The National League’s World Series representative came out of the Central in 2013. That’s not a major shock, given the division’s talent level.
The St. Louis Cardinals have made four trips to the Fall Classic since 2004, winning two (2006, 2011) and losing two (2004, 2013). It’s clear they’ve been one of Major League Baseball’s model franchises of late, but they’ll have their work cut out for them in 2014. The NL Central sent three teams — the Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds — to the playoffs last year.
The slate has been wiped clean, so let’s take a look at who has the best chance of knocking off the Cardinals in the NL Central this season.
St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: The Cardinals have ace Adam Wainwright and a surplus of young arms who should carry them to high places. Is there anyone in St. Louis not drooling over what Michael Wacha might have in store for an encore performance in 2014?
The Cardinals’ pitching riches don’t stop at the rotation either. The bullpen is littered with power arms, including closer Trevor Rosenthal, setup man Carlos Martinez and dynamic lefty Kevin Siegrist.
Oh yeah, and the offense is stacked.
Weaknesses: You have a better chance of finding Waldo.
Seriously, though, there aren’t many things holding back the Cardinals. Losing Carlos Beltran and John Axford hurts, but St. Louis has the horses to withstand those losses.
Projected finish: 99-63, first place
Strengths: The back end of the Pirates’ bullpen can shorten games. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon both were terrific in 2013.
Pittsburgh’s offense includes one of the five best players in baseball and reigning NL MVP (Andrew McCutchen), a dangerous slugger (Pedro Alvarez) and a dynamic base-stealing threat (Starling Marte).
Gerrit Cole will need to step up and help anchor the rotation in 2014.
Weaknesses: The offense has some holes beyond the trio of McCutchen, Alvarez and Marte, particularly in right field and at first base after losing Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.
The rotation isn’t a guarantee either. A.J. Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, Cole is young, Wandy Rodriguez missed time last season with a forearm injury and Francisco Liriano could implode at any minute despite last season’s success. Edinson Volquez basically is a reclamation project.
Projected finish: 90-72, second place
Strengths: The Reds’ offense is potent and might even become more dynamic with minor league legend Billy Hamilton using his speed atop the order.
The Reds’ rotation should be solid provided everyone stays healthy — something that’s a question right now. Tony Cingrani, who turns 25 in July, shined last season and gives Cincinnati a big, young, talented lefty.
Weaknesses: The season hasn’t even started yet, and the Reds already are battling ailments.
Mat Latos underwent knee surgery, Homer Bailey has been dealing with a groin strain and Johnny Cueto has experienced shoulder soreness. The Reds actually might miss Bronson Arroyo’s durability at some point.
The bullpen is banged up, too. Aroldis Chapman was struck in the face by a line drive during spring training, and lefty Sean Marshall, who missed most of 2013, still is working his way back from a shoulder injury.
Offensively, the Reds will miss Shin-Soo Choo’s on-base ability.
Projected finish: 89-73, third place
Strengths: The returns of Ryan Braun (suspension) and Aramis Ramirez (knee injury) should give the Brewers a formidable offense.
The starting rotation also received a boost when Milwaukee surprisingly pulled the trigger on free agent Matt Garza.
Weaknesses: The Brewers don’t have the pitching depth, particularly in the bullpen, to overcome their division rivals.
Milwaukee’s defense isn’t anything to write home about.
Projected finish: 76-86, fourth place
Strengths: The Cubs have some nice prospects coming up through the system, including Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. That being said, 2014 looks like a wash.
Weaknesses: There are plenty. Let’s start with hitting, pitching and defense.
Projected finish: 60-102, fifth place
The Cardinals are primed for another NL Central crown and another deep playoff run. The real battle will be between the Pirates and Reds, both of whom figure to be in the thick of the wild-card race.
Editor’s note: NESN.com will preview each MLB division leading up to Opening Day. Below are the scheduled run dates for each preview.