2015 National League Central Preview

We’ll take a look at the National League Central here. And I do apologize for the delay in these final two previews. Real life jobs got in the way.*

*Stupid reality. [grumbles]

The American League East, Central, and West, as well as the National League East are also available.

Adam Wainwright (L) and Yadier Molina (R) are key cogs for the well-oiled St. Louis machine.
Adam Wainwright (L) and Yadier Molina (R) are key cogs for the well-oiled St. Louis machine.

St. Louis Cardinals

After winning their second straight NL Central title (the team’s ninth overall), the Cardinals are still the division front-runners in 2015.

The lineup remains a strength, probably even more so that the one that was fifth in the NL with a .320 on-base percentage.

St. Louis will look for improvements from first baseman Matt Adams and second baseman Kolten Wong, both second-year regulars. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who led the team with 21 home runs, should continue to provide above-average production at the position. At third base, Matt Carpenter failed to build on his breakout 2013 campaign, but he was a solid presence at the top of the order and should be again this year.

The Cardinal outfield suffered a huge loss during the postseason, when rookie right fielder Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic just days after St. Louis was eliminated from the NLCS. Taveras’ position in the outfield was filled by new acquisition Jason Heyward, who came over from Atlanta in exchange for pitcher Shelby Miller. Heyward is an all-around talent who never quite blossomed in Atlanta, so perhaps he’ll realize his full potential as a Redbird.

Jon Jay will roam center for St. Louis while slugger Matt Holliday remains in left, giving the Cards a potent outfield alignment that is aided by solid reserves in Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.

Stalwart Yadier Molina is back behind the plate again, looking to remain healthy and productive as he enters his mid-30s, dangerous territory for a catcher.

But, like with all teams, the success of St. Louis will depend on the rotation. Ace Adam Wainwright will lead the staff again, followed by Lance Lynn, 2014 mid-season pickup John Lackey, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez.

Those last two are the key gamble for St. Louis, as they’re the difference between a merely good hand and positively all aces. If the top three kings provide their typical 180-200 innings, and Wacha and Martinez can live up to their promise, a winning hand could be in the Cards come October.*

*I’ll show myself out.

Prediction: 93-79, first place, National League Central

The National League's best center fielder looks to duplicate his 2013 MVP run.
The National League’s best center fielder looks to duplicate his 2013 MVP run.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The challenge for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year will be to maintain a competitive edge despite a few key losses as well as increased competition in the Central.

The biggest loss for the Buccos was the defection of catcher Russell Martin to the Toronto Blue Jays. Martin had his best offensive season in 2014, and while he is unlikely to match that again, his strong defense, leadership, and rapport with the pitching staff will be missed. It falls to former Yankee backup Francisco Cervelli to pick up the slack. How well he does behind the plate could be a bigger key to Pitt’s season than what he does with the bat.

Around the infield, the Pirates look good, with former third baseman Pedro Alvarez shifted over to first, where his turrible (tell ‘em, Charles) defense won’t be as noticeable.* Second baseman Neil Walker is a hidden gem that no one seems to notice year after year. But, yeah, he’s pretty good. Shortstop Jordy Mercer is fine on defense, but nothing special with the bat, so he could time to Korean import Jung-ho Kang. Taking over for Alvarez at third is erstwhile utility man Josh Harrison, who’s coming off a career year that nearly won him the batting title.

*Although it could adversely affect the rest of the infield.

While the Pitt infield should be good, it’s the outfield that has the potential to be great and really carry the club beyond merely making the playoffs.

The Bucs already have one superstar Andrew McCutchen, the 28-year-old 2013 MVP winner. He stabilizes center field and gives Pittsburgh its biggest star outfielder since some dickweed* named Bonds was out there.

*Two things: One, it’s my write-up, so, yeah, he’s a dickweed. Two, “dickweed” is so underrated as an insult. 

McCutchen will be flanked by youngsters Starling Marte (26) and Gregory Polanco (23) in right. Both have the promise to dazzle on a nightly basis on both offense and defense, so the fans at PNC Park should rest easy about their long-term outfield situation.

The Bucs’ starting staff should be fine this year, assuming Martin didn’t take too much with him to Toronto. While the Pirates certainly do not have the most talented starting five out there — A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and Vance Worley —  they have enough to get games to a good bullpen, which is led by closer Mark Melancon with setup work from lefty Tony Watson and righty Jared Hughes.

Pittsburgh should easily contend for a wild-card spot with the expected growth of Marte and Polanco. If Harrison can build on his breakout 2014, Alvarez’s move to first wakes up his power, and the starting five don’t miss Martin too much, we could see Pittsburgh steal the division crown from St. Louis.

The Cardinals still look a bit deeper, though, and they do have the financial advantage, and the farm system, to cover needs mid-season. That will be what locks Pittsburgh into yet another wild-card berth in 2015.

Prediction: 90-72, second place NL Central, wild-card winner

Jon Lester wants to share his baseball with you. Go on, take it.
Jon Lester wants to share his baseball with you. Go on, take it.

Chicago Cubs

Wait til next year.

Wait til next year.

Wait til next year.

The Cubs have heard that (literally) more than any other franchise.

They’re called the “Lovable Losers” for crying out loud.

As you all surely know, the Cubbies have not won a World Series since 1908. To give you a sense of that, the following things were not invented the last time there was a championship on the North Side of the Windy City:

  • Television
  • Computers
  • Yoga
  • Over half of the current MLB franchises
  • Microwave burritos
  • Our grandparents

Theo Epstein’s grandparents probably weren’t around then, either. But their grandson is working bringing a World Series trophy to Chicago, which would be the second cursed MLB franchise Epstein would cure from the GM chair. That would get him into the Hall of Fame, right?

Well, we’ve got to play the games, as the old saying goes.

This year, the Cubs are still building, but they are poised to begin climbing.

Their ascent begins with the pitching staff, where new staff ace Jon Lester will add a veteran presence and dominant stability to a five-man rotation that also includes Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Kyle Hendricks. It’s an ace, and four mid-rotation types. The Cubs are probably another ace shy in this department to make enough noise. However, it’s a solid group and should produce enough to keep the Cubbies in the thick of things at least through August.

Chicago’s bullpen is … um, well, it’s meh. M. E. H. Given the fluidity of bullpens, it could be pretty darn good, or Seth-Rogen-not-playing-a-stoner-terrible. Oy.

Miguel Montero represents a sort of upgrade behind the plate, as he’s better known than former backstop Welington Castillo. Whether the 31-year-old former Diamondback is actually better than Castillo is up for debate, but the club also brought in veteran pitch-caller David Ross, who will mostly serve as Lester’s caddy.

The infield in Chicago’s pretty good, but here we’ll see if the youngsters make it great. Anthony Rizzo had a star-making turn last season, launching a team-high 32 home runs while posted a .286/.386/.527 line as a 24-year-old. He’ll look to build on that as the anchor of the Cubs’ lineup. The team hopes that young stud, Kris Bryant, who just made his MLB debut, will establish himself as a force in that same way this season. Bryant, 23, has a line of .327/.426/.667 in 181 minor-league games and the only real causes for concern seem to be his long-term defensive home.

On the surface, it looks like shortstop Starlin Castro had a pretty solid bounce-back in 2014. The 25-year-old a career-worst .245/.284/.347 in 161 games in 2013, and then in 2014 he put up a .292/.339/.438 line. But, just a quick glance shows no real improvement anywhere but in those three slashes. Castro played in just 134 games last year, and his other numbers are all fairly close to 2013 with runs (59/58), hits (163/154), walks (30/35). strikeouts (129/100), and total bases (231/231) all in line with one another. So, the question seems to be one of luck and health with Castro. He’ll probably never be a superstar at shortstop, but a replication of his 2014 numbers would do well enough.

Second base was Javier Baez’s to lose, and an abysmal spring did just that, as the 22-year-old struck out 21 times in 55 at-bats, ending up with .182 batting average that saw him sent to Triple-A Iowa. He should be back with the big club sometime this season, and the team hopes that his athleticism, age, and overall skills translate into the best Cubbie at the keystone since some guy named Sandberg. But, for now, the Cubs will go with some combination of Jonathan Herrera and Arismendy Alcantara until Baez is ready.

The Cubs’ outfield features another young stud in right field, with Jorge Soler the starter following his .292/.330/.573 cameo in 24 games last season. The 23-year-old has been working with Cubs’ hitting consultant Manny Ramirez, and the organization would love to see Soler emulate Manny with the bat. He’s got the potential to be a very strong power hitter, but the plate discipline remains to be seen. For 2015, something like Manny’s first full season (1994) would be nice: .269/.357/.521 with 17 homers. Of course, Manny did that in 91 games, so stretch that over 145 or so games for Soler and the Cubbies would be happy.

Offseason trade acquisition Dexter Fowler is a nice improvement in center for Chicago, which relied on Alcantara (70 OPS+), Junior Lake (63 OPS +), and Ryan Sweeney (78 OPS +) last year. While he’s not a revelatory player on offense (career 104 OPS +) or defense (about league average by most metrics), he’ll upgrade a key spot on the field in Wrigley.

If left fielder Chris Coghlan repeats his 2014, the Cubs’ outfield should be fine. The former Rookie of the Year hit .283/.352/.452 in 125 games last season, a nice season at the top of the Cubs’ order. He should fit into a similar spot this season.

Overall, this probably is not the Cubs’ year. The young talent needs time to grow and get used to playing together at the MLB level. Add to that potential issues with the bullpen and a clear lack of a No. 2 behind Lester, and it’s pretty clear that North Siders will have to wait until next year.


Prediction: 84-78, third place, National League Central*

*NOTE: In the MLB season preview Extra Point Podcast, I had the Cubs winning a wild-card spot, but having kicked it around a little more as I wrote this, I just don’t quite see it.

Carlos Gomez (L) and Johnathan Lucroy (R) probably won't have much to celebrate this year in Milwaukee.
Carlos Gomez (L) and Jonathan Lucroy (R) probably won’t have much to celebrate this year in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Brewers

Last season, Milwaukee looked great in the first half, rolling up a 53-43 record, thanks in part to a 9-game winning streak in early April and an 18-10 June. 

But in the second half, the Brew Crew stunk, going 29-37 and coughing up both the NL Central lead and a wild-card berth. A 9-game losing streak during the final five weeks of the year proved the final nail in the coffin and Milwaukee ended up with in third place in the division with an 82-80 record.

It was a depressing second half for the team, but was the collapse a function of a strong first half that created a surprise in the second half, or was it a better indication of the team’s true talent level?

Probably, like most things in this game, a bit of both.

This year, the team returns largely the same cast of characters from 2014. On offense, the Brewers added first baseman Adam Lind in a trade with Toronto. The 31-year-old lefty masher should be a big boost over what Milwaukee received from its first baseman last season: a .210 batting average in 663 at-bats from the trio of Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, and Matt Clark. Lind just six homers last year, but he batted .321/.381/.479 in 290 at-bats for the Jays.

Second baseman Scooter Gennett took over as the keystone starter with a 108 OPS + in 137 games last year. While the 24-year-old probably is not a long-term building block for the Brewers, he should be a solid table-setter for the middle of Milwaukee’s order.

At shortstop, the Brewers hope that Jean Segura rebounds from a terrible (.246/.289/.326) season that also saw the 24-year-old experience personal tragedy that no doubt affected his play on the field.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, 36, is entering his (likely) final season and hopes to go out with another strong season. He posted above average numbers (.285/.330/.427) for the Brew Crew last year, providing nice pop in the lower half of the order.

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed a breakout 2014 at age 28, as he put up a .301/.373/.465 line to go with excellent defense behind the plate. The first-time All-Star also finished fourth in the MVP balloting and was probably the most valuable Brewer last year.

If Lucroy wasn’t the top Brewer last season, then that honor would go to Carlos Gomez. The 28-year-old center field swatted a team-high 23 home run with 34 stolen bases on his way to a .284/.356/.477 line, cementing his status as one of the league’s top outfielders.

Flanking Gomez this year will be right fielder Ryan Braun and left fielder Khris Davis. Braun, the 2011 National League MVP was hampered by a thumb injury last season that limited the 30-year-old to 135 games, in which he hit a career-low .266/.324/.453 with 19 home runs. This followed a 2013 in which he managed just 61 games. Players that get hurt tend to get hurt more and more as they work their way up the aging curve, so while Milwaukee needs Braun at 100% in order to contend, they may have to get used to the Hebrew Hammer at 75-80% and find a way to win despite that.

Davis, 27, impressed as a rookie in 2013, blasting 11 homers in just 136 at-bats to claim the regular left field gig last year. He followed up with a disappointing line of .244/.299/.457, swatting 22 home runs while displaying awful plate discipline (32-122 BB/K). He’ll be back out in left this year, but with bad offensive trends and eye-gouging defense, it could be a short stay for the aptly named “Khris with a K”.

Brewers’ pitching wasn’t bad last year, but it was nowhere near good enough to survive the porous defense and substandard offense. This year is no different, as the starting rotation subtracted last year’s Opening Day starter Yovani Gallardo in a trade with Texas, replacing him with 25-year-old Jimmy Nelson. Nelson went 2-9 last year, posting a 4.93 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 69 ⅓ innings, hardly awe-inspiring stuff.

Ahead of Nelson in the rotation are Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Matt Garza, and Kyle Lohse. While each of those pitchers has undeniable talent, and all could find a home with the other 29 MLB teams, they form a fairly bland, amorphous blob of a rotation. No one stands out as a surprise, no one stands out as a breakout, and no one stands out as an ace.

The relief corps is not much better, although re-signed closer Francisco Rodriguez, righty Jonathan Broxton, and lefty Will Smith make up a decent core to hold late leads.

It’s just too bad there won’t be very many of them in Milwaukee this season.

Prediction: 79-83, fourth place, NL Central

Staff ace Johnny Cueto will be one of the few bright spots for the Reds this year.
Staff ace Johnny Cueto will be one of the few bright spots for the Reds this year.

 Cincinnati Reds

That loud thud you just heard was the Cincinnati Reds tumbling down the stairs and landing in a heap.

This, bluntly, is not a team to be excited about.

Yes, catcher Devin Mesoraco looks like a star backstop, and Billy Hamilton is a treat every time he reaches first base, and Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in the sport. But that’s about it, really.

The Reds’ outfield is alright, with ageless Marlon Byrd* in left, speedster Hamilton in center, and former golden boy-turned-steady-hand Jay Bruce in right. It’s a perfectly cromulent outfield, but the upside is limited to Hamilton and he’ll never do anything more that run, run, run.

 *Just seems like a guy that every fan of every team has uttered the phrase “Didn’t he play for us once?” about.

Cincy’s infield has virtuoso talent in Votto, a nice supporting player in third baseman Todd Frazier, a good-not-great defender who holds the bat upside-down in shortstop Zack Cozart, and an aging former superstar in second baseman Brandon Phillips. The Cincinnati infield is like a used car; it’s not bad. It’ll do it’s job, but you know there are better ones out there.

Cincinnati’s pitching staff is like a pair of really wonderful, expensive hand-carved Italian bookends holding together a collection of old, dog-eared copies of “Swank” magazine*. Ace Johnny Cueto won 20 games last season and was a very dominant top dog, finishing second in the NL Cy Young race to Dodgers’ great Clayton Kershaw. With the 29-year-old about to hit the open market at season’s end, he’ll be wanting to duplicate his 2014. If Cincy stinks, they could kickstart a rebuild by dealing their ace, so that could be something to watch for as July gets closer.

 *I was going for the Simpsons reference. I had no idea this actually existed. Also, no, I’m not linking it. Do that on your own time.

Homer Bailey, the greatest pitcher ever named “Homer”, has a lot of talent, evidenced by two no-hitters in his six-year career. But the 28-year-old managed just 28 starts last season before forearm and elbow injuries cut his 2014 short. He’s signed through 2020, and is a solid No. 2 when healthy. Still, beyond Bailey and Cueto, the Reds’ staff looks bleak.

Third starter Mike Leake is by no means a bad pitcher, but a career 3.93 ERA in this era, not to mention his FIP of 4.22 and 1.297 WHIP do not point to a guy that helps prolong winning streaks. The 27-year-old would be a lot lower on other depth charts than he’s forced to be here.

There’s not a lot to say about the other starting options for the Reds. Youngster Tony Cingrani was shuffled off to the bullpen in spring training, while Anthony DeSclafani has just nine big-league starts under his belt at the moment, and Cuban signee Raisel Iglesias is near-total unknown and the team has Jason Marquis as its fifth starter.

If Cincinnati’s infield is a used car, the rotation is a Benz (Cueto), a used Cadillac (Bailey), and a bunch of rusty old pickup trucks.

The bullpen’s only marginally better, with a few talented arms, like closer Aroldis Chapman, and the team’s lone offseason free agent addition Burke Badenhop. But the other pieces around those two — Manny Parra, Kevin Gregg, Cingrani, and Jumbo Diaz, don’t inspire a lot of confidence. A team with a good rotation can get by with names like this in the pen. The Reds are not one of those teams.

Prediction: 75-87, fifth place, NL Central

We’ll finish up with the National League West, as well as a quick glance at season awards next time to wrap up the series.