MLB 2015 Preview: National League Central
In 2015, Joey Votto and the Reds will finish their slide to last place.
Yes, I am on the bandwagon. The Cubs are absolutely loaded and are a blueprint for other big market teams that need to overhaul their rosters (*cough* Phillies *cough*). The Cubs focused on completely retooling their farm system, and this year, it will pay dividends. 3B Kris Bryant is probably the best hitting prospect in the minors, completely dominating AA and AAA last year to the tune of 43 HR in 594 PA. Cuban defector OF Jorge Soler had a cup of coffee in Chicago and raked in September with a 146 wRC+. The pipeline does not stop there, as SS Addison Russell and SS Javier Baez are nearly MLB ready. The Cubs also have above average SS Starlin Castro signed through 2020. With so much depth, Chicago can address issues (like left field) with more than a stopgap fix when the time is right. This club has masterfully overturned its roster in a short time and will be a force for years.
The Cardinals are truly a model franchise. They keep payroll from getting out of hand and have successfully identified the types of veterans to invest in (e.g., SS Jhonny Peralta, OF Matt Holliday). The problem for St. Louis is that its core is hitting the wrong side of age 30. Three of the top five Cardinals in projected WAR (C Yadier Molina, SS Jhonny Peralta, and OF Matt Holliday) will be at least 33 by this year’s trade deadline. Two of the top three projected starting pitchers (Adam Wainwright and John Lackey) will be at least 34 by the end of the year. Thus far the Cardinals have aged gracefully, but Wainwright and Lackey have thrown a lot of innings and Molina, who is coming off an oblique injury at the end of last year, plays a brutal position. This year, the Cardinals will fall short of a division crown and settle for a Wild Card berth.
If the Cardinals are a model organization for medium sized markets, the Pirates have quickly become a model organization for smaller markets. GM Neal Huntington has played “Moneyball” and turned a perennial loser into a perennial contender. This is largely the same very good team that took the field last year, so I want to take some time to talk about CF Andrew McCutchen. If Mike Trout did not exist, McCutchen would be the best player in baseball. McCutchen entered the league in 2009 and was immediately an above average player (7.4 WAR in his first 1143 PA). Since that time, he has lit the world on fire by posting 27.2 WAR in the past four seasons. That is second only to Trout (who remarkably has posted a WAR of 29.1 in just three seasons). McCutchen has the fifth highest wRC+ and 20th most homeruns in that time period, all while manning a premium position. Perhaps the nicest part of the story is that Pittsburgh fans get to enjoy his awesomeness through the year 2018. McCutchen’s Pirates, while projected to finish third, are still a very good team that will fight for a Wild Card slot.
Milwaukee led the NL Central for most of last year before fading late. Much like Colorado, this team has a potentially explosive core but not enough meat on the bone to contend. And again much like Colorado, Milwaukee should look to sell off some of its parts to reshuffle the deck. CF Carlos Gomez has transformed into one of the best players in baseball (13.4 WAR the past two seasons). Gomez plays centerfield and is signed cheaply through 2016. Teams covet players like him, so why should Milwaukee consider moving him? Because Milwaukee will not contend in the next two years with a stacked division and with an inability to acquire players to take a mediocre team and make it above average. The Brewers are a decent team, but they’re not good enough.
The Reds are an object lesson in why falling in love with your own players can break your heart. In January 2011, a full two years before he was eligible for free agency, 1B Joey Votto inked a 10-year extension with the Reds for $225MM. In 2012 and 2013 (the years for which Votto was already under contract) he mashed his way to a combined 11.7 WAR. In 2014, the first year of his free agent contract, he battled injury and posted a WAR of 1.1. Was this foreseeable? Maybe not, but Cincinnati was so scared of losing the face of the franchise that it signed Votto to a ridiculous contract that covers the entirety of his career after his prime. This decision is emblematic of the club’s inability to change course and now the Reds are a bad team with no hope of contending in 2015.
Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)