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TSN.ca: 2014 National League Central preview

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TSN.ca Staff
3/27/2014 9:57:11 AM
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Baseball season is just around the corner and TSN.ca has you covered for who's in, who's out and what to expect from all 30 teams. Check in every day this week for two new division previews, finishing up with Scott MacArthur's look at the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday. Here's what to expect out of the National League Central in 2014.

Chicago Cubs

GM: Jed Hoyer

Manager: Rick Renteria

2013: 66-96, fifth in AL Central. Did not qualify for playoffs.

That was Then: 2013 capped the worst two-year stretch in the North Siders' 137-year history and cost Dale Sveum his job.

Nobody was expecting the Cubs to be world-beaters last season, but regression was certainly not believed to be in the cards for some of the team's better players. This was epitomized in the season of shortstop Starlin Castro. Once viewed as a cornerstone of the franchise, Castro was given a seven-year extension in the summer of 2012 and proceeded to have a miserable 2013, hitting a career-low .245/.284/.347 with only 45 RBI. First baseman Anthony Rizzo was simply too streaky and average at best, but the Cubs still love his upside.

On the mound, the four-year, $52 million deal given to Edwin Jackson paid no early dividends. Though, he was better in the second-half, the signing already seems like a mistake. After a breakthrough 2012, former Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija took a step back in 2013 and has been the focus of trade talks since last year's deadline.

The bullpen was simply miserable, third-worst in the NL, with a staggering 26 blown saves.

This is Now: There will be improvement at Wrigley in 2014, but it will be a modest one.

Former San Diego Padres bench coach Rick Renteria has been handed the managerial reins, knowing Hoyer from his days in San Diego, and will be given time to work with his very young team.

The team expects Rizzo to bounce back and are high on Mike Olt, acquired from the Texas Rangers last season in the Matt Garza deal. Once hampered by vision problems since a concussion in 2012, Olt is healthy outside of some shoulder soreness in spring training. A top-25 prospect prior to the 2013 season, Olt isn't expected to usurp third base from Luis Valbuena, but could force himself into the conversation at the very least.

Top prospect Javier Baez isn't ready to go in 2014, so Castro will be afforded the opportunity to prove that 2013 was a blip on the radar and not indicative of a downward trend.

After Scott Feldman, traded at the deadline to the Baltimore Orioles for Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta, proved to be a fine reclamation project, the Cubs hope to have another in Jason Hammel. If the 32-year-old can shake off the nagging elbow injuries that hampered his 2013 and return to the form from the previous season, the Cubs may be able to parlay his cheap, one-year deal into a Feldmanesque haul.

The bullpen shouldn't be as porous as last season, either. Both Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg, responsible for most of those blown saves, are gone and Jose Veras is a much more reliable stopper.

Who's In?: SP Jason Hammel (one-year deal), RP Jose Veras (one-year deal), OF Justin Ruggiano (acquired from MIA), IF Emilio Bonifacio (minor-year deal) and RP Wesley Wright (one-year deal).

Who's Out?: C Dioner Navarro (signed with TOR), RP Carlos Marmol (signed with MIA), RP Kevin Gregg (unsigned) and OF Brian Bogusevic (traded to MIA).

Cincinnati Reds

GM: Walt Jocketty

Manager: Bryan Price

2013: 90-72, third in NL Central. Lost to Pittsburgh in National League Wild Card Game.

That was Then: The Reds made the playoffs for back-to-back years for the first time since 1994-95, thanks to sterling performances both at the plate and on the mound.

Led by career production years from Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips and another solid season from Etobicoke, Ontario's Joey Votto, who led the National League with a .435 OBP, the team scored 698 runs, good for third in the NL and had a +109 run differential, also good for third in the Senior Circuit.

The rotation, led by Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, posted a 3.38 ERA, third-best in the NL and was able to offset the loss of Johnny Cueto, who made three trips to the disabled list in 2013 and was virtually shut down in the second-half. Aroldis Chapman anchored an efficient bullpen with 38 saves.

Still, the season ended sourly with the Wild Card loss to the divisional rival Pirates. Cueto, just returning to health, was tagged in the loss.

And even with Phillips's record RBI haul of 103, the multiple time All-Star and Golden Glover posted career lows in average, OBP and stolen bases.

This is Now: The Dusty Baker era is over. The sometimes cantankerous, sometimes controversial manager was let go after six seasons in charge in Cincinnati. Pitching coach Bryan Price takes over as the manager of a team that he is more than familiar with.

Though much of the core remains for the Reds, the team will need to address a few key departures.

Lead-off man Shin-Soo Choo jumped ship to the Texas Rangers. Choo was a dynamo for the Reds last season, second in the NL with 107 runs scored. His spot at the top of the order will be taken by rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. Hamilton, the new everyday centre fielder, is widely considered to be the fastest man in baseball and the fastest one in quite some time. The 23-year-old stole a ridiculous 155 bases in A-ball in 2012 and stole 75 last season for Triple-A Louisville. Las Vegas odds currently have the over/under for stolen bases in Hamilton's rookie year at 63.5. Still, the question is can Hamilton get on base to steal them and how big of a drop-off will the Reds experience from Choo's production?

The departure of Bronson Arroyo to the Diamondbacks has been addressed in house by Tony Cingrani, but Latos's late winter knee surgery could keep him off the mound until late in April.

After that frightening line drive to the skull earlier in the month, Chapman is expected out until mid-to-late May. Former closer Jonathan Broxton will spell the flame-thrower in that role until he returns.

Who's In?: C Brayan Pena (two-year deal) and IF Skip Schumaker (two-year deal with option)

Who's Out?: OF Shin-Soo Choo (signed with TEX), SP Bronson Arroyo (signed with ARI) and C Ryan Hanigan (traded to TB)

Milwaukee Brewers

GM: Doug Melvin

Manager: Ron Roenicke

2013: 74-88, fourth in NL West. Did not qualify for playoffs.

That was Then: Simply put, when you win six games in a month, chances are you're not going to contend and that's just what the Brewers did last May. Going 6-22 that month effectively eliminated the team from contention early, which softened the blow of serious injuries, the whole Ryan Braun thing and finishing with their worst record in a decade.

Corey Hart didn't play at all last season, blowing out one knee whilst rehabbing the other, while Mat Gamel re-tore the ACL that had him miss of all of 2012 in spring training, which made him - yep, you guessed it - miss all of 2013, as well.

Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, was suspended in July for the remainder of the season (65 games) for his use of PEDs and his part in the Biogenesis scandal, something that the slugger had vehemently denied for over 18 months. Even when he did play in the first half of the season, it wasn't the same Braun. Whether or not the investigation weighed on him is debatable, but he was most certainly limited by a hand injury.

On brighter notes, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura continued to improve and both were rewarded with All-Star nods.

This is Now: The Brewers are probably better than last year's record indicates (they were actually above .500 after the Braun suspension), but will be in tough to compete with last year's three playoff teams in the division.

With last year's lead-off man Norichika Aoki traded to the Kansas City Royals and Gomez slotting into that spot, left fielder Khris Davis will have the chance to play everyday. Davis impressed last season, in place of Braun, in 136 at-bats with a respectable .279, 11 HR and 27 RBI. If he can match that clip over a full season, it's not far-fetched to suggest that Davis is capable of 30 home runs in 2014 on a team with considerable offensive upside.

Matt Garza was the offseason's biggest acquisition and the team hopes that he can help improve the NL's fifth-worst rotation ERA and eat up some innings so that the Brewers won't turn to 12 starters like they did in 2013. Considering Garza's recent injury history, perhaps, he isn't the best suited arm for that role.

As for the bullpen, the back end is solid with closer Jim Henderson, but depth could be an issue as the season goes on.

Who's In?: SP Matt Garza (four-year deal) and RP Will Smith (acquired from KC)

Who's Out?: IF Norichika Aoki (traded to KC), IF Yuniesky Betancourt (Japan) and RP Mike Gonzalez (unsigned)

Pittsburgh Pirates

GM: Neal Huntington

Manager: Clint Hurdle

2013: 94-68, second in NL Central. Lost to St. Louis in National League Divisional Series.

That was Then: The Bucs made the post-season for the first time since 1992 and it was well deserved.

Led by 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen's .317, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 27 SB and .911 OPS line, the Pirates got career years from key players and were the surprise of the baseball world. Pedro Alvarez would shared the NL lead in home runs with 36. Starling Marte posted 41 stolen bases in his first full year in the Bigs. Neil Walker contributed at the plate and with his glove. Russell Martin chipped in offensively and ably called games behind the plates.

On the mound, the team conceded the second-fewest runs in the NL. A.J. Burnett's late resurgence continued, becoming the first-ever Pirates right-hander to record 200+ strike-outs in a single season. Francisco Liriano's transition over to the National League was a successful one, notching 16 wins with a 3.02 ERA Gerrit Cole starred in his rookie season, especially down the stretch with a 4-0 month of September. Mark Melancon ate innings out of the bullpen, struck out 70 in 71.0 IP with a 1.39 ERA and was rewarded with an All-Star appearance. Jason Grilli, aging like a fine wine, was a reliable stopper.

Outside of an injury to Wandy Rodriguez, almost everything went right for the Pirates in 2013 and the team was MLB's feel-good story of 2013.

This is Now: Can this team build on last year's success?

That's the biggest question facing the Pirates in 2014 and the only question that matters. Considering this is almost the same team that excelled last season, the Bucs should continue to trend upwards, but they certainly will no longer take anybody by surprise.

The old adage goes that you don't fix what ain't broke and that holds true for the Pirates for the most part, but there were a couple of places that could have been upgraded upon in the offseason that weren't. Right fielder Travis Snider had a poor 2013, his first full year with the Pirates, and he hasn't given any reason for optimism for 2014. Gaby Sanchez is easily the poorest first baseman in the division and the Bucs really don't have anybody to push him.

Burnett's loss will definitely be felt, but Rodriguez is once again healthy and will help pick up the slack. Edinson Volquez, who's far from the dominant Reds starter of five years ago, has been hammered in spring training, yet the Pirates are confident that there's something left here and seem committed to this reclamation project.

Who's In?: SP Edinson Volquez (one-year deal) and C Chris Stewart (acquired from NYY)

Who's Out?: SP A.J. Burnett (signed with PHI), 1B Justin Morneau (signed with COL), OF Marlon Byrd (signed with PHI), C John Buck (signed with SEA) and 1B/OF Garrett Jones (signed with MIA).

St. Louis Cardinals

GM: John Mozeliak

Manager: Mike Matheny

2013: 97-65, first in NL Central. Lost to Boston in World Series.

That was Then: You can hardly call a National League pennant and a World Series berth disappointing, but that's how the Cards felt about how last season ended. Leading the World Series 2-1 and then dropping three-straight to go out in six games leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Still, the Cardinals were the class of the National League in 2013, holding off the surging Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the Senior Circuit and then beating them for the pennant.

There was a lot to like about last year's Cards. Yadier Molina, while perhaps not having the season he did the year before, once again staked his claim to being the best catcher in the MLB with another fine season at the plate and calling games behind it. Matt Holliday was his consistent self, eclipsing the 20-home run mark for the eighth time in his career. Carlos Beltran refused to age, hitting 20-plus home runs and knocking in 80-plus RBI both for the 11th time in his 16 years in the Bigs. The unheralded Matt Carpenter took the NL by surprise to lead the league in hits (199), doubles (55) and runs (126).

From the hill, Adam Wainwright had his best ever season, matching his career total in wins (19) and complete games (five), while setting a personal best with 241.0 innings pitched (most in the MLB in 2013). The towering Michael Wacha was a revelation in his rookie season. Though his regular season stats were respectable (4-1 with a 2.78 ERA and a 1.1 WHIP), he was dominant in the post-season, going 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP, winning the NLCS MVP.

The Cards were good, very good, but just not good enough for a team that holds itself to the highest possible standard in baseball.

This is Now: Only two games away from a World Series title last year, this is arguably a superior Cardinals team and one that could be on track for glory in October.

The loss of Beltran to the Yankees will certainly hurt, but the acquisitions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos will help offset the loss. Peralta can be counted on to eat up most, perhaps not all, of Beltran's run production, while Bourjos's noted speed gives the team a base-stealing threat at the top of the order. Mark Ellis is a dependable veteran off the bench or can spell middle infielders if the need should arise.

Though sent to their minor-league camp earlier this month, it would be a shock if top prospect Oscar Tavares, often favourably compared to Vladimir Guerrero, doesn't make his presence felt at some point during the 2014 season.

The pitching staff is virtually unchanged from last year's postseason with Jaime Garcia likely out for most of the year, but the concern here will be to ensure that none of the team's inning-eating starters tires too soon or gets overworked too quickly.

Long reliever Jason Motte is the only injury concern in the bullpen, but he should be back by late May.

Who's In?: 3B Jhonny Peralta (four-year deal), OF Peter Bourjos (acquired from LAA), IF Mark Ellis (one-year deal)

Who's Out?: OF Carlos Beltran (signed with NYY), RP John Axford (signed with CLE), 3B David Freese (traded to LAA) and RP Jake Westbrook (retired).




  • [1] Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners
  • [2] Mike Trout, CF, L.A. Angels of Anaheim
  • [3] Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pittsburgh
  • Top 200 - updated July 21
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