2015 Preview: NL Central
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals always seem to be in the division race in the month of September, and have won eight of them since 2000. Some would call that a dominating stretch. The Cardinals expect to contend for another division title and hope their offense can alleviate some pressure off of the pitching staff. To do that, the Cardinals traded away promising young pitcher Shelby Miller and a prospect to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. The Cardinals needed a boost to their lineup that saw little production in 2014; Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are only getting older, and the clock is ticking on some guys in this clubhouse. If pitchers Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha can stay healthy, to be the one-two punch in a rotation that includes Lance Lynn, John Lackey, and a very impressive Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals can win their ninth division title in 15 years.
X-Factor: Oscar Tavares’ tragic death in the offseason will stick with the team all season, and they will wear OT patches on their jerseys to remember their teammate, who was taken in a car accident near his home in the Dominican Republic.
Prediction: 1st place
After being known as cellar-dwellars for the past 20 years, the Bucs made it to the postseason in back-to-back seasons. The 2015 roster could be the best yet, with an outfield that consists of Andrew McCutcheon (arguably the best player in the MLB), Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, the Pirates could have a dominant offense in the National League. The question mark heading into the season for the Pirates is the pitching rotation, will it hold-up the whole season? Veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano are fighting father time, and former number-one overall pick Gerrit Cole needs to prove he can stay healthy. The Pirates are pennant contenders in the NL.
X-Factor: Hung-Jo Kang- If he can provide the Pirates with a long-ball hitting SS, something Pittsburgh has not seen in sometime, they will be on their way to a NL Central crown.
Prediction: 2nd place, Wild Card
The Chicago Cubs are the media darlings after the offseason in which Theo Epstein signed the new ace of the Cubs pitching staff Jon Lester, and arguably the best manager in baseball, Joe Maddon. Add in the young prospects Chicago has been stockpiling from being terrible the past decade, and you have a team close to contending for a postseason berth. Yes top prospects Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and others will start the season in the minor leagues, but you will see them in a Cubs uniform fairly quickly into the season. The Cubs will need a lot of things to work their way if they want to make the playoffs in 2015. Realistically, Chicago needs one or two more years before they are real contenders. There is also that curse thing.
X-Factor: Kyle Hendricks- At the end of last season Hendricks really came on and dominated going 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. If he can continue on that success, the Cubs rotation can be the best in the NL Central with Lester, Arrieta, Hammel in front of Hendricks.
Prediction: 3rd place
The Brewers sat atop the NL Central for much of the summer last season, but failed to hold onto their lead, missing the playoffs completely. The potential is there for the Brewers to succeed, names like Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Aramis Ramirez lead a dangerous lineup, but all have dealt with a multitude of injuries. If they can stay healthy, and that is a big “if”, Milwaukee could sniff a wild card. The rotation is the biggest question mark heading into the season, Yovani Gallardo was traded away to the Rangers, and veterans Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse will need to pitch like aces at the top of the rotation to succeed.
X-Factor: Jean Segura- Segura was a huge bust in 2014, and is a popular break-out candidate, especially in fantasy circles heading into 2015. Segura dealt with a lot last season, that included the death of his nine-month old son. When his head is right, he can be one of the most dangerous offensive shortstops in the big leagues.
Prediction: 4th place
The Reds boast a lineup that has a lot of aging players that include Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Marlon Byrd, even Todd Frazier. These guys are talented but none of them seem to click the same years. With an ace in Johnny Cueto and one of the best closers in the game, Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati does not lack star-power, but will that translate to victories?
X-Factor: Billy Hamilton- Billy Hamilton’s speed did not disappoint last season as he swiped 56 bags, but he has the potential for so much more. If he can improve on his .250 BA from 2014, and get on-base more often, he can be lethal for the Reds in the NL Central.
Prediction: 5th place