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2014 NL Central Preview

Will the Central be a three- or even four-team race … or a cakewalk for the defending NL champions?

Grantland’s MLB division preview series continues today with the NL Central, where the Cardinals aim for their third World Series berth in four years, the Reds try to get by with a thin lineup, the Pirates hope to pull off consecutive miracle seasons, the sleeper Brewers look to regroup with Ryan Braun back, and the Cubs wait for the kids to arrive.

Note: I’m ordering the teams by Vegas lines. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL EastAL CentralAL WestNL East, and NL West division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

St. Louis Cardinals

Vegas line (via Sportsbook.com): 91.5 wins

Key additions: Peter Bourjos, Mark Ellis, Pat Neshek, Jhonny Peralta

Key losses: John Axford, Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas, Jake Westbrook

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
3B Matt Carpenter (.278/.358/.418)
2B Kolten Wong (.265/.315/.376)
LF Matt Holliday (.282/.366/.473)
RF Allen Craig (.288/.343/.460)
C Yadier Molina (.292/.342/.432)
1B Matt Adams (.265/.311/.462)
SS Jhonny Peralta (.260/.317/.398)
CF Peter Bourjos (.253/.308/.403)

The 2013 Cardinals leaned on a murderer’s row of rookies to push them to the World Series, including Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Matt Adams, Seth Maness, and Kevin Siegrist. While most of those players are pitchers,1 Adams made an impact with his bat, and he’ll pair with 2014 rookie Kolten Wong to form a new right side of the infield this season. Adams, who launched 17 bombs in 319 plate appearances last year, could lead the team in homers this season. And while Wong doesn’t own a single dominant tool, his line-drive hitting and playable defense should make him a decent contributor.

Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals have taken great care in building this roster. Instead of letting Wong struggle against lefty starters, they’ll use sure-handed lefty-masher Mark Ellis in an occasional platoon; instead of allowing Jon Jay to be a defensive disaster two years in a row, they’ll move newly acquired Gold Glove–level center fielder Peter Bourjos into the starting role; instead of keeping David Freese, they moved the versatile Matt Carpenter, one of last season’s most valuable players, from second to third to make the best use of their resources; and so on. The Cardinals have copious talent and a roster setup that consistently makes sense, which is why they’re the clear front-runners in this division.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Adam Wainwright (221, 2.96)
Michael Wacha (174, 3.56)
Lance Lynn (171, 3.48)
Shelby Miller (155, 3.61)
Joe Kelly (113, 3.97)

Martinez, who came up as a starter, is easily one of the five most talented pitchers on the roster, and it’s no secret that a good starting pitcher is far more valuable than a good reliever. Yet Martinez won’t be in the rotation on Opening Day. That’s how stacked the Cardinals are.

Martinez’s status will be one of the most fascinating stories to track in St. Louis this year. If Joe Kelly’s flaccid strikeout rate and high strand rate betray him early, or if any of the current starters get injured, the Cardinals will be able to stretch out Martinez and move him into the rotation. That’s not to say Martinez isn’t a serious asset as a reliever: The Cards are thinner in the pen this year after losing Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas, and late-season pickup John Axford, and Martinez was a terrifying weapon as the eighth-inning bridge to Rosenthal last year. The longer Martinez works as a setup man, though, the more comfortable he’ll get, and the tougher it’ll be for management to shift him. Worst-case scenario, we’ll be having this same conversation again next spring.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Amazingly, this Cardinals team is significantly deeper than last year’s. Jay didn’t cut it as a starter, but he’ll be a valuable left-handed bat off the bench. Ellis has the kind of reliable right-handed bat teams want in close games, and he’s still a solid defender. Best of all, the Cardinals might be able to go through this season without giving any at-bats to Pete Kozma. The pen is the only thin spot. While Kevin Siegrist is still on board as the wipeout lefty, Randy Choate as the left-handed one-out guy, and Seth Maness as the double-play specialist, the Cardinals might need to deal for another reliever if Martinez does move to the rotation.

Best-case scenario: Clearly, the Cardinals have enough talent and smarts to make another World Series run.

Worst-case scenario: I haven’t even mentioned top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, who’s battling a leg injury, but is immensely talented and nearly major league–ready. That’s how good the Cardinals are, which makes it tough to envision them truly collapsing, especially given the NL’s weak wild-card field. Still, it’s possible that instead of breezing to another division crown, the Cardinals will win 80-something games and have to fight to make it to October.

Bold prediction: Shelby Miller, not reliable ace Adam Wainwright or 2013 postseason hero Michael Wacha, will be the team’s best starting pitcher.

Cincinnati Reds

Vegas line: 84.5 wins

Key additions: Pedro Beato, Roger Bernadina, Brett Marshall, Brayan Pena, Ramon Santiago

Key losses: Bronson Arroyo, Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Hanigan

Projected lineup:
CF Billy Hamilton (.255/.310/.348)
2B Brandon Phillips (.267/.316/.404)
1B Joey Votto (.292/.418/.505)
RF Jay Bruce (.253/.330/.483)
LF Ryan Ludwick (.243/.308/.414)
3B Todd Frazier (.242/.312/.431)
C Devin Mesoraco (.247/.308/.412)
SS Zack Cozart (.251/.289/.389)

Even with Shin-Soo Choo’s .423 on-base percentage2 atop the lineup last year, the Reds finished just 15th in park-adjusted offense. With Choo now in Texas, this becomes essentially a two-man offense with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, unless Brandon Phillips halts his decline or someone like Todd Frazier or Devin Mesoraco stages a sudden breakout. The Reds needs to address left field in particular, because 35-year-old Ryan Ludwick shouldn’t be in any team’s starting lineup, let alone hitting behind guys like Votto and Bruce. It’s pretty simple: If the Reds fail to upgrade their offense, there’s a high-percentage chance they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Projected rotation:
Johnny Cueto (168, 3.66)
Homer Bailey (202, 3.70)
Mike Leake (171, 4.17)
Tony Cingrani (157, 3.80)
Alfredo Simon (38, 4.14)

With the lineup looking weak, the pitching staff will need to be razor sharp … and things are already going poorly on that front, as Mat Latos will miss at least his first scheduled start while rehabbing from offseason knee and elbow surgeries. The good news is that Latos was consistently hitting 93 mph in his most recent spring outing this week, with the last of his 43 pitches reaching 95. Assuming Latos returns quickly, Tony Cingrani will become the rotation’s X factor. After breaking into the majors last year, Cingrani posted the highest strikeout rate of any NL pitcher with at least 100 innings, topping beasts like Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, and Clayton Kershaw. Cingrani doesn’t throw as hard as those aces, averaging around 92 mph with his fastball, but he throws his heater prolifically and with significant movement. The blueprint for a successful Reds season likely includes 30 starts and 200-plus strikeouts from Cingrani.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Better health will help the Reds in all three areas. Injuries have crushed the bullpen in particular, with closer Aroldis Chapman out until May after taking a line drive to the face, and Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton also set to start the season on the disabled list. The bench, meanwhile, will improve when versatile utility man Skip Schumaker and third base vacuum cleaner Jack Hannahan return.

Best-case scenario: Cingrani has a huge year, the Reds add a bat to augment the offense, and Cincy makes it back to the postseason.

Worst-case scenario: A .500 season, with overzealous Occam’s razor enthusiasts blaming the decline on Dusty Baker’s departure rather than on a lack of talent.

Bold prediction: Billy Hamilton becomes the first player in 27 years to steal 100 bases in a season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Vegas line: 83 wins

Key additions: Travis Ishikawa, Chris Stewart, Edinson Volquez

Key losses: A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Garrett Jones, Justin Morneau

Projected lineup:
LF Starling Marte (.271/.321/.430)
SS Jordy Mercer (.253/.305/.382)
CF Andrew McCutchen (.293/.381/.492)
3B Pedro Alvarez (.238/.308/.462)
2B Neil Walker (.265/.335/.421)
C Russell Martin (.231/.323/.374)
1B Gaby Sanchez (.252/.334/.399)
RF Jose Tabata (.269/.334/.386)

The Pirates are settling at the bottom of the order, where Jose Tabata is a below-average right fielder on a team with playoff designs and Gaby Sanchez has proven he’s best suited to be a platoon player. While top outfield prospect Gregory Polanco isn’t far from being ready for The Show, the Buccos might decide to be patient with the 22-year-old, who’s played just 70 games above Single-A and has seen his numbers drop as he’s climbed the organization ladder.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh tried but failed to sign James Loney, because it doesn’t have a Polanco type standing on deck to play first. Keep an eye on Travis Ishikawa, though. Ishikawa, a career .260/.324/.398 hitter who’s already 30 years old, won’t hit a lot of homers, but he could deliver a bunch of doubles, and he gets high marks for his defense. He’s basically a poor man’s Loney. Ishikawa’s not a championship-caliber player, but he might be better than Sanchez, and if the Bucs can get anything close to Loney’s 2013 production out of Ishikawa, they’ll take it.

Projected rotation:
Francisco Liriano (197, 3.27)
Gerrit Cole (183, 3.58)
Wandy Rodriguez (152, 3.85)
Charlie Morton (166, 3.92)
Edinson Volquez (115, 4.13)

Since there’s no reason to believe Edinson Volquez can be even an average big league starter, the Pirates could really use prospect Jameson Taillon in the rotation ASAP. That’s not going to happen right away, as the second overall pick in the 2010 draft has fallen behind fellow talented young righty Gerrit Cole in terms of prospect luster, flashing knockout stuff but not the results to match. The Pirates recently shut down Taillon for two weeks with elbow inflammation, and he isn’t expected back until late April or early May … and when he does return, it’ll be at Triple-A. The Pirates need Taillon to hit the ground running when he again takes the rubber, because if he doesn’t, they might need to look for outside help. Losing A.J. Burnett hurts a lot, and Wandy Rodriguez’s return isn’t enough to make up for it. Much like the Reds need to address their lineup, the Pirates need to boost their rotation if they hope to make it back to the playoffs.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: The bench is nearly unchanged from last year, with the battle raging on between Clint Barmes (terrific glove, no bat) and Jordy Mercer (OK glove, OK bat). In the pen, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli pitched supernaturally well for most of last season, and expecting a repeat is asking for a lot. If Volquez puts up a bunch of four-inning, five-walk performances in Burnett’s stead this year, the pen could get taxed quickly.

Best-case scenario: Playoffs, redux.

Worst-case scenario: The Pirates’ streak of better-than-.500 seasons ends at one.

Bold prediction: Fresh off bagging a new six-year, $31 million contract, Marte delivers a 20/50 season.

Milwaukee Brewers

Vegas line: 80 wins

Key additions: Zach Duke, Matt Garza, Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith, Wei-Chung Wang

Key losses: Norichika Aoki, Burke Badenhop, Juan Francisco, Mike Gonzalez

Projected lineup:
CF Carlos Gomez (.256/.309/.447)
SS Jean Segura (.281/.321/.413)
RF Ryan Braun (.295/.365/.527)
3B Aramis Ramirez (.272/.337/.467)
C Jonathan Lucroy (.273/.329/.431)
1B Lyle Overbay (.238/.299/.388)
LF Khris Davis (.251/.328/.447)
2B Scooter Gennett (.275/.309/.384)

The Brewers would surely have more dark-horse buzz if they weren’t starting Lyle Overbay (?!) at first base in a platoon with Mark Reynolds. Still, this team’s chances will largely come down to corner outfielders Ryan Braun and Khris Davis. Braun is coming off a 65-game PED suspension, and there’s at least some chance his performance could decline if he was using before and is clean now. Davis, meanwhile, exhibited a power surge during his brief 2013 major league stint that seemed to come out of nowhere to some, but was actually forecast in the minor leagues, where he hit 13 homers and 12 doubles in 69 games at Triple-A last year and delivered 36 more extra-base hits in 82 games in 2012. Braun and Davis could combine to hit 70 home runs this year, or 40; neither result would be all that surprising.

Projected rotation:
Yovani Gallardo (193, 3.83)
Kyle Lohse (199, 4.29)
Matt Garza (183, 3.73)
Marco Estrada (141, 3.93)
Wily Peralta (150, 4.33)

Here’s a complete list of the starting pitchers with 250 or more innings pitched over the past two seasons and a better strikeout-to-walk rate than Marco Estrada’s: Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. That’s it. Strikeout and walk totals aren’t everything, of course, and Estrada has also ranked among the league leaders in fly-ball rate over the past two seasons, giving up 37 homers in 266⅓ innings pitched. Estrada’s bigger problem has been injuries, though, with hamstring and quad ailments adding up to 97 DL days since the start of the 2012 season. If a few of those fly balls die on the warning track this year and Estrada avoids the injury bug, he should be a subtle breakout candidate.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Will Smith was terrific in 19 appearances with the Royals last year, with 43 punchouts against just seven walks over 33⅓ innings. If he continues to pitch that well, expect Smith to take on a more high-leverage role this season with the Brewers. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s bench might feature more right-handed power than any other group of reserves in the league behind Reynolds and demoted $11 million man Rickie Weeks.

Best-case scenario: The Pirates and Reds fall sharply from last year’s heights, Braun returns to MVP form, and the Crew surges to second place with a shot at a wild card.

Worst-case scenario: Another sub-.500 season, coupled with a tragic worldwide shortage of spicy brown mustard.

Bold prediction: Jim Henderson saves 40 games.

Chicago Cubs

Vegas line: 71 wins

Key additions: John Baker, Emilio Bonifacio, Jason Hammel, Ryan Roberts, Justin Ruggiano, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright

Key losses: Brian Bogusevic, Kevin Gregg, Dioner Navarro

Projected lineup:
SS Starlin Castro (.278/.319/.408)
2B Luis Valbuena (.240/.325/.378)
1B Anthony Rizzo (.260/.341/.474)
RF Nate Schierholtz (.259/.313/.441)
3B Mike Olt (.219/.300/.380)
LF Junior Lake (.255/.300/.384)
C Welington Castillo (.250/.323/.400)
CF Ryan Sweeney (.265/.324/.401)

In the case of Competence v. Starlin Castro, remember this: Baseball players are not bell curves. After an impressive first three seasons, Castro was awful in 2013, hitting just .245/.284/.347, striking out more, walking less, and hitting for less power than ever before. The explanation is that … well, no one’s really sure. Castro dealt with hamstring problems last spring, but nothing severe enough to knock him out of the lineup, as he played in 161 games.

The thing to keep in mind is that Castro just turned 24 years old, meaning he has two age-related factors on his side: Players who hit .300 at age 20 in the majors tend to have very bright futures, and most players tend to peak on the other side of 25, and occasionally closer to 30. Hanley Ramirez was a star for the first five seasons of his career, fell off sharply for a few years, then went nuts again as a 29-year-old in 2013. Jhonny Peralta had a huge year as a 23-year-old, stunk the next season, and has since produced a career that resembles a seismograph, though with even more ups than downs. Chris Davis, Adrian Beltre, Nick Swisher, and more names than I can list have thrived early, hit speed bumps, and then taken off again.

Patience is a virtue. The Cubs can control Castro’s rights through 2020, and they’re not close to contending. Even with Javier Baez and several other hugely talented middle-infield prospects surging their way through the minors, there’s plenty of time left for Castro — years, not weeks or months — to return to form before the Cubs potentially need to make a tough decision.

Projected rotation:
Jeff Samardzija (207, 3.55)
Edwin Jackson (163, 3.80)
Jason Hammel (149, 4.10)
Travis Wood (184, 4.49)
Chris Rusin (48, 4.68)

While the Cubs are loaded with exciting position-player prospects, their stock of elite minor league pitching is comparatively low. That’s what makes the team’s Jeff Samardzija dilemma so interesting. On the one hand, Samardzija has just two years left before free agency, he’s already 29 years old, and if the Cubs traded him now, they’d get a ton in return, presumably including at least one impact pitching prospect whose development would track more closely with the team’s potential return to contention a couple years down the road. On the other hand, Samardzija was a two-sport star for so long that he’s not necessarily as far along as most 29-year-old pitchers would be; there could be more upside here as he harnesses his excellent stuff and improves his grasp on the finer points of pitching. Some reports this winter indicated the Cubs were trying to sign him to a long-term extension, while others indicated they were open to trading him. Either path could make sense as the Cubs face another likely sub-.500 season and continue to rebuild.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: This could quietly be one of the best benches in the league, with John Baker serving as a decent lefty-hitting caddy for Welington Castillo, defensive whiz Darwin Barney potentially platooning with Luis Valbuena at second (assuming Rangers transplant Mike Olt gets the call at third), and 2012 breakout masher Justin Ruggiano offering right-handed pop. The pen probably won’t be as good as the bench, and the Cubs could try to trade some of the veteran relievers they’ve assembled for B-level young talent.

Best-case scenario: Castro bounces back, setting up a pleasantly difficult decision for the Cubs as their ultra-talented corps of middle-infield prospects develops. The Cubs have a lot of young talent, but no matter what, they’re unlikely to contend in 2014.

Worst-case scenario: Well, they’re the Cubs. Unless a meteor wipes out Wrigley Field, the worst-case scenario is pretty much the status quo.

Bold prediction: Baez cracks 15-plus homers in the big leagues this season, and does so at second base with Castro successfully manning short.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, NL Central, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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