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N.L. Central Preview, Part 2

The pitchers on the teams the Cardinals will play the most in 2017

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Here we are, just a few days away from opening day. We already previewed the position players and pitchers on the teams likely to compete for the Wild Card, and on Monday we looked at the position players in the N.L. Central. Last up today is pitchers in the N.L. Central. The starters will start things off. I took the opening day rotation for each team, and found a simple average of their projected FIP for 2017. Here’s the results:

Still getting used to the Cubs being first in stuff? Yeah, me too. The top 3 rotations are pretty similar though, and you don’t want to take the projections so seriously as to assume the Cubs will have the best rotation in the Central, at least by fielding independent numbers. The Brewers pretty clearly project much worse than the top 3, and the Reds may very easily have the worst rotation in all the majors in 2017.

Let’s check out that Cubs rotation:

The Cubs rotation depends on a 33 year old ace continuing to dominate, and a 37 year old continuing to pitch at an above-average rate. It features a guy that threw just 11 innings last year, and averaged just 63 innings over the last 5 years. That’s the worst you can say about this group. The projections believe Arrieta’s decline, as his projection matches his output in 2016.

On to the Pirates:

I talked about the Pirates’ rotation in the Wild Card preview, but I’ll add a few thoughts here as well. 185 innings seems like a lot to project for an injury prone Gerrit Cole, who has averaged 154 innings the last three years. Ivan Nova was one of the best deals of the off-season. The rest of the rotation debuted just last year, and is testament to the fact that Pittsburgh Draft and Development machine is alive and well.

The Brewers lead for the weaker rotations:

The projections really don’t believe in Junior Guerra’s 2017, who was worth 2.5 WAR in 122 innings last year, slightly higher than what’s expected of him in 60 additional innings in 2017. That’s largely because a good chunk of his success came from limiting homers, as he posted a 4.29 xFIP, compared to a 3.71 FIP. Jimmy Nelson and Wily Peralta are nothing special in terms of fielding-independent numbers, but both manage ground-ball rates around 50%. That helps them avoid homers in the Brewer’s small park, but they don’t exactly have a gold glove infield behind them.

Pulling up the rear is the Reds..

Until Homer Bailey returns, the Reds’ rotation doesn’t contain a single above average starter. Pretty much every game against them has a legitimate chance of being a high scoring affair, in a good way.

Starting pitchers get hurt often though. Utilizing Jeff Zimmerman’s D.L. projections, here are the chances of each team sustaining three or more D.L. trips to the Opening Day rotations

The Cubs come in first, despite employing Brett Anderson. The spread isn’t as large as the picture looks though, the Cardinals are only about 20% more likely to incur three injuries as the Cubs are. It’s important for the Cubs though, who may struggle to find quality starters inside the org if they suffer injuries. Still, it might just mean that they pony up some prospects at the deadline to fix that hole.

It’s a long-shot for any rotation to not incur at least one injury during the 162 game slog. Here’s how each team’s sixth starter ranks:

And a corresponding table:

Luke Weaver takes this one home for the Cardinals, just like he did in the Wild Card preview. Mike Montgomery takes second for the Cubs, and will begin the year in the pen. Anthony DeSclafani isn’t actually waiting in the wings, he’s recovering from injury. He actually projects better than anyone in the Reds’ opening day rotation. Trevor Williams was compensation from the Marlins for letting them hire away the Pirate’s special assistant to the G.M. Jim Benedict. He was just as important as Ray Searage to the Pirate’s abilities to make pretty much any pitcher better.

And next, we’ll look at each team’s seventh starter:

And a corresponding table:

Former top prospect Drew Hutchison possesses some upside to the Pirates in Triple-A. The Reds again place well, by nature of Homer Bailey also attempting to return from injury. The Reds’ $105M/6 year deal has went about as bad as could be imagined, as he’s produced just 2 WAR in 180 innings over the first three years, and projects to add less than 1 to that total in year four.

That’s where John Gant comes in. For context, in 2016, 22 of 71 qualified starting pitchers put up an FIP worse than Gant’s projected FIP. That makes him a pretty solid 5th starter in my book. That’s pretty nice to have in the seventh spot. Taylor Jungmann is inning filler. Eddie Butler is a former 1s compensation pick (in between the first and second round of the amateur draft) who flamed out with the Rockies. Now that he’s been traded to the Cubs, expect him to suddenly turn into a solid starter.

Next up, we’ll take the difference in average FIP of the opening day starting five, and the average FIP of the 6th and 7th starters:

The Reds look ridiculous, thanks to their two best starters being on the D.L. Weaver and Gant give the Cardinals the lowest drop off for the three contending teams. Montgomery gives the Cubs a nice 6th starter, but the drop off to Butler means the Cubs have the biggest difference between their Opening Day and reserve starters. Well, the fact that the Cubs’ starters rank best in the division contributes too. While they have the lowest chance of any N.L. Central rotation of suffering a lot of injuries, a year of under-performance probably depends on it.

Alright, that’s all for the starters. Now we’ll move on to bullpens. First, we’ll look at how each pen projects overall:

The tiers here were pretty predictable. The Cards replaced Zach Duke with Brett Cecil, the Cubs replaced Aroldis Chapman with Wade Davis. The Pirates downgraded from Mark Melancon to Felipe Rivero, but got the better end of the deal since Rivero is still under control for five more years. It makes a lot of sense that the Brewers and Reds don’t have good bullpens, they’re pretty much useless when you don’t have a good rotation or set of position players.

I wanted an idea of what team performed best in the late innings, so let’s isolate for just the best three relievers on each team:

The Cubs and Cardinals flip flop, but the differences were marginal in both cases. We still have the same three tiers. Let’s look at the Cubs:

Wade Davis has been excellent the last three years, with the fourth best FIP among qualified relievers, and fifth highest WAR total. He comes with injury concerns. Koji Uehara is new too, after the Cubs signed him for just $6M. That will allow Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop to be strong options earlier in the game rather than depending on them in the eighth and ninth.

Next up is the Pirates:

Besides Rivero, the team returns workhorse Tony Watson. Since 2013, he ranks second in appearances and third in innings in relief. Last year though, his walk rate ticked up and he gave up the most homers of his MLB career. That caused a replacement level season, his first since his rookie year in 2011. Juan Nicasio’s first year with the Pirates was 2016, and lo and behold it was his best season.

And now for the non-contenders, first the Brewers:

Corey Knebel will likely close for the Brewers, though he is competing for the job againt Jacob Barnes, who debuted last year. Josh Hader is not expected to have an important role, but according to the projections he’s the team’s third best pitcher.

And the Reds:

Raisel Inglesias’ struggles as a starter means he’ll instead profile as a dominant late-inning arm. A 3.48 FIP may seem kind of high for someone with that label, but you have to take into consideration the bandbox that the Reds play in. He could be a big trade chip at the deadline if he pitches to expectations.

Drew Storen has been a reliable reliever, from 2010 to 2015 he was the 30th most productive reliever with a 3.09 FIP, but last year he posted the highest FIP of his career (4.21) en route to a replacement level season. The Reds got a good buy-low, signing him for just $3M. If he can pitch like his old self for a few months, he’ll become a cheap flip for the Reds. Blake Wood rounds out the top 3.

Well, that’s it! We looked at the Giants, Mets, Pirates, Mets, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Rockes, Cubs, Brewers, and Reds. With the exception of the Dodgers and Nationals, who are projected to win their division but could under-perform, they comprise every team the Cards could possibly battle for a playoff spot. In total the Cards will play these teams a combined 111 games, 69% of their games (19 times for each in-division team, 7 times for each team out of division but in the N.L.).

Of course, these posts were built off the projections, but by their nature these things have high error bars. While we can talk up and down about the projections, the real story is yet to be told. Still, it’s good to know where expectations are at the beginning. We’ll finally get to to see the story begin this Sunday.