Monday, March 31, 2014

MLB 2014: National League Central

Yadier Molina (pictured) is the best all-around catcher in the game, and the leader of one of the best teams in all of baseball.

The Saint Louis Cardinals have won four National League pennants in the past decade, and the NL Central crown 7 times in the last 13 seasons.

And they will win yet another division crown in 2014.

That is one of the easiest predictions for me at this early point. The Cards are the best team in this division. They are one of the 2-3 best teams in the entire National League, and one of a handful of the best in MLB entering the year.

Now anything can happen to derail things for the Redbirds, most especially injuries to key players. However, barring disaster, a deep, versatile lineup led by a pair of MVP candidates in Molina and outfielder Matt Holliday and an equally deep pitching staff should be able to hold up over the long haul.

Here are my predictions for the National League Central in 2014:

1) Saint Louis Cardinals
The defending National League and NL Central champs won the World Series back in 2011, and right now look to me like the healthiest, deepest, and overall best team among all the legitimate contenders in the league this season. The franchise has won an NL-best 11 World Series crowns and 19 NL pennants. They have been to the playoffs 3 straight years, 4 of the last 5, and in 10 of the last 13 seasons. There is no reason that string of excellence should not continue. The lineup is one of the deepest and most versatile in the game. The clear leaders in that starting lineup are the best all-around catcher in the game in Yadier Molina, and one of the best hitters in the game in leftfielder Matt Holliday. They can go with either Allen Craig or Matt Adams at 1st base, with Craig capable at 3rd and likely to start the season in rightfield as well. Exciting rookie Kolten Wong should add another weapon at 2nd base, and is a likely NL Rookie of the Year candidate this year. Jhonny Peralta signed a longterm free agent contract in the off-season, and has a strong bat for the shortstop position. At 3rd base it's more versatility from Matt Carpenter, who can also play 2nd. Newcomer Peter Bourjos will take over in centerfield and should upgrade their offense from that position. The bench is made up of the experienced group of Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Shane Robinson, and Mark Ellis. But despite the versatility in that lineup, it is the pitching staff that makes them true favorites. The rotation is led by a true Ace in Adam Wainwright. Behind him, Michael Wacha emerged in last year's playoffs as one of the exciting young arms to watch in the entire game. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly give the rotation depth, as does Carlos Martinez, who would start for most teams but will serve as setup man for now. The closer is the dominating Trevor Rosenthal. The bullpen also includes Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate and Sean Maness. At some point, both Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia should return from injury to give them even more depth. If I haven't emphasized it enough, let me do so now. This is a big time NL central, NL pennant, and World Series contender.

2) Pittsburgh Pirates
For some reason, after reaching the playoffs last season for the first time in over two decades, the Buccos are not getting enough love as the 2014 season opens from many prognosticators. Well let me give them some. This is again a Wildcard contender, and they are building themselves into a longterm contender in the NL Central, just a couple players away from being a pennant contender. The Pirates are led by dynamic National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, one of the all-around best players in all of baseball. Flanking him in the outfield are powerful Jose Tabata and Starling Marte, the latter an emerging young star himself. Gaby Sanchez and Neal Walker give them an experienced right-side infield, and Jody Mercer is a good-looking young shortstop. Pedro Alvarez at 3rd base could be an NL MVP candidate, and if he is one he could elevate this team to a division crown. The catcher is one of the game's great leaders in Russell Martin. The bench does not have much proven depth beyond Travis Snider and Clint Barmes, and this could prove problematic if there are any major injuries in the everyday lineup. On the mound, Pittsburgh has last year's great comeback story in Francisco Liriano leading the way. Behind him is a future Ace in big, young righty Gerritt Cole. Veterans Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and Edinson Volquez round out the rotation as they wait for top prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow to finish developing. Jason Grilli is a solid closer, Mark Melancon is an experienced setup man who could also close, and they have pen depth with Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and Jeanmar Gomez. The rotation should get a bump from Jeff Locke when he is ready as well. If the Pirates stay healthy, they will contend for another playoff berth, and maybe more.

3) Cincinnati Reds
Just a couple of years ago, this looked like it was going to possibly be a team that would dominate the NL Central division for years to come. Now they have a number of questions that keep them from being predicted for the top, but enough possible answers to see them remaining a legitimate contender. In 1st baseman Joey Votto they have one of the best hitters in the game, and a legit MVP candidate. Outfielder Jay Bruce is one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Despite a number of trade rumors, 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips remains and is still one of the top offensive producers at the position. The left-side infield combo of Zack Cozart at short and Todd Frazier at 3rd needs to step up production and show that they are as good in the longterm as they looked a couple of years ago. Those two are among the biggest questions, and if they do step up they could make the difference in returning the club to the top of the division. The other guy with that potential is new centerfielder Billy Hamilton. The speed demon has game-changing stolen base potential, and can run down anything in center. But can he hit and get on-base enough to remain in the lineup on an everyday basis? If he can, he will be an elite weapon at the top of the Reds lineup, a true offensive catalyst. Outfielders Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, and Roger Bernadina and infielder Neftali Soto provide the depth, while Brayan Pena will get a shot at catching while Devin Mesoraco begins on the DL. The Reds pitching is talented and deep, but opens with some injury concerns. Both top starter Mat Latos and dominant closer Aroldis Chapman start out on the DL. Both should be back by May, so would provide a strong bump if the Reds can stay in contention early. The rotation for now is led by Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, with youngsters Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake being counted on heavily. Alfredo Simon is likely to get the shot as 5th starter while Latos mends. The bullpen has not only Chapman, but also the big arms of Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall on the DL. Even with all that injury, they still have talent and depth in J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, and Manny Parra. Again, the keys will be staying in range early while the injured guys heal up, and then how the trio of Hamilton, Cozart and Frazier produce over the length of the full season. If they get the right answers, they can win the division and contend for an NL pennant and more.

4) Milwaukee Brewers
This is a team that was a dangerous Wildcard in 2008 and a division champ in 2011, but they have fallen into dangerous territory in a toughened NL Central. They are clearly not as good as the three teams above, and the team currently behind them is absolutely going to improve in the coming years. If the Brew Crew is not careful, they could fall into a longterm losing situation quickly. For now, staying in contention for the top half of the division will depend on a full comeback from 2007 Rookie of the Year and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, lost a year ago for the last couple of months due to a PED suspension. If he comes back fully and as productive as always, he'll team with 3rd baseman Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Jean Segura, catcher Jon Lucroy, and outfielders Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez to give Milwaukee a loaded offensive lineup. Scooter Gennett is likely to get his first full shot as the 2nd baseman, with Rickie Weeks struggling to return to former All-Star form. Lyle Overbay and Jeff Bianchi will be the leaders off the bench. On the mound, the Brewers rotation could be an underrated strength. Yovani Gallardo is a key, and he must show that he is the Ace-level youngster that the team has hoped he would become. Matt Garza was signed as a free agent, and with Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada, and Wily Peralta gives the Brewers a good option in every slot. Jim Henderson is the closer, supported by the experienced Francisco 'KRod' Rodriguez. Arms such as Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler, and Will Smith fill out the pen. If the Milwaukee rotation stays healthy and pitches to their talent levels, and if Braun is an MVP candidate again, this club could surprise and be a contender once again. More likely, they find that it gets increasingly tough to avoid the NL Central basement, especially as the next couple seasons advance.

5) Chicago Cubs
The Cubbies have not won a world title since 1905, with that 108-year titleless streak now the longest such streak of any professional sports franchise in North America. They have not even been to a World Series since 1945. Think about that: the last time the Cubs reached the World Series was the same year that World War II ended. There has been some success in recent years, with a 1998 Wildcard playoff berth leading to regular contending status for much of the last decade, when they won the NL Central crown 3 times between 2003-2008. But for the last four seasons, the "Loveable Losers" have done an awful lot of that losing. Four straight last place finishes where they have hovered between 20 and 40 games under the .500 mark has sealed this franchise losing reputation with a new generation of their fans. Still, there is reason to see a change coming. New ownership came in 2009, and prior to 2012 they brought in Theo Epstein to run the baseball operation. The former Red Sox boy genius has improved the farm system measurably, and it is hoped that those prospects will begin emerging in the 2nd half of this decade to turn things around. Until they come, however, this is a last place team. When your outfield is made up of Justin Ruggiano, Nate Schierholtz, and Junior Lake, you have problems. 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starling Castro are good building blocks, and catcher Wellington Castillo may be a longterm piece as well. For now, Darwin Barney plays 2nd and some combo of Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt will play 3rd. The versatile Emilio Bonifacio could see plenty of time in both the outfield and infield, while Ryan Kalish also should see lots of outfield at-bats. There is much more mound talent than in the lineup. The rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Carlos Villanueva is underrated. The bullpen of closer Jose Veras and supporters Hector Rondon, James Russell, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Chris Rusin has potential, and Jake Arrieta still has the potential to return from the DL and be a real contributor in either role. It's a basemen team once again. They need to get 3-4 impact pieces into the starting lineup before that will change.

Look for the Cardinals to win the NL Central, possibly easily. I see the Pirates and Reds battling for 2nd place and for at least one of the NL Wildcard playoff spots. Milwaukee struggles to a 4th place finish, and may turn out to be one of the games true disasters in the next couple of seasons. The Cubs are a disaster right now, and Epstein has to start moving that young minor league talent along so that their fans begin to at least smell a winning future.

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