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Who Can Topple the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central? Part 2

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Who Can Topple the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central? Part 2
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Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates won 94 games last season and erased a 20-year playoff drought.

But can they do it again? If there is any tangible difference between playing like there is nothing to lose and playing with real expectations, the Pirates will feel that difference in 2014. They play in the toughest division in the National League and face a pair of talented clubs in the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.

But having the reigning league MVP isn't a bad place to start.

Why the Pirates could win the division: Andrew McCutchen. The 27-year-old center fielder hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 home runs last season on his way to becoming the first Pirates MVP since Barry Bonds in 1992. It wasn't a flash in the pan, either. McCutchen was actually better in 2012 when he hit .327/.400/.553 while adding 31 home runs. He looks to be entering his prime and should put up these types of numbers for the next five years of his contract.

It's hard to imagine the Pirates doing much without McCutchen last season or in the future, not only because of his talent but also because of the deal he signed before the 2012 season. It was a 6-year deal worth $51.5 million, with a team option for 2018. It was a good deal then when McCutchen was a good player. It's a great deal now that he has become one of the best hitters in the National League. And it allowed them to sign guys like catcher Russell Martin and trade for starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, both of whom helped Pittsburgh reach the postseason last year.

The bulk of the starting lineup returns except for the departures of outfielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Garrett Jones. Byrd was traded to the Pirates last August and hit .318 in 30 games in Pittsburgh. Letting the Philadelphia Phillies overpay for the 36-year-old (2 years, $18 million) was the right thing to do, but the Pirates still need to find someone to replace his late-season numbers. That looks to be Jose Tabata, who hit .282/.342/.429 in 106 games.

A.J. Burnett is a free agent but the Pirates are hoping the emergence of rookie starter Gerrit Cole will soften the blow. Cole made his major league debut on June 11 of last year and finished with a 3.03 ERA along with a 7.7 k/9.

Thirty-year-old Charlie Morton came out of nowhere to have the best season of his career, posting career-lows in ERA (3.26), WHIP (1.28), and h/9 (8.8). Morton will have a more prominent role in the rotation with Burnett gone, and he could have a big impact on the Pirates' postseason chances if he pitches like he did last season. The same can be said for probable opening-day starter Francisco Liriano, who, like Morton, had one of the best seasons of his career last year. He threw 161 innings, finished with a 3.02 ERA, and had a 1.22 WHIP. They were his best numbers since 2006.

That's one way to look at it. You could also say it isn't wise to expect a second-year pitcher and a pair of 30-year-olds coming off career-years to recreate what they did last season. And even if that does happen, they still need to make up for the loss of Burnett and his 3.03 ERA. They signed free-agent Edinson Volquez to a $5 million, one-year deal in hopes he can return to his 2008 from. It was a small risk, but Volquez hasn't been great in five years.

The Pirates needed to do more this offseason to keep up with the Cardinals and Reds. They are treading water while their rivals swim laps. And considering they have real momentum for the first time in two decades, it's a move (or lack thereof) that the front office will soon regret.

Kory Carpenter has followed the St. Louis Cardinals for nearly 20 years and currently lives in Lawrence, Ks. He has written for numerous publications, most recently as a Big 12 basketball contributor for RushTheCourt.net. You can find him on Twitter at @KoryCarpenter.

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