Division Preview: NL Central

We’ve already previewed the two western divisions, the NL and the AL. Today, we move into the middle of the country, and look at perhaps the most interesting division in baseball.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Cardinals 88 74 48% 24% 7%
Pirates 85 77 26% 26% 4%
Cubs 84 78 20% 24% 3%
Brewers 78 84 5% 10% 1%
Reds 74 88 2% 4% 0%

It’s a three team race at the top, with a couple of teams not quite willing to rebuild but also probably not good enough to contend. Let’s go team by team.

St. Louis Cardinals

I will note that this is probably the one division where I’m not as much in agreement with our projected standings; if these were simply “Dave’s Gut Feeling Predictions”, I’d probably have the Cardinals a few wins lower and maybe not in first place. Of all the good teams in baseball, this is the one that, for me, seems to have the most potential for an implosion.

There’s just so much downside around the roster, starting at the very front of the rotation. Adam Wainwright stopped pitching like an ace in the second half of the year, and — especially when combined with some vague remarks from the team about the health of his elbow — he seems like a particularly high-risk ace. Much of the rotation has recent arm problems in their medical file, in fact, and this rotation doesn’t have the depth that the Cardinals have featured of late. For the first time in quite a while, the starting pitching could be a problem for St. Louis.

On the position player side of things, age looks like a potential issue. Matt Holliday might be at the end of his days as a power hitter, Jhonny Peralta can’t stay a strong defensive shortstop forever, and Yadier Molina is reaching the point at which catchers seem to stop hitting. There are some realistic scenarios where Matt Carpenter is the Cardinals best hitter this year, and if that happens while the rotation is struggling, the Cardinals could be the 2015 version of last year’s Red Sox team.

Of course, risk doesn’t necessarily mean a disaster is looming. Wainwright could be just fine, Holliday could rebound a bit, and Peralta and Molina are good contributors even if they take a small step back. It’s not like I think the Cardinals are a bad team, and the projections likely do a better job of accounting for their mean forecast than my own brain does. But this feels like a team that could underachieve to me. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this was the year the Cardinals finally started to look old.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The top-end of the Pirates roster is tremendous, with the best player in the National League fronting a top-six that should combine for more than +20 WAR between them. This is a clear championship core, the kind of high-level talent that long-term contenders are built around. Given the fact that they’re all in their primes or headed towards it, the Pirates future remains bright.

But this appears to be somewhat of a questionable supporting cast. Gregory Polanco provides enough upside to be worth the playing time, but that potential could be a few years away if he doesn’t figure out how to drive the ball with more consistency. Pedro Alvarez doesn’t hit enough to be an impact first baseman, especially not while trading in power to cut down on the strikeouts, as he did a year ago. Francisco Cervelli isn’t Russell Martin. Jordy Mercer is in the line-up for his glove. The bottom half of the Pirates line-up just looks pretty lousy, and unless the Jung-Ho Kang bet pays off in 2015, it looks likely to remain that way unless the team makes an acquisition.

The pitching is a bit trickier to evaluate, because the Pirates have made a habit of turning scrap heap arms into valuable contributors, so while I’d generally be down on a team giving Jeff Locke innings on purpose, the Pirates have earned something of the benefit of the doubt here. But the likely offensive weaknesses mean that there’s not a huge margin of error on the run prevention side of things; the pitching has to be excellent for the Pirates to win the NL Central.

It might be, especially if Gerrit Cole takes a step forward and Jameson Taillon joins the rotation in the second half of the year. The Pirates strong core means that they don’t have to have good players at every position on the field, and can get by with a weak spot or two. The division might be decided by whether the front office can eliminate those weak spots early enough to make a strong run at the postseason.

Chicago Cubs

It isn’t really a question of if the Cubs are going to be good; the question is when. There’s more upside here than with any team in the division, and the Cubs are the one team from the Central that I could see making a run at 100 wins. It would take the best case outcome from nearly every young player on the roster, but there are enough high-ceiling talents hanging around that it could happen.

More likely, though, the Cubs are a 2016 juggernaut, and this year is spent sorting out all the pieces, with the team hanging around the Wild Card race instead of chasing the Cardinals and Pirates for the division title. Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are probably more good players than great players this year, and both Addison Russell and Javier Baez probably need to spend most of 2015 in the minors, pushing guys like Chris Coghlan, Mike Olt, Tommy La Stella, and Arismendy Alcantara into more regular roles than a contender should want.

But if the team starts off strong and shows themselves to be ready to win in 2015, it isn’t that hard for management to switch gears and start prioritizing the present over the future. Their middle infield surplus makes for an easy potential trade to fill big league holes, and the Cubs are at the point on the win curve where making a big acquisition could be most easily justified. So, if they’re hanging around in June and July, looking more like a 2015 contender than a club one year away, don’t be surprised if they push in on the kind of player that could make them a serious threat in the postseason.

Any time you’re counting on this many young talents, the risks abound, but no team in this division has a higher ceiling than the Cubs. It’s not clear that it will all come together this year, but for the first time in a while, the Cubs have a legitimate shot at being really good.

Milwaukee Brewers

In some ways, the Brewers a low-rent version of the Pirates. Like Pittsburgh, their top few players are terrific, forming the core of a very good team. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, the discrepancy between the Jonathan Lucroy/Carlos Gomez/Ryan Braun tier and everything else they have is substantial, and will become even more heightened as soon as anyone on the team gets hurt.

The lack of depth is especially troubling in the rotation, where the team has five mediocre starters and absolutely nothing behind them. As soon as any of the starters need a DL stint, the team will have a replacement level arm in the rotation every five days, and any serious downtime for one of their starting five could really expose the lack of pitching depth.

The depth on the position side isn’t a lot better, honestly. Their star catcher is doubling as a platoon first baseman, there is no solid reserve for a starting 3B who needs frequent off-days, and even the mediocre double play combination of Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett are leaps and bounds better than their backups.

If the Brewers could guarantee that none of their players would ever get hurt this year, they’d actually have an okay shot at a Wild Card spot. But life is going to happen to the Brewers at some point, and when it does, they’re not going to have any alternatives. Stars and scrubs can work if you have a lot of stars, but the Brewers really only have three, leaving way too many scrubs to play far too often.

Cincinnati Reds

One has to wonder if getting to host the 2015 All-Star Game is actually hindering the Reds progress. With too many better teams ahead of them to consider a playoff run a strong possibility in 2015 and a host of pending free agents too valuable to let walk for just draft pick compensation, the Reds probably should have been more aggressive about pivoting to the future this winter. But, logistically, I can see how it would be a tough sell to ask fans to watch Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman wear opposing team’s uniforms at the All-Star Game this summer. You don’t want to make baseball decisions based on PR, but that’s some pretty bad PR.

So, realistically, the sell-off probably begins on July 15th. Sure, there are scenarios where everything goes right and the team pushes up to 85 or maybe even 90 wins, making a run at a Wild Card spot and energizing the city again. That’s the scenario where Joey Votto returns to MVP form, Jay Bruce finds his power stroke again, Billy Hamilton is the first-half-of-2014 version but for the entire year, and the young pitchers at the back-end of the rotation make the projections look silly. If all that happens, the Reds could be okay.

But all that probably isn’t going to happen, leaving the Reds with too many weak spots to keep up with the contenders at the top of the division. Like the Brewers, there are just too many holes to plug if anyone gets hurt, except in the Reds case, injuries are already forcing Jason Marquis onto the Opening Day roster. The good news — relatively, anyway — is that Cueto and Chapman should bring back huge returns at the trade deadline, and if Votto/Bruce sustain performances more like their track record suggests is possible, the Reds will be able to move both next winter.

But 2015 is likely the year where the Reds window closes on this group, forcing the organization to start building for the future. At least they’ll have the All-Star Game though.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

As a lifetime Cardinals fan I think the questioning of this years performance is fair; however, ignoring the Heyward acquisition doesn’t quite seem fair, especially since you have been one of Heyward’s biggest fans.

And while Wainright scares the daylights out of me as well, I also think there is real upside for Wacha to come into his own, and C-Mart mixing his changeup grip can help vs. lefties. So I’m not sure all the questions are ones riddled with downside.

8 years ago
Reply to  Jdrury12

They also have a fair amount of rotation depth. Only the Nationals could replace an ace with an ace, but they Gonzalez, Cooney, Lyons and possibly Garcia in the AAA rotation. All of whom are 1 win or better pitchers over a full season. None would be utter disasters. It looks to me like better rotation depth than last year, when they had to go out and get Lackey b/c of Wacha’s injury.