Now that spring training is underway, teams are finally starting to get a sense of what their rosters will look like heading into the 2017 season.
As strengths and weaknesses start to appear and players suffer through the various aches and pains associated with playing baseball every day again, it’s important for teams to use this time to come up with backup plans in case of injury or ineffectiveness.
As teams in the NL Central chase the defending World Series-champion Chicago Cubs, they’ll need some players who struggled last year to step up in a big way.
On the flip side, the Cubs have areas where they need to get more production, too, if they want to have a chance to repeat.
That said, here are five players in the NL Central who need to produce more for their teams in 2017:
Chicago Cubs: Jason Heyward, OF
Heyward needs to do more than just play defense if he wants to live up to his massive contract.
He brought nothing to the Cubs’ potent lineup last year, batting only .230 with seven home runs and 49 RBI with only 122 hits in 530 at-bats.
If Heyward can’t get off to a decent start this year, the Cubs can go with an outfield of Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr., with Heyward and his weak bat planted firmly on the bench.
Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton, OF
Hamilton is, without a doubt, the best base stealer in all of baseball. However, the Reds would be much better off if he could actually hit a little bit, too.
Though Hamilton had a pretty good year by his standards in 2016, hitting .260 with three home runs, 17 RBI and 58 stolen bases. However, he struck out 93 times while walking only 36.
That walk-to-strikeout ratio needs to improve in a big way if he’s ever going to develop into a truly dangerous player.
Milwaukee Brewers: Wily Peralta, SP
Not much went right for the Brewers in 2016, but the struggles of Peralta stand out even among everything else that was bad about last year’s team.
Since having a breakthrough season in 2014, Peralta has struggled through two awful seasons, compiling a 7-11 record with a 4.86 ERA last year.
Opponents hit .305 against Peralta, well above the league average and not a good sign for someone who looked like he could be the Brewers’ No. 1 starter as recently as two years ago.
If Peralta struggles again in 2017, the Brewers will be forced to continue looking for answers in the starting rotation.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jung Ho Kang, 3B
Fully healthy coming into the 2017 season, it’s time for Kang to find a full-time position and start to make a full-season impact for Pittsburgh.
The 29-year-old infielder is dealing with some off-the-field trouble this offseason, so only time will tell if that affects him on the field this season.
If he can’t hold down the everyday role at third, David Freese is waiting to take his at-bats.
St. Louis Cardinals: Michael Wacha, SP
Wacha was probably on his way out of the Cardinals’ starting rotation before Alex Reyes went down with a season-ending injury last week.
Now, Wacha is in a battle with Luke Weaver and former closer Trevor Rosenthal for the final rotation spot behind Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn.
If Wacha wants to maintain any sort of value for St. Louis, he’ll need to win the No. 5 starter spot and greatly improve upon last year’s 5.09 ERA and .289 batting average against.