The perennially playoff-worthy St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds again shape up as the toast of the N.L. Central— albeit with little margin for error with the likes of the tough and hard-nosed Pittsburgh Pirates again lurking. Even the Cubs, after back-to-back 90 plus loss seasons, should be much improved this year largely based on the strength of a pitching core that features young guns Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Pedro Strop and James Russell—just not quite enough as yet to run with the aforementioned big dogs. To know the N.L. Central is to know that anything can always happen, but what follows are our bold and fearless predictions for summer 2014. At least for right now.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: 96-46
Biggest Strengths: Starting rotation, the Cardinals’ way
Biggest Weakness: Lack of true power hitter
Is it just me or do the Cardinals consistently seem to do more with less than any organization in the history of baseball? Indeed, that says a lot about how the franchise is run behind the scenes, and there’s no denying the Cards’ front office rates as one of the best in all of pro sports, let alone MLB.
St. Louis found itself again playing for a World Series last season and if all the cards again fall in place this summer, namely finding an adequate replacement for Beltran, don’t be surprised if they’re there again this season.
The heart of the team lies in the starting rotation of ace Adam Wainwright and young guns Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. And having the heady and always steady Yadier Molina catch them only adds to the riddle NL hitters face in trying to solve their respective repertoires.
In Peralta and Ellis (combined 17 HRs and 103 RBIs in 2013), Cards add punch to the bottom of the lineup while maintaining defensive standards the team prides itself on from season to season.
2. Cincinnati Reds: 91-71
Key Additions: Skip Schumaker
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Lack of infield depth
Let me go on the record here in asserting I think the Reds will miss departed manager Dusty Baker more than most seem to concede. Baker may not be the best X and O’s manager since Casey Stengel, but he has a way of always getting his players to play hard for him and to a man they all seem to worship the ground he walks on. That has to count for something.
As far as 2014 goes, if the Reds can stay healthy, they could be every bit as formidable as the Cards. The team’s greatest strength lie in a bullpen that can counter with the strong arms of Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall on any given night.
New manager Bryan Price served as the trio’s pitching coach last season and if anyone can get even more out of them this season, it would be Price. Starters Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos also figure to be as good as ever under Price’s watch— again provided they can finally find a way to stay healthy for an entire season.
Under the 51-year-old Price, the Reds’ pitching staff had the fourth-best ERA in the majors last season and recorded the most strikeouts in the NL. A year before, the 2012 pitching staff was one of the most successful groups in franchise history, ranking third in the league in team ERA and with all five members of the starting rotation starting at least 30 game and with four pitching at least 200 innings
Replacing speedster Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the lineup and in center field will be one of Price’s most difficult assignments. Todd Hamilton, Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton will all get a look as a table-setter for big bats Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick. Schumaker brings savvy and toughness.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates: 88-76
Key Additions: Edinson Volquez
Key Subtractions: May lose A.J. Burnett to retirement
Biggest Strengths: Andrew McCutchen, pitching
Biggest Weakness: Lack of consistent and timely hitting
McCutchen does everything for the Pirates, as evidenced by his landslide MVP win in 2013. But for Pittsburgh to hang with the Cards and Reds this year, he will need a little bit more consistent help than what he’s been getting the last couple seasons.
Pittsburgh’s all or nothing offensive approach (.245 team batting average, 161 HRs), led to the team finishing 20th in runs last season and simply required their splendid young bullpen to have to do too much to just keep them close. Still, the Pirates came within a game of knocking off the Cards and perhaps advancing to represent the NL against the eventual champion Red Sox.
Burnett (10-11, 3.30 ERA) still remains noncommittal about his plans for 2014 and that too could cause the Pirates to slip a bit in a division where the true power brokers have very little margin for error.
4. Chicago Cubs: 72-90
Key Subtractions: None
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Run production, anemic offense
The Cubs ranked in the bottom third in runs, batting average and on base percentage last season and things don’t look any more promising for the adorable losers this time around. No wonder management is already trying to distract fans with the creation of the team’s first official mascot in more than a century.
But losing 197 games in two seasons is no laughing matter, and unless Anthony Rizzo (.233, 23 HR, 80 RBIs) and Starlin Castro (.245, 10 HR, 45 RBIs) can bounce back from dreadful 2013 seasons the good times figure to remain few and far between.
The bullpen of Kevin Gregg (33 saves, 3.48 ERA), Russell (19 holds, 3.59 ERA) and Strop (14 holds, 2.83 ERA) offers a glimmer of hope, as does starting core of Samardzija (33 starts, 214 strikeouts, 213.2 IP) and Wood (200 IP, 144 strikeouts, 3.11 ERA).
Top prospects like Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez also expected to get their first tastes of big league action this season, meaning that the Cubs really could be just a season away. Really.
5. Milwaukee Brewers: 65-97
Key Additions: None
Key Subtractions: May lose Mike Gonzalez to free agency
Biggest Strength: Strong middle of the lineup
Biggest Weakness: Bullpen
Ryan Braun returns just in time to rejoin what figures to one of the MLB’s worst teams this season. Quite frankly, the Brewers simply don’t have the talent to compete in a division where there again could be at least three teams to win over 90 games.
In Braun, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy and Juan Francisco, the Brewers will hit, just not enough to overcome a poor rotation and bullpen to the point of winning the majority of their games.