The National League Central was one of the more surprising divisions in baseball last season, thanks in no small part to the unexpected rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates. While the view from the top hasn't really changed -- the division is still the Cardinals' to lose, like it was for most of last season -- it's unlikely the Central will see a second straight year with three teams winning over 90 games. Barring another season of miracles in Pittsburgh, it's looking more and more like the NL Central is once again the St. Louis and Cincinnati show.
First Place: St. Louis Cardinals
Either the Cardinals or the Reds are going to be at the top of this division, at least for pundits who aren't gambling on Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco of the Pirates coming up around June and annihilating the majors. And of the two teams, the Cardinals are the clear favorite.
The Cardinals lineup, which scored the most runs in the National League last year by a comfortable margin (783 to Colorado's 706), will be hurt only by the departure of Carlos Beltran for New York. Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday -- the engines that really drove the St. Louis offense last season -- will all return, joined by Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Peter Bourjos in center field and rookie Kolten Wong at second base. The difference between Peralta and last year's shortstop, Pete Kozma, is likely enough to make up for any offense lost by dealing David Freese to the Angels, and with Carpenter at third, Wong has a chance to really dig into the second base job. As the past two years have shown, it's a bad idea to bet against Cardinals hitting prospects.
The team's rotation is actually the least proven part of the squad -- and it's a rotation headlined by Adam Wainwright, the guy who only doesn't have a Cy Young award because he plays in the same league as Clayton Kershaw. It's a very young group of starters, because even though the rotation features Wainwright (32) at the front, and Lance Lynn (26) and Joe Kelly (25), the Cardinals' No. 2 and No. 3 starters will be Shelby Miller (23) and Michael Wacha (22). Miller already has an entire season of major league experience under his belt, and 176 innings of 3.06 ERA (119 ERA+) baseball is very solid output from a rookie, even if it's not going to win Rookie of the Year honors the same year that Jose Fernandez and Yaisel Puig make their debuts. Wacha, on the other hand, just has 64 regular season innings (though they're 64 innings of 2.78 ERA, 131 ERA+ ball) and made just as much of his case for joining the St. Louis rotation in the playoffs as he did at the end of the season, throwing 30.2 innings of 2.64 ERA baseball as the Cardinals took the Boston Red Sox to six games in the World Series.
The Cardinals bullpen features two young guys who could be pressed into starting duty were they absolutely needed -- Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez -- along with lefty-slayers like Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist. The team's main weakness in the pen is the right handers, as they'll rely on Seth Manness and Keith Butler until Jason Motte works his way back from the disabled list.
Second Place: Cincinnati Reds
The idea that Billy Hamilton is actually an .850+ OPS center fielder with the best baserunning instincts in the game is insane, given his minor league track record (most recently 547 PA of .651 OPS baseball at AAA Louisville), but he's had a good spring training, had a goofy cup of coffee last year, and this is just what happens when those particular stars align.
The lineup is actually a concern for the Reds, as the only truly established hitters in its ranks are Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Votto is fantastic and Bruce is a well above-average bat, but Hamilton will all but certainly be a step down from the departed Shin-Soo Choo and his .423 OBP. That means that Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier need to step up and stay healthy, and Devin Mesoraco needs to try and reclaim some of the prospect sheen he lost sitting behind Ryan Hanigan for almost three years.
At one point the Reds pitching staff could have competed with anyone in the league, but following a rash of injuries to key players like Mat Latos (torn meniscus), Sean Marshall (shoulder tendinitis) and that gruesome line drive off the head of Aroldis Chapman late last week, the rotation is missing its second-best piece and the bullpen is in shambles -- Alfredo Simon has had to come out of his relief role to fill a starting job, and Jonathan Broxton is still on the shelf recovering from elbow surgery. The Reds are still likely the second-best team in the Central, but without some unexpectedly big seasons from guys like Ludwick, Frazier or the always-controversial Brandon Phillips, along with full seasons of top-of-the-rotation performances from Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, it's hard to see the Reds having the juice on either side of the ball to have hopes higher than the second Wild Card.
Third Place: Milwaukee Brewers
Believing in the Milwaukee Brewers means trusting in essentially three things: 1) That Jonathan Lucroy really is one of the best catchers in the business; 2) That Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza are a top three that can keep you in almost every game they pitch; and 3) That Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez comprise one of the strongest top fours you can put on a lineup card. If any of that isn't true -- if you think Segura and Gomez just got hot early last season, or that a rotation that's still giving Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada significant innings has little to no chance to make a dent in a crowded NL Central, than the Brewers are likely a spot or two farther down for you.
Still, Khris Davis was a pleasant surprise at the end of last season, and seeing as the major issue with the Brewers in 2013 was their starting pitching, the signing of Garza does at least bandage that gaping wound. It should be more or less a toss-up between the Brewers and the Pirates for third place -- now that Garza is in and A.J. Burnett is in Philadelphia, the Pirates' staff is not particularly better than the Brewers in the pitching department -- but if the Brewers have the offense they've appeared to have at times over the past two years along with a pitching staff that's able to keep games consistently in hand, Milwaukee could be dangerous.
The biggest problem, of course, is that once pitching prospects Johnny Hellweg and Jimmy Nelson make their way onto the roster somehow (or don't, which has been the case in the past), the Brewers farm will essentially be empty of upper level talent until Tyrone Taylor, Yadiel Rivera and Mitch Haniger are ready in late 2015 into 2016 -- and none of those guys are can't-miss position player prospects. Unless the Brewers start shopping guys like Aramis Ramirez or Ryan Braun, there's no new influx of cheap top-end talent arriving soon.
Fourth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates, on the other hand, are looking forward to incoming talent. Outfielder Polanco should join the team in the middle of the season, while starting pitcher Taillon shouldn't be too far behind him -- assuming neither or both are traded for elite, established major league players. The issue for the Pirates is that prospects don't particularly mean anything until they've done something, and without their prospects the Pirates are a team that finished in third place, declined to re-sign their ace, and otherwise did little all offseason besides tell Jordy Mercer he was getting a larger share of the shortstop job than Clint Barmes was. Every starter in the Pirates' projected rotation is either 30 years old or older except Gerrit Cole, and the Pirates appear completely willing to give significant innings to Edinson Volquez this season at the back of their rotation. On the one hand, last year worked its wonders on some pitchers, sure. But it's easy to forget anchors like Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald in the rapid succession of career years that was the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff.
Outside of Andrew McCutchen -- and that's a big caveat, considering he's the defending National League MVP -- there's not a guy on the Pittsburgh roster that has a complete offensive game. Russell Martin is a catcher who is prone to hot and cold streaks and has to rest more than other feature bats would. Starling Marte wildly overperformed expectations last year, and still has a game that relies almost exclusively on singles and speed doubles. Pedro Alvarez hit 36 home runs last year but somehow only managed to OPS .770. The Pirates appear to be ready and willing to add Travis Ishikawa to a RF/1B super-platoon that already ensnares Jose Tabata, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider. Barmes still draws a multi-million dollar paycheck.
It seems almost inconceivable the Pirates could sustain last year's success without any real change to the roster in free agency -- that was the strategy the Baltimore Orioles tried after 2012 and it saw them on the outside of the playoffs looking in -- but if McCutchen is just as good as he's always been, if Marte doesn't regress and if Polanco comes up and relegates half of those platoon guys to the waiver wire, the Pirates will be well on their way to making something respectable out of a lineup that scored fewer runs than anyone else in their division last year except the lowly Cubs. But then, if Francisco Liriano and the Pittsburgh staff from last year were one-hit wonders, the Pirates could be stuck in fourth place no matter how they hit.
Fifth Place: Chicago Cubs
It is baffling that a team that continues to enjoy time in the spotlight around the league for its great reserves of young talent doesn't have a major pitching prospect on track for the major leagues before 2016, and yet here we are. The Cubs have replaced their manager and may make one or two trades before the season begins to shuffle out older players for younger, but regardless of how much one likes Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, they alone cannot comprise the next good Cubs team. That's setting aside the very real possibility that the best starting pitcher on the current Cubs team is Travis Wood (career ERA 105+), who has gotten exceptionally lucky on his peripherals the last two seasons -- one might argue for Jeff Samardzija, but it seems more likely than not that he'll be traded this season -- and that the best position player is Anthony Rizzo (100 OPS+), a first baseman who so far has not delivered the offensive numbers that are expected of starting first basemen and who has shown platoon problems over the past year and a half with Chicago.
It's important to remember that Rizzo and especially shortstop Starlin Castro are banner examples of players with nuclear levels of hype surrounding them that have not yet panned out, when pencilling Baez and company into the next five National League All-Star Games. The Cubs will be lucky if they get one long-term high quality regular starter from that group, let alone three or four.
But until the call-up circus starts up, it's going to be pretty quiet in Wrigleyville as far as expectations for the 2014 season go. Which is a problem in and of itself: Three years is about the ceiling on the amount of time a team can claim they're "intentionally" not winning too many games for this or that reason, and not only is it hard to see how the Cubs could even sniff .500 this season, the team's roadmap for future success requires an awful lot of faith in its prospects. The braintrust in Chicago get a lot of leeway because of what they did in Boston and the way they cultivate loyalty towards their organization, but it's about time to start delivering.