Mathematically, there are 120 possible combinations for how the five teams in the National League Central could finish in the standings in 2017. And if you played the season out enough times, every combination would eventually happen. But just because any order can happen does not make the outcomes equally likely, and most observers agree that a hierarchy of teams exists in the division.
To be clear, the Chicago Cubs are far from assured the 2017 National League Central title. But with the return of the majority of last year’s team which won the division by 17.5 games, even with the strong potential of regression (an increase in their historically-low BABIP allowed, difficulty transitioning from being underdogs to opponents hoping to knock them off of their pedestal, run-of-the-mill luck, etc.), the Cubs are rightfully favorites. It would be considered an upset if they won the division by fewer than five games and, well, they still would have won the division at that point.
On the other end of the spectrum lie the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers. Both teams include some remnants of the teams which won the first three NL Central titles of the 2010s—Joey Votto continues to be superb and Ryan Braun, while a bit removed from his peak production, is still a serviceable player. But by and large, the two teams are in rebuilding mode. Each has enough young players that the margins of error on their win projections are probably a bit high, and thus there’s at least some sliver of hope that they could contend, it is unlikely to happen in 2017.
This leaves the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the division’s #2 and #3 teams from 2016, in a separate class, neither assured of a playoff berth nor with such a negative short-term outlook that entering 2017 with a mindset of selling would make much sense. FanGraphs’s projected standings currently place the two teams at a record of 83-79, one game behind the New York Mets for the second Wild Card spot.
If FanGraphs is to be believed, the Cardinals will be right in the thick of a playoff hunt, and while they can still earn a playoff spot while finishing third in the division, it would certainly be easier if they finished ahead of the Pirates (plus, with the whole “what if the Cubs really collapse?” thing, a division title would be preferable to a one-game playoff just to make the NLDS). Despite having done so each of the last seventeen seasons, this will not necessarily be an easy task for the Cardinals, but here is how the two teams stack up positionally.
The Cardinals, of course, have Yadier Molina, while the Pirates have Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli was superb in 2015, posting a 119 wRC+ with plus defense, but in 2016, his offense dropped to a roughly league average 99 wRC+ with shockingly little power—in 393 plate appearances, he hit one home run. His offense was only salvaged by a 14.2% walk rate which stands at 145% of his career rate. And while Molina may not be what he once was at or behind the plate, he still projects solidly ahead of Cervelli for 2017. Advantage: Cardinals.
Matt Carpenter, great as he is, ranks clearly behind at least two NL Central first basemen, but since neither Anthony Rizzo nor Joey Votto are on the Pirates, this is not particularly relevant for this discussion. The Pirates are looking towards some combination of Josh Bell (sub-Replacement Level in 152 PAs in his 2016 MLB debut) and David Freese (like Carpenter, sliding down the defensive spectrum, but with less offensive upside), and while Carpenter’s value does diminish some at first base compared to more impactful defensive positions, he has the edge. Advantage: Cardinals.
It seems most likely that the Cardinals will go back to Kolten Wong, offensively inconsistent but easily the team’s best defensive option at the position, in 2017. The Pirates will once again implement Josh Harrison, essentially league average the last two seasons following his tremendous breakthrough (137 wRC+) in 2014. This one is essentially a toss-up, though for now I’ll give the very slight edge to the side which has demonstrated higher upside potential in the big leagues. Advantage: Pirates.
Approaching Aledmys Diaz, one of baseball’s most surprising breakthroughs in 2016, with caution is fair and probably smart. But in 460 plate appearances in 2016, Diaz surpassed the career-high Wins Above Replacement marks, both of the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference variety, of Pirates starting shortstop Jordy Mercer. ZiPS projects Aledmys Diaz to be nearly twice as valuable in 2017. Advantage: Cardinals.
In 837 career plate appearances, Jung Ho Kang has been worth 6.2 fWAR and 6.3 bWAR. Even at his 2016 level of performance, Jedd Gyorko has not displayed this level of dominance, and unless Jhonny Peralta is able to replicate his 2014 value at third base, Kang clearly projects to be the king of the crop. Advantage: Pirates.
Gregory Polanco’s prospect pedigree probably gives him something of a boost here, but his MLB results have been nondescript—average bat, average glove, nothing to write home about. Randal Grichuk has similarly been a somewhat mixed bag, but while his inconsistency led to his alternating between St. Louis and Memphis in 2016, it is hard to deny that he has the superior MLB resume, as he leads Polanco in bWAR and fWAR despite over 600 fewer plate appearances. ZiPS gives a slight edge to Polanco, but it’s slight enough that I feel okay giving the slight edge to the one with stronger results. Advantage: Cardinals.
Here is a comprehensive list of outfielders who have accumulated more bWAR since 2013 than Starling Marte: Mike Trout. That’s the list. He’s that good. Now, his transition from left field to center field could hurt him, but it could also inflate his value metrics to an even higher level. And while Dexter Fowler does help close the gap, it is hard to not pick Marte. Advantage: Pirates.
While Stephen Piscotty would have the edge over 2016 right fielder Polanco, he now faces former MVP Andrew McCutchen. And despite Cutch’s mediocre 2016, he had a long track record preceding that to indicate that he is the superior player. Moving to a less demanding defensive position may allow McCutchen to focus on regaining his once-elite bat. Advantage: Pirates.
Carlos Martinez projects the highest by ZiPS of any pitcher on either rotation, and this sounds about right (Pecota ranks Mike Leake the highest among Cardinals starters, and I’m sure we all appreciate their effort), but Gerrit Cole, a 4th place Cy Young finisher in 2015 and a former #1 overall pick, isn’t far behind. Where the Cardinals truly excel is in their depth: while Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon have intriguing potential for Pittsburgh, neither has the established MLB pedigree of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake, or Michael Wacha. Advantage: Cardinals.
The Cardinals have some regression candidates, but if Seung Hwan Oh is able to be even close to what he was last season, and Trevor Rosenthal can bounce back to something approaching 2015 (or even 2014) form, the bullpen should be a strength for the Cardinals in 2017. The Pirates bullpen, led by Tony Watson, may be serviceable, but the loss of Mark Melancon from last year’s trade deadline leaves the unit with far less potential for dominance than previous incarnations. Advantage: Cardinals.
By my count, the Cardinals hold six advantages to the four held by the Pirates. On one hand, having an advantage in the starting rotation is a more significant advantage to have from a sheer volume of production standpoint than an individual position, and thus it would be fair to argue that the Cardinals hold a larger advantage on the Pirates than 6-4 would suggest. On the other hand, the Pirates also have a more-than-reasonable argument for the edge in left field which I handed to the Cardinals, which would even the score to 5-5.
But in the end, while a position-by-position breakdown may not be the most accurate way to measure these teams, I do believe it reaches the correct conclusion: that the Cardinals are a better team than the Pirates. It is not by an overwhelming margin, and it would not surprise me nearly as much if the Pirates surpassed the Cardinals’ win total in 2017 as it would if one of the next two NL teams by FanGraphs projected record, the Colorado Rockies and the Miami Marlins, did. But expecting the St. Louis Cardinals to finish in second in the NL Central this year is a perfectly reasonable expectation to have.