2015 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 one of the most intriguing teams heading into 2015, the Chicago Cubs.

Defending Champion

St. Louis Cardinals

Past Five Champions

2014 – St. Louis

2013 – St. Louis

2012 – Cincinnati

2011 – Milwaukee

2010 – Cincinnati

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.2

Best Player

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

It was just another banner year for Pirates leader Andrew McCutchen in 2014.  All he did was finish 4th in the NL with a 6.4 WAR, after posting a .314 average with 25 HR, 83 RBI, and 18 SB.  He led the league with a .410 OBP, .952 OPS, and 168 OPS+, while helping the Pirates reach the postseason for the second straight year.  McCutchen was named to his fourth straight All-Star game, and for the third year in a row he finished in the top-3 in NL MVP voting and was named a Silver Slugger.  There’s no reason to think he won’t repeat all of those accolades this year.

Honourable Mention: Carlos Gomez, Brewers; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Best Pitcher

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

If not for Clayton Kershaw, I think Adam Wainwright might be universally recognized as the best pitcher in all of baseball.  All the Cardinals righty does is win, year in and year out.  Last season he reached the 20-win plateau for the second time in his career, and posted a career-best 2.38 ERA in 227 innings.  He finished 3rd in Cy Young voting and 8th in MVP voting, and led St. Louis back to the playoffs for the fifth time in his career and third year in a row.

Honourable Mention: Jon Lester, Cub; Johnny Cueto, Reds

Three Storylines For 2015

1. Is It Finally Next Year?

As each non-World Series winning season draws to  a close on the North side of Chicago, fans have been hoping that next year is the year where the Cubbies finally break their curse.  Sadly, Cubs fans have been waiting for next year since 1908.  But maybe, just maybe, finally, after over a century of futility, next year might be here.  After a few years spent acquiring high-end young talent through trades, the draft, and import free agents, GM Theo Epstein went out and brought in several win-now players, including David Ross, Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler, and most importantly ace lefty Jon Lester.  Add to that the hiring of Joe Maddon as manager, and there is hope in Wrigleyville.  I’m not sure that this is the year it all comes together, but the window for contention is now officially open, and it might not be closing for a long time.

2. Pirate Juggernaut

Not since the early ’90’s have the words “Pirates” and “Juggernaut” been uttered in the same sentence.  But it’s true: after over two decades spent on the outside of the MLB postseason, the Pirates have qualified for October baseball two years in a row and seem poised to make it three in 2015, with quite possibly the best team yet.  Despite losing Russell Martin to free agency, the Pirates should be strong offensively with one of baseball’s best outfields (McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte), and a solid infield led by Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and 2014 batting champion Josh Harrison.  They also brought back A.J. Burnett, who dominated as a Pirate, and Francisco Liriano to team with breakout candidate Gerrit Cole, giving them a stacked top of the rotation.  And don’t forget about Korean import Jung Ho Kang, who is a true mystery.  This might finally be the year they get ahead of St. Louis.

3. Youth Is Served

There’s no doubt that baseball is becoming a young man’s game, with stars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Giancarlo Stanton tearing up the league.  But for a collection of some of baseball’s very best young talent, look no further than the NL Central.  The following 26 years old and under stars and highly touted prospects could all be difference makers in 2015:

Pittsburgh: Gerrit Cole (24), Jameson Taillon (23), Starling Marte (26), Gregory Polanco (23)

Chicago: Javier Baez (22), Starlin Castro (24), Anthony Rizzo (25), Arimendy Alcantara (23), Jorge Soler (23), Kris Bryant (23)

Cincinnati: Billy Hamilton (24)

Milwaukee: Jean Segura (24)

St. Louis: Carlos Martinez (23), Trevor Rosenthal (24), Michael Wacha (23), Kolten Wong (24), Jason Heyward (25)

Interesting Stat

The Chicago Cubs finished dead last in the NL Central last season, and one of the biggest reasons why was their starting pitching.  Jake Arrieta had a breakout year, but after the trade deadline their rotation was thin – very thin.  And it showed.  Of all the teams in the NL Central, the Cubs rotation finished dead last in several meaningful stats, including IP/Start (5.72), ERA (4.11), WHIP (1.313), Batting Average Against (.259), Quality Start % (48.8), and OPS against (.715).  Which is why Chicago’s acquisition of Jon Lester is so crucial.  Based on his 2014 numbers, Lester should vastly improve each of those stats: 6.87 IP/Start, 2.46 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, .236 Batting Average Against, 84.4 Quality Start %, and .635 OPS Against.  If the Cubs are to contend in 2015 Lester will be the key reason why.

Who Should Win

St. Louis

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

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