NL Central Preview

Posted: 04/12/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Let’s continue my baseball preview with the NL Central, a division that might be the toughest to call in all of baseball. There’s no dominant team (the Cardinals are showing some cracks) and there’s also no pushover at the bottom of the division. I already said that the Reds will go under their Bovada win total number, and Cincinnati is already 4-2. Great start! Anyway, on to the other four teams in the division, starting with…

1. Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74): Yes, I think this is the year that the Cardinals will decline a little bit and fall from the top of the NL Central. No, I do not think the Cubs are going to be the team to take their place. At least not yet. I think people are overlooking the Pirates, even after two consecutive playoff appearances. It all starts with centerfielder and three-hole hitter Andrew McCutchen, perhaps the second best player in baseball and the team’s engine. Always a good hitter, McCutchen, now 28 years old, has taken it to the next level over the last few years. He won the MVP in 2013 and has been .310+/.400+/.500+ in each of the past three years while averaging 665 plate appearances in that time. The rest of the Pirates’ outfield is Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, both talented young players who have what it takes to surprise people this season. Marte has shown glimpses and Polanco was the top prospect in baseball last year, but there have been signs that neither are ready to really help this team win the division. I’m betting that they’ll get better and better as the season continues and eventually help power the team to the NL Central title. I’m also betting that the rotation, which has consistently exceeded expectations, will continue to do so even after the departure of uber-valuable catcher Russell Martin. Pittsburgh has turned Francisco Liriano and Vance Worley from terrible pitchers (Liriano had three 5+ ERA seasons between 2009 and 2012, while Worley had a 7.21 ERA in 2013) into the top two pitchers in their rotation (Liriano had a 3.02 ERA in 2013 and 3.38 last year while Worley was at 2.85 last season). They also are giving A.J. Burnett, now 38 years old, another chance after Burnett almost retired after 2013 and had an ugly season last year. The most important guy in the rotation is also the youngest: 24-year-old Gerrit Cole, a former top prospect who has every chance to become this team’s ace. The question with Cole is the same as it is with Gregory Polanco: will these guys become stars now, or will it take a few years? I’m betting on now for Polanco, Cole, and the Pirates.

2. St. Louis Cardinals (87-75): The Cardinals aren’t going to fall off a cliff. In fact, I think they are the team with the best shot at making the playoffs in this division, whether by winning the division or a wild card, simply because they have the highest floor. I could see Pittsburgh falling off a cliff this year if the young guys don’t develop the way I think they will and the Russell Martin departure means more than people think. But while the Cardinals have some holes that I’ll get to in a second, I don’t see a way that they fall out of the hunt early. I really like their lineup, which could score more runs that any other non-Colorado NL team. It’s a deep lineup that has catcher Yadier Molina, the team’s best all-around player, hitting seventh. Molina had a down year last season, but this is a guy who had a wRC+ (ballpark adjusted, average of 100, 120 would be 20% better than average and so on) of 126 in 2011, 138 in 2012, and 133 in 2013. His composite OPS over the past six seasons, all of which have been All-Star years, is .781, and he’s also hitting .283 for his career. Pretty good seven hitter. The Cardinals also have a nice balance of age and youth with Matt Holliday (35 years old) hitting between Jason Heyward (25) and Matt Adams (26). Those three guys will hit, and Heyward’s defense makes him an MVP-level contributor. Meanwhile, leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter has a .379 career OBP, centerfielder Jon Jay has never posted a sub-.344 OBP, and veteran shortstop Jhonny Peralta has a .774 OPS over the past four years. Although this lineup lacks that true Albert Pujols-style game-changer, it is very deep and I don’t doubt that it will score a lot of runs. I’m more concerned with a rotation that rests solely on Adam Wainwright’s right arm. Wainwright, who has already had Tommy John surgery once, slowed down after the all-star break last season, with his velocity and strikeout numbers going down. His overall numbers were still terrific, but I’m worried that he may break down this season. And if he does, the Cardinals will have a rotation that is uncharacteristically not that deep. Lance Lynn is a reliable workhorse, but John Lackey is an unreliable 36-year old, Michael Wacha missed half of last year due to injury, and Carlos Martinez made his ninth career start today and, despite all his stuff, has struggled to hold a spot in the rotation down. Now, if Wainwright stays healthy and the young guys (Wacha and Martinez) pitch like young Cardinals pitcher normally pitch, this team could again be the best in the National League. But Molina is showing cracks, Holliday is 35, Peralta will soon be 33, and Lackey is 36. Throw in the improvements made by other teams in this division and the Cardinals will have to fight harder for the NL Central than they have in years. Then again, the Cardinals have only won two straight division titles, so maybe their long dominance has been more figurative than literal. They also haven’t won the division by more than three games since 2009. But they’ve missed the playoffs just once since then, so my point stands. The Cardinals are the team to beat in this division, but they should be worried about the Pirates.

3. Chicago Cubs (81-81): I know the Cubs hype has already gotten out of control, but please take into account that, just by avoiding 90 losses, the Cubs had their best season since 2010 (when they won 75 games) last year with a 73-89 record. That’s how bad this team has been recently. And while I’m not picking them to make the playoffs, I do see a big improvement on the horizon. This is a team on the rise, and they could challenge for the division title (and maybe more?) as soon as next season. The building blocks are there: they have an ace in Jon Lester, a stud first baseman in Anthony Rizzo, a rightfielder with bucket loads of power in Jorge Soler, a future star at shortstop (Addison Russell), and, of course, his Highness Kris Bryant. So the future is pretty darn bright. For now, though, the Cubs have plenty of holes, the greatest of which might be rotation depth. And the young top prospects are in no way guaranteed to be stars right away; in fact, that’s nearly unprecedented. This is the year that Bryant and the others take their lumps, fight through some bad slumps, and play .500 baseball. Next year, though? The Cubs could really be something special… er, challenge for a playoff spot.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (79-83): I almost put the Reds above the Brewers, but there are a few reasons that I changed my mind. Those reasons are Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Braun. In Gomez and Lucroy, the Brewers had two of the 10 most valuable hitters last year. And if you think pitch framing is as important as many people think it is, Lucroy might just have been the most valuable player in baseball last year. Lucroy and Gomez are two of the best two-way players in baseball, and they happen to be manning catcher and centerfield for the Brewers. The rest of the lineup isn’t bad either. Steroid issues aside, it’s undeniable that Braun, a former MVP, is still a good hitter. I don’t know if he’s closer to the .943 OPS player he was in his first six seasons or the .805 one the last two, but he’s pretty good either way. So to are Aramis Ramirez, Khris Davis, Adam Lind, and, if he can bounce back, Jean Segura. This is going to be a pretty good lineup. The pitching staff is a different story. They were iffy last year, and then they traded Yovani Gallardo. Now, they’re left with 36-year old Kyle Lohse as their ace and Jimmy Nelson (4.93 ERA last year) in the rotation. Depending on whether Mike Fiers pitches as well as he did last year, this could still be an average rotation, but it won’t be any better than that. The bullpen, which is relying heavily on erratic Francisco Rodriguez, isn’t good, either, which is why I think this team will struggle to hit .500. I think this team could be pretty good, but it could also be really bad. This is one of the more mysterious teams in baseball to me, and I’ll be watching avidly to see how it turns out.

5. Cincinnati Reds (74-88): I already wrote about them here so won’t again now. A few things to keep an eye on: will they trade Johnny Cueto? Cueto’s a free agent after this year and the indications are that he’ll probably move on. Can Joey Votto finally stay healthy? Will this team be able to get on base and give Votto and Jay Bruce opportunities to drive them in? Are rookies Raisel Iglesias and Anthony DeSclafani ready to take permanent spots in the rotation? Was last season’s outburst from Devin Mesoraco a fluke or is he a legitimate star? These are the pivotal questions that only an 162 game season can answer, and the answers to these questions will decide whether or not the Reds can contend this season. My guess is no, but they certainly have the pieces to go on a run, health permitting.

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