NL Central features many contenders, questions

By: Eric Schneider – Staff Writer

Opening Day was Sunday, March 30. It’s time to make a few predictions about Major League Baseball’s most competitive division, the National League Central. St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati fought until the end last season, as all three teams won over 90 games in respective playoff appearances. The 2014 season may follow suit, as all teams retained their core players.

1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals look to be the most solid all around team in the division to start the year. Sure, the Cardinals lost outfielder Carlos Beltran and third baseman David Freese. However, this opens up an outfield position for former first baseman Allen Craig and allows Matt Adams to take over first base. In a way, they found a solution by letting Beltran go.

St. Louis also signed Jhonny Peralta, who will fill in as the Cardinals’ shortstop. Peralta hit .303 last season, which alleviates the pain of releasing Beltran and Freese, who hit .296 and .262 respectively, in the 2013 campaign. The Cardinals’ pitching staff remains solid, as ace Adam Wainwright returns along with the young arms of Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. As long as Miller, Wacha, and Lynn even come close to matching their 2013 performances, St. Louis is going to be hard to beat.

2. CINCINNATI REDS
With a healthy Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips, the Reds have arguably the most dangerous 2-4 hitters in any NL Central lineup. The Reds will return their entire pitching staff, minus Bronson Arroyo, who signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. This forces them to rely on the young arm of Tony Cingrani, who was phenomenal last season with a 2.92 ERA when Johnny Cueto was on the DL. The only other major loss for the Reds is Shin-Soo Choo’s departure from centerfield and the leadoff position.

The Reds’ organization will have to depend on speedy rookie Billy Hamilton to take control of the centerfield and the leadoff spot in the lineup. Hamilton had a promising spring, hitting .341 and stealing nine bases. Despite a relatively healthy lineup, the Reds have some key injuries. According to Reds.com, “Skip Schumaker, Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos, Jonathan Broxton, Sean Marshall and Jack Hannahan are expected to be on the DL.”
Starting pitchers Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto have also been battling injuries of their own, which mean that this is a rather unhealthy Cincinnati team to begin the season.

If the Reds recover quickly and stay healthy for the majority of the season, they could find themselves contending for the NL Central championship. For now, it’s hard to consider them the best team in the division with all of the uncertainties surrounding the team.

3. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
The Pirates were undoubtedly the most surprising team in the NL Central last season, and maybe even the most surprising team in all of Major League Baseball. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen led the Pirates to a nice playoff push last season, defeating the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card game to advance, only to lose to St. Louis in the National League Division Series. Pittsburgh lost 2013 trade deadline acquisitions of first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Marlon Byrd, who helped push the team into the playoffs for the first time in 19 years.

The most concerning loss is A.J. Burnett, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the off-season. Francisco Liriano, who broke through last year with a 3.02 ERA, will have to perform at the same level in order to keep the Pirates as a playoff contender for the second consecutive year. Right hander Gerrit Cole, the Pirates’ young arm out of UCLA, will be the key factor in the rotation. Cole could become a dominant force this year, potentially taking Burnett’s spot as the team’s ace. If Andrew McCutchen has a repeat MVP-like season, and if Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano repeat with similar performances on the mound this season, the Pirates could contend for the NL Central title for the second year in a row. For now, they have a lot to prove.

4. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Ryan Braun is back after his 50-game suspension and again makes the Brewers’ lineup dangerous. The team signed starting pitcher Matt Garza in the offseason, and the combination of “Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta make up one of the deepest rotations in the National League, and for that reason alone, the Brewers will be more competitive in 2014,” according to bleacherreport.com.

With returning third baseman Aramis Ramirez, centerfielder Carlos Gomez and up-and-coming catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers boast a dangerous lineup. Shortstop Jean Segura burst onto the scene in his 2013 season, hitting .294. However, Segura is currently battling a shoulder injury, and Aramis Ramirez continues to battle injuries.

Another question looming over the Brewers’ organization is the performance of second baseman Rickie Weeks. As the franchise’s highest paid player making $11 million this season, he will be expected to greatly exceed his poor 2013 performance, in which he hit .209 and was plagued by a hamstring injury. With a healthy hamstring, Weeks posted a .323 batting average during spring training. The Brewers have a chance this season with Braun back in the lineup and Matt Garza added to a previously strong rotation, but it would be a long shot for this Milwaukee squad to overcome three of the best teams in the MLB to win the NL Central.

5. CHICAGO CUBS
Sorry to all of you Chicago natives, but there is no way that you can be surprised that I’m predicting the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central. It’s pretty evident that the Cubs are in a rebuilding year—again. However, with Starlin Castro at shortstop and Anthony Rizzo returning at first base, Chicago’s infield will produce.

The Cubs have revamped their bullpen, adding Wesley Wright and Jose Veras, who could find himself as the team’s closer. Outfielder Junior Lake has major potential in the Cubs’ outfield and has been compared to Alfonso Soriano as an infielder who has been converted to the outfield. Prospects Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Javier Baez will eventually make their way up to the big leagues, but maybe not during the 2014 season.

Until then, the Cubs will be unlikely to materialize into a playoff contender.