Things have been heating up lately in the National League Central and every team in the division has a chance to be above average for the first time in a long time. Now that this division will be competitive from top to bottom, it is going to be very interesting to see how offseason acquisitions will influence the chances of each team making it to the playoffs next year. Here’s how the Cardsblog team thinks the National League Central will stack up at the conclusion of the 2015 season.

1. St. Louis Cardinals
2014: 90-72, + 16 run differential, lost NLCS
2015 FanGraphs projection: 88-74, + 58 run differential

FanGraphs predicts that the Cardinals will only win 88 games in 2015, but personally I think they will win over 90. While the National League Central has gotten stronger as a whole, the Cardinals are still the favorites and have only solidified their roster with the acquisitions of Jason Heyward, Mark Reynolds, Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle. Carlos Martinez should get a crack at the starting rotation and stick, while Stephen Piscotty could become a great right-handed bat and platoon player off the bench as well, if he is called up. The Cards will have one of the most balanced line-ups in the National League next season and if their pitchers stay relatively healthy this team has the talent to win 95-100 games.

Bold Prediction: Jason Heyward posts a triple slash line of .290/.375/.500 to accompany 25 homeruns, 20 steals and Gold Glove caliber defense, solidifying him as an MVP candidate. Kolten Wong develops into one of the premier second basemen in the National League and the starting rotation stays relatively healthy. The Cardinals make it back to the World Series for the third time this decade.

2. Chicago Cubs
2014: 73-89, – 93 run differential
2015 FanGraphs projection: 83-79, + 16 run differential

Once again I think FanGraphs is being a little bit stubborn concerning the potential this Chicago Cubs team has for next season. No, they have no shot at making the World Series, sorry ESPN your 12-1 odds are absurd. However, they have been the most active team during the offseason in the National League Central, and maybe even the whole MLB, acquiring Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Miguel Montero and other solid players as well. This team is also going to be potent offensively with Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant each having the ability to hit thirty homeruns next season. Hopefully Baez will adjust to Major League pitching in 2015 and the Cubs can get one more quality outfielder to complement a finally healthy Chris Coghlan and the inexperienced 22 year-old Soler. To round it out, Jon Lester will be leading a pitching staff that has three above average starters in himself, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, while new coach Joe Maddon has a smart baseball mind and has always been great at motivating his players while utilizing them at any position he sees fit.

Bold Prediction: Jon Lester turns in a CY Young caliber season, while the Cubs lead the National League in home runs and total runs scored. The team wins 88-90 games, takes the wild-card spot, and makes the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2014: 88-74, + 51 run differential, lost wild-card game
2015 FanGraphs projection: 87-75, +48 run differential

It was tough for me to rank the Pirates as the third-best team in this division, but I cannot see them having a better year than they had last season. Losing Russell Martin to the Blue Jays was huge for this team and in my opinion he was their most valuable player after Andrew McCutchen last season and McCutchen is arguably the best player in the National League. Yes, on the offensive end Russell definitely exceeded his usual quota, but he is supreb defensively and has always gotten on base (he has a career .354 OBP). His replacement, Francisco Cervelli, is a fantastic back-up catcher, but he has never had more than 266 at bats in a season so it is impossible to predict how good he will be. I am also interested in how Cervelli will handle a pitching staff that can be erratic at times with the likes of Francisco Liriano, Vance Worley and the always entertaining A.J. Burnett. There is no doubt that the Pirates have potentially one of the best lineups in the National League, especially if Pedro Alvarez returns to form and Gregory Polanco adjusts to Major League pitching. However, in my opinion, besides Gerrit Cole there is no starter in their projected rotation who is a lock to have a good season.

Bold Prediction: Although the Pirates will have one of the most efficient offenses in the National League and McCutchen will once again be an MVP candidate, they will only win 80-85 games due to inconsistent starting pitching and lack of depth at catcher. The Pirates won’t make the playoffs, but look for the trio of Marte, McCutchen and Polanco to emerge as the best starting outfield in the MLB for years to come.

4. Cincinnati Reds
2014: 76-86, -17 run differential
2015 FanGraphs projection: 76-86 -44 run differential

The interesting thing about the Reds is they have a lot of great individual players, but based on their recent trades of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon for prospects they are looking at 2015 as more of a rebuilding year. As far as pitching goes, Johnny Cueto was dominant last season and will be leading what still appears to be a solid, young rotation (Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Tony Cingrani etc.) entering 2015, Aroldis Chapman will anchor what should be a strong bullpen as well. Looking at the offensive end of the spectrum, if Joey Votto can stay healthy for a full season, if Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips can have bounce back years, if Devin Mesoraco can build on his breakout 2014 campaign and if Billy Hamilton can emerge as an offensive force the Reds could have a fantastic lineup in 2015. But that is a lot of “ifs”. There’s not a single player in their lineup at this point who can guarantee consistent production, besides Votto if he remains healthy, and I think this will be the Reds last year to make the playoffs with their current core of Votto, Phillips and Bruce.

Bold Prediction: The pitching staff is above average and Votto stays healthy for the full year, but either Bruce or Phillips is traded by the deadline and Hamilton does improve offensively regardless of the fact that he will lead the MLB in steals. The team will finish with 80-82 wins and further their rebuilding process heading into the 2016 season.

5. Milwaukee Brewers
2014: 82-80, -7 run differential
2015 FanGraphs projection: 78-84, -29 run differential

Boy has Ryan Braun been a different player these last few seasons. Ever since his steroid scandal Braun has been a pretty average outfielder and the Brewers have been a pretty average team, winning 83 games in 2012, 74 in 2013 and 82 in 2014. I think the Brewers will be average again next season and Braun will continue to produce at his post steroid level of play along with the rest of the team. The Brewers did acquire Adam Lind this offseason to help them with their first base woes, (Brewers first basemen posted a triple slash of .207/.286/.357 last year) but it will not be enough to fill the shoes of Prince Fielder. Jean Segura is also not the answer at shortstop, as indicated by the .614 OPS he posted last season, and Aramis Ramirez is four years past his prime. The starting rotation is average at best because the staff has no true ace, sorry Yovani Gallardo, and Jonathan Broxton is too inconsistent to be a top-tier closer.

Bold Prediction: Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennet and Carlos Gomez are the real deal, but Braun hits .250 with 15-20 home runs and the pitching staff is not consistent enough to be effective. The Brew Crew wins 70-75 games and starts to enter rebuilding mode while contemplating dealing Braun for prospects at the deadline.

All in all, the National League Central is without a doubt becoming more competitive, but the Cardinals are still the front-runners and should not have a problem making a postseason appearance for the twelfth time in the past fifteen seasons.