All right, we’ve disposed with the American League and the National League East, now it’s time to focus on the division we tend to know the most about. It’s the division we’ll be watching all season long and, most likely, for good reason.
1) St. Louis–When you are the defending NL champs, you tend to get a lot of support. When you can make it to the World Series with a roster younger than some college teams (it seems like), the window of that support is much longer. When you can then upgrade that World Series team without tapping into that youth pool, you have to be the consensus division winner at the very least.
A rotation headed up by Adam Wainwright and with a full year of Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and perhaps a solid contribution from Carlos Martinez is the envy of most of baseball. A bullpen with so many arms that people like Sam Freeman get sent to Memphis means few leads should evaporate. A lineup with Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams and a new addition in Jhonny Peralta has few holes. If the Cardinals do not win the division, there are going to be a lot of people wondering just what happened.
2) Pittsburgh–I think the battle for second is likely to be an interesting one and, while I have the Pirates here, I’m not completely sold on them. You can’t replace A.J. Burnett with Edinson Volquez and expect to have the same results. Will Francisco Liriano be able to stay healthy and continue his dominance of last season? (Odds are if the former is yes, the latter is as well.) We have to see if Gerrit Cole can repeat his rookie season and if the bullpen can be a positive force for good.
The offense should be OK, what with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin, but it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a bit of a letdown after such a great season in 2013. Then again, they have some young talent waiting in the wings, so any letdown won’t last long.
3) Cincinnati–Losing Aroldis Chapman for a while is a tough blow (though much tougher on him) but it’s not like Cincinnati did a whole lot this offseason to make you think they were going all-in on this season. What was their biggest move, Skip Schumaker?
This team has a lot of positive things going for it, of course. Homer Bailey has finally turned the corner, you still have the lefty power in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, plus (if he can get on) Billy Hamilton is going to be a game-changing force, but it still seems like there are question marks. Brandon Phillips has shown signs of decline–can he arrest that? What about the back end of the rotation? Can the bullpen hold it together? The Reds could easily pass Pittsburgh, but just as easily could be passed up by the Brewers.
4) Milwaukee–Ryan Braun returns, which gives folks that don’t care for the Brewers or the outfielder a convenient outlet for spleen-venting. However, he also brings a potent bat to a lineup that could really use one. Carlos Gomez had a good year and Aramis Ramirez still brings the thunder, but they can’t do it all on their own. You expect folks like Khris Davis to come back to earth, so the addition to Braun is a must have.
The rotation added Matt Garza, but otherwise is fairly middling. All of their pitchers are capable of shutting down the opposition, but none of them come across as being able to do it consistently. The bullpen seems the same way, with some flashes of greatness mixed in with a lot more mediocrity.
5) Chicago–Talk about a team that misses Houston, though even the Astros might jump over them this year. Jeff Samardzija seems unlikely to make it through the entire season in Cub blue, which will only downgrade the current squad which doesn’t have much room for downgrading left.
They have young pieces, including some well-regarded prospects almost ready for prime time, but there’s nothing here to indicate that there’s much hope for this season. Their window might just now be opening, but it’s just a crack at the moment.
Tomorrow, we’ll try tackling the NL West!