MLB 2018 Season Preview: National League Central

5 new faces key to the National League Central race

Yu Darvish, SP, Chicago Cubs

Cubs’ projected record (FanGraphs): 93-69
Cubs’ projected record (PECOTA): 91-71
Darvish’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.9

Unwilling to cede their position as the unequivocal favorite in the NL Central, the Cubs replaced Jake Arrieta this offseason with a younger, bat-missing-er stud in Darvish, giving the four-time All-Star $126 million to prevent their potential dynasty from derailing. Now, barring injury, the Cubs are poised to be an elite run-prevention team again in 2018 following a perfectly-fine-but-not-quite-spectacular performance from their rotation a year ago. Seeing as they’re also going to score a lot of runs in 2018it’s fair to presume that the Cubs will win a lot of games this season. Like, a lot. Darvish wasn’t quite as dominant last year in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery (and, for the record, his World Series struggles have been way overblown), but the 31-year-old is still a top-end starter, having finished 18th in the majors in WAR (3.5) in 2017 despite allowing more hard contact with a drop-off in strikeout rate, too. His velocity didn’t degrade at all from 2016, either – over 17 starts, Darvish managed a 3.09 FIP – and his bloated homer-to-fly-ball rate suggests there’s room for positive regression. Ultimately, though, even if Darvish’s 2017 numbers (3.86 ERA; 3.83 FIP) are indicative of a new performance baseline, the Cubs are going to be fine. Better, even.

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Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers’ projected record (FanGraphs): 78-84
Brewers’ projected record (PECOTA): 84-78
Yelich’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.9

Following an unexpectedly competitive 2017 season, the Brewers – who finished one game back of the second wild-card spot – took major steps this winter to expedite their rebuild, none more significant than the January trade in which they sent top prospect Lewis Brinson, an ostensible centerpiece of their future, to Miami for Yelich. They’re still not quite good enough to challenge the Cubs for the division title, but it’s clear that the future is now (or at least rapidly approaching) for the Brewers given that they’re expending prospect capital to improve their 25-man roster and signing free agents on the wrong side of 30 (more on that later). As such, expect the Brewers to be in the thick of the wild-card race again in 2018, as Yelich – who boasts a career 120 OPS+ – should help offset regression from the likes of Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, and Domingo Santana, keeping Milwaukee firmly in maybe-good-but-definitely-not-great territory. Yelich, after all, has quietly been one of the game’s most valuable players over the past few seasons, accruing 15.9 WAR since 2014 while slashing .290/.368/.436 with an average of 14 homers, 34 doubles, and 16 stolen bases per season.

Marcell Ozuna, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals’ projected record (FanGraphs): 86-76
Cardinals’ projected record (PECOTA): 85-77
Ozuna’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 3.8

One of the first teams to take advantage of the Marlins’ dismantling, the Cardinals – undeterred by their surplus of outfielders – shipped a pair of middling prospects and two more non-prospects to Miami in December for Ozuna, a power-hitting left fielder who likely improves their roster more than any free-agent position player could have. Though the 27-year-old may not be able to replicate his numbers from last year, when he set career highs in WAR (4.8), OPS (.924), home runs (37), and defensive runs saved (10), Ozuna still raises the floor significantly. He’s been worth at last 2.5 WAR in three of the last four seasons, and his arrival in St. Louis had ancillary benefits, too; Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk were rendered superfluous, and enabled the Cardinals to trade both outfielders for help on the farm and in the bullpen. Frankly, the Cardinals should’veearned a wild-card berth last year – at 83-79, they finished four wins shy of their expected (Pythag) record – and they didn’t lose any key contributors this winter, so even if the upgrade that Ozuna offers is marginal, they’re still going to be competitive. If he does continue to perform at his 2017 level, though, it’s conceivable that they’re fighting for the division come September.

Lorenzo Cain, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Brewers’ projected record (FanGraphs): 78-84
Brewers’ projected record (PECOTA): 84-78
Cain’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 2.8

Mere moments after landing Yelich back in January, their increasing glut of everyday outfielders notwithstanding, the Brewers finalized a deal to reunite with Cain, handing their former 17th-round pick the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history (5 years, $80 million). Unlike the Yelich trade, however, which has both immediate and long-term value, the Cain deal is – despite its term – a short-term move, a surprisingly aggressive salvo that reinforces the Brewers’ plan to compete in 2018. Cain, after all, turns 32 a couple weeks after Opening Day, and diminishing returns should be expected within the next few seasons given his speed-centric profile. For now, at least, the Brewers have a bona fide stud in center field – a major upgrade over Keon Broxton – as Cain has been the fifth-most valuable outfielder in the majors since his breakout 2014 campaign, combining elite defense and baserunning with an above-average bat. As evidenced by the projections above, the Brewers’ 2018 campaign has a fairly wide range of outcomes, but with Cain holding it down in center, Milwaukee’s less-established players don’t necessarily have to realize their 90-percentile projections for the club to earn a wild-card berth.

Brandon Morrow, RP, Chicago Cubs

Cubs’ projected record (FanGraphs): 93-69
Cubs’ projected record (PECOTA): 91-71
Morrow’s projected 2018 WAR (Steamer): 0.7

Instead of picking up a proven closer to replace Wade Davis, who landed a mammoth $52-million deal with the Rockies, the Cubs opted for the value play in Morrow, the resurgent right-hander who dominated out of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen last year following a largely unsuccessful and injury-marred seven-year run as a starter. Armed with an 98-mph four-seamer and a nasty slider, Morrow crafted a 2.06 ERA with an 0.92 WHIP over 45 appearances, tossing 43 2/3 innings without allowing a home run while also managing the fifth-lowest expected wOBA(.211) in the majors (his postseason, incidentally, was a different story). Still, believing in a breakout season from a relief pitcher and building a bullpen around that guy are two entirely different things. Relievers are notoriously volatile, after all – only a handful can be relied upon to dominate year after year – and Morrow, who turns 34 in July, has been a good one for roughly 3 1/2 months. If he turns back into a pumpkin, or if he’s simply unable to stay healthy, the ninth inning could be a real problem for the Cubs, as each of Morrow’s potential replacements has some kind of red flag: C.J. Edwards struggles to throw strikes; Pedro Strop’s strikeout rate dropped significantly last year; and Steve Cishek can’t really get lefties out.

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