2015 MLB Preview: National League Central

If you know ANYTHING about me, you know that I’m an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I’m saying that up front here, acknowledging that when it comes to the Cardinals and handicapping the division they play in, I might not necessarily be the most objective dude in the world.

That being said, I truly cannot understand the love the Cubs are getting this preseason.

Take the esteemed publication, The Sporting News, long known as “The Bible of Baseball.” In their grading of the two clubs, the Cards best the Cubs in every facet of the game: defense (B+ to C), rotation (A- to B), bullpen (B- to C+), and batting order (B to C). Yet these same geniuses pick the Cubs to win the division. I guess there are some other “intangibles” that factor in to the popular wishful thinking that the Cubs are serious contenders to the division crown.

What a bunch of malarkey.

The Cardinals are not without question marks. Adam Wainwright is 33 years old and coming off elbow surgery and an abdominal strain. Can he be counted on for ace-level innings in 2015? 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha will also be coming off an injury-marred campaign last season. In addition, the last time Wacha was on a mound in a big league game, he gave up Travis Ishakawa’s pennant-winning home run. Can he assert himself as a 200-inning #2 starter. Carlos Martinez is unproven as a big league starter. Yadier Molina was hurt last summer. Matt Adams still struggles against lefties.

But the Cardinals still loom as one of the most talented teams in the National League, certainly in the Central division. Offensively, there’s no more important Cardinal than Jason Heyward this season. Heyward has always possessed elite potential; staying healthy and productive has always been the issue. If he is finally able to put together an MVP-caliber season for the Redbirds, he could be in line for the richest contract in club history. With Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Molina, and Adams, Heyward will form a strong core in the middle of the lineup. The key pitchers are all right-handed (Wainwright, Wacha, Jon Lackey, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Walden) but if they produce, it shouldn’t matter. The Cardinals look to be in line for another 90-win campaign. A fifth straight NLCS wouldn’t surprise me.

If there’s a team in this division that could push the Cardinals, it’s not the Cubs; it’s Pittsburgh. The Pirates were very balanced last year, ranking 3rd in the majors in OBP, 5th in batting average, 8th in ERA, and 6th in saves. Losing Russell Martin will hurt, but the rest of the team remains intact. Andrew McCutchen looks like the best player in the National League. Starling Marte could be the NL’s breakout player this year. Gerrit Cole will receive Cy Young votes. And the bullpen, anchored by Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes, will continue to be a strength. This is a fundamentally sound club that, with a few breaks, could contend for the division.

At best, the Cubs are a third-place team. Jon Lester will help the rotation, but there are still some holes here. And the bullpen…ugh. I’ll be rooting for Jason Motte, except when he pitches in high leverage situations against the Cardinals! The boatload of young prospects is on the way and I expect the Cubs to be formidable in the next few years…just not yet. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez have already been sent down for more seasoning; Addison Russell likely won’t get much big league playing time this year either. But Jorge Soler looks like the real deal already.

The Cubs will have to beat out Milwaukee for third place in the Central. When healthy, the Brewer lineup looks really solid. Carlos Gomez is electric from the leadoff spot. Jonathan Lucroy was incredible last year, leading the majors in doubles and looking like an MVP candidate for much of the summer before fading late. Ryan Braun looks to be healthy again. While it’d be a stretch to expect the same numbers he put up prior to his PED bust, he should still be a solid .290-20HR-80RBI bat. The quickest bat on the team belongs to OF Kris Davis. You could see a Chris Carter-like HR breakout this season. But the pitching looks pedestrian, which is about right for a mediocre team.

There’s not much to be excited about in Cincinnati these days. It wasn’t that long ago that the Reds were one of the league’s best teams: 97 wins in 2012, 90 in 2013. But after a lackluster 2014, GM Walt Jocketty looks to be in rebuild mode, dealing starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. The offense ranked near the bottom of every significant offensive category last year. If the Reds are going to have success, they’ll need renaissance seasons from Joey Votto (.255avg, 6 HR, 23 RBI), Brandon Phillips (8 HR, 51 RBI) and Jay Bruce (.217avg, 18 HR). But even if the offense produces more in 2015, the pitching won’t be nearly as good, at least on days that Johnny Cueto isn’t pitching. Long season in Cincy.

Expect the Cards to win, with a wild card push by Pittsburgh.

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