It’s March. Spring Training is underway, and the weather is going to start to get warmer. Soon enough we will have baseball again. It will be tough to top what happened in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan), but the start of baseball means a rebirth and a fresh start once again. I’m not good at predicting what will happen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
1. St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards are the class of the National League. Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in 2011, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired that same winter after an improbable run to the World Series, and they’ve been just as good ever since. The Cardinals outlasted the Pirates and Dodgers to get back to the World Series in 2013, but came up short against the Red Sox, much like they did in 2004.
The Cardinals have a deep farm system and they can replace aging superstars more easily than anyone with the young talent they’ve drafted. Their pitching is strong, and Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. They have one of the tougher lineups in the National League with Molina, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and newly acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta going to bat for them. The Cardinals have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, headlined by Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, who proved to be an elite even under the bright lights of the playoffs in 2013. Mike Matheny is a great young manager who has taken St. Louis to the NLCS and the World Series in his first two years, losing to the eventual champion both times. This year, I expect them to be there again.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates. They finally did it in 2013. Now, the Pirates have high expectations heading into the season for the first time since Barry Bonds was starting for them in left field. After getting into the playoffs as a wildcard, they stayed in it by beating the Reds in a one game playoff series, but could not get past the Cardinals in the NLDS.
Andrew McCutchen is the reigning National League MVP, and the best thing to happen to the Pirates organization since a man named Barry Bonds. Russell Martin had and incredible year behind the plate for the Bucs. They play in a tough division, but the Pittsburgh fans who had seen the Steelers and Penguins reach the finals of their respective sports six times since the Pirates last reached the playoffs, are hungry for a trip to the World Series. The team is relatively young, and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle has them playing good baseball. I expect them to get back to the playoffs and maybe even make some noise this time around. If they falter, it might be because players like Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano fall back to earth. Last year, the Pirates and their fans were just happy to be there, but not that they have ended the twenty years of futility, the expectations are a bit higher.
3. Cincinnati Reds. It’s a new era in Reds baseball. After firing manager Dusty Baker despite three playoff berths in the last four years, decided to promote pitching coach Bryan Price to be the club’s new skipper. Pitching coaches are a lot like special teams coaches in football, in that they are important to an effective coaching staff, but very few of them ever get offered head coaching positions. Since John Farrell, who previously served as pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007 to 2010, has enjoyed success as a manager, it seems more and more teams will be willing to consider pitching coaches as management material.
The Reds have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are good hitters as well. Cincy’s pitching is the teams greatest strength, at least in the regular season, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey highlighting the starting rotation and Aroldis Chapman emerging as one of the best young closers in the game. The Reds have been to the playoffs three times in four years, but have had early exits each time. The core of this roster is entering its prime, and the expectations are high. Dusty Baker is out of a job because they couldn’t deliver on his watch. Major League Baseball’s oldest team is tired of living in the past. The Reds may have the most recent championship of any major professional sports team in the state of Ohio, but that was the year I was born (1990, against the Oakland A’s), and they are due. Fans don’t want another great regular season, but if they don’t even get that, then things could get ugly.
4. Chicago Cubs. One of these years, the Cubs have to turn it around, right? It could happen this year, but there are a few good teams standing in their way. Theo Epstein drafted well while he was with the Red Sox, and now Boston has one of the best farm systems in baseball while also competing for the World Series. Epstein won quickly in Boston because he inherited what was already a good roster built by Dan Duquette. Building a championship roster is easier if you already have Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez on your roster. Theo was the executive to ended a championship drought that began in 1918. Now he has a chance to end one that started in 1908. If he won were able to bring championship pennants to both Fenway and Wrigley, then he could go down as the greatest baseball executive of all time.
The Cubs have some pretty good young players who still have the potential to be great. 23 year old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is the biggest name of the bunch. After strong seasons in 2011 and 2012, Castro’s production fell off a bit in 2013, batting only .245 with 10 home runs, but the Cubs are hoping for a bounce back in 2014. Anthony Rizzo is another young player to look out for. New manager Rick Renteria is not the most exciting managerial hire, but hiring the biggest name isn’t always the best idea. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Cubs, but that’s what the regular season is for. Theo turned one franchise around already, but he’s going into his third regular season running the Cubs and if progress isn’t made, the Lovable Losers might be looking for a new executive come November.
5. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers aren’t necessarily the worst team in the NL Central, but they were the most disappointing one last year. Ryan Braun’s suspension was a blow to baseball and may have cost Braun his friendship with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The days of the Brewers contending for the World Series just a few short years ago seem like a much more distant memory. Prince Fielder signed with Detroit and has since been traded to Texas. Zack Greinke got overpaid by the Dodgers. The Brewers were one of the most fun teams in baseball in 2011, but now they’re just a shell of their former selves.
Matt Garza is a Brewer now, but he hasn’t pitched to the level of his name recognition since he left the Tampa Bay Rays. Rickie Weeks is a pretty good player, if a little overpaid. Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Rodriguez have seen better days. The Cubs might be worse than the Brewers, but my expectations for this team are the lowest of any in this difficult division.
In conclusion, the NL Central is by far the National League’s toughest division, but I expect the Cardinals to remain on top. The Pirates and Reds will still be in playoff contention, and the Cubs are x-factor that is very intriguing from a front office standpoint.