Stan McNeal’s seven bold predictions for the NL Central

Stan McNeal predicts big things in 2015 for such guys as Joey Votto, Kolten Wong and Ryan Braun. 

ST. LOUIS — Opening Day is just around the corner, and you know what that means?

It’s time for the media to climb out on a limb and make predictions that will prove correct at about the same percentage as Lance Lynn’s batting average.

So as you wait for Adam Wainwright versus Jon Lester on Sunday night, here’s some fodder for your entertainment. Seven bold predictions about the NL Central:

• The Reds will finish second.

Picking the Cardinals to win the division hardly is bold, especially for someone writing for the team’s TV rights holders. But how about predicting the Reds to pass the Pirates and the Brewers?

Now that’s not something too many would agree with. The Pirates proved last year that they’re not a one-year wonder, and the Brewers were good enough to stay in first place until the final month.

The Reds, however, have as talented a lineup as any Central team when healthy, and their injury reports out of Arizona indicate they are. Put veterans such as Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and newcomer Marlon Byrd with up-and-comers Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Billy Hamilton and you have a potent offense and a strong defense.

The Reds also are due a bounce-back in the one-run games department. They lost 38 one-run games last season, the only team in the majors with as many as 30 losses in that category. If they come close to turning around last year’s 22-38 record in one-run games, there’s little doubt they will climb back into contention.

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• Kolten Wong will hit more homers than Joey Votto.

All reports from Arizona indicate that Votto has fully recovered from the left quad injury that ruined his 2014. A scout told me Votto looks lighter and more mobile. Still, Votto seems more interested in maintaining his career .417 on-base percentage, the best in the majors since he debuted in ’07, than hitting 20 homers.

Look at what he told USA Today in a story published last week: "I was 26 when I hit all of those homers (37 in 2010). I felt unbelievable daily. But as you get older and tack on a few injuries, that starts to disappear. You don’t feel quite as fresh, as springy. So you’ve got to figure out other ways."

While Wong should focus on improving his OBP — he averaged only one walk every 20.6 plate appearances last year — he proved in the postseason that he has the potential to hit 20 homers. That might be all that is needed to surpass Votto.

• A.J. Burnett will have more walks than Aroldis Chapman will have strikeouts.

Burnett led the NL last year with 96 walks for Philadelphia while Chapman led NL relievers with 106 strikeouts even though he missed five-plus weeks.

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The Reds could ask Chapman to get more than three outs for a save this season, so he doesn’t figure to strike out any fewer. A return to Pittsburgh, however, won’t turn back the clock on Burnett. At 38, his fastball isn’t nearly what it used to be, and that leaves him relying on his curveball. Burnett’s bender remains one of the league’s best — as long as he can throw it for strikes. But with his fastball diminishing, he will rely more on his curve. And based on a walk rate that shot to 4.04 per nine innings from 3.16 in 2013, that isn’t getting easier.

• Ryan Braun will be the Brewers’ best player.

He was no better than their third best a year ago behind Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, and perhaps even Aramis Ramirez. But this is Year Two after Braun’s PED predicament, and the right thumb that limited his production last year has not held him back in spring training. Braun isn’t likely to match his 2012 season, when he hit .319 with 41 homers and 112 RBIs, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t return to All-Star form at 31.

• Four NL Central catchers will make the All-Star team.

As outlandish as this might sound considering only four catchers typically are named All-Stars in each league, it merely would be repeating what happened last year. Yadier Molina, Lucroy and Mesoraco all represented the Central and Miguel Montero made it for the Diamondbacks. With his trade to the Cubs, the division now includes all four NL All-Star catchers from 2014.

Though Montero, 31, might be on the downhill side of his career, the other three can practically make their plans for Cincinnati already. Molina has become a perennial All-Star and Mesoraco, who hit 25 homers in only 114 games last year as a 25-year-old, is just entering his prime. Lucroy, 28, is coming off a breakout season when he hit .301 and finished fourth in MVP voting and has made a quicker-than-expected return from a hamstring injury this spring.

• The Cubs will finish last.

This would not have been very bold in recent years, but after landing manager Joe Maddon and Lester in the offseason, expectations have climbed in Chicago to a level that borderlines on silly. Sporting News actually picked the Cubs, 73-89 last year, to win the World Series.

But for all the buildup about their young position players — which is warranted (except, perhaps, for Javier Baez, who makes Mark Reynolds look like a contact hitter) — check out their bullpen. Jason Motte is a great guy and all, but the Cubs are counting on him to be their third-best reliever. His numbers this spring: 10 runs allowed, three via homers, in 7 1/3 innings.

These Cubs figure to be better, but even a 10-game improvement would put them just over the .500 mark. No team in the division, by the way, showed that much of an improvement last year. So call me silly for picking them last but, for one more year anyway, they’ll finish closer to the bottom than the top of the Central. They still are the Cubs, right?

• Brandon Phillips will be booed at Busch Stadium.

Hey, just want to make sure one of these is correct.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.