In a general sense, yes, the most prominent team in National League Central has clearly been the St. Louis Cardinals. They've reached the National League Championship Series in 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, which is absurd when you take a step back from it. That's particularly true when you look at the rest of the division. Here are the years, since 1996, that the teams currently in the NL Central (now that it has lost Houston) who are not the Cardinals have reached the NLCS: the 2003 Chicago Cubs, a team you might remember, and the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers … who lost to the Cardinals.
But if you look at the actual champions of the division, the Cardinals' dominance is not so apparent. They've won the last two division titles -- with other teams in the division grabbing three of the four Wild Card spots those two years -- but before that, since 2007, the Cubs and Reds had both won more division titles than the Cardinals, and the Brewers had won just as many. The only team that hasn't won the division is Pittsburgh, and it has made the playoffs the last two seasons.
The point is: This division has always been tougher than it has been given credit for, and that's never been truer than this year. I'd argue the NL Central is, in fact, the strongest division in baseball, top to bottom, with three legitimate World Series contenders and two teams that have every reason to believe they're at least .500 teams. (If the Reds and Brewers were in the AL Central, we'd consider them one of the potential favorites, wouldn't we?) And you think it's good now? Wait two years, when the young talent of the Cubs and Pirates matures. This division will be a dogfight for the next decade-plus. I can't wait.
Thus, we continue with our weekly look at the 10 most compelling players in each division with the NL Central. As we mentioned with last week's AL West take, these might not be the 10 best players, but they are the 10 with the most on the line in 2015. They are the ones who can change their team's fortunes the most, the ones we can't wait to watch, the ones who just leap off the page. Maybe their year is pivotal in the context of their careers, vital to their team's success or just a first chance to see someone we've been talking about for years.
Javier Baez, Cubs. Everybody has a favorite Cubs hitting prospect. (There are so many!) Some love Jorge Soler's unbridled power. Some love Kris Bryant's already legendary consistency. Some love Addison Russell's limitless potential. But for my money, I'll take Baez, mainly because someday he's going to hit a ball 600 feet -- this video makes me duck under my desk -- and he plays second base. He also strikes out at a pace we haven't seen since Mark Reynolds' early days … but of course, Mark Reynolds hit 44 homers in his early days. Some believe Baez needs more time in the minors to ripen, but you want to keep a talent like this, a swing like this, in Iowa? Let the freak flag fly.
Jay Bruce, Reds. Every year, this year is the year that Bruce is going to break out. Ever since debuting in 2008 at the age of 21, he had steadily increased his home run total: 21, 22, 25, 32, 34, then 30 in 2014, but still never had that true Superstar Season so many had predicted for him. Then last year, at the age of 27, what should be his prime, the year it should have finally happened … it all fell apart. A .217 average, a .150 drop in OPS, a drop off in walks -- you name it, and it went wrong for Bruce last year. Fangraphs ranked him 143rd out of 146 MLB hitters in WAR. It was a nightmare season. His contract jumps to $12 million this year -- he has one more year after this one -- and he is almost out of time. Though the Reds don't necessarily need that long-awaited breakout anymore; they just don't want to see the Bruce of 2014 ever again.
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals. If you're the sort of baseball fan who obsesses over every detail of every at-bat -- who enjoys the silent pitcher-battle mind game as much as anything that happens once the ball is in play -- then Carpenter should be your favorite player. His at-bats are 3-D chess: He is always working through equations the rest of us don't even know exist. This daily pleasure of watching Carpenter went national in the 2013 NLCS and the 2014 NLDS, in two already legendary at-bats against Clayton Kershaw.
Carpenter at-bats are as much fun as anything in baseball. As the leadoff man for a team gunning for the World Series, they will be plentiful.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates. The Pirates have a trove of young pitching coming down the pipeline -- they basically have an armada of arms the way the Cubs have an armada of bats -- but the one guy whom they believe can be a top-shelf workhorse is Cole. He actually took a slight step back last season: His strikeouts were up, but so were his walks and homers. But none of it was too over the top, and he's still 24 years old and built like a brick house. If the Pirates are going to compete for the division title this year, they don't just need Cole to ascend to ace status. They need him to do it in bulk, with as many innings as possible. (He threw only 138 last year.) The training wheels are off. Cole is the first super Pirates prospect to arrive, and now he has to show he's the best.
Carlos Gomez, Brewers. Gomez might not be the annual winner of the "most likely to be thrown at after he showed up an opposing pitcher" award … but he's always in the top five. That's not a criticism of Gomez. The showmanship is a feature, not a bug. Gomez's demonstrative nature is one of those things you can't stand if you're an opposing fan but love when he's on your team, particularly when he's putting up 5.9 WAR, smashing 23 homers, stealing 34 bases and playing a terrific center field. Gomez plays baseball with a natural exuberance that's compelling even when you're shaking your fist at him. He is the pulse of this Brewers team, and one of the best players in the division. And whether you like it or not, you can't take your eyes off him.
Jason Heyward, Cardinals. There might not be a more fascinating player in baseball this year. Heyward looks built to play baseball: He's fast, strong, athletic, has an impeccable batting eye and plays right field like the position was invented specifically for him. The problem with Heyward is that he does so many things so well that the Braves never quite figured out how to deploy him. Was he a power hitter? A table setter? A base stealer? Now that he's a Cardinal -- and now that he is about to become a free agent at the age of 26 -- the plan is simply for him to hit, preferably for power. If Heyward can unleash the power he had two years ago when he hit 27 homers, and not worry about being a leadoff man anymore, he could make the Cardinals lineup the best in the division, even with all those Cubs sluggers hanging around. And he can make himself a frighteningly rich man. Jason Heyward and the Cardinals seem like a perfect fit … but then again, for a few years there, Heyward and the Braves felt like a perfect fit. Everyone has been waiting on Heyward to become the superstar we all thought he would be. He'll never have a better opportunity to make it happen than 2015.
Ryan Braun, Brewers. Has it really been 3 1/2 years since Braun's name was first leaked as having failed a drug test? Putting aside the endless rigmarole that followed, that was essentially the last time people loved Braun. And people loved Ryan Braun: This story about his contract extension at the beginning of the 2011 season, signing him until 2020, is basically 1,200 words of giddy celebration. It has all gone wrong for Braun since the PED stuff hit, both on and off the field. Last year was the worst of his career, even worse than the 2013 season he'd been struggling through before his suspension. He went from winning an MVP in 2011 and finishing second in 2012 to falling off a cliff. There are signs this could be a comeback for Braun: Before his thumb injury finally became too painful to deal with, he was actually a solid hitter last season. Now that he's healthy, he can be good again. The Brewers and their fans want to be able to fully cheer for Braun again, and they're going to need to. That much-heralded extension? It finally kicks in next season.
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates. McCutchen has so quickly become not only the face his franchise but one of the most recognizable faces in the game that the Pirates, who just signed an extension with McCutchen three years ago, are already talking about another one. This is what we want out of baseball: homegrown superstars who stay with one franchise their whole careers. The Pirates' ascension has corresponded directly with McCutchen's. He also just keeps getting better: He followed up an MVP season with more improvement, hitting more homers, getting on base more and even improving his already-fantastic defense. You're looking at a Hall of Famer, folks, and someone who could become a legend in Pittsburgh that hasn't been seen since Roberto Clemente. And he's only 28.
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. You know what the most terrifying thing about this is?
Hey you guys: pic.twitter.com/SaAwewnzLi— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) March 10, 2015
None of those are the best home run hitters on the Cubs. That would be Anthony Rizzo, who was seventh in baseball in OPS last season and this year will have lots of lineup protection. Only 25, he took a major step forward last season, and not just in power: His average leapt up 53 points and he even struck out less. He also plays a mean first base. We are all losing our minds over all the Cubs prospects, but the best one is already here. This team is going to be terrifying, perhaps as early as right now.
Joey Votto, Reds. In almost any city other than Cincinnati -- where, trained by Pete Rose, many prioritize "hustle" over "value" -- Votto would be seen as the quiet superstar he is. In Cincinnati, though, he's always under the gun. Columnists are claiming he walks too much, that he isn't aggressive enough, that he doesn't homer enough, that he doesn't fully embrace Being A Leader enough, that he just doesn't sweat enough. (That massive contract might have something do with it.) Votto battled injuries last year and played only 62 games, hitting a mere six homers … and yet he still had a .390 OBP, which, while the worst of his career, still would have been the sixth-best in baseball had he notched enough plate appearance. A healthy Joey Votto is one of the best players on the planet. Hopefully someone will look past his contract and notice.