Division-by-division: NL Central …

World Series Cardinals Red Sox BaseballLeading up to Spring Training, I’ll take a look at each of the six divisions in hopes of providing an overview for what to expect this coming season. Next up, the NL Central.

Brewers
Last year’s record: 74-88, 4th place
Key additions: SP Matt Garza, 1B/3B Mark Reynolds, RP Will Smith, 1B Lyle Overbay
Key subtractions: 1B/RF Corey Hart, OF Norichika Aoki, INF Yuniesky Betancourt, RP Mike Gonzalez, 1B/3B Mat Gamel
Biggest strength: Starting pitching, though it’s all relative. The Brewers came out of nowhere to sign Garza to a four-year, $50 million contract, adding him to what looks like a stable rotation with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Without Garza, that foursome helped the Brewers rank fourth in the Majors in starting-pitcher ERA in the second half.
Biggest question: First base. Overbay and Reynolds have been added on Minor League deals to compete with the free-swinging Juan Francisco, so as of right now, the Brewers have a lot of uncertainty at a position that requires steady production.
Most important player: Ryan Braun. Duh. He’s signed through 2020, is entering his age-30 season, is coming off his first non-great year (.298/.372/.498 line in 61 games) and, most importantly, just finished serving a 65-game suspension for violating MLB’s anti-drug agreement. Braun needs to repair his image on the field, and the Brewers need a big year from him in order to move this franchise forward.
In 25 words or lessThe farm system is weak, the Major League club is full of holes and the star player is tainted. Tough time for Brewers fans.

Cardinals
Last year’s record: 97-65, 1st place (lost to Red Sox in World Series)
Key additions: CF Peter Bourjos, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Mark Ellis, RP Angel Castro
Key subtractions: OF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, INF Rafael Furcal, SP Chris Carpenter, SP Jake Westbrook, RP Edward Mujica
Biggest strength: Young pitching. Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, etc., should make the Cardinals title contenders for years to come.
Biggest question: The middle of the lineup. Beltran has departed to the Yankees, and so it’ll be mainly up to Allen Craig and Matt Adams to protect Matt Holliday.
Most important player: Craig. Many forget just how good a hitter he is when healthy, with a .312/.364/.500 slash line the last three years. If he can fully recover from the right foot injury that prompted him to miss 23 regular-season games and the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Cardinals may not miss Beltran all that much.
In 25 words or less: John Mozeliak made a lot of savvy moves this offseason, and may have made the defending NL champs even better.

Cubs
Last year’s record: 66-96, 5th place
Key additions: MGR Rick Renteria, CL Jose Veras, RP Wesley Wright, INF Ryan Roberts, OF Justin Ruggiano, C Eli Whiteside, C John Baker, OF Chris Coghlan, SP Jonathan Sanchez
Key subtractions: MGR Dale Sveum, SP Scott Baker, C Dioner Navarro, RP Kevin Gregg, RP Matt Guerrier, SP Liam Hendricks, OF Brian Bogusevic
Biggest strength: Hitting prospects. Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant and Arismendy Alcantara should be up and contributing soon.
Biggest question: Money. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been handcuffed on what they can spend to make this Cubs roster better. Their Opening Day payroll projects to be lower than $80 million for the first time since 2003.
Most important player: Starlin Castro. The 23-year-old shortstop went from .283/.323/.430 in 2012 to .245/.284/.347 in 2013. He needs to cut down his strikeouts, eliminate his occasional mental lapse on defense and get back to being the potential face of the franchise.
In 25 words or less: They have some nice prospects on the way, but the Cubs won’t get over the hump until they’re allowed to spend like a big-market team.

Pirates
Last year’s record: 94-68, 2nd place (lost to Cardinals in NLDS)
Key additions: SP Edinson Volquez, INF Robert Andino, C Chris Stewart, OF Chris Dickerson, RP Daniel Schlereth, RP Cody Eppley
Key subtractions: SP A.J. Burnett, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Marlon Byrd, C John Buck, SP Jeff Karstens, RP Kyle Farnsworth, 1B Garrett Jones
Biggest strength: Bullpen depth. They ranked third in the Majors in bullpen ERA last year and practically return everybody, with Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson a very formidable back-end group.
Biggest question: Right field and first base. Byrd and Morneau were two big in-season acquisitions and now they’re gone, replaced in-house. Jose Tabata (.771 OPS in 2013) and Gaby Sanchez (.762) are once again set to take over two power positions.
Most important player: Wandy Rodriguez. He is, believe it or not, the Pirates’ highest-paid player and hasn’t pitched since early June because of forearm arthritis. If he rebounds, it’ll go a long way in easing rotation concerns in Pittsburgh. If he doesn’t, the Pirates may have to eat the $7.5 million they owe him (the Astros are covering the other $5.5 million).
In 25 words or less: The Pirates had a breakthrough season in 2013, but the front office simply hasn’t done enough to build on that for 2014.

Reds
Last year’s record: 90-72, 3rd place (lost to Pirates in NL Wild Card game)
Key additions: MGR Bryan Price, C Brayan Pena, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker, INF Ramon Santiago, SP/RP Jeff Francis, RP Pedro Beato
Key subtractions: MGR Dusty Baker, SP Bronson Arroyo, OF Shin-Soo Choo, INF Cesar Izturis, SP Zach Duke, RP Nick Masset
Biggest strength: Pitching, even without Arroyo. If Johnny Cueto can stay healthy and top prospect Tony Cingrani can step up, the Reds’ rotation will be a force. Their bullpen remains one of the best in the National League.
Biggest question: Feeding Joey Votto. The Reds’ first baseman had an NL-leading .435 on-base percentage but drove in only 73 runs last year. Votto needs the guys in front of him to get on base, and now that Choo (.423 on-base percentage last year) is gone, that’s a big concern. Zack Cozart (.284 OBP), Brandon Phillips (.310 OBP) and rookie Billy Hamilton are the candidates to make up the first two spots of the lineup.
Most important player: Hamilton. We know he can run, and he’s come a long way defensively in center field. Now, can he hit at the leadoff spot, and can he make Reds fans forget about Choo? It’s a big year for the 23-year-old.
In 25 words or less: The Cardinals are tough, but the Reds are good enough to contend. Can Price, the ex-pitching coach, pull a John Farrell?

Predicted order of finish …

  • Cardinals
  • Reds
  • Pirates
  • Brewers
  • Cubs

Previous entries: NL East | AL East

Alden

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