The countdown to Opening Day is getting smaller. The Opening Series has begun, and only nine days to Opening Day. Every few days from now to the beginning of the season, I will be previewing one division, leading up to my postseason picks on Opening Night. After doing the National League East, we will continue with the National League Central division today.
1. St. Louis Cardinals -- 2013 Record: 97-65; Projected Record: 98-64
The Cardinals have a very similar team to the one that led them to the World Series last season against the Boston Red Sox. In fact, they have probably improved their team with their off season moves. They also have a young pitching staff and a fantastic lineup. With that team, it has to be the Cardinals at the top of the National League Central division this season. They are going to go deep into the postseason, and will put up a good fight with the Nationals to represent the National League in the World Series.
This off season, the Cardinals improved their team, by signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and trading for outfielder Peter Bourjos. They will both be upgrades at their respective positions. Peralta, in a PED suspension shortened season, posted a 119 OPS+, and Bourjos posted a 102 OPS+ and stole 6 bases in 55 games. He should add some speed to the top of St. Louis' lineup, and should also be a force in the outfield.
In general, the Cardinals have a great lineup that includes the likes of Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and Matt Holliday, and a great rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Joe Kelly. They should be in a great position to finish at the top of the National League Central division. In other words, the Cardinals are at the top, and everyone else is looking up.
2. Cincinnati Reds -- 2013 Record: 90-72; Projected Record: 87-75
The Cincinnati Reds did not do that much to improve their team this offseason, cupped with the loss of Shin-Soo Choo to the Texas Rangers. Overall, they have still got a great team, and they will be right in the mix for the National League Central. The Reds have a good ball-club, and will definitely give the Cardinals a run for their money. It's just that they will not finish first. Yes they've got a good core with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, and rookie Billy Hamilton, but they did not do a good enough job to contend with the Cardinals.
The lone "major" move the Reds made was trading Ryan Hanigan to the Rays in a three-team trade that sent David Holmberg (minors) from the Diamondbacks back to Cincinnati. However, as I said earlier, Billy Hamilton is getting ready to become an everyday starter for the Reds. He could be that new addition that really sparks this team. In five minor-league seasons, Hamilton has 395 stolen bases in just 502 games. If he can continue to get on base (.350 OBP in MiLB), Hamilton will be a force in the Reds lineup.
Overall, the Reds outlook looks pretty good. They will be in the running for a Wild Card spot, and might just well be playing in the one game playoff come October. For that to happen, Billy Hamilton has to be their x-factor and come through for them. The loss of Shin-Soo Choo might be too tough to handle, but if Hamilton can do similar things to what he did in the minors, the Reds won't nearly be as effected. We will have to see if Hamilton can come through in 2014.
3. Milwaukee Brewers -- 2013 Record: 74-88; Projected Record: 84-77
I like the Brewers more than the Pirates for two reasons. First, their off season was much better than the Pirates', who made no major moves to improve their team. Second, their pitching staff could be one of the most underrated in the National League, especially after that free agent addition of Matt Garza. Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, and Kyle Lohse are as good as anyone, even though they finished 22nd in the MLB in starter's ERA last season.
It's not just the rotation that could make the Brewers a surprise contender; they boast an offense that includes an entire season of Ryan Braun, All Star Carlos Gomez, and Jonathan Lucroy just to name a few of their players. In short, the Brewers are as good as anybody, but their overall finish depends on their execution. One player that must execute is Matt Garza, the Brewers lone major signing this off season. Garza's performance could determine how well the Brewers play, if he plays well, they could be a surpriser, or if he doesn't, they could fall back into the depths of the NL Central.
The Brewers season could go in many different ways. But for now, I am going to go with a realistic prediction, and have them finishing third in the National League Central. As I said, they could be a surpriser, and they could make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. A few things have to go right for that to happen, but it is not impossible. The Brewers will be the team to watch from the National League Central in 2014.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 2013 Record: 94-68; Projected Record: 81-81
The Pirates do not have a pitching staff to hold up their offense. That is why they will finish dead even, at a .500 winning percentage. The loss of A.J. Burnett to the Phillies, and likely unsustainable seasons from Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton will lead to the quick fall of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They will be back, but this just is not shaping up to be their year.
The Pirates did nothing this offseason. Absolutely nothing. Their biggest signing was of Chris Dickerson to a minor-league deal. They have still got a great offense with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker, but the number of off season moves, plus a run down pitching staff could lead to the Pirates downfall in the National League Central this upcoming season. It does not seem like they will be able to compete at the same level with the Cardinals, Reds, or Brewers, who all have better pitching staffs.
Even the greatest offensive teams need pitching to back them up. If the Pirates get repeat performances from Locke and Morton, they could be back in the playoffs. It just seems like that is becoming unlikely, and after refusing to bring in anyone this offseason, let alone a pitcher, it seems like the Pirates are destined for a down season. As I keep saying, their offense isn't a problem, it just does not look like they have a pitching staff to support it.
5. Chicago Cubs -- 2013 Record: 66-96; Projected Record: 70-92
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.
They have Kris Bryant and Javier Baez crushing home runs in the minors. They have Mike Olt, who might just return to somewhere near the top prospect that he was not too long ago. But, what they do have in the Major Leagues is not that great. They have Starlin Castro, who is getting ready for a breakout season. They have Anthony Rizzo, who was one of the few bright spots for the team. But besides that, they have very little to work with this season. A new manager, some minute off season moves, and another last place finish seems to be the Cubs destiny.
Cubs fans, it will not be long before you are back on top. I really have enjoyed watching your patience over these past few (many) years. But for now, it looks like you will be finishing last in the National League Central division this season. Just one more year, and the Cubs could be right smack in the middle of my predictions, but they are dead last this season. It does not look like much could change that.