Division Outlook: NL Central

NL Central 2014 Final Standings
St. Louis Cardinals              90     72
Pittsburgh Pirates               88     74
Milwaukee Brewers           82     80
Cincinnati Reds                   76     86
Chicago Cubs                       73     89

While the East and West divisions of the National League boast two legitimate World Series contenders with the Nationals and Dodgers and grabbed headlines during the off-season with snazzy free agent signings and trades, the biggest news coming out of the Central division involved the Cubs.  Yes it was the Cubs, the franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in 116 years and is Major League Baseball’s definition of a loser.

You have to feel bad for the rest of the teams in the Central to be represented by such a lowly organization, as the division has become the most talented and deepest in all of baseball.  Yes the Cubs made a lot of noise, but look at what you already had: talented pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto), talented hitters (Joey Votto, Carlos Gomez), top tier catchers (Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy), great managers (Mike Matheny, Clint Hurdle) as well as perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.  The division has sent five teams to the playoffs as a Wild Card the last four years (both the Reds and Pirates in 2013) and is home to the Cardinals, the only team that can defeat Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in the playoffs.  And last season the Cardinals won the division only after a late season surge, beating out the Brewers who had held onto first place for a franchise record 122 days.  With all this talent in the division, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that any of the teams could end up in first or last place.

The Cubs were the off-season media darlings by bringing in Joe Maddon as their manager, signing free agent pitcher Jon Lester and trading for All Star catcher Miguel Montero to go along with young talent Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant.  This is Theo Epstein’s fifth season with the organization and the media has high expectations for 2015, with Sporting News going so far as predicting a World Series for the Cubs.  The World Series prediction is pretty baseless as the team has stated that getting to .500 is the priority for this year.  A lot of the high expectations are due to the hype surrounding the minor league system that Epstein has shaped over his first four seasons.  This hype should be tapered a bit as Baez, the first of the Cubs highly touted prospects to make an appearance in the Majors, flopped horribly in 2014.  Even in Winter Ball this off-season, Baez couldn’t control his wild swing and knack for striking out.  Although Soler is solid, Bryant remains a question mark until he makes it to the Show and proves himself.  The addition of Maddon is a plus, however the Cubs have had formidable big name managers before (Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella) that only led to disappointment.  Maddon is not a magician, as he showed down in Tampa that he needed talent to work with.  And by the way, he never won a World Series with all the talent he did have with the Rays.  Behind Lester, the starting talent to watch for is Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood.  Edwin Jackson and newly signed Jason Hammel will be overpaid, aging veterans handing the ball off early to the bullpen quite a lot.  And about that bullpen.  Hector Rondon showed last season he can close, but can he be consistent for two straight years?  Jason Motte was added from the Cardinals, but he was awful last year and was signed to be the veteran presence to stabilize the rest of the young arms.  Good luck.  As for the offense, Anthony Rizzo is the real deal, however he and Starlin Castro are the only sure things, as Montero has had injury issues the last few years.  It seems a lot has to be answered first before any Billy Goat curses end this year.

The favorite and class of the division is undoubtedly the Cardinals, and in 2015 the team remains the top pick.  The Cardinals quietly have one of the best offenses in all of baseball, especially after acquiring Jason Heyward in his contract year.  The Gold Glove right fielder has admitted he would like to extend his stay in St. Louis, and a big season would guarantee a big pay day.  With less pressure to be one of the major offensive forces in the lineup as well as being surrounded by hitters such as Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday, Heyward should flourish.  The organization is not entirely comfortable with their solid, yet injury prone starting rotation and they definitely are looking for a front line starter to pair with Wainwright.  They may not have as many prospects to give up as the Red Sox to acquire Cole Hamels, but don’t count them out.  If they do miss out on Hamels, expect some move as the team is under budget.  Although the Cardinals lost Pat Neshek to the Astros, the bullpen remains deep after closer Trevor Rosenthal, with many solid role players such as LOOGY Randy Choate.   The Dodgers and Nationals are the flashy picks to represent the National League in the World Series, but the Cardinals have proven time and again that they are always the team to beat in the postseason.  And the Kershaw-led Dodgers have failed the last two years.  Top to bottom, the Cardinals are the deepest team in baseball with great talent all around.  And don’t forget, the best catcher in baseball, Yadier Molina, is still calling their games.

McCutchen has recently stated that the Pirates outfield is the best in baseball.  It may not be as good as the crew down in Miami with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco make a very formidable and athletic group.  They lead a young, exciting team that had one of the best offenses in the National League last season.  What was most surprising about the offense was that it was one of the most patient, drawing a league high 520 walks.  Unfortunately the veteran presence and leadership of Russell Martin is gone, to be replaced by former Yankee and oft-injured Francisco Cervelli.  Not only will Martin be missed for his offensive prowess, but his ability to handle the pitching staff will be hard to replace.  Expect the offense to regress, but more importantly, expect the lack of pitching depth to be exposed.  Francisco Liriano is far from an ace, yet he leads a very unglamorous starting rotation.  A.J. Burnett returns after a year with the Phillies, but the veteran doesn’t add much except the potential to eat a lot of innings.  Even that is questionable as Burnett turned 38 years old in January.  Marc Melancon quietly had a stellar season in 2014, but we’ll see if he can have a repeat performance.  Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are solid behind Melancon, yet the talent drops off after that in the bullpen.  As competitive as the Pirates have been the last few years, the organization refuses to add that one big name free agent to put the team over the top.  This time it may cost them.

In terms of a baseball culture, the Brewers may have one of the best in the Majors.  There is always consistent fan support and a great, tailgaiting atmosphere at a very fun, new-ish stadium as well as a front office that has put together a consistently competitive team.  Yet after last season’s collapse and limp to a third place finish, the organization has responded by trading away its best starter, Yovani Gallardo.  This seems odd, especially after the biggest problem during the “Great Collapse” was the awful pitching.  The team ERA ballooned to over five after the Brew Crew’s skid started and the team finished barely over .500.  Hopefully GM Doug Melvin knows something about Gallardo that we don’t, but bringing back Francisco Rodriguez doesn’t seem like enough.  It also doesn’t seem very helpful that the only major move for the offense was the trade for Adam Lind, a DH-type from the Blue Jays expected to take over first base.  Although the team has some young talent, many of the veterans seem to be aging fast.  Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are all on the wrong side of thirty, with their best days behind them and more injuries bound to come.  Last season down the stretch, Braun re-injured his thumb and the offense suffered.  Expect more of the same this year.

The Reds have both talented position players and pitchers, maybe some of the best in the division.  Unfortunately this great talent thins very quickly, which leaves the team with the weakest organizational depth in the division.  The problem for the Reds is the top tier talent they have is very expensive, which leaves a very small budget for a supporting cast.  With outstanding yet costly players such as Votto, Cueto, Aroldis Chapman and Homer Bailey, the front office can only fine tune around the edges and hope that no one gets injured.  This is a fragile position, as eleven players were on the DL last season and Bailey will not be ready for Opening Day.  The off-season produced a very poor haul as there were no significant upgrades.  Burke Badenhop and Kevin Gregg were signed to bolster a weak bullpen, however expect another year of mediocrity behind Chapman.  Trading for Marlon Byrd, the aging left fielder, seems downright irresponsible.  Maybe it all works out.  Most likely it doesn’t.

NL Central 2015 Projected Standings
St. Louis Cardinals               90     72
Pittsburgh Pirates                86     76
Milwaukee Brewers            81     81
Chicago Cubs                         76     86
Cincinnati Reds                    72     90

Featured Image: Via sfgate.com

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