2014 Division Preview – National League Central

NL Central

Welcome to part two of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the NL Central, home to the defending NL Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Defending Champion

St. Louis Cardinals

Past Five Champions

2013 – St. Louis

2012 – Cincinnati

2011 – Milwaukee

2010 – Cincinnati

2009 – St. Louis

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.4

Best Player

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

There are a lot of great players (including former MVP’s) in the NL Central, but it’s hard to argue against McCutchen. He won the MVP last year after a truly dynamic season that was important on so many levels: not only did he elevate the Pirates to the postseason for the first time since 1992, he also made baseball relevant again in Pittsburgh. McCutchen hit .317, with 21 HR, 84 RBI, 27 SB, a .911 OPS, .404 OBP, and an 8.2 WAR, and played exceptional defense at a premium position. He was also a leader on the Pirates, refusing to let them collapse down the stretch when so many in baseball were expecting them to. As is the case with many of the top players in the game, he’s still very young – only 27.

Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Carlos Gomez, Brewers

Best Pitcher

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

If your season was on the line and you could hand the ball to one pitcher, who would it be? More often than not, the answer to that question is Adam Wainwright. And why not? The Cardinals ace has been exceptional for a while now, even after missing the entire 2011 season. Last year he topped the NL in starts (34), innings pitched (241.2), complete games (5), and shutouts (2), all while posting a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.10 WHIP. He also tossed in 200+ strikeouts for good measure. And if that wasn’t enough, he virtually single-handedly eliminated the Pirates in the NLDS (2-0, 1.13 ERA, 0.75 WHIP) as St. Louis marched to the World Series.

Honourable Mention: Mat Latos, Reds; Matt Garza, Brewers

Three Storylines For 2014

1. Runaway Cardinals

A year after losing Albert Pujols, the Cardinals said goodbye to Carlos Beltran (free agency), Chris Carpenter (retirement), and David Freese (trade), and yet they still appear to be the strongest team in the division…by a mile. They bring back heavy hitters in the three Matt’s (Holliday, Carpenter, and Adams), and Allen Craig, the best catcher in baseball, and one of the greatest collection of power arms in the game. Between Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn, among others, the Cardinals can just as easily win 1-0 games as they can 10-9 games. With question marks lingering

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over the rest of the teams in the Central, the question might not be can St. Louis win, but rather can anybody else stay close.

2. Life After Dusty

For the first time since 2007 the Cincinnati Reds will open a baseball season without Dusty Baker. After two division titles and three playoff appearances in four years, the Reds opted to replace the iconic manager with rookie Bryan Price, who takes over a team that midly disappointed last year. Also gone is leadoff hitter and on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo, and how his OBP will be replaced is just one of many questions hovering over the Reds. After a down year (for his standards), can Joey Votto bounce back? Can staff ace Johnny Cueto stay healthy? Can Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake stay consistent? Can rookies Tony Cingrani and Billy Hamilton do enough to stay relevant? Price needs a “yes” to each of those.

3. Pittsburgh Reprise

Perhaps nothing was better last season than watching the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s perennial losers, finally succeed. Not only did they post the franchise’s first winning record since 1992, they made the playoffs and even won the wild card game, before coming oh-so-close to eliminating the Cardinals in the NLDS. The question now is can Pittsburgh do it again? With Andrew McCutchen and stud youngster Gerrit Cole, they have solid players. But with A.J. Burnett gone to Philadelphia, they will need Francisco Liriano to prove that last year was no fluke. They also need the bullpen to avoid regressing, and have a glaring hole at first base to fill. Getting back to the playoffs won’t be easy.

Interesting Stat

Billy Hamilton is fast. As a late season callup for Cincinnati, he appeared in 13 games, received 22 plate appearances, reached base 9 times via hit or walk, and stole an astounding 13 bases! He had nearly double the amount of stolen bases that he had hits, and stole 1.44 bags per time-on-base. The modern day single-season record for stolen bases is 130, set by Rickey Henderson in 1982. That season Rickey posted a .398 OBP, reaching base 259 times via hit or walk, for a SB/Time-on-base ratio of 0.50. Nobody is trying to compare Hamilton to Henderson, and the long time knock against Billy Hamilton is his ability to get on base. But if he can post a league average OBP and has the green light to run as frequently as he did late in 2013, Rickey’s single-season mark could be in jeopardy.

What the Bloggers are Saying

I reached out to Daniel Shoptaw, a St. Louis Cardinals blogger (and also the acting president of the BBA) who runs the fantastic C70 At The Bat.

Biggest Storyline

I think the biggest storyline will likely be can the Cardinals young talent, especially the pitching staff, duplicate what they did last year. If they can, the NL Central might be less than hotly contested. If not, a lot of glowing words written this spring will go for naught. Of course, there are plenty of other things to watch. Can Pittsburgh buid on last season and continue to contend, even with the “element of surprise” and A.J. Burnett no longer on their side? If the Pirates stumble, a lot of folks are going to be claiming last year was a fluke instead of the foundation of a great Pirate era. The Brewers are going to get Ryan Braun back, so how that works and the reactions to him are going to take center stage for a bit. Billy Hamilton is going to see if you can steal first base. The Cubs are….no, just checked, they aren’t eliminated yet.

Most Interesting Player

I think Hamilton is going to be an exciting player if he can hit well enough to be a weapon. When you challenge Yadier Molina and win in your first two stolen bases, you can impact a game. If he can reach base regularly, we may see stolen base totals that we’ve not seen in a long while. As a Cardinal fan, I’m of course interested to see Oscar Tavares make his major league debut, but that seems to be something more for May ater his small setback in his ankle surgery recovery. And, of course, you never go wrong making Andrew McCutchen a focal point of your watching experience.

Who Wins?

Again, I’m a homer, but it’s hard to see how St. Louis doesn’t wind up taking this division. They have youth, depth, experience, everything you could want from a team. Unless Molina goes down for an extended period (or perhaps Jhonny Peralta, though they won with the dead bat of Pete Kozma last year), there’s not much that would keep them from another October appearance. The division overall should be more competitive though. The Brewers get Braun back and have added Garza. Pittsburgh’s lost Burnett and may take a bit of a step back, but still should be a plus-.500 team. The Reds will be in the mix if they can find enough offense. It should be a fun year in the NL Central!

Who Should Win

St. Louis

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column on March 27th.

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