pitching staff seems much better set up for a 100ish-game season beginning this summer than it did for a 162-gamer. Miles Mikolas (elbow) should be ready to pitch when play resumes, and Jordan Hicks could now spend the bulk of the campaign in the closer’s role. Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright also seem like much better bets for 20 starts than they were for 30-32. It does hurt one of my favorite deep sleepers, Daniel Ponce de Leon. He was battling Kwang-Hyun Kim for Mikolas’s rotation spot, but he could be limited to competing for a relief gig after things start back up.
- Left field was the spot up for grabs in the St. Louis outfield this spring, but it’s not like any of them should be entirely settled. Harrison Bader is supposed to start in center, but he was demoted to Triple-A for a time last year and he started just three of the Cardinals’ nine postseason games in center. It still feels like he should be safer than Dexter Fowler. Fowler bounced back well from his disastrous 2018 season, but he was still an average regular at best last year and he’s more likely to decline than to stay at that level in his age-34 season. My guess is that the Cardinals’ best outfield has Bader in center and Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson in the corners.
- I had to drop Edman in my rankings this spring because the Cardinals seemed committed to leaving him in a utility role, even though he was the team’s best hitter and a plus defender after arriving last season. I was very high on Edman; I don’t expect him to hit quite so well again (he came in at .304/.350/.500 in his 349 PA last season), but I think he’ll be solid and he could rate as one of the game’s best basestealers. Edman was 15-for-16 stealing bases in the majors, and he was 39-for-44 in his 175 minor league games the last two years. It’s OK with me if the Cardinals want to play him all over the place, but I think he needs to be a member of the starting lineup until he gives them reason to make a change.