National League Central preview capsules

Capsules of National League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:


St. Louis Cardinals

2014: 90-72, first place, lost to San Francisco in NLCS.

Manager: Mike Matheny (fourth season).

He’s Here: OF Jason Heyward, 3B-1B Mark Reynolds, RHP Matt Belisle, RHP Jordan Walden.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Pat Neshek, C A.J. Pierzynski, INF Daniel Descalso, 2B Mark Ellis, RHP Justin Masterson, OF Shane Robinson, RHP Tyrell Jenkins, LHP Sam Freeman.

Projected Lineup: 3B Matt Carpenter (.272, 8 HRs, 59 RBIs), RF Jason Heyward (,271, 11, 58, 20 SBs with Braves), LF Matt Holliday (.272, 20, 90), 1B Matt Adams (.288, 15, 68), C Yadier Molina (.282, 7, 38), SS Jhonny Peralta (.263, 21, 75), CF Jon Jay (.303, 3, 46), 2B Kolten Wong (.249, 12, 41, 20 SBs).

Rotation: RH Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA, 227 IP, 3 shutouts, 5 CGs), RH Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74), RH Michael Wacha (5-6, 3.20 in 19 starts), RH John Lackey (14-10, 3.82 with Red Sox and Cardinals), RH Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.03 in 57 games, 7 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Trevor Rosenthal (2-6, 3.20, 45/51 saves), RH Jordan Walden (0-2, 2.88, 3 saves, 62Ks, 27 BBs in 50 IP with Braves), RH Seth Maness (6-4, 2.91, 3 saves), LH Randy Choate (2-2, 4.50), LH Marco Gonzales (4-2, 4.15 in 10 games, 5 starts).

Hot Spots: Starting Rotation. Martinez gets his first shot at a full-time spot in the rotation after Garcia had a setback from shoulder surgery late in camp. Garcia had been expected to be the fifth starter. Wacha appears to be back at full strength after missing most of the second half last season with a stress reaction in his shoulder. Wainwright and Lynn both bounced back nicely from setbacks early in camp, and Lynn will start the home opener April 13 against Cincinnati.

Outlook: The Cardinals have been to the NLCS four straight seasons, including a World Series title in 2011, and there’s no reason they can’t make another deep run. Heyward is the big off-season pickup, filling a void after the shocking death of promising young outfielder Oscar Taveras last fall. Entering the final year of his contract, Heyward will be wooed for a long-term deal. The promising Miller was the price in a trade with Atlanta, but there are plenty of young arms to fill that void, with Gonzales beginning the year as the No. 1 starter at Triple-A Memphis. The hard-throwing Walden replaces Neshek, among the top setup men in the majors last year. There’s more speed, too, with Heyward and Wong leading the way. Having five left-handed bats is a potential downside, but there’s right-handed pop on the bench with Reynolds perhaps challenging for a platoon with Adams.


Pittsburgh Pirates

2014: 88-74, second place, lost to San Francisco in wild-card game.

Manager: Clint Hurdle (fifth season).

He’s Here: RHP A.J. Burnett, C Francisco Cervelli, INF Jung-Ho Kang, INF Sean Rodriguez, 1B-OF Corey Hart, LHP Antonio Bastardo.

He’s Outta Here: C Russell Martin, RHP Edinson Volquez, OF Travis Snider, LHP Justin Wilson, 1B Gaby Sanchez, SS Clint Barmes, 1B Ike Davis, RHP Jeanmar Gomez.

Projected Lineup: 3B Josh Harrison (.315, 13, 52, 18 SBs), RF Gregory Polanco (.235, 7, 33), CF Andrew McCutchen (.314, 25, 83), 1B Pedro Alvarez (.231, 18, 56), 2B Neil Walker (.271, 23, 76), LF Starling Marte (.291, 13, 56, 30 SBs), C Francisco Cervelli (.301, 2, 13 with Yankees), SS Jordy Mercer (.255, 12, 55).

Rotation: LH Francisco Liriano (7-10, 3.38), RH Gerrit Cole (11-5, 3.65), RH A.J. Burnett (8-18, 4.59, led NL in losses and walks (96) with Phillies), RH Charlie Morton (6-12, 3.72), LH Jeff Locke (7-6, 3.91).

Key Relievers: RH Mark Melancon (3-5, 1.90, 33/37 saves, 0.873 WHIP), LH Tony Watson (10-2, 1.63), LH Antonio Bastardo (5-7, 3.94 with Phillies), RH Jared Hughes (7-5, 1.96), RH John Holdzkom (1-0, 2.00), RH Stolmy Pimentel (2-1, 5.23), RH Vance Worley (8-4, 2.85).

Hot Spots: First Base and Catcher. The Pirates went all-in on moving Alvarez from third base to first in the off-season, letting Davis and Sanchez go and handing the mitt to Alvarez hoping the slugger can provide adequate defence and rediscover the bat that tied for the National League lead with 36 homers in 2013. Toronto let Pittsburgh off the hook by signing Martin to an eye-popping deal that was far out of the still budget-conscious Pirates’ tax bracket. Pittsburgh instead acquired Cervelli from the Yankees. Cervelli is a better-than-average defensive backstop when healthy, and he’s shown power during the spring. Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez are available if he falters, but Cervelli will be given every opportunity to hold down the starting job.

Outlook: Owner Bob Nutting trots out the same line on expectations every spring, that he expects the fall to bring Pittsburgh its seventh World Series title. It’s no longer just a dream. The Pirates were responsibly aggressive over the winter, re-signing Liriano to the most expensive free-agent contract in club history and luring back Burnett for a second stint with the team he helped lead to its first playoff berth in two decades in 2013. The loss of Martin will be felt, but perennial MVP candidate McCutchen is in the middle of his prime and with Marte and Polanco the Pirates may have the best outfield in baseball provided Polanco takes a reasonable step forward following a spotty rookie year. The back end of the bullpen was dominant at times last year as Watson and Melancon were a highly productive setup-closer combination. The signing of Korean infielder Kang provides some intrigue. He hit 40 homers last spring back home and believes the power can translate to major league parks. Pittsburgh proved last season its breakthrough 2013 was no fluke. Now it’s time to take the next step forward in what could be a very crowded NL Central.


Milwaukee Brewers

2014: 82-80, third place.

Manager: Ron Roenicke (fifth season).

He’s Here: 1B Adam Lind, LHP Neal Cotts, INF Luis Jiminez, INF Luis Sardinas.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Yovani Gallardo, LHP Zach Duke, 2B Rickie Weeks, 1B-3B Mark Reynolds, 1B Lyle Overbay, RHP Marco Estrada.

Projected Lineup: CF Carlos Gomez (.284, 23, 73, 24 SBs, 141 Ks), C Jonathan Lucroy (.301, 13, 69, 53 doubles), RF Ryan Braun (.266, 19, 81, 11 SBs), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.285, 15, 66), 1B Adam Lind (.321, 6, 40, 24 doubles in 96 games with Blue Jays), LF Khris Davis (.244, 22, 69, 37 doubles), 2B Scooter Gennett (.289, 9, 54), SS Jean Segura (.246, 5, 31, 20 SBs).

Rotation: RH Kyle Lohse (13-9, 3.54, 141 Ks, 1.15 WHIP), RH Matt Garza (8-8, 3.64), RH Wily Peralta (17-11, 3.53, 154 Ks), RH Mike Fiers (6-5, 2.13, 76 Ks, 0.88 WHIP in 71 2-3 IP), RH Jimmy Nelson (2-9, 4.93).

Key Relievers: RH Francisco Rodriguez (5-5, 3.04, 44/49 saves, 0.99 WHIP, .198 BA against, 14 HRs allowed in 68 IP), RH Jonathan Broxton (4-3, 2.30 ERA, 7 saves with Reds and Brewers), LH Will Smith (1-3, 3.70, 1 save, 1.42 WHIP, 86 Ks in 65 2-3 IP), RH Jeremy Jeffress (1-1, 2.81 with Blue Jays and Brewers), LH Neal Cotts (2-9, 4.32 with Rangers).

Hot Spots: Offence. Braun hopes an off-season procedure finally fixed a meddlesome nerve problem near his right thumb. Getting him back fully healthy would be huge for a lineup that slumped badly down the stretch in 2014. Enter new hitting coach Darnell Coles. Braun had been hitting better after a slow start this spring. The Brewers also hope Lucroy doesn’t feel the after-effects of a hamstring injury that limited the All-Star catcher for the start of spring training. Gennett needs to prove he can hit lefties consistently enough to play every day at second. Segura hopes to get over a subpar season during which his average dipped by nearly 50 points to .246.

Outlook: The Brewers addressed the collapse of 2014 with tweaks instead of a makeover. Roenicke’s option for 2016 was picked up in the middle of the spring to add more stability. Still, owner Mark Attanasio has made it clear he thinks this is a playoff team. Reaching the post-season will remain tough in the competitive NL Central. A healthy Braun would help, as would a bounce-back campaign from the speedy Segura. Roenicke doesn’t have a true ace, though Lohse and Garza provide solid veteran experience, and Peralta won 17 games in his second full season. But Milwaukee no longer has experienced pitching depth after trading away Gallardo and Estrada, so injury or ineffectiveness among the starting five might force the team to scramble.


Cincinnati Reds

2014: 76-86, fourth place.

Manager: Bryan Price (second season).

He’s Here: LF Marlon Byrd, RHP Burke Badenhop, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Raisel Iglesias, RHP Anthony DeSclafani.

He’s Outta Here: RHP Mat Latos, RHP Alfredo Simon, LF Ryan Ludwick.

Projected Lineup: CF Billy Hamilton (.250, 6, 48, 56 SBs), 2B Brandon Phillips (.266, 8, 51), 1B Joey Votto (.255, 6, 23), 3B Todd Frazier (.273, 29, 80, 20 SBs), RF Jay Bruce (.217, 18, 66), C Devin Mesoraco (.273, 25, 80), LF Marlon Byrd (.264, 25, 85 with Phillies), SS Zack Cozart (.221, 4, 38).

Rotation: RH Johnny Cueto (20-9, 2.25), RH Mike Leake (11-13, 3.70), RH Anthony DeSclafani (2-2, 6.27 in 13 games for Marlins), RH Jason Marquis (9-5, 4.05 for Padres in 2013), RH Raisel Iglesias (pro debut).

Key Relievers: LH Aroldis Chapman (0-3, 2.00, 36/38 saves), RH Burke Badenhop (0-3, 2.29, 1 save for Red Sox), RH Kevin Gregg (0-0, 10.00 for Marlins), LH Manny Parra (0-3, 4.66, 1 save), LH Tony Cingrani (2-8, 4.55 in 13 games, 11 starts).

Hot Spots: The starting rotation, which was the team’s strength last season. The Reds traded Latos and Simon, opening two spots. RHP Homer Bailey won’t be ready for the start of the season because he’s recovering from forearm surgery last September. That leaves two unproven young starters (DeSclafani and Iglesias) and Marquis, who didn’t pitch in the majors last season, to hold things together. Also, Cueto is in the final year of his contract. If the Reds can’t reach agreement with him on a new deal by midseason, they’d have to consider a trade.

Outlook: An offence that struggled to score runs despite playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park should be boosted by the addition of Byrd and the return of Votto, who didn’t play after July 5 because of strained muscles above his left knee. The bullpen was a mess, especially in the second half of the season, when it went 1-17. Chapman was dependable, but the Reds had trouble holding onto the lead until he could get into the game. The addition of Badenhop and Gregg should help. Still, it comes down to the rotation. It needs to hold together in order for the Reds to hang in there in one of the majors’ toughest divisions.


Chicago Cubs

2014: 73-89, fifth place.

Manager: Joe Maddon (first season).

He’s Here: LHP Jon Lester, C Miguel Montero, OF Dexter Fowler, RHP Jason Hammel, OF Chris Denorfia, INF Tommy La Stella, C David Ross, RHP Jason Motte, LHP Phil Coke.

He’s Outta Here: Manager Rick Renteria, 3B Luis Valbuena, OF Justin Ruggiano, C John Baker, LHP Wesley Wright, RHP Arodys Vizcaino.

Projected Lineup: CF Dexter Fowler (.276, 8, 35, 11 SBs with Houston), SS Starlin Castro (.292, 14, 65, 33 2Bs), 1B Anthony Rizzo (.286, 32, 78), RF Jorge Soler (.292, 5, 20 in 24 games), C Miguel Montero (.243, 13, 72, 23 2Bs with Arizona), LF Chris Coghlan (.283, 9, 41, 5 3Bs), 3B Mike Olt (.160, 12, 33), 2B Arismendy Alcantara (.205, 10, 29).

Rotation: LH Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 with Boston and Oakland), RH Jake Arrieta (10-5, 2.53, 167 Ks in 156 2-3 IP), RH Jason Hammel (10-11, 3.47 with Cubs and Athletics), RH Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.46), LH Travis Wood (8-13, 5.03).

Key Relievers: RH Hector Rondon (4-4, 2.42, 29/33 saves), RH Neil Ramirez (3-3, 1.44, 3 saves), RH Pedro Strop (2-4, 2.21, 2 saves), RH Jason Motte (1-0, 4.68 with St. Louis), RH Edwin Jackson (6-15, 6.33), RH Justin Grimm (5-2, 3.78), LH Phil Coke (5-2, 3.88, 1 save with Detroit).

Hot Spots: Second Base. Javier Baez made his major league debut last year and hit nine homers in 52 games, but also struck out 95 times. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa after his strikeout issues continued in spring training, opening the door for La Stella and Alcantara to compete for time at second. The 26-year-old La Stella came over in a trade after he hit .251 in 93 games with Atlanta during his rookie season. The speedy Alcantara, listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, hit 10 homers in 70 games in his first year with the Cubs, but also had issues with strikeouts. The Cubs are hoping Baez can grab the starting job eventually, but Alcantara and La Stella will get most of the time at second in the meantime.

Outlook: After five consecutive losing seasons, the Cubs think they are ready to contend for the NL Central title. Maddon takes over in the dugout after a successful run with Tampa Bay, and Lester brings a playoff pedigree to a franchise trying to end a famous title drought that goes back to the 1908 World Series. There is no question the roster is much improved compared to last year, but going from 73-89 and last place in the division to the post-season likely depends on the development of Chicago’s highly regarded stable of prospects, namely Soler and power-hitting third baseman Kris Bryant. Soler got off to a nice start last year in his first taste of the majors. Bryant, a touted slugger who put up monster numbers in spring training, will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa to work on his defence. Of course, the move also delays the start of his service-time clock, thus keeping him under team control for an extra year down the road. He could make his major league debut by the end of April.

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