By Marc Normandin
Think back to October of 2013. That was a great time for the National League Central, which looked to be a blossoming powerhouse thanks to playoff appearances by the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds. Just a few months later, postseason dreams seem far away for all but the defending NL champion Cardinals. It's certainly not impossible for anyone else in the NL Central to make it to the postseason in 2014, but the road there seems much more treacherous than it did a year ago.
There are two reasons for this that stick out. For one, both the Reds and Pirates lost significant pieces in free agency, and arguably did not reload sufficiently to make up for it. What might make this more problematic is the presence of the Brewers, who, while just a fourth-place club in 2013, should field a deeper and more talented roster than they did a year ago. If three teams from one division are beating each other up to grab a wild card, and those teams also have to face the potential juggernaut that is the Cardinals, there might not be a happy ending for any of the three this summer.
We covered the Reds in this space earlier this winter, and they've done nothing since to rectify the problems pointed out after the New Year. Dealing Homer Bailey seemed the easiest way to upgrade their offense, which, after losing Shin-Soo Choo, is in desperate need of that very thing. Bailey remains on the Reds, though, and adds to their admittedly talented rotation. The problem is that they might not hit much at all, outside of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
Choo was one of three powerhouses in the 2013 lineup along with those two, and the trio carried the load for the entire Reds' lineup. They're now relying on a quality rookie campaign from Billy Hamilton, as well as a bounceback season from left fielder Ryan Ludwick. There are serious issues with both that could crop up, though, and if they do, that could be the Reds' season. Hamilton's speed sets him up to be a stolen base threat not seen in the majors since the days of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman hitting triple digits on the basepaths, but he'll need to get on base to leverage that ability. As he batted just .256/.308/.343 in Triple-A in 2013, there is no guarantee he'll make it to first often enough to produce what the Reds need. He certainly has the talent to be better than that, but banking on a 23-year-old prospect making the leap is dangerous when there is little room for error.
Ludwick, similarly, could be huge for the Reds, but he has a history of playing poorly if he's hurting in the slightest. Inconveniently enough for the Reds, Ludwick is oft-injured, and has batted just .252/.323/.424 with a 105 OPS+ since 2010. It would be wonderful for the Reds if he could return to his surprise 2012 form, when he mashed .275/.346/.531 for a 130 OPS+ and essentially replaced Votto's production in the middle of the lineup, but campaigns like that have been few and far between for Ludwick, and he'll be 35 years old in 2014, roughly a year removed from major shoulder surgery.
If those two don't pick up the slack caused by the departed Choo, the Reds lineup is likely in trouble. The Pirates are in a similar boat, although their issue might be with question marks in the rotation. They could be great, but it's going to take an awful lot of granted wishes for that to occur.
Francisco Liriano was a revelation for the Pirates in 2013 after being plucked from the scrap heap in the winter, but we've seen Liriano succeed before: what we've never seen is the lefty produce consecutive quality campaigns. He's also never thrown 200 innings before, so the idea of him as an ace is problematic in multiple ways. Should Liriano's slider lose effectiveness, as it has seemingly every other year in his career, he'll likely look more like the arm that's produced multiple 5-plus ERA in his career, rather than the above-average arm of last summer.
The Pittsburgh rotation also has health concerns surrounding both Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez. Morton, because his entire career to this point has been a health concern, and Rodriguez because his forearm strain never resulted in surgery to fix the issue. Neither is guaranteed to be hurt -- it's nothing as severe as that -- but there are questions to ask about both, and in conjunction with Liriano, those questions can make the rotation seem unsettled. Then there's Edinson Volquez, signed to take A.J. Burnett's place in the rotation: Volquez has been one of the worst regular starters in the league since 2009, and while he's pitching in a park that should help him, he was just in San Diego at Petco Park for most of two seasons, with depressing results. He's no sure thing, either.
The Pirates do have a safety net in the form of young hurler Gerrit Cole, who impressed in his rookie season last year. They also have Jameson Taillon in the minors, who, like Cole last year, could come in mid-season and help patch things up. They won't be enough on their own, though: the rest of the rotation is going to need to step up, or, at least, more pieces are going to need to work out well than not.
As for the Brewers, they added Matt Garza to a rotation that already features the underrated Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada -- who has put together two above-average campaigns in a row -- and 25-year-old Wily Peralta. The last of those is going to need to improve, but he's thrown just over 200 major-league innings to this point, and has been a nicely-regarded prospect in the past. There's also Yovani Gallardo, looking to bounce back from a rough 2013. Gallardo did see more success in the second half of the year, when he posted a 3.09 ERA in 11 starts, but he'll need to keep that going for the Brewers to have a chance. If he does return to form, Gallardo, Garza, Lohse, Estrada and Peralta is a serious rotation that can go up against almost anyone in the NL.
The lineup, so long as it's healthy (and avoids any more long-term suspensions), could do some damage. Jean Segura slowed down in the second half of the year, but the young shortstop can likely be counted on for an above-average campaign with the stick for his position. Jonathan Lucroy is an excellent defensive catcher, and also impressive at the plate, batting a combined .295/.350/.477 over the last two years. Carlos Gomez proved his 2012 breakout was no fluke, putting up an even better campaign in 2013 by slugging over .500 while smacking 24 homers and stealing 40 bases. Khris Davis isn't going to slug nearly .600 over a full season, but he has more than enough promise to make the Brewers forget about Corey Hart's departure. As long as Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Braun both show up to play something approximating full seasons in addition to the above, the Brewers are going to hit.
None of these three teams are perfect, and none of them are anything close to bad, either. The Brewers aren't necessarily better than the Pirates or Reds, but they're in the mix at all, and that's a step up. The fact that the NL Central is going to be so crowded, though, with three teams likely trailing the Cardinals while dealing with some obvious flaws is going to make for an exciting season for some, and terrible disappointment for others. Whether it results in a playoff spot for any of the three is hard to predict at this stage, of course, but maybe the fact there are four teams with playoff aspirations in this one division is a sign that, overall, the NL Central is maybe getting better, not necessarily taking a step backward.
You'll notice we haven't discussed the Cubs, because they have little chance to contend in 2014. But what they do have is a farm system bursting with talent, much of which should arrive in the next year or two. When they do, it's not going to get any easier for their NL Central competition.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.