National League Central Preview: The St. Louis Cardinals are just that good, again
The National League Central has the defending NL Champions and made the least amount of off-season moves as a division during the winter. That is good for teams like the Cardinals and Pirates. The NL Central is one of two divisions in baseball (the American League East is the other) that has an optimistic chance at fielding three 90 win team with the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds.
The bottom of the league is at least three years away from competing in this top-heavy division. The Reds are a fringe team that needs much to happen for a 90 win season to occur. This division will play a high-powered offense style of baseball and will be many slugfests in 2014.
St. Louis Cardinals: 2013 record: 97 – 65. Projected 2014 record: 95 – 67
The Cardinals made the playoffs four out of the last five years and it does not look like this year will be any different. They are the epitome of pitching depth. They lost a lot of bullpen arms with the departure of Edward Mujica (Red Sox), John Axford (Indians) and Fernando Salas (Angels). No problem for St. Louis as they boast arguably the best starting five in baseball with Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller.
If needed to spot start, Joe Kelly is more than capable and would be a number four starter for most Major League teams. Even with the losses, their bullpen is in good shape with Trevor Rosenthal, Jason Motte and the gang. Offensively, their only major loss was the ageless Carlos Beltran. David Freese did not produce last year and will be replaced by Matt Carpenter at third, while former first round pick Kolton Wong takes over at second base. Peter Bourjos came to St. Louis as Freese departed and upgrades the Cardinals outfield defensively. Matt Adams first full season at first base could lead to a 40 home run season from the big lefty. The Cardinals went big when they signed Jhonny Peralta to a 4-year $53 Million contract back in November. Peralta has post season experience and will fit right in with the Cardinals tradition of winning and playing deep into the fall. St. Louis remains the class of the NL Central and the National League as a whole.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 2013 record: 94 – 68. Projected 2014 record: 86-76
The Pirates saw the post season last year for the first time since 1992. A team that had started with a bang the two years before and faded in the second half found a way to scrap and win all year long. The 2014 Pirates are returning much of the same cast to start a new streak of making it to the playoffs. Additions in the offseason are made of blue-collar, hard working style players Pittsburg sports have become synonymous with. Chris Dickerson, Clint Barmes, Edison Volquez, Chris Stewart and Robert Andino are not big time stars, but they give you all they have and will scrap for every win with their team.
Garrett Jones was a source of power the Pirates were sad to see go to Miami. A.J. Burnett surprised everyone by signing a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. Pittsburg has a lot of young arms that came up last year to fill the void Burnett is leaving. Garret Cole, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke are all former top 100 prospects that are coming into their own and will contribute this year. Assuming Jason Grilli comes back 100% from his second half injury last year, the Pirates bullpen will be one of the better ones with top setup man Mark Melancon and Bud Norris available for long relief. The outfield has the chance to be the best in all of baseball. Perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is one of the top five position players in the game. Starling Marte is a raw talent who hit .280 his first full year and lit up the bases with 41 steals.
Add to them Jose Tabata’s .282 average and you have three .280+ hitters with the ability to all hit over .300. The Pirates are still very young and are dangerous. Their win total will drop a little from last year due to inconsistencies with the young players and an offense that is not built to put a lot of runs on the board. If all the young players can play to their potential this year, the Pirates are one of the few teams that can break 100 wins.
Cincinnati Reds: 2013 record 90 – 72. Projected 2014 record 88 – 74
Cincinnati has won 90 or more games three out of the last four years. 2014 will provide obstacles to that effort, most notably having a new manager with Bryan Price. Price, the Reds Pitching coach in 2013, will begin his head coaching career with a powerful lineup, strong starting pitching and the second best closer in the game. The Reds took a big hit when Shin-Soo Choo went to Texas. Choo’s replacement, Billy Hamilton, will be relied upon to set the table for one of the league’s best 3-4-5 combinations of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. The other notable loss in the off-season was Bronson Arroyo is heading out to the desert in Arizona.
Last year’s call up and fire-baller Tony Cingrani will be asked to replace Bronson’s 200+ innings. Cingrani has swing and miss stuff and could end up the Reds best starting pitcher by the end of the season. Cincinnati has all the pieces to play in the post season. Unfortunately, the Reds will need too many of their players to play well above predictions to challenge the Cardinals for the division.
Milwaukee Brewers: 2013 record 74 – 88. 2014 Projected record 74 – 88
On paper, the 2014 Brewers are impressive with breakout stars like Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura will look to repeat truly outstanding 2013 campaigns. Khris Davis (0.949 OPS) and Scooter Gennett (0.834 OPS) had strong last two months of the season in left field and at second base, respectively, in 2013. A healthy Aramis Ramirez is a top five offensive third baseman. Ryan Braun will be back for the entire season in 2014 and could provide for some Nintendo-like offensive numbers this year. Jonathan Lucroy is reliable for 140 games and a .280 batting average.
The only weak part of the lineup is Juan Francisco. A lineup like the Brewers have will be able to score with the best offenses in all of MLB. Their pitching staff is another story and where Milwaukee will struggle. Without a true number one pitcher, the Brew Crew will have to slug their way to winning streaks and a winning record.
Each of their top three starters has the capacity to dominate. Kyle Lohse is about as steady as you can get in today’s game. Over the last three years he has averaged 199 innings pitched with a 120 ERA+. Matt Garza battled through an injury last year, missing a few starts. He is primed for a comeback season, but gives up too many fly balls and risks putting up a lot of big innings at home. Yovanni Gallardo took a step backwards last season and hopes to right his ship to become the ace of the Brewers staff once again.
The Brewers two young guns, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada, have amazing stuff and will try to put it all together this year and help their team make an improbable post season run. Milwaukee’s inexperience could hurt them over the course of a 162 game season and extended slumps are bound to happen. Their bullpen will also be an area that cannot be trusted. Closer Jim Henderson is not a guarantee and the staff to get to Henderson might blow a lead even before he has a chance. The Brewers have the best chance of any team with a losing record from last year to come out of nowhere and make a post season appearance.
Chicago Cubs: 2013 record: 66 – 96. Projected 2014 record: 64 – 98
The Chicago Cubs were active in the off season, too bad they did not add anyone to give them a chance to improve. Offensively, there are only 2 changes to the starting lineup. Junior Lake will take over opening day in center field and Ryan Sweeney will start the year in left field.
With these two changes, the Cubs will not have a player on the field that hit over.285 last year or had an OPS above .772. Chicago is not going to threaten any offensive records this year, as a team or individually. GM Theo Epstein has saved a ton of payroll, but the savings are coming at the expense of current success. Chicago’s pitching staff is full of mid-level performers without much upside. Travis Wood will be their opening day starter.
Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija will eat innings out of the number two and three starting spots. Soft-throwing left hander Chris Rusin and right hander Jake Arrieta can hopefully start 30+ games each and provide an injury free year. Outside of throwing a lot of innings, Chicago’s starting staff will not impress. Samardzija is by far the most electrifying arm, but he is more than likely going to be traded to a contender by the end of this year.
Once the starter has been hit off the field, Chicago’s bullpen will not strike fear into any offense it faces. Do not be surprised if the Cubs end up with the worst record in baseball this year and top the century mark for losing. In full-blown rebuilding phase, Chicago is at least five years or a miracle away from contending for a winning record.
The National League Central division is possibly the most intriguing division in Major League Baseball. Three teams, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh can possibly win 90 games. Another team, Milwaukee, might set records offensively. Chicago, may see their worst season record wise in their history. There will be plenty to watch this year from the NL Central.
Written by: Nic Amanno
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