After months of careful study and analysis, using advanced metrics and common sense, I've ranked all the position players in the NL Central who are most likely to be in the starting lineup on a regular basis - at least, at the beginning of the season.
However, there could be significant changes as early as May - at least for one team: The Chicago Cubs. Around that time, their highly touted third base prospect - Kris Bryant - will probably be called up from the minors to add much needed offensive firepower for a team expected to contend for a division title (Las Vegas odds makers list them at 12 to 1 to win the World Series; along with the Cardinals!). One thing is certain: The Cubs will not win the NL Central - let alone even qualify for a wild card berth with their current projected lineup (even with five Jon Lesters in the starting rotation).
A comparison of the five NL Central teams' primary position players sheds some light on who are legitimate contenders - and who are the pretenders:
In the wake of an injury-plagued season in '14 (only 110 games played), the Cardinals' Yadier Molina has reportedly shed twenty pounds, hoping to take some pressure off a bum knee. If he can stay reasonably healthy this season, he should be able to outperform Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy (#2) who had his best season last year (.301/.373/.465 with a NL-most 53 doubles).
Cincinnati's Devin Mesoraco (#3) who hit 25 HR (most by any MLB catcher) in just 114 games appears to be a rising star.
Pittsburgh is going to miss Russell Martin (now with Toronto), although his replacement - Francisco Cervelli (#4) - should be adequate. Unfortunately for the Pirates, "adequate" may not be good enough to help nurture a mediocre pitching staff through a challenging season.
The Cubs acquired Miguel Montero (#5) from Arizona for his "pitch framing" ability; somehow overlooking his sharp offensive decline in the past two seasons - a trend that will likely continue in 2015. As far as "pitch framing" goes, it didn't really help the D-Backs' atrocious pitching staff last year (4.26 ERA was 2nd-worst in the league, behind Colorado's 4.86 ERA).
Chicago's Anthony Rizzo, after a breakout season, appears to have overtaken the Reds' Joey Votto (#2), who will be trying to return to form after a couple of seasons of nagging injuries which dramatically hurt his production (only 62 games played last season).
The Cardinals are hoping Matt Adams (#3) will regain that power stroke he had in '13 when he hit 17 HR in 319 PA. If he does, he could surpass Votto and possibly Rizzo.
Milwaukee's newest addition - Adam Lind (#4) - could be an offensive weapon (.321/.381/.479 in 96 games) - although somewhat of a defensive liability.
Meanwhile, the Pirates are desperately hoping Pedro Alvarez (#5) rebounds after a disappointing '14 - when he hit just 18 HR - half the total from '13.
Pittsburgh's Neil Walker (.271/.342/.467 with 23 HR) is an All Star caliber player who is just entering his prime. If anyone's going to challenge him, it could well be the Cardinals' Kolten Wong (#2), who not only has excellent defensive skills, his hitting should be greatly improved in '14.
Third ranked Scooter Gennett (.289/.320/.434) of Milwaukee has a decent bat but needs work on the defense to reach All Star status.
The Reds' fourth ranked Brandon Phillips (.266/.306/.372) nearly punched out a Cincinnati beat reporter a couple of years ago for noticing his OBP sucked. It still does, and his defensive skills are slipping for the aging hot dog, as well.
The Cubs are praying that fifth ranked Javier Baez (.164/.227/.324) will cut down on his strikeouts (95 in 229 PA). Otherwise their postseason hopes get very dim.
The Reds' Todd Frazier had a breakout season in '14 (.273/.336/.458 with 29 HR) - and he's good with the glove to rank a notch ahead of the Redbirds' Matt Carpenter (NL-most 95 BB), who displayed remarkable postseason power (4 HR in 39 PA) after hitting just 8 HR in the regular season.
Pittsburgh's third ranked Josh Harrison (.315/.347/.490) had a career year in '14 - will likely regress a bit in '15.
Aging Aramis Ramirez (#4) of Milwaukee (.285/.330/.427) posted his lowest SLG since '02 - and his glove is suspect at the hot corner, as well.
Either Mike Olt or Tommy La Stella (#5 & 5A) will likely be in the lineup for the Cubs on Opening Day - and neither one is going to do much to enhance Chicago's postseason dream. Maybe rookie Kris Bryant will get called up by May and have a monster season - because that's what they need to be competitive.
Jhonny Peralta (club record 21 HR for SS) was better than expected last year for St Louis, when he was arguably, the best shortstop in either league. He'll likely regress a bit in '15, but should still be better than Starlin Castro (#2) who hit well (.272/.339/.438) but still has defensive issues.
Pittsburgh's Jordy Mercer (#3) is a solid defensive player with a decent bat, while the Reds' Zack Cozart (#4) is a very good defensive player with a weak bat (.221/.268/.300).
The Brewers' Jean Segura (#5) is a good defensive player whose production fell off considerably in '14 (.246/.289/.326) compared to '13 (.274/.329/.423) when he was an All Star. If he doesn't improve this season, the Brewers could be in serious trouble, along with the Cubs.
Pittsburgh's Starling Marte (.291/.356/.453) is a five tool player who will only get better in '15 and beyond. Matt Holldiay (#2) is starting to show some age-related regression, with a career low .441 SLG last season. If he can hit 20 HR and drive in 90 again, the Cards should return to the postseason for a record fifth straight season.
The Brewers' third ranked Khris Davis (.244/.299/.457 with 22 HR) should post better offensive numbers in '15, but his defense is still suspect.
Marlon Byrd (#4) - the new addition to the Reds' lineup - hit a career high 25 HR with the Phillies last season, but at the age of 37, may show some regression this season.
The Cubs' Chris Coghlan (#5) is a pretty good hitter (.283/.352/.452) but an atrocious defensive player.
Andrew McCutchen (.314/.410/.542) is the best player on an improving Pirates' franchise, although he's overrated, defensively. Two seasons ago, Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez (#2) played a spectacular defensive CF, regressing slightly last year, but his hitting was nearly a carbon copy (.284/.356/.477 with 23 HR).
After a lackluster '13, third ranked Jon Jay (.295/.359/.396) rebounded nicely for the Cardinals in '14 - especially defensively.
Cincinnati's speedy Billy Hamilton (.250/.292/.355) is ranked at #4, but will likely show overall improvement as his career progresses.
Dexter Fowler's (#5) ability to get on base (.375 last season) will help the Cubs' offense this season, but defensively, he's a liability. In other words, he's got lots of company in Chicago.
The Cardinals' big acquisition this off season - Jason Heyward - will solve the team's biggest weakness last season - although duplicating a 7.0 WAR may be a difficult assignment. However, if he can find his niche in the St Louis lineup, he could have his best offensive season in '15 - and the Cards should cruise to another division title.
The Brewers' injury-plagued Ryan Braun (#2) discovered that playing without his special vitamins wasn't so easy last year - posting career lows in his entire slash line (.266/.324/.453). He's bound to improve on those numbers in '15, but he'll never get back to that PED-enhanced production from a few years ago. Defensively, a liability.
The Cubs' hot rookie sensation - third ranked Jorge Soler (.292/.330/.573 in 97 PA) - may continue where he left off last season - or he may find out that big league pitching isn't so easy to hit this year. If he flops, more trauma at Wrigley Field for another painful year.
The Pirates are counting on rookie Gregory Polanco (#4) to improve on last season's 89 game introduction to the major leagues (.235/.307/.343). If he struggles once again, it's going to be tough for Pittsburgh to reach the postseason for a third straight year.
How bad was Jay Bruce (.217/.281/.373) last season for the Reds? So bad, that even a couple of relatively untested rookies from Chicago and Pittsburgh are already ranked ahead of him. He's got to get better in '15. There's nowhere to go but up from a negative 1.1 WAR.
The Cardinals and Pirates - with three players each ranked number one at their positions - figure to have the best overall lineups in the NL Central. The difference between those two teams seems to be pitching - the Cardinals have the advantage - barring any significant injuries.
It would be a mistake to count any team out of the race for the division title (even the Cubs). If Votto returns to form this season, the Reds could be much better. The same goes for the Brewers with their former golden boy, Braunie.
For the Cubs, they need three relatively unproven rookies to rise to the occasion, if they hope to rise in the standings - which may be asking too much, too soon.
St Louis should win division title again
Second place could be a tight race between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - even Milwaukee or Chicago could sneak up there if all their pieces fall into place
In other words, second through fifth place is almost a toss up between four teams