Thursday, April 3, 2014

2014 NL Central Preview

Wainwright and the Cardinals will be powerhouses once again
1st Place St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Record: 97-65
2013 Pythagorean: 101-61
2014 Projected: 95-67
If there's any team in baseball capable of winning 100 games, the Cardinals are it. They are stacked, loaded with talent top-to-bottom. Their lineup is built like an American League offense and might very well be the best in baseball, particularly with Jhonny Peralta providing a big upgrade (offensively ) over Pete Kozma at shortstop. Breakouts from Kelton Wong, Matt Adams and Peter Bourjos would make this lineup a true powerhouse, but even if they struggle Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig are more than capable of carrying the load. The Cards have so much starting pitching (Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller) it's not even funny, and their bullpen is ridiculously deep--stocked with young, live arms. The defending NL champions are the clear favorites in their division and are poised to make it back to the Fall Classic--and this time they'll probably finish the job.

2nd Place Cincinnati Reds
2013 Record: 90-72
2013 Pythagorean: 93-69
2014 Projected: 87-75
Cincinnati got noticeably weaker over the offseason, losing elite table-setter Shin-Soo Choo to free agency along with durable innings-eater Bronson Arroyo. There's still enough talent to win 90 games and take a wild card spot, but there's no margin for error. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips have to hit and stay healthy, because without them the lineup is shockingly thin (unless Billy Hamilton breaks out and/or Todd Frazier has a big power year). The pitching staff needs Johnny Cueto to not get hurt this year, Tony Cingrani to step up and Mat Latos just has  to keep doing what he's doing. Same goes for Aroldis Chapman when he comes back. The Reds are top-heavy, which means they really need everything to go their way in order to reach 90 wins for the fourth time in five years.

3rd Place Milwaukee Brewers
2013 Record: 74-88
2013 Pythagorean: 76-88
2014 Projected: 84-78
Don't sleep on the Brew Crew, who should get a full season from Ryan Braun and added a much-needed arm to the rotation in Matt Garza. Braun rejoins Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy, and breakout candidate Khris Davis to form what should be one of the better offenses in baseball. Mark Reynolds will supply additional firepower off the bench. Garza makes the rotation more formidable, though Kyle Lohse will have to hold off age for another year and Yovani Gallardo needs to bounce back from a disappointing season. Look out for Marco Estrada, who could break out and be the best starter on the staff. I like the back-end of the bullpen (Jim Henderson setting up Francisco Rodriguez), too. I could definitely see the Brewers clicking and making a Wild Card push, but if the rotation doesn't measure up then they're probably just a .500 team.

4th Place Pittsburgh Pirates
2013 Record: 94-68
2013 Pythagorean: 88-74
2014 Projected: 82-80
Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Starling Marte lead what should turn out to be a respectable offense mostly comprised of players in their prime yeas. The bullpen is also excellent. I have major doubts about the rotation though (besides young gun Gerrit Cole) and thus see Pittsburgh as more of a .500 team than a playoff contender.

5th Place Chicago Cubs
2013 Record: 66-96
2013 Pythagorean: 71-91
2013 Projected: 70-92
I see bounce back seasons in store for Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Edwin Jackson, plus a better year from ace Jeff Samardzija, which should be enough to get the Cubs up over 70 wins, but Chicago is still rebuilding and it's going to be another year without a World Series for Cubs fans. Young talent is on the way and should start appearing near the end of the season (Mike Olt and Junior Lake are already there), but for now the team is clearly the weakest in the NL Central and is no match for its division rivals.

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