Players To Lookout For: NL Central Edition

Ccp3RRvUYAAzxJSToday, I will talk about a division that is considered to be the best division in the National League. The teams included in this mysterious division are the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, St.Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and the Milwaukee Brewers. I say mysterious due to the fact that usually every team in the central has a chance to make the playoffs, but except two teams at this current point in time. The Cubs are the favorites to win their division for many years to come, but I am a tad concern about the rotation still. I know they added Lackey, but he struggles pitching on the road. Also, can Kyle Hendricks repeat or improve off of his 2015 campaign? Next, the Pirates are the Rays,but in the National League and will always stick with the big dogs in this central hunt, especially with the adding of Jon Niese and John Jaso. Third, the Cardinals usually come first place every year, but I think they will win the second wild card spot (Pirates get first wild card spot) due to the losses of Heyward, Lackey, Lance Lynn (injury), and Jhonny Peralta (injury in spring training). Losing those players puts the Cardinals in a hole, which they usually overcome and find a way to finish the season on a winning record that leads them into the playoffs. In addition, the Brewers are the biggest sleepers in this division with their young pitching and veteran hitting, despite seeing some new young faces. They got the bullpen in place, which helps the young starters. Lastly, the Reds are not that far away from those winning seasons with Dusty Baker. They have tons of young talent that will need some time in the professional level before they become elite again, but look for them to have a learning curve and then find their form.

 

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Credit: David Banks/Getty Images

First off, the one player that will help lift the Cubs too win the division will be newly acquired outfielder Jason Heyward. Now, which Heyward will you see? The Heyward that hits .290 or the Heyward that bats .270. Heyward had his second best season last year (first was back in 2012) with the Cardinals by producing an impressive .293 batting average that lead to 13 homers and 60 RBIs in 154 games. He swiped 23 bases from the opposition also. With Heyward coming to Chicago, it gives them a true threat in the outfield from a defensive standpoint. He is the best defensive right fielder in the game today. The 26-year-old brings versatility on the offensive side by being able to bat anywhere in the lineup and stealing bags, which I felt the Cubs lacked last season.

 

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Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports

Secondly, the Pirates added a big piece to their rotation by trading for Jon Niese. Sad that Neil Walker had to go, but it will be worth it when Niese goes back to his old form. The Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage will be in charge of fixing him. Niese still had a decent year, but he can improve and boast the Pirates to the top. The 29-year-old southpaw finished the 2015 campaign with a 9-10 record, 4.13 ERA in 176.2 innings and starting 29 games out of 33. Now, Niese has never been a big strikeout guy (113 last year), but Searage could tweak a pitch or two and make him strikeout more as it has shown for example with Francisco Liriano. When Liriano arrived in Pittsburgh for the 2013 season, he finished his first year with 163 strikeouts (161 innings), then in 2014, he struck out 175 batters (162.1 innings). Lastly, last year he threw 186.2 innings and punched out 205 hitters. Ray Searage has improved Liriano in every single season in Pittsburgh and will do the same with Niese.

 

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Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Furthermore, the Brewers traded away some big pieces in Adam Lind and Jean Segura. They filled those holes by signing Chris Carter and trading for Jonathan Villar. Villar will be fun to watch on an everyday basis, especially on the base paths, but he is not the key to a successful Brewers 2016 season. The key is Wily Peralta, who took a step back in his development last season. He did get hurt in 2015 that could have determined his outings. He pitched well in 2014 with a 17-11 record, 3.53 ERA, 198.2 innings pitched, 32 starts, and striking out 154 batters. The 26-year-old only started 20 games last year and finished the season with a disappointing ERA of 4.80 in 108.2 innings. He is the ace of the Brewers and they are depending on him a lot.

 

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Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, as the Brewers are young, the Reds are younger. They have young pitching that would last them for many years, but they have a player that is so talented with a potential like no other, but he is always hurt. That man is Devin Mesoraco, who has missed 246 games from the 2013 campaign through the 2015 season. The Reds’ catcher is a big part in their offense. He had a breakout campaign in 2014 that looked promising by hitting .273 with 25 homers and driving in 80 RBIs in 114 games. Then in 2015 he started off slow then winded up getting hip surgery that landed him on the disabled list. The 27-year-old finished his 2015 season on a statistical view of only 23 games, zero homers and driving in 2 RBIs with a batting average under .200 (.178). Look for him to bounce back and help out Votto, Bruce, and Phillips in the lineup.

 

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Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Finally, the Cardinals are a tough team to face and always come ready to play no matter what the situation is. That could be losing players like I said earlier in my article or if they are in a losing streak. Baseball is in St.Louis’ blood. The man that will now need to step up is Kolten Wong with him receiving an extension, but mostly with Peralta out for half the season. Wong will have to develop even quicker than he would like from an hitting perspective. He had a nice 2015 season by improving on the offensive side by hitting .262 (.249 in 2014), 11 bombs and 61 RBIs in 150 games. He will need to hit at least .280, belt 15 long shots, and drive in 80 RBIs to help a weaker lineup than last season.

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