10 Important Questions About the NL Central Heading Into 2015

We're asking the tough questions concerning some of the biggest storylines in the NL Central this year.

The National League Central features two potential powerhouses, a rising powerhouse in the making, and a couple of teams for whom, if everything breaks right, can potentially compete for a playoff spot in 2015.

There is really no safe harbor in this division.

The Pirates and Cardinals are number four and five in our preseason power rankings, with the Cubs at 15, the Brewers at 16 and the Reds 22. But while all five teams have potential, all five have question marks as they prepare for the regular season.

So here are some of the more speculative stats-based questions for NL Central teams in 2015.

Will Josh Harrison Hit .300 Again?

Harrison was a pleasant surprise for the Pirates last season when he hit .315/.347/.490 with 13 homers, 38 doubles and 18 stolen bases, finishing 9th in the MVP voting. That .315 batting average was second in the NL, and his fWAR of 4.9 was second best among NL third basemen. However, he played everywhere on the diamond, with a substantial amount of time at all three outfield positions.

This year, he'll be the primary starter at third this year, provided Gregory Polanco hits well enough to hold down right field. One thing concerning about Harrison is his low walk rate, drawing a base on balls just 4.0% of the time last year. He also had a very high .353 batting average on balls in play (BAbip), with the league average .307.

Unless he learns to walk a bit more, it's likely his batting average is going to take a hit, especially because it's unlikely he'll be as fortunate on balls in play this season. Our projections have him at .292/.335/.470 with 13 homers this season, which I think is a pretty accurate slash line for him in 2015.

Will Gerrit Cole Start 30 Games?

Cole went on the disabled list twice in 2014, first because of fatigue in his pitching shoulder and then later in the season thanks a back muscle injury. As a result, the second-year starter made only 22 starts last year, but did well enough to post a 3.65 ERA with a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.23. Even more impressive was he averaged a strikeout per inning pitched, while at the same time keeping his walks down.

He's a potential ace in the making, and if the Pirates have any real hopes of being World Series contenders, it will likely be because the 24-year-old hurler develops into the staff ace. However, he'll have to stay healthy in order to do that. Pittsburgh surely hopes he'll be able to make 30 starts for them this year, and if he does, he should be able to bring down his ERA even more in 2015.

Our projections see Cole putting up a 3.38 ERA with 140 strikeouts in 169 innings this season. I think he'll be even better than that, and yes, I think he'll make at least 30 starts for the Pirates in the regular season this year.

Will the Cardinals Finish Dead Last in the NL in Homers Again?

Well, I can answer that one pretty quickly. No. The Philadelphia Phillies will likely take home that dubious distinction.

However, last year's Cardinals managed to make it to the NLDS despite hitting a mere 105 home runs, the fewest of any team in the National League. They made up for it by having the fifth-best on-base percentage in the league. The addition of Jason Heyward could help, but he has not developed the kind of power some assumed he would after his 27-homer season for Atlanta in 2012. Last year he hit only 11 homers and 26 doubles, specializing primary in run prevention.

Other than Heyward, St. Louis didn't make a lot of changes on offense. Their homer total should increase somewhat, but it's likely they'll once again be in the bottom quarter of NL teams in long balls in 2015.

Can Adam Wainwright Reach 20 Wins Again?

Look, I don't like the pitchers' "wins" stat any more than you do. I agree with you, a pitcher's win total has as much if not more to do with the team around them than the actual performance of said pitcher.

Still, 20 wins is cool, and it's something only three pitchers did last season; Clayton Kershaw (21), Adam Wainwright (20), and Johnny Cueto (20). In fact, it's something Wainwright has been able to do twice in his career, to go along with two 19-win seasons as well.

20 wins is certainly an arbitrary number. Wainwright could defintiely post a better ERA, better FIP, better WHIP, and better Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this year and finish with fewer "wins." But other than Kershaw, there may not be another pitcher in baseball that is more likely to win 20 games this season than Wainwright.

For whatever it's worth.

How Many Games Will Kris Bryant Play?

There is a reason the Cubs' third base slugging prospect likely won't be on the Opening Day roster. It's called "service-time." Once a player has accumulated five seasons of Major League playing time, they are eligible to become a free agent. However, if the Cubs delay bringing Bryant up to the Majors for 12 days this season, he would finish 2015 with less than one full season of Major League eligibility, meaning it would delay his future foray into free agency by a full year, thus giving Chicago one extra year of team control.

So, even though Bryant is murdering the baseball with great ferocity this spring, and even though the Cubs have Mike Olt as their only other option at third right now, you can be sure Bryant is going to start 2015 in Triple-A. But when will they bring him up, and how many games will he play this season.

If they wait 12 days into the season, April 17th, 10 games into 2015, that would put Bryant at a maximum of 152 games this season. Assuming off days and potential injuries, I'll guess Bryant plays 140 games for Chicago this year, which is plenty of opportunity to get his feet wet.

Who Will Lead Chicago in Homers in 2015?

If Bryant plays those 140 games, he could very easily hit more than 30 bombs this year. He hit 43 between Double-A and Triple-A last season. In 2014, first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit 32 homers for the Cubs, second baseman Javier Baez hit 9 in just 229 plate appearances in his rookie season, but also tallied 23 in Triple-A, and knocked 37 out of the park in 2013 between high A-ball and Double-A. And Cuban star-in-the-making Jorge Soler hit 5 in just 97 plate appearances last season, but has incredible power and already has two this spring.

There is no shortage of guys who can hit the ball out of the park for the North Siders this year, and it should be a blast to see who comes out on top here. The smart money is on Rizzo, seeing as how he has more Major League experience than Baez, Soler and Bryant. But if all these guys get the same number of plate appearances in 2015, it could be a very tight race.

Duck and cover, Waveland Avenue.

How Many Games Will the Cubs and Brewers Win?

Chicago appears to be a season away from truly competing for a wild card spot in the National League, although if the baby Cubs grow up quickly, that timeline could change. Still, I'm setting the line at 80 wins for them. There will be growing pains at times this year.

As for the Brewers, people forget Milwaukee was actually the leaders of the NL Central until August 31 last year, jumping out to a 6.5 game lead and a 51-34 record on July 1. Sure, the wheels fell off at the end and the Brewers eventually finished 82-80. Still, they have a decent lineup, with stars Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Aramis Ramirez still around. Ryan Braun isn't the MVP candidate he once was (thanks Biogenesis) but is still capable of hitting 25 homers if he plays a full season.

The Brewers' starting rotation lacks star power. Kyle Lohse isn't what one would call a true "ace, but he is decent, as is Matt Garza and Wily Peralta. It's possible the Brewers could improve upon their 82-win season from a year ago, but the lack of a bona fide ace has me setting the win total for them at 82 wins once again.

Will Jean Segura Have an OBP Over .300?

One year after an All-Star season in which he hit .294/.329/.423 with 12 homers, 20 doubles and 10 triples, Jean Segura endured a brutal 2014 season. Off the field, he suffered a tragedy when his 9-month-old son died in the Dominican Republic. That certainly affected him on the field, posting a slash line of .246/.289/.326 with 5 homers, 14 doubles and 6 triples.

The big problem with Segura is plate discipline. He walked in only 5.0% of his plate appearances last season, 20th-worst in all of baseball. And he drew just 25 walks in 623 PAs the season before, with a walk rate of 4.0%, tied for 6th-worst in baseball, even though he was an All-Star that season.

Segura has been working on a new stance this spring and also on taking more pitches on the corners, although much of that work can get thrown out the window during game situations for an undisciplined hitter.

It's likely Segura will need to see a batting average approaching .300 if he wants to see a corresponding on-base percentage over that number as well. Happily, our projections see Segura putting up a .314 OBP this season, which hopefully means better days are ahead.

How Many Starts Will Johnny Cueto Make for the Reds?

We played this little exercise with Cole Hamels in the NL East Questions piece from Tuesday. Cueto is as likely, if not more so, to be dealt by the time July 31 rolls around as Hamels. While Hamels still has four years left on his contract, Cueto is in the final year of his deal. And unless Cincinnati surprises and gets off to a hot start, the team would be silly not to deal Cueto before they lose him to free agency for nothing more than a draft pick.

So, does Cueto make 20 starts for the Reds this season? I say no. I think Cueto could be the first major player to be moved during the regular season and I don't think he makes it past the first week of July before being dealt. Johnny went 20-9 last year with a 2.25 ERA in a league-leading 243.2 innings, leading the league with a ridiculous 242 strikeouts.

Our projections have Cueto coming back down to Earth a bit this season, with a 3.20 ERA and 181 strikeouts in 210 innings pitched. But that's certainly good enough to get some team to give up something valuable for Cincinnati's ace right-hander.

How Many Times Will Billy Hamilton Be Caught Stealing?

Billy Hamilton is fast. We know this. The Reds' center fielder stole 56 bases last year, tied for 2nd in all of baseball. However, Hamilton led the league in one rather unfortunately category; caught stealing.

Hamilton was caught stealing a whopping 23 times last year, Dee Gordon was next closest with 19. That is 23 extra outs made on stolen base attempts, each one of which I'm sure would have made Billy Beane lose his mind if Hamilton played for Oakland.

And let's be honest, Hamilton cannot afford to be making extra outs on the bases, not with a .292 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot. He also struck out 117 times last year and walked just 34.

Thankfully for the Reds, Hamilton is an elite defensive player and, at just 24 years old this year, will be playing only his second full season in the Majors. If he can cut the caught stealings in half, get that on-base percentage north of .310 and elevate the batting average a little more, he can be a 3 to 3.5-win player.