It's a division of haves and have-nots and it wouldn't surprise me if once again both wild cards come from the NL Central. Everybody is picking the Chicago Cubs as the best team in baseball and, well, they certainly have their share of intriguing players to watch.
1. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Chicago Cubs
If you're new to the Cubs bandwagon, welcome aboard. There's plenty of room in 2016. If you weren't paying attention in 2015, Arrieta had maybe the best season ever for a Cubs starter, going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, including that insane second half when he posted a 0.75 ERA in 15 starts. His season was so good he beat out a guy with a 1.66 ERA for the NL Cy Young Award.
(OK, by Baseball-Reference WAR, Arrieta's 8.6 ranks only a mere eighth best for the Cubs since 1901, after Pete Alexander in 1920, Fergie Jenkins in 1971, Dick Ellsworth in 1963, Big Daddy Reuschel in 1977, Jack Taylor in 1902, Greg Maddux in 1992 and Mordecai Brown in 1909. But those guys all pitched more innings, none of them held opponents to a .185 average and .236 OBP, and only Brown, pitching in the dead ball era, had a lower ERA. By the way, Taylor completed all 34 of his starts in 1902 and, in fact, holds the record with 187 consecutive complete games. Now there's a record that will last.)
What will Arrieta do for an encore? A lot of the optimism around the Cubs builds from their 97-win season a year go and the assumed improvement from the young hitters plus the addition of John Lackey to the rotation. But a major reason they won 97 was Arrieta's historic season. Including the postseason, however, he pitched 90 more innings than the year before, so that has to be a concern, even if Arrieta is recognized as maybe the best-conditioned pitcher in the game. Still, I expect him to remain one of the best starters in the game, due to the command and movement on his fastball. Check out what opponents hit against each of his pitches:
Good luck, men with wood sticks.
2. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
Speaking of encore performances, I can't wait to see Bryant in action as a sophomore. All he did in 2015 was win NL Rookie of the Year honors, finish 11th in the NL MVP voting and rank eighth among NL position players in WAR. It will be interesting to see the adjustments he makes after striking out a league-leading 199 times. Worth noting: His walk rate declined each month in the majors, starting out at 18.2 percent in April and dropping to 9.3 percent in September, without a corresponding change in strikeout rate. The numbers show that he did, indeed, start chasing more pitches out of the strike zone. If he regains a little more discipline and lays off that off-speed junk off the plate, he could mash 40 big ones.
3. Jason Heyward, CF, Chicago Cubs
Sorry, Cardinals and Pirates fans, but the Cubs are intriguing. No disrespect to your teams intended. After signing the big contract, the Cubs plan to play Heyward in center field ... at least for now. He has started only 30 games there in his career, and since a large percentage of his value has come from his Gold Glove defense in right, his ability to handle center -- especially if he's flanked by subpar defenders Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler -- will be vital to the Cubs winning the division.
Considering Wainwright was mad about where he was taken in a fantasy draft, I have a feeling he's going to have a big year, even at age 34 and coming off that Achilles injury. The Cards will need it: They've lost Lackey to free agency and Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery, and considering they had the best run prevention in four decades, they'll be hard-pressed to match last year's team performance on the mound.
Everything finally came together for Cole last season as he made 30-plus starts for the first time in his career and went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA. As with Arrieta, he's difficult to elevate the ball against and surrendered just 11 home runs in 208 innings. But there's still room for the flame-throwing right-hander to get better: He made it through eight innings just twice and he ranked 20th among major league starters in strikeout rate. Now, strikeouts aren't everything for pitchers, but they kind of are. Heck, Ian Kennedy had a higher strikeout rate than Cole in 2015. With the retirement of A.J. Burnett, the Pirates may need an even more dominant season from him.
6. Matt Carpenter, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals
What a terrific player. In 2015, he remade himself into a power hitter, mashing 28 home runs while leading the league in doubles for the second time in three seasons. And he did that while hitting .190 with no home runs in June. The Cardinals lost Heyward but didn't do anything to supplement an offense that ranked 11th in the NL in runs, so Carpenter's power is a must once again.
The big question for him and the rebuilding Brewers: Does he get traded?
8. Gregory Polanco, RF, Pittsburgh Pirates
He's behind MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and left fielder Starling Marte in the best-outfield-in-baseball pecking order, but the tools are there for Polanco to improve on his .256/.320/.381 batting line, especially now that he has nearly 1,000 plate appearances of big-league experience. The key: He hit just .190 against lefties. He's too young to turn into a platoon player, but the Pirates are also trying to win a division against two tough opponents.
9. Jorge Soler, RF, Chicago Cubs
As with Polanco, Soler has been more hype than actual production in his brief career. He can blister a fastball, but those bendy pitches give him trouble. He had a great seven-game run in the postseason, hitting .474 with three home runs and three doubles while also drawing six walks. If he can produce that kind of patience in the regular season, he'll have a better chance of maximizing his ability.
It's a make-or-break season for Hamilton, probably his last chance to show that he can hit enough to be a full-time center fielder. The speed and defense are exciting, but you can't play a guy every day who posts a .274 OBP. Like the Brewers, the Reds are rebuilding and have the luxury of letting him play.