The Milwaukee Brewers have the potential to surprise in the NL Central.
While the rivalry with the Brewers has subsided with the resurgence of the Cubs and recent success from Pittsburgh, they could be a thorn in the side of the St. Louis Cardinals this year.
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The Milwaukee Brewers were the most active of the three teams which finished below .500 in the NL Central last season. While the projections see them declining in 2017, I believe their roster has the potential to surprise.
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The rotation figures to be a strength of the Brewers, as all five starters are expected to return. Rookies Zach Davies and Junior Guerra surprised in 2016, and finished first and second among Brewers pitchers in fWAR. Both Matt Garza and Wily Peralta continued to provide a veteran presence, while Jimmy Nelson took a step in the wrong direction.
The Brewers bullpen was an asset last season, and likely will be again in 2017. The loss of Jeremy Jeffress to free agency was countered with the acquisition of Neftali Feliz. Tyler Thornburg had a dominant breakout campaign and will look to continue building on his success. Additionally, Carlos Torres and Blaine Boyer will again add high quality depth late in games.
The most interesting addition, in my opinion, is Eric Thames. Thames last played in the MLB in 2012 with the Seattle Mariners where he struggled as a part time player. However, he has played the last three years in Korea in the same league where Seung-Hwan Oh began his career.
Over the last three seasons in the KBO, Thames has mashed for a .349 average with 124 home runs. His overall slash line in this period rings in at an astounding .349/.457/.688. For comparison, Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang held a .298/.383/.504 line in nine KBO seasons.
While St. Louis Cardinals fans should expect to see a lot of Ryan Braun again in 2017, it might be Jonathan Villar who will hurt the Cardinals most. Villar registered 3.0 fWAR in a breakout 2016 season, compared to 3.2 fWAR from Ryan Braun. He showed an exceptional ability to get on base, hitting .285 while also walking in 11.6% of his plate appearances.
While the Cubs make the most headlines in the NL Central, there is plenty to be excited about in the division. The St. Louis Cardinals, on paper, look to be the second best team in the NL Central. Hopefully, that would earn them a playoff spot. However, they do have the potential to compete for the division title if they can take advantage of their opportunities against their division rivals.