If you've missed the beginning of this series, check out my predictions for:
2015 NL Central Standings Prediction:
1 - Pittsburgh Pirates
X-Factors: Gregory Polanco, Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Jung-Ho Kang
The Cardinals have barely bested Pittsburgh two years in a row now, and I don't believe they can do it again. This year will be the first time since 1992 that the Jolly Roger will be raised at the top of the division, and the first time they ever win the Central (at that time they were in the NL East). Mike Trout may be younger and slightly more talented, but that is no reason to put down Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is in the thick of his prime, and should be primed to lead his time into the playoffs for the third straight year. Their young outfield of McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco has tremendous potential, and should be explosive on offensive and defense. They were able to sign back A.J. Burnett, who clearly proved that PNC Park was a great fit during his first stint with the team. Francisco Liriano was re-signed, and young fireballer Gerrit Cole will continue to prove that he's their future ace. If this team can continue to play like they have in recent time, they will only get better. And to the rest of the division; that's awfully scary.
2 - St. Louis Cardinals
X-Factors: Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, Jason Heyward
This has been one of the most consistent teams of recent time, always doing things the right way ("The Cardinal Way"). Led by catcher Yadier Molina, the Birds will be looking to build off their division win and Championship series loss to the reigning champion San Francisco Giants. What the Cardinals have that the Pirates don't have is age, which could be viewed in two different ways. It is great to have players that know how to win, but it's not great having a group of players deteriorating and more susceptible to injury. Molina's performance has declined, but his impact on the team is far beyond his bat, but he's not the only one. Matt Holliday's performance is gradually decreasing, and ace Adam Wainwright is going into a year already with injury concern. But this isn't to say this is a bad team, their potential on paper just doesn't quite seem to top Pittsburgh's at this point. Newly acquired Jason Heyward will be worth every bit of the trade they made involving Shelby Miller and prospects. Heyward may not have reached his offensive ceiling quite yet, but he's considered the best right fielder defensively in the game, and he's only 25 years old. The return of Michael Wacha should balance the pitching rotation while Wainwright battles through what may be a difficult season, as well. Mike Matheny is a fantastic manager, and he'll find a way to get this team to the playoffs; I just don't expect them to win the Central with their stars slowly fading away.
3 - Chicago Cubs
X-Factors: Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant
Who in their right mind would bet for this team to win the World Series? Considering it's been over a hundred years since they last won, the odds are clearly not in their favor. And while yes, they did improve significantly this offseason adding Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, and manager Joe Maddon; it's not their time yet. People aren't even sure if Kris Bryant is going to make the Opening Day roster due to money reasons, so that alone could set the team back. This core of young talent is unmatched on any other team in the game, and I do agree that they can become at least a Wild Card contender as early as this year. However, I think most of their success is still a few years away. It has to be tough on developing outfielder Jorge Soler, third baseman Bryant, and second baseman Javier Baez hearing all of these World Series talks. Vegas may think it's their time, but the average baseball fan should be able to see that there are far too many already established teams that will be more prepared this year. I'm as excited as the next guy to see these young stars make names for themselves in the big leagues, don't get me wrong. But I don't see them making the playoffs this year.
4 - Cincinnati Reds
Choosing between the Reds and Brewers for this spot was more difficult than just about anything else I've attempted to predict this year. But, given that this Reds team is currently healthy, I can't help but put them ahead for now. If this team could stay relatively healthy this year, I can see them even making a playoff run. Even though they lost Mat Latos, they still have a lot to offer. Jay Bruce and Joey Votto were absent in the lineup for most of last season, and they should provide a spark guys like Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, and Billy Hamilton needed. Johnny Cueto will most likely be pitching his final season for the Reds, and will be performing for a big contract. He will once again make a case for the Cy Young Award, and now healthy Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani should contribute too. This team's devastating 2014 paralleled the Rangers in the American League, and like I said for them (before they lost Darvish of course)... how much worse could it get?
5 - Milwaukee Brewers
X-Factors: Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, Adam Lind
The Brewers won 82 games in 2014, and I just ranked them in last for this upcoming season. And I do not feel comfortable with this decision at all, because this does not feel like a last place team. I just don't know how else to go about this, and thus here we are now. Ryan Braun has been going through Tiger Woods Syndrome ever since his PED scandal, and we may never see the old Braun again. This will be their third baseman and model of consistency Aramis Ramirez's final season, and he can't man the hot corner all that well anymore. Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy will provide the major spark of the lineup; both being potential MVP candidates, but it still isn't enough for me. Why is that, you ask? It all comes down to pitching, and they simply do not have what any of the other teams in the division have. They traded Yovani Gallardo to the Rangers this past winter, and it's going to hurt them not having a dependable ace in the staff. The offense can be as good as it was last year, but the other four teams here have all improved. If anything, the Brew Crew took a step back.
Division MVP: Andrew McCutchen
Division Cy Young: Johnny Cueto
Playoff Teams: Pittsburgh, St. Louis
I ended up choosing the Marlins and Cardinals as my two Wild Card choices for the National League, which means that the defending champion Giants, or the always popular choice, the Dodgers, will NOT make the playoffs at all. Stay tuned to see what I have to say about the West, and shortly after that I'll have my playoff and award predictions!
Do you agree, disagree? Feel free to start up some baseball chatter in the comments below, I've enjoyed hearing your feedback so far and I'm glad this new series has been appealing to some people so far! I can't wait for the season to begin!