After a 2013 season in which three teams won over 90 games in the NL Central, the division figures to be hotly contested once again. Key additions and departures will help shape the divisional race in 2014.
A new season means new hope for every team in the league, and for the five teams in the NL Central, they will have to perform from day one in order to stay in the hunt. Included here are divisional predictions along with a breakdown of key additions and departures, strengths and weaknesses, and an overall analysis of the team as a whole.
Who will win the NL Central?
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 94-68
Key Additions: Jhonny Peralta, Mark Ellis and Peter Bourjos
Key Subtractions: David Freese and Carlos Beltran
Biggest Strength: Starting rotation
Biggest Weakness: Lack of base stealers
The Cardinals were close to yet another World Series championship this decade, and it was because they're one of the best-run organizations in sports. St. Louis' front office knows how to build a farm system while competing at the major league level every season.
Speaking of the farm system, top prospect and outfielder Oscar Taveras is expected to be in the major leagues at some point this season. His call-up will make a strong St. Louis lineup even better.
To go along with its strong lineup, St. Louis boasts a young, hard-throwing pitching rotation. Ace Adam Wainwright is always a tough out and now players like Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly will join him. Especially in the playoffs last season, Wacha and Kelly were fantastic.
St. Louis lost Carlos Beltran to free agency and traded David Freese to the Angels over the offseason, so until Tavares is up, its outfield is weaker. However, the addition of Jhonny Peralta and Mark Ellis shore up what was a relatively weak middle infield a season ago.
Given the fact that the Cardinals have a top-five lineup and a borderline top-five rotation, they will be right in the mix again. As usual, they will likely be playing games well into October.
2. Cincinnati Reds: 90-72
Key Additions: Skip Schumaker
Key Subtractions: Shin-Soo Choo and possibly Bronson Arroyo and Nick Masset are FAs
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Lack of infield depth
Last season, the Reds may have been the best team to ever finish in third place. They won 90 games and had two teams better than them in their own division.
Their lineup has a lot of depth from top to bottom, with solid hitters like Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart bringing up the rear. That allows the lineup to roll over nicely. Especially with speedster Billy Hamilton at the top of the lineup as a base-stealing threat, the ability to roll over the lineup is huge.
Cincinnati has a young rotation with some pitchers such as Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos that have had injury issues in the past. If everyone in the rotation can stay healthy, the Reds will be a formidable team. As long as Cincinnati can get the game into the seventh with the lead, it will win most games.
Losing a player like Shin-Soo Choo is going to sting for the Reds given how much the outfielder got on base and scored runs. Now Choo is in Texas and Hamilton will have to be an apt replacement. How well he can do that may ultimately determine the Reds' success this season.
A major strength of the Reds is their bullpen, especially the back end. Having Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman in the latter innings will make a difference in close games. All three pitchers have closing experience and that depth will help offset any injuries that take place during the season.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates: 87-75
Key Additions: Edinson Volquez
Key Subtractions: May lose A.J. Burnett to retirement
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Besides Andrew McCutchen, nobody hits for a high average
The Pirates were the Cinderella team of the MLB last season and came one win away from bouncing the rival Cardinals from the playoffs and advancing to the NLCS. However, it didn't work out that way and Pittsburgh will be back in the hunt this season.
It's possible that the Pirates could take a small step back for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's very possible that they could lose A.J. Burnett to retirement. From now until spring training, they won't be able to replace a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Fortunately for the Pirates, their great bullpen can close out games when their starters get it to them with a lead. If the young, talented rotation in Pittsburgh can produce, then Pittsburgh can approach the 90-win mark again this season.
Another reason that Pittsburgh may take a step back is because its lineup just doesn't get on base enough, and that's going to catch up with it. While the team has players from top to bottom who can put the ball out of the ballpark, it doesn't necessarily have many guys that can put themselves on first base consistently.
It's going to be another three-team race in the NL Central this year, but the Cardinals and Reds just have more talented teams from top to bottom than the Pirates do, and that will be the small difference.
4. Chicago Cubs: 75-87
Key Additions: Wesley Wright and Jose Veras
Key Subtractions: None
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Lineup depth
Coming off two seasons that saw the Cubs lose at least 90 games, the rebuilding franchise will be looking to turn the corner and become contenders. However, they're still at least a year away from doing that.
Even though they won't be contenders this season, a drastically improved bullpen will at least make Chicago a decent team. With a solid starting rotation and bullpen, pitching isn't the problem in the Windy City.
The ability to put runs on the board will be the Cubs' biggest challenge. Many prospects are on the cusp of a major league call-up for Chicago, but until they get there the Cubs lineup may struggle again. While it's not a strength, expect bounce-back seasons from Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, who both struggled for large chunks of 2013.
Top prospects like Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez could be up at some point this season, which could provide some excitement for the Lovable Losers in 2014, but it still won't make them contenders quite yet.
Until their lineup has more stability, the Cubs will be an average team at best; but with a bullpen that should be able to close out games far better than it did a year ago, the Cubs are poised to have a much better year than they had in 2012 or 2013.
5. Milwaukee Brewers: 69-93
Key Additions: None
Key Subtractions: May lose Mike Gonzalez to free agency
Biggest Strength: Strong middle of the lineup
Biggest Weakness: Bullpen
The Ryan Braun fiasco is finally behind Milwaukee, and the franchise can focus on baseball again. Unfortunately, the Brewers just aren't a very good team at this point in time.
In the middle of the lineup the Brewers are solid, but they don't have the depth to win enough games to compete. Group that with a relatively weak bullpen and Milwaukee may have another long season in store.
If the top three in the rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada can build on their performances from a year ago then the Brewers could overachieve, but that still won't put them on the same level as the powerhouses in the division.
As their young players like Jean Segura develop in the league, the Brewers will improve and be capable of competing in the division again, but for 2014 the Brewers are looking at another stay in the basement of the NL Central.
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