Central Power: NL Central Preview

 

The NL Central crown will go through St. Louis.

The NL Central crown will go through St. Louis.

By: Travis Thayer

1. St. Louis Cardinals (92-70)

Projected Rotation: 1. Adam Wainwright, 2. Michael Wacha, 3. Lance Lynn, 4. Jaime Garcia, 5. Joe Kelly

Key Relievers: Trevor Rosenthal, Jason Motte, Carlos Martinez

Projected Lineup
1. 3B Matt Carpenter
2. 2B Kolten Wong
3. LF Matt Holliday
4. RF Allen Craig
5. 1B Matt Adams
6. C  Yadier Molina
7. SS Jhonny Peralta
8. CF Peter Bourjos

Top Prospects: OF, Oscar Tavares, 2B, Kolten Wong, LHP John Gast

The Cardinals once again played for the World Series a season ago, where they ended up on the short side of the stick.  Of course, Cardinal fans don’t want to relive that defeat, but the team might have a chance at redemption in 2014.  The Cardinals return their core pieces for the 2014 campaign, and they are loaded with young, hard-throwing pitchers.  Michael Wacha came out of no where a year ago, and he is primed to have a huge impact in St. Louis.  Adam Wainwright is the ace of the staff, and the likely Opening Day pitcher, but Wacha could supplant him as the Cards go-to pitcher.  There is no shortage of arms in the St. Louis bullpen either.  Closer Trevor Rosenthal is nearly un-hittable, and his setup men are pretty good too.  Carlos Martinez was considered the Cards top prospect a year ago, and he is a player that the Cards will be counting on to get the game to Rosenthal in the 9th.  The Cards pitching staff is the best part of their team, but a usual cast of characters in the field are back for another run.  Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Allen Craig will be looked upon to carry the load, and they are certainly capable.  The Cardinals have one of the most complete teams in the MLB, and they are in a great position to make it back to the postseason, and challenge for another World Series Championship.

2. Cincinnati Reds (89-73)

Projected Rotation: 1. Johnny Cueto, 2. Tony Cingrani, 3. Homer Bailey, 4. Mike Leake, 5. Alfredo Simon, HURT: Mat Latos

Key Relievers: Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover, Manny Parra, HURT: Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall

Projected Lineup
1. CF Billy Hamilton
2. 2B Brandon Phillips
3. 1B Joey Votto
4. RF Jay Bruce
5. LF Ryan Ludwick
6. 3B Todd Frazier
7. SS Zach Cozart
8. C  Brayan Pena

Top Prospects: RHP Robert Stephenson, OF Jesse Winker, OF Phillip Ervin

Out goes Dusty Baker, and in comes Bryan Price.  Other than some coaching changes the Cincinnati Reds will look very similar to how they looked in 2013.  There will be some philosophical changes as well.  Bryan Price wants his team to be more patient at the plate and more aggressive on the base paths.  He will use defensive shifts more, and he won’t play match ups in the bullpen.  All of the changes will be welcomed, but it will be the play of the players that will determine how far the Reds go in 2014.  Everyone is questioning whether or not Billy Hamilton can fill the shoes of Shin-Soo Choo, but Reds fans should know that Hamilton won’t have a .423 OBP, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be as affective as Choo.  Hamilton has world-class speed, and for what he may lack at the plate, he will certainly make up for it with his legs.  Hamilton looks to have the “it” factor, and Reds fans should sit back and enjoy what this kid can do.  As for the rest of the Reds, Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips will be asked to carry the load, as they have for the last few years.  All three have the ability to be MVP candidates, and one of the three may have to be in the MVP discussion if the Reds are to win the central.  The Reds will also need to be healthy, and as of right now they are not.  The Reds will start the season with at least six significant injuries, including injuries to starting pitcher Mat Latos and closer Aroldis Chapman.  Latos shouldn’t be out long, but the Reds will need to at least tread water until they get back to full strength.  If that happens, the Reds could be a team that challenges to win 90 games for the third consecutive season.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (85-77)

Projected Rotation: 1. Francisco Liriano, 2. Gerrit Cole, 3. Wandy Rodriguez, 4. Charlie Morton, 5. Edinson Volquez

Key Relievers: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson

Projected Lineup
1. LF Starling Marte
2. SS Jordy Mercer
3. CF Andrew McCutchen
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez
5. 2B Neil Walker
6. C  Russell Martin
7. 1B Gaby Sanchez
8. RF Jose Tabata

Top Prospects: OF Gregory Polanco, RHP Jameson Taillon, RHP Taylor Glasnow 

The Pirates were the biggest surprise of the 2013 season, and the hope in Pittsburgh is that they aren’t a one-year wonder.  NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leads the Pirates on their quest to make it to the playoffs two years in a row for the first time since the early 90’s.  The Pirates return most of their 25-man roster from last seasons playoff team, and they hope the losses of A.J. Burnett and Garrett Jones don’t hurt them much.  Burnett wasn’t great last season (10-11), but he was an innings-eater, totaling 191 innings pitched.  He will be replaced in the rotation by Edinson Volquez, who hasn’t been great since appearing in the All-Star Game in 2008.  Volquez has the stuff to be a successful starting pitcher, and the Pirates are hoping he can return to All-Star form in 2014.  The Pirates will also be counting on a bullpen that was incredibly good a season ago.  The Pirates bullpen was one of, if not the best bullpen in the MLB last season, and the game was basically over if their starter went six or more innings.  Although the Pirates have the reigning NL MVP, they are still a team who relies on defense and pitching before scoring runs.  Much of the same should be expected this season, and the Pirates could very well end up finishing second or even first in the division.  Regardless of where they finish though, the Pirates now have to be taken seriously, and baseball is officially back in the Steel City.

4. Chicago Cubs (70-92)

Projected Rotation: 1. Jeff Samardzija, 2. Travis Wood, 3. Edwin Jackson, 4. Jason Hammel, 5. Carlos Villanueva

Key Relievers: Jose Veras, Pedro Strop, Wesley Wright, Arodys Vizcaino

Projected Lineup
1. SS Starlin Castro
2. 2B Luis Valbuena
3. 1B Anthony Rizzo
4. RF Nate Schierholtz
5. 3B Mike Olt
6. CF Junior Lake
7. C Wellington Castillo
8. LF Ryan Sweeney

Top Prospects: SS Javier Baez, 3B Kris Bryant, OF Jorge Soler 

The Cubs are still a bad team, but there is hope for the future.  GM Theo Epstein has a slew of young prospects that could eventually make the Cubs a powerhouse in the National League, but most of those guys are still a year or two away from making a huge impact.  Therefore, Cubs fans should hope to just get out of the cellar this season.  Unless something crazy happens the Cubs and Brewers will finish in the bottom half of the NL Central, but nobody wants to finish last.  I’m not very confident in my pick that the Cubs will finish 4th, but I have a feeling the Cubs are on the verge of turning things around.  New manager Rick Renteria has an optimistic outlook, and he also knows it’s going to be a process.  Renteria knows he has some talented players in Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Travis Wood, and the realization for Cubs fans is that those guys need a better supporting cast.  The fact of the matter is that the Cubs don’t have may household names, and they shouldn’t be expected to do well in a division that had three playoff teams a year ago.  If the Cubs can win 70 games or more with the roster they have now, I will be fully convinced that they are on the right track, and that they could become a scary team in the near future.  The combination of the right prospects actually panning out, and the money that Theo Epstein will inevitably spend on free agents, will have Cubs fans yearning for that elusive World Series title in the years to come.

5. Milwaukee Brewers (66-96)

Projected Rotation: 1. Yovani Gallardo, 2. Kyle Loshe, 3. Matt Garza, 4. Marco Estrada, 5. Wily Peralta

Key Relievers: Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez

Projected Lineup
1. CF Carlos Gomez
2. SS Jean Segura
3. RF Ryan Braun
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez
5. C Jonathan Lucroy
6. 1B Lyle Overbay
7. LF Khris Davis
8. 2B Scooter Gennett

Top Prospects: RHP Jimmy Nelson, RHP Taylor Jungmann, RHP Johnny Hellwig

The Brewers struggled nightly last season because of the suspension of Ryan Braun for using performance enhancing drugs.  Braun is back from suspension, and his impact should be felt early on in 2014.  Braun is an MVP type player, and his bat will be key to any success the Brewers might have.  Fellow All-Star Carlos Gomez provides great speed, and gold-glove defense at the top of the Brewers lineup should score more runs this season.  The biggest problem in Milwaukee is pitching.  The Brewers signed starter Matt Garza to a contract this offseason to hopefully boost a pitching rotation that already has Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Loshe.  While those three might make for a good trio, the biggest concern is with the bullpen that struggled to maintain even the biggest leads a season ago.  Much like the Cubs, the Brewers don’t have the talent to compete with the Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals.  Ryan Braun could make the difference between being 4th or last in the division, but I’m not convinced that this team is good enough to win 70-75 games.  And let’s face it, can you really trust a guy who’s lied about PED’s twice in the last two seasons.  That’s a distraction that nobody needs, and the Brewers already have enough problems as it is.

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