2014 MLB Preview: NL Central

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the penultimate edition of College Sports Town’s 2014 MLB divisional preview. Today, I’ll make my predictions for what might have been the best division in baseball in 2013, the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals took the division title on their way to the World Series, while the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds each won wild card berths. While I expect the Cards to win the division for the second consecutive year, they will not have an easy time doing so.

Divisional Breakdown

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2. Cincinnati Reds

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

4. Milwaukee Brewers

5. Chicago Cubs

Team Breakdown

1. St. Louis Cardinals

The 2013 Cardinals were the best team in the NL, both during the regular season and in the playoffs, as they won the NL pennant, but lost to the Boston Red Sox in 6 games in the World Series. As robust as the 2013 Cardinals squad was, the 2014 edition could be better. The lineup is equally intimidating. The core of the lineup consists of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams, which is just unfair. Newly-signed Jhonny Peralta should be an improvement over light-hitting Pete Kozma, and former Angel Peter Bourjos is an skilled defensive player. Even rookie Kolten Wong has the potential to be a dangerous weapon in this potent offense. The lineup will be even better with the expected-midseason arrival of star prospect Oscar Tavares. The promising lineup is supported by a talented pitching staff. Ace Adam Wainwright looked terrific last year, and he is followed by one of the most exciting young rotations in baseball. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, and (the injured) Jamie Garcia form a deep impressive core, one which the Cardinals will rely on the lead them back to the postseason. Despite losing All-Star Edward Mujica, the bullpen isn’t too shabby, either. Flamethrowers Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal were impressive in the 2013 postseason, and have the potential to be a shutdown duo at the end of games.

Verdict

Best Case- The Cardinals ride their All-Star core and young pitching to a second straight World Series appearance.

Worst Case- Carpenter and Craig’s 2013 seasons were flukes, the young pitching is disappointing, and the Cards have to fight for a wild-card berth.

As good as Yadi is, I can never forgive him for 2006.

As good as Yadi is, I can never forgive him for 2006.

2. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds had a strong 2013, but the season ended in a disappointing fashion with a loss to the division rival Pirates in the NL Wild-Card Game. The Reds will have the last laugh this year, however, as they’ll make the postseason over the Pirates. While they will miss departed leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds still have a potent lineup. Joey Votto is a perennial MVP candidate, Jay Bruce has won two consecutive Silver Sluggers, and Brandon Phillips is one of the league’s better second basemen. Add to those studs the relatively young infielders Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart, as well as ROY candidate Billy Hamilton (link), and the Reds should have plenty of runs to spare. The rotation is solid as well. Although there are injury concerns, Johnny Cueto, the newly-extended Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake make up one of the better rotations in baseball. The bullpen is a concern at the moment, only because of the shocking injury suffered by Aroldis Chapman after being struck by a line drive in a spring training game. However, when he is healthy, Chapman is one of the best closers in the majors. In the meantime, J.J Hoover (Chapman’s replacement at closer) and Sean Marshall should do a fine job in Chapman’s stead.

Verdict

Best Case- Votto wins MVP, Hamilton wins ROY, the rotation is solid, Chapman returns soon, and the Reds win the NL Central.

Worst case- Phillips declines, Hamilton can’t get on base, Chapman’s return is delayed, and after a poor start, the Reds miss out on the postseason.

Votto is probably already the best Canadian ballplayer ever.

Votto might already be the best Canadian ballplayer ever.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates had a storybook 2013, making the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and beating the Reds in the Wild-Card game before falling to the Cardinals in the divisional round. Sadly, I believe the Pirates only had a year’s supply of magic. The team is fairly unchanged, but I doubt that the series of career performances which powered the Pirates to their playoff appearance can be repeated. If they can be replicated, however, the Pirates should be feared. The lineup is young and skilled. NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and Silver Slugger winner Pedro Alvarez pack the most pop, while Starling Marte is one of the most exciting speedsters in the game. While these players should continue their excellent play, it’s unrealistic to expect the same results of last season out of each of the remaining members of the lineup. Outside of Alvarez, the infield is filled with question marks. The rotation is likewise top-heavy. Francisco Liriano had a resurgent 2013, becoming one of the top lefties in the game. Following Liriano is top 2011 draft pick Gerrit Cole, impressive in his debut season, and the decent Wandy Rodriguez. Charlie Morton and new addition Edinson Volquez are not pitchers who should be starting on a playoff team, but with All-Star Jeff Locke injured and veteran A.J Burnett signed by the Phillies, Morton and Volquez will have to suffice. Hopefully for the Pirates, Locke will recover quickly and prospect Jameson Taillon will be able to pitch in the majors soon enough. The 2013 bullpen was elite, and the 2014 edition should remain one of the best in the game. All-Star closer Jason Grilli, All-Star Mark Melancon, and their young pen mates will continue their excellent play in 2014.

Verdict

Best Case- Cutch wins another MVP, Liriano and Cole form a deadly 1-2, Grilli is a shutdown closer once again, and the Jolly Roger is planted atop the division.

Worst Case- Cutch and Liriano get hurt, leaks in the lineup and rotation start to be more noticeable, and the Pirates season sinks.

Andrew McCutchen will continue his excellent play, but I think the Pirates will miss the postseason.

Andrew McCutchen will continue his excellent play, but I think the Pirates will miss the postseason.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers were worse than expected in 2013, in large part due to the midseason suspension of former MVP Ryan Braun. Braun’s return should make this team better, but it’s still unlikely that the Brew crew will make the postseason. That being said, the lineup is fairly promising. In addition to Braun, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura each had major breakout seasons in 2013, Rickie Weeks occasionally is very effective, and Jonathan Lucroy is supremely underrated. Aramis Ramirez still has a couple more solid years in him, and Khris Davis looks as though he’ll be a fine replacement for the traded Norichika Aoki. The position players are somewhat talented. The rotation, however, is less sure. Ace Yovani Gallardo didn’t look like his old self in 2013, Kyle Lohse is decent but difficult to bet on at age 35, while new addition Matt Garza must recover from a disappointing stint with the Texas Rangers. Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada had nice second halves of last season, but will need to replicate that success if the Brewers are to go anywhere in 2014. In the bullpen, Will Smith and Francisco Rodriguez will further improve a bullpen that was one of the best in the majors. In summation, the Brewers have some impressive pieces, it’s simply a matter of putting it all together, and, unfortunately for Milwaukeeans, I doubt that they will this season.

Verdict

Best Case- Braun is an MVP candidate (although he would never get the votes again), Seguara and Gomez further improve, the rotation holds up, and the Brewers fight for a wild-card berth.

Worst Case- Braun gets suspended once again, Segura and Gomez regress, and the Brew Crew stumbles for the second consecutive year.

Braun will have to remain clean and play well to earn back a fragment of the respect he once held.

Braun will have to remain clean and play well to earn back a fragment of the respect once held for him.

5. Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is one of the best front office people in baseball, but he is not a miracle-worker. Although they should slightly improve, the Cubs will remain mediocre in 2014, holding out for the arrival of the Core Four prospects- Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler. When they get to the Windy City, the Cubs will be formidable. Right now, however, the phrase “wait ‘til next year” seems very relevant. Even so, there a few nice pieces in the Cubs current lineup– that is, if they fulfill their potential. Anthony Rizzo slugged 23 HR and was consistently in the lineup, but he was the only young player who had an encouraging 2013 season. Starlin Castro didn’t look like the same player from his All-Star seasons, Darwin Barney barely stayed over the Mendoza line, and Mike Olt needs to get on the field, let alone prove that he can produce. The rotation is iffy as well. Ace Jeff Samardzija, All-Star Travis Wood, and new addition Jason Hammel are all fairly skilled, but Edwin Jackson seems washed up at age 30 (!), and Carlos Villanueva is mediocre. In the bullpen, Jose Veras is a quality closer, but he will probably be flipped at the trade deadline. Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, and Kevin Gregg are alright, but relying on holdovers from one of the worst bullpens of 2013 is a risky proposition.

Verdict

Best Case- The Core Four move quickly through the ranks, Castro and Rizzo are All-Stars, and Cubs fans are, dare I say, optimistic about the future.

Worst Case- Castro and Rizzo regress, the Core Four stagnate at various minor league levels, and any light at the end of the tunnel seems as though it could be a mirage.

 

The new Cubs mascot might be the WORST part about their 2014 season.

The new Cubs mascot might be the WORST part about their 2014 season.

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1 Comment

Filed under Baseball, MLB Preview

One response to “2014 MLB Preview: NL Central

  1. Pingback: Team MVPs - NL Central | 1stSportsFan

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