[Today, Redleg Nation turns its attention to the NL Central. Nick Kirby’s overview begins our week-long, in-depth preview of the division. Tuesday through Friday, we’ll cover each of the Reds four division opponents in detail. – Editor]

2015 is an intriguing year in the National League Central division. The Cardinals and Pirates are certainly favored, following back-to-back seasons of finishing first and second. However, you can make the case that any of the five teams could win the division. There is more parity between the five teams as any season in recent memory. Let’s take a closer look at the teams that don’t call Cincinnati home in the NL Central.

Chicago Cubs

2014: 73-89, 17.0 GB, 5th Place

2015 Fangraphs projection: 84-78, 3rd Place, NL 2nd Wild Card

There is a lot of reason for hope in 2015 for the Cubs. They got the most exciting, and maybe the best manager in all of baseball in Joe Maddon. They signed top free agent pitcher Jon Lester. Most importantly, they have a plethora of young prospects banging on the door to the majors. The Cubs may or may not actually contend for the NL Central crown in 2015, but one thing is certain: the Cubs are no longer a laughing matter. This team is ready to compete.

Cubs lineup

Cubs rotation

The Cubs have a very formidable lineup, and that isn’t even including Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. Both players could begin the season in the minors, but they won’t be there for long. Bryant has hit 9 homers this spring, and ZiPS projected to him to put up a 4.2 WAR (tied for the team lead with Anthony Rizzo) and hit 29 homers. Baez is projected to put up a 2.2 WAR and hit 30 homers. There is certainly no shortage of power in the Cubs lineup if they have Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez. Those three could hit 100 combined HR in a full season.

The Cubs pitching also looks strong. Lester and Arrieta combine for one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball, and even the Cubs bullpen looks good. The bullpen will be anchored by Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, and will get help from ex-Cardinal Jason Motte.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2014: 88-74, 2.0 GB, 2nd Place, NL 1st Wild Card

2015 Fangraphs projection: 85-77, 2nd Place, NL 1st Wild Card

The Pirates are coming off back to back trips to the playoffs. That still feels weird to say. The Pirates have really built a team that is poised to contend year in and year out.

Pirates lineup

Pirates rotation

The Pirates lineup will be anchored by Andrew McCutchen, who shows no signs of slowing down from a perennial MVP candidate. The key will be the rest of their outfield. The Pirates need Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to live up to their hype, especially considering the Pirates don’t have as good of depth in the OF as years past. The real wild card for the Pirates offense is SS Jung-Ho Kang. The Pirates signed Kang from South Korea this off-season. Kang hit 40 HR with a 1.198 OPS in Korea last season.

The Pirates rotation will be lead by Gerrit Cole, who looks poised to have a great 2015. The rest of the rotation is about average. It will be interesting to see if A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano can continue the success they have had over the last two seasons.

Milwaukee Brewers

2014: 82-80, 8.0 GB, 3rd Place

2015 Fangraphs projection: 79-83, 4th Place

The Brewers are coming off a massive collapse in 2015. The Brewers still have a team that can contend in the NL Central in 2015, but it will be interesting to see if there are any lingering effects of that brutal collapse.

Brewers lineup

brewers rotation

Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy are legitimate stars, but the Brewers will need a lot more than just those two to produce in 2015. Adam Lind, who the Brewers acquired from the Blue Jays, should help the Brewers offense. There are really just a lot of unknowns in the Brewers lineup. What is post-steroid Ryan Braun? Can Jean Segura bounce back? How much is left in Aramis Ramirez tank? What kind of production will the Brewers get from Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett?

The Brewers rotation is nothing to get too excited about. There just isn’t one guy that will scare NL Central opponents. The Brewers bullpen has some big names (Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, and Chris Perez), but even that looks more overrated than promising.

St. Louis Cardinals

2014: 90-72, 1st Place

2015 Fangraphs projection: 88-74, 1st Place

The Cardinals are the clear favorites in the NL Central in 2015, and deservingly so. The Cardinals are coming off back-to-back NL Central championships, and once again on paper have the best team.

Cardinals lineup

Cardinals roation

Every player in the Cardinals lineup except Kolten Wong was an above average hitter in 2014 (they all had a wRC+ of 100 or better). Even Kolten Wong wasn’t all that bad either. The Cardinals lineup is very balanced, and the addition of Jason Heyward just makes them that much better. There simply are no holes.

The Cardinals rotation is just as dangerous as their lineup. Their rotation 1-5 is clearly the best the division (no matter who they actually decide to be their #5 starter). Even though the Cardinals bullpen lost their surprising 2014 star Pat Neshek, it still looks good in 2015. Rosenthal, Walden, Maness, Choate, and Siegrest are all projected to post ERA’s of 3.60 or lower.

Preseason Power Rankings:

  1. St. Louis Cardinals

  2. Pittsburgh Pirates

  3. Chicago Cubs

  4. Cincinnati Reds

  5. Milwaukee Brewers

Preseason All-NL Central team

  • Catcher – Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
  • First Base – Joey Votto, Reds
  • Second Base – Neil Walker, Pirates
  • Shortstop – Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
  • Third Base – Todd Frazier, Reds
  • Outfield – Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
  • Outfield – Carlos Gomez, Brewers
  • Outfield – Jason Heyward, Cardinals
  • Starting Pitcher – Jon Lester, Cubs
  • Starting Pitcher – Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  • Starting Pitcher – Johnny Cueto, Reds
  • Starting Pitcher – Gerrit Cole, Pirates
  • Starting Pitcher – Jake Arrietta, Cubs
  • Bullpen – Aroldis Chapman, Reds
  • Bullpen – Mark Melancon, Pirates
  • Bullpen – Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
  • Bullpen – Jordan Walden, Cardinals
  • Bullpen – Pedro Strop, Cubs

All projected lineups and rotations are courtesy of RotoChamp. All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.