MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

NL Central is clearly the best division in baseball

NL Central is clearly the best division in baseball

At the dawn of the regular season, which is the toughest division in baseball -- top to bottom -- for balance, competition and depth?

This question in itself conjures up a good race. But the winner is the National League Central.

There are no bad teams here. There are, instead, five teams that think of themselves as genuine postseason contenders. You can always quibble with that sort of designation, but there are valid reasons why all five teams feel good about themselves.

"Every team in our division has a realistic hope of winning the division," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "It is going to be an absolute battle every game we play within the division, and every game outside the division is going to have that much more meaning, because we're going to beat each other up pretty hard during the season.

"It's going to be a challenge for us, but it's like the old cliché, we really do need to show up and do everything within our power to win the game that day."

"I do feel confident," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "We realize that we have a good team. Cincinnati realizes that it has a good team. And so does St. Louis, and so does Pittsburgh. And now, Chicago feels like that.

"There's a grouping there where if some team gets hot and does the right things, they can win the division. That's what makes it hard."

The emergence of the Cubs, of course, makes this a five-team discussion. That in itself makes the division distinctly different than it was in recent seasons, when the Cubs were not a presence in the chase for the postseason.

Predictions for the 2015 Cubs

Everybody else has recent credentials. The Cardinals have established themselves among the postseason elite. They are the only team to have appeared in a League Championship Series in each of the past four postseasons.

The Pirates, after a 20-year postseason drought, have qualified as an NL Wild Card team the past two seasons.

The Reds were hit hard by injuries last season, but they were division winners in 2012, Wild Card qualifiers in '13, and their lineup, if good health prevails, is still imposing.

The Brewers still think of themselves as a first-place club, because they spent 150 days leading the division in 2014. A late-season fade took them out of the postseason, but if they can duplicate the kind of consistent pitching they received last year, they could be factors again.

Comparisons with the American League East at its peak have become semi-fashionable for the current NL Central. Whether those comparisons are on point or merely catchy, the Cubs' new skipper, Joe Maddon, managed the Rays in the AL East and warms to the concept.

"I felt kind of good about the Rays playing in what we considered the best division in baseball at that time, and I also believed, and I said at that time, 'It's very important that you play in a good division,'" Maddon said. "It helps your young players get better faster.

"I think the ascension of the Rays was partly responsible to being in that division. Some people thought we should be in another division. No way, man. I want this NL Central to be considered the best division in baseball. I want it to be that strong. The stronger it is, the faster we get better. That's the way I look at it."

That is now the most reasonable way to look at it. The Cubs have become much better. None of the other four NL Central clubs have somehow become worse. The whole division could be an advertising campaign for competitive balance.

It could be argued that the Cubs are still a work in progress, but at least it is now indisputable that they are in progress. There are no softies here, no rest stops, no pauses that will refresh. Every game will have meaning, inside the division, outside the division, April through September. The 2015 edition of the NL Central promises to be baseball the way it should be.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.