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MLB preview: Writers examine the burning questions in the NL Central

| Wednesday, March 29, 2017, 12:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder Andrew McCutchen celebrates his double during the first inning against the Orioles Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Chicago Cubs celebrate after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.

The Chicago Cubs are going to repeat as NL Central champs this year.

The St. Louis Cardinals and (to a lesser degree) the Pirates made some moves this past winter to shore up their rosters, but I don't believe either club did enough to fully close the gap. The stuck-in-neutral Milwaukee Brewers and rebuilding Cincinnati Reds are a few seasons away from contending.

So, when the boss asked me to forecast the NL Central standings at the end of 2017, it was easy to say: 1. Cubs, 2, Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers and 5. Reds.

Which NL Central teams will make the playoffs? Just the Cubs. (The rest of my predicted postseason picks have a familiar ring to them: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals and New York Mets.)

Who is the best overall position player in the NL Central? Starling Marte could be, if he ever puts a full season together. Until that breakthrough happens, the crown belongs to Kris Bryant of the Cubs. What's scary is, Bryant is still just 25 years old and hasn't even played in 400 games in the majors yet. He'll keep putting up eye-popping numbers for years.

The best overall pitcher in NL Central is Gerrit Cole ... when he's healthy. The Pirates right-hander was good but a little dinged up in 2014, dominated in '15, then lurched through an injury-marred '16. If that pattern holds, he'll re-establish himself as an ace this summer.

The most exciting player in the NL Central (in other words, the guy I'd pay to watch play) is Javier Baez. The Cubs second baseman caught everyone's attention last October with a cluster of stunning performances in the NLCS. He is bit of a swashbuckler on the basepaths, has good power in his bat (although he needs to cut down on his whiffs) and is a stellar defender.

Will Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen bounce back from his career-worst season? McCutchen's numbers will be better than last year, when he batted .256 with a .766 OPS and a minus-2.6 defensive WAR. Moving to right field should boost his defensive numbers. The motivation of showing the front office it's making a mistake by trying to trade him could help McCutchen rediscover his swing.

But don't take just my word on all this. Here's how other baseball insiders — veteran national reporters and beat writers from around the NL Central — see the division breaking down this season:

Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers, 5. Reds

Playoff team(s) from NL Central: Cubs

Division's best position player: A lot of people would say Bryant, but I think Cubs first baseman Rizzo is a wizard in the field as well as the best clutch hitter on the team.

Division's best pitcher: Cubs left-hander Jon Lester. This is close because Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are right there with him.

I'd pay to watch: I almost said Reds first baseman Joey Votto because, when he gets on one of his offensive rolls, he's just a machine out there. But Baez has so much flair and talent, and he can do things offensively and defensively that other players can't do.

McCutchen comeback: I think he will bounce back because he's still at an age where he should be in his prime, and now he won't have to worry about covering the cavernous center field in PNC Park. I always thought he had to be hurt last year because he didn't look like himself.


Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com and Baseball America

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers, 5. Reds

Playoff team(s) from NL Central: Cubs and Cardinals

Division's best position player: Bryant. The power is a given. He also gets on base at close to a .400 clip, and he's made himself into a solid defensive third baseman. One of Bryant's best attributes, for me, is his willingness to bounce around the field and play wherever manager Joe Maddon needs him on a given day. He's a star player with a selfless team ethic. That takes him to a different level.

Division's best pitcher: A lot of guys could be in this conversation, but I think you have to go with Lester because of his track record of durability and big-game performance.

I'd pay to watch: Kyle Schwarber. This might seem a little nutty, but I've always had a fondness for stocky, nonathletic-looking guys who rake — going back to John Kruk and Matt Stairs. Schwarber's injury comeback in October showed what a special hitter he is. He's an adventure in the field, but that unpredictability only contributes to his entertainment value.

McCutchen comeback: Yes. Maybe he's lost a step at age 30, but he logged an .810 OPS in August followed up by an .886 OPS in September. Great players respond after down years, and I'm sure McCutchen is super motivated after all the criticism and the offseason trade rumors. The more he hears how much he's "slipped," the more dangerous he becomes.


Buster Olney, ESPN

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs (by a wide margin), 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Reds, 5. Brewers

Playoff team(s) from NL Central: Cubs and Cardinals. I think the Pirates will contend for a spot, but they need a few things to fall their way ­— 30 starts (at least) by Cole, 130-plus games from Jung Ho Kang, and a return to form by Andrew McCutchen.

Division's best position player: Bryant is a monster who will continue to benefit from lineup protection in front of him (Schwarber) and behind him (Rizzo and Ben Zobrist).

Division's best pitcher: Lester, although the challenge will be different for him this year because he'll be working without catcher David Ross.

I'd pay to watch: I know he's not a dynamic offensive player, but I've always loved watching Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton because of his incredible baserunning arrogance. Rickey Henderson was the last player I've seen with that much confidence and baserunning aptitude. I just hope he builds off his second half last season and generates a .320 or better on-base percentage.

McCutchen comeback: Yes, I think so. It never looked like he was an aging hitter who was overmatched, which is something you see in declining players. It just looked like he was anxious and his timing was off.


Mark Sheldon, Reds.com

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Reds, 4. Pirates, 5. Brewers

Playoff team(s) from NL Central: Cubs

Division's best position player: Bryant. The defending MVP is so lethal at the plate, and he plays two defensive positions really well, too.

Division's best pitcher: Arrieta

I'd pay to watch: With his speed, you never know what Hamilton might do on the bases — and there's a chance it will be something you've never seen before. Defensively, he is able to chase down almost anything and make some amazing catches.

McCutchen comeback: Yes, especially if he's less worn out because he no longer plays in center field.


Jayson Stark, ESPN

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Reds, 5. Brewers

Playoff team(s): Cubs

Best position player: What can't Bryant do? Where can't he play? What award can't he win?

Best pitcher: I still think Cole, if healthy, has a Cy Young run in him.

I'd pay to watch: When Schwarber arrives at home plate, I stop whatever I'm doing to watch. That's telling me something.

McCutchen comeback: Yes. There is almost no precedent for a player this young to be in serious decline after being as good as McCutchen. I also expect him to be incredibly motivated. So 2+2 = Great


C. Trent Rosecrans, Cincinnati Enquirer

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers, 5. Reds

Playoff team(s): Cubs

Best position player: It's hard to go against the reigning National League MVP, so give it to Bryant not just for his bat but his versatility in the field. There are better hitters in the division (barely), better fielders and more versatile players, but nobody comes close when combining the three.

Best pitcher: I find it hard to pick against Arrieta, who can be so dominant. But I wouldn't be surprised if Cardinals righty Carlos Martinez is the answer at the end of the season.

I'd pay to watch: I think the most exciting play in baseball is the triple. I crave that moment when you see a guy round second at full speed and decide if he's going to third or not. With Hamilton, you get that will he/won't he on what is a sure single for others, and he'll turn it into a double — or you start wondering about an inside-the-park homer off the bat. Last year, he scored from second on a passed ball. That's excitement for me.

McCutchen comeback: That's in the eye of the beholder. I don't know that he'll be an MVP candidate again, but I think he's too good of a player to not come back to some extent. I hope he does, for the sake of baseball fans.


Jim Duquette, MLB Network Radio

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2 Cards, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers, 5. Reds

Playoff team(s) from NL Central: Cubs and Cardinals

Division's best position player: Bryant

Division's best pitcher: Lester

I'd pay to watch: For me, it's still McCutchen.

McCutchen comeback: Cutch will bounce back to the form he showed over his final 50 games last season. He has figured out what was wrong with his swing, and he's healthy.


Jim Bowden, ESPN.com and MLB Network Radio

Predicted order of finish: 1. Cubs, 2. Cardinals, 3. Pirates, 4. Brewers, 5. Reds

Playoff team(s): Cubs

Best position player: Bryant

Best pitcher: Lester

I'd pay to watch: Marte

McCutchen comeback: Yes


Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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