NL Central predictions sure to be wrong

By Evan Glantz, Special to the Light

1. Your St. Louis Cardinals will make the playoffs for the sixth season in a row, but as a wild card team. They’ll be bested in the play-in game by Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Last season, the Cardinals rolled to 100 wins on the strength of their pitching. The team’s hurlers combined to produce a 2.94 earned run average, nearly a third of a run better than the next best team. It’s unrealistic to expect that kind of dominance again.

At the same time, the offense ranked in the lower third of the league in runs scored and home runs. Full seasons from Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty should help boost those numbers, as will a healthy season from Matt Holliday, but this lineup won’t be confused for the ’27 Yankees.

Even with some regression, the pitching staff is still strong enough to carry the Cards. And the offense should see some improvement. But after being bounced in the play-in game for two years in a row, the Pirates are ready to break through and advance to the National League Division Series. They’ll do so thanks to the flamethrowing right arm of Gerrit Cole. Speaking of Cole …

2. He will win the 2016 National League Cy Young Award.

Cole established himself as a legitimate ace in 2015 by making his first All-Star team and finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. How did the Pirates honor their young hurler? By renewing his contract for the same amount as last year. They even threatened to reduce it if he didn’t agree to the deal.

Cole will pitch the season with a chip on his shoulder, which is good news for his future earning power but bad news for opposing hitters. It will result in him leapfrogging over last year’s winner, Jake Arrieta, as the best pitcher in the league. As for Arrieta …

3. He will make fewer than 25 starts this year.

The Chicago Cubs’ ace was simply dominant in 2015. His first-half numbers – 10-5, 2.66 ERA – were outstanding, but paled in comparison to his second-half stats: 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA. He didn’t lose a game after July 25.

But pitchers, especially those who see a spike in innings pitched, are often more susceptible to injury. In 2014, Arrieta logged 176.2 innings between the majors and minors. Last season, including the playoffs, he threw a total of nearly 249 innings. That’s a big jump, even for a veteran like Arrieta. Former Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, for instance, pitched 260 innings in 2011, then quickly fell victim to the injury bug the following season. 

I think Arrieta is in for a similar fate. He will feel the effects of last season’s heavy workload and have to rehab himself back to superstar level like another NL Central player …

4. At the end of the season, Ryan Braun (aka the Hebrew Hammer) will be an NL MVP frontrunner.*

*Assuming, of course, that Braun is traded to a National League team if/when the Milwaukee Brewers flip him at the trade deadline.

With or without the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Braun has always been able to mash the baseball. Last year, injury- and drug-free (allegedly), Braun put up his best numbers since 2012 and re-established himself as an All-Star. The numbers weren’t quite Braun at his peak, but they were good enough to make him one of the top offensive outfielders in baseball.

The first few months of the season will serve as an audition for Braun before the Brew Crew trades him. Invigorated by playing for a contender (the San Francisco Giants, maybe?), Braun will go on a Yoenis Céspedes-like tear and lead his team to the postseason.

Sure, his character and reputation might be shot, but he’s got talent. Which is more than the Cincinnati Reds can say …

5. I will not know the name of any of the Reds’ starting players by September.

It seems like just yesterday the Reds and Cards were battling for NL Central supremacy. My, how times change. The only recognizable names from those teams are Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips (Boo! Hiss!) and Jay Bruce. Cincy has already tried trading Phillips this offseason. Bruce, too. I imagine those efforts will pick up again before the trade deadline.

The Reds are tearing everything down in order to rebuild. They’re throwing a bunch of junk against the wall and seeing what sticks. Looks like it’s going to be a long season in the Queen City.

Bonus: The Cubs will win the World Series.

Just another prediction I’m sure I’ll get wrong.