MLB season preview: The best reason to watch every NL Central team

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MLB preview: Chicago Cubs are still the team to beat
Wednesday March 29th, 2017

As Opening Day approaches, the one thing every team can count on for the long season ahead is hope, whether to make the postseason this year or to build toward a brighter future in days ahead. Yet no matter how competitive they are, all 30 teams will have at least one reason for their fans to stay interested for the next six months. Before the season kicks off, SI.com will explore the best reason to watch each team in 2017, starting with the AL East clubs on Thursday, March 23 and continuing with the AL Central (March 24), AL West (March 27), NL West (March 28), NL Central (March 29) and NL East (March 30).

Chicago Cubs: Can you say 'repeat'?

Generations of fans have been born and died without ever seeing the team on the North Side win a World Series. Even as the rebuild seemed to bear fruit, producing the only 100-win team in baseball last season, the Cubs came up just short, as always. And what a heartbreaking loss! Down three games to one, they took it to extra innings in Game 7 before history caught up with them. Blame billy goats or black cats or Bartmans, but the longest-running curse in sports lives to see another—wait, what’s that? Oh. Well, they’re the best team in baseball again this season, so gear up for nine months of the word repeat.

Cincinnati Reds: The bullpen of the future?

You thought the Indians’ use of Andrew Miller in the playoffs was innovative? Just wait until you see the Cincinnati bullpen this season. Manager Bryan Price has said he doesn’t want to get “cliché” with his relief corps. He seems to be in no danger of that: The plan for the moment is for righthanders Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen to share duties as multi-inning firemen/closers. The key with arrangements like this is personnel: It’s a great idea, but it only works if your players can—and want to—be used this way. Iglesias and Lorenzen seem like a good fit; if they have success in these roles, they might be the first members of the bullpen of the future.

Milwaukee Brewers: Fresh from Korea, it's Eric Thames

There is not likely to be much to celebrate in Milwaukee this season. Mired in the midst of what may become a decade-long rebuild, the team and its fans may have begun to wonder if someone watching from above has forsaken them. Enter Eric Thames, who was given the nickname of "God" by fans of the KBO's NC Dinos, for whom he hit .348 and slugged .720 over the last three seasons. The Brewers signed him for three years and $16 million this past off-season—jettisoning last year’s NL home run leader, Chris Carter, to make room—and will install him at first base. Even if Thames can’t translate that success to the major leagues, tune in for a season-long competition among broadcasters to see who can figure out the correct pronunciation of his last name.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Starling Marte and the new-look outfield

Even factoring in Andrew McCutchen’s terrible, no good, very bad 2016, Pittsburgh has had baseball’s fourth best outfield since the start of ’14, when he, leftfielder Starling Marte and rightfielder Gregory Polanco joined forces. This year the band will be back together, but in a different arrangement: Polanco in left, Marte in center and McCutchen in right. The Bucs’ chances in the wild-card race probably depend on whether this experiment—initiated to help halt McCutchen’s decline—works. Either way, Marte should be a joy to watch in centerfield.

St. Louis Cardinals: Better baserunning

If you tuned into a Cardinals game last year, there’s an excellent chance you saw a batter hit a single with a runner on second. There’s much less chance, though, that you saw the runner score: St. Louis was seventh-most likely to be thrown out at home (20 times), sixth-least likely to take the extra base (38% of the time) and second-least likely to successfully steal a base (59% success rate). According to Fangraphs’s all-encompassing baserunning metric, the Cardinals were the second-worst team in baseball in that facet of the game. Expect that to change in 2017, starting with new centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who ranked 12th in that stat. 

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