NL Central Preview
March 22, 2014
By Matt Zylbert
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St. Louis Cardinals
Since their dramatic World Series victory in 2011, the Cardinals have suffered a couple of really close calls in almost nabbing another one, losing in the NLCS the following year, before reaching the World Series again last season, only to fall in six games to the Red Sox. It’s no coincidence they keep making these deep runs, as this is truly one of the best-run organizations in all of sports, which is why they have just one losing season in this millennium. That underappreciated trend should continue for a variety of reasons, one being a consistently clutch and live offense, as, despite losing Carlos Beltran and David Freese, there’s more than enough ammunition here to continue rolling along with one of the best offenses in the league. Two crucial veteran stalwarts in this lineup, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday remain, but just as important is the youngsters that have made a major impact, some of which have already become established commodities in baseball, like Allen Craig, who interestingly has led baseball in batting average with runners in scoring position over the past two years. Matt Carpenter is another such player and is coming off a break-out campaign while manning the hot corner. Additionally, Matt Adams looked tremendous as a part-time player a season ago and now enters year as the starting first baseman with a load of potential. The team also added Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos, which should help maintain a steady batting order.
Starting pitching has seemingly always been a distinct strength for the Cardinals, and last year was no different, as their starters collectively put together the second-best team ERA in all of baseball. That’s scary when you think about how their rotation might even better this year, especially when their two prized youngsters, Shelby Miller and postseason break-out stud Michael Wacha, are only just getting started after fabulous rookie campaigns a season ago. They aren’t even at the top of this pitching staff, a slot held by Adam Wainwright, who was as excellent as always, and delivered when it mattered most in several clutch efforts throughout the playoffs. In fact, he was so brilliant for the year that he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting. Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly have already established themselves as nice middle-of-the-rotation options, and should continue to be just that as they continue to grow as major league starters, but the potential inclusion of 22-year old Carlos Martinez probably has the highest ceiling. If he doesn’t crack the Opening Day staff, he’ll be an effective late-inning reliever, a position he assumed successfully during last year’s playoffs, as he would be aiding Kevin Siegrist and the returning Jason Motte in getting the ball to Trevor Rosenthal, who took over the closer’s role in September and didn’t look back. Overall, it’s a really dominant bullpen. The competition in the NL Central is definitely getting a lot tighter, but as always, the Cardinals should have more than enough to be in it till the end.
Predicted Record: 90-72
Every year, there are at least a couple of teams that surprise everyone following a down period, and if you look up and down the roster that makes up this year’s Brewers, you realize they are absolutely a candidate to be one of such stories in 2014. Of course, the main storyline in Milwaukee last year revolved around Ryan Braun finally coming forward, after lying, about his PED use, which led to him being suspended for the rest of the season. In the meantime, the club struggled lifelessly while barely avoiding 90 losses, but with Braun back, along with the younger players that are hitting their stride, this could be the year they turn it back around. At first glance concerning their lineup, there’s a batting order that could probably slug it out with the best of them, led by the aforementioned Braun, who still has the extraordinary talent to rank as one of the best pure hitters in the game. While he was gone, there were some others who stepped up in his absence that could be very valuable in 2014, such as Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura. Gomez was once considered a top prospect, and after years of underachieving, finally enjoyed his break-out campaign that saw him win a Gold Glove and make his first all-star team, while Segura was phenomenal in his first full season in the bigs, leading many to believe that he might become one of the best shortstops in the National League. Also featuring Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy, Mark Reynolds, Juan Francisco, and the emerging Khris Davis, this could definitely be one of the more explosive lineups in all of baseball.
Pitching is part of the game, too, and while Milwaukee possesses a potent offense, it could be their hurlers that cause any potential downfall. Still in place at the top of their rotation is longtime Brewer Yovani Gallardo, who has enjoyed modest success throughout his eight years in the league, but is coming off a career-worst campaign that he will need to rebound from if his club is to make any sort of playoff push. To help with their starting pitching, the Brewers added Matt Garza, who has much experience pitching in the NL Central and should be a solid addition. Veteran Kyle Lohse is also there, coming off another fine season in 2013. Youngsters Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, and the older Marco Estrada will comprise the bottom portion of the rotation, with Thornburg having the most potential of the trey, especially after a terrific display last season that saw him register a quality start in all seven of his assignments. The bullpen, meanwhile, is pretty underrated, as they were third as a group in ERA in the National League last season, and could be better with the addition of Francisco Rodriguez joining Brandon Kintzler in helping set-up returning closer Jim Henderson, who was everything the club had hoped for in his first full season handling the closer duties. Just like last year, it looks like things will be very interesting in Milwaukee, except this time, it will be for all the right reasons.
Predicted Record: 86-76
Amazingly, the losing is over. One of the most dubious streaks in the history of professional sports came to an end last year, as the Pirates secured their first winning season since 1992 - yes, 1992 - while making the playoffs for the first time in that same timeframe as well. Of course, this was all correctly boldly predicted by this author, as Pittsburgh really had something special brewing in the few seasons leading up to last year’s break-out ever since manager Clint Hurdle took over in 2011, and luckily for Bucco fans, this miraculous turnaround will prove to be no fluke whatsoever; the Pirates are here to stay amongst the NL’s elite. That sentiment was further proven when they took the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals to the limit in the NLDS, narrowly losing in the maximum five games, but with that came a valuable learning experience that has Pittsburgh poised for even more in the coming years. They’re led by their face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen, who is fresh off a campaign that saw him take home the National League MVP award, a well-deserved honor for the superstar center fielder. Pedro Alvarez also legitimized himself further in 2013 as a top power hitter, after tying Paul Goldschmidt for the NL league-lead in home runs. In addition, Starling Marte continued his notable development with a solid season, as he appears to have all the tools to become one of the game’s most dynamic lead-off hitters. With a fine supporting cast that consists of Neil Walker, Russell Martin, and Jose Tabata, the Pirates should have enough to get by offensively once again.
In actuality, it was the pitching that led Pittsburgh’s ground-breaking efforts a season ago. After all, the Pirates finished third in baseball in team ERA, thanks to a truly sparkling performance from both the starters and relievers collectively. Francisco Liriano, in his first year with the club, posted a terrific campaign at the top of the rotation that ultimately netted him the Comeback Player of the Year award. Ultimately, however, it might be youngster Gerrit Cole who attains the status of being the staff ace, as he’s coming off a superb rookie showing and has a very bright future ahead of him without question. The Bucs no longer have the services of A.J. Burnett, but have a lot of depth nonetheless, such as the return of Wandy Rodriguez, who missed most of 2013, but will be back at the start of the upcoming year. Veterans Charlie Morton and newly-signed Edinson Volquez comprise the bottom of the staff, while Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton are more-than-serviceable youngsters who can fill in capably if someone goes down. The bullpen was just as strong, as Jason Grilli immediately justified why the Pirates dealt away former all-star closer Joel Hanrahan with a remarkable campaign. Also having Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Bryan Morris, this is still one of the best relief corps in the bigs. For once, the Pirates enter a season chock full of expectations, and ironically, that particular variable could be their biggest challenge yet for an organization looking to grow further.
Predicted Record: 84-78
Under Dusty Baker, the Reds made some serious strides over the past handful of years, winning two division titles and securing three playoff berths, after a prior woeful stretch that saw them miss the postseason in 14 consecutive years. However, they would never get past the NLDS, and losing last year’s NL wild card play-in game proved to be the final straw, as Baker was canned shortly after, paving the way for Bryan Price, who takes over the managerial duties following four productive years as the team’s pitching coach. He inherits a fairly talented roster that is mostly the same as last year’s 90-win effort, although there is one glaring omission at the top of the batting order: Shin-Soo Choo. The center fielder bolted for Texas in free agency, but the Reds have a secret weapon up their sleeve to take his place with Billy Hamilton, who has wowed scouts and fans alike for his remarkable ability to swipe bases. If he could develop into an acceptable hitter, Hamilton may evolve into one of the best lead-off men in all of baseball, while also potentially becoming the next great speedster on the basepaths. That would be extremely dangerous for opposing pitchers, given some of the names that reside right behind him. The main one, of course, is Joey Votto, a former MVP winner and still one of the best pure hitters in the league. There is also Brandon Phillips, one of the more established second baseman in the game, although some are predicting he’s on the downside of his nice career, and Jay Bruce, who has emerged as a truly dangerous power hitter. Besides the main core, though, there isn’t much, so Hamilton’s progression will be extra important in trying to really maximize this lineup.
Of course, when Price was hired as the manager, he knew he was also getting largely the same pitching staff that he’s worked with in recent years, aside from the subtraction of Bronson Arroyo. His frontline starter is still Johnny Cueto, and despite battling injuries throughout most of last season that limited him to just 11 starts, all indications point to the right-hander successfully resuming what has been a very solid career thus far. Mat Latos is still the No. 2 in Cincinnati, and he’s been remarkably consistent as well. Homer Baily and Mike Leake are above-respectable options in the middle of the rotation, both each having potential of becoming more. Tony Cingrani might actually be the most intriguing of all five, as he’s the youngest and displayed a truly enthralling knack for strikeouts last year in his rookie campaign that could get him noticed very quickly. Perhaps the best strength of this team lies in its bullpen, where flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman returns as the closer. There’s nobody else quite like him, and with Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall setting Chapman up, it’s almost a foregone conclusion when they bring a lead into the late innings. Getting said leads might be extra challenging this year, however.
Predicted Record: 76-86
Will Cubs fans ever be put out of their misery? Having not won a World Series championship since 1908 is bad enough, but over the past handful of years, the Cubs have become a perennial laughingstock, owning a current abysmal streak of four straight fifth-place finishes in the NL Central. First and foremost, if that is to end, the Cubs will need its two star offensive players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, to bounce back after disappointing seasons in 2013 that saw both of their batting averages drop by a combined 90 points! It’s probable that they rebound, considering how talented each player is, and that will be mandatory for the Cubs to escape the division basement. It wasn’t all negative in the hitting department last year, as the Cubs got an unlikely break-out year from Nate Schierholtz in right field that could solidify him as a decent middle-of-the-lineup slugger going forward. Wellington Castillo also enjoyed a solid first full season on both sides of the ball as Chicago’s starting catcher and will look to pick up where he left off. Furthermore, Junior Lake impressed greatly after being called up last July, and the Cubbies also added Justin Ruggiano, who could prove to be a real underrated pick-up, considering the flashes of promise he’s shown in the recent past.
Believe it or not, the Cubs may actually have a pitching rotation that could wind up amongst the league’s best by season’s end. While the offense has little expectations, especially after a year full of disappointments, the opposite can be said of the pitching, which will be counting on key starters to continue the forward development that was exhibited a year ago. One such name where this applies is staff ace Jeff Samardzija, who has really come into his own over the past couple of years in establishing himself as an acceptable frontline starter. In fact, he was fourth in the NL in strikeouts last season. Travis Wood is another one who fits this bill, as he’s coming off a career-best campaign that even saw him make his first all-star team. In his first tenure in Chicago last season, Edwin Jackson disappointed mightily, but has had success before, which is the main reason for optimism in hoping he can turn it back around. Meanwhile, two potential wild cards on this staff are Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta. Rusin impressed for the most part in his rookie showing, while Arrieta churned out mostly quality work after he was acquired from Baltimore midway through last year. In that same trade, the Cubs also picked up Pedro Strop, who has proven to be an efficient set-up man, and along with James Russell, should be an above-average pair in getting the ball to new closer Jose Veras in the ninth. Most likely, new manager Rick Renteria will have his hands full in his first year on the job.
Predicted Record: 74-88
Final Say on the NL Central: The NL Central is probably the most wide-open of the three National League divisions, solidifying it as the toughest to bet on in terms of a futures’ bet. Four teams, realistically, have a legitimate chance of winning the division, with the Cubs being the lone club that really doesn’t, as they’re still mired in their rebuilding effort, although it’s safe to say that they’re definitely getting closer. Of course, when talking about the potential winner of the Central, you have to start with the favorite, the Cardinals, who are similarly built compared to recent years, in which the storied organization has experienced much success. Thus, it’ll be hard to dethrone them, but the possibility is certainly there. We all saw what Pittsburgh did last season, and how they almost took down the Cardinals in the playoffs, so it’s definitely fathomable to see the Pirates perhaps be the new division champs, with how much they’ve been trending upwards since 2011. The Reds have always been in the mix, although this might be the year they regress, getting older and in a transition year featuring a first-time manager at the helm. The wild card, no pun intended, might be Milwaukee, who should definitely have enough offense to keep them involved. Pitching, however, could ultimately determine where they end up, and if it can hold up, they are deep enough to shock everyone and win this division, making them +1050 the best value bet amongst this bunch, and perhaps the best investment overall.
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