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Are the Chicago Cubs still the best team in the NL Central?

It has been a frustrating offseason for the Chicago Cubs, to put it mildly. But at the end of the day, they are still the best team in the National League Central.

We’re all doing the best we can to survive the evil empire that is the Ricketts family. At least that’s the way they’re being portrayed by Chicago Cubs fans on social media. Some of the criticism is fair, and some of it is unwarranted. Lest we forget they broke a century-long World Series curse a few short years ago.

You can have whatever gripes you want with management and the owners. And you can demand answers from them. But the cold, hard truth of the matter is they don’t owe you any explanations. The Ricketts own the Cubs and they can do whatever they want with the team. Buying a Kris Bryant jersey at the stadium shop doesn’t make you a shareholder.

Lost in mix of all the yelling and shouting about what a disappointing offseason this has been is the fact that the Cubs are probably the best team in the NL Central. They aren’t quite clear-cut favorites, but a serious look at the makeup and peripherals of each team in the division favors the Cubs.

Rebounds abound

The 2018 season was a mixed bag. There was an unusually long list of Cubs players that regressed. Not ideal, but the flip side of that is there is now a long list of Cubs who are due to rebound. Most notably Kris Bryant and Yu Darvish. If both of these guys enter the season with a clean bill of health, and stay healthy, that’s a significant boost from within.

Of the two, Bryant is obviously the safer bet. Prior to last year, he played three (mostly) full seasons steering relatively clear of any injury problems. And you got the sense in 2018 that Bryant was playing through a lingering injury sustained earlier in the year. Something just looked off in his swing. And then you have to factor in the Chili Davis situation. Bryant has publicly stated he didn’t fully agree with Davis’s hitting philosophies. But Davis is now gone, and Bryant has had all offseason to recover. So 2018’s compounding problems are ostensibly over with. If so, he could be on track to return to MVP form.

Yu Darvish, on the other hand, is not such a safe bet. No one’s getting their hopes up too much. But if the offseason reports of the veteran pitcher are accurate, he’s on track to be healthy and ready to pitch by the start of spring training. The media coverage of Darvish shows a man on a mission, out to prove his doubters wrong. That’s the right attitude to have after a train-wreck of a debut season with the Cubs. He looks determined as ever to be a force again. At the very least, that’s encouraging and should inspire some degree of optimism among fans.

Another key for the Cubs will be lightening the load for Willson Contreras. Catcher is arguably the most physically demanding position in the game, and no one started more games behind the dish in 2018 than Willson Contreras. Whether or not his regression at the plate was due to fatigue, Chili Davis, or something else, we’ll never know. Whatever the case may be, the team should be more cautious this time around.

The Brewers are going to regress

Can the Brewers keep it up? Milwaukee’s rotation posted the 11th-best ERA in the league last year. And one look at the names in that rotation should tell you they overachieved. Could they repeat that? Sure, but it’s far from a sure thing. There isn’t a single top-tier guy in that rotation, and even if the Cubs don’t tee off on them, other teams will. And every Brewers loss is a good thing for the Cubs.

Christian Yelich decimated baseballs last season. It earned him his first All-Star appearance, though his previous two seasons were All-Star worthy as well. He’s going to continue to be one of the better hitters in the game. But 2018 was probably his peak. Look at that slash line. Odds are it’s not going to get any better than that. He’ll still be a headache for Chicago, but maybe (hopefully) not to the same degree as last year.

Lorenzo Cain is another guy who’s due to regress. He posted career highs in multiple categories last season. Entering his age-33 season, that’s just not going to hold up.

R-E-L-A-X

Paul Goldschmidt definitely makes the Cardinals better, but he’s not enough to entirely close the gap between St. Louis and Chicago. Even the Cincinnati Reds have made moves geared towards being more competitive this year, rather than selling off all their assets. Even so, they’d be lucky to finish higher than fourth place in the division.

Next: Cubs add stability by signing Brad Brach

The bullpen is the only area in which the Cubs might look inferior compared to St. Louis and Milwaukee, at least on paper. The core of the Chicago Cubs is by far the most talented of contenders in their division. Don’t let this quiet offseason fool you into thinking otherwise.

 

 

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