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The NL Central Race

Standing projections, get your standing projections here.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Yesterday, the ZiPS projections of the Chicago Cubs were released, which now means that all five NL Central teams, have up-to-date projections from Dan Szymborski’s system. There’s a helpful graphic that tells you the starting position players, starting pitchers, and relievers on each page. However, it only gives you a vague sense as to how ZiPS thinks those teams will perform. “Ah,” you say as you smoke on your pipe - yes you’re smoking a pipe go with it. “I see a couple stars, about 4 good players, and looks like this part of the team sucks. Let’s see this other NL Central team. Oh yes, couple stars, 4 good players, and a section that sucks.”

More so than any other year, the NL Central teams are very close together. Like if you had all five graphics in front of you, it would be a legitimate challenge to arrange the teams in the correct order that ZiPS has them. Also, the graphics aren’t technically what ZiPS is projecting. ZiPS spits out a PA total, but the graphic has the players as determined by Fangraphs Depth Chart, which I believe is calculated by the Fangraphs people. Depth Charts is good if you want to assume nearly every player will have a full season, but if you want an idea of what the projection system is projecting based off past playing time, it’s not terribly useful.

Thus, I used a combination of Steamer and ZiPS projected playing time for the starters. Depth Charts assigns playing time based off the assumption that every position will get 700 plate appearances except catcher, which will get 640. Since pitchers get around 300 plate appearances in a given year, an extra 400 plate appearances will be reserved for the “pitcher’s spot” (in other words PHs and DHs). For innings, I doled out 900 innings worth for starters. For relievers, I just took ZiPS’ total WAR on the graphic because it was not worth the hassle to assign playing time to relievers.

Small, but necessary note: ZiPS is decently reliable as far as projection systems go, but not on defense at all. If the defense roughly aligns with what it should be, I ignore it, but if the defense is out of whack with what it should be, I alter the defensive component. I know you’re not getting the “true” ZiPS projections, but sometimes ZiPS just has a wacky defensive number that completely misleads about WAR you should expect. Most of the time, I didn’t do anything. (Ignore the colors. They are not team colors. I realized it when it was too late)

The signing of Yasmani Grandal, coupled with the starter-quality Manny Piña, puts the Brewers way ahead at catcher. A trade of Piña would bring about Erik Kratz, who is a downgrade, but the lead would still be substantial. The Pirates and Cubs separate themselves from the Cards and Reds by having good backups. And Yadier Molina is the first victim of my changing defense I’m sorry to say. He hasn’t been a +5 fielder since 2014, so I made him a +2 catcher instead.

Joey Votto and Scooter Gennett take the lead for the Reds at 1B. You’ll see why I gave the few extra PAs to Gennett in a minute. Paul Goldschmidt and an absurdly overqualified backup in Matt Carpenter are close behind. Jesus Aguilar has Eric Thames behind him and Josh Bell has... Jose Osuna I guess? Those were the only two players to play 1B last year and nobody else on their roster has a history of playing 1B who is going to make the team.

Nick Senzel is worth a whopping 0.9 WAR in just 178 PAs at 2B. Gennett gets the remaining 2, but Senzel is basically why the Reds are tied for first and not in the middle. Even with me knocking down Mike Moustakas defense due never playing 2B, the Brewers place high. And in fact I thought I was a little generous with the -5, so take that for what you will. The Cardinals receive contributions from Kolten Wong, Jedd Gyorko, Yairo Munoz, and Drew Robinson here to arrive at 2.8. 2B for the Cubs is split between Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, and Dan Descalso. I gave Baez PAs at 3B and SS as well, and Zobrist PAs at RF, so this receives a disproportionate amount of playing time to Daniel Descalso, but come on... Maddon is totally gonna play Descalso a lot.

Kris Bryant, who also receives time in LF, and Baez combined leads to their best position. The Cardinals are ahead of the Reds because Carpenter has better backups than Eugenio Suarez has. The Brewers could have Travis Shaw or Moustakas here ultimately and it really doesn’t change anything since they have a very similar projection. The Pirates get a boost from Jung Ho Kang’s crazy good projection and he’s kind of a wild card here.

Baez’s annoyingly good projection strikes again. If Addison Russell were to get the majority of the starts, they would drop below the Cardinals. Somehow the Pirates, who I basically guessed on playing time between Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer, and Erik Gonzalez, are considerably higher than the Brewers. ZiPS is not a fan of Orlando Arcia or Tyler Saladino.

At LF, I assumed all the plate appearances not given to Marcell Ozuna would go to Tyler O’Neill. It wasn’t much, which is why I only gave the extra ones to one player. With the majority of PAs to Corey Dickerson, Lonnie Chisenhall nonetheless gets a significant amount of PAs for the 3.1 WAR. Kris Bryant as a “bench” player certainly helps boost Kyle Schwarber’s 1.7 WAR. Jesse Winker had only 454 projected PAs, and Matt Kemp and Phillip Ervin were essentially no help at all.

Lorenzo Cain and Starling Marte lead the proceedings, both being greedy with their PAs and not giving much extra to anyone else. The Reds get a significant boost from Senzel once again, although it’s worth noting that his defense is very much in question there, as this projection is based off his 2B defense in the minors. Quite a bit more variance than the Cardinals, with Harrison Bader and O’Neill. The Cubs meanwhile combine two below average players in Ian Happ and Albert Almora to create a below average position.

New addition Yaisel Puig gets the Reds as high as they could possibly be in these rankings, since they couldn’t have added anyone better than Christian Yelich at the top. Gregory Polanco, Chisenhall, and Pablo Reyes combine to get 3rd place. Jose Martinez, with less projected PAs, has more WAR at RF than Dexter Fowler, which is why they are as high as 1.8.

I won’t make a chart of it, but the Cardinals receive an additional 400 PAs from Martinez, O’Neill, and Gyorko, which as you can imagine means the Cards lead in extra PAs with 1.5 WAR. The Pirates are next with 1.1 WAR thanks to Kang. The Reds have 0.9, mostly due to Senzel, the Cubs have 0.8 from Ian Happ and David Bote, and the Brewers have 0.7. Let’s look at the total hitting WAR.

The Cardinals insane depth proves to be the difference maker. They received essentially another 400 PAs of starter-quality PAs while the other teams received about the quality you’d expect. If only they could get a real backup catcher. For the starting pitcher rankings, I took the projected innings from the top 5 starters and then inserted whatever innings were necessary to get to 900.

Call me a homer for this one, but ZiPS sees all five Cubs starters with 2.5 WAR or more, which seems unlikely. Jon Lester and Cole Hamels avoid the effects of aging, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana more or less completely bounce back, and Kyle Hendricks is a 3.3 WAR pitcher. Some of these happening is plausible, but all five? I doubt it. Maybe because I know the system the best, maybe it’s because the 4th, 5th and 6th starters aren’t projected for many innings, but the Cards have the most starters with 9 in these projections. The Brewers have six league average-ish starters and then Freddy Peralta randomly has a 2.2 WAR projection in 132 innings. The Pirates have a strong top four, and not much else behind them. The Reds, even with their improvements, pretty much need their starting five to stay healthy the entire year cause there isn’t much behind them. Onto the bullpens.

Brewers are way ahead of the pack and the Cubs are surprisingly close behind. I say surprisingly because none of their relievers appear to project for more than 1 WAR individually. For instance, the Pirates have Felipe Velazquez, Keone Kela, and Richard Rodriguez providing 3.7 WAR by themselves. Raisel Iglesias and 80 innings from Michael Lorenzon carry the Reds.

The Cubs lead the pack with 44.2 WAR, with the Brewers close behind with 43.3. The Cardinals have 42.7 so the top three according to ZiPS is VERY close. The Reds have 38.9 WAR and the Pirates are pretty close behind them with 37.6 WAR. I’m not going to convert this into wins for three reasons: 1) WAR does not correlate directly to win total 2) I cannot for the life of me remember what a replacement level team would win and 3) I’m pretty sure it’s 48 wins, but I’m sure ZiPS does not have three teams in the Central with 90+ win teams. Honestly, they’re so close it doesn’t matter. And the more important thing is how they compare to each other and again, ZiPS has all three more or less right on top of each other.

(Homer note: if you don’t believe in those Cubs starting pitching projections, like at all, a 3rd place Cubs finish looks VERY possible. So make it happen baseball!)