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Five NL Central storylines to watch in 2014 MLB season

By Matt Snyder | Baseball Writer

Can the Pirates' repeat their magical run of 2013?
Can the Pirates' repeat their magical run of 2013? (USATSI)

More 2014 Storylines: AL East | AL West | NL West | NL East | AL Central

We're now just one day away from the first Sunday night game of the 2014 Major League Baseball regular season and just two away from that Monday we like to call "opening day." So, among many other things, it's time to finish our look at each of the six divisions' top storylines. It's the NL Central, home of three 2013 playoff teams.

1. Can Ryan Braun perform like the Braun of old?

With a player who shall remain nameless in this space being suspended for the entire 2014 season, Braun is far and away the most polarizing PED-related player in baseball.

Braun was one of baseball's most productive players in 2011-12, winning the MVP in '11 and finishing as the runner-up the following season. The five-time All-Star was hampered by injury last season, though, and then nailed with a 65-game suspension for his ties to the Biogenesis clinic. Given that he agreed to accept a ban above the 50-game suspension for a first offense, it appears MLB had a mountain of evidence against him.

So now the questions begin.

Was he using all along, and did PEDs push his performance from very good to great? How will he perform under the increased scrutiny, especially when many former supporters have turned on him? How will he play after having missed over 100 games last season and not played a regular-season game since July 21?

The Brewers are improved this season, but part of that improvement is assuming they can have Braun back in the middle of the order producing as an All-Star.

I'm not a huge fan of spring stats, but he's hitting .412/.500/.824 with five doubles and three homers in 40 plate appearances.

My bet: He's an All-Star once again.

2. What will the Cardinals get from Michael Wacha?

We've seen Wacha's upside and, boy, is it glorious. He closed the regular season with a 1.72 ERA in five September starts before flashing ace stuff in the playoffs, as he was 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA before losing Game 6 of the World Series. In all, it was a wildly successful rookie season for the 2012 first-rounder.

So the question is, what was Wacha have in store for his sophomore campaign?

We've seen an adjustment period from many once the league has had a chance to get some good scouting on young pitchers in big spots. All eyes were on Wacha in the World Series and the Red Sox had good success in seeing him for the second time in around a week. Granted, that was a championship team in a relatively unique circumstance, so let's not harp on that part so much.

The upside is significant. In fact, if Wacha picks up where he left off, the Cardinals may have a 1-2 punch rivaling the Tigers (Verlander, Scherzer) or Dodgers (Kershaw, Greinke).

I wonder about the workload. It will be very interesting. Many youngsters are limited to around 155-170 innings in their first full season. Between the minors, majors and postseason, Wacha threw 180 1/3 innings last season. Will all the late-season workload help or hinder Wacha as this season progresses?

It's gonna be fun. For whatever it's worth, he's been dominant this spring, sporting a 1.77 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 23 strikeouts against only four walks in 20 1/3 innings.

I feel like he'll have plenty of ups and downs. He'll be good, but not great (yet) and be a solid starter with Cy Young-level breakout potential for next season.

3. Will Starlin Castro and/or Anthony Rizzo have bounce-back seasons?

Part of the reason former manager Dale Sveum was fired was because of the regression seen in youngsters Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo last season. With a group of talented minor-leaguers set to join the Cubs within the next few years, the Cubs need to show they bring talent along at the big-league level.

Castro went from two All-Star seasons -- he led the NL in hits in one of those -- to being one of the worst hitters in an everyday role last season. Part of the issue seemed to be his swing, another part seemed to have been the coaching staff tinkering with his approach in an attempt to make him more patient. This Cubs' staff seems content to let him go back to simply being his aggressive self. It's a step in the right direction, so we'll see how it pays off. He hasn't had much practice in the spring, as a hamstring injury held him to two at-bats (both hits, though).

Rizzo had a very good rookie season in 2012, but hit just .233 last season. His situation isn't as bad as Castro's, though, as he had 40 doubles, 23 homers, a good walk rate and pretty poor fortune with batting average on balls in play. He should have been primed for a bounce-back season anyway, but it's still of utmost importance for it to happen under this new staff. Rizzo is hitting .314/.364/.529 with three doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBI in 55 plate appearances this spring.

With the Cubs not set to contend until 2016 -- or maybe next season, if everything goes extremely well -- the strides made by Castro and Rizzo this season will go a long way toward establishing the confidence to develop players like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora et al in the bigs.

Keep an eye on Mike Olt at third base as well.

My guess is Rizzo has a big season and Castro improves but doesn't get back to All-Star form.

4. What do the Pirates have in store for an encore?

If anyone were to ask me what my favorite story of the 2013 season was, it's not even a discussion. The Pirates run to Game 5 of the NLCS and everything in between was incredible. From the streak-breaking to Andrew McCutchen's MVP run to Francisco Liriano's rebirth to Gerrit Cole's emergence to the Jason Grilli/Mark Melancon combo to the wildly fun wild-card win over the Reds. And more. What a season.

But it's over now.

How will they react?

Expectations have been raised. They are a ballclub to be taken seriously across baseball. They can't play the "no one thinks we can do it" card, because they already did it.

On the flip-side, can't the Pirates still drive themselves with the motivation that many think last year was a fluke? If a rough patch hits, the Pirates also now have the inner confidence to bust through it because they have done so before. This isn't last year's club that had to answer questions about consecutive second-half swoons. This is a battle-tested playoff team.

Do they have enough to repeat it, though? First base and right field leave a lot to be desired. There are questions in the rotation (Cole's workload, Liriano's ability to repeat much of last year, Volquez as the fifth starter) and they didn't really do much to improve in the offseason. It's a tough division, too. I feel like low-to-mid 80s in wins and missing the playoffs is the most likely destination.

(Well look at that, time to play the "no one believes in us" card again!)

5. How will Billy Hamilton adapt in the batter's box?

Last season, the Reds sported the best leadoff man in the National League in Shin-Soo Choo. He was second in OBP to his teammate, Joey Votto. He was second in runs to Matt Carpenter. He stole 20 bases and led the majors by getting hit with 26 pitches. And now he's in Texas.

Enter Billy Hamilton.

We know the kid can run like few we've ever seen. He stole 103 bases in 135 games in Class A in 2011. In 2012, he set the minor-league record with 155 steals in 132 games (High-A and Double-A). Last season he stole 75 bases for Triple-A and then went 13-of-14 with the Reds in September.

Choo was 20-of-31 in steals last year.

So once Hamilton gets on base, he's a big upgrade over Choo.

Getting on base may be the problem, though. Hamilton hit .256 with a .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A last season. Even if he puts up that exact line in the majors, in a much tougher league, he'd be on base 11.5 percent of the time less than Choo was last year. Over 700 plate appearances -- Choo had 712 last year -- that's roughly 81 fewer times on base.

Hamilton will affect the game like no one else this season once he gets on base, but it's paramount to the Reds' chances of getting back to the playoffs this season that he finds a way to get on base at a decent clip in front of Brandon Phillips, Votto and Jay Bruce.

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