The National League Central Division looks to have an even closer playing field this season. The 2014 season saw the St. Louis Cardinals win the division with a 90-72 record. The Pittsburgh Pirates finished second but claimed a wild card berth with an 88-74 record. The Milwaukee Brewers finished third in the division at 82-80. In fourth place were the Cincinnati Reds at 76-86 while the Chicago Cubs held up the rear with a 73-89 record.
The Chicago Cubs made several offseason splashes and many predict the Pittsburgh Pirates as a favorite to bring home the 2015 Central Division crown for the first time (the Pirates joined the NL Central in 1994).
St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals will look to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season. The Cardinals traded for outfielder Jason Heyward and added former Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox pitcher John Lackey to their rotation.
Matt Carpenter will lead off once again and start at third base. New acquisition Heyward will bat second and play the outfield. Veteran Matt Holiday is expected to stay in left field and bat third even though he saw a drop in production during 2014. Hitting cleanup for the redbirds is first baseman Matt Adams. Clubhouse leader and catcher Yadier Molina will bat fifth and catch as he returns for his 12th season in St. Louis.
Jhonny Peralta is expected to bat sixth and man the shortstop hole for his second season with the Cardinals. Kolten Wong has claimed the starting role at second base and will bat eighth in his sophomore MLB season. Jon Jay is expected to start in center field while batting ninth, of course the speedy Peter Bourjos could see some quality playing time as a fourth outfielder.
While Matheny’s squad will lack power, they have always had the pitching to make up for any lack of offense. While they traded Shelby Miller for Heyward, the addition of John Lackey should keep their rotation on the stronger side. Ace Adam Wainwright finished with a 20-9 record last season. Lance Lynn will fill the second spot in the rotation.
New addition John Lackey is expected to fill the middle of the rotation. Michael Wacha sits fourth in the rotation while Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez are competing for the final rotation spot. Trevor Rosenthal (45 saves in 2014) returns as the closer and Jordan Walden of Forth Worth is the new set-up man for the bullpen.
Fifth-year manager Clint Hurdle hopes 2015 will be the season the Pirates finally claim that elusive division title. 2014 saw their season come to a crushing end after the San Francisco Giants defeated them 8-0 in the NL Wild Card Game.
Josh Harrison moved into the full-time third base role late last season and will lead off for the Pirates in 2015 after hitting .294 last season. Starling Marte has earned his spot in the everyday line-up as well. He will play left field and hit second after hitting 13 home runs last year. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen has made a claim as the best position player in the National League. He hits third in Hurdle’s line-up. Batting clean-up in 2015 will be second baseman Neil Walker who knocked 22 over the fence last season.
Gregory Polanco will be the everyday right fielder and bat fifth after gaining 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason. First baseman Pedro Alvarez hits sixth and catcher Francisco Cervelli, who replaces former All-star Russell Martin, will hit seventh. Jordy Mercer rounds out the position starters for Hurdle, manning short stop.
Francisco Liriano will claim the title of “ace” for the Pirates pitching staff in 2015 after only winning 10 games in 2014. Gerrit Cole posted a 3.58 ERA last season. The Pirates added A.J. Burnett in free agency. Charlie Morton and Vance Worley are expected to be the back-end of the Pirates rotation. Closer Mark Melancon keeps the role after an impressive 2014 campaign saw him save 41 games for Pittsburgh. Tony Watson also brings a strong arm to the bullpen to help Hurdle compete with the Cardinals.
The Cubs made the biggest offseason move, bringing in former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon. Maddon had little to work with, but accomplished a lot, during his tenure in Tampa and hopes to improve the young Cubs.
Chicago brings in Dexter Fowler to man center field and lead off after 2014 saw him get on base a lot (.376 OBP). Starlin Castro mans shortstop and should hit second. Anthony Rizzo makes up for poor play at first base by crushing the ball (35 HR in 2014). Rookie right fielder Jorge Soler will get quality playing time and may hit clean-up in Maddon’s line-up. Chicago also upgraded at catcher by bringing in Miguel Montero to bat fifth.
Second baseman Javier Baez struggled at the plate in 2014 hitting .225. Chris Coghlan should man left field for the Cubs. The biggest question mark is third base. New addition Tommy La Stella is expected to be the opening day starter, but 2013 number one overall pick Kris Bryant has proven he is ready for his chance at an everyday role on the major league level. He will be brought up at some point early in the season.
Jon Lester has also been brought in to be the club’s ace. He had a 3.27 ERA for the Red Sox in 2014. Jake Arrieta won 11 games in 2014 for the Cubs and newcomer Jason Hammel hopes to improve the rotation for Chicago. Closing out the starting rotation for Maddon will be Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada, who both won 11 games in 2014. Hector Rondon earned the closing role out of the bullpen with 35 saves last year and former Rangers prospect Pedro Strop brings a power arm to the bullpen. Joe Maddon believes he has a young squad ready to compete for the post season in 2015.
Manager Ron Roenicke may be dealing with a squad who needs to be rebuilt this season. The Brewers traded their five-year running opening day starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers and saw a decline in production from Ryan Braun.
Second baseman Scooter Gennett will lead off after hitting .294 in 2014. Carlos Gomez will start at center field and bat second. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy competes with Yadier Molina on a defensive level and will hit third for Milwaukee. The Brewers brought in Adam Lind to play first and bat clean-up even though his age is starting to show in his production. Ryan Braun will stay in right field and bat fifth. He only hit .278 with 24 home runs in 2014.
Third Baseman Aramis Ramirez knocked in 73 baserunners last season and will hit sixth. Left Fielder Khris Davis brings a .253 batting average to the seventh spot in the line-up while shortstop Jean Segura hit .270 last season. Former Ranger Luis Sardinas will work as a utility infielder for the Brewers. He was part of the Rangers’ trade for Gallardo.
With Gallardo gone from the rotation, Kyle Lohse will step in as the ace for Milwaukee. Lohse posted a 3.36 ERA last season. Matt Garza was given a $50 million contract in 2014 and produced eight wins for Milwaukee in his first season there. Wily Peralta won 14 games last season while posting a 3.51 ERA.
Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson finish off the rotation for the Brewers. Francisco Rodriguez is the backbone of the bullpen. He finished with 36 saves in 2014. Jonathan Broxton will add some help in the bullpen as well but 2015 doesn’t shape up to be nice to Milwaukee fans.
Do not get excited if you root for the Reds because 2015 may not be pretty for Cincinnati and second-year manager Bryan Price. Playing in one of the toughest divisions in baseball doesn’t help the Reds, who are hurting in the payroll department.
Center fielder Billy Hamilton will lead off for the Reds in 2015, but he only got on base 30 percent of the time last season. One thing the Reds can do is hit home runs and that starts with third baseman Todd Frazier who hit 26 home runs in 2014. Former MVP Joey Votto saw some drop in production but hit .299 and 20 home runs last year. 37-year-old Marlon Byrd (22 home runs in 2014) has been brought in to play left field.
Jay Bruce will play opposite of Byrd in right field and knocked 31 over the fence in 2014. Catcher Devin Mesoraco hit 22 home runs and had 75 RBIs in 2014. Brandon Phillips (2b) and Zack Cozart (ss) finish off the position starters for manager Price.
Johnny Cueto will start 2015 as the ace for Cincinnati but do not be surprised if he is moved elsewhere as he will become a free agent after the season. Homer Bailey (3.51 ERA) and Mike Leake (3.72 ERA) fill the two and three spots in the rotation. Rookie Anthony Desclafani and new addition Jason Marquis finish off the starting rotation for the Reds. Fireball pitcher Aroldis Chapman provides a major spark in the bullpen. Chapman saved 41 games in 2014 while throwing fastballs reaching triple-digits.
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