The Pittsburgh Pirates may have finished in second place (88-74) last season - two games behind the Cardinals (90-72) in the NL Central - but they actually were a better team, saber-metrically speaking. Pittsburgh's Run Differential (+51) was significantly better than the Cardinals' (+12), who really had no business winning 90 games - but they did. Call it luck or clutch performances or brilliant managing or whatever you want to call it - but according to Bill James' Pythagorean Winning Percentage, St Louis should have won just 83 games.
In fact, the Cardinals' team WAR was just 3.5 (above league average) in 2014 - 5th best in the National League. The two best NL teams - Washington Nationals (+16.6) and LA Dodgers (+15.8) were both eliminated in the first round of the playoffs - and the third best team - Pirates (+9.2) - didn't get past the wild card game - eliminated by the eventual World Series champions - San Francisco Giants (+5.1) - who "on paper" were just the 4th best team in the NL. Of course, they took care of the Cardinals in a five game NLCS before eventually knocking off the KC Royals in a seven game Fall Classic.
Much has happened since the Cardinals' season ended in San Francisco last October. In the wake of the Oscar Taveras tragedy, the need to fill a glaring hole in right field produced the Shelby Miller (and Tyrell Jenkins) for Jason Heyward (and Jordan Walden) trade. Last season, the right field position for the Cardinals generated a WAR that was -3.1 (below league average) - only the Cincinnati Reds (-3.3) fared worse in the entire National League.
What was a black hole last year figures to be a shining star this year, however.
With Yadier Molina's injury-plagued season, Cardinals' catching was also significantly below average - but that too, figures to change for the better this season. Additionally, with Kolten Wong's anticipated improvement at second base, what was once a weakness in 2014 should now be a strength in 2015. Wong could very well have an All Star-caliber season in 2015; certainly, greatly improved over last year.
Optimistically, it's not unreasonable to anticipate a better offensive season from veteran left fielder Matt Holliday after a down year, as well; and despite the projections for Matt Adams to merely repeat last year's production at first base, I think he'll improve; plus the right-handed swinging backup Mark Reynolds should help spark additional offense against left-handed pitching.
The only position that may see a downward shift in production is at shortstop, where Jhonny Peralta performed far above reasonable expectations in 2014; especially defensively. It was a career year, so it's unlikely he'll be able to repeat it. Speaking of "career years", Matt Carpenter had one in 2013 - but after moving from second base to third base last year, his production slipped quite a bit; but it's not unreasonable to expect better numbers from him in 2015.
Despite Trevor Rosenthal's 45 saves last season, the entire bullpen (aside from Pat Neshek) had a down year; it's likely going to be much better (and healthier) this season.
The starting rotation did a good job last season; and with a return to form from a healthy Michael Wacha. he could pick up where he left off in the latter part of 2013. That, along with injury-free seasons from Adam Wainwright & company, the rotation should be among the best in the league this season. If Jaime Garcia can contribute even close to 100 quality innings this year, that would be a bonus; an unexpected bonus, actually.
In other words, there is reason for optimism for the Cardinals heading into the new season. If all goes as planned, the Redbirds should return to the postseason for a franchise-record fifth straight year; and in the process, capture their third straight NL Central title.
If St Louis is going to be challenged in the Central, the most likely candidate is still the Pirates, although they have some issues that may prevent them from making a serious run.
First and foremost, they lost their fine catcher, Russell Martin (5.4 WAR) to free agency (Toronto Blue Jays). Meanwhile, his replacement - Francisco Cervelli - is going to be adequate, but hardly an All Star caliber player (In a seven year MLB career, Cervelli has appeared in 250 games, posting a career WAR of 4.0).
Like the Cardinals in 2013, the Pirates were an offensive juggernaut last season; in fact, the WAR from their "non pitchers" was 12.3 above league average, which was tops in the NL. However, the loss of Martin and the recent trade of right fielder Travis Snider to Baltimore (2.5 WAR) for a minor league pitching prospect - is bound to slow down the offense this season. In Snider's absence, Pittsburgh is planning to use rookie Gregory Polanco, who had limited success in 89 games last year (.235/.307/.363), but may or may not pan out this year. They've also added Corey Hart (-0.5 WAR) as a possible alternative in right field (or first base) - although his better days are well behind him.
Last season, the Pirates' pitching (-3.1 below league average WAR) was their weak link, and unfortunately for them, it's probably going to be even weaker in 2015, after losing free agent Edinson Volquez (2.0 WAR) to the KC Royals and replacing him with over-the-hill A.J. Burnett (-0.3 WAR with the Phillies), who is now 37 years old and fading fast. At best, their starting rotation is shaky; at worst, a disaster.
If the Pirates are going to contend, they're going to need stellar seasons once again from guys like Andrew McCutchen (6.0 WAR), Starling Marte (5.6 WAR) and Josh Harrison (5.2 WAR). Plus, they need Pedro Alvarez to return to 2013 form, when he led the NL with 36 home runs, primarily batting in the cleanup spot in the lineup; however, that's a long shot. This is a major hole in their lineup as it stands right now; and without a viable number four guy, there's little chance for the Pirates to be raising the Jolly Roger enough times to overtake St Louis.
The Pirates are still a good team, but they won't be as good as they were the last two seasons.
The Cardinals will be better than they were last year; maybe even better than they were in 2013, when they went to the World Series. Whether or not they make it back to the Fall Classic in 2015 remains to be seen. Odds-makers are giving them a 12 to 1 shot of winning the World Series.
Odds makers are giving the Cubs the same shot of winning the World Series. Seriously. The Cubs.