2014 MLB Preview: NL Central

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The MLB is becoming more and more even every year that passes as more teams continue to put their hat in the ring. The NL Central was a perfect expression of this in 2013 when they had one of the best division battles in the MLB. Out of the five teams in the division there were three that continued to fight for the division until the final days of the season. In the past this was always limited to the top two teams as the rest of the teams were put to the bottom to fight it out for third place. It was like that for years until the Pittsburgh Pirates threw their names into the title race. The Pirates would join the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals in the fight for the division title and it would turn out to be the best in the league as all three teams were there right until the end. The division lead would go back and forth throughout the year and in the end the St. Louis Cardinals would come out on top. It was a familiar end to an unfamiliar race for the division but the Cards were not the only team to make the postseason that year. The Reds and the Pirates would secure the two wild card spots after their season long attempt to win the division. The NL Central is like many other divisions in baseball for 2014 as there are more teams that can win the division than ever before. This year the division looks to see the same type of race as the top three teams remain some of the best in the league and all three could take the crown. Then again the season may go wrong for any three of the top teams and may go right for one of the two bottom teams. It is another season and everyone always starts at 0-0 giving hope to any team to enter the division race. The NL Central was one of the most exciting in 2013 and it could once again be that race in 2014. The St. Louis Cardinals are the one constant in everything as they continue to be one of the strongest teams in the MLB. They will once again look to become a division winner and try to get back to the postseason for another year. Meanwhile the Cincinnati Reds are hoping to continue to be a top team in the division and continue to keep the Cardinals on their toes like they have done for years. The biggest question may come at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates as their resurgence over the last few years would finally mean a postseason appearance in 2013. They will look to prove that they are for real and that they are now a consistent postseason team. Meanwhile the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs are hoping for a season for the ages to get back into the title hunt as both try to climb out of very big holes in a division that looks to be tough for another year.

 

Chicago Cubs

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The Chicago Cubs are one of the most consistent teams in the MLB but that is not necessarily a good thing for them and their fans. They have been consistently bad for years as they would end up at the bottom of the division for years. The last time the Cubs made the playoffs was 2008 and since that time they have never returned or come very close. Of course there is also the longest World Series drought in the history of the MLB that has been the thorn in the side of Cubs fans for a long time. After finishing in last place last year Chicago was once again left with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. They struggled throughout the year to string together any wins but they would not reach the dreaded 100 losses on the season. It was possibly the only positive to take away from the 2013 season for the Cubs and they are hope to build on the glimmer of hope from last year. They have rebuilt this team year after year and this year is no different except that they did not make a lot of player moves. Instead they would make moves to replace the players that left but would not necessarily upgrade at any position. Instead they would hire a new manager in the hopes that he would make a young team better and truly begin to climb back into the fight for the division. Rick Renteria will take over the team after spending the last two years as the San Diego Padres bench coach. With experience in the MLB and as the manager of the Mexican team at the World Baseball Classic he will look to take this team with a few stars to be a team that can compete. The Cubs are at the bottom of a rebuild with a couple of good players that have a lot of potential as their building blocks. Jeff Samardzija and Starlin Castro are two very good players that could be true leaders for this team but both will need to see something if the Cubs hope to keep them on the team. Both will be the only two players to really watch this year for the Cubs as they look to lead the team and other than them there is not a lot of star power. They are starting all over again and so there is not a lot to be expected from this team as staying away from the 100 losses may be what they aim for this year. The playoffs are far off for the Cubs and they are hoping that Rick Renteria can be the difference for the team.

 

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– When a team finishes at the bottom of the division there is not a lot of talent that needs to stay and with Jeff Samardzija and Starlin Castro still on the team there was not much lost this offseason for the Cubs

Biggest Addition:
Rick Renteria, Manager
– There was not a lot lost from this team and in turn not a lot gained as the Cubs essentially replaced the lost players with little to no upgrades but a new manager is the biggest change as they hope that Renteria can push this team further than they have been before

Player to Watch:
Starlin Castro, SS
– With 6-years left on a 7-year deal Castro is one of the few building blocks of this team and he will need to return to form after suffering a leg injury that may see him out of the lineup for opening day

 

Cincinnati Reds

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The Reds have been the team that continues to challenge the St. Louis Cardinals year after year but in 2013 they would finish in third place after losing a race with the Pirates. As some teams continue to improve the Reds are trying to keep up and remain one of the strongest teams in the division. The 2013 season would end well enough but they would take a step back rather than a step further being eliminated in the first round after 2012 saw them win the division and take the NLDS to 5 games. They would not add a lot of players through free agency this year instead choosing to replace any losses with players from the farm. That includes the player with the most pressure to perform in Billy Hamilton. When Shin-Soo Choo left the Reds this offseason the team would look to the young Hamilton and give him a chance to show what he can do. He is a decent hitter and fairly good defender but what sets him apart is the steals that he put up, 75 total in Triple-A last year, as that is what will make him valuable to this team this year. Meanwhile Johnny Cueto will take over as their ace while second year player Tony Cingrani looks to shore up the end of the rotation. The Reds are hoping that the moves within their organization are enough to keep them competitive. Of course they do still have some of the best players in the game to help them out as Joey Votto will remain their everyday first baseman and their best hitter. There are many more good players but the Reds will be fighting the injury bug from the start of the season. Their biggest offseason addition will be out at least four weeks as Skip Schumaker has a dislocated shoulder while another great pitcher Matt Latos will be recovering from elbow surgery and likely will miss his first few starts of the season. The biggest early loss may be that of Aroldis Chapman as the Cuban fireballer was hit in the head with a comebacker in spring training that will keep him out for at least 6 weeks. The Reds are in tough to start the season as some of their top players will be on the mend and they are hoping that it will not put them in too big of a hole to start the season. The Reds are still a promising team but if the Pirates are for real they will end in third place and possibly out of the wild card while the possibility of finishing second as their fight for the top spot might be finished.

 

Biggest Loss:
Shin-Soo Choo, OF (Free Agency, Tex)
– He was a bit of a question mark when the Reds signed him last year but he paid off in a big way and he would take that momentum to a new deal in Texas as the Reds are now left with the possibility of starting a rookie at centre field rather that the consistent offence of Choo

Biggest Addition:
Skip Schumaker, 2B (Free Agency, LAD)
– He may be hurt to start the season but when he does get into the lineup he will be a valuable member to the team as he can play multiple positions and fill in where needed to provide some consistent offence

Player to Watch:
Billy Hamilton, OF
– He is replacing Shin-Soo Choo which will be tough enough but his biggest challenge will be to show if he has the ability to be more than just a speedster on the basepaths as he will have to show an ability to get on base to use that speed

 

Milwaukee Brewers

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The Brewers are very happy to see that 2013 is over and are eager to recoup and come out with a clean slate for the new season. Last year was a disaster for the Brewers but most of the trouble came from off the field and would translate on the field. For one Yovani Gallardo was arrested for a DUI and would start the season on a bad note with the team and fans around the league. Then their biggest star would be proven to have lied for years about using PEDs as Ryan Braun was suspended for 65 games in 2013. After a 2011 urine test was positive for PEDs Braun would fight the suspension that followed due to a clerical error in the transportation of the test. He would win the decision and would avoid a suspension for use of PEDs but in 2013 he would be caught on a list during the investigation into Biogenesis. Braun would admit to using PEDs and would receive a 65-game suspension for the last half of the season. Now Braun returns to baseball with the suspension behind him, although the questions will always remain if he does return to form. These distractions plus a number of key injuries would mean a bad season for the Brewers in 2013 as they would finish in fourth place and far out of the postseason. This year the Brewers would not do a lot to improve their team believing instead that they have a team that can win if everyone plays to their potential. It is partially true as Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza make a good top of a rotation. Meanwhile the Brewers have new addition Mark Reynolds, along with Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez to make up a decent offence. That may be the biggest problem with the Brewers though as they are just decent with these players and not great. The battle for the division is getting tougher every year as more teams enter the conversation and if a team does not improve they can be left behind. The distractions are behind the Brewers but their teams is still just good. They can always surprise though and that is what Brewers’ fans have to hope for. That is especially true for Rickie Weeks who had a terrible year in 2013 and needs to have a comeback season if the Brewers hope to improve as he is a key to this team. Overall the Brewers have simply not improved enough to enter that title conversation and although they may have a chance to challenge for third place if everything goes right the postseason seems out of reach.

 

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– The offseason was not very busy for the Brewers as the players that left were either not very impactful on the team or were replaced by promising prospects as the Brewers would keep much of their core group together

Biggest Addition:
Will Smith, LHP (Trade, KC)
– He was the biggest addition for the Brewers this year and was one of the only additions as the middle reliever was added due to a trade and will have an impact this year as he hopes to provide consistency when the starters fail to do so

Player to Watch:
Rickie Weeks, 2B
– he was one of the most promising players on the Brewers and he looked to be another great bat in the lineup but last year was a disaster with only 10 HR and a batting average of .201 as he looks for a bounce back season but nay not start as an everyday player

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Pirates are one of the league’s most impressive turnarounds as they are among the best teams in the division after sitting in the basement for years. The process was not too slow either as 2011 would see the Pirates look like they were on their way to the playoffs only one year after finishing in last place in the division until a late season collapse would have those hopes taken away and the Pirates relegated to third place. In 2012 it was the same story as the Pirates came out strong and collapsed at the end of the season to miss the postseason once again. 2013 was finally the year though as they would find consistency in the season and would give the Cardinals a tough test for the division. In the end they would lose the division race but would find themselves in the playoffs to end the longest playoff drought in the MLB. After making it to the NLDS the Pirates are looking to the 2014 season to prove that they are not just a flash in the pan and that they are here to stay. They are hoping to continue their run at becoming a constant contender but they would not look like it much in the offseason. At the end of the 2013 season the Pirates would go out and get some reinforcements in the form of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. Both of those players would leave after the season ended and instead of trying to add other players to get themselves over the hump they would stay relatively quiet. Joining Byrd and Morneau would be A.J. Burnett and John Buck and although all are not young players anymore they did have some good performances in Pittsburgh. Instead of going out and trying to replace all of these losses the Pirates would stick with the players that they had adding only a select few in the offseason. The losses and lack of gaining anyone back does not mean that the Pirates went backwards in talent as they instead just stayed the same while looking to improve. They will still look to Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole to lead their rotation while Russell Martin and Andrew McCutcheon lead the offence. The bullpen remains one of the strongest assets for the Bucs with Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon holding down the back-end of games. The pieces are still there for the Pirates but without any improvements to the team this year making it further than they did last year may be out of reach. Expect another winning season and another postseason appearance but they might just stay at the same level rather than making a big run at the World Series.

 

Biggest Loss:
Marlon Byrd, OF (Free Agency, Phi)
– He may have some time in for the MLB but he was a big offensive boost for the Pirates last year hitting .318 in his 30 games with Pittsburgh but he was a rental player for the postseason and he would move on to Philadelphia in the offseason leaving a hole in the offence

Biggest Addition:
Edinson Volquez, RHP (Free Agency, SD)
– There were not many additions to the team in the offseason but Edinson could have an impact at the bottom of the rotation this year providing a good 5th pitcher that can win some games for them where they may not have won last year

Player to Watch:
Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
– With A.J. Burnett leaving in the offseason the Pirates are looking to Rodriguez for some help and he will try to provide it after coming off of a major forearm injury that limited him to 12 games last year and with his contract coming up he has a little extra motivation for 2014

 

St. Louis Cardinals

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The St. Louis Cardinals have been one of the most consistent teams in the MLB as they are constantly at the top of the heap every year. They are always in the hunt for the division and if they lose the division they compete for the Wild Card. In 2011 the Cardinals would lose the division and take the Wild Card spot all the way to the World Series. After that they would fight with the Cincinnati Reds for the division and win a wild card spot and advance to the NLCS, losing to eventual champions the San Francisco Giants. 2013 would see the Cards win the division after a tough season long battle with both the Reds and the Pirates. After that long battle they would stick with it all the way to the World Series where they would eventually lose to the Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals will return for another season as one of the top teams in the league as they will continue their run as a threat for the World Series. The Cards were not extremely active in the offseason but they are one of the rare few teams that doesn’t need to be active. The Cardinals are a model franchise as they have veterans and young stars throughout the roster with a great farm system to support the major league club. The rotation remained unchanged for the Cards with Adam Wainwright leading the way and a pair of young home-grown pitchers following him. The farm system would show its strength last year when the Cardinals would see Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha take control of their first major chances at the rotation as both will return as full-time starters this year. The lineup is also a good one with a few new additions including Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos that are sure to add to a lineup that already includes Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and Yadier Molina. The bullpen is no slouch either as Trevor Rosenthal will become the full-time closer and the Cards wait for Jason Motte to return after Tommy John Surgery. The Cardinals are once again looking like the team to beat in the division and although a lot of teams are beginning to improve they are still the class of the division. They won’t walk away with the division this year but winning the division is very likely. The limited moves this year have just added to an already strong team and the losses would not have a big effect. They will once again be in the postseason while another appearance in the World Series is not out of the question for one of the strongest teams in this decade.

 

Biggest Loss:
Carlos Beltran, OF (Free Agency, NYY)
– He is getting up there in age and that is why the Cards let him walk away but his consistency will be missed as Beltran is a player that will consistently give a team 20+ HRs and a .250+ batting average that is hard to replace

Biggest Addition:
Jhonny Peralta, SS (Free Agency, Det)
– Although injuries limited him in 2013 Peralta would put up a .303 batting average over 107 games and was another great weapon for a very good offensive team in Detroit as he looks to do the same for the Cardinals

Player to Watch:
Kolten Wong, 2B
– Taking over for a folk hero in a baseball town is never easy but Kolten Wong will look to do that and although he is not directly replacing David Freese he is seen as taking his spot after Freese left meaning many will look to see what the young second baseman can do

 

Prediction:
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs

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