UKMLB’s 2014 season previews continue today with the NL Central. We’ll be previewing one MLB division every day until Sunday. Read our NL East preview here.
St Louis Cardinals
It’s easy to laugh at talk of “The Cardinal Way” and “the best fans in baseball” (and God knows we heard those phrases enough last October), but the fact remains that St Louis is home to one of baseball’s most impressive teams. Albert Pujols’ departure at the end of 2011 threatened to disrupt a club still celebrating its World Series win, but the Cardinals were able to cope just fine. The likes of Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina have been joined by a number of young players, including Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. Hotly-rated outfield prospect Oscar Taveras should join them at some point this season. The team shored up the Pete Kozma-shaped hole at shortstop this winter with the signing of Jhonny Peralta, and added some plus defense in the outfield in the form of Peter Bourjos. From sustained recent success at the major league level to a strong farm system, the Cardinals are in a pretty good place right now. Another World Series visit would surprise few people.
It seemed like everyone was rooting for Pittsburgh in 2013. It took two decades, but the team finally won more games than it lost in a regular season and made the play-offs. Andrew McCutchen deservedly won the National League MVP award to boot. The question now is whether the Pirates can kick on and secure October baseball for the second year running. They’ve had a quiet winter, which is understandable for a small-market team but a fact that nonetheless highlights their financial disadvantage compared to the Cardinals and the Reds. Essentially replacing A.J. Burnett with Edison Volquez in the rotation is unlikely to result in much success, but Gerrit Cole should kick on from a good first stint in the big leagues. The Pirates have some exciting prospects lurking in the minors too, primarily in the form of pitcher Jameson Taillon and outfielder Gregory Polanco, both of whom may see time in the majors in 2014. With a strong bullpen, the team’s pitching shouldn’t present too many problems for Clint Hurdle. It’s the offense which may prove to be more of a problem. The Pirates scored the sixth fewest runs in the National League last year, and have made no significant offensive additions.
A number of debates and discussions have emerged from Cincinnati in recent years, centring largely on Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Dusty Baker. The team’s first- and second-basemen will continue to polarise opinion, but the manager is now gone. He’s been replaced by Bryan Price, who may very well continue to infuriate saber-friendly baseball watchers. The Reds will likely battle it out with the Pirates for second place in the division, but a run at the top spot isn’t out of the question if everything clicks. The winter was very quiet for Cincinnati, with the biggest player move the signing of Homer Bailey to a six year, $105 million contract extension. An improvement on Zack Cozart at shortstop would have also been extremely welcome. The rotation will continue to be a strength of this team, injury permitting, while the bullpen, even with Aroldis Chapman out injured for the first month or so, should be too. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Reds’ baseball this year will be Billy Hamilton, who could well be the new Ricky Henderson. No one will be quicker on the basepaths this year.
The Brewers last reached the postseason in 2011. It might be a while before they’re there again. True, Ryan Braun is still an integral part of the lineup (with his suspension behind him), but there are too many holes elsewhere on the roster. It’s not as though there’s a particularly strong crop of minor league talent on the farm either. Milwaukee struggled in this division last season and it’s difficult to see their prospects improving this year. There have been no notable offensive signings (Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds, anyone?), but some regression to the mean and Ryan Braun playing a full season should result in some improvement. The team has added Matt Garza to its rotation, and things should be a little better here too. Don’t expect a play-off challenge from Milwaukee, but things might be a little better than last year’s 74-88 effort.
Contention, maybe even greatness, is supposedly just around the corner for the Cubs. No one’s quite sure whether that’ll be 2015, 2016 or beyond, but the rebuilding is certainly in progress. The residents of Wrigley Field finished last in the NL Central last year, and their chances of finishing above fourth this time round are pretty slim. Speaking of Wrigley, the most interesting aspect of the Cubs’ season may be the battle between the club and the owners of the properties adjacent to the ballpark. The Cubs want to erect large adverts which would obscure the view from the nearby rooftops, where property owners operate a lucrative business providing seats to watch the baseball from beyond the Friendly Confines. The Cubs are likely to put up a greater fight in this battle than on the diamond this season. Rick Renteria is the team’s new manager, and most of the players with whom he’ll be working are familiar faces in Chicago. Jason Hammel is a new entry in the team’s rotation, and José Veras is a new fixture in the bullpen, while Emilio Bonifacio and Justin Ruggiano have been signed to contribute with bat and glove. Those players aside, however, it’s largely the same group who went 66-96 in 2013. Look out for Javier Baez and Jorge Soler if they see major league playing time though. They’re the future.