2014 Predictions: NL Central

Holy cow, what a stacked division. I had a tough time figuring this one out. It seems that a lot of divisions are really top heavy, with two or three great teams, and then two or three…other teams, and the NL Central is no exception. Expect the Cardinals to be playing late into the season again. 

NL Central
1. St. Louis 102-60
I have no problem labeling the Cardinals as the only team to win 100 games this year. I think they have the top-to-bottom lineup, a young rotation, a smattering of veteran leadership, and an tactical wizard of a manager in Mike Matheny. The Cardinals didn’t make a lot of offseason moves, but they made highly efficient ones. Some of you might be thinking “how is a move efficient, Bill?” Well let me tell you. With the trade of David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, they freed up a spot for rising star Matt Carpenter (.318/.392/.481) at third, allowing newcomer Kolten Wong to start at second. Despite his faux pas in the World Series, the Cardinals have put a lot of stock into him and see a bright future. If he doesn’t work out, then Mark Ellis (free agent from the Dodgers) will do a good job filling in. On the other side of second base, shortstop Jhonny Peralta will make his NL debut. To many, Peralta is a delinquent and his 4 year, $52 million contract is a negative incentive for PEDs. I agree to a certain extent with that, but he’s paid his dues and I think he knows not to do it again. Also, despite his increased power numbers, Peralta also went through a swing change in the 2013 offseason, creating more of a line drive swing, allowing him to hit .303 before his suspension. His range at shortstop isn’t good but the balls he gets to are fielded perfectly; that’s why it’s smart to have a quick third and second basemen – maybe they can reach some things he won’t. Back to the outfield: though seeing perennial all-star Carlos Beltran go to New York was hard, Cardinals fans and administrators have a secret weapon in Oscar Taveras, who is likely to start in right this year. If he doesn’t, then Jon Jay will. Either one is a good bet; Jay is a career .293 hitter and has good speed on the base paths. Taveras is an overwhelmingly popular pick for NL ROY. So pick your poison Cardinals. As always, Yadier Molina will be the best catcher in the NL (arguably the whole league now that Joe Mauer is no longer a catcher) again, and lead the team deep into the postseason. The Boston Globe called him a player to build around, and I could not agree more; he’s a tactician, a great hitter, and stays out of trouble.

I’ll leave you to chew on this: the Cardinals had a run differential last year of +187. Second to whom? The World Champion Red Sox. Don’t be surprised if they hit +200 this year. 

2. Cincinnati 94-68
I promise you, even though I didn’t pick the people’s choice Pittsburgh Pirates to be near the top again, I still have a heart and soul. I think the Reds made better moves to compete. First and foremost, they fired bunt happy manager Dusty Baker and hired pitching coach Bryan Price. Here’s why I like this move: A) it’s hiring from within so Price knows the system and the players. Chemistry won’t be an issue. B) It’s not Dusty Baker. Baker is a fine manager, but only in the regular season. He’s been graced with some incredibly talented teams (2002 Giants, 2003 Cubs, 2012 Reds) and could only take one pennant in 20 years managing. Now even though they lost Shin Soo Choo, speedster Billy Hamilton is taking his place, and if his average stays healthy, he could make a run at ROY. Rounding out the outfield with Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey, they will be in good shape on both sides of the ball. The infield is defensively sound, but sometimes lacking offensively. 2010 MVP Joey Votto is exempt from that statement with his .314 average and consistently league-leading OBP. Brandon Phillips (Dat Dude)

is a supplier of power, but not a lot of consistency. Despite his trade rumors he will be back in Cincy this year. Cozart and Frazier, hitting .254 and .234 respectively last year, will be the everyday starters on the left side. Cozart went through swing reconstruction this offseason, and I am eager if he can reach his full gap-to-gap potential. Having just signed Homer Bailey to 6 years and $105 million, the Reds are looking into the future, eyeing a title not this year, but definitely before 2020. Surrounding him with Mat Latos, Mike Leake (fantasy steal), and Johnny Cueto makes for a dangerous rotation (good dangerous).

3. Pittsburgh 93-69
I don’t even know if its statistically possible to have three teams win 90 games in a season in the same division, but it’s happening. Mainly because these three will beat up on the other two remaining teams, but nonetheless, the Pirates are still a great team. Neil Walker is an under-the-radar stud (probably just because he’s Don Kelly’s brother-in-law), Clint Barmes is a good defender, and Pedro Alvarez broke out last year to lead the NL in home runs. He only hit .233 but that’s not what he’s paid to do, am I right? Of course I am, that’s why you’ve read this far. Naturally, we will see Cutch produce out of his mind, and young Starling Marte will follow suit and learn a lot. Losing AJ Burnett will hurt, but the signing of Edinson Volquez will bolster that somewhat; last year Burnett went 10-11, Volquez 9-12. He will likely be the 3rd or 4th starter, behind Francisco Liriano (who emerged late in the season as a pitcher who means business), Jeff Locke, and 22-year old Gerrit Cole. Clint Hurdle is an excellent manager, taking a team that batted .245 and sending them to their first playoff seed in over 20 years. They’ll be back on the cornrows of MLB ’13 The Show coverboy Andrew McCutchen.

4. Chicago 69-93
The outfield in Wrigleyville will look different at the beginning of next season. Not the physical grass, but who’s playing there. Last year, it was Soriano, DeJesus, and Schierholtz. This year it will likely be Ryan Sweeney, Junior Lake (who unfortunately sacrificed rookie status last year, otherwise he could have made a run at ROY), and Schierholtz. Chris Coghlan will be roving as a 4th outfielder. Lake is a young injection of energy. Good fielder (came up as a shortstop) and base stealer, but he strikes out far too often to be effective long term. In 64 games in 2013, he struck out 68 times, but he also hit .284. We’ll see what hitting coach Bill Mueller has in store for him this year in Arizona. The infield will be the same: Valbuena, Castro, Barney, Rizzo: all defense, little offense. The four of them hit a combined .226, with only Rizzo showing decent power. Having “Bad Scrabble Board” Jeff Samardzija

back as the ace will help matters, otherwise 9-12 Travis Wood is the ace. Jake Arrieta will return from injury, Jason Hammel is a good four starter, with the heavy loser (8-18 in 2013) Edwin Jackson bringing up the rear. Jose Veras (3.02 ERA in 2013) is a great pick up; Cubs fans will enjoy not have Marmol come in to close games, and young Pedro Strop will do swell in the setup role. New manager Rick Renteria will most likely be on a pretty short leash; 4 managers in 8 years, 13 in the last 23 years.

5. Milwaukee 65-97
Last year, the Brewers went 74-88, which wasn’t bad considering they lost their best player, Ryan Braun, for a hefty suspension. I do not foresee that being their fortune this year. ‘But Carlos Gomez had a career year!’ Exactly: a career year. Not a year to change his career. He’s a career .255 hitter. Aramis Ramirez, if he stays healthy, will have a little bit of relief since Braun is returning to the clean-up slot. 23-year old shortstop Jean Segura is an incredibly bright spot, batting .294 last season (highest of the non-dopers). Scooter Gennett is another solid young middle infielder, and he’ll likely take over for .209 Rickie Weeks, but how much will he be able to hold up throughout the entire season? The pitching staff did add Matt Garza, a much needed ace, but he’ll be pitching most of his games against the aforementioned Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates, so his offense will have to show up (not likely). Lyle Overbay will take over at first, and as much as I’d like to say he’ll repeat what he did in New York last year (which was still only .240), I don’t think they’ll get much production out of him. They aren’t a terrible team, but they also lost Corey Hart and play in a wicked division. Unfortunately, I don’t think Bernie Brewer will be sliding too much this year.

Thanks for reading! Almost done with the divisions!

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