MLB Season Preview: NL Central
By: Wyatt Silverman
The Central Division of baseball’s senior circuit is expected to be strong in the 2015 season. In fact, it may be the strongest of MLB’s six divisions. This could be another season (like 2013) with the division champ and two Wild Card teams making the NL postseason.
The Cardinals are coming off two titles, and four straight NLDS appearances, but will they be able to continue their run? The Pirates have made the playoffs two years in a row, but have lost to the NL Champion and World Series winner. What will it take for them to reach the next level? The Cubs are expected to succeed on the backs of big offseason changes, but will they develop? The Brewers led the division for much of last year, but fell out of the playoffs by the end. Will they fall victim to the injury bug again? Finally, the Reds had a down year, in large part due to injuries, but were bolstered by a Cy Young-caliber year from their ace. Can Cueto keep it up?
Questions abound in this division, but most of them are asking how to get closer to a World Series. This will be a fun year for fans, and a competitive one for the teams.
Jonathan Lucroy had a great season at the plate, hitting .301 with a .837 OPS. Those are excellent numbers overall, and fantastic for a catcher. Carlos Gomez contributed a 5.9 WAR season from the outfield, and hit 23 homers.
Aramis Ramirez is back at the hot corner, although he says it’ll be his last season. In terms of offensive WAR, he was the Brew Crew’s third-best hitter.
While they had few star-caliber performances, they had a pretty deep lineup, with all of their starters performing above replacement level.
Ryan Braun is projected for a bounce back season. In addition to a long layoff before returning from a PED suspension, Braun was stymied by a thumb ligament injury. As he recovers from surgery, Milwaukee hopes he also returns to his previous form. ZiPS Projections expect him to earn a 3.7 WAR.
Their pitching staff was strong last year, and should be have similar value in 2015. Wily Peralta is being touted as a breakout candidate. Matt Garza had a decent year, putting up a 3.64 ERA with a 6.94 K/9.
Their bullpen shouldn’t be expected to add much value. Their best relief arm, Zach Duke, left for greener pastures (at least financially). Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t very effective, but he ate a lot of innings, and is now gone. The projections aren’t too promising for their remaining options.
There are also definite age and health risks with this team. Braun needs to return to form for them to really succeed, but thumb injuries like his have a way of returning.
The Brewers held down a first-place spot for 149 consecutive days last year. However, they finished the season in third-place, and missed the postseason entirely. This year’s divisional race may be tougher than ever, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to move up. With a solid pitching staff, and several excellent power hitters, this should be a good team. However, with the climate in the Central this year, you probably need a great team to have any real success.
St. Louis Cardinals
They return the bulk of a twice-reigning division champion. Highlights include an elite catcher, an ace pitcher and strong hitters up and down the lineup. On top of that, they traded erratic pitching for an outfielder (Jason Hayward) who may end up being their best player this year. Yadier Molina might be the best defensive backstop in the league, and he’ll be a key to their success. Especially if he stays healthy.
Adam Wainwright should be returning to health, and if he can hold up all year, he should continue to be an ace. He held opponents to a .219 average, with a 1.03 WHIP. Really impressive numbers. Lance Lynn was also a very effective #2 starter, throwing for a scant 2.74 ERA. Carlos Martinez was somewhat erratic as the fifth starter, but managed to strike out 9.46 batters per 9 innings.
Jhonny Peralta was a shrewd acquisition at shortstop last year. He ended up leading the team in WAR.
Despite the individual success of several players, this was actually not a particularly good offense. They ranked 16th in wRC+, 18th in OPS, 29th in home runs, and 25th in UBR. Although they ranked 11 in offensive WAR, they definitely struggled in several offensive areas.
This team’s age and health will also be called into question. Molina and Wainwright missed substantial time in 2014, and Wainwright is currently limited after offseason surgery.
Although Heyward is a good addition, it’s extremely unfortunate that they needed to pick him up. The Cardinals organization thought they had their long-term outfield solution in Oscar Taveras, but he drunkenly drove off a cliff during the offseason. It’s a sad story which may cause aftershocks for the Cards.
Also, if Heyward’s power continues to decline, he may not be nearly as good as the Cards’ front office hopes.
The Cardinals have as good a shot as anybody to win the NL Central. They’ve won two years in a row, and have either improved or remained status quo. That’s not a guarantee, but they have figured out a recipe for success. The front office is willing to spend both money and assets to acquire players they like (e.g. Heyward) and the coaching staff has been effective. I see no reason why the Cardinals should miss the postseason.
This team has made a lot of strong acquisitions, including a bonafide ace pitcher, an upper-echelon backstop and the game’s best manager. On top of that, Back to the Future II is on their side.
Bringing in Theo Epstein a few seasons ago was a shrewd move, and he’s clearly demonstrated a long-term plan. This offseason, he brought in Joe Maddon from the Rays to manage. Maddon opted out of his contract after the season, and quickly signed on in Chicago.
Other key pickups include Jon Lester, who will immediately step in as the Opening Day starter. Between two teams last year, he put up a stellar 2.46 ERA, a 9.01 K/9, and a 1.1 WHIP. His ERA is expected to regress a bit, but the peripherals look great, and he will remain a clear #1 starter. Jake Arrieta will be a great #2 if he can continue last season’s success.
Miguel Montero was also brought in, coming from Arizona by trade. Montero’s bat has slipped the past couple seasons, but he is consider a strong defensive catcher. He’s expected to combine with Wellington Castillo to make an excellent platoon.
Anthony Rizzo remains at 1B, and is expected to lead the team in WAR. He hit extremely well last year, belting 32 homers on a .913 OPS. Shortstop Starlin Castro was also excellent, particularly in the second half, when he put up a .329 batting average.
The pitching staff behind Lester isn’t concerning, but there are question marks. Did Arrieta simply have a career year? Will Jason Hammel hold up?
Projections think the Cubs will have a lot of solid players, but not necessarily a “superstar.” Maddon may be able to compensate, but maybe not.
This has been turned into a really strong team, although not perfect. Some of the flaws are a bit nitpicky, but they are possible. In general, the 2015 Cubs are a team defined by potential. Especially with Kris Bryant coming. Bryant, the top prospect in all of baseball, is being held down in the minors to preserve his service time.
If he comes up and succeeds, Bryant will provide a huge boost to their lineup. Epstein has done a really effective job of bolstering both the lineup and rotation. The Cubs are expected to be a definite division contender, and may even have a chance to live up to BTTF.
With Andrew Mccutcheon (possibly the best player in the NL), a former top–10 prospect, and a guy who hit for an .975 second-half OPS, the Pirates outfield is stacked. McCutchen had an incredible 6.8 WAR and .952 OPS on the season. Starling Marte is being touted as a possible MVP candidate. Gregory Polanco is expected to make the leap from prospect to stud.
This is an extremely strong lineup overall, not just the outfielders. Josh Harrison will be in his first full season of starting duty. Last year, he stepped up as a utility man, then starter, and was rewarded with a ninth-place MVP finish. This year, he’s locked in as the full-time 3rd Baseman. Joining him on the left side of the infield is shortstop Jordy Mercer. His hitting wasn’t great, but good for the SS position. Coupled with strong defense, Mercer was a top–10 player at short last year. Neil Walker had a career year at 2B.
New catcher Francisco Cervelli will try to replace the stellar production Russell Martin has provided the last few seasons. That’s an extremely high bar. On the upside, he hit .301 for the Yankees. Cervelli may have the talent, but his health has been a huge concern during his career. He only played 59 total games last season.
A potential area of concern is the bullpen. If all the “question marks” pan out, it’ll be great; however, last year’s bullpen ranked 24th in baseball with a .7 WAR. That includes 1.9 WAR from closer Mark Melancon, and 1.3 from setup man Tony Watson. That means the rest of the bullpen combined to be worth –2.5 wins. Yikes.
First base is an interesting situation. Pedro Alvarez played his way out of the third base job, in large part due to throwing errors. He was shifted to the opposite corner, with some success. However, his season ended soon after with a foot injury. Will his bat return this year? Corey Hart joins the team as a potential platoon mate for El Toro, but has health issues of his own.
This is a team looking to not only make a third straight postseason, they’re hoping to win their first pennant since the ‘90s. With several bench acquisitions, including Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang, this is a deeper team than last year. The bullpen should also improve. If their health holds up, it seems like this genuinely could be the year for the Buccos.
Joey Votto is still an above average player, even though he was pretty rough in the 62 games he played last year. In 2013, he played all 162, and earned 6.1 WAR. However, those numbers dropped dramatically in ’14. If he can regain his 2013 form, that’s huge for the Reds.
Todd Frazier is expected to have another strong season at 3B. He was the Reds’ best player in ’14, and may very well retain that title. With 29 homers, 4.7 WAR, and a .795 OPS, there’s not much to complain about from the 29-year-old infielder.
Billy Hamilton impressed with his speed and defense in the outfield. He didn’t hit especially well (.250 AVG), but stole quite a few bases and was generally effective along the basepaths. Otherwise in the outfield, Jay Bruce and new acquisition Marlon Byrd are expected to hit for good power.
Devin Mesoraco also returns, and is expected to be strong behind the plate.
On the mound, Johnny Cueto was a legit Cy Young candidate, and Aroldis Chapman still has 100+ MPH heat. That’s a good start.
Their health was really poor last year, the pitching depth is pretty questionable, and they didn’t hit especially well. It’s hard to say how much of their weak performance was a personnel issue, and how much was a health issue. Either way, they ranked 29th in wRC+ and OPS, and 28th in runs scored. Although it’s possible Bruce and Votto both return to form, this team lacks the top end talent of the true contenders in the NL Central.
Furthermore, the pitching staff ranked 27th in WAR, and were middle of the pack in several stats, despite being dragged upward by Cueto’s stellar year. They also ranked 23rd in WAR from their relievers, including a good year from Chapman.
This will probably be the worst team in the division, and they really aren’t that bad. Although I still expect them to take fifth place, if the health returns, they can definitely be a .500 team or better.