There's no doubt that the National League Central was one of the best divisions in baseball last season, with three teams winning over 90 games. Some teams seemingly got better and some seemingly got worse over the offseason, but this division should still be very interesting in 2014.
Players like Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Norichika Aoki, Justin Morneau and Bronson Arroyo departed, while guys like Matt Garza and Peter Bourjos arrived. Based on their present team structures, here is how the NL Central figures to shake out in the newly-updated version of the divisional predictions.
1. St. Louis Cardinals, 98-64
Even though they lost key contributors Beltran and David Freese, the Cardinals actually may have gotten better this offseason. They lost Beltran, but Allen Craig should now move into right field and Peter Bourjos will likely play center field. That improves their outfield defense, and it also opens up the first base job for slugger Matt Adams.
With Adams able to play everyday, the Cardinals will be able to see what he can do over the course of an entire season.
More importantly, the team shored up its relatively weak middle infield. By acquiring shortstop Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Mark Ellis, St. Louis effectively patched up its only significant hole from a season ago.
A wild card for the Cardinals this season will be their starting rotation. Last year, young pitchers Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly performed extremely well. If they can build on that momentum, the Cardinals could be nearly unstoppable. Should they suffer a sophomore slump, however, it could open the door for another team to steal the division.
This is definitely the Cardinals' division to lose. With an excellent lineup and rotation, the only thing that could keep St. Louis from reaching the playoffs again would be key injuries or serial underperformance.
2. Cincinnati Reds, 87-75
While the Reds still will field a solid team in 2014, they lost key contributors in the lineup and the rotation. On-base extraordinaire Shin-Soo Choo left for a megadeal in Texas, and Bronson Arroyo recently signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That leaves major question marks for a team trying to get over the hump in the playoffs.
While having Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick in the No. 2-5 slots of the lineup is nothing to scoff at, the Reds will have more trouble producing offensively without Choo. The middle of their order strikes out quite a bit—especially Bruce, who struck out 185 times a season ago. Without Choo's uncanny ability to get on base, the Reds could be an all-or-nothing offense.
Even though the offense will inevitably go through struggles, it still is filled with talent. For that reason, the Reds are still going to be a competitive team in 2014. Should base-stealing guru Billy Hamilton develop a legitimate offensive game, then everything changes. But as of now, there's no reason to believe he will turn into a big offensive threat anytime soon. Even so, if he can hit .260 or higher, he will steal his fair share of bases.
Cincinnati will have to find someone else to get on base at a high clip or preach a more conservative approach organizationally if it hopes to replace the loss of Choo from a year ago. If the team can do that, it may be playing again in October.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates, 84-78
It was inspiring to watch the Pirates a season ago as they finally ended their 20-plus-year playoff drought, but 2014 may not be as successful. The team is losing role players that helped with the playoff push, such as Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.
Another concerning point is the starting rotation. As of right now, ace A.J. Burnett hasn't re-signed with the team. Additionally, it would be very hopeful to think that the resurgent Francisco Liriano could duplicate his performance from a season ago. That said, promising young pitcher Gerrit Cole could be an X-factor this season if he can build on a very solid 2013 season.
Barring injury, the bullpen should be very good once again, but closer Jason Grilli needs to stay healthy. He missed over a month last season with a right shoulder strain, and the Bucs can't afford a similar absence this year.
Finding depth in the lineup will be a key in Pittsburgh this year, but as long as key contributors in the rotation and bullpen can stay healthy all season, the Pirates will be a good team. Unless they're able to add solid role players at the trade deadline again, however, they still may be far away from great.
4. Milwaukee Brewers, 79-83
The Brewers have all the pieces to be the surprise team of 2014. First, they will get Ryan Braun back after he served his 50-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which will provide a major boost to the lineup.
Secondly, after the addition of Matt Garza, the Brewers boast one of the better rotations in the National League. Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta make up one of the deepest rotations in the National League, and for that reason alone, the Brewers will be more competitive in 2014.
How shortstop Jean Segura rebounds from a rough second half of 2013 may decide just how competitive the Brewers are this season. Segura was on pace to compete for the batting title in the early going, but a major slump in the second half left him with a batting average of .294. Obviously, that's a very solid average, but how far he fell is concerning.
With Carlos Gomez, Braun, Aramis Ramirez and an emerging Jonathan Lucroy in the middle of the lineup, Milwaukee will be capable of putting runs on the board. If the oft-injured Ramirez can stay healthy, the lineup will look even more dangerous.
A lot would have to go right, but the Brewers have the pieces to make a run this year if their young players can take the next step in their career progression.
5. Chicago Cubs, 75-87
Still in the middle of a rebuild, it's not likely that the Cubs are going to compete in 2014. However, it should be a little easier to watch them this season than it's been the past couple of seasons. A major reason for that is their drastically improved bullpen.
This offseason, Chicago added lefty Wesley Wright and potential closer Jose Veras. With Wright, the Cubs now have more flexibility in their bullpen because James Russell, the club's only lefty from a season ago, doesn't have to be used in every lefty-lefty situation. The move will keep Russell and Wright fresher and more effective.
Adding Veras was an interesting move on the Cubs' part. He will be battling with Pedro Strop for the closer job in spring training, but no matter who wins the job, having Strop and Veras in the back end could be a potent combination. Strop was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles last season and really found his stuff once he arrived in Chicago.
Clearly, the lineup is still in desperate need of help from the team's minor league system filled with hitting talent. Not many prospects will be up this season, with the exception of third baseman Mike Olt and possibly second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.
As more prospects arrive, excitement will grow in Chicago, but the Cubs are still at least a year, probably two, away from contending. For now, winning 75 games in 2014 would be a major step in the right direction for a team mired in futility and in the middle of an extensive rebuild.