The National League Central was quite competitive last season, with the feel-good story of the year being the Pittsburgh Pirates making the playoffs for the first time in 20+ years. 

Do the Bucs have the talent to sip from the postseason cup again, or will the Cardinals continue to show why they are, and have been, the class of the NL Central for several years?

Does a dangerous Reds lineup make a serious postseason run? How will Ryan Braun return from an extremely embarrassing/disgusting Performance Enhancing Drug suspension?

Catch up on previous division previews, AL and NL West, and AL Central while you're at it, and look for the East divisions next week.

Opening Day 2014 is 19 days away!

 

NL central preview

2013 Final standings:

  1. St. Louis 97-65
  2. Pittsburgh 94-68
  3. Cincinnati 90-72
  4. Milwaukee 74-88
  5. Chicago 66-96

Last year this division was extremely competitive with three teams finishing with at least 90 wins.  St. Louis turned to its impressive young stable of flame throwing arms to overtake the Pirates and ultimately get them to the World Series.  There looks to be some natural regression from the Pirates and Reds as their rosters suffered major free agent losses.  The other two teams, Milwaukee and Chicago, will be hard pressed to contend this year with questions around many roster spots.  This season the division winner looks like the only playoff team out of this group. 

 

St. Louis Cardinals

The cream of the crop in the National League both organizationally and on the field, and has been for a few years now.  The departure of Albert Pujols was thought to be the nail in their coffin, but what it did was keep them financially able to invest in multiple lower profile players who were keys to keeping the team elite, this off season it was Carlos Beltran who was let go.   It also allowed them to add (overspend) on their weakest position-shortstop.  Jhonny Peralta comes over from Detroit with a PED blemish on his resume and an inconsistent bat.  He is an upgrade over the likes of Pete Kozma et all, but giving him a 4 year deal may hurt them from making another move even as soon as next year.  With an impressive stable of young arms to supplement veterans Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, this team looks primed for another long post season run. 

The rotation is headlined by Wainwright, who will no doubt be their opening day starter. It’s possible by midseason he could be supplanted by young stars in the making Shelby Miller, post season hero Michael Wacha or young fire-baller Joe Kelly.  It’s a great problem to have if you’re the GM.  Another nice problem to have is Carlos Martinez, a guy who could be stretched out as a starter, and yes he throws hard, but due to the numbers may be deployed as a 7th or 8th inning weapon if the opponent mounts a threat.  The closer is Trevor Rosenthal -at least to start the season.  The only thing that could throw off the red birds is that the youth doesn’t build on all their individual success from last season, as the team cut ties with veteran Jake Westbrook this offseason.  The rest of the bullpen isn’t as flashy but is equally efficient; lefty specialist Randy Choate as well as lefty Kevin Siegrist (Buffalo native) and righties Seth Maness and Jason Motte.  Last year’s closer Edwin Mujica lost his job by the end of September and was let go this offseason. 

Projected starting rotation:

  1. Adam Wainwright
  2. Lance Lynn
  3. Shelby Miller
  4. Michael Wacha
  5. Joe Kelly

The lineup looks just as strong and deep as last year with pending improvement from 1B fill-in to full time starter Matt Adams.  His ascension as well as Allen Craig’s ability to play the outfield made last year’s home run leader Beltran expendable.  Ranking 3rd in runs scored and on base percentage this offense can withstand some regression and still be better than half the teams in baseball.  With steady Matt Holliday hitting clean-up behind Allen Craig and in front of Adams, Peralta can slide into the 7th spot of the order and still put up nice RBI totals.  Free agent Mark Ellis will battle rookie Kolten Wong for the 2B job with a likely platoon situation occurring.  Trade acquisition CF Peter Bourjos has the speed to make the bottom of the order dangerous; he needs to work to improve his career .306 OBP. 

Manager Mike Matheny has done a masterful job of keeping the Cardinals at their peak after Tony LaRussa stepped down.  As stated above there is the chance that some of the young arms don’t take the next step this season.  The farm system has graduated many of its top talent to the big club, but does still boast OF Oscar Tavares.  It was thought that he would slide into Beltran’s departed spot in the outfield but other avenues were sought as last season was nearly washed out by injury at the AAA level.  Tim Cooney is a lefty starter who can be called up should injuries hit. 

 

Cincinnati Reds:

Unable to break through with Dusty Baker at the helm, he was replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price, who has no previous managerial experience.  Also gone are on base machine Shin-Soo Choo and SP Bronson Arroyo; the team did not add any other pieces from other major league teams, instead choosing (hoping) to replace Choo with speedster Billy Hamilton from their farm system.  A lot hinges on his success, as a smooth transition to handling big league pitching will allow him to bat leadoff and create havoc on the bases a la Rickey Henderson in his heyday.  The pitching staff is hoping for clean bills of health from Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Tony Cingrani; all of whom spent time on the DL last season or have had some ailments this offseason. 

Projected starting rotation:

  1. Mat Latos
  2. Johnny Cueto
  3. Homer Bailey
  4. Mike Leake
  5. Tony Cingrani

The staff looks strong on paper, but with Latos having ‘minor’ knee surgery the first week of spring training the team signed journeyman lefty starter Jeff Francis to a minor league deal just in case.  Last year’s win leader, Arroyo was let go as a free agent without too much concern as the team has young lefty Tony Cingrani ready for a full season of starting.  He joins Latos, Bailey and underrated Mike Leake; who all started at least 31 games last year which is both lucky and good.  With Johnny Cueto making only 11 starts last season the team is hoping for a return to the top of the rotation season from him, but won’t need it if the other members of the staff continue to ascend.  The bullpen could come back to be a strength of the team with closer Aroldis Chapman at the back end, and a return from former closer Sean Marshall, who missed last season due to injury.  Also returning from injury is Jonathan Broxton, another former closer who missed time last season due to an elbow injury.  Manny Parra and Sam LeCure look to round out the pen with dependable arms. 

The Lineup will be a work in progress early in the season, as the team needs to have Billy Hamilton earn his starting gig in center field over veteran Chris Heisey.  If Hamilton can consistently keep his on base percentage at league average then he stays at the top of the lineup and the offense becomes that much more dangerous.  If he can’t and the Reds need Heisey or try SS Zack Cozart (again) to hit leadoff, the lineup deflates and RBI guys Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Ryan Ludwick, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier all suffer because of it.  Devin Mesoraco is a former highly touted prospect who could enjoy a breakout offensive season in Great American Ballpark.  Again this is a potent lineup that gets downright dangerous with consistent on base production from the leadoff spot.  Hamilton is not Rickey Henderson, but if he puts the fear into pitchers when he gets on base, he can open holes for the guys hitting behind him to keep the hit parade going. 

Price will have his season depend on health and luck, which isn’t saying anything different from the other 29 teams in the league, except with the amount of talent on his roster it could mean the difference between not making the playoffs and making a run to October.  In the farm system the Reds have Robert Stephenson to step in and make a few spot starts if the rotation suffers an injury.  With the promotion of Hamilton they don’t have a big league ready (offensive or defensive) position player. 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Bucs finally broke through last season after 20 plus years of fielding below average teams to make the playoffs.  Losing ace A.J Burnett hurts the rotation as they did not add anyone to replace him, instead choosing to count on returns from Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton to fill out the rotation.  I know that fans say you have to have faith, but this team smells like one ripe for a fall back to mediocrity this season.  In this case mediocrity means a third place finish and no real wild card hopes at the end of the season. 

Projected starting rotation:

  1. Francisco Liriano
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Wandy Rodriguez
  4. Jeff Locke
  5. Charlie Morton

Liriano came back during the 2013 season and enjoyed a revival to his once high status with the Minnesota Twins.  He will headline the rotation this season, at least to start the season, followed closely by phenom Gerrit Cole.  Cole could push to be the ace of the staff by summer as long as he continues to develop his secondary pitches to keep hitters off his fastball.  Jeff Locke should be the 3rd starter but after a great first half of the season, in which he earned an all-star nod, the league caught up to him and he struggled in the 2nd half.  Wandy Rodriguez didn’t have Tommy John surgery last year after being shut down midseason with forearm stiffness.  He is a major question mark heading into this season.  He was once a guy who was on the cusp of elite starting pitching while in Houston, but since has fallen back to mediocrity.  Charlie Morton as a 5th starter is fine and the team obviously likes him enough to give him a three year contract extension this offseason.  He battled some injuries last season and only made 20 starts, but posted solid stats in going 7-4 with a 1.28 WHIP and 3.26 ERA.  The bullpen is due for some regression out of all-star Marc Melancon, who was at times unhittable last year.  Closer Jason Grilli returns as does setup man Vin Mazzaro.  The bullpen rounds out with lefties Tony Watson and Justin Wilson leaving a long relief spot open for the taking from someone in their deep farm system. 

The lineup still boasts MVP Andrew McCutchen who will need to at least repeat last season’s .317/21/84 stat line.  Pedro Alvarez supplies the thump in the middle of the order as he hit 36 home runs and drove in 100 last year.  Starling Marte had a great start to the season and tailed off in the second half while battling some injury issues.  Russell Martin came over from the Yankees and supplied leadership and a home run stick at the plate putting 15 over the fence.  After that Neil Walker and Jose Tabata are average big leaguers, and the platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo at 1B won’t scare anyone.  Jordy Mercer at SS is a stop gap player who is holding the position until a prospect comes along to take the job. 

Manager Clint Hurdle has gotten the most out of his teams in his time as the skipper of the Pirates.  He will need more of the same this year if the Bucs are going to take a playoff spot.  The farm system boasts highly touted prospect Jameson Tallion; along with Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow, all starting pitchers who could pull a Gerrit Cole and come up mid-year and send this team into the playoffs. 

 

Milwaukee Brewers

Last season the Brewers took Ryan Braun’s denial of PED use and suspension and struggled through the season.  They also endured an off year from staff ace Yovani Gallardo that led to a sub .500 finish.  This season, even with those two back at full strength, there isn’t much optimism in Milwaukee.  The franchise was typically quiet in free agency adding starter Matt Garza and old friend Francisco Rodriguez to the bullpen just before the start of spring training.  The Garza signing was a bit of a surprise but not unwarranted. 

Projected starting rotation:

  1. Yovani Gallardo
  2. Matt Garza
  3. Kyle Lohse
  4. Wily Peralta
  5. Marco Estrada

The starting rotation received a bump when Garza was brought aboard.  At this stage of his career he is better suited to face National league lineups as he more of a battle out 6 innings type of pitcher.  The team needs Gallardo to step back into his staff ace role and win upwards of 16 games as he did the previous two seasons.  Kyle Lohse was added before last season from St. Louis and promptly led the team in WHIP and ERA from its starters.  Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada look to round out the rotation as the former is a young upside player, and the latter is more of a fringe veteran arm.  The bullpen is held together by closer Jim Henderson and setup man Brandon Kintzler.  The aforementioned Rodriguez could be a bridge to the closer or flame out if his father in law attempts to give him pitching advice; those charges have been dropped by NYC police.

The lineup was better last season with Scooter Gennett at 2B and hitting 2nd in the lineup behind breakout star, SS Jean Segura.  Rickie Weeks and his hefty contract enter its last season, and Weeks could be no more than a pinch hitter by mid-summer.  Next should come Ryan Braun, no one knows what to expect statistically from Braun this season, but his contract calls for him to be the star of the team for many years to come.  He is being moved from left field to right field this year with the team hoping that he can handle that transition without much drop off at the plate.  Cleaning up should be Aramis Ramirez, who always starts the season off cold but warms up with the summer heat.  Carlos Gomez is the wildcard of the lineup, he hit a career high 24 home runs last year to go along with 40 stolen bases.  He has always been thought of as a speed and defense type player, so moving him to a spot in the lineup that calls for him to be more of an RBI guy than run scored guy could be a mistake.  He should hit 2nd to maximize his skills, and allow new left fielder Khris Davis to hit 5th and continue to develop his game, as he put up decent stat line in only 56 games last year- .279/11/27.  Underrated catcher Jonathan Lucroy will protect Davis in the lineup.  Lucroy hit 280/18/82 last season in 147 games and other than Gomez probably was their most consistent player. 

Manager Ron Roenicke enters his fourth season as manager.  His win totals have dropped in each of his first three years; from 96 down to 74 last year, and this could be a theme that continues.  Being a small market team doesn’t help, but ownership has a history of going for it when the team is in contention-see trades for CC Sabathia and Zach Grienke.  This season doesn’t look like one of those years, especially in this division.  They should be competitive unless the injury bug bites them, as you can see that there is talent on the roster.  The farm system is basically devoid of top end talent which could make for a frustrating summer in beer and cheese country should injury or ineffectiveness hit. 

 

Chicago Cubs

GM Theo Epstein is trying to build this franchise from the farm up, which is the right thing to do, it just takes time (years) to do it right.  This business about suing the fans with the stands on the building behind left field is silly, that’s how the ballpark was constructed and unless you are renovating this type of stuff happens when stadiums are in the middle of large cities.  The team lost 96 games last season and may well lose even more this season with the talent they are putting on the field at this point. 

Projected starting rotation:

  1. Jeff Samardjiza
  2. Travis Wood
  3. Edwin Jackson
  4. Jake Arrieta
  5. Jason Hammel/Justin Grimm/Chris Rusin

Somehow last season the Cubs ended up 9th in the Majors in quality starts with 91, that’s a good place to start a rebuild and hope that your bats come through to win a few of those games.  Jeff Samardjiza is the staff ace despite being inconsistent through most of the year.  He has shown the ability to strike batters out; however he seems to only try and do that instead of just letting the batter put the ball in play and use his defense, leading to high pitch counts and his early exit in games.  With more refinement he could be looking at a breakout season, however it is widely known that he is on the trade block.  If he was to have that kind of season his value would sky rocket and any trade return becomes that much more.  Travis Wood was the Cubs’ lone all-star last year after a solid first half.  He did end up leading the team in wins, but with a total of only 9, so that tells you how his second half went.  Edwin Jackson was signed to pitch 200 innings, which he didn’t and lost 18 games last year.  Jake Arrieta was obtained from Baltimore where he showed some promise but fizzled out the last two years not fulfilling that promise.  The 5th starter spot is likely a spring training battle royal.  The bullpen is packed with unproven kids looking to find their role with the team.  Closer duties begin with Pedro Strop.

The lineup regressed last season when management was looking for them to take the next step up.  Starlin Castro turned into a hitter with no plate discipline and saw his average drop 40 points.  Anthony Rizzo, the team’s offensive firepower, led the team in home runs, RBI and runs scored.  He hit a paltry .233 while doing so, meaning he was all or nothing at the plate.  Nate Schierholtz led the team in batting average and on base percentage.  The rest of the lineup is packed with journeymen vets with no upside. 

New manager Rick Renteria looks to be in for a long summer on Chicago’s North side.  The front office likely won’t rush a talented farm system to the majors until they show they are ready.  Arismendy Alcantara will battle for the starting 2B job in spring training.  Other jobs to be won include 3B with youngster Javier Baez in the mix, and in the outfield with Cuban Jorge Solar.  Best case scenario is the pitching again keeps the team in games and the kids all win their position battles and show they have the skills to turn this franchise around.  

(Next: NL East)

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