The NL Central has been largely dominated by St. Louis for the past decade, even with the loss of Albert Pujols. That all could change this year with a few teams in the division making moves during the offseason.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers were comfortable trading Yovani Gallardo because of the presence of Jimmy Nelson. Nelson has been largely hit-and-miss this spring which doesn’t tell us much about how he will perform during the regular season. However, it’s important for the Brewers that Nelson takes up the role as a solid pitcher for the back of the rotation. One player who has stood out this spring is Matt Clark who has been hitting the ball well enough to seemingly secure a bench job. Ryan Braun needs to rediscover his form if the Brewers want solid offense this season. They weren’t a terrible club with the bat last year, but Braun is the type of five-tool player that can lift a team to another level. Look for the Brewers to compete seriously for the division title but fall short.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have some key players that could help them get to the postseason such as team ace Johnny Cueto and speedster Billy Hamilton. However, the biggest question the Reds had going into the spring was who to replace Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon in the rotation. Luckily, prospect Anthony DeSclafani has pitched well so far this spring and veteran Jason Marquis has been a nice surprise. The major problem this team has is not enough experience as a contending team. Although I just mentioned Marquis being a pleasant surprise, he is 36 years-old and logic dictates that eventually Marquis is going to feel his age. The Reds will improve from last season, but this is the same division that houses Pittsburgh and St. Louis. The Reds are simply too inexperienced to seriously threaten this year.
Chicago Cubs: The biggest story of the offseason was Jon Lester’s signing to the Cubs and the acquisition of Joe Maddon. Make no mistake; the Cubs intend to not only improve from their dismal 2014 season, but to get back to postseason contention as quickly as possible. This spring has done little to lower expectations as top prospects Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler have looked great thus far. The same can’t be said of projected starter Jason Hammel, but the rest of the squad has looked solid. Maddon has made the transition from the Rays to the Cubs well so far, but only time is going to tell how the team reacts to his managerial style. Maddon is a solid manager who built the Rays into postseason contenders during his time there so the Cubs shouldn’t worry about him. This will be Lester’s first year pitching for an NL team, but a pitcher as experienced and talented as him should adjust accordingly. On paper, the Cubs have everything they need to get to the postseason. They need to put it to work.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Bucs have enjoyed a resurgence in serious playoff contention for the past three years and 2015 is expected to be just as promising. The biggest losses from the offseason were catcher Russell Martin and top pitcher Edinson Volquez. The Pirates have a deep enough rotation to offset the loss of Volquez and the catcher position looks solid as veteran Francisco Cervelli and prospect Tony Sanchez compete for the starting spot. The main problem with the Bucs is they have solid, but not great pitching. There is no true ‘ace’ in the rotation. The Bucs have quality position players such as Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison, but pitching is extremely important in the playoffs. The Bucs may make it to the playoffs again, but their lack of top-level pitchers will prevent them from entering the Fall Classic.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals captured their second consecutive NL Central title last year with a 90-72 record and look to build on their success this season. Their deep farm system has helped them stay competitive throughout the 2000’s and into the new decade. The only question regarding the rotation is the fifth-starter. That spot looked to be Carlos Martinez’s to earn, but Marco Gonzales has put up an impressive showing during the spring to warrant competition. There are some question marks when it comes to their bats, but this is a team that’s experienced the postseason many times and seems to know when to ‘turn it on’ at the exact time they need it. Barring injuries, there’s no reason for the Cardinals to not make the postseason and capture the division for the third year in a row.
The NL Central will prove to be one of the more competitive divisions of the 2015 season. There are at least three teams that could conceivably win the division (St. Louis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh) while the Brewers and Reds have the potential to be darkhorses and make their way into the playoffs via the wild card. This is a division that will be worth watching as the season progresses.