[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. 

17 Responses

  1. User1022

    NL Central should be an absolute dogfight this year. There are no longer any real push-over teams.

  2. redmountain

    Too many of the experts are calling the Brewers good-they are not. Too many experts are calling for a big year from the Cubs-they won’t. The Cards Do have holes at SS and LF. Peralta, if he reverts to form is iron gloved and how long can Matt Holiday continue to perform? He was OK last year, but that is after he had a big second half and he should not even wear a glove cause he cannot field. Finally, the loss of Russell Martin will be detrimental to the Pirates. Expect ERAs to go up and runs scored offensively to go down. What I am saying is that the division is wide open, not predictable.

    • Matt WI

      The Brewers were never as good as 20-8, and never as bad as their collapse. They are a competitive, strong team that will probably cause problems. Their starting pitching is the question, but where the Reds are top heavy with SP, they are a bit more consistent. Everytime I look at their lineup, I’m a little jealous.

      Peralta is a real wildcard to their season as a SP, along with Fiers. If those guys click, they’ll be interesting. They at least have the advantage of leaning on hoping young pitching will improve, rather than hoping Marquis doesn’t flounder.

      But overall, I agree, it’s a wide open division, with a nod to the Cards until proven otherwise.

    • lwblogger2

      I’m not sure what you’re talking about when it comes to the Cards “hole” in LF? Matt Holliday is a hole? He is poor defensively but I’ll take his offensive production out of LF any day… Paralta has been below average throughout his career defensively but last year, according to metrics, he was well above average. The eye test, at least when I saw him, seemed to agree. Which is more than a little surprising. I’m certainly not sold on his defense but if he can be at least marginal defensively for them, he is another one with a good enough bat that he’s certainly not a hole.

      I was saying the same thing about the loss of Martin for the Pirates. Now I think the defensive drop off may not be as bad as I originally thought. By all accounts Cervelli is a fine defensive catcher, including throwing and pitch-framing, as well as blocking pitches. The word is that pitchers like throwing to him. The few times I’ve seen him catch, he’s looked good to me.

      Not sure I’m seeing the holes you are. With the Pirates, I have questions about their rotation, and about if Harrison can match what he did last year, and if Alvarez can bounce back. With the Cards, I’m seeing no major flaws. They have a lot of pitching depth too. They are still my pick to win the division.

  3. gaffer

    To give us an idea of how good or bad some of the players on last years roster were lets look at what they are doing this year:

    Ryan Ludwick: cut from a minor lagure deal with Rangers
    Chris Heisey: batting under .100 for the Dodgers.
    Logan Ondrusek: in Asian baseball
    Jack Hanahan: in Asian baseball

    3 of these were on MULITYEAR deals!

  4. Art Wayne Austin

    It is amazing Cincinnati would trade two main-line pitchers for one prospective SP while the Cardinals and Cubs fill holes in their starting eight. What am I missing here?

    • Steve Mancuso

      The Cardinals and Cubs have aggressive, up-to-date front offices. Regardless of what one thinks of the Reds organization, Reds fans need to understand that those other clubs aren’t going to make many mis-steps or fail to act.

  5. charlottencredsfan

    I see a real barn-burner of a race between the Cards & Cubs. Cubs may start slow but don’t be fooled, they are young and will improve as the season goes on. It may come down to the last week of the season, but I see the Cubs prevailing. There is a real energy with that club and they have a superior manager. Don’t share the view that a great manager means only a couple of extra wins. If I was betting money, I’d predict the Reds loose 90 games.

    The team as a whole has looked good this spring but it has mainly been the kids and non-roster guys. We are in really bad trouble if Homer & Mes don’t return quickly. Billy and Bruce look as bad as they did the second half of last season. Cautiously hopeful that JV can return to form but I’m far from convinced. Mike Leake is itching like he is from another planet and/or is looking to make a whole lot of money in his next contract.

    • lwblogger2

      See, I don’t think the Cubs are quite there yet. Those kids need a year I think. I think they will win more games than the Reds though. I don’t see our Redlegs losing 90. That’s really, really bad. They’d have to have some serious injuries again to go into that territory in my opinion. I could see them winning 77-81 games. That is to say, they should be about .500 or a tad lower. I could see them losing 90 if everything that can go wrong does. I could also see them winning 90 if everything that can break right, does.

      • charlottencredsfan

        Can they win 81 if they are without any of the following: Votto, Cueto, Mes, Frazier, Chapman, Bruce, Bailey or Leake? I get your point but to me if only one of these guys is hurt/traded, etc., 90 losses becomes a real possibility. Hope you are right and I’m wrong.

        I do expect a more productive bench this year, so that is a positive. Unfortunately every other aspect of the game, I think they will lose some ground.

      • MrRed

        They had more than one of those aforementioned guys hurt last year and still weren’t close to 90 losses. I think this is a case of recent past dictating future performance a little too much. It would still take a lot of key injuries to have that bad of a season. I think the Cubs will be better than in recent memory but I don’t see them finishing in first place this year. Too many young players, despite their talent, to be ready for that.

  6. WVRedlegs

    This is the year of the injury bug for the Cards.
    Wainwright is hanging by a thread.
    Holliday is 35 and cannot keep the pace of 155+ games played. He started his decline last year and was a bit steep.
    Adams cannot hit LH pitching very well.
    Wong cannot hit RH pitching very well.
    Their starting rotation is very vulnerable.
    A wide open NLC is an understatement.

  7. jdx19

    Did a little looking into NL Central lineups and their projections for this year. Did a “top 3” and “bottom 3” for each of AVG/OBP/SLG/wRC+ out of each projected lineup.

    Some interesting notes:

    MIL has 3 guys projected to have a higher AVG than any single Red. Although, Votto leading the Reds at .279 seems conservative. If he’s healthy, he’ll likely hit very near to .300ish.

    The Reds have the worst offensive starter (76 wRC+), the 2nd worst offensive starter (84 wRC+) and the 4th worst offensive starter (91 wRC+) out of the 40 starting players in the NL Central. Those are Cozart, Hamilton, Phillips. The guy projected to be the 3rd worst, Mike Olt (85 wRC+), is going to be replaced by Kris Byrant 2 weeks into the season. So, 37.5% of the starting Reds starting 8 are projected to be the worst in the division at ANY position.

    The Reds 2nd best OBP guy (.322-Meso) has a lower OBP than any of the 3rd best OBP guys on every other team (.350, .329, .337, .346).

    Votto is projected (somewhat conservatively, I think) to have a wRC+ of 145, matched only by McCutchen (150).

    STL has only one starter with lower than 100 wRC+, Kolten Wong at 95.

    McCutchen is the only player in the NLC to be projected to have over .500 SLG (.501). Votto is projected 4th in the NLC (Cutch, Rizzo, Braun).

    Good-bad-indifferent…I found it all to be mighty interesting!

  8. Jeremy Conley

    Fangraphs and Grantland both put up their NL Central previews today.



    Sadly, both have the Reds, and their big payroll, finishing last. Grantland has the Reds finishing with 76 wins, Fangraphs only 74. I know that these are just projections, and that the Reds can totally prove these guys wrong. But you must be doing something wrong when every smart analyst out there thinks you’ve put together the worst team in the division for the most money.

    Both projections list the Reds biggest weakness as their rotation. The best points were made in fangraphs ranking of MLB starting rotations (where they had the Reds ranked 22nd):

    The problem is that for a team that’s certainly acting like it plans to contend, well, there’s entirely too much Jason Marquis on that list… This is just a team that doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going, and the rotation reflects that. Not enough depth, and not enough talent, not for a team that still fancies itself a contender.

  9. charlottencredsfan

    On the radio broadcast, it was mentioned that Marty was taking Mr. Castellini’s private jet back to Cincy tomorrow morning. Two possible topics:
    1 – How does MB size up the team? Hopefully Marty is brutally honest as usual.
    2 – What is the deal with you and JV? Marty can you tone it down a couple of notches?

    • Matt WI

      Oh for a way to listen in on that conversation!

  10. ohiojimw

    To get Choo WJ traded 2 guys in Stubbs and Gregorious who are probably going to have better years than the guys the Reds will have playing at their positions. The situation was compounded when he miscalculated and was unable to retain Choo for LF which would have been a hedge against the offensive offensiveness of Cozart and Hamilton, regardless of their defensive capabilities. And now the core of his scheme, the rotation, looks fractured or at least highly unsettled at the back end.

    The only way out for the Reds is for the young pitching depth to come up spades in the next year or two to a degree the Reds can rebuild the rotation and trade some of that pitching talent for a couple of above average everyday position guys.