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Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales, and Tyler Lyons could play pivotal roles in 2016

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Which National League Central team has positioned its extended starting rotation best for the 2016 season?

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The National League Central has the potential to be a heated divisional race once again in 2016. FanGraphs' projected standings lists the Cubs as the clear favorite (94 wins) with the Cardinals (84) and Pirates (83) competing for one, or if 2015 is any indication, both, of the wild card spots. That being said, outperforming win projections is the norm, and as Eno Sarris so eloquently put it, a team should be "competitive" as long as it is projected for more than 78 wins, a standard achieved by all three teams.

Back in December 2014, now managing editor Craig Edwards wrote a post titled, "How many starters do the Cardinals need in 2015?" Having access to the Viva El Birdos Twitter account, I remember noticing that we received some sarcastic mentions that day, all along the lines of "five, duh." Well, the Cardinals had nine different pitchers make a start in 2015, with eight of them making four starts or more (using five days rest between starts and four team off days as a guide, five starts essentially qualifies as a one month stay in the starting rotation).

The truth is, over the course of a grueling 162-game season, any given team will need more than just five starting pitchers. Plus, while starting pitchers do not play every day, often they have the largest impact on the game in which they do play. Thus, if one of the five goes down, it is in a team's best interest to have a viable candidate groomed and ready to fill the void, potentially for the long haul.

Cubs Cardinals Pirates
Jake Arrieta (5.2) Adam Wainwright (3.5) Gerrit Cole (4.2)
Jon Lester (4.4) Carlos Martinez (3.0) Francisco Liriano (3.7)
John Lackey (2.9) Jaime Garcia (2.1) Jon Niese (1.7)
Kyle Hendricks (2.7) Michael Wacha (2.5) Ryan Vogelsong (0.6)
Jason Hammel (2.2) Mike Leake (2.2) Jeff Locke (1.6)
Adam Warren Tim Cooney Jameson Taillon/Tyler Glasnow
Trevor Cahill Tyler Lyons Allen Webster
Travis Wood Marco Gonzales Kyle Lobstein

Via Steamer projections, the core of the Cubs rotation (17.4 WAR, broken down individually after each pitcher's name) outduels those of the Cardinals (13.3) and Pirates (11.8). Yet, what are the chances that the Northsiders go from the start of 2016 through the end of the regular season with the exact same starting rotation? While I will never be in the injury prediction business, the answer to this question is still "not likely whatsoever."

As an aside, in 2014, when the Brewers led the NL Central for a good chunk of the regular season, I was convinced their starting rotation made it through the year unscathed. Going into the year, it was clear that their top five was pretty good, but starting pitching depth was relatively nonexistent, so if someone went down, so would the Brewers. Yet, according to Milwaukee's 2014 team page on Baseball-Reference, my memory has failed me as they had seven pitchers make ten starts or more that season. The Brewers ended 2014 with a winning record (82-80), but failed to make the playoffs.

Returning to the main point of this article, what it comes down to, as it usually does in the game of baseball, is depth. Which team has positioned its depth properly should one or more core pitchers go down with an injury? The Cubs' options definitely have the most experience, with a sneaky good pitcher in Warren (who projects favorably per ZiPS), but Cahill and especially Wood seem best positioned for success out of the bullpen going forward. Sure, either could start in a pinch, but neither seem to be a long-term option, should a Cub hurler go down for the season in, say, late April.

The Cardinals' choices, while each have very small MLB sample sizes, have a much higher ceiling than their Cubs counterparts. According to Baseball America, Gonzales was the organization's number one overall prospect entering 2015, and by all accounts, he's healthy and ready to go for 2016 [corrected link]). Cooney placed second overall behind Alex Reyes in this year's BA prospect rankings by John Manuel. With Lyons out of options, he will almost certainly start 2016 in the bullpen, but at the same time, I trust Derek Lilliquist will find a way to stretch him out if needed in the rotation. I realize that the sample size couldn't get any smaller, but the 27-year-old Lyons has shown signs of brilliance, even under stressful circumstances.

Admittedly, outside of Taillon and Glasnow being highly-regarded prospects, I do not have much to add on the Pirates options. Yet, Pittsburgh has arguably the best pitching coach in Ray Searage, who transitioned J.A. Happ from an afterthought to a $36 million pitcher in just 11 regular-season starts, so really, anything can happen with this extended rotation.

Now, I understand that Viva El Birdos is a Cardinals-centric blog, but I feel we are generally pretty reasonable when it comes to baseball takes, so please, after taking everything into consideration, answer the poll question below.