Football is behind us and Spring Training is right around the corner. Pitchers and catchers are about to report and organizations are busting with hope and possibility. For the first time in over two decades the Pittsburgh Pirates will look for back-to-back playoff berths, the St Louis Cardinals will make another World Series run, the Cincinnati Reds will look to live up to expectations and the rest of the division will just try and improve on a poor 2013.
2014 Spring Training has not begun and there will be injuries that affect a team’s forecasted finish as well as their fan bases spirits. However, it is never too early to look at Major League Baseball in 2014 and figure out who just might be a surprise team, who might regress, and who will be rebuilding yet again. What will become of the 2014 National League Central? I already broke down the NL West and the NL East so now it is time to take a crystal ball approach to the NL Central.
Last Season: 97-65 (First in NL Central)
Key Losses: David Freese, Carlos Beltran, Edward Mujica
Key Additions: Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta, Mark Ellis
The Cardinals spent the winter knowing they just missed last season, traded David Freese, lost Carlos Beltran and needed a shortstop. What did they do? They brushed themselves off and singed Jhonny Peralta to answer the need at short stop and add the future of their outfield in the Freese trade by acquiring Peter Bourjos. The loss of Freese allowed Matt Carpenter to move to third and made room for talented youngster Kolten Wong at second base. Matt Holiday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina round out a talented lineup.
St Louis boasts a solid starting rotation led by Adam Wainwright, and filled with 2013 MLB playoffs breakout star, Michael Wacha accompanied by Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Jaime Garcia. Joe Kelly could also crack the top-5 if the Cardinals have interest in relegating Lance Lynn or Jaime Garcia to the bullpen. Speaking of the Cardinals bullpen, it is group of talented youngsters in the likes of Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and closer Trevor Rosenthal. St Louis is the clear favorite to win the NL Central in 2014.
Predicted Finish: 95-67 (First in NL Central)
Last Season: 94-68 (Second in NL Central)
Key Losses: AJ Burnett, Garrett Jones, Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd
Key Additions: Edinson Volquez
2013 was the long overdue return to the post-season for the Pirates and their patient fan base. Key portions of the team stays intact with power hitting Pedro Alvarez, who does need to work on plate discipline along with stud center fielder and reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the way. Starling Marte is a phenomenal talent that will patrol left field for years to come and Jose Tabata is merely keeping Gregory Polanco‘s spot warm until a June call up. Neil Walker and Russell Martin continue to be serviceable offensive options in Pittsburgh with the latter also working wonders with the Pirates rotation.
Francisco Liriano returned from years of mediocrity to lead the Pirates rotation in 2013 but was 2013 an aberation or has he finally found his form? What hasn’t been said about the impressive young tandem of Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke is just how calm and cool they were on the biggest of stages. That twosome will be in this rotation for years to come. The addition of Edinson Volquez will add to the veteran presence of Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton. Yet one of those spots will likely be taken up by June (if not to start the season) by youngster Jameson Taillon.
Predicted Finish: 92-70 (Second in NL Central)
Last Season: 74-88 (Fourth in NL Central)
Key Losses: Corey Hart, Yuniesky Betancourt
Key Additions: Ryan Braun Return, Will Smith, Matt Garza
Aramis Ramirez is not what the threat he once was but can still be solid. The obvious boost to the lineup is the return of Ryan Braun from injuries and a suspension that cost him over 100 games in 2013. What the Brewers will get is up for debate. Youngsters Khris Davis, Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez will help power the Brewers lineup going forward. Scooter Gennett appears to have taken the reigns from Rickie Weeks during an impressive 69 game audition last year. How this mix of players will come together is the long pole in the Brewers tent.
Clearly the signing of Matt Garza to a four year deal is front and center for the Hot Stove season in Milwaukee. While injury is a concern for Garza there is no doubt that if healthy he improves a pitching corps that had the ninth best ERA in the NL last season. He joins Kyle Lohse, who pitched better than his numbers warranted in 2013 at the front of the rotation. Yovani Gallardo regressed in 2013 after high expectations but if he can return to 2011/12 form he will be a formidable number three. The four and five spots are an open competition that will most likely end with new arrival Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg rounding out the rotation.
Predicted Finish: 85-77 (Third in NL Central)
Last Season: 90-72 (Third in NL Central)
Key Losses: Bronson Arroyo, Shin-Soo Choo
Key Additions: Skip Schumaker
Many will speak highly of Billy Hamilton and his tremendous upside but the loss of Shin Soo-Choo is not that easy to get over. Expect big and fast things for Hamilton but not at a Soo-Choo level out of the gate. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will continue to perform but Brandon Phillips will need another 100 RBI season. Realistically players like Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick are just okay unless Ludwick can find his 35 plus home run, 100 RBI, and 100 run form of 2008.
It is hard to argue with the starting rotation in Cincinnati. Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Tony Congrani are all quality starters but beyond them there is basically nothing. So health of that starting rotation is clearly key. Aroldis Chapman and his powerful heater will continue to thrive in the closer roll (a smart move by Reds leadership). At the end of the day the Reds will be good but not good enough to overtake the front of the National League Central standings.
Predicted Finish: 84-78 (Fourth in NL Central)
Last Season:66-96 (Fifth in NL Central)
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: None
Well it is time for another year in Chicago and the much needed rebuilding will continue. Offensively the Cubs did not trot out one player that struck fear into opposing teams hearts. Let’s face it Starlin Castro had a poor 2013. They faithful will hope for a return to the previous career form. Anthony Rizzo showed promise while finally getting real playing time and Nate Schierholtz took a career step forward. The reality is they need to drastically step forward from last year’s 602 runs scored (only Marlins were worse in NL) as well as their .238 team average. They will have to do it from within.
The Cubs had one of the worst team ERAs in the National League in 2013 and they traded away Garza which was required in the teams rebuilding phase. Youngster Travis Wood is a fine talent and is the undisputed front of the Cubs rotation with the 2013 regression of Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija is a fine talent and will probably start opening day but will need to cure what ailed him last season. After him things get sideways fast. Edwin Jackson was unsurprisingly a complete bust and the Cubs will be relying on rapid development of unproven talent in Chris Rusin and Jake Arrieta. The youngsters have potential but overall Cubs fans should temper any expectations during rebuilding.
Predicted Finish: 69-93 (Fifth in NL East)