NL Central power rankings
By JOSHUA BROWN
College Contributor Network
One of baseball's oldest rivalries just got turned up another notch. Joe Maddon is a Cub. Has it sunk in yet? After years of being the little brothers, the North Siders have added one of the best managers and pitchers in baseball, in what could be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Sorry Cubs fans, it was a close call. The two-time defending Central champions managed to win the division with just 90 wins last season, a number that won't get the job done this year. That should not be an issue for the Cards' though who made a huge acquisition with the addition of Jason Heyward. St. Louis simply does not have a hole in their lineup one-through-nine. The one downside to the jam-packed lineup is that it has the potential to rack up a ton of strikeouts. With Matt Carpenter, Heyward, Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta all projected to be in the top-five, punch outs could be an issue for Mike Matheny's club.
Much like the lineup, the rotation ranks among the best in the NL. Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Michael Wacha are all proven winners and will continue to play well into 2015. Even with one of the four inevitably flaming out or succumbing to injury, the depth will carry the Cardinals to their third straight Central crown.
2. Chicago Cubs
Joe Maddon and Jon Lester. What else can you say. Theo Epstein single-handedly hijacked the offseason, playing chess while the rest of the league played checkers. With a ton of young talent that should start to turn the corner and take that next step this season, the Cubs should be a playoff team in 2015. That's right. For the first time since 2008 the Cubs should make the playoffs. Offensively, the lineup is packed with a ton of pop with young studs like Dexter Fowler, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez. Much like the Cardinals rotation, even if one of the young pups perform under expectations, they have plenty of depth, especially for the NL, to conceal it.
Jon Lester is going to put up nothing short of video game numbers in the National League. That is universally agreed upon. The question is how much support will he have. If Jake Arrieta performs up to expectations, then it will be a deadly one-two punch. Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada are the projected three-to-five, and certainly have the talent to be a formidable bottom of the rotation if everything clicks. At the end of the day, the Cardinals' rotation will land them a hair above Chicago.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
They have been America's sweethearts the past couple years and could end up being one of the best third-place teams in baseball history this season. Clint Hurdle's group has a good mix of young prospects and veteran leaders who should be able to lift them to the second wild-card spot in what could be an epic one-game playoff with the Cubbies. Look for Josh Harrison to have another great season in the lead-off spot, with Neil Walker and Starling Marte providing good protection for Andrew McCutchen.
Any time Francisco Liriano is your number three starter your pitching rotation should be in a solid position. Gerrit Cole could establish himself as a true ace this season and A.J. Burnett could realistically have a 200K season in 2015. Again, their are a lot of "could's" being thrown around with the Pirates but if it all comes to form it could be a special year in black and yellow land.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
Not too many teams lost the offseason as badly as the Brewers did this year. After having a breakout year seemingly out of nowhere, Ron Roenicke's club did absolutely nothing to try and build on that success this season. Milwaukee has a solid lineup, with names such as Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez in the mix, but not enough to keep up with the talent level of the Central.
Matt Garza needs to really establish himself as a true ace if the Brewers even want to have a chance to challenge Pittsburgh for the number three spot, but with a 36-year-old Kyle Lohse as a number two starter, it could be a rough year on the rubber for the Brew Crew.
5. Cincinnati Reds
The rebuild is in full effect for the Reds. With the exception of Joey Votto, Cincinnati could realistically not have another player in their lineup hit above .270. Runs will be few and far between in 2015 for Bryan Price.
Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey (if healthy) are obviously good as top two starters, but after that it's a far fall down the cellar. The losses of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon will be felt when Tony Cingrani and Dylan Axelrod are taking the ball every five days for the Reds.
Joshua Brown is a Sports Correspondent for the Boston Globe. He is a color commentator for Northeastern University basketball and hockey and also writes for USCHO and College Hoops Daily. Follow him on Twitter: @josh_brown31