National League Central Predictions
Last season the NL Central was easily the best division in baseball. Three of the National League’s five playoff teams came out of the Central. The Saint Louis Cardinals took home a division title with a ridiculously good record of 97-65. Not far behind was one of the biggest surprise teams in the league with the Pittsburgh Pirates posting a 94-68 record. Cincinnati secured the final Wild Card spot in the National League with a third place finish in the division and a 90-72 record.
The division cellar dwellers were the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. It was really no surprise to see both teams finish with losing records. There are some positive takeaways for these teams following the 2013 campaign. First of all, its a new season so finishing over 20 and 30 games back on the division winner, respectively, is now just an after thought. Second, for the Cubs it was a big improvement to post a 66-96 record when compared to a 61-101 record from 2012.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (-150) - The Cardinals have one of the best rotations in baseball. The combination of Wainwright, Wacha, Miller and Lynn make this a team that is destined for another run at the World Series. The first step in that path is winning the NL Central, and that is exactly what I think Saint Louis will be doing this season. Some might argue the loss of Carlos Beltran hurts the Cardinals, but the fact is Beltran is 36 years old and never had a season hitting over .300 for Saint Louis. He is a great player in decline, and the Cardinals are much better off by freeing up some space on the roster for Allen Craig. Assuming Craig can stay healthy all season the Cardinals will not miss Beltran’s production.
2. Cincinnati Reds (+350) – There is a lot of value on Cincinnati at this price to win the division. If Saint Louis suffers from any kind of injury issues this year the Reds will be ready and waiting to sweep in and take the NL Central. The Cardinals may have one of the best rotations in baseball, but so do the Reds. From top to bottom the rotation is filled with players that could be the ace on any other team in the league. In fact, Tony Cingrani is fifth in the Red’s rotation and he is coming off a year with a 2.92 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and a 10.3 K/9 in his 104 innings pitched last year. At 24 years old the sky is the limit. With that stellar rotation the Reds also have several players capable of getting runs on the board. Billy Hamilton has great speed for a lead off, and will likely lead the league in stolen bases this season. Joey Votto was an MVP just a few years ago, and he is the cornerstone of the organization. Simply put, the Reds are stacked.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (+375) – The Pirates at one point in time could have made a strong argument for worst team in recent MLB history. Pittsburgh was riding a run of 20 consecutive losing seasons before last year’s breakout record of 94-68 put an end to the losing. I am calling for some regression in 2014. Pittsburgh will be without A.J. Burnett this season, and listing Edinson Volquez as the fifth starter indicates this is a rotation in big trouble. After Liriano and Cole the rotation is extremely weak. I don’t think Liriano will match last season’s efforts, and the Pirates don’t have the talent in the rotation to provide this mediocre rotation with the run support needed to win games. All signs point to a major decline in 2014, but I will give Pittsburgh the benefit of the doubt by calling for them to finish just slightly above .500 on the year.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (+1000) - The Brewers are going to be rebuilding for a while. For years this team was carried by Braun, Ramirez and Fielder. Now Fielder is gone, Braun has been dealing with PED distractions and Ramirez is coming off an injury-riddled campaign. That does not leave a lot to be optimistic about coming into the 2014 campaign. The rotation is decent with Gallardo, Estrada and Peralta, but all three of them will need to put together a complete season instead of a just a strong second half. Without Braun and Ramirez putting up the kinds of numbers they did in years past, and without a dominant ace in the rotation the Brewers are bound to finish in the bottom half of the NL Central standings.
5. Chicago Cubs (+3300) – There are not many things in life that are guaranteed, but the Cubs being bad is pretty close to being one of them. The Theo Epstein era was supposed to bring about massive amounts of change. While the roster and rotation have certainly seen change, the end result has been the same. I would not even look at the Cubs as a sleeper in the division since this is a team that is destined to finish in the NL Central gutter. A moral victory for Cubs fans would be avoiding another 100 loss season, but there are not too many signs indicating that will happen.