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2015 Season Preview: NL Central

The NL Central in 2015 is going to be one of the most exciting divisions in baseball. While it might not be the best division or have the best team, it could be the deepest top to bottom. I think it’s possible that any of the 5 teams–the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cincinnati Reds, or the St. Louis Cardinals–could actually win this year.

Last season, the Brewers, Pirates, and Cardinals all took a turn atop the standings and are back just as strong this season. The Cubs are vastly improved and the Reds are healthy after a very weird 2014. It should be good.

The flip side to everyone having potential is that some teams will inevitably fail to live up to it, and even though every team in the Central is pretty good, questions abound. Will the Cardinals rotation be deep enough at the back end? Will the Pirates hit enough without Russell Martin? Are the Brewers the great team we saw in the first half or the abysmal team that sank them to just 2 games over .500 after the All-Star break? Will growing pains for their young stars derail the Cubs? Can the Reds pitch enough after losing two of their best starters?

After a monster spring training from some of their young up-and-comers, everyone seems to be excited by the Cubbies, but I think they’re probably a year away from really contending. The Cardinals, the defending champs, have added Jason Heyward to the mix, though it took a big piece out of their rotation to do it. This division is going to be a battle all summer, just like it was last year.

Projected Standings

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Milwaukee Brewers
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Chicago Cubs
  5. Cincinnati Reds

You really could flip the Brewers and Pirates, and the Cubs have a real shot too. This was a tough one. I think the only safe bets are that the Cardinals will be right in the mix come September and that the Reds will be among the best of baseball’s very worst. Let’s dive in.

St. Louis Cardinals, 1st place, 92-70

As I said, no team in the NL Central will be a powerhouse, in part because no team is truly great and in part because they’ll all beat on each other all year, keeping win totals low. And, as boring as it may be, the Cards will likely come out on top.

St. Louis returns essentially the same team that took them to the NLCS last season, with the one major addition of Jason Heyward. Heyward, who will be a free agent next winter and came over from Atlanta for Shelby Miller, will likely hit near the top of the lineup and give pitchers one more thing to worry about before they have to deal with Matt Holiday, Matt Adams, and Yadi Molina. In addition, Kolten Wong finished third in last season’s rookie of the year voting at second and Matt Carpenter has become one of baseball’s most prolific on base machines, leading the league in walks last year after finishing 4th in the MVP balloting two years ago.

On the mound, the Cards return their Ace, Adam Wainwright, who is as good as ever and is coming of an absolutely monster season that would have won the Cy Young for him if Clayton Kershaw wasn’t Clayton Kershaw. And Laynce Lynn has finally developed into a top flight starter. Behind them, John Lackey is the number three, while Michael Wacha, Christian Martinez, and Jaime Garcia will figure out the next two spots. Wacha, Martinez, and Garcia are far from sure things, but they each have higher floor and a higher ceiling than most of the guys fighting for back end rotation spots on other teams. Fitting them all in is a good problem to have.

In the ‘pen, the Cards have Trevor Rosenthal and crew, a good but not spectacular bullpen, in line with the rest of the team.

The Cardinals will win this division because they are more well rounded than any other team; they don’t really have any holes. Once again, it looks like this Cardinals team is headed for a good but not great regular season, and a deep trip into October.

Milwaukee Brewers, 2nd place, 87-75

I might be the only one who believes in the Brewers, but I think this is good team. They ran away with the division in the first part of last season before completely falling apart down the stretch.  They return Jon Lucroy, arguably the best catcher in the NL last season, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, and Ryan Braun. Sure, Ramirez has announced his retirement at the end of the season and Braun is a shell of his ‘roided up former self, but this team will hit enough.

Joining those four will be Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett, who are both pretty good middle infielders. Adam Lind is the new first basemen but he won’t get any fans all that excited. The way I see it, the offense in Milwaukee hinges on the Kris Davis- Gerardo Parra coupling in left field and Ryan Braun’s productivity in right. If those two spots in the order can hit consistently, Milwaukee will be tough. If not, they’ll be overtaken by Pittsburgh or Chicago. If Braun can hit like 80% of his old self and post a .290 season with 24 homers, that’ll be really helpful. .266 with 19 homers and 113 strikeouts like last year? Not so much.

The real reason I put Milwaukee ahead of the Pirates is their rotation. Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Mike Fiers aren’t anything special, but they’ll all be reliably good. The Brewers definitely need one more starter likely to be filled with a good mid-season trade candidate.

Pittsburgh Pirates 3rd place, 86-76

The Pirates could win this division. They could also not come close. So I’m splitting the difference here.  Pittsburgh this season has a very top heavy roster with guys like Andrew McCutchen, who had another spectacular season in 2014, and Starling Marte providing the star power.  But black holes like the catcher position and the back of the rotation could dim the Pittsburgh glow. The big deciding factor in 2015 for Pittsburgh will be how their question mark players perform. Will Pedro Alvarez hit? Will Gregory Polanco turn into the star that the league thinks he can be? Will Josh Harrison be able to replicate last season’s success? Will Gerrit Cole become the Ace? The Pirates have a lot of guys who could be really really good or really really bad.

The lineup will be alright, especially if Alvarez and Polanco hit. Neil Walker is a good second basemen and I expect Jung Ho Kang to seize the starting shortstop role at some point. The reason I have the Pirates third though, is that I don’t think Josh Harrison will come close to last season’s .315/.347/.490 and I think the whole Fransico Cervelli plan at catcher will be a disaster.

Moreover, while I like Cole in the rotation, I don’t really believe in Fransico Liriano, despite some recent success, and I think Charlie Morton, AJ Burnett, and Vance Worley are going to be up and down all year.

Chicago Cubs, 4th place, 82-80

The Cubs could very well win this division. They could win the whole National League. They have the highest ceiling of any team in the Central. Chicago has been hoarding young hitting prospects for years and most of them have finally arrived in the big leagues. In addition, Jon Lester gives them a top line starter and Jake Arrietta is a quality number two. The big question is whether everything finally clicks.

The Cubs have really high ceiling players all over the diamond. Anthony Rizzo is a top flight first basemen coming off a 5 WAR season that saw him hit 32 homers. Starlin Castro is a good shortstop with the potential to be great. Dexter Fowler is a rangey centerfielder who can be explosive at times and Chris Coghlan is a quality major league outfielder. In addition, new catcher Miguel Monetro has been toiling away in Arizona as one of the NL’s best, and filled the Cubs only obvious hole. It’s the other positions that are interesting. In right, Jorge Soler has finally reached the majors and shown off epic power. At second, Javy Baez has as much pop as anyone, if he can manage to make contact, and at third, Kris Bryant will be in Chicago at some point and at current is the much deserved top prospect in the whole game.

While Bryant looks like a sure thing, Baez is raising some flags with his terrible approach at the plate and I have a sinking feeling that Soler is in for a very exciting .220 season. Of course, behind them, the Cubs still have Albert Almora and Addison Russell on the way up.

Lester and Arrieta lead a solid but unspectacular starting staff. Likewise the bullpen is pretty iffy. The most likely outcome for Chicago in 2015 is flashes of brilliance overshadowed by a lot mistakes and a lot of learning. In 2016 though? Look out.

Cincinnati Reds, 5th place, 75-87

The Reds aren’t a bad team: Joey Votto is one of the best players in major league baseball, when healthy; Jay Bruce is a real slugger; Billy Hamilton is one of the most exciting players to watch; Johnny Cueto is an Ace; Aroldis Chapman is the reliever equivalent of Clayton Kershaw. It’s just everything else that worries me.

Without Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos, the Reds rotation leans heavily on Homer Bailey, who is good but not as good as his contract would imply. Even if Bailey is effective, youngsters Anthony DeSclafini and Raisel Iglesias will need to step up. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Iglesias, but he has never thrown a big league pitch. After those three and Cueto, Mike Leake and Jason Marquis round out the starting group. It definitely has the potential to be solid, but could easily implode. Plus, if things start slowly, there’s the very real chance that the front office could opt to move Cueto this summer, further weakening the pitching pool.

On offense, Votto and Bruce need to stay healthy and Billy Hamilton needs to get on base at least 3 in 10 times if he’s going to jumpstart the offense. In left the Reds have Marlon Byrd, which is never a good sign, and at second, Brandon Phillips has been trending in the wrong direction for some time. The bullpen is surprisingly good, especially when compared to some of the others in the division and could certainly pay dividends. I’m just not sure they’ll score enough to keep pace when some of their backend starters take the mound.

The Reds are in a tough spot. Votto is the piece they need to build around and catcher Devin Mesoraco is the real deal, but I think they need to get younger at just about every other position. Two new middle infielders would help, as would trading Todd Frazier for pitching. The Reds could surprise this year, but I don’t think they will.

Bold Predictions

  • Jung Ho Kang wins rookie of the year
  • Javy Baez hits .210 with 28 homers
  • The Cubs make the playoffs
  • Johnny Cueto is playing for another team by August 1
  • Bryan Price is not the Reds manager by October
  • Jason Heyward his .238 with 11 homers
  • Jason Heyward re-signs with the Cardinals for 3 years, $39 million
  • Ryan Braun hits .289
  • Kolten Wong gets MVP votes

-Max Frankel

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