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How the St. Louis Cardinals will win the NL Central

The Chicago Cubs are NL Central favorites, but crazier things than the Cardinals sneaking to a division title have happened.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates - Game Two Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Given the heavy attention paid last season to the Chicago Cubs, whom multiple reports have confirmed won 103 games, the National League Central division, and the World Series, it is easy to forget that it was the first time since 2008 that the Cubs finished ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the standings.

But 2016 felt less like a moderate changing of the guard, overdue after nearly a decade of the Cardinals dominating what Wikipedia calls the Route 66 rivalry (I-55 rivalry sounds better, in my opinion, but generally speaking, “Cardinals-Cubs rivalry” suffices too), and more like an explosive revolution. It wasn’t just that the Cubs won the division, which had been predicted by most outlets—it was that the division race was not even competitive. The Cardinals were 12 12 games back in mid-June, were 16 12 back by Labor Day weekend, trailed by 19 entering the final week of the season, and ended the season 17 12 games back of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs clinched the NL Central title on September 16, with nearly two and a half weeks of baseball left on the schedule.

Here is why the St. Louis Cardinals will win the NL Central.

Okay, I guess I should probably clarify a little bit—I’m not picking the Cardinals to win the Central. But the division is not set in stone before the season even begins.

To predict that the division will be more competitive is not an especially bold take. The Cardinals have improved their outfield personnel with the addition of Dexter Fowler, which directly hurts the Chicago Cubs—as promising as Albert Almora may be, and while Jon Jay may be a competent platoon partner until Almora is ready for full-time starting duty, it would be difficult to argue that Fowler is not in his present form a superior option in center field. And 103 wins is just really, really hard to duplicate. The Cubs were just the third team in the 2010s to win 100 games, and the first to reach 103. No team has surpassed 103 since the 2004 Cardinals won 105 games.

A 17 12 game gap is a difficult gap to bridge. Difficult. Not impossible.

It is hard to imagine a universe in which the Chicago Cubs are genuinely bad in 2017—this universe exists, to be clear, but so does a universe in which the Cardinals abandon MLB and start their own league. It’s just so unlikely it doesn’t merit much discussion. But the potential for regression, and relatively severe regression, is not hard to find.

In 2016, Cubs pitchers allowed a .255 batting average on balls in play. For perspective, the next-lowest team BABIP was the .282 surrendered by the Toronto Blue Jays—the gap between the #1 and #2 teams in baseball by opponent BABIP was less than the gap between the #2 and #27 New York Mets. The 2016 Cubs had the lowest opponent BABIP since 1982 and unsurprisingly, had one of the largest positive gaps between their team earned-run average and fielding-independent pitching, with a 0.62 run gap which trails only the 2002 Atlanta Braves this century.

The simple analysis of a large ERA-FIP gap tilted towards a superior ERA is that pitchers got lucky, that batters were unsuccessful at finding gaps in the defense and that this does not reflect on the actual skill of the pitching. In the case of the 2016 Cubs, there was one major factor which justifies some of this gap—defense. By Defensive Runs Saved, the Cubs were the best defensive team in baseball last season, and were the best by the same metric since the 1999 Cincinnati Reds. By the similar but not identical metric of Ultimate Zone Rating, which has only been around since 2002, the 2016 Cubs ranked fourth.

The 2016 Cubs rotation, across the board, were better by ERA than FIP, but none of these pitchers have histories of being FIP-beaters. Kyle Hendricks, one of baseball’s most effective soft-tossers, has a less extensive MLB track record (though his past doesn’t reflect him being a FIP-beater prior to 2016), but that he could be a new version of Jered Weaver is a plausible, if not properly tested, hypothesis. But in the cases of Jon Lester, John Lackey (who, granted, was a notable FIP-beater in 2015 with the Cardinals), and Jake Arrieta, there is a history of, like most pitchers, having similar ERAs and FIPs.

Of course, none of this matters if the Cubs defense is still great. But it might not be. It should still be fine, but in 2017, it will be more exposed to the potential of being subpar. The aforementioned Jon Lester will no longer have his personal catcher, David Ross, a particularly adept defensive catcher at making pickoff throws, especially valuable given Lester’s long-running difficulties with them. Willson Contreras was fine defensively in his rookie campaign last season, but the odds that he turns out to be a below-average defensive catcher are much higher than of Ross, who had a decade-plus of MLB seasons in which he established his defensive credentials.

While Javier Baez received considerable media attention in the 2016 playoffs, largely as a result of his defense, he will begin 2017 coming off the bench if the Cubs’ depth chart is to be believed. Kris Bryant has been a plus defender in the Majors, but in Spring Training 2015, Cubs GM Jed Hoyer was expressing doubt about Bryant’s ability to handle third base—this may have been an attempt to rationalize keeping Kris Bryant in AAA to start the season/delay his service time clock, but there has not been enough of an MLB track record to know for sure that this is the case. All signs point to Addison Russell as a top-flight defensive shortstop and to Anthony Rizzo being strong at first base (while a great defensive first baseman probably isn’t going to make your defense great, a terrible defensive first baseman can make your defense bad), but their 2016 stats will be difficult to duplicate, much less surpass. It is very unlikely that either would post considerably better stats in 2017.

But where the real question marks defensively lie for the 2017 Cubs is in the outfield. Kyle Schwarber is an acclaimed hitter, but his defense was already considered a liability in the outfield before his April 7 ACL injury which cost him his 2016 season, save twenty World Series plate appearances, in a series where he made zero defensive appearances. Albert Almora is considered a plus defensive center fielder while Jon Jay is closer to average. Either option exposes the Cubs’ outfield in one way or another.

Almora can cover some of the ground that Schwarber cannot, and with Jason Heyward’s strong defense in right field, this is still a fine defensive outfield. But Almora is not a strong hitter (his 101 wRC+ in 117 plate appearances in 2016 are promising, but he has spent the last several seasons in the minor leagues being an average or even slightly below-average hitters relative to his lower level) and if Jason Heyward, unlikely to be as bad offensively as he was in 2016 but whose hitting had been trending downward even prior to last year, remains a below-average bat, this will diminish their team offense.

With Jay, the Cubs would have, basically, the same level of defense they had to begin 2016, before Schwarber’s injury. This worked out for them, of course, but the Cubs had, in addition to a better offensive center fielder to help off-set some of this defensive mediocrity, more outfield depth. Even without Schwarber, the Cubs had the option of deploying Almora or Jorge Soler (who was traded to the Kansas City Royals). Entering 2017, the Cubs’ outfield depth is whichever center fielder doesn’t start and two starting infielders, Zobrist and Bryant. And while Zobrist in a corner spot would open things up for Baez, the stronger defensive second baseman of the two, it would in turn weaken the offense.

The Cubs are still a scary team, but in 2016, aside from the Schwarber injury, everything went right for them. They stayed healthy, they had an opponent BABIP which perhaps deserved to low but is almost certainly unsustainable moving forward, and going forward, they lost one of their best position players to their biggest rival. This Cubs team winning 90 games in 2017 isn’t the median possible outcome, but it’s not as wild of an outlier as one might think.

And the Cardinals could win over 90 games in 2017, even if that too is not the most likely outcome. Suppose Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta’s promising Spring Trainings are for real (as they’ve both had great success in Major League Baseball, this is not too absurd) and that Aledmys Diaz and Jedd Gyorko can sustain what they did in 2016. Suppose Randal Grichuk’s move to left field allows him to recapture his 2015 offensive magic, and that Adam Wainwright, Trevor Rosenthal, and Lance Lynn are able to recapture their recent prime forms. While all of these stars aligning may be difficult, each of them individually is very plausible, thus making a 2017 NL Central title for the Cardinals a distinct possibility.