MLB Divisional Preview: NL Central

This week’s edition of MLB Divisional Preview features the National League Central. This division should be one of, if not the best division in baseball. Every team is loaded with young talent. There are two teams that can easily win this division, and the other three can all compete for a Wild Card. It should be an interesting summer in the NL Central. This was one of the hardest divisions for me to rank because teams three-five could easily be interchangeable.

5. Milwaukee Brewers

Manager – Ron Roenicke

General Manager – Doug Melvin

Home Ballpark – Miller Park

2014 Record – 82-80

Key Departures – Yovani Gallardo, Mark Reynolds, Zach Duke, Rickie Weeks

Key Additions – Adam Lind, Luis Sardinas, Neal Cotts

Key Returners – Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Matt Garza, Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy, Kyle Lohse, Francisco Rodriguez, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Jonathan Broxton, Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis, Gerardo Parra

The Brewers were a first-place team all season last year, but faltered down the stretch and became an almost-.500 team. This team could easily compete for a Wild Card or even divisional crown, but with the rest of the division being so competitive, I see the Brewers in last place.

Pitching Staff

Losing Yovani Gallardo could end up being a huge loss for the Brew Crew. Gallardo had been the anchor of the rotation since 2009 and had pitched in many big games for the Brewers. His contract was up after this season, so the Brewers decided to get something for him while they could. Though they lose Gallardo, they have some veterans to fill his shoes. Matt Garza had a so-so season in his first campaign in Milwaukee last year, but he’s shown in the past that he can carry a ball club. Garza is being paid like a No. 1 starter, so he’ll need to step up this season. Kyle Lohse is getting older but is a model of consistency. He’s going to win 11-16 games and give the Brewers 30-plus starts. Wily Peralta had a breakout season in 2014, when he won 17 games. Peralta is only 25 years old and the Brewers will look for him to continue his success. Milwaukee has high hopes for Jimmy Nelson. Nelson had a great year in Triple A last season, which led to a Major League call-up in 2014. The former second-round pick will slide into the rotation this season with Gallardo gone. The Brewers should have a pretty solid staff. The back end of the bullpen should be a plus for the Brew Crew. With Frankie Rodriguez closing and set-up men like Jonathan Broxton, Will Smith and Neal Cotts, the Brewers should have one of the better bullpens in the division.

Lineup

During the past two seasons, Carlos Gomez has become one of the best centerfielders in baseball. The flamboyant Dominican can do it all. He can hit, run and, boy, can he field. Gomez is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder and is one of the best at robbing home runs. He and Ryan Braun should be a pretty solid 1-2 punch in the middle of the order. Gomez can hit for power as well as steal bases. Braun’s numbers have taken a bit of a dip the past two years, but he is still one of the better hitters in baseball. If Braun can get back to his old ways of 30-plus homers, 100-plus RBIs and a .300 batting average, the Brewers could be better than last place. Jonathan Lucroy has played himself into the category of best catchers in baseball. He’s right up there with Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. If the Brewers had made the playoffs last year, there could have been an argument for Lucroy to win the MVP. Lucroy led the league in doubles last season. He may miss Opening Day with a strained hamstring but should be back by mid-April. Jean Segura had a letdown sophomore season. He batted .294 with 174 hits and was an All-Star in 2013. Those numbers dropped considerably in 2014. I expect him to bounce back this season. Lastly, Aramis Ramirez just announced that 2015 will be his last. Ramirez has been nothing but consistent throughout his whole career. Even as he ages, he still produces. I expect another good year out of the 36-year-old third baseman. The Brewers have a really solid lineup, but the rest of the division will be too good for them to avoid last place.

4. Chicago Cubs

Manager – Joe Maddon

General Manager – Jed Hoyer

Home Ballpark – Wrigley Field

2014 Record – 73-89

Key Departures – Luis Valbuena

Key Additions – Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, David Ross, Miguel Montero, Jason Motte, Tommy La Stella

Key Returners – Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Wellington Castillo, Mike Olt, Chris Coghlan

As a die-hard White Sox fan, it pains me greatly to put the Cubs this high. That being said, the Cubs made a big splash this offseason by signing Jon Lester. I see it more as a signing to help them in 2016 and 2017 than something to help them this year. Cubbie fans need to temper their expectations for 2015. Historically, it is not good to bank on a team to win with so many unproven young players. Yes, some of them saw limited big-league time last season (Baez, Soler and Alcantara), but we didn’t see enough to know if they can do it more than 162 games.  It is ludicrous that Sporting News picked them to win the World Series this year, especially with all the other great teams in the National League.

Pitching Staff

Yes, Jon Lester has shown he can win big games in the past. The problem with that is that he been on teams that get him to the big games; I don’t see that happening with this team. Lester had the best season of his career last season at age 30, his contract year. He pitched his way into a six-year, $155-million contract. That contract could prove to be a dumb one as he is getting older, and his numbers are bound to drop at some point. I think he is a really good pitcher, but I would not put him in the same class as Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner or Max Scherzer like some Cubs fans have. If I were a Cubs fan (and thank God I’m not), I would be cautiously optimistic about the next six years of Jon Lester. Will he be the Jon Lester of 2014 or will he be the Jon Lester of the previous eight years? Time will tell. As for the rest of the starters, Jake Arrieta was highly thought of in the Baltimore Orioles organization but never panned out and was shipped to the Cubs. He figured it all out in 2014 and had a great season. He was 10-5 with an ERA of 2.53. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat that success in 2015.  The North Siders signed Jason Hammel during the offseason. Hammel had a solid first half with the Cubs, but after being traded to Oakland midseason, he was not the same pitcher. It will be intriguing to see if Hammel will be the pitcher of the first half of 2014 or the second half. Kyle Hendricks is one of the many prospects Cubs fans have been ranting and raving about and had pretty good success in a limited amount of starts in 2014. This will be his first full season and we’ll see if he can do it for a full year. After having an All-Star season in 2013, Travis Wood had an absolutely terrible year in 2014. I don’t think he is anything more than No. 5 starter and I don’t have high expectations for him in 2015. Edwin Jackson has proved to be one of the dumbest contracts in baseball during the last five years. He was awarded a four-year, $52-million contract before the 2013 season and has been nothing but terrible. He led the league in losses in 2013 with 18 and had an ERA of 6.33 in 2014. For all the kudos Theo Epstein gets for being one of the best minds in baseball, that was one of his dumbest moves. Wood, Jackson and a few others should battle it out for the fifth spot in the rotation. As for the Cubs bullpen, I really don’t know what to think of it. The group is pretty young, but has some good arms in Hector Rondon, Predo Strop and Justin Grimm. They are all pretty young but were all pretty good in 2014. I need to see them for a whole season before I can get a good read on them. I just don’t see it in their rotation to be good enough to contend this year. I think they’re still in transition mode, but could be on their way to contending.

Lineup

I’ll give the Cubs this, Anthony Rizzo looks to be legit. He has big power and socked 32 homers last season. He should be a fixture in the middle of the Cubs lineup for years to come. Starlin Castro was the hit king in 2011, when he led all of baseball with 207 hits. He is a solid shortstop but has shown to be a liability in the field. He’s averaged 24 errors a year since his rookie season in 2010. You pretty much know what you’re going to get out of Rizzo and Castro, but for the rest of the Cubs it’s all questions marks for me. Most of them are all unproven, highly touted prospects. They all could easily pan out and be great, and then they all could easily fizzle out and be awful. The Cubs are banking on too many unproven prospects for them to compete this season. They need at least a couple of years of big league experience for them to seriously compete for a divisional or Wild Card crown. Jorge Soler was great as a September call-up last year. He batted .292 with five homers and 20 RBIs. I think this is too little a sample size to judge what kind of player he is going to be. He’s seen only 24 games of big-league pitching. These are Major League pitchers we’re talking about, and they are bound to make adjustments to him He’s a great talent, but we just need to see if he can do it for a full 162. Now, one player that has received a ton of hype and I’m not sure why is Javy Baez. He gets a lot of “oohs” and “ahhs” because of his big swing, but that is his problem. He has such a big swing that he strikes out so much. He had a batting average of just .169 and struck out in 45 percent (95 Ks in 213 at bats) of his at bats in 2015. When he connects, the ball goes a long way, but he doesn’t connect all that much. Right now I see him as the Adam Dunn of second basemen. He is only 21, so he has a lot of time to make adjustments. The Cubs should have three solid backstops in Miguel Montero, David Ross and Wellington Castillo. Montero and Castillo would easily be starters on any other team, but all three should split time this season. The North Siders picked up Dexter Fowler from the Astros this offseason. He should provide a good glove and a veteran presence on such a young team. The Cubs’ top prospect, Kris Bryant, should see time at the big league level sometime this season. He hit 43 homers, knocked in 110 and hit .325 in the minors last season. Those are minor league numbers, so don’t expect those exact figures in the big leagues. He looks to be a stud, but needs to prove himself at the big-league level. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Cubs fans need to temper their expectations for this season. The Cubs have the talent to be good, but that talent needs to prove itself first. I just think the Cubs are way too young to compete this year. I’m not buying into the hype. I’ll believe it when I see it.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Manager – Bryan Price

General Manager – Walt Jocketty

Home Ballpark – Great American Ballpark

2014 Record – 76-86

Key Losses – Mat Latos, Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, Alfredo Simon

Key Additions – Marlon Byrd, Eugenio Suarez

Key Returners – Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Billy Hamilton, Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco, Tony Cingrani

The Reds were one of the best teams in National League in the first half of last season. Then the All-Star break hit, and they totally collapsed. I expect the Reds to compete for a Wild Card spot throughout the summer. They have the players to do it. They just need those players to produce.

Pitching Staff

Johnny Cueto was one of the best pitchers in the game last year. He went 20-9 with an ERA of 2.25 in 243.2 innings. If it weren’t for Clayton Kershaw, Cueto would have had something to say about the National League Cy Young. His contract is up after this season and, with another great season, he’ll work himself into big bucks. Homer Bailey’s season was cut short last season because of injury. If Bailey can bounce back in a positive away, the Reds will have themselves a good No. 2 starter. Mike Leake has been nothing but consistent since debuting in 2010. He’s not great, but he’s good. He’ll win you 11-13 games and get 30 starts. Tony Cingrani is a hard-throwing southpaw and has shown he can be a pretty good starter. He needs to become a little more consistent from start to start and, if he does, the Reds will have a pretty good lefty in their rotation. Cincinnati has one of the best closers and hardest throwers in the game in Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban fireballer runs up well more than 100 MPH. If he comes in with a lead in the ninth, you can chalk up a W for the Reds almost every time. He is the definition of dominance. The rest of the Reds bullpen should be solid with Sean Marshall, J.J. Hoover and Sam LeCure, who leave the club with a pitching staff that is good enough to compete if it stays healthy.

Lineup

Joey Votto really needs to have a bounce-back season for the Reds to be successful. He was hurt for most of 2014, but before that his numbers have dropped every year since his MVP season in 2010. Votto has focused a lot on getting walked and getting on base, but he’s not being paid an insane amount of money to get walked. He’s shown to he can hit 30-plus bombs, 100-plus RBIs and bat .300. He needs to get back to those numbers instead of focusing on walking. Jay Bruce had his worst season of his career in 2014, but that season will be an aberration. Bruce is not the player of 2014, and he should bounce back in 2015 with 30-plus homers.  Brandon Phillips was also hurt for much of 2014 but, when healthy, he’s one of the best second basemen in Major League Baseball. He can pick it on defense and can definitely hit. Assuming he stays healthy for 2015, he’ll be relied upon for production in the middle of the Reds’ order. Billy Hamilton received a lot of accolades in the minors for his base-running prowess. In his first full season in the big leagues, Hamilton stole 56 bases and showed he can be a real good centerfielder. He needs to improve his on-base percentage and cut down on his strikeouts this season. If he does, the Reds will have a real weapon at the top of their lineup. Cincinnati did lose leftfielder Ryan Ludwick during the offseason, but found a nice replacement for him in the form of Marlon Byrd. Byrd has had back-to-back solid seasons in 2013 and 2014. He is getting older, but if he can produce at the same level he’s been at, he’ll be an upgrade from Ludwick. Devin Mesoraco had a breakout season in 2014. He hit 25 homers, knocked in 80 runs and was named to the All-Star team. Mesoraco gets overlooked because he’s in the same division as Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, but he is quietly one of the better catchers in the National League. I can see the Reds’ season going two ways. I think they can completely fall flat and trade away their veterans (Cueto, Chapman, Bruce) and decide to go young. Or their stars will produce, and they contend for a playoff spot.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

Manger – Clint Hurdle

General Manager – Neil Huntington

Home Ballpark – PNC Park

2014 Record – 88-74

Key Departures – Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez

Key Additions – Jung Ho Kong, A.J. Burnett, Antonio Bastardo, Francisco Cervelli

Key Returners – Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Josh Harrison, Vance Worley, Tony Watson, Pedro Alvarez

After not making the playoffs for 20 years, the Buccos had back-to-back postseason appearances in 2013 and 2014. I see more of the same from the Pirates this season. Pittsburgh will be one of the two Wild Card teams for the third consecutive year. This should be a fun team to watch led by Andrew McCutchen.

Pitching Staff

The Pirates might not have the best staff in the division in terms of having an ace at the top of the rotation, but they sure do have the deepest rotation. Gerrit Cole has the potential to morph into an ace-like pitcher. He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 and got to the big leagues in 2013. When he’s healthy, Cole has been really good. If Cole stays healthy, the Bucs will have a stud atop the rotation. Behind him, Pittsburgh has Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. Liriano has been very good since coming to Pittsburgh in 2013, when he posted 16 wins. Burnett pitched for the Pirates in 2012 and 2013 and was pretty effective, but he signed with the Phillies for 2014 and had a pretty bad year. For the Pirates’ sake, hopefully he can regain the form he pitched with in 2012 and 2013. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke round out the rotation for the Bucs. Worley was quite the find for Pittsburgh in 2014. After being released by the Twins, the Pirates took a chance on Worley and it paid off. He went 8-4 with an ERA of 2.85 in 110 innings last season. He showed he can be a pretty reliable starter. Look for him to build upon what he did in 2014 this season. Locke was an All-Star in 2013 for the Pirates, but he didn’t pitch well down the stretch in 2013, which led to him not being in the rotation at the start of 2014. He did pitch himself back into the rotation last season and did pretty well. Mark Melancon had 33 saves for the Pirates in 2014. He proved he can be more than just a setup man. He has some pretty good arms in front of him with Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. From top to bottom, the Pirates have a pretty deep staff. Their bullpen might not have well-known names, but they get the job done well. Up and down the rotation, they’re as good as anyone, especially if Cole has a breakout season. They have the pitching to make a third consecutive playoff appearance.

Lineup

The Pirates are led by their 28-year-old centerfielder Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is a perennial MVP candidate. He’s finished in the top three in the MVP voting the past three seasons and won the award in 2013. He’s going to have another big year in 2015. He’s wedged between two young and talented players in the outfield in Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. Marte has been tremendous since being called up in 2012. He had 41 stolen bases in 2013 and 30 in 2014. He’s also an exceptional fielder. Polanco is the former No. 1 prospect in the Pirates system and saw some time in the big leagues last season. He can certainly hit. He hit above .300 twice during five years in the minors. If he makes the turn this year at the Major League level, the Pirates could have one of the best outfields in baseball. Josh Harrison had a great season in 2014 as a do-it-all player for the Buccos. Harrison played all around the diamond last season. He was named to his first All-Star team last year. Harrison batted .315 and played lights-out defense at third base. He should be the Pirates starting third basemen on Opening Day and be there throughout the year. Pittsburgh brought in Korean import Jung Ho Kung this offseason, and he should battle it out with Jordy Mercer for the shortstop job. Pittsburgh native Neil Walker is one of the longest-tenured Pirates. Walker has been a pretty consistent performer since debuting in 2009. He’s averaged 15 homers and 69 RBIs since 2010. Walker enjoyed his best season of his career in 2014 by socking 23 homers and driving in 76 runs. He’s one of the better hitting second basemen in baseball. Pedro Alvarez will make the move across the diamond to first base this season as the one-time franchise third basemen struggled in 2014. Alvarez was an All-Star in 2013, when he 33 home runs and drove in 100. Those numbers dropped off considerably in 2014. He only hit 18 homers and 56 RBIs and lost a lot of his playing time at third base to Harrison. Maybe a change of scenery position-wise will help him have a bounce-back year. The Bucs did lose a valuable player in Russell Martin during the offseason. He provided a good bat in the lineup but more importantly was great at handling pitchers and on defense. Francisco Cervelli will get his chance to be the starter behind the plate in Pittsburgh this season. He’s never played more than 93 games in a season, so the Pirates could be asking a lot out of him. If Alvarez struggles, I would not be surprised if they go after another bat via trade, but I think the Pirates should have enough to make a third consecutive trip to the postseason.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Manager – Mike Matheny

General Manager – John Mozeliak

Home Ballpark – Busch Stadium

2014 Record – 90-72

Key Additions – Jason Heyward, Jordan Walden, Mark Reynolds

Key Departures – Oscar Taveras, Pat Neshek, Shelby Miller, Justin Masterson

Key Returners – Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta, Michael Wacha, Kolton Wong, John Jay, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, John Lackey, Marco Gonzalez

For the past 15 seasons, the Cardinals have been the class of the National League. Eleven postseason appearances, eight NL Central titles, five NLCS appearances, four NL pennants and two World Series titles — quite an impressive record. They are one of the best organizations with one of the most passionate fan bases in sports. The NL Central runs through St. Louis, and the Cardinals will win this division again for the third consecutive year in 2015.

Pitching Staff

The Cards’ pitching staff is headlined by Adam Wainwright. He is an absolute workhorse. He takes the ball every fifth day and more times than not he’s going to lead the Red Birds to a W. Wainwright had another Cy Young-worthy season in 2014 by winning 20 games, posting an ERA of 2.38 and throwing 227 innings. He’s almost a guarantee to win 15-20 games, make 30-plus starts, throw 200-plus innings and have a sub-3 ERA. He’s one of the best pitchers in the sport, and I expect another good year out of him. The Cards have a nice mix of veterans and promising youngsters behind Wainwright as well. Michael Wacha had a coming out party during the 2013 playoffs, but injuries held him back for much of 2014. He should be healthy for this season, and if he does stay fit, the Cards should have a two-headed monster at the top of the rotation. Lance Lynn enjoyed arguably the best season of his young career in 2014. The 27-year-old Indiana native won 15 games and posted a 2.74 ERA, the lowest of his career. Lynn has the type of stuff to dominate hitters. He showed himself to be a pretty effective and consistent through his first three seasons in the league, so expect more of the same from Lynn in 2015. John Lackey was acquired from Red Sox at the trade deadline last year and helped the Cardinals reach the playoffs. He is not the pitcher he used to be, but he can be a pretty effective No. 4 starter. Jaime Garcia, Marco Gonzalez and Carlos Martinez should battle it out for the fifth starting spot in Spring Training. Garcia had two good years for the Cards in 2010 and 2011 but has been injured for the better part of the last three seasons. At this point in his career, it is hard to know what to expect out of Garcia because you don’t know if he can hold up for a whole year. Gonzalez was drafted 19th overall in the 2013 draft and is currently ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Cardinals system. He saw some action out of the bullpen for the Cards in 2014, but he has a shot to be a starter this season. He won’t overwhelm hitters with his fastball, but he knows how to get hitters out with his off-speed pitches. Martinez, on the other hand, is almost the complete opposite of Gonzalez. Martinez has a fastball that sits in the upper 90s and overwhelms hitters. He’s pitched out of the bullpen the past two years but will also get his shot as a starter this season. The Cardinals have one of the best arms in baseball at the back end of their bullpen with Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal can run it up over 100 mph; he just needs to be able to control it. He did save 45 games last season, but made a lot of those games interesting in the ninth by letting many runners on base. St. Louis lost its setup man, Pat Neshek, to free agency but acquired Jordan Walden to hopefully fill that void. Seth Maness, Randy Choate and Sam Freeman will all see time out of the bullpen as well. The Cardinals have a great rotation with Wainwright at the top, and if Rosenthal tightens things up at the back end, the Cards should have a lock-down bullpen as well.

Lineup

After losing Albert Pujols following the 2011 season, many people didn’t know how the Cards would score runs. Since then, they have had one of the best offenses in baseball year in and year out. Yadier Molina has stepped up his production since the loss of Pujols to go along with his top-notch defense. Molina was hurt for a portion of 2014, but he should be 100 percent for this season. He’s in a class of his own among catchers. Matt Holliday has been a pretty consistent performer since coming to St. Louis in 2009. He’s going to give you 20-plus homers and knock in 90-100 runs. He can be a liability in the outfield, but his bat is so good that it outweighs his mishaps in the field. Matt Carpenter has been one of the best players in the game since becoming a regular starter in 2013. He led the league in hits in 2013 with 199 and is great guy to have at the top of the order because he can get on base. Jhonny Peralta proved to be a great signing last season as he had one of the best offensive seasons for a shortstop. Peralta hit 21 bombs and knocked in 73 runs. He doesn’t have the best range on defense but can make the routine play. Peralta’s double-play partner, Kolton Wong, had a great postseason in 2014 capped by a walk-off home run in Game 2 of the NLCS. His regular season stats were pretty decent for his rookie year. I expect Wong to develop even more this season and take a good hold of the second base job in St. Louis. In my opinion, the Cards have one of the most underrated first basemen in Matt Adams. Adams hasn’t shown it yet, but he has the ability to hit 20-plus homers and knock in 80-90 runs. He’s also a very good defensive first basemen. Adams posted a .993 fielding percentage in 2014. During the offseason, the Cards lost of one the games budding stars in Oscar Taveras. In late October, Taveras lost his life in a car crash in his home country of the Dominican Republic. He was only 22. It was a crushing blow to the organization. Not only on the field, but off it as well. Taveras was known to be a great guy and would have been a fixture in the Cardinals outfield for years to come. The Cards have found a worthy successor in Jason Heyward. They acquired Heyward in the offseason from the Atlanta Braves for Shelby Miller. Heyward was once the top prospect in all of baseball a few years back. He has not really put up the power numbers yet, but he’s only 25 and has the chance to develop that power. He’s already one of the best fielding right fielders in baseball. For the Cardinals’ sake, if he works out he should ease the loss of Taveras. The Cardinals are poised to make another run at the NL Central. They are a team that figures out how to win no matter what is thrown at them. I see the Cardinals winning the NL Central and making another deep run into October.

Follow Bobby on Twitter @RENorell_III