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It’s Opening Day, therefore it must be time to make some predictions for the upcoming months in the National League Central.
Last season saw one of the most competitive NL Central division races in recent years. Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Brewers failed to get anywhere near the action. The question is, could 2014 spell a change in fortunes, after such an injury and controversy blighted season?
Several high impact players have left the division during the off-season. Although, the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals have made acquisitions with potential. Three of the five teams in National League Central posted over 90 wins in 2013. However, the Cincinnati Reds especially have lost important everyday players in Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo.
Now, the optimist in me wants to predict the Brewers winning the division in 2014. However, the Cardinals could and probably will be far too strong. The Brewers have plenty of talent and should the pitching staff can reach its potential, then a playoff run is on the cards.
1. St Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals lost several key contributors during the off-season, but don’t expect a decline in performance. Carlos Beltran and David Freese have moved on, but the acquisition of Peter Bourjos to play centerfield is a boost. Allen Craig will play full time in right field opening a space for Matt Adams at first base. Furthermore, the Cardinals acquired ever reliable Jhonny Peralta to play shortstop, ensuring more depth in the middle infield. Imperative to their success will be starting pitching. In support of Adam Wainwright; Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller performed admirably in their first full season. If they avoid a sophomore slump, the Cardinal juggernaut under Mike Matheny could dominate the division.
There is no doubt the Cardinals are in pole position for another assault on the NL Central crown. They have depth and quality throughout the team, coupled with a mixture of youth and experience. I expect the Cardinals to win the division convincingly, barring key injuries or serious decline in pitching.
2. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers stuttered to fourth last season, blighted by injuries and controversy. The new season brings fresh hope. Obviously, the return of Ryan Braun will boost production and this outfield with Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis should be the strongest in recent memory.
Similar to the Cardinals, Brewer starting pitching has the potential to dominate. Kyle Lohse and free agent Matt Garza should lead the line. While, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta round out a rotation of undoubted depth. Consistency will be vital. Disregarding Garza, this rotation struggled before the all-star break, but looked far more secure in August/September. The jury is currently out.
The top six in the batting line-up are a formidable foe for any pitcher. However, given the off-season debacle at first base, a lack of production from the infield is a real possibility. Jean Segura struggled late and Scooter Gennett is still a rookie. In addition, there is a lack of depth behind oft injured Aramis Ramirez at third.
I still believe the Brewers will contend for the wild card, but there are more questions than answers.
3. Cincinnati Reds
In 2013, the Reds third place was enough for a wild card spot in the NL Central. Most likely they will need to beat the Brewers and Pirates into second place this season for the same result. There is no doubt the losses of Choo and Arroyo will be problematic, as neither has been adequately replaced.
The heart of the Reds line up is as strong as any in baseball. Yet, Joey Votto and in particular those around him strike out too often. Losing Choo’s ability to get on base will worry Cincinnati back room staff. They can’t afford to rely solely on home runs. Undoubtedly, Billy Hamilton‘s frightening pace is a talking point, but I doubt he has the plate discipline to get on base regularly enough.
Finally, the Reds rotation lacks depth, Arroyo was a guaranteed innings eater. Johnny Cueto, the Opening Day starter made just eleven starts last season, while Mat Latos will rehab down at AA. If they want to feature in the NL Central race, Cincinnati will need their pitching staff to find that little bit extra.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Pittsburgh reached the playoffs after a 20 year absence in 2013. Yet, I firmly expect them to fall back into the pack this year. In Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen they have a Cy Young candidate and the NL MVP. However, a worrying factor should be the loss of key role players, such as Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd.
Another concern for Pirates staff surrounds their starting rotation. Cole is a potential stud, but the shock loss of A.J. Burnett to the Philadelphia Phillies (he was expected to re-sign or retire) coupled with Francisco Liriano‘s over performance last season leaves question marks about their ability to compete. Their bullpen is an asset, assuming Jason Grilli remains fit.
The Pirates have some superstar quality, but they have too many gaps. It will be imperative for McCutchen and Cole to inspire their teammates, if Pittsburgh hopes to reach October again.
5. Chicago Cubs
I figure the Cubs will improve on last season, but they couldn’t be much worse. They are still rebuilding, especially lacking talent in their batting line up. The future is bright for Chicago given their deep farm system.They just aren’t ready this season.
Twelve months ago, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were the future of the Cubs, but regressed in 2013. Mike Olt could make an impact on the NL Central, but all three lack support. One bright spot could be the bullpen. On those occasions the Cubs lead late, they have lights out potential in former Brewer, Jose Veras and Pedro Strop.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they reached a more respectable 75 wins this season, but the Chicago Cubs will dwell at the bottom of the division in 2014.
Overall, I expect the NL Central to be very competitive in September. The Cardinals are likely to dominate and the Cubs are likely to be cut adrift early. However, the Brewers, Red and Pirates all have strengths and several big questions to answer. A major concern for all three could be that the division is so competitive in the midfield that none of them have enough wins for a wildcard.
I’m going to be confident and say the Milwaukee Brewers do enough. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brewers need a win on the final day for that wildcard.
I guess only time will tell…