The entire Cubs roster is fascinating. They have youth, they have speed, they have power and they have pitching.
The entire Pirates roster is fascinating. They've built a contender on a budget again, hoping for a half-dozen complementary players to form a roster Voltron and surprise the division.
The entire Cardinals roster is fascinating. They keep getting players sucked into the garbage disposal, both in the offseason and the regular season, and they keep coming up with replacements, whether from inside or outside the organization.
The entire Reds and Brewers rosters are, uh, you know, probably fascinating, but look at that, we've spent too much time on this opening section. All you want are the interesting players. We've looked at the compelling individual storylines in the NL West, AL West and AL Central. Now it's time to look at the NL Central.
Chicago Cubs: Addison Russell
The Cubs are preseason favorites in a division that spawned three postseason teams last year. They're favorites to win the World Series, according to just about every casino and bookmaker, and people are betting accordingly. If you want to be a jerk about it, you could say they're the greatest team the world has seen since the 2015 Nationals.
But if you want to know why they're favorites, just look at what the expectations are for Russell. He was a top-five prospect in baseball before last season, and he's still just 22, the kind of burgeoning talent that most teams would depend on. It's not a stretch to think that if he were on another contending team, he might be hitting at the top of the order, if not the middle, just based on his raw potential.
The Cubs are likely going to hit him eighth, and if he does exactly what he did last year -- superb defense and a dozen dingers or so -- that would be just fine with them. They'll get production from every other position, and they should have the starting rotation to fill in any gaps, so they can live with a defense-first shortstop with a touch of power if they need to.
Which is all pleasant enough, except there's a non-zero chance that Russell could become a perennial All-Star. He's a career .301/.377/.520 hitter in the minors, especially impressive when you consider that he's always been young for whatever league he's in. A shortstop who hits that well in the majors would pick up MVP votes, and it seems too easy to forget that Russell was supposed to hit for average and power in the majors one day.
Maybe this year, then. Russell would have stood out on so many Cubs rosters from the past. Here is your future. Here is your salvation. Here is your latest prospect burdened with impossible hopes and dreams. On this Cubs roster, he's just a quality shortstop with the potential to be so much more. He's already what they need, so no rush.
Cincinnati Reds: Raisel Iglesias
There were about 29 clubs that saw Iglesias as a majors-ready middle reliever, and there was one that saw him as a majors-ready starter. The team that saw him as a starter kept pushing the bidding up and up and up, until they forced every other team out of the race. The seven-year, $27 million contract seems quaint now, considering that's what teams will pay for 180 innings of slightly below-average pitching every year, but it was a risk at the time.
And through July, it looked like the Reds were wrong to fly too far from the hive mind. Iglesias had a 5.53 ERA through seven starts and two relief appearances. He was sitting in the low-90s, and surely he could get that consistent mid-90s stuff back if he moved to the bullpen. It didn't seem like the Reds could keep up the experiment much ...
Then the switch flipped. From Aug. 1 through the rest of the regular season, Iglesias had strikeout stuff and rotation-leading command of it.
There were only seven pitchers last year who struck out 10 batters or more in three consecutive starts: Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Archer, Stephen Strasburg, and Iglesias. And, uh, Rich Hill. But ignore him to fit my point, and you'll see how exciting Iglesias' arm is.
Hypothetically, what would the Reds do with him if he had a breakout season? He's earning less than $6 million per season through 2020, and if we get to July and he's continued his second-half surge from last year, he would be one of the more valuable trade commodities in baseball. Do the Reds capitalize on that value now, or do they hoard it for themselves for the next time they're contending. Both sides have a valid argument. It's just one of the reasons Iglesias' season will be the most interesting one to follow on the team.
Milwaukee Brewers: Jonathan Lucroy
There probably aren't similar concerns with Lucroy, as it would take a serious surprise if he were a star for the next good Brewers team. The team knows they need to trade him. He knows they should trade him. But after an MVP-caliber year in 2014, he was merely okay in 2015, and even with his bargain contract, teams aren't giving up their best prospects for a solid 30-year-old catcher coming off an injury-marred campaign. "Solid" and "okay" aren't words that are usually followed by "blockbuster," which is what the Brewers could have had if they had traded Lucroy just an offseason earlier.
Of all the players who are interesting because they're on TradeWatch '16, then, Lucroy is the most intriguing trade chip of all. He's going to get dealt, either at the deadline or in the winter, and the only question is if he's dealt at solid-catcher prices or underrated-star prices. His once legendary pitch-framing numbers have taken a hit, possibly because umpires are beginning to be aware of the no-good strike-rustling jerks around the league, and Lucroy possibly had the biggest reputation of them all. But he's still a catcher who does everything well, and there aren't a lot of those around the league.
I mean, I know that I'd run any team I touched straight into the ground, but did you realize that Mariners catchers hit .159/.205/.259 as a group last year? That's a pitcher holding a bat by the wrong end. And even though Mike Zunino got good marks as a pitch framer last year, wouldn't it make sense for the Mariners and Brewers to make a patience-for-immediacy exchange that would benefit them both? I know that's veering dangerously close to fake-trade territory, but I'm still stunned that Lucroy is on the Brewers.
My guess: The doubles come back, the defensive reputation stays strong, and Lucroy is a star again. Well, a star to us, because we're the record store clerks of baseball fans, and we don't pay attention to album sales. We'll know intuitively that Lucroy is a Big Star.
Pittsburgh Pirates: David Freese
Before moving on, you know that Andrew McCutchen will always be the most interesting player on whatever team he's on, right? Good. Just checking.
For being one of the few human beings in recorded history to hit a World Series-defining home run, Freese probably isn't very interesting on his own. Sorry about that. He'll hit for average (but not that much), a little power (but not that much), get on base (but not that much), and field his position well enough (but not that well). He shouldn't have lasted as long as he did as a free agent, and he's seriously underpaid for how valuable he's likely to be, but he's the baseball player that football fans have in mind when they make fun of how boring baseball is.
He's on the list, though, as a proxy for what the Pirates are trying, which is a buffet of boring effectiveness. Jon Niese and Jeff Locke are both the David Freese of pitchers, and I'm not entirely sure they're not related. John Jaso is a Perfectly Reasonable Option, as is Matt Joyce. The Pirates are the sensible retirement plan of baseball teams, and Freese fits right in with that.
Oh, and he should be ticked off. Wouldn't you be? You wait years and years and years to get to choose your employer, and you get spit out into a golden age of third basemen. Getting out of Anaheim will help his raw stats, but I also have a hunch that he'll be more than pleasantly mediocre for the Pirates.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jedd Gyorko
Ha ha, we all had jokes about the Cardinals turning Gyorko into a superstar with their Missouri-brand devil magic, but they were just jokes. They were just joooooookes. He was just going to be a bench player, and we thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if Gyorko somehow snuck his way into the lineup and had a monster season?"
As of right now: Jedd Gyorko, starting shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. They've gone mad with power, and they're messing with us.
Even in his excellent rookie season, Gyorko still had a .301 OBP. There isn't a lot of mystery to his struggles in the two subsequent seasons: He hacks, the rest of the league figured it out, and he was unable to make the counter-adjustment. It's possible that the Cardinals think they have One Weird Trick To Fix Your Batting Approach, or it's possible they pegged him as a utility infielder at best, and they're freaking out right now. He has exactly 28 starts at shortstop in his professional career, and the small-sample stats absolutely loathed him there. It's possible -- if not extremely likely -- that he'll be that rare two-way shortstop where both ways lead straight into the ground.
And yet. You've seen the Cardinals dig pieces of Almond Roca out of overflowing litter boxes. You've seen it again and again and again, and Gyorko fits in with this plan perfectly. It's not like he stumbled in from the cold and the Cardinals decided to give him a good home. They targeted him. They acquired him on purpose because they thought he was an undervalued asset, and they have an uncanny way of being right with their hunches.
If this works out, there will be a new wing of science dedicated to the Cardinals' ability to turn underwhelming players and prospects into help for an unstoppable annual contender. We'll call it Gyorkology, and there will be classes available at the University of Phoenix for the next 100 years. If it doesn't work out, that's because, come on, it's Jedd Gyorko. He might not even open the season as the starting shortstop, so this is all premature.
But I'm keeping an eye on him. I don't trust him. There's no better way to praise what the Cardinals have built than to be nervous about Jedd Gyorko. He's an easy pick as the most interesting player on the Cardinals.