It's not yet spring training and we have picked apart the 2017 Cardinals, searching for the strengths and weaknesses of the team that soon will begin to establish its identity at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. We've noted some of the primary story lines and questions when it comes to pitching, defense (infield and outfield) and offense. Now it's time to lift up our heads and look around.
FanGraphs projects that the 2017 Cardinals will finish 84-78, good enough for another second-place finish in the division. Guess which team is the favorite? We start our National League Central spring training preview at the top, with the defending champion Chicago Cubs.
Last Season: 103-58, First in NL Central, World Series Champs
2017 prediction (FanGraphs): 94-68, First place
Let's start with the obvious: Dexter Fowler. The Cubs' leadoff hitter and starting center fielder now plays for the Cardinals. No, the Cubs didn't make a push to re-sign the free agent. But the departure of a key leader and outstanding table setter still causes a dent. The Cubs' winning percentage jumped 3.6 percent when Fowler played in 2016.
Outfielder Jorge Soler (56 starts last season) was traded to the Royals. Fan-favorite catcher David Ross retired. Versatile veteran Chris Coghlan is looking for a new home via free agency. (The lefthanded hitter would make sense for the Cardinals.)`
On the mound, the Cubs will feel the loss of dominant closer Aroldis Chapman, who returned to the Yankees after his rental helped the Cubs break the curse. This is great news for the Cardinals. Chapman is a Cardinal-killer. He hasn't let them score a run off him since 2011. That's 29 consecutive scoreless appearances and counting.
Barring a surprise, the Cubs also will move forward without Jason Hammel, a 30-game starter who won 15, and reliever Travis Wood (77 appearances, 2.95 ERA).
Notable New Faces:
Goodbye Chapman, hello Wade Davis. The Cubs pulled the trigger on the Soler trade to reunite manager Joe Maddon with a closer who used to start for him in Tampa. The biggest question here is health. Davis, a World Series winner with the Royals in 2015, twice landed on the disabled list last season due to forearm strains. When he's right, he's one of the best. Since 2014 (regular and postseason games), the righthander has a 1.08 ERA and an 87.9 save percentage (51 out of 58 opportunities). He's allowed three home runs in his last 185 regular season games. Few pitchers can put their fastball up against Chapman's, but Davis has some serious heat. His four-seamer has an average velocity of 96.25 the past three seasons.
Joining Davis in the bullpen is 41-year-old righthander Koji Uehara, the former Red Sox closer who picked off Kolten Wong in the 2013 World Series. He missed a chunk of time last season due to a pectoral strain, and finished with a 3.45 ERA in 50 appearances. He remains stellar against lefties. They slashed .139/.200/.278 against him in 2016. Uehara is expected to be the setup man for Davis. This is nuts but true: The Cubs now have three pitchers (Davis, Uehara and Mike Montgomery) who have recorded a final out in a World Series.
The Cubs are also banking on a return to health with former Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson. The lefty should compete with Mike Montgomery for the final starting spot in the rotation, with the loser headed to the bullpen. Anderson received a one-year deal with incentives based on how many games he starts. That's a smart move, considering his history of injuries and the two latest issues (a back problem and a blister) that limited him to three starts and one relief appearance last season. Anderson went 10-9 with a 3.69 ERA in a career-high 180 innings the year before. At his best, Anderson is a ground-ball gatherer (66.7 groundball percentage in 2015). At his worst, he's a liability. He's Jaime Garcia-like.
Former Cardinal Jon Jay now calls Wrigley Field home. The Cubs signed the free agent outfielder to a one-year deal to help make up for the departure of Fowler. Jay was working on a stellar season in San Diego until he broke his right forearm. He averaged .291 with a .339 on-base percentage and hit 26 doubles in 347 at-bats.
"The Cubs fans are great," Jay told reporters recently. "Cardinals fans are great to me and obviously I’m a Cub now and I love my Cubs fans. We’re trying to beat the Cardinals, so it's all good."
Now, on to Kyle Schwarber. OK, he's not new, but the slugging left fielder/catcher (and leadoff hitter?) is back after a scary knee injury last season limited him to two regular-season games. Schwarber rushed back to play in the World Series. He's hit five home runs in his 14 career postseason games. Here's thinking he gets his first hit against the Cardinals (currently zero-for-12) some time this season.
Will Jason Heyward hit? The former Cardinals outfielder became the toast of the town after he was credited for turning a rain delay into a memorable speech that inspired his teammates to save Game 7. Had the Cubs lost, Heyward would have been the topic of much angst this offseason. A parade overshadows things another Gold Glove would not have covered. Heyward followed up his eight-year, $184 million deal with career worsts in average (.230), on-base percentage (.306) and slugging percentage (.325). His on-base plus slugging (.631) ranked 144th out of 146 major leaguers who averaged more than three plate appearances per game. Heyward rebuilt his swing this winter. All eyes will be on his bat this spring.
Can the defense do it again? The Cubs were the only team in baseball last season to finish above average in Defensive Runs Saves at every single position. Their 107 DRS as a team beat the second-place Astros by a whopping 26 runs. But they move forward without center fielder Fowler, who improved his defensive metrics greatly last season, and will now rely on the combination of the veteran Jay and the youngster Albert Amora. And while the Cubs will be happy to have Schwarber's bat, they will have to accept the left-field defense that comes with it. The star-studded infield should be on lockdown once again, but the outfield could be a bit more porous in 2017.
How will the starters hold up? The rotation that proved to be baseball's best last season looks a little different now. Hammel is gone. Jake Arrieta's 30. Jon Lester's 33. John Lackey's 38. These guys make Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery (27) look like kids. Lester and Hendricks were pretty much lights out in 2016. But Arrieta appeared human once or twice. Lackey was unable to replicate his stellar 2015 season with the Cardinals and spent some time on the disabled list due to a shoulder strain. And Montgomery has never pitched more than 90 innings in a season.
Will the World Series hangover set in? It's incredibly hard to win a ring. Recent history tells us it's even harder to do it twice in two seasons. Blame it on the extra games, the added stress/celebration or simply the parity in today's game, but there are reasons no team has pulled it off since the three-peat Yankees won it all in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
The Prospect to Know:
Trevor Clifton is not the highest-ranked prospect in the Cubs farm system -- Baseball Prospectus tagged him fourth -- but he might be the one who is most likely to make his major league debut this season. The second-round pick in 2013 posted a 2.72 ERA in 23 High-A starts starts last season. The righthander has totaled 41 more strikeouts (301) than hits allowed (260). He has plenty of work left to do, but if the Cubs find themselves in need of an arm, perhaps his development hits the fast track.