NL Central Preview

Can Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates build off their impressive 2013 and win the Central?

Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs in 2014 will look to make some noise in what appears to be a very interesting NL Central and it appears to be one of the weakest divisions in baseball. Everyone who follows baseball the Cubs, pretty much ever since the Bartman incident have fallen on rough times. In the last 2 years, they’ve lost 197 games. They’ve also had 4 managers over the last 5 seasons. They also went through 31 pitchers on their roster last season which shows the ineptitude of the team. While I don’t think their hitting is terrible with guys like Starlin Castro, Nate Schierholtz and Anthony Rizzo, their pitching staff leaves a ton to be desired. When Jeff Samardzija is your second starter and Edwin Jackson, Jake Arrieta and Chris Rusin are your 3-5 starters, you’re in a lot of trouble. Their bullpen isn’t great either with Pedro Strop, James Russell, Kyuji Fujikawa, Blake Parker, Arodys Vizcaino and Hector Rondon. The bottom of their order is rather weak as well. They’re going to have to play great ball out of the gate or they can find themselves in a deep hole by mid May. By May 15th, they play the Cardinals 10 times, the Pirates 6 times, the Reds 6 times and a two game series with the Yankees and another four game series with a capable Diamondbacks team. That’s not a group of teams a struggling Cubs team would like to start with. There is a bright side for Cubs fans. Last month, Baseball America came out with their Top 100 and a total of seven Cubs prospects were on the list. Javier Baez could make his way onto the team by the end of the season. He batted .282 with 37 home runs, 111 RBI, and 20 stolen bases in 130 games last year between High-A Dayton and Double-A Tennessee. Kris Bryant can also be a huge player for the Cubs in the near future. He was the second overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft and was Baseball America’s Collegiate Player of the Year at the University of San Diego and is considered to be the most esteemed of all of Chicago’s prospects. Prediction:  The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are still ways ahead of the Cubs which leaves me to think that the Cubs will finish last in the NL Central. Over the course of 162 games, the Cubs just do not have the horses to compete with St. Louis or Cincinnati. They don’t have the hitting that could defeat great pitchers like Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole,Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, etc. They certainly don’t have the pitching either that can silence bats like Matt Holliday, Andrew McCutchen or Joey Votto for long either. It’s a shame to see a great sports city like Chicago have the Cubs out of contention for so long but with the prospects they have, it looks like there are brighter days ahead in a couple years. (Dan Sohler)

The Cubs expect Anthony Rizzo to be the big bat in the middle of their lineup.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The playoff drought finally ended for the Pirates finally ended last season thanks to the contributions from many players especially NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, one of the few players to actually stay with the team long term. At only 27 the sky is the limit for him and his team. The Pirates will be out to prove that last year was no fluke, and that they can contend consistently going forward. Pitching along with McCutchen carried the Pirates last year who finished third in all of baseball in ERA and second in BAA. Duplicating these stats will go a long way towards helping the team improve upon last year’s performance and put them in prime position for a World Series run. One the key pitchers from last seasons team AJ Burnett is gone and veteran pitchers Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez must aid the young arms in the rotation. Closer Jason Grilli was a pleasant and dominant surprise last season with 33 saves and only two blown saves. Everybody loves a winner especially the steel city. Expect the Pirates to reach the playoffs again and potentially due more damage this year.The playoff drought finally ended for the Pirates last season thanks to the contributions from many players especially NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, one of the few players to actually stay with the team long term. At only 27 the sky is the limit for him and his team. The Pirates will be out to prove that last year was no fluke, and that they can contend consistently going forward. Pitching along with McCutchen carried the Pirates last year who finished third in all of baseball in ERA and second in BAA. Duplicating these stats will go a long into helping the team improve upon last year’s performance and put them in prime position for a World Series run. One the key pithers from last seasons team AJ Burnett is gone and veteran pitchers Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez must aid the young arms in the rotation. Closer Jason Grilli was a pleasant and dominant surprise last seaon with 33 saves and only two blown saves. Everybody loves a winner especially in the steel city. (Glenn Coyle)

Liriano anchors the Pirates rotation after a fantastic 2013.

Cincinnati Reds

A new era begins for the Reds under the guidance of Bryan Price who replaces legendary manager Dusty Baker. He has plenty of talent on the roster including perennial MVP candidates Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to lead the charge on offense. Fireballer Aroldis Chapman anchors the back end of the bullpen. Questions remain in the starting rotation which features pitchers Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto who was plagued by injuries during an ineffective 2013 campaign. Cueto can be one of the best young arms in baseball when healthy which hasn’t be very often recently. The Reds may need to score double digits every game or hope that they have a lead going into the 9th inning if they want to make noise in October. Despite winning 90 games last season, the Reds failed to advance past the wild card game. This year returning to the playoffs will be even tougher, especially with a first year manager. (Glenn Coyle)

Joey Votto’s bat will determine a lot of the Reds fate.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers won 74 games in a very disappointing season in Milwaukee. A big reason they struggled was they were missing the key cog in their lineup. Ryan Braun missed the second half of the season after testing positive to performance enhancing drugs. He returns to excitement and harassment in 2014. Braun steps right into the middle of a lineup that loses Corey Hart but returns many key pieces. Juan Francisco takes over at first and the left side of the infield features up and coming Jean Segura and the consistent Aramis Ramirez. Carlos Gomez is a walking web gem in center, while Braun moves to right to make room for youngster Khris Davis. Jonathan Lucroy not only calls a great game, but can hold his own with his bat. The Brew crew have an above average rotation with Kyle Lohse at the top, Yovani Gallardo eating up innings and Matt Garza bringing his big arm to Miller Park. Their bullpen is a very big question mark with unproven guys handling big roles. Francisco Rodriguez will set up for the young Jim Henderson who could make the fans sweat out many finishes. Braun’s return should improve their offense and Garza helps their rotation, but their bullpen and inconsistent offense has them still a bit behind the top teams in the division. (Scott Boutcher)

Ryan Braun’s return will spark the Brewers offense.

St. Louis Cardinals

It is safe to say on a yearly basis, we will be seeing the St. Louis Cardinals making World Series run. Since 2000, the Cardinals have made the World Series four times and are poised for another deep playoff run again in 2014. Mike Matheny returns the same young and experienced squad that could very well be the best team in baseball. The fans in St. Louis are accustomed to winning every year and will expect the same results this year; but this time, hoisting the trophy by years end. They traded away David Freese, but ended up picking up Jhonny Peralta in he off season. The Cardinals bring back the core of Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig, along with a young, emerging stars in Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams. In addition, filling out the pitching rotation will include the likes of Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and of course, Adam Wainwright. At the end of this baseball season, I would not be surprised one bit we see the Cardinals coming out as World Series Champs. (Kevin Langner)

The Cardinals need Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig to continue success from last year.

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