Not to denigrate the other four National League Central squads, but really: Who’s going to catch the Chicago Cubs? For the first time in 108 years, the Cubs will begin a season as defending champions of baseball, and they’re poised to coast to another division title – and possibly even back-to-back World Series wins. Standing in their way are two very good teams with playoff experience that could – if things break right – give the Cubs a scare as they battle each other for the wild-card spots.

As we continue marching towards Opening Day, here’s all you need to know about the NL Central in theScore’s division primer.

Division Primers
AL East | AL Central | AL West
NL East | NL Central | NL West

Chicago Cubs

2016 record: 103-58 (1st)
2017 payroll: $169,387,881
Over/Under win total for 2017: 95.5
Odds to win World Series: 9-2
3-year trend: 2014 (5th); 2015 (3rd); 2016 (1st)
Highest projected WAR: Kris Bryant (5.7)
X-factor: Kyle Schwarber
Prospect to watch: Ian Happ (MLB.com: No. 28; Baseball America: No. 63: Baseball Prospectus: No. 54)
Winter report card: A-

Projected Lineup

ORDER PLAYER POSITION
1 Kyle Schwarber LF
2 Ben Zobrist 2B
3 Anthony Rizzo 1B
4 Kris Bryant 3B
5 Addison Russell SS
6 Jason Heyward RF
7 Willson Contreras C
8 Jon Jay CF

Projected Rotation

Pitcher Throws Projected ERA
Jon Lester L 3.42
Jake Arrieta R 3.39
John Lackey R 3.98
Brett Anderson L 3.75
Kyle Hendricks R 3.59

Cubs win the division if …

Everything goes according to plan. The Cubs enter 2017 relatively unchanged: They still have incredible depth, own two of baseball’s best starters, and should get the luxury of a healthy Schwarber for more than two regular-season games. Aside from the issue of whether new closer Wade Davis’ arm can hold up for another season, there aren’t many question marks here, making the reigning World Series champions the class of the NL for the foreseeable future.

Cincinnati Reds

2016 record: 68-94 (5th)
2017 payroll: $82,466,786
Over/Under win total for 2017: 70.5
Odds to win World Series: 200-1
3-year trend: 2014 (4th); 2015 (5th); 2016 (5th)
Highest projected WAR: Joey Votto (3.8)
X-factor: Jose Peraza
Prospect to watch: Amir Garrett (MLB.com: No. 66; Baseball America: No. 81; Baseball Prospectus: No. 32)
Winter report card: C-

Projected Lineup

ORDER PLAYER POSITION
1 Billy Hamilton CF
2 Jose Peraza 2B
3 Joey Votto 1B
4 Adam Duvall LF
5 Scott Schebler RF
6 Zack Cozart SS
7 Eugenio Suarez 3B
8 Tucker Barnhart C

Projected Rotation

Pitcher Throws Projected ERA
Scott Feldman R 4.49
Brandon Finnegan L 4.62
Cody Reed L 4.09
Bronson Arroyo R 4.90
Robert Stephenson R 4.83

Reds win the division if …

Hell freezes over. The Reds won’t compete for the division anytime soon and should focus on their rebuild. They have a nice piece for the future in Peraza, while Votto continues to dazzle and pad his growing case for Cooperstown. Hamilton broke out at the plate in the second half last year and finally gave the Queen City a glimpse of the dynamic threat he can become. Still, there’s a long way to go before baseball fans in Cincinnati will be rooting for a winner.

Milwaukee Brewers

2016 record: 73-89 (4th)
2017 payroll: $55,425,000
Over/Under win total for 2017: 69.5
Odds to win World Series: 200-1
3-year trend: 2014 (3rd); 2015 (4th); 2016 (4th)
Highest projected WAR: Junior Guerra (2.6)
X-factor: Eric Thames
Prospect to watch: Lewis Brinson (MLB.com: No. 18; Baseball America: 27; Baseball Prospectus: 12)
Winter report card: B-

Projected Lineup

ORDER PLAYER POSITION
1 Jonathan Villar 2B
2 Keon Broxton CF
3 Ryan Braun LF
4 Eric Thames 1B
5 Domingo Santana RF
6 Travis Shaw 3B 
7 Orlando Arcia SS
8 Jett Bandy C

Projected Rotation

Pitcher Throws Projected ERA
Junior Guerra R 4.43
Zach Davies R 4.36
Wily Peralta R 4.65
Matt Garza R 4.90
Jimmy Nelson R 4.81

Brewers win the division if …

They get all kinds of breaks. As is the case for the Reds, it’s just not going to happen for Milwaukee this year. The Brewers do, however, have some intriguing pieces. Villar emerged as a star last season, Braun is as consistent a producer as they come, and the team acquired Shaw – another steady contributor – in a deal with the Red Sox. It’ll also be fascinating to watch Thames’ return to the United States after three years of Ruthian-like production in Korea. Still, it’s not the Brewers’ time yet.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2016 record: 78-83 (3rd)
2017 payroll: $95,283,332
Over/Under win total for 2017: 82.5
Odds to win World Series: 50-1
3-year trend: 2014 (2nd); 2015 (2nd); 2016 (3rd)
Highest projected WAR: Gerrit Cole (3.7)
X-factor: Josh Bell
Prospect to watch: Tyler Glasnow (MLB.com: No. 8; Baseball America: No. 23; Baseball Prospectus: No. 14)
Winter report card: B-

Projected Lineup

ORDER PLAYER POSITION
1 Josh Harrison 2B
2 Josh Bell 1B 
3 Andrew McCutchen RF
4 Starling Marte CF
5 Gregory Polanco LF
6 David Freese 3B
7 Francisco Cervelli C
8 Jordy Mercer SS

Projected Rotation

Pitcher Throws Projected ERA
Gerrit Cole R 3.69
Jameson Taillon R 3.59
Ivan Nova R 4.04
Chad Kuhl R 4.47
Steven Brault L 4.17

Pirates win the division if …

McCutchen returns to MVP form and the pitching staff dazzles. The Pirates are an interesting squad heading into 2017. They have one of the best outfields in baseball, a few top prospects ready to make an impact, and an experienced manager in Clint Hurdle. The Pirates may not come close to winning the division, but a wild-card spot is very much in play.

St. Louis Cardinals

2016 record: 86-76 (2nd)
2017 payroll: $141,262,500
Over/Under win total for 2017: 84.5
Odds to win World Series: 25-1
3-year trend: 2014 (1st); 2015 (1st); 2016 (2nd)
Highest projected WAR: Carlos Martinez (3.6)
X-factor: Dexter Fowler
Prospect to watch: Carson Kelly (MLB.com: No. 39; Baseball America: No. 65; Baseball Prospectus: No. 81)
Winter report card: A-

Projected Lineup

ORDER PLAYER POSITION
1 Dexter Fowler CF
2 Aledmys Diaz SS
3 Matt Carpenter 1B
4 Stephen Piscotty RF
5 Yadier Molina C
6 Jhonny Peralta 3B
7 Kolten Wong 2B
8 Randal Grichuk LF

Projected Rotation

Pitcher Throws Projected ERA
Carlos Martinez R 3.59
Adam Wainwright R 3.90
Lance Lynn R 3.90
Michael Wacha R 4.04
Mike Leake R 4.16

Cardinals win the division if …

They stay healthy. St. Louis got bitten badly by the injury bug last season as Carpenter, Peralta, Lynn, and Wacha all missed time. Unfortunately, the club’s already lost promising pitching prospect Alex Reyes for this season after he underwent Tommy John surgery. Still, the consistent Cardinals seem poised to improve in 2017 and should pose the biggest threat to the Cubs’ reign atop the Central.

Photos courtesy: Action Images
Salary projections courtesy: Cots Baseball Contracts
Projected WAR, ERA courtesy: Fangraphs
Odds courtesy: Bovada

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