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How the National League Central Stacks Up a Month Before Teams Report
The Chicago Cubs have the biggest offseason
With the Cubs finishing last in the National League Central for the 2014 season, they needed to have a big offseason in order to build on the strong finish they had to last season. The Cubs had a significant opportunity presented to them with Jon Lester becoming a free agent after the 2014 season. The Cardinals were able to make a significant addition by adding Jason Heyward in a trade this offseason while the Pirates replaced departing players, and added depth to their roster in areas of need. The Brewers added first basemen Adam Lind in a trade with Toronto, but they eventually started the rebuilding process by trading Yovanni Gallardo to the Rangers. The Reds started their rebuilding effort by trading away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. The Reds had second thoughts about a complete rebuilding effort however, as they traded away a pitching prospect to the Phillies for veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd. Despite the additions made by the Reds and Brewers, the Cubs may have passed both teams in overall talent level in what should prove to be a very competitive division. A further look at what each team has going into 2015, will help to reveal a clearer picture of how this division race could play out this coming season.
St. Louis Cardinals
The defending National League Central champions return a very strong pitching staff for the 2015 season. Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez will make up their starting five. Depth options in left handed starters Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales may be called upon early since their rotation is currently made up of five right handed starters. Their pitching rotation figures to be well above average in the National League with one of the best pitchers in baseball at the top. Their depth made up of left handed starters should allow them to overcome any injuries suffered in their starting rotation during the season.
The Cardinals bullpen is also solid after they added Jordan Walden as the setup man for closer Trevor Rosenthal. Also in setup and seventh inning roles will be Sam Freeman, Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate and Seth Maness. With Freeman, Siegrist and Choate all being left handed, the Cardinals do not lack left handed relief pitching as their likely long reliever, Tyler Lyons is also a left handed pitcher. With a starting rotation that features strong pitchers at the top, along with a bullpen that can mix and match, the Cardinals are in great position with their pitching staff heading into the 2015 season.
After a down season from the Cardinals offense a season ago, they will look for significant production from their outfield in 2014. Left to right in the outfield this season will be Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and trade acquisition Jason Heyward. The Cardinals will lean on Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward to provide a good portion of their lineups power in 2015. Holliday however is a below average defender in left field at this point in his career, with Jon Jay being slightly above average in centerfield, and Heyward being well above average defensively in right. One of Jon Jay or Jason Heyward is likely to get the most time in 2015 batting leadoff for St. Louis.
The Cardinals infield from third to first is Matt Carpenter, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, second basemen Kolten Wong, first basemen Matt Adams and catcher Yadier Molina. This group will look to provide the pitching staff with the ability to field a high percentage of the ground balls hit against them. Jhonny Peralta may be the best homerun hitter of this group with Matt Adams have the most power in extra base hit totals. All of these players will fill key roles in the Cardinals batting lineup, but their defense will be the key to the team's success in 2015. Carpenter is an above average defender at third, while Peralta is slightly above average at shortstop. Wong is a fantastic defender at second, but Matt Adams may be the least of all the Cardinals defenders as their starting first basemen. Yadier Molina should continue to be a consistent gold glove candidate behind the plate. All of this leads to the expectations for the Cardinals lineup to be strong and balanced despite the lack of homerun power they have going into 2015. Reserve infield Mark Reynolds should help them in the right handed power department off the bench.
The Pittsburgh Pirates open the season with an above average starting five when healthy, which includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, A.J. Burnett and Vance Worley. Led by a prolific young ace, this rotation's ability to punch out batters should rank them well above average in the National League for 2015. Their top depth options are left hander Jeff Locke, right hander Kyle McPherson, along with top prospects in right handers Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon. With injuries happening to every one of their projected starters except Worley in 2014, these depth options may be called upon if injuries become a pattern in 2015.
The Pirates bullpen features efficiency in the closer's role with Mark Melancon being a pitcher who walks very few batters. The dominance in this bullpen is not apparent until left handed setup man Tony Watson is mentioned. Tall right handed reliever John Holdzkom figures into the setup duties for 2015 as well. Both Jared Hughes and Antonio Bastardo figure to hold down the seventh inning duties as a righty-lefty combination. Radhammes Liz and Bradley Lincoln are in position to be the front runners for the final two bullpen spots as long relievers. The interesting combination of power arms with ground ball contact pitches, should provide the Pirates with a very strong relief staff in 2015.
With one of the best outfields in all of Major League Baseball, the Pirates will be aligned left to right in the outfield with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco to start the 2015 season. McCutchen and Marte fill key power roles in the Pirates lineup as the third and fifth hitters in the lineup, where they will impact the offense with extra base power as well as speed. Polanco also possesses a significant power tool, but his hitting ability will have him at the top of the lineup and possibly in the leadoff spot early in the 2015 campaign. As three of the most athletic outfielders in the big leagues, all three Pirates starters figure to provide strong defense for the team throughout the coming season.
The Pirates big addition on the infield is not projected to be in their starting lineup to open the season, as Korean star Jung-Ho Kang reached an agreement with the Pirates that will have him on the Pittsburgh bench to open the season. The Pirates infield will be aligned from third to first with Josh Harrison, shortstop Jordy Mercer, second basemen Neil Walker and first basemen Pedro Alvarez. The new catcher this season is Francisco Cervelli who came over in a trade from the Yankees this offseason. With rangy defenders around the infield, the Pirates should field a high percentage of the ground balls put in play against their pitching staff. Mercer is the hitter from this group who is a role player in the Pirates starting lineup as the number seven hitter. Harrison will start the season as the Pirates leadoff hitter, while the left handed power provided by Walker and Alvarez will be positioned between and around the Pirates right hand hitting outfield stars in the lineup. With one of the more versatile benches in the National League, the Pirates will be able to mount late inning scoring threats when they turn to Sean Rodriguez, Jung-Ho Kang, Corey Hart and Travis Snider in pinch hitting roles. Overall the Pirates should have one of the better offenses in baseball once again for the 2015 season.
The versatility of Pirates leadoff man Josh Harrison
After trading away Yovanni Gallardo, the Brewers rotation is now made up of mostly middle of the rotation type starters, led by Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and Willy Peralta. Rounding out their rotation for now will be right handers Michael Fiers and Jimmy Nelson to give the Brewers five right handed starters. The Brewers immediate depth in their rotation are also both right handed starters, with Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg available if one of their starting five go down. With no ace at the top of the rotation, this starting pitching staff is likely to be slightly below average in the 2015 season, but they still have time to add another starter.
The Brewers bullpen is likely to be average in 2015, with the strength being the back end in closer Jonathan Broxton and setup man Jeremy Jeffress. Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson give the Brewers right handed options in the seventh inning, while Will Smith is the Brewers best left handed reliever. Rob Wooten and Wei-Chung Wang round out the bullpen as a right handed and left handed option for long relief. Overall this is a solid group of relievers, but not a very intimidating group to teams with multiple significant offensive players scheduled to bat in the later innings.
The Brewers outfield is made up of three good athletes left to right with Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun. At Miller Park they all have the ability to put good homerun power on display, but each one of them is very hit or miss in the contact department. Gomez's speed in centerfield allows him to be a good option in the leadoff spot, but there may be times this season where the Brewers have a lineup with Braun, Gomez and Davis hitting third, fourth and fifth. With each of these players capable of good defense, the Brewers' outfield can be considered a strength for the team as they are all average to above average MLB everyday players.
The Brewers infield features some interesting players, but only one star in catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Third to first they align as Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Jean Segura, second basemen Scooter Gennett and first basemen Adam Lind. Ramirez and Lind are both over 30, with their best years possibly behind them as average defenders among MLB corner infielders. Segura and Gennett are a speedy combination up the middle with each having surprising power as top of the order hitters. Jonathan Lucroy is a strong defensive catcher with great hitting ability that produces some power due to his high rate of line drive contact. Overall the Brewers offense should be above average once again this coming season, with Adam Lind representing an upgrade over their first base situation last season.
The Reds starting rotation took a hit this offseason when they traded away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, but right now it lines up with Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani and Anthony Delsclafani. This rotation is led by a legitimate ace, but it drops off quickly from there as Cueto is followed by two middle of the rotation type starters. The two inexperienced youngsters round out the rotation, with both having middle of the rotation potential, but not having reached that point yet. Overall the Reds rotation could end up being below average with the great offenses they will have to face regularly in division play.
The Reds bullpen could be above average again this season, led by star closer Aroldis Chapman. Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover, Manny Parra and Sean Marshall will handle the setup duties. This provides the Reds with two options to pitch to left handed batters and two options to pitch to right handed batters. Pedro Villareal could earn a bullpen job, with Dylan Axelrod earning the final spot as the long reliever for Cincinnati. If everything goes well for this unit of the Reds' pitching staff, they could give the team above average production.
The Reds outfield is strong defensively, but more than one member of their outfield struggled at the plate in 2014. Left to right they have veteran Marlon Byrd, Billy Hamilton and Jay Bruce. Hamilton is the Reds leadoff man and a prolific base stealer, but he posted an on base percentage below .300 last season. Marlon Byrd and Jay Bruce provide 20 or more homerun power, but neither one of them posted a strong on base percentage in 2014. All three are good defenders in a not so spacious outfield at Great American Ballpark.
The Reds breakout players from 2014 both reside in the infield, as third basemen Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco both hit 25 or more homeruns last season. The rest of the infield has Zack Cozart at shortstop, Brandon Phillips at second and Joey Votto at first. Every one of these players is a good defender, but going into 2015 there are question marks surrounding the offense from every infield position besides catcher and third base. Brandon Phillips has seen a pattern of decline in recent years as he has exited his prime, but he could have another good season left in him. Injuries caught up with Joey Votto in 2014 as he only registered 220 at bats with a career low in homeruns and batting average. At age 31, Votto could bounce back to contribute more to the Reds in 2015, but his recent injuries and pattern of decline are not a good sign for the Reds star first basemen. Overall Votto, Frazier and Mesoraco should be strong contributors offensively for the Reds in 2015, but that will not be good enough to get them to the league average, as they will have to overcome the lack of offensive production from players such as shortstop Zack Cozart.
The Cubs should have an above average starting rotation with their offseason additions. Their rotation lines up nicely with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood. The Cubs also have a nice array of depth options with veteran Tsuyoshi Wada, along with youngsters Kyle Hendricks, Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner. With a strong top of the rotation that is anchored by veterans on the back end, the Cubs should definitely be able to produce above average pitching numbers in 2015.
The Cubs bullpen is where things get interesting on this pitching staff, as the key players here are without significant MLB experience. The back end of the bullpen will be anchored by young closer Hector Rondon and young setup man Neil Ramirez. Pedro Strop is the veteran of this bullpen, and he should be effective in helping with the eighth inning duties this coming season. All three of those pitchers are right handed, but Zac Rosscup figures to face left handed batters in a situational role. Justin Grimm, Blake Parker and Brian Schlitter round out the Cubs bullpen, but the Cubs could turn to Tsuyoshi Wada as a long relief option along with being another left handed pitcher in the bullpen. Jason Motte also joins the Cubs bullpen mix, where at his best he is a candidate to lock down the 8th inning or even take over the closer's role. Any contribution from Motte in 2015, would help the Cubs bullpen to become an above average unit.
The Cubs most recent trade brought them their starting centerfielder, and an above average player he is. Dexter Fowler takes over centerfield for the Cubs, where he will be joined by right fielder Jorge Soler and left fielder Chris Coghlan. With Soler and Fowler being well above average, rangy defenders, the Cubs are in great position to play strong outfield defense with the expectation of Coghlan providing them with average defense in left field. Soler is the power hitter of this group, but Fowler's sneaky power and stolen base ability allows him to get into scoring position quickly as an above average leadoff man. Coghlan is an average player at the plate, and could find himself replaced midseason by Matt Szczur, as a player who has more upside among the Cubs left field options. Overall the Cubs outfield will probably be pretty average in 2015, with Arismendy Alcantara being the first option off the bench as a good defender with left handed homerun power.
The Cubs infield is where the team has their impact hitters, one of which was recently acquired in a trade with Arizona. Catcher Miguel Montero will lead the Cubs pitching staff and provide the team with left handed power in the lineup. From third to first around the infield, the Cubs will open the season with Mike Olt, shortstop Starlin Castro, second basemen Javier Baez and first basemen Anthony Rizzo. Olt is not likely to hold down the third base job very long, because as soon as the Cubs can gain the extra year of service time, they will call up star prospect Kris Bryant to play third base and bat cleanup. Starling Castro fits in the second spot in the lineup, with Anthony Rizzo batting third, while Javier Baez will battle his inconsistent contact rates at the bottom of the Cubs lineup. While the Cubs wait for the arrival of Kris Bryant, outfielder Jorge Soler can place hold in the cleanup spot for Chicago. Upon his arrival, Soler would then move to the fifth spot in the lineup to further stretch out their lineup depth. Overall the Cubs could be an above average offensive in 2015, but their lineup is very young, which could cause them to experience significant growing pains in their first year back as a relevant team in the National League Central.
Kris Bryant hit 43 homeruns combined at two different levels of the minor leagues last season
So where will each team finish?
The Cardinals come into 2015 off back to back division championships, with their team in great position to make another run at a division title. This time around they face their biggest challenge in recent years, from the Pittsburgh Pirates who have built up significant depth at the big league level. With the Cubs as a dark horse team to take the National League Central title, they have to be considered. However, because of the Cubs youth, this is likely to be a two team race between the Cardinals and Pirates. Korean star infielder Jung-Ho Kang has a chance to be the difference maker for Pittsburgh in what should prove to be a tight division race. If Jung-Ho Kang proves to be an impact player that deserves every day playing time, this would present a scenario where the Pirates would likely take the division title. If Kang proves to be just a solid bench player, then the division title will be a fight to the finish with the Cardinals still holding a small advantage.
Despite Anthony Rizzo's predictions, first and second place are likely to be occupied by the Cardinals and Pirates. This leaves third and fourth place will be up for grabs. Milwaukee and Chicago will likely battle for third place in the Central, along with an outside chance at taking the second wildcard. The Cubs hold a significant advantage with their starting pitching, but the Brewers veteran lineup should perform better than the Cubs in 2015. With the Brewers being without an ace, the young Cubs squad may be more talented than Milwaukee going into 2015. However, with the Brewers experience playing a role, this battle will likely come down to whichever league average bullpen is able to perform better throughout the upcoming season. With the Cubs and Brewers battling for position behind the top teams in the division, this leaves the Reds in a bad spot where they are likely faced with a last place finish. While Cincinnati still has a couple franchise pieces left on their roster, it is not enough to make up for the lack of contribution they are likely to get from some of their mediocre role players.
Prediction for NL Central Standings 2015:
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Chicago Cubs
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Cincinnati Reds
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National League Central 2015
Who will win the National League Central division in 2015?