***All projected rosters according to Baseball Prospectus***

 

1 - St. Louis Cardinals (92-70)

Projected Starting Lineup:

3B - Matt Carpenter

CF - Peter Bourjos

LF - Matt Holliday

RF - Allen Craig

1B - Matt Adams

C - Yadier Molina

SS - Jhonny Peralta

2B - Kolten Wong

Projected Bench:

C/3B - Tony Cruz

2B - Mark Ellis

IF - Daniel Descalso

OF - Jon Jay

OF - Shane Robinson

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Adam Wainwright

2 - Shelby Miller

3 - Michael Wacha

4 - Lance Lynn

5 - Joe Kelly

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Trevor Rosenthal

SU - Carlos Martinez

SU - Kevin Siegrist

MID - Seth Maness

MID - Randy Choate

MID - Pat Neshek

LR - Keith Butler

The St. Louis Cardinals are the National League Central. 2008 was the last time the Cardinals finished below second place in the Division and they were still 10 games over .500 and tied for third with Houston. They are perennially the team to beat in the Central.

The rotation is salivating thanks to the best pitching close in baseball, Dave Duncan, and a damn near flawless minor league system. Adam Wainwright is a Cy Young candidate with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that has become insanely impressive. Meanwhile, two young pitching prospects who made major splashes in 2013, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, have become the anchors of the rotation manning the two and three spots. Miller was consistent all season long last year while Wacha became the playoff hero. St. Louis has an embarrassment of riches with young pitchers as Lance Lynn dominated in the spring and will be in the back end of the rotation. Carlos Martinez is another young, electric pitcher whom they have had to put in the bullpen with Joe Kelly earning the fifth spot.

Martinez in the bullpen means he becomes the guy getting the ball to Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal will be handed full-time closing duties and with a terrifying fastball, he should flourish. And with Martinez and Kevin Siegrist (nobody could hit him last year), the Cardinals house one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

Several paragraphs in and we have not even mentioned the Cardinals' two deadly Matts. Matt Carpenter is at the top of the lineup and has become an on-base extraordinaire while Matt Holliday continues to cream the ball year after year. St. Louis has a perfect lineup of good on-base/speedy guys at the top with spectacular hitters who thrive with men on base (looking at you, Allen Craig and soon-to-be RBI stud Matt Adams). Yadier Molina is a constant MVP threat with his ability to hit the ball well while playing the best defense of anyone at baseball's toughest position.

The Cardinals are just better than anyone in the Central and just need a deep run in the playoffs once again to solidify themselves as the class of the National League.

 

2 - Cincinnati Reds (87-75)

Projected Starting Lineup:

CF - Billy Hamilton

2B - Brandon Phillips

1B - Joey Votto

RF - Jay Bruce

LF - Ryan Ludwick

3B - Todd Frazier

C - Devin Mesoraco

SS - Zack Cozart

Projected Bench:

C - Brayan Pena

1B - Neftali Soto

IF - Ramon Santiago

OF - Roger Bernadina

OF - Chris Heisey

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Johnny Cueto

2 - Homer Bailey

3 - Mike Leake

4 - Tony Cingrani

5 - Alfredo Simon

Projected Bullpen:

CL - J.J. Hoover

SU - Sam LeCure

SU - Manny Parra

MID - Nick Christiani

MID - Pedro Beato

MID - Logan Ondrusek

LR - Brett Marshall

It is easy to get pessimistic when looking at the Reds' projected roster with a disabled list already filling up. Two depth guys will miss the beginning of the season (Skip Schumaker and Jack Hannahan) while the pitching staff has a couple of key players (Mat Latos, Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton). Chapman particularly with the gruesome facial injury he suffered last week due to the line-drive he was hit by in a Spring Training game. However, despite these injuries, there are two young players to keep an eye on in Cincinnati.

2014 could be the year of Billy Hamilton. The incredible speedster has had a very impressive spring and Hamilton's speed has always been a foregone conclusion, it was just a question of whether or not he could get on base. If the past month is any indication, he absolutely can. He has the speed to challenge Rickey Henderson's stolen base record, and is must-see T.V. every time he is at the plate (more so when he is on base).

The second youngster on the Reds who could take the league by storm is SP Tony Cingrani. Cingrani was a man without a role in 2013, bouncing around from the minors to the bigs and in the bullpen and rotation. Now, with Latos on the D.L., a spot in the rotation was guaranteed for the Reds' top pitching prospect. Dusty Baker, the rookie-hating manager, is gone and Cingrani should shrive for the Reds.

The rest of the roster is solid-to-good with Joey Votto anchoring the lineup with his impeccable on-base numbers. His power is virtually disappearing before our eyes and his ability to hit singles is great, but he needs to do more if Cincy is going to win another Division. There was a substantial amount of controversy last year when Brandon Phillips continued to bat at the top of the lineup with an abysmal on-base percentage, yet it still seems he will be in the same spot. His career is on the downhill and could be enjoying his last somewhat productive season in baseball in 2014.

Johnny Cueto is ready to pitch a full season after many injury issues in 2013 and will be the ace of the staff that also has no-hitter stud Homer Bailey and reliable Mike Leake. Once Latos comes back, the rotation will give Cincinatti a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. Though, it will likely be a Wild Card spot they are competing for.

 

3 - Pittsburgh Pirates (83-79)

Projected Starting Lineup:

LF - Starling Marte

SS - Jordy Mercer

CF - Andre McCutchen

3B - Pedro Alvarez

2B - Neil Walker

C - Russell Martin

1B - Gaby Sanchez

RF - Jose Tabata

Projected Bench:

C - Tony Sanchez

1B/OF - Travis Ishikawa

IF - Clint Barmes

IF/OF - Josh Harrison

OF - Travis Snider

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Francisco Liriano

2 - Gerrit Cole

3 - Wandy Rodriguez

4 - Charlie Morton

5 - Edinson Volquez

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Jason Grilli

SU - Mark Melancon

SU - Tony Watson

MID - Justin Wilson

MID - Stolmy Pimentel

MID - Vin Mazzaro

LR - Jeanmar Gomez

Who didn't love the Pirates last year? Not only did they finish over .500 for the first time in over a decade, but they also nabbed a playoff berth in the process. It was a longtime coming for a fan base who has had to endure a plethora of bad teams over the past 10 years. The necessary question to ask a year after a usually bad team emerges as a contender is whether or not they will be able to consistently stay in the mix or not.

My cop-out answer is: ehhh...sort of? The roster is virtually the same as it was last year, and that is not bad. Andrew McCutchen is coming off a well-deserved MVP year and will earn his yearly All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove consideration en route to earning more MVP votes while his outfield compadre Starling Marte continues to mature and show the type of player he will become. Marte and McCutchen will garner many Gold Glove votes this year and could be the best fielding CF/LF combo in the league. With these two constantly on base, Pedro Alvarez should mash home close to 100 RBI.

Francisco Liriano resurrected his career by winning his second Comeback Player of the Year award in 2013 and is now the ace of the rotation with A.J. Burnett in Philadelphia. And with him gone, it is time for Gerrit Cole to become Pittsburgh's second starter. His "stuff" has been compared to Justin Verlander and Pittsburgh's young pitcher could earn an All-Star nod and actually put up better numbers than Liriano. The rest of the rotation is iffy with Wandy Rodriguez not being as great as he once was and Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez getting shots to show what they got.

The bullpen won't blow too many leads with a solid closer in Jason Grilli and a great set-up man in Mark Melancon.

The Cinderella year is over and now it is time for the Pirates to prove they belong. Another season over .500 is likely, they just may not be playing in October regardless.

 

4 - Milwaukee Brewers (78-84)

Projected Starting Lineup:

CF - Carlos Gomez

SS - Jean Segura

RF - Ryan Braun

3B - Aramis Ramirez

C - Jonathan Lucroy

1B - Lyle Overbay

LF - Khris Davis

2B - Scooter Gennett

Projected Bench:

C/1B - Martin Maldonado

1B/3B - Mark Reynolds

2B - Rickie Weeks

IF - Jeff Bianchi

OF - Logan Schafer

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Yovani Gallardo

2 - Kyle Lohse

3 - Marco Estrada

4 - Matt Garza

5 - Wily Peralta

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Jim Henderson

SU - Francisco Rodriguez

SU - Brandon Kintzler

MID - Will Smith

MID - Tyler Thornburg

MID - Wei-Chung Wang

LR - Zach Duke

Milwaukee was closer to Chicago's level than they were at the top of the Division in the Central last year. They made a concentrated effort in the past few months to get closer to .500 rather than try to "rebuild." Despite the substantial contract, Rickie Weeks could be seeing bench duties after the nice season Scooter Gennett had last year and Matt Garza is in Milwaukee now to bolster the depth of a solid staff.

If Milwaukee is going to compete, or rather just get to .500 again, Yovani Gallardo is going to have to pitch like an ace again. He has faltered the past two seasons while guys like Kyle Lohse has picked up the slack.

The lineup is full of good players who absolutely can bring Milwaukee back to relevancy. Steroid-stained slugger Ryan Braun is back after serving his monstrous suspension last year and a move to right field and a season-long vitriolic campaign set forth against him should lead to a very interesting year for the former MVP. The outfielder to really keep an eye on in Milwaukee is Carlos Gomez. Gomez has put up ridiculous numbers with the Brewers in the past two seasons and is still somehow underrated. He is one of the best center fielders in baseball.

Underrated also applies to Jonathan Lucroy. At a position in which good hitters and solid defenders are scarce, Lucroy has established himself as a great on-base guy and a decent defensive backstop. Lucroy, Braun and Gomez (plus a now full-time Khris Davis) will lead a very formidable Brewers' lineup. Jean Segura, on the other hand, has bust written all over him after a terrible second half last year.

It would take a miracle for the Brewers to compete for a Wild Card spot, but they should separate themselves from the Cubs and the cellar of the National League this year.

 

5 - Chicago Cubs (67-95)

Projected Starting Lineup:

SS - Starlin Castro

3B - Luis Valbuena

1B - Anthony Rizzo

RF - Nate Schierholtz

LF - Junior Lake

CF - Ryan Sweeney

C - Welington Castillo

2B - Darwin Barney

Projected Bench:

C - George Kottaras

1B/3B - Mike Olt

IF - Donnie Murphy

IF/OF - Emilio Bonifacio

OF - Justin Ruggiano

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Jeff Samardzija

2 - Edwin Jackson

3 - Jason Hammel

4 - Travis Wood

5 - Chris Rusin

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Jose Veras

SU - Pedro Strop

SU - James Russell

MID - Carlos Villanueva

MID - Wesley Wright

MID - Alberto Cabrera

LR - Hector Rondon

The Cubs sure are going to be good within a couple years. Oh, boy, that minor league system is impressive! Meanwhile, the MLB club is absolutely terrible.

There are few bright spots on what should be another last-place-finishing Chicago Cubs roster. Starlin Castro was an abomination at the plate last year after an incredible beginning to his career. He is a bit of an airhead on the field, but should bounce back -- just too much talent there to be that bad again. Same goes for Anthony Rizzo who struggled in 2013, his power numbers should increase and with a few more singles here and there, his batting average would rise back to respectability.

We have heard so much about the young prospects who will make impacts for the Cubs in the upcoming years, but not seen anything. That is, until Junior Lake came up last season. He hit great for the Cubs, and despite a brutal Spring Training (he did hit three home-runs yesterday, though) he will get a chance to play a full season in Wrigley Field. The projected lineup has Luis Valbuena at third base, but Mike Olt, who was traded to the Cubs from the Rangers in the Matt Garza deal last summer, should get more early season at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija is the clear ace of the staff, and with a Cubs team looking to compete in two or three years rather than this year, he could get traded sometime over the summer. Leaving All-Star Travis Wood to carry the load as the rest of the staff struggles to get any sort of lead to the bullpen (so they can likely blow it).

Javier Baez. Jorge Soler. Albert Almora. Kris Bryant. Those are the guys to care about if you are a Cubs fan. Toss in Arismendy Alcantara, Arodys Vizcaino, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson and you have a bright future in Chicago's North Side.

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