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NL Central's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015

Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo

The tide could finally be turning in the National League Central division. The St. Louis Cardinals have long been the class of the division, as they have appeared in the last four NL Championship Series. The Pirates and the Cubs have other ideas, and the Brewers have redemption in mind following last season’s meltdown.

The NL Central could be the best division in baseball in 2015, full of fantastic narratives that will develop over the course of the summer. Here are the top storylines to watch for the NL Central in 2015.

The Return of Joey Votto

Joey Votto told members of the baseball media this week that he is feeling “normal.” Normal for Votto isn’t the same normal for you and I. When Votto is healthy, he is normally an All-Star and MVP candidate. Last season Votto was anything but his “normal, missing 100 games due to knee and quad issues.

Even when Votto was in the Reds’ lineup in 2014, he wasn’t the same, hitting just .255 in 62 games, 55 points under his career average. There is no way around it, the 2015 Reds are going to live and die with Votto. Him feeling “normal” is great news for fans in the Queen City.

Votto is entering his age-31 season and approaching the heart of a contract that will pay him approximately $206 million over the course of the next nine seasons. That amount of money makes Votto the cornerstone of this Reds franchise, which has to make the front office in Cincinnati a little uneasy as last season was the second time Votto’s left leg caused him to miss significant time.

Votto has proven that he can return to form after injury. In 2012 Votto had arthroscopic knee surgery and missed 51 games but still hit .337 and led the NL in on-base percentage (.474) for the third consecutive year. In 2013, Votto played in all 162 games, hitting .305 with 24 homers and once again led the NL in OBP (.435) and walks (135). The Reds are hoping that their franchise player can return to his 2010 MVP form, when he slashed .324/.424/.600, posting a  1.024 OPS, along with 37 home runs and 113 RBIs, in 2015.

After trading away starting pitchers Alfredo Simon and Matt Latos, it’s clear that the Reds are planning for the future, but having a healthy Votto, along with Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey and Brandon Phillips, for all of 2015 will make the allure of contention in ‘16 seem more realistic.

Cubs’ Youth Movement

A lot has been made about the Cubs’ offseason, and reasonably so. Some publications have even gone as far as to pick the Cubs to win the World Series. Let’s pump the brakes on the Cubs popping champagne in ski goggles in October.

No doubt about it, the Cubbies made great moves this offseason signing manager-savant Joe Maddon and ace Jon Lester, trading for leadoff man Dexter Fowler and catcher Miguel Montero. Those are all great moves that puts this team in contention for the NL Central, but don't forget about all the youth the Cubs have waiting on deck.

The Cubs’ lineup is currently built around shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the team’s All-Star tandem and current cornerstones of the franchise entering their age-25 seasons. Maddon’s lineup card also could have several “new” faces in it, as Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, eventually Kris Bryant, and possibly even Addison Russell, are expected to be the first wave to come from the Cubs’ stocked farm system. Besides being highly regarded, this group of prospects have two things in common — none of them are older than 23 and none of them have played a full season in The Show.

Soler, Baez, and Alcantara all spent time with the big club last season. Alcantara hit just .205 in 70 games, but showed his versatility in the field and pop at the plate. Baez, whose swing has been often compared to Gary Sheffield’s, hit nine home runs but also struck out 95 times in 52 games. Soler was the brightest highlight, hitting .292 with five homers and 25 RBIs in just 24 games, not a big sample size.

But none of the Cubs’ prospects are generating more buzz than Bryant. The 2013 Arizona Fall League MVP and 2014 Minor League Player of the Year according to USA Today and Baseball America, Bryant is pacing the field with six home runs in spring training. He’s also making plenty of news off the field, as the debate of service time and his Opening Day status has heated up, thanks to an assist from super agent Scott Boras. Last season Bryant hit .325 with 43 home runs (most of any player in baseball in 2014) and 110 RBIs for Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Barring something unforeseen happening, Bryant will the Cubs’ starting third baseman, although his debut may be delayed until later in April.

While all of these prospects and new additions are legitimately raising expectations in Wrigleyville, it is too early for that amount of pressure for young players that haven’t even played a full big-league season. If there is one certainty in baseball, it’s that prospect projections are always a crapshoot.  Let’s see how these young guns develop over the course of 2015 before we give the Cubs the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Cardinal Power Shortage?

We all know about The Cardinals’ Way. Great pitching, reliable defense, solid managing, roster depth, advanced scouting and timely hitting have been the ingredients to the Cardinals’ great success over the past decade. All of those special elements can be expected in 2015, but one thing is missing. Where is the power?

The NL Central will be decided by power, whether that be the Cubs’ young bombers or the Pirates’ slugging depth. The Cardinals are clearly lacking in this field. Coming into 2015, the Cards have just two players that hit at least 20 home runs last season, that being the aging Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta who hit 20 and 21, respectively.

The rest of the St. Louis lineup doesn't appear to provide much more pop, as Matt Adams is third on the team in returning homers with 15, followed by second baseman Kolten Wong (12) and third baseman Matt Carpenter (8). Wong, in his second season, could turn out to be a complementary piece to Peralta both in the field and at the plate. Newly acquired infielder Mark Reynolds hit 22 last season for the Brewers, but his batting average was just .196 and he drove in in only 45. He’s expected to add some pop, but only in a limited role off the bench.

The NL has been long known for small ball and as the Royals proved in last season’s World Series run, power isn’t everything. However, this season could be a pivotal one for the Cardinals. The Pirates are no longer bottom dwellers in the NL Central, the Cubs’ young talent is starting to bloom, and the Brewers could easily play spoiler. I’m not sure the Cards have what it takes at the plate to power their way back to October. 

- By Jake Rose