The National League Central is an interesting division because all five teams could win the division in the correct circumstances. My team to watch for this season is the Cubs, who are inching closer and closer to becoming prolonged contenders. This season could be theirs to start heading to the playoffs. With their great mix of veterans and prospects, are they division winners?
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 2014 Record: 90-72; Projected Record: 92-70
To answer the above question: no. The Cubs aren't quite there yet. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are. St. Louis has perhaps the deepest roster in the Major Leagues. having both a solid lineup and a solid pitching staff. The Cardinals' front office has built this team into a constant winner, making the playoffs 11 times since 2000, winning two World Series championships. The Cardinals should easily finish with 90 or more wins this season and take the National League Central division.
The 2014 Cardinals worked behind the fantastic pitching of Adam Wainwright, who went 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA in 227 innings, finishing third in the National League Cy Young award voting. He strained his abdomen this Spring Training, but he should be ready to go by Opening Day. On the offensive, the Cardinals got above-average play (from an OPS+ perspective) from six of their nine starters, including a .272/.370/.441 line from 34-year-old Matt Holliday.
They worked to improve their team this offseason with the acquisition of Jason Heyward, who has spent his entire career up to this point with the Atlanta Braves. Other than that, their team remains the same, with backstop Yadier Molina leading the charge as their cornerstone. Their staff, including Wainwright, remains one of the best, with Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez rounding it out. Their bullpen will be without Pat Neshek, who signed with Houston this season. He and his 1.87 ERA will be missed, but improvements from Seth Maness and others should do a good job in his absence.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates -- 2014 Record: 88-74; Projected Record: 89-73
The Pirates and the Cubs will come neck and neck for the second spot in the division, but the Pirates experience playing in the pennant race, plus their overall team chemistry, give them the upper hand in my book. The Pirates have an underrated rotation and bullpen that will get them far enough, but behind Andrew McCutchen in center field, their offense should do enough to support them through the tough games and keep them on top. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs each of the past two years, and while a third consecutive year may be tough, it is definitely not out of the question for this talented, young, and experienced team all at the same time.
Last season, the Pirates saw a six win drop off from the prior year, but that does not mean that the team took a longterm step backward by any means. This club just saw better play from their division rivals, as 2014 was the first time since 2010 that any other team in the NL Central (besides Pittsburgh) finished with less than 90 losses. The Pirates stellar acquisition last season was Edinson Volquez, who pitched to a 3.04 ERA, despite his peripherals suggesting otherwise. His decent season saw himself saw him getting a one-year, $10 million deal with the Kansas City Royals with an option.
The main addition to this Pirates team comes in the form of Korean import Jung-ho Kang , who signed a four-year, $11 million deal with Pittsburgh with an option for a fifth year. Kang's power potential has already impressed me thus far in Spring Training, being able to show power both pull-side and the opposite way. Kang's bat speed looks sharp; he looks like he may break out as a good big league player this year. It all depends on if he can handle the shortstop position defensively, and if he can, he'll become the Pirates' shortstop in the long run.
3. Chicago Cubs -- 2014 Record: 73-89; Projected Record: 88-74
I wrote this about the Cubs' 2014 season in my NL Central Preview last year: "When I say the Cubs will be better next year, I really mean that. They have got my favorite farm system, and it will not be long before they rebound and rise to the top of the NL Central. However, it looks like it will be another bleak season for Cubs fans. They did make some nice small moves this off season, which could be key to their success, but I just cannot see the playoffs happening for the Cubs this season." The Cubs had been coming off a 66 win season, and while I believed they would jump to 70 wins, they just bested my prediction, with 73 wins. This may not be the year for the Cubs, but as they inch closer to contention, this year will be a fun one for the fans still waiting for a World Series since 1908.
More important than the actual games last season were the long-awaited Major League debuts of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara. The Cubs also saw the development of Kris Bryant, who deserved a big league call-up alongside Baez, Soler, and Alcantara, but was kept down due to service time reasons. Bryant swatted 43 home runs last season, and after being drafted just two years ago in 2013, he will definitely be making his big league debut this season, and for Cubs fans hopefully sooner rather than later. These four guys are the core for future Cubs teams and they will bring this team back to the playoffs in 2016 or 2017. The Cubs could even contend this season, but a lot has to go right involving their young and inexperienced prospects. That's why it may be a bit unreasonable to see them in the postseason this year.
Knowing that the Cubs are so close to contention that they can almost taste it, the front office went out and got themselves a big fish in starting pitcher Jon Lester, easily the best free agent on the market last offseason not named Max Scherzer. He, with Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel (whom they brought back), Kyle Hendricks, and Travis Wood lead that rotation. The Cubs also went out and acquired outfielder Dexter Folwer from Houston and catcher Miguel Montero from Arizona. These guys, along with proven younger vets Anthony Rizzo and Starling Castro, will lead the prospects in blooming as soon as possible. That will come soon, though that isn't soon enough for diehard Cubs fans.
4. Milwaukee Brewers -- 2014 Record: 82-80; Projected Record: 80-82
The Brewers are probably the biggest wild card in the National League Central. They had a good season last season, but I'm not sure if their hot start was due to pure performance or if it was a fluke. The club looks like it could be good this season, but it's hard to see them being better than the Cardinals, Pirates, or Cubs this season. Milwaukee has an interesting rotation and decent lineup, so they could possibly make some noise, but I do not think the Brewers could see themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
After perhaps the hottest start in team history, including a 20-8 record through their first 28 games, the Brewers fell far off the table throughout the year, not posting a above-.500 winning percentage twice after their hot March and April (doing so in just June). After posting a +19 run differential through March/April, they went on to post a -26 run differential the rest of the way. The Brewers got the best of their offensive production from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who hit for an .832 OPS (132 OPS+) in 655 plate appearances and outfielder Carlos Gomez, who hit for a .833 OPS (130 OPS+). Their best pitcher (via ERA+) was Yovani Gallardo, who went 8-11 with a 3.51 ERA in 192 1/3 innings. He has since been shipped to the Texas Rangers, which could be a huge void for the Brewers in 2015.
The Brewers went out and signed Adam Lind this offseason to play first base. The 31-year-old Lind made 43 starts at first last season with the Blue Jays, hitting .321/.381/.479 in a limited 318 plate appearances. Lind made 75 of 78 of his starts against right-handed starters, where he served as a platoon. If the Brewers can utilize him correctly, Lind will be a great addition to the team. On a different note, the main key to success to the Brewers' 2015 season is their rotation, and without Gallardo, it does not look likely that that will occur. It will be tough for them to succeed.
5. Cincinnati Reds -- 2014 Record: 76-86; Projected Record: 72-90
The Cincinnati Reds are probably the weakest team in the National League Central division in multiple categories. The one that jumps out at me is that how they are way far behind in analytics, with them being considered a "skeptic" of analytics, according to ESPN's The Great Analytics Rankings. The Reds are far behind as compared to their division counterparts, with three of their NL Central teams being considered "all-in" in analytics and the fourth (being the Brewers) being considered to have "one foot in." The Reds are the furthest behind and it's starting to show as their team begins to fall of the table.
The Reds' 2014 season was nothing to write home about, finishing fourth in the division and not being able to make any noise. Remember this was a team that had been to the playoffs three of four years from 2010 to 2013. Last season, injuries to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Ludwick, along with Mat Latos and Homer Bailey being injured as well. The Reds need to stay durable in order to win again this season, but I highly doubt that happens, considering that these guys are getting up there in age, and performance continues to decline. It's possible that everyone rebounds, but in all reality, this looks like the decline of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds traded Latos to the Marlins this offseason. NL Cy Young award winner Johnny Cueto could go next, as the Reds may want to dump him as this is their last year of team control. The Reds might just want to enter a "retooling" phase, where they do not go in a full-on rebuild, but try to win 80 games a year and continue to develop their farm system. This year's team isn't one that will win any division, Wild Card, or playoff spots, so their front office, headed by GM Walt Jocketty, may need to make some tough decisions this Trade Deadline or offseason in terms of trades. The Reds just don't have what it takes to be a non-stop contender anymore.