NL Central is a strongly built house of Cards
St. Louis looking good to defend division flag, but Bucs, Reds, Brewers have eyes on it
There's no perfect team. But try finding a major flaw on the team that the Pirates must beat if they want to build on last year's Wild Card season with a division title in the National League Central.
At the start of the 162-game season, there is probably no more daunting task than trying to run down the Cardinals, who look to be deeper and stronger than the team that went to the World Series last season.
"They set the bar," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "You know they're built for the long haul. You know they're a force to be reckoned with."
Behind Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, a pitching staff loaded with starters who could each win 20 games and power arms in the bullpen, the Cardinals won 97 games in the regular season and nine more last October. That was two short of the number they needed for a third World Series championship since 2006, so they don't lack for motivation.
Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. oversees a tremendously well-run franchise, which this season will begin to reap benefits from Ballpark Village, the team-owned development beyond the left-field seats at Busch Stadium. Chicago fans won't be happy to see that it includes a replica of a Wrigley Field rooftop, and unlike with the Cubs, there's no argument about revenues and sightlines.
Under managers Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny, the Cardinals have gone to the playoffs 10 times in the past 14 seasons. It would be a shock if they didn't make it 11 of 15, but the Pirates, Reds and Brewers aren't exactly conceding.
Pittsburgh's 21-season sub-.500 streak ended not only with a 94-win season in 2013 but also an impressive leap into the postseason. The Bucs beat the Reds in an all-Central NL Wild Card Game -- the division was the only one with three 90-win teams -- and extended the Cards to five games in the NL Division Series before being taken down by Adam Wainwright.
Pittsburgh's young core behind Andrew McCutchen is impressive, but success will lie in replacing the work of relative old-timers like A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd. The Reds have lost Shin-Soo Choo from their lineup, but they still boast two of baseball's best in-their-prime players in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. They have a talented pitching staff, although the gruesome Aroldis Chapman injury was part of a Spring Training in which starters Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey all missed time.
The Brewers expect to be much better after a wire-to-wire disappointment in 2013, which was capped by Ryan Braun's season-ending 65-game performance-enhancing drug suspension. They've added right-hander Matt Garza, who has changed teams three times since last delivering on his potential with Tampa Bay.
At no place is it farther to the top than at Wrigley, but the Cubs are approaching the time when they'll resume a serious pursuit of the Cardinals. This season should begin to bring the arrival of the top prospects that have been gathered by executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, most notably power hitters Javier Baez and Kris Bryant.
The Cubs will need all the talent they've collected -- and lots more -- if they're going to catch the Cards.
St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: No team in the Major Leagues is deeper, both in terms of the pitching staff and the lineup. While they led the NL in scoring last season, that had a lot to do with a non-sustainable .330 average with runners in scoring position. The core of the team was revealed in October, when Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez and others held opponents to a .208 batting average and an average of 3.2 runs in 17 postseason games. All of the pitchers are back, including Shelby Miller, a non-factor last October.
Weaknesses: There really aren't any. But defense could be an issue at times, especially at shortstop (Jhonny Peralta) and the outfield corners (Matt Holliday and Allen Craig). The one area where they might be most vulnerable is catching depth behind Molina, but that feels like nitpicking.
Spot to watch: First baseman Matt Adams opens the season playing against left-handers and right-handers, with Craig in right field. But once outfielder Oscar Taveras -- the team's No. 1-ranked prospect -- arrives, Matheny will have to figure out how to fit four players -- Adams, Craig, Holliday and Taveras -- into three spots. General manager John Mozeliak and the Cardinals' player-development pipeline has produced so much talent that playing time could become an issue.
Sign of trouble: There are a high number of young players in important spots. If guys like Wacha, Miller, Rosenthal, Martinez and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong struggle, the Cards could be a 90-win team instead of 100.
They'll be rolling if ...: Carpenter follows up his 2013 season by becoming one of baseball's top third basemen. He's moved across the infield to open a spot for Wong (with free agent Mark Ellis signed to provide insurance), which set up the trade of David Freese for center fielder Peter Bourjos. Along with Holliday, Craig, Molina and Peralta, Carpenter makes the Cardinals a team opposing pitchers don't want to face.
Strengths: While much is made about the defensive shifts that Hurdle employed last season, that's hardly the only reason the Bucs are a terrific fielding team. McCutchen, the 2013 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, and Starling Marte gobble up fly balls from right-center to the left-field line, and catcher Russell Martin is a defensive difference-maker. That plays well for the pitching staff, especially a bullpen that can hold its own against the Cardinals, which says a lot. Jason Grilli , Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson give up runs grudgingly.
Weaknesses: There was a lot of talk in the offseason that the lineup could use another bat. The Pirates don't have that big bopper at first base and might have to compensate again with midseason trades, as they did when they added Byrd and Justin Morneau last season. An injury to McCutchen or Pedro Alvarez could be devastating. Hurdle would like more aggressive baserunning, but there isn't much speed behind Marte and McCutchen.
Spot to watch: Can Wandy Rodriguez return from his second-half arm trouble in 2013 to solidify the starting rotation? He has done little since being acquired from Houston in a midseason trade in 2012, but he had a solid Spring Training. While there are big arms on hand in Gerrit Cole and in the Minors in Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham, the rotation gets thin in a hurry if pitching coach Ray Searage can't get production from Rodriguez and free-agent acquisition Edinson Volquez.
Sign of trouble: If McCutchen, Alvarez or Neil Walker slow down, it will be bad news for a lineup that was ninth in the NL in scoring last year. The Pirates have an intriguing hitter in the wings in outfielder Gregory Polanco, but they would rather ease him into the lineup when things are clicking, as opposed to looking to him as a major piece.
They'll be rolling if...: The starting rotation reaches its potential. Cole looked like Justin Verlander at times last year, and Francisco Liriano unlocked his potential. Charlie Morton pitched well enough to earn a three-year contract.
Strengths: Rookie manager Bryan Price takes over a very balanced team, along the lines of the Cardinals. The Reds are built around three dependable run-producers in Votto, Bruce and Brandon Phillips. Cincinnati is always solid in the field, with Bruce being one of the best two-way players in the league and Votto and Phillips not being far behind. The starting rotation is a paper strength, but all three members of the 1-2-3 combination (Bailey, Cueto and Latos) missed some time in Spring Training.
Weaknesses: The bullpen seemed like a strength until Chapman was struck in the face by a Salvador Perez line drive last week. Chapman could be out until June, and you have to wonder if he'll rebound from that horrific incident to pitch well at any time this season. Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall could also open the season on the disabled list, leaving J.J. Hoover as the closer early in the season.
Spot to watch: Billy Hamilton, replacing Choo in center field, will be an electrifying force if he continues to hit like he did in Spring Training. His game-turning speed was neutralized by a .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A last season, so it's important that he gets off to a good start.
Sign of trouble: Cueto's lack of availability at key times has been a big issue the past two seasons. The health of the starting rotation is a huge key, with the reliable Bronson Arroyo allowed to leave as a free agent. Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake are important pieces, and the Reds could need a lot of starts from David Holmberg or someone else from the farm system.
They'll be rolling if ...: Votto, Bruce, Phillips, Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick all hit 25 or more home runs, as they are capable of doing. The Reds are going to have to score a lot of runs to support a pitching staff that is reeling on its way home from Arizona.
Strengths: The Brewers are strong up the middle, with young, contractually controlled players in catcher Jonathan Lucroy, shortstop Jean Segura and center fielder Carlos Gomez. The hope is that second baseman Scooter Gennett and left fielder Khris Davis establish themselves as part of the core going forward.
Weaknesses: The bullpen could have trouble holding leads. Jim Henderson is being entrusted with the closer's job for the first time entering a season, and GM Doug Melvin made a good move by re-signing Francisco Rodriguez to provide some insurance. But getting to those guys will be a challenge for the group behind them. Left-hander Will Smith, acquired from Kansas City for Nori Aoki, could be the difference-maker who turns this group into a strength.
Spot to watch: Can Garza, signed to a four-year, $50 million contract, and Yovani Gallardo give Milwaukee a 1-2 combination to match up to the front of the NL Central's other starting rotations? Both have long intrigued scouts and executives with their potential, but they haven't delivered consistent results. Health has been Garza's question, and Gallardo is trying to bounce back from a subpar season. If they bounce back, they could join Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta to give the Brewers a run at the top of the division.
Sign of trouble: Injuries to the position players could be a major problem as the farm system doesn't have Major League-ready replacements in the wings. First baseman Hunter Morris is the only top position-player prospect who played above Class A last season.
They'll be rolling if ...: Braun bounces back from his suspension and a persistent problem with his right thumb to put up numbers close to his NL MVP Award-winning totals from 2011. He's moving to right field so Davis can play left. The Brewers could have a good lineup if Braun and Aramis Ramirez do their parts.
Strengths: Youthful enthusiasm, maybe? Heading into the third season of the Epstein regime, the Cubs have continued to focus their efforts on the 22-and-unders. The farm system is beginning to produce hitters on the verge of the Major Leagues, which could make the second half of the season fun. Barring a setback, power-hitting shortstop Baez should crash the lineup by midseason, with the only question being where he plays as the team remains invested in Starlin Castro. Third baseman Bryant and outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora should follow, with yet another infielder, Arismendy Alcantara, an intriguing wild card.
Weaknesses: Having traded Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees last summer without replacing him, the Cubs could have a difficult time scoring runs. They outscored only the White Sox and Marlins last season and that was with Soriano as the leading run-producer. Michael Olt, acquired from Texas in the Garza trade, is a lottery ticket as part of a third-base platoon and there's hope that Castro ends his regression as a hitter. Anthony Rizzo hit 23 home runs, but he didn't approach his ceiling last season.
Spot to watch: The starting rotation is thin enough already, with no top prospects pushing for spots, yet Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija remains a subject of constant trade speculation. He was watched closely by scouts in Spring Training, but the situation could change in a hurry. Another strong season could lead to a long-term extension, as no team in the Majors has more financial flexibility than the Cubs.
Sign of trouble: Epstein and Hoyer believe they've addressed their bullpen problems with the addition of Jose Veras to be the closer, Pedro Strop in a setup role and Wesley Wright to share some of the lefty load with James Russell. Arodys Vizcaino was throwing 98 mph in Spring Training and could become a major piece after getting some innings with Iowa. Nothing would unravel the team quicker than problems in the bullpen.
They'll be rolling if ...: First-year manager Rick Renteria helps Castro rediscover the game that prompted the Cubs to give him a seven-year, $60 million contract as a 22-year-old. He's led the NL in at-bats each of the past thee seasons, but his batting average dropped to .245 last year, during which he also regressed as a defender. Epstein and Hoyer remain committed to Castro as their shortstop, but they would love for him to re-establish his trade value.
Hitters on the Brewers and Cubs can tell you how underrated the NL Central is. They get heavy servings of the powerful arms of the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds on a regular basis, so they weren't surprised to see those three teams in the playoffs last year. That could happen again, but opinion is somewhat divided on Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. There's no question about the Cards, who join the Tigers as baseball's strongest division favorites. The only question with Matheny's team is whether it can win 100 games in the regular season, and whether it will win it all in October.
Challengers: Pirates and Reds
Never say never: Cubs
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.