15 for '15: NL Central trio displayed dominance

Cards, Bucs, Cubs put together top three records in bigs

15 for '15: NL Central trio displayed dominance

In what has become a year-end tradition, MLB.com takes a look back at the top storylines of the year -- the Top 15 for 2015.

PITTSBURGH -- Remove the confines of the Majors' leagues and divisions. Throw all 30 teams into one big list, sort them by their respective win totals and send the top three finishers to the podium. Standing first, second and third in 2015? The historic National League Central.

The Cardinals, the first 100-win team since 2011, stormed through the season with baseball's best record. The Pirates weren't far behind, overcoming a slow start on their way to 98 victories. The upstart Cubs were on the Bucs' heels, winning 97 games before dispatching both NL Central foes to reach the NL Championship Series.

In any other division, the Pirates and Cubs would have been crowned champions. The Royals were the Majors' only other 95-win club. So yes, for the first time in baseball history -- since divisional play began in 1969 and the six-division setup followed in 1994 -- the three best records in the game came from the same division.

"It's highly unusual," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said on the final day of their regular-season gauntlet. "Thank goodness the Astros aren't still in the division."

Intense as their competition was, the Cardinals were never knocked off their perch atop the NL Central. Despite a number of key injuries, St. Louis spent every day after April 16 in first place. But in a testament to the division's toughness, the Cards didn't clinch the Central until winning their 100th game on Sept. 30, an 11-1 victory over the Pirates.

"Our division was tough, and to survive it the way we did comes back to the way this club plays and believes in itself," general manager John Mozeliak said that night.

The Pirates and Cubs were left to battle for home-field advantage in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser. Pittsburgh prevailed by one game in the standings but, for the second straight year, fell victim to the hottest hand in baseball.

In 2014, it was Madison Bumgarner. This time around, it was Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, coming off a historic second half, who shut out the Pirates, 4-0, in the winner-take-all contest at PNC Park.

#THIS: Arrieta's shutout

As a win-or-go-home showdown between the second- and third-best teams in baseball, that game prompted hours of heated discussion about the current postseason format.

Was it truly fair that the Pirates, with the Majors' second-best record (behind, naturally, the Cardinals) over the past three years, have seen their last two seasons end without a full playoff series?

Cole's memorable 2015 season

And what if the Cubs, who won more games than the NL East champion Mets or the NL West champion Dodgers, had reached the postseason but not been afforded a chance to play in front of their fans at Wrigley Field?

While we're at it, what about the Cardinals? Why should their reward for winning the division, and 100 games, be a rematch with the next-best team in the Majors?

"You can never come up with a scenario that is perfectly fair to everybody," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in September. "In a year like this, theoretically, some teams might want to be re-seeded. In another year, that might be a benefit to you. So, you've just got to kind of play the hand you're dealt."

Led by new manager Joe Maddon and a core of young stars -- notably rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell -- the Cubs did just that in October. They shoved aside the Pirates and pushed past the Cardinals in a captivating NL Division Series before falling to the Mets in the NLCS.

Cubs clean up in BBWAA Awards

The Central rivalry poured over into the first few months of the offseason. The Cubs already have swiped away two of the Cards' top players, signing free-agent starter John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward, and they flexed more of their financial muscle by reeling in utility man Ben Zobrist.

With those players joining Chicago's dynamic young nucleus, some have already proclaimed the Cubs to be a frontrunner to win next year's World Series. But the Pirates will return most of their core while paving the way for a group of highly touted prospects, and the Cardinals aren't going anywhere.

In other words, the NL Central could be just as competitive in 2016.

"I anticipate a lot of the same," Maddon said. "I think us, the Pirates and the Cardinals will pretty much be duking it out like we did last year."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.