2015 MLB Preview: NL Central

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If you’re picking the most exciting division in baseball after just the off-season it has to be the NL Central as another teams has entered an already thrilling division race.

The Central has been one of the most exciting divisions over the last few years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Pittsburgh Pirates all fighting for spots in the postseason.

In 2013 the race came down to the last day as all three of these teams fought to the end in order to get the postseason spots.

Last year it was much of the same as all three teams fought for most of the year before the Reds dropped off and left the Cardinals and Pirates to battle for the top spot.

With another great battle gone the NL Central has quickly become one of the most exciting divisions in baseball and they hope to continue that trend this year with another team thrown into the mix.

It is no secret that the Cubs have gone through a massive off-season overhaul and are looking to put their own name in the race for the Central. If the Cubs can enter the fight there is no doubt that this division will be the best in the league.

Everyone is looking for a fight in a league where a few dominant teams tend to rule each division.

The recent era of baseball has seen a number of teams enter the postseason year after year and compete in the postseason.

It led to a number of dominated divisions and not a lot of excitement throughout the regular season.

The new era in baseball has given rise to a change though as those dominant teams could never stay dominant forever and the time when teams are beginning to take over is coming now.

That makes one very exciting era as teams try to hold on to their division while new teams are rising. That is happening no more than in the NL Central where the Cardinals remain the best franchise in the league but the Pirates and now the Cubs look to take the division over.

There is no guarantee that any will get what they want as the Cards are still a modal franchise with a great system that keeps them at the top of the league year after year.

Meanwhile the Pirates are a franchise trying to figure out how to become more consistent when it comes to the battle for the top.

Then there is the Cubs who hope that a rebuild has immediate impact even though rebuilds rarely workout as fast as the Cubs are hoping.

The Reds hope to find their way back to the battle after a bad stretch in 2014 and make this a four-way fight.

All the while the Milwaukee Brewers try to find their way back into the fight and despite a lack-luster off-season are hoping for some big surprises.

The NL Central is shaping up to be the best division battle in the MLB. Then again anything can happen and any team could potentially start to dominate this division if everything goes right.

That is the best part of this time of year for baseball fans as anything can happen and any team could win this division in 2015 as long as they can pull everything together the right way and find the right mix to move to the top of the division and into the postseason or even to the World Series.

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The Chicago Cubs are the epitome of loyalty in the face of little hope and have become a punchline in sports. With a World Series drought that extends past 100 years there are entire generations who have never seen the Cubs at the top of the league. That drought is the longest in professional North American sports but in 2011 the Cubs took their first steps to fixing their issues. Hiring Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein, the architect of the streak breaking Red Sox team, created a great management tandem. Although the results have not been seen on the field there is no doubt that they are better off than they were in 2010. The minor league system is one of the best in the MLB and they are starting to see the fruits of that system. That is why, despite a 73 win season in 2014, the Cubs decided that 2015 was going to be the start of building a true contender. Not only will the Cubs see a number of top prospects including Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez take on bigger roles but the team added weapons to start competing. The work was not necessarily needed as much in the field with those young stars along with new additions Dexter Fowler and power hitter Anthony Rizzo form a good lineup but the pitching staff needed a lot of work. That is where the Cubs management team did their best work this off-season signing Jason Hammel and the man considered to be the best free agent in the league, Jon Lester. More than any of these additions though is the addition of Joe Madden as the manager. While with Tampa Bay, Madden revolutionized the league and proved that a team can win with a low payroll. Utilizing defensive shifts and other small-ball tactics Madden changed the way games are managed. Now he takes over a young team looking to find ways to win even if there are still some holes in the lineup. Madden gives them the best chance at this and for some the additions mean that the Cubs will be on their way to the World Series. Judging by the many teams who have tried, and failed, this rebuild before the World Series isn’t very realistic but they are a better team and a postseason berth isn’t out of the question.

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The Cincinnati Reds were consistently a part of the division battle until last year their time seemed to run out. A managing change at the start of the season led to a few questions but the season started well enough. Then injuries to key players hurt their chances and the season went downhill fast. It was one of the worst seasons since 2008 only picking up 76 wins and staying at the bottom of the division. That bad season has forced the Reds to rethink their strategy but they are refusing to call it a rebuild. The team is still built around their top player in Joey Votto as his injury last year showed just how valuable he is to the team. Votto remains the best hitter in the lineup and alongside Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips the Reds have a solid group. The problem was that Phillips and Bruce joined Votto on the DL last year and took the heart of their lineup. This year the Reds hope to find a boost in the return of these players to the lineup with limited additions that will have an impact this year. The signing of Marlon Byrd adds another solid hitter but other than that it is business as usual. Meanwhile the pitching rotation will take on a new look as the Reds traded away some more expensive pitchers. Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon are gone and in return are mainly prospects that won’t effect this year. The only player out of these two deals that may find his way to the rotation is Anthony DeSclafani. He will try to work his way into a lineup that was also hurt by injuries to Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, and Tony Cingrani. Bailey remains a question mark to start the season with the team while Cingrani returns alongside Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. The Reds had an eventful off-season but it wasn’t a lot in the way of improvements for 2015. The Reds are a big question this year as injuries in 2014 left many to wonder what type of team they really are. If their injured players return and play well they may be headed to the postseason but if they return and falter the Reds will find out that they really can’t compete and may need to think of changing things up.

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The Milwaukee Brewers had one of the biggest curves in the last few years as they were fast on their way to becoming a constant in the postseason but it all came apart so fast. They won the division in 2012 after a surprising year that was led by MVP Ryan Braun. Then it all started to fall off as the Brewers have yet to return to the postseason since that year. There was the Braun failed drug test, he won an appeal based on a technicality, and struggles from the rest of the team. In 2014 they seemed to have found their way back to winning although they haven’t completely returned. Braun had his worst season yet while the rest of the teams struggled to stay consistent throughout the year. Only finishing two games above .500 put them far from the postseason but their offence seemed to return. Heading into a new year the Brewers are banking on improvements in this offence along with the improvement of their young pitching staff. The Brewers need Braun to return to greatness after a terrible year while they lean on Jonathon Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez, and Carlos Gomez who all had great 2014 campaigns. The additions of Luis Sardinas and Adam Lind will provide a boost to the offence as well. Those additions did come at a cost though as they had to give up their potential ace of the pitching rotation in Yovani Gallardo. The bottom of the rotation is sure to feature some young faces but they will be led by two veterans with their chance to lead the team. Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse lead the way this year after season’s that were not bad but not great. Both are hoping to improve this year and become more consistent as they make up the top two in the rotation. Meanwhile Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers will get extended chances at the major leagues and hope to solidify one of the major questions for Milwaukee. The Brewers are coming out of a low, low but they seem to have some momentum and with an offence that should be better this year they could see more wins even if they miss the postseason due to their questions in the rotation.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates were the feel-good story of the 2013 MLB season as they went from the lowly Pirates to a postseason team. Their resurgence was something that ignited the city and had many baseball fans behind them heading into the postseason. The Pirates were the team that nobody expected to be contenders and yet they found a way. 2014 was a different story though as the Pirates dropped to 8 wins in 2014 and lost in the wild card game. The Pirates return for another season trying to prove that their resurgence was a legitimate resurgence and not just a one season fluke. It will be a bit of a challenge though as they are without some of their veterans that provided the glue that held the team together. Among the most missed will be Russell Martin who was a veteran voice in the league but also had a bit of a resurgence with the Bucs. Without his bat the Pirates are worse off on offence as Francisco Cervelli is good but does not provide the offence that Martin provided. The Pirates will still have Andrew McCutchen leading the way as he continues to be a pre-season MVP hopeful after winning the award in 2013 and coming third in voting both in 2012 and 2014. Alongside McCutchen will be Josh Harrison and Starling Marte who had great seasons in 2014 and hope to do the same in 2015. The pitching staff remains relatively untouched although the loss of Edinson Volquez is sure to be a blow. He has been here once before and it didn’t work out for the Pirates. If he can continue his resurgence Burnett can be dominant but if not he might just waste rotation spot. Meanwhile Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole are sure to remain a good duo at the top of the rotation while Mark Melancon remains one of the best closers. The Pirates’ window is closing for this team as they may continue to lose players in the coming years. They are still in the window though and will probably make the postseason again but will need to improve in the postseason to continue to keep their window open.

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The St. Louis Cardinals have long been the league’s model franchise as they continue to see success and build their team the right way. They don’t spend too much money, but still spend, and they continue to make the postseason with success. Still they are a team that is always on the hunt to find their next World Series title and when they don’t get it that season has been a failure. After a long battle in the Central the Cards took home the division title but couldn’t find their way to the World Series. So in the off-season they looked for some help to push them back to the World Series after winning the title in 2011. In typical Cardinals fashion they did not empty their roster to find players they thought could help instead sacrificing two young pitchers for a bit of a project and a power pitcher. Gone are Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins who had shown plenty of promise like most of the Cardinals’ system. Coming in will be Jordan Walden who can help in late relief as a set-up man or closer. The biggest part of the deal was the biggest project as Jason Heyward finds his way to the Cardinals after struggling in 2014. He seemed to be the player that the Braves were ready to build around after a breakout 2012 season but since then has been faltering. The Cardinals are hoping that a change of scenery can help him to provide some extra offence alongside Yadier Molina, John Jay, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Holliday. If Heyward can pick it up the offence is that much stronger while their rotation remains strong. Led by Adam Wainwright the Cards’ rotation that is a balance of veterans like Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and John Lackey alongside youngsters like Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. The Cards are once again a tough team to beat but more than any of their additions or subtractions they will be dealing with a major loss after Oscar Taveras who died in a car crash during the off-season. The loss of Taveras is not only a loss of a promising young player but a teammate and the cards look to dedicate the season to him as they hope it motivates them to another division title, a very likely outcome.

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Prediction:
The Central will be a division of transition as some teams are improved while others have fallen but there remains one constant. The St. Louis Cardinals are still the class of the division and they will once again take the division title. The simple fact is they have a team that is solid all around and while other teams have improved the Cards remain the same solid team. The Pirates will also remain a strong team as they are headed for the postseason again but whether or not they can cash in on the chance is the bigger question. The Cubs are a better team as well but their rebuild is a challenge to complete as adding a number of big names rarely works out. They will fight for the wild card but will come up short in a disappointing season. Meanwhile the Brewers and the Reds will all be trying to keep pace but neither has done enough to help their cases this year as they will fight to stay out of the bottom of the division.

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