NL Central 2015 preview: Cubs get all the hype, but Cardinals are team to beat

With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series continues with the NL Central.

Surprise, surprise, the NL Central is going to be competitive this year. That’s like saying Kentucky is going to be good at basketball or Drake is going to put out a hit song. Each of the past four seasons, the NL Central has sent two teams to the postseason. In 2013, it sent three teams. So we know it's a tough division.

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And guess what? This year the NL Central might be even tighter than ever. The Chicago Cubs, of course, made big strides, adding ace Jon Lester and manager Joe Maddon to a talented young core that will call up slugger Kris Bryant next. Don’t catch Cubbie fever too quickly, though, the St. Louis Cardinals made a good team even better by adding Jason Heyward. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers didn’t make earth-shattering improvements in the offseason, but both were good teams in 2014 and should be competitive again in 2015 — especially the Pirates, with Gerrit Cole, Gregory Polanco a year older and Andrew McCutchen killin’ it in his prime.

The Reds, even though they traded two starting pitchers, can’t be counted out completely with that potent lineup of theirs. While the Cards, Cubs and Pirates seem like the best bets in the NL Central, it’s really a division where anything’s possible.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

CAN ADAM WAINWRIGHT STAY HEALTHY?
The Cardinals are a resilient group, but that would certainly be tested if they were to lose ace Adam Wainwright. The 33-year-old right-hander posted a career-best 2.38 ERA in 227 innings last season, but did so through a bulky elbow that required a minor operation in October. He's also three years removed from Tommy John surgery, which puts another red flag by his name. And before Wainwright could truly test the elbow early in spring training, he suffered an abdominal injury that sidelined him until March 20. Despite that setback, the Cardinals still expect him to be ready for opening day, but at what percent then and what potential expense down the road?

WHAT ARE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS FOR THE CUBS?
The Cubs are, at worst, going to be really fun this season, and should be really good really soon. If even one of Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler or Javier Baez has a breakout season, the Cubs' offense will be dangerous assuming Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro don't fall off the map. If more than one breaks out, look out, because the rotation already features Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Plus GM Jed Hoyer could have the flexibility to add another elite starter soon. For now, there are far too many questions surrounding the young players to make a confident win-loss prediction, but we can safely predict you'll want to watch them often.

[Check out The Stew's previous 2015 division previews: NL East | AL East ]

CAN THE BREWERS PUT TOGETHER A FULL SEASON?
After coming out of the gate strong and sitting atop the NL Central standings for 159 days last season, the Brewers fell completely out of the postseason picture thanks to a 9-22 finish. To bounce back from that disappointment, Milwaukee almost certainly needs sustained health and consistent production from Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and a rotation that's lost Yovani Gallardo. They would also benefit greatly from breakout seasons by young starters Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson to complete a formidable rotation. If all of those things come together, the Brewers will be difficult to shake, but that's a lot to ask in a quickly improving division.

(AP)
(AP)

WHAT WILL JOHNNY CUETO'S FUTURE HOLD? 
It appears Reds ace Johnny Cueto will enter the season without a contract extension, and that's something that could quickly become a major storyline. A lot would have to go right for Cincinnati to make a postseason push. It's not impossible, but it would be difficult. Assuming the worst, Cincinnati would have to consider dealing Cueto. At that point, the questions will revolve around his health. Durability has been his biggest drawback, but his upside when healthy should appeal to every contender come July. There are many possibilities. All of which impact the Reds short- and long-term future, and all of which should be answered by July.

CAN THE PIRATES LEAPFROG ST. LOUIS?
The novelty of the Pirates making the playoffs is wearing off. Now it's time to see if they can take another step forward or if the wild card is their ceiling. Despite losing team leader Russell Martin in free agency, many believe this is the deepest and most talented roster manager Clint Hurdle has had to work with. With an outfield featuring Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco it's difficult to argue. Beyond that, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Neil Walker, Josh Harrison are all potential All-Stars. If Pedro Alvarez and Jung Ho Kang manage to make any impact, the Pirates might be flying their first division championship flag next to the Jolly Roger since 1992.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

RYAN BRAUN: It's easy to look at Braun's decline the past two seasons and link it to his 2013 steroid suspension, but that's not entirely the case. In fact, it's more likely that Braun's injured thumb has been the reason for his troubles at the plate. Braun put off surgery at the start of last season, and looked great early, hitting .320/.358/.573 through May. The thumb started bothering him again, and that's when his numbers plummeted. Braun wound up having surgery to correct the issue in September, but the procedure was quite rare, and it's unclear how he'll bounce back. If the Brewers have any hope at contention, they'll need Braun to return to his MVP numbers.

JASON HEYWARD: After an exceptional rookie season, there's a belief that Heyward has yet to reach his full potential at the plate. A shoulder injury, suffered during his sophomore season, may have something to do with that. Heyward altered his swing as a result, and it seemed to have a negative impact on his performance. The shoulder is healthy now, but Heyward still hasn't been able to replicate his rookie numbers. A change of scenery could do wonders for the 25-year-old Heyward — who joined the Cardinals in a swap with the Braves. If his new coaches can get him to rediscover his old swing, Heyward could be in for a monstrous season at the plate. He's already regarded as an elite defender, so any improvement offensively would make him an MVP candidate in the National League. 

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BILLY HAMILTON: The jury is still out on whether Hamilton is a good player. At the plate, his .250/.292/.355 slash line was underwhelming, especially for a leadoff hitter. While he stole 56 bases, he was also caught 23 times. What can't be denied is that Hamilton is easily one of the top-five most exciting players in the game. He's a must-watch any time he hits a ground ball, even if it results in an out. When he gets on base, watch out! Hamilton is not only a threat to steal, or force an errant pickoff throw, but he's also a candidate to score from third on nearly any sac fly. Hamilton is just 24, and it would be foolish to write him off after just one season in the majors. If he can show even a slight improvement in his overall numbers, the Reds will have one heck of player on their hands.

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

JUNG-HO KANG: There are a lot of questions about Kang heading into the season. As the first position player from the Korean Baseball Organization to come play in the United States, there's no way to project whether his numbers will translate. Kang was undoubtedly excellent in Korea in 2014, hitting .356/.383/.503, with 40 home runs in 117 games. The KBO is known for being a hitter-friendly league, though, and some have compared the level of competition to Double-A. That might not matter. Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs evaluated Kang's swing in February, and concluded that Kang will hit in the majors. The Pirates are willing to be patient, and seem willing to use him as a utility player to start the season. If he shows anything at the plate resembling his numbers in the KBO, he won't remain on the bench for long. 

JAKE ARRIETA: If the Cubs are going to contend this season, they'll need Arrieta to prove last year wasn't a fluke. A former top prospect, Arrieta nearly washed out of the big leagues before rediscovering himself with the Cubs. His numbers were ace-caliber, as he posted a 2.53 ERA (with a 2.26 FIP) over 156 2/3 innings. Arrieta thrived under the tutelage of pitching coach Chris Bosio. Bosio got Arrieta to throw his slider more, which led to a nice jump in the 29-year-old's strikeout rate. Arrieta also limited his walks, posting his lowest rate since he reached the majors. There's sure to be some skepticism any time a pitcher shows this much improvement in a single season, but all the pieces are there to suggest Arrieta can do it again. It will be tough to improve on last season's numbers, but his breakout looked legitimate. 

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

CUBS
• Best case: The genius, the ace and the young stud lead the Cubs back into the postseason — that’s Maddon, Lester and Bryant, if that wasn’t already clear.
• Worst case: The young Cubs’ bats need another year of seasoning, and the pitching after Lester and Jake Arrieta struggles. The Cubs can’t climb up in a tough division.

REDS
• Best case: Joey Votto reclaims his place as an MVP-like player and the Reds pitching is better than having Jason Marquis around might make us believe.
• Worst case: They start slow, deal free-agent-to-be ace Johnny Cueto and while the Reds sit in last place Brandon Phillips releases a rap song that goes, “You down with OBP? Oh no, not me.

PIRATES
• Best case: Andrew McCutchen is even better after cutting off his hair, Gregory Polanco finds his stroke and Gerrit Cole blossoms into an ace.
• Worst case: The pitching is shaky and even Cutch can’t prevent the Pirates from being an also-ran in a competitive division.

CARDINALS
• Best case: Michael Wacha establishes himself as the next great Cardinals pitcher, Jason Heyward thrives and the rest of the young Cardinals' lineup takes a step forward.
• Worst case: Adam Wainwright’s injuries from the past couple years get worse, and the Cards, who were 24th in runs scored last year, can’t mount much more offense.

BREWERS
• Best case: Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun all play like MVP candidates and make sure last season’s collapse is forgotten in Milwaukee. 
• Worst case: The Brewers pitching isn’t good enough to withstand the tough division and they get lapped by the Cubs, Cards and the rest of ‘em.

CHRIS CWIK
Order of finish: Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, Reds 
NL Central top hitter: Anthony Rizzo
NL Central top pitcher: Johnny Cueto
NL Central top rookie: Jorge Soler



MIKE OZ
Order of finish: Cardinals, Cubs, Pirates, Brewers, Reds
NL Central top hitter: Andrew McCutchen
NL Central top pitcher: Michael Wacha
NL Central top rookie: Jorge Soler



MARK TOWNSEND
Order of finish: Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers, Reds 
NL Central top hitter: Andrew McCutchen
NL Central top pitcher: Jake Arietta
NL Central top rookie: Kris Bryant



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