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2015 MLB preview: the NL Central

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With the regular season not even two weeks away, let’s take a look around the rest of MLB, today we head to the NL Central, home to the Tribe’s interleague schedule.

He of the career 291/378/632 slash against Tribe pitching.
He of the career 291/378/632 slash against Tribe pitching.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Previous entries:

While the Tribe plays 76 games within their division, that still leaves 86 other games on the schedule. That will include 20 games of interleague play. They will play the following NL Central teams:

Reds: Home (5/22-24); Road (7/17-19)

Cubs: Road (6/15-16); Home (6/17-18)

Brewers: Road (7/21-22); Home (8/25-26)

Cardinals: Home 5/12-14)

Pirates: Road (7/3-5)

Unlike the West or East, this division was hotly contested for all of 2014. The Brewers led the division until late August, but both the Pirates and Cardinals stayed pretty close behind them. A losing record in each of the final three months, including a 9-17 September, cost Milwaukee the flag. The Cardinals grabbed the lead on September 1, while the Pirates kept within striking distance and finished just two games back and grabbed one of the Wild Card Game spots.

Chicago Cubs (73-89, 5th)

Key Losses: Luis Valbuena (3B), Dan Straily (RP)

Key Adds: Miguel Montero (C), Dustin Fowler (CF), Jason Hammel (SP), Jon Lester (SP), Jason Motte (RP), David Ross (C)

Injuries: Jacob Turner (SP)

Projected Position Players: Miguel Montero, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler

Projected Rotation: Lester, Jake Arrieta, Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, Travis Wood

Projected Fire Squad: Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Zach Rosscup, Motte

This is the team that has made the most noise this offseason in this division. GM Jed Hoyer, under the supervision of Theo Epstein, made a slew of trades midseason last year, most notably sending Hammel and Jeff Samardzija in order to net highly touted Addison Russell. That they were able to resign Hammel and grab the best lefty on the market in Lester will vastly improve the rotation.

Montero and Fowler will help, but this team likely won't hit its stride until all of the youngsters are up and ready. That includes Russell, Kris Bryant and Soler. After finishing 16 games under .500, I'll guess they finish about 4 games under this season (79-83). ZIPS is higher than me though, having them at 84-78 (the same as the Tribe).

Cincinnati Reds (76-86, 4th)

Key Losses: Ryan Ludwick (LF), Alfredo Simon (SP), Mat Latos (SP), Chris Heisey (OF)

Key Adds: Marlon Byrd (LF), Anthony DeSclafani (SP), Jason Marquis (SP), Raisel Iglesius (SP), Brennan Boesch (OF), Paul Maholm (SP/RP)

Injuries: Homer Bailey

Projected Position Players: Devin Mesoraco, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cosart, Todd Frazier, Byrd, Billy Hamilton, Jay Bruce

Projected Rotation: Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, DeSclafani, Iglesias, Marquis

Projected Fire Squad: Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Burke Badenhop, Sam LeCure

I am not really sure what GM Walt Jocketty tried to do this offseason. Each player that left was replaced by about the same guy. They still have a very dangerous lineup with Votto, Phillips, speedster Hamilton and breakout hitter Mesoraco. The bullpen should be decent if Chapman can avoid his yearly injury.

But the rotation after Cueto could be problematic. As the NL Central is very deep, I don't foresee the Reds going to the top half of the division. ZIPS and I have them projected for an identical 76-86 record this season.

Milwaukee Brewers (82-80, 3rd)

Key Losses: Rickie Weeks (2B), Marco Estrada (SP), Yovani Gallardo (SP), Mark Reynolds (1B), Zach Duke (RP)

Key Adds: Adam Lind (1B), Neal Cotts (RP), Chris Perez (RP), Luis Sardinas (IF)

Injuries: None

Projected Position Players: Jonathon Lucroy, Lind, Scooter Gennett, Juan Segura, Aramis Ramirez, Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun

Projected Rotation: Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson

Projected Fire Squad: Francisco Rodriguez, Jeremy Jeffress, Rob Wooten, Will Smith

GM Doug Melvin was fairly quiet this offseason. The upgrade from Reynolds to Lind is nice. And the lineup still maintains good power in Lucroy, Ramirez, Gomez and Braun. But man that pitching staff sort of scares me (as in not good). I think they barely pass the Cubs and finish at, or just below, 0.500 at 80-82. ZIPS has them at 79-83.

Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74, 2nd, Wild Card)

Key Losses: Russell Martin (C), Edinson Volquez (SP), Ike Davis (1B), Jeanmar Gomez (RP)

Key Adds: Francisco Cervelli (C), A.J. Burnett (SP), Sean Rodriguez (IF), Antonio Bastardo (RP)

Injuries: Charlie Morton (SP), Chris Stewart (C)

Projected Position Players: Cervelli, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco

Projected Rotation: Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Morton, Burnett, Vance Worley

Projected Fire Squad: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Bastardo

Based on a few prognostications, this is a team that has a real good shot of not only making the playoffs for a third year in arrow, but to win the division as well. I think the move from Martin to Cervelli by GM Neil Huntington is a downgrade, but the move of Davis helps more as Harrison now has a full time role.

The rotation should be pretty good with Cole and Liriano, but I am not sold on Burnett. The bullpen is also a plus. I am not seeing enough improvement to win the division and feel like they fall back, just by a few games. Am thinking more of a 84 win finish and another Wild Card berth. ZIPS has projected them at 85-77.

St. Louis Cardinals (90-72, 1st)

Key Losses: Shelby Miller (SP), Jason Motte (RP), Pat Neshek (RP), A.J. Pierzynski (C), Daniel Descalso (IF)

Key Adds: Jason Heyward (RF), Jordan Walden (RP), Mark Reynolds (IF)

Injuries: John Jay, Adam Wainwright

Projected Position Players: Yadier Molina, Mike Adams, Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, Matt Holliday, John Jay, Heyward

Projected Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez

Projected Fire Squad: Trevor Rosenthal, Walden, Sean Maness, Matt Belisle

How does that saying go? The rich get richer? The shrewd pickup of Heyward will pay dividends in the best top to bottom lineup in the division for GM John Mozeliak. And while it did cost them Miller, the Cardinals always seem to have another young pitcher waiting in the wings.

I think Martinez will do just fine as a #5. I think the Cardinals cruise to a division title by at least six games, or 91-71. ZIPS is not as quite as high, but they still have them winning the division at 88-74.

Conclusion:

This division will be the toughest in the NL for the third straight year. I think the Cardinals repeat (yeah, I am boring, picking the same winners as last year).

So what say you? Put your rankings below.