During the last month of the 2015 MLB season, the National League Central’s division title race was fiercely contested between three teams: the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals. In the end, the St. Louis Cardinals (who won 100 games) clinched their third straight division title.
As for the Cubs and Pirates, they squared off in a one-game playoff, in which the Cubs emerged victorious.
One bracket of the National League Divisional Series pitted the Cubs and Cardinals against each other, and the Cubs, with both pitching and power, overwhelmed the Cardinals, who suffered a multitude of injuries and setbacks as the season drew to a close. Chicago won the series three games to one.
And during the off-season, the Cubs made headlines by signing two of the Cardinals top players from 2015: pitcher John Lackey, and right fielder Jason Heyward. Over the past few weeks, Heyward has been working with a movement specialist in order to get healthier and flow better when it comes to making quick movements in the outfield. As for Lackey, the 37-year old is reunited with his former Red Sox teammate Jon Lester.
What made Chicago so successful during the 2016 season (especially the latter half) was their ability to remain health as a group, and have strong production all across the boards. Nine players (including Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant) hit 10 or more home runs, helping Chicago finish 12th in MLB with 171 home runs. And on the mound, Jake Arietta, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, kept a heavy load of the pitching on his back.
For the Pirates, there was more of a balance between the pitching and hitting. However, instead of power, it was clutch hitting. They only hit 140 home runs (23rd in MLB) during the season, but five players hit over 50+ RBI’s, and finished 9th in batting average (.260). Andrew McCutcheon led the team in RBI’s (96), walks (98), runs (91), and doubles (36). The power hitter on the team was Pedro Alvarez, hitting 27 home runs, which led the team, and garnering 77 RBI’s.
Gerrit Cole was without a doubt the ace of the Pirates’ pitching staff, finishing with a record of 19-8 and an ERA of 2.60. Veterans Francisco Liriano and A.J Burnett (in his final season) also had exceptional seasons, with Liriano posting a 12-7 record and 3.38 ERA, and Burnett with a 9-7 record and 3.18 ERA.
And of course, that leaves the St. Louis Cardinals.
Injuries hit the team constantly over the course of the season, but that ended up being the perfect time for Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak to show what type of depth is being groomed down at the Cardinals’ farm system.
When left-fielder Matt Holliday got hurt, the emergence of Randal Grichuk began. The 24-year old made an immediate impact with the team, tying Johnny Peralta for second on the team in home runs (17), getting 89 hits, scoring 47 RBI’s, and 23 doubles. The other notable call-ups were Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham. Combined, the two rookies hit 12 home runs, 71 hits, 57 RBI’s, and also stole two bases each.
But a notable story-line was also the year of Yadier Molina. In 136 games last season, Molina scored 34 runs, hit four home runs (including his 100th career), and scoring 61 RBI’s. His average, however, dipped from .282 in 2014 to .270 in 2015, as he dealt with a multitude of injuries as well, mainly a thumb issue in his catching hand.
The biggest attribute the Cardinals had in 2015 was their record-setting pitching staff. Despite the loss of ace Adam Wainwright in April, the Cardinals went on to finish the season with an ERA (team) of 2.94, which was first in MLB, whereas the Pirates finished second with a 3.21 ERA, and the Cubs finished third with an ERA of 3.36.
Michael Wacha led the team with a 17-7 record. It was Lackey who finished second in ERA with 2.77 (he finished with a 13-10 record). Add in Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.01 ERA), Jaime Garcia (10-6, and led the team with a 2.43 ERA), and Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03), and there is a top-notch rotation in Major League Baseball. As for the bullpen, Trevor Rosenthal led the team with 48 saves, setting a new franchise record for most saves in a season.
With all of the players, stats, and off-season moves discussed above, is it any surprise as to why this season will most likely feature one of the best division title races in a long time.
It’s sure to be exciting.