The NL Central at a Glance

Oct 4, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates cheer and wave a flag after game two of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The NL Central was by far the best division in the National League in 2013 and arguably the best division in the entire Major Leagues.  It was the only division to boast three 90 win teams and they represented the National League in the World Series as they have in 5 of the last 10 years.  (Of course 4 of those years it was the cardinals, but who’s counting).

The NL Central had produced one of the most exciting division races in recent memory down the stretch with the Pirates beating the Reds in a one game playoff, only to fall to the Cardinals in a thriller and then see the Cardinals fall to the Red Sox in the World Series.  It’s not that I was cheering against the Cardinals, but I wasn’t exactly crying in my cheerios when Boston won.

Of course, to me, there’s really only one team worth discussing and that’s the Pirates, but for the sake of levity, I wanted to take a trip around the NL Central to see what ships the Jolly Roger will be firing cannonballs at come next Spring.

St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

The reigning champion Cardinals and perennial bully of the NL Central have dominated the division over the last decade.  They are like that one nerdy kid who was always way better than everyone else at video games but you played him anyways?  And every time you played him you’d get annihilated and thoroughly embarrassed, but there’s no one else to play so you just are resigned to the fact that you’re a lesser person and it gets to the point where it’s basically not even fun anymore.  Ya.. that’s the Cardinals.  If you’re over 40, in that last sentence substitute video games for, I don’t know, marbles…or parcheesi…or whatever games they had for you back then.

They have won the NL Central title five times and made it to the playoffs a remarkable seven times over a ten year period.  No wonder they have the “best fans in baseball”.  They should be called “most spoiled fans in baseball”.  Let’s see how many of those “best fans in baseball” would be selling out the stadium after 20 losing seasons.

In terms of what we can expect in 2014, well…probably what you would imagine.  They return nearly all of their 2013 bats with the exception of David Freese.  In his stead in Center Field, will be Pete Bourjos.  He is considered one of the best gloves in the league and brings some serious wheels with him, but he’s been wracked with injuries over the last two years so consider him a question mark.  Newcomer Kolton Wong will be expected to take over 2nd base for the first time, but other than that all of the faces should be the same in the field.  And just for fun, they added Jhonny Peralta to fill the only real gap they had at Shortstop.  Great.

They will have a dominant 1-2-3 at the top of the rotation in Adam Wainwright, Mike “the pirate killer” Wacha, and Shelby Miller.  Follow that with a crew of proven talent that would fill out the 4 and 5 spots nicely with room to spare and you have yourself a recipe for success.   Not to mention the Cardinals have a top ranked farm system and the money to push their big league salary well past $100m.  So get used to the red birds.  They’re not going anywhere……unfortunately.  Prediction 91-71

Oct 9, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) reacts after he strikes out to end game five of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)

(thunderous applause) By far the biggest and most pleasant surprise of 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates won not only the endearment of the city of Pittsburgh, but they won hearts and minds all over America with their long overdue breakout season.  They finally were able to put together a team that lives up to the City of Champions moniker.  Pittsburgh has always been a sports town and if you ask me, Pirate fans are just as wild, loud, passionate, and frenzied as any team in the league.  Ask Johnny Cueto.

Despite an absolute toothless offseason, the Pirates will have all of their key components back.  Marte and reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen will cement the outfield.  NL Home Run Champ Pedro Alvarez should be even better than last year, offensively and defensively.  Jordy Mercer will be an upgrade at Shortstop after platooning with Clint Barmes.  Neil Walker fought through injuries last year, but will be primed for an improved 2014 and Russel Martin is still a premier defensive catcher.  The two question marks are Right Field and First Base, but a platoon of Jose Tabata and Travis Snyder will be serviceable before minor league sensation Gregory Polanco steps in.  And don’t underestimate Andrew Lambo’s ability to bounce back as a slugger in 2014 playing alongside Gaby Sanchez at first base. Overall, the pirates can hit for average, hit for power, and steal bases.  The offensive numbers should improve.

After most likely losing their ace and team leader AJ Burnett, there are definitely big shoes to fill in the rotation.  Reigning comeback player of the year Francisco Liriano will be the number one starter with flamethrower Garret Cole, sinker baller Charlie Morton and the crafty veteran Wandy Rodriguez filling out the next 3 spots.  The 5th starter will be a competition between a promising Jeff Locke, newcomer Edison Volquez, and prized prospect Jameson Taillon.  Overall, pretty good shape there.  And they still have arguably the best bullpen in the game.  THE SHARK TANK.  Prediction 92-70

July 25, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman (54) pitches against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park. The Reds won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Reds 90-72

Over the last four seasons the Reds have been even more dominant in the NL Central as the Cardinals! They have been to the playoffs three of the last four years and they have done it with starting pitching, a dominant closer, and a group of all-star bats.

With the loss of Shin-Soo Choo in Center Field and defensive stud catcher Ryan Hanigan, the Reds will have some holes to fill this year.  They’re expected to lean on former top prospects Billy Hamilton and Devin Mesoraco to step in and be productive in their absence.  The main pieces remain in place with Votto at first and a disgruntled but signed Brandon Phillips at second, with Cozart and Frazier re-taking their spots at short and third.  In left you’ll have the reliable Jay Bruce with a platoon situation most likely materializing in Right.

The pitching rotation is as sure as any in the NL with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani all but penciled in to start the season as the top five.  With the unscrupulous headhunter Aroldis Chapman throwing 100 mph fastballs at peoples temple’s to close out games, they should be ranked in the top 5 in most NL pitching statistics again this year.  But with the average age of their infield being 30 and absolutely no depth when it comes to starting pitching, they are just a few injuries away from a major letdown season. Prediction 82-80

Apr 25, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Two fans in the bleachers watch the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Chicago Cubs 5-1. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Cubs 66-96

Poor Cubs….Still no World Series in, what is it, 106 years now and counting?  The curse of the goat friends…the curse of the goat.   Hard to imagine that it was just 2003 when Sammy Sosa was popping steroids like pez and smashing home runs like singles, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were two of the most promising young pitchers in the game, and they were only a measly 4 outs from returning to the world series…. but then bartman happened, then giving up 8 runs in 1 inning happened, then losing 2 straight games and the series happened, then Sammy Sosa went all albino, then recessing into the barrels of putrescence thenceforth happened.   Poor, poor Cubs..

Unfortunately for Chicago, this year will not be the one that breaks the curse.  They’re not returning any starting pitchers who had a winning record last year and only one, Travis Wood, had an ERA under 4.00.  It’s ugly folks.  The Bullpen didn’t fare much better last year ranking in the bottom of the league in ERA, WAR, K’s per 9, Saves, Wins…and whatever else.  That doesn’t look to improve much either.  Wrigley field’s infield could be a veritable carousel for visiting batters and Bartman should move his seat to right field if he wants to catch more balls, because there should be plenty of home runs hit next year……and not by the Cubs.

In the field they are slightly better equipped, but not really.  Their star player…’star’ling Castro spent most of last year drinking his own kool-aid and finished with a .245 BA and looked out of shape and sluggish most of the year.  Even bright spots like first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Right Fiedler Nate Sherholtz both hit below .252 and proved streaky at best.  Youngsters like Junior Lake (CF) and Wellington Castillo ( C ) give Cubs fans something to look forward to, but bottom line is without pitching, it’s going to be very hard to compete in arguably the strongest division in baseball.  Hey Theo!  How’s Bean town looking about now?  Get your gorilla suit ready because you may need to make another hasty retreat.  (see Theo Epstein October 31st, 2005) Prediction 73-89

Jul 23, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Brewers fans show their support for left fielder Ryan Braun (not pictured) during the 7th inning stretch against the San Diego Padres at Miller Park. Braun was suspended for the rest of the year for violating MLB drug policies. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee Brewers 74-88

The Brewers will be a huge question mark moving into 2014. They are absolutely littered with what can be only described as a massively bloated payroll beset with average, to below average, senior citizens.  But on the other side of that coin, they do boast some very promising young talent that can carry the team through the season.  Look at this.  They are paying Ryan Braun, who is 30 years old and will be steroid-less in 2014,$10m, Aramis Ramirez is 35 and he gets $16m, Rickie Weeks is 35 and he’s making $11m, Kyle Lohse is 35 and he’s making $11m and they just inked Matt Garza, who is 30, to a four year deal that is worth $52 million as well.  That makes 5 players over the age of 30 making a combined $60+ million. Who is running that team?  Scott Boras?  Not to mention Yovani Gallardo is making $11 million coming off his worst season in the majors and you have $70+ million in payroll sunk into 6 players that you can only hope will perform slightly above average at best.  That is roughly equal to the entire payroll for the Pittsburgh Pirates moving into 2014.  That’s just not right..  But in spite of themselves, the Brewers have a chance to contend if they stay healthy.

The starting rotation should be a strength for the Brewers in 2014.  They will have Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza and Marco Estrada most likely guaranteed the top 4 spots and will follow that with youngsters Willy Peralta and Tyler Thornburg battling for the 5th slot.  Lohse, Garza, Estrada and Thornburg all finished 2013 with sub 4.00 ERA’s and if Gallardo bucks the trend and bounces back this year, they could be dangerous.  The bullpen should improve, but they’re coming off a year that had them in the bottom third in WAR, ERA, and K’s per 9.

Around the diamond the Brewers have some bright young stars who are poised to continue to breakout in 2014.  Carlos Gomez hit .284 in center field with 24 home runs.  Jean Segura shined at shortstop hitting .287 with a .326 obp, and Jonathan Lucroy is a top offensive catcher posting a .284 average with 28 home runs.  If Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez can put up good numbers and if they can get any type of production out of Rickie Weeks whatsoever, the Brewers can make some serious noise in 2014, but with an aging lineup that is prone to injuries, there’s just too many what-ifs.  Prediction 81-81

So there you have it baseball fans.  The Pirates will have an excellent chance to get to a NL Championship next year, but they’ll have to get by the Cardinals to do it.  The Reds are aging and lack depth, the Brewers are aging and overpaid, and the Cubs will continue to stare up from the bottom of the well.  SHE PUTS THE LOTION IN THE BASKET THEO!

 

 

 

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