In the National League Central the way of life still sees the St. Louis Cardinals as the cream of the crop.
In 2013, however, the Pirates made it known they would like to join the conversation. With a rotation that might be the best in the business and professional hitters up and down their lineup the Cardinals look ready to make another World Series run. The Pirates, who finally broke through after 20-consecutive losing seasons, have a good thing going in Pittsburgh with a good mix of youth and veteran leadership.
The Reds were the darling pick of 2013, but between lineup inconsistency and rotation issues I never bought in. The same can be said this year as Billy Hamilton takes over for Shin-Soo Choo and Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto try to lead the rotation. The Brewers have some interesting parts that could lead them into the conversation, but as always, their pitching might not be able to keep up with the top two teams in the division. The Central had three teams in the postseason in 2013, that won’t be the case in 2014.
The Cubs are in the midst of rebuilding their entire franchise, and while expectations aren’t sky high, the team is definitely heading in the right direction based on the talent on the horizon.
- Division’s Best Player: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates (21 HR, 84 RBI, .317 BA, .404 OBP, 27 SB, 2013 NL MVP)- Last season was McCutchen’s breakout party. While he was already one of the most dynamic players in all of baseball, his MVP performance leading the Pirates to their first postseason/winning season since 1992 elevated his status. He was able to cut down on his strikeouts by over 30 from the previous season, which increased his on-base percentage, walks, and stolen bases. There are so many ways he can beat you and he showcased them all in 2014. The challenge for him this year is continuing to improve his approach while remaining patient (power numbers took a dip), and not feeling the pressure to imitate his 2013. If he does those things he will no doubt put together another spectacular year; while possibly leading the Pirates to their first back-to-back postseason/winning seasons since 1991-92.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 219 K’s, 8.2 K/9)- Where would the Cardinals be without this guy? Okay, they would probably be “okay,” but this guy makes them great. “John Schuerholz’s greatest mistake” continues to put together impressive seasons. He’s a bulldog on the mound, and that curveball/fastball combination is as disgusting as I remember it (from his high school days terrorizing us in Georgia). The most shocking thing about his career thus far? He doesn’t have a Cy Young Award to his name. That could change in any given year for him.
- Division’s Best Manager: Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates- Either Clint Hurdle always seems to be in the right place at just the right time (led Colorado to the 2007 World Series, lost to Red Sox), or he legitimately knows what he is doing. I’m going to say it is a little of both, but more of the latter. He did a great job not allowing Pittsburgh to wallow in its own self pity and showed what a little change of attitude and culture can do. Since he’s been in Pittsburgh in 2011 the Pirates have shown marked improvement year-after-year; especially in pitching where the team ERA has gone from 4.04 in 2011 to 3.26 in 2013. He showed the same trend in Colorado when the Rockies went from a 5.20 ERA in 2003 to 4.22 ERA in 2009, his final season in Colorado.
- Division’s ‘X’ Factor: Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates- Cole made his debut in June and when he joined the rotation the Pirates were four games behind the Cardinals. Fast forward and they finished the season three games behind the Cardinals. I can only imagine how slim the margin could have been had he been there from the beginning. It is a lot to put on a second year player but I would wager that if Cole can be the ace behind Liriano this could be a division championship team. The same can be said about Michael Wacha, but if Cole falters the hopes of the Pirates go with him in 2014.
- St. Louis Cardinals (2013 Finish 1st (97-65))
I don’t know much about the whole “Cardinal Way” thing, but I know they are doing something right. They had the best record in the National League, won their division (which featured two other 90-win teams), won the National League over the vaunted Dodgers, and lost the World Series more for lack of experience than anything else. Just another season in St.Louis, really. Adam Wainwright leads a rotation that is absolutely loaded with great arms. Michael Wacha is one of my players to watch this season as he tries to build on his MVP performance in the NLCS and sensational finish to 2013. Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06 ERA) and Lance Lynn (15-10, 3.97 ERA) precede Wacha in the rotation, while Joe Kelly (10-5. 2.69 ERA) rounds out their staff. Their bullpen is even filthier. Trevor Rosenthal is now a proven commodity (2.63 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in 74 appearances in 2013), Carlos Martinez should flourish in a move to the bullpen, and Kevin Siegrist looks ready to take over in the sixth or seventh lefty role with his 97+ MPH fastball. Did I mention the lineup is littered with professional hitters? Matt Holliday continues to rake (22 HR, 94 RBI, .300 BA, .394 OBP) and after a solid Spring isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Yadier Molina was an MVP candidate before injuries took a toll on him late. He looks healthy and should produce. Sprinkle in Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, and Allen Craig and this is a lineup with very few holes. Barring something catastrophic the Cardinals should repeat as Central champs and compete for the World Series title.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (2013 Finish 2nd (94-68))
Well the wait is over, Pirates fans. That 21 consecutive years of futility and losing was thrown out the window last season as the Pirates won 94 games, defeated the Reds in the Wild Card playoff game, and pushed the Cardinals to the brink in their divisional playoff series. Andrew McCutchen did what I thought he would: establish himself as a premier center fielder in the major leagues and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. He cut down his strikeouts and increased his walks, OBP, and stolen bases. He sacrificed power for the overall betterment of his teams chances while playing Gold Glove center field for the Pirates. The Pirates have more to offer, and the future looks very bright. Starling Marte broke out in a big way (12 HR, 41 SB, 10 triples, .343 OBP) and is playing a great ‘Robin’ to McCutchen’s ‘Batman’. The rotation, long a problem in Pittsburgh, looks to be a great strength. Gerrit Cole was a Rookie of the Year candidate for me last year and didn’t disappoint (10-7, 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), Wandy Rodriguez will flourish away from the obscurity of Houston, and Francisco Liriano has found a home in Pittsburgh and pitched brilliantly (16-8, 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP). I can’t talk about this team without mentioning the bullpen, which was a shutdown unit in 2013. If they can replicate that success in 2014 they are the number one contender behind the Cardinals in this division.
- Cincinnati Reds (2013 Finish 3rd (90-72))
I didn’t buy the Reds in 2013 as division champions, and after this past offseason I’m still not all in. Shin Soo-Choo will be a loss for them because he extended their lineup from liabilities such as question marks at shortstop, catcher and third base. Brandon Phillips will look to improve his on-base percentage but that depends on Bryan Price’s ability to communicate his role in the offense better than Dusty Baker did. Billy Hamilton will be key to their success because he needs to replace the production that Choo took with him to Texas. Hamilton is most valuable on base (he’s a steals machine of the throwback variety). The question is, can he get on base to exhibit his skill set accordingly. The rotation led by Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey is fine, but they aren’t the pitchers that St.Louis or Pittsburgh can run at you at any moment. After Bailey and Cueto, it gets even dicier. The bullpen was left to scramble after that horrific liner Aroldis Chapman took sidelined him for the better part of two months. Which means that until he comes back it is closer by committee, which is something you can’t afford in this division.
- Milwaukee Brewers (2013 Finish 4th (74-88))
The Brewers get Ryan Braun back from suspension and a healthy Aramis Ramirez. Carlos Gomez (All-Star in ’13, 24 HR, 40 SB, .284 BA, .338 OBP) and Jonathan Lucroy (18 HR, 82 RBI, .280 BA, .340 OBP ) should make the Brewers offense very formidable. Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse join Yovani Gallardo in the rotation to form a solid front three for this team. The Brewers have the pieces to interrupt the top half of this division. Especially the Reds, if Milwaukee plays their cards right they could sneak into the Wild Card conversation because they have veterans and talent in all of the right places. Their bullpen will be an adventure this year (especially with “K-Rod” as closer), but addressing that at the trade deadline is an option. This team is solid, keep an eye on them.
- Chicago Cubs (2013 Finish 5th (66-96))
Don’t mistake the records for the good job Chicago is doing rebuilding this team. Starlin Castro is an All-Star. Anthony Rizzo is the future at first base and was on pace to make the All-Star team before a statistical nose dive. Even with the nose dive he hit 23 home runs and drove in 80 runs (while playing a good first base). Darwin Barney should have won the Gold Glove at second (over Brandon Phillips) because he’s about as good as you’re going to get defensively at any position. They are banking on Junior Lake developing into their top of the order presence they’ve been lacking this year. If so, add another young feather to the cap of the Cubs. This rebuild isn’t as swift as the one Theo and Co. did in Boston but Cubs fans have to understand what they’re doing: Rebuilding every facet of the organization. When the new regime got there, the farm system was barren, bad contracts littered the diamond, and the other teams in the division seemed to be getting younger and better (while remaining fiscally responsible) in a way that the Cubs didn’t look like they would ever grasp. Now? They have the second best Farm System in baseball (Baseball Prospectus) and fifth best according to Baseball America. They’re doing very well internationally (Javier Baez is coming, ya’ll), and as brilliantly noted here, you’re about to see a wave of talent pay off from the years of restructuring they’ve had to do. Sunnier days at Wrigley are coming for sure.