2015 was a fantastic year for the National League Central Division.
Three teams finished the regular season with 95 or more wins, including the St. Louis Cardinals who won exactly 100 games. Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cubs each made the postseason, as well.
With the All-Star game being played in Cincinnati, it gave Reds slugger Todd Frazier a chance to shine in a dramatic Home Run derby that has set the bar high for the long ball hitting contests to come.
St. Louis and Pittsburgh both made early exits from the playoffs, but the Cubs were on the brink of a trip to the World Series before losing in the NLCS to the Mets.
With an offseason full of moves in this division, it looks likely there could be a shift in power at the top of it.
Chicago Cubs, 97-65 (Lost in NLCS)
As soon as the final out was recorded by the Royals clinching the World Series title, the Chicago Cubs became the favorites to win it all in 2016.
And they only improved their odds over the offseason.
Chicago bolstered the lineup by adding outfielder Jason Heyward, infielder Ben Zobrist, and re-signing Dexter Fowler, as well as improving the pitching staff by adding players such as Adam Warren and John Lackey, while re-signing Trevor Cahill.
In short, not only did the Cubs win 97 games last year, but they got even better during the winter.
Joe Maddon certainly has tough decisions to make regarding the depth chart of his team.
Do you start Kyle Schwarber to have another consistent power threat in the lineup in exchange for the potential of costly play in the outfield? Do you stunt the growth of Javier Baez by not having him be an every day player? How do you get Jorge Soler his needed at bats throughout the season while not sacrificing too many ABs by your regular starters?
These are good problems to have, but they’re questions that will be asked surrounding this team all season.
Theo Epstein has once again made a seemingly forever-cursed team a World Series contender. If he pulls it off this time around, though, he may go down as the greatest GM in baseball history, if not the history of sports.
Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Lackey have the potential this year to be the best trio to front line a rotation over the last few seasons. But, we said the same thing last year with the Nationals and it didn’t turn out the way everyone thought it would.
Strangely enough, on a franchise filled with underachieving expectations, I don’t see that happening.
Chicago will be as good as advertised; the Cubs will have the best record in baseball.
Prediction: First place, playoff appearance
Cincinnati Reds, 64-98 last season
The lone bright spot for the Cincinnati Reds in 2015 was that the club hosted a very exciting All-Star weekend. Other than that, the season didn’t bring a lot of smiles to the Queen City.
The winter wasn’t much better.
In December, Cincinnati traded away Home Run Derby champ Todd Frazier as part of a three-team trade with the White Sox and Dodgers. The three players the Reds got in return have a combined 26 games of big league experience.
Not only did the Reds lose arguably their best hitter, but they also traded arguably their best pitcher, making Aroldis Chapman a late Christmas present in the ‘Big Apple.’
With that said, there is still talent on this team.
Cincinnati front office personnel decided to hang on to Jay Bruce (at least for now), Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips still control the right side of the infield, and Billy Hamilton controls the outfield.
Pitching will likely be the downfall for the Reds.
Top starting pitcher Homer Bailey will likely be out until the middle of May rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, and with three other pitchers on the staff already dealing with injuries of their own, it could become a revolving door of starters at the start of the season.
Last year the Reds sent a rookie to the mound as the starting pitcher for 64-straight games to end the regular season.
Things may not be that bad in Cincy this year, but they won’t be much better.
Prediction: Fifth place
Milwaukee Brewers, 68-94 last season
Since winning the NL Central division in 2011, it’s been tough sledding for the Milwaukee Brewers, during which time the Brewers haven’t finished better than third in the Central.
Last year was the worst the Brew Crew have suffered through since 2004, and Ron Roenicke was released midway through the season, despite his winning record while being in charge. Former player for Milwaukee Craig Counsel took over as manager.
Ryan Braun is the only remaining starting outfielder from last year’s squad, as Carlos Gomez was traded during the season and Kris Davis was sent to the A’s during the offseason.
Milwaukee also traded shortstop Jean Segura to the Diamondbacks as part of a five-player deal that brought third baseman Aaron Hill to Wisconsin. Chris Carter was the other notable addition to the team, along with Hill, however, I recently wrote that he will be a player that gets traded during the season.
The Brewers have been playing well during Spring Training, but we know that the preseason isn’t always a true telling of how the regular season is going to play out.
Looking at this team, there is talent that the common fan may not be aware of because there aren’t a ton of big-name players. But, looking at the top three teams in this division it’s easy to see where the Brewers will finish up.
Prediction: Fourth place
Pittsburgh Pirates, 98-64 (Lost in Wild Card game)
For a team that has made it to the playoffs each of the last three seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates were fairly stagnant during the offseason.
The Pirates allowed Pedro Alvarez, Antonio Bastardo and J.A. Happ to sign with other teams, while the two biggest free agent signings the team made were that of David Freese and John Jaso.
Pittsburgh made arguably its biggest move of the offseason in December when it sent second baseman Neil Walker to the Mets in exchange for starting pitcher Jonathon Niese.
Despite not doing much during the winter, Pittsburgh will still be competitive this season.
Niese joins a rotation of Francisco Liriano and Gerritt Cole to create a bit of a three-headed monster in the Steel City. Couple the starting pitching with Mark Melancon – one of the more consistent closers in the league over the past few seasons – along with a more than capable back end of the bullpen, and it’s easy to see that the Pirates should be competitive in most of the games they play from a pitching standpoint.
Hitting-wise, it may take a while for the Pirates to hit their stride.
Jung Ho Kang is targeting sometime in April to return from knee surgery, but an injury like the one he sustained could take a while for him to get back into a good hitting rhythm.
Until then, the Pirates will have to rely on some of their other younger players such as Jordy Mercer, Gregor Polanco and Starlin Marte – all of whom are under 30 years old – to keep them competitive.
Pittsburgh may not have quite the season it did last year when it won 98 games, especially with the Cubs and Cardinals front lining the division with superior rosters, but this is a team that can contend.
The Pirates will contend, but they won’t win the division.
Prediction: Third place
St. Louis Cardinals, 100-62 (Lost in NLDS)
Defying some of the odds that come with not having your star ace for most of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in baseball last year, winning 100 games in the regular season.
However, despite the strength they displayed all year, the Cards were removed early in the playoffs at the hands of division foe Chicago Cubs.
The theme of the Cubs stealing the spotlight away from the Red Birds continued through the winter. Chicago lured away outfielder Jason Heyward and John Lackey from St. Louis.
In fact, St. Louis was only able to retain one of their eight free agents.
However, that doesn’t mean the Cardinals are going to fall into darkness, quite the opposite actually.
St. Louis made up for Lackey’s departure by signing Mike Leake to a five-year deal. And putting a positive spin on the Achilles injury he suffered last April, Adam Wainwright recently told ESPN’s Buster Olney that the time off gave his body ample time to heal a few nagging things, as well as improve his game.
Wainwright returns, and Leake joins, a rotation that last year saw both Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia have career years. Wacha won 17 games, while Garcia threw to the lowest ERA of his seven-year stint in the majors.
And it’s not just the pitching staff that is well put together. The lineup should be potent as well.
Matt Carpenter has shown a lot of skill and a leadoff man with middle-of-the-order power, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are two young outfielders with enormous potential, and Brandon Moss provides a bat that is a little more versatile than Matt Adams.
Jhonny Peralta is expected to miss the first two to three months of the season, but the Cardinals are deep and talented enough to stat the year without him.
St. Louis will be in contention all year, and certainly have a fighting chance to win the division, but I think the Cubs have just a little more fire power than the Cardinals do.
Prediction: Second place
- Chicago Cubs
- Louis Cardinals
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Cincinnati Reds