Perspective is an important thing. Sometimes we can get too caught up in the machinations of one specific aspect or idea that we lose sight of what everything around it looks like. Our ability to compare and evaluate is lost in the process because we are constantly comparing like items to like items.
It's important to know what an Ace looks like so that we'll know what to look for when it comes time to evaluate what arms the Cubs have. It is with this idea in mind that I wanted to do a run down on the other teams in the division.
We're going to start with the Cardinals because they are the obvious class of the division and perhaps are the most complete team in Major League Baseball:
The Cardinals are a draft and develop machine whose efficiency is perhaps unrivaled. They have the best lineup top to bottom in the division and rival the Detroit Tigers for that distinction league wide. The gap between them and the Cubs is a wide one. It's not so much who the Cardinals have signed (they've made wise FA decisions) but who they've felt comfortable letting go via free agency. Most notably Albert Pujols' departure was scarcely felt by the org on the hole.
Their most recent acquisitions include Peter Bourjos (from ANA for David Freese) and the signing of Jhonny Peralta via free agency. These moves serve to bolster an already potent lineup that features top players at a few positions. Matt Carpenter is perhaps the second or third best 2B in the league (depends on how you view Jason Kipnis. I have him 3rd but I understand 2nd). Carpenter is another product of excellent drafting by the Cardinals. Yadier Molina's transformation into a top tier catcher has been surprising. In 2007 Molina slashed .216/.274/.321. Since then he's posted a .297/.353/.422 line and has become one of the most complete players in baseball right now. He's a generational talent, enjoy his greatness while you can. You'll remember him. While Matt Holliday is likely in the decline phase of his career he's still providing value with the bat. Holliday may have a dip in production in 2014 but he's still a viable power hitter in a league that has a shortage of real power.
None of this mentions the stockade of arms they have at the major and minor league levels. Adam Wainwright pitched 241 innings of high quality ball in 2013. He has a ghastly breaking ball and great control. That's what an ace looks like. Shelby Miller went missing during last year's playoffs but I expect him to have a strong showing in 2014 as STL's number 2 starter. Michael Wacha exploded out on the scene and I expect him to continue his upwards trend. They seem to grow 20 year olds who can throw 100 in bunches as evidenced by Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, both factors in the pen but I expect Martinez to make a case for the starting rotation next year.
They're a scarily complete team that has the exemptions and resources to get younger and better. They're my early pick to win the division and I don't see that changing much over the next few months (barring injury).
The Pirates were a bit of a surprise team last year. Behind strong defense, great pitching and a power offense they got into the playoffs and earned their first winning season since the Barry Bonds days. Heading into 2014 I think there will be an interesting separation point between the Cardinals and everyone else in the NL Central. I think the Pirates are perhaps the second best team but it's no certainty.
Offensively speaking they carry the reigning NL MVP in Andrew McCutchen; a do everything centerfielder who is developing into a transcendent talent. Pedro Alvarez gave Pittsburgh some decent walkless power, Starling Marte took one for the team 24 times which greatly inflated his OBP, and Russell Martin had an acceptable season for a catcher. Should the Pirates fall back to the crowd at all it will be because their offense regresses.
Pitching wise the team will miss A.J. Burnett but Gerrit Cole is more than equipped to step into the #2 starter role. Francisco Lirano had an historic year against left handed batters so we'll see what level of production he puts forth in 2014. The rest of the rotation smells like filler to me, with guys like Wandy Rodriguez, Charlie Morton and new signee Edinson Volquez rounding out the starting five. The bullpen features an older Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon on the backend. Vin Mazzaro and Justin Wilson will be factors as well.
I don't know how good the Pirates will be in 2014. Their offense was McCutchen, Alvarez, and a slew of smoke and mirrors. It's difficult to project them overtaking the Cardinals. They are very good at defensive shifting so I don't expect the pitching to fall off the map but I think they'll miss Burnett and I'm not at all optimistic about Edinson Volquez.
I figured that the Reds would win the 2013 NL Central in a tightly contested battle with these three teams. This year I think they might be the third best team in division.
Shin-Soo Choo's departure creates a void in the Reds' offense that will be plugged by Billy Hamilton. While Hamilton has tremendous speed (the likes of which we have never seen on a baseball diamond) it's an open question as to if he can hit enough to take advantage of his elite level tool. Hamilton has no power and questionable bat to ball skills. Joey Votto caught a lot of flak for not being an "RBI" guy last year but he's the best offensive player in the division and might be the best hitter in the league. Phillips will likely continue his decline in play, Zack Cozart is an open question mark, and I think they will miss Ryan Hanigan in 2014. There's just, a lot of question marks and Joey Votto.
Pitching wise they have a tremendous top three in Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey. Mike Leake did well last year but I wonder about him repeating in 2014 and I don't trust Tony Cingrani but he's a fine backend starter in my opinion. The big question to me is what to do with Aroldis Chapman. I think he may have crossed the Neftali Feliz/Joba Chamberlain threshold in that I think it's unlikely that he'll be able to transition back into a starter's role smoothly. I think it's a waste of an arm but I'd rather have him give 70 innings as a closer than be an injured starter. I would expand his role a bit this year and try him out as a true fireman more often. I would not object to him getting outs in the 7th or 8th innings. I don't know what happens when Jonathan Broxton comes back but given the injury (elbow) I'm low on him. Everyone's favorite LOOGY Sean Marshall will likely reprise that role in 2014.
They have an interesting bullpen and a good starting staff but I doubt it's enough to overcome their offense and it's not likely they'll beat the Cards without some injury help.
They have the potential to win 80 games this year but they might be closer to the Cubs than the Cardinals in terms of championship windows.This is a team that will rely on Ryan Braun to come back from a PED suspension, Carlos Gomez to find something he's never had (consistency), Jean Segura to reverse the downward trend in OPS he had as the 2013 season wore on, and that a completely makeshift pitching staff can keep it together all year.
Oh that pitching staff.
I love Yovani Gallardo but I'm pessimistic about his performance in 2014. Kyle Lohse was good in 2013 but he's 35 and I wonder how long someone with a low K% like Lohse has will be effective. Marco Estrada is an interesting arm but he's never logged over 150 IP. And they have 2 kids penciled in at #4 and #5 in Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg.
Their kids are interesting but on the whole they seem very far away in terms of being a realistic competitor in the Central.
It's a tough division that's run by the Cardinals. The top 3 teams are all organizations that have homegrown MVP candidates and good pitching staffs. Realistically it's difficult to see the Cubs climb over even the lowly Brewers in 2014.
Hedge your bets accordingly.