X-St. Louis Cardinals 92-70
Since 2000, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the model of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Cardinals have had nine seasons in which they have won at least 90 games with a pair of World Series Championships in four appearances in the Fall Classic over that stretch. What has separated the Cards from their brethren in the National League Central over that stretch is their ability to roll with the punches by developing talent and doing things the “Cardinal Way” which will once again be the theme for them in 2015.
Tragedy struck the Cardinal family last fall when their young outfielder Oscar Tavares was killed as the result of a single-car accident in his native Dominican Republic. Tavares was just 22-years of age with a tremendously bright future in MLB which left a void for the Cards. But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak knew that he needed to get a player to replace Tavares and he did so when he acquired outfielder Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves. After finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward produced for the Braves, but he was out of place in their lineup as he was asked to be a leadoff hitter or in the second slot of the batting order which is not his cup of tea. Heyward is now in one of the most balanced and professional lineups in baseball. And with some pressure off of Heyward’s shoulders in St. Louis, he can reach his full potential now. Along with Heyward’s bat, he is a two-time NL Gold Glove Award winner that has range along with a solid throwing arm. Heyward will join a Cardinals lineup that is loaded with professional hitters such as outfielder Matt Holliday, third baseman Matt Carpenter, and outfielder Jon Jay while first baseman Matt Adams is becoming one of the big power hitting threats in the NL.The trade that brought Heyward to St. Louis would send starting pitcher Shelby Miller to the Braves and it would also see the Cards acquire relief pitcher Jordan Walden as well. Walden enjoyed a solid 2014 in the Braves bullpen where he had a 2.88 earned run average and struck out 62 batters in 50 innings pitched. And now Walden joins a bullpen and an organization with a rich and deep pitching history.
Walden comes to a Cardinals pitching staff that is looking to improve off of their team earned run average last season of 3.50 which was eighth in the National League. The Cardinals starting pitching will once again be led by Adam Wainwright. Wainwright is coming off of his second 20-win season of his MLB and you’ll hear his name in the discussion for the NL Cy Young Award as long as he remains healthy. Wainwright is 33-years old, but Cards manager Mike Matheny is a former Major League Baseball catcher and he knows how to manage a pitching staff and he’ll take care of his ace. The Cardinals starting rotation has solid arms behind Wainwright with veterans John Lackey, Lance Lynn along with youngsters in Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Cardinals relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal was second in the NL last season in saves with 45 and he should once again be one of the more dependable pitchers in the ninth inning.
The engine for the Cardinals pitching staff is their catcher Yadier Molina. There is always an ongoing debate between people as to who is the best catcher in MLB between Molina and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. But Molina is the better defender as he dares runners to test his powerful throwing arm. Molina’s offensive numbers dipped somewhat last season as he was injured and at 32-years of age he could be slowing down with his bat, but Matheny still looks at him as a manager on the field.
The Cards will begin the season attempting to survive the tide as they’ll open the season on the road against the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds respectively who would love nothing better than to put St. Louis in chase mode early on.
Cincinnati Reds 85-77
After two straight postseason appearances the Cincinnati Reds took a huge step backwards last year as they lost 86 games for the first time since 2008. In his first season as Reds manager, Bryan Price had to deal with a slew on injuries to key players and he is hopeful that Cincinnati’s title window has not closed.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto was the National League’s MVP in 2010, but injuries forced him to miss 100 games last season. Votto is vital to any success that the Reds will potentially have this season due to the fact that he is one of the better contact hitters in Major League Baseball along with being a tremendous glove man at first base. At 33-years of age, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips isn’t the player that he once was as his skills are diminishing. Like Votto, Phillips also missed a healthy amount of time last season. But injuries to the likes of Votto and Phillips allowed players such as third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco to emerge in the Reds lineup. Last season saw Frazier hit 29 home runs and emerge as one of the top third basemen in the NL while Mesoraco had a career high in home runs as well with 25. Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton was second in the NL last season in stolen bases with 56 and he could be an even bigger factor in Cincinnati’s lineup if he can improve on his on-base percentage. Hamilton stole 56 bases last season in spite of the fact that he only had a .292 on-base percentage. If Hamilton is able to improve on his on-base percentage it will be a huge boost to the Reds lineup as his speed will give the Reds power hitters better opportunities at the plate.
Offense has never been an issue for the Reds, but their pitching staff will need to improve on a team earned run average of 3.59 which was ninth in the NL last season. Reds starting pitcher Johnny Cueto is coming off of his first 20-win season and he and his quirky pitching delivery will need to have a big impact on Cincinnati’s starting rotation. But behind Cueto there are questions about the Reds starting pitching as the other four pitchers have been inconsistent at best. If the Reds will be able to head into the ninth inning with a lead, Price can rely on relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman who has saved 112 games over the last three years and he is also no stranger to regularly reaching 100 miles per hour on the radar gun with his fastball.
For the month of April, the Reds will play all but one of their games against the NL Central which will go a very long in determining their season.
Pittsburgh Pirates 84-78
Two consecutive trips to the playoffs have definitely created some optimism in Western Pennsylvania for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But getting back to playing baseball in October for 2015 won’t be easy. In two years as the Pirates everyday catcher, Russell Martin had a big impact on Pittsburgh”s pitching staff. With Martin as their backstop, the Pirates team earned run average was never lower than fifth in the National League. But this past winter Martin hit the free agent market and he joined the Toronto Blue Jays on a five-year, $82 million contract. Martin is a native of Toronto and that was the icing on the cake for him. For Pirates general manager Neal Huntington he had to replace Martin which he did by trading for another former New York Yankees catcher in Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli will split time behind the plate Chris Stewart as the two of them will have their hands full as far replacing Martin and it will tough for both of them to replicate Martin’s overall production.
Cervelli and Stewart will be working with a Pirates pitching staff that will have a blend of youth and experience. Pirates starting pitchers Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett are veteran pitchers that possess rubber arms while Pittsburgh is hopeful that youngster Gerrit Cole will be able to put it all together this season.
The Pirates scored the fourth most runs in the NL last season with outfielder Andrew McCutchen being their catalyst. McCutchen won the NL MVP Award in 2013 and he’ll once again be in the running for it in 2015 as he is one of the best five-tool players in Major League Baseball. Huntington and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle were happy with the emergence of third baseman Josh Harrison in the lineup along with first baseman Pedro Alvarez as he is once again going to be counted on to provide some protection for McCutchen in the Pirates lineup. The Pirates had nine players hit at least 10 homers last season with McCutchen leading the way with 25 and the group effort will be needed again if the Pirates are going to be a playoff contender this season.
The Pirates do have some tremendous young talent on their team, but the loss of Martin behind the plate will be tough for them to overcome.
Chicago Cubs 79-83
The Chicago Cubs are set to enter their fourth season with Theo Epstein as their president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer as their general manager. But unlike the previous three seasons there is some more optimism for the North Siders. Former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon has taken over as the skipper for the Cubs and he has brought his quirky style of managing to the Windy City with him. In nine seasons as the Rays manager, Maddon had six winning campaigns while leading Tampa to four postseason appearances which included a pair of American League East Titles and their only World Series appearance in franchise history. Now Maddon has been charged with doing the impossible which is molding this young Cubs roster into contenders that can ultimately win the franchise’s first World Series Championship since 1908.
Last season the Cubs team earned run average of 3.91 was 13th in the National League which was something that Epstein and Hoyer needed to remedy. Epstein is hopeful that he solved this problem as he lured a familiar face to Chicago. Prior to joining the Cubs, Epstein worked in the front office of the Boston Red Sox and in his time there he watched starting pitcher Jon Lester blossom into one of the best left-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball. The Red Sox traded Lester to the Oakland Athletics last summer as he was set to become a free agent this winter. The Red Sox wanted to bring Lester back to Boston, but they were unwilling to get into a bidding war with the Cubs who offered Lester $155 million over six years. What Lester brings to the Cubs is a career record of 116-67 with a 3.58 earned run average. In six of the last seven seasons Lester has thrown at least 200 innings and he’ll be a guy that Maddon will count on to be the ace of his pitching staff.
Behind Lester, the Cubs have youngsters in their starting rotations in Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, and Jason Hammel that will need to be ready for the big time if the Cubs are going to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.
The Cubs are also high on their young lineup led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo who emerged as a power-hitter last season. Rizzo has tremendous power and he has the potential to hit 40 home runs this season. It seems like Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro has been around forever, but he is only 24-years old and he will need to become more consistent defensively while making sure that he gets on base ahead of Rizzo. The Cubs front office is high on outfielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Junior Baez as they feel that they have their core in place that will allow them to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
Wrigley Field has been the home of the Chicago Cubs since 1914 and it is dire need of a renovation. Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is full steam ahead with his plan to renovate the facility and thus the left field bleachers there will not be ready when the season starts. The Cubs will have to do without the crazies in left field to start the season, but everyone in the Windy City believes in what Epstein, Hoyer, and Maddon are selling to them as far as the direction of the team.
Milwaukee Brewers 81-81
Since winning the National League Central in 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have been an up and down team. And 2015 won’t be any easier for the Brewers who’ll be swimming upstream in an improved division. Ron Roenicke is set to embark on his fifth season as the Brewers manager and he has plenty of question marks surrounding his club.
The life of Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun has not been the same since he was linked to performance-enhancing drugs in 2011. Braun was the NL MVP in 2011, but since being outed for PED’s he has dealt with his fair share of public scrutiny and injuries as you simply don’t know how he’ll perform in 2015. In Braun’s absence last season outfielder Carlos Gomez led the team in home runs (23) and he is emerging as one of the better center fielders in Major League Baseball. At 36-years of age, Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez is not the player that he once was and he has announced that this will be his swan song while Roenicke is hopeful that shortstop Jean Segura is ready to have a bounce back season.
With the likes of pitchers Wliy Peralta, Kyle Lohse, and Matt Garza in the Brewers starting rotation, they will need to pick up the slack for Yovanni Gallardo who was traded to the Texas Rangers this off-season. Roenicke has options in his bullpen as he can turn to either Jonathan Broxton or Francisco Rodriguez to close out ballgames. Broxton hasn’t been a closer since 2012 when he was with the Kansas City Royals. But 6’4″, 295 lbs., Broxton’s presence alone of the mound can intimidate hitters while Rodriguez did save 44 games for the Brewers last season.
The Brewers will be a gritty team in 2015, but it will not be enough for them to hang around in the playoff race.