MLB Season Preview: NL Central

The 2013 MLB Season Preview Series continues with analysis of the National League Central Division

Probable 1st Place Finish: Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds are the defending division champions, and may have even made a World Series run if not for the SF Giants shocking comeback from two games down in the NLDS. The team that won 97 games last season, largely without help from slugger Joey Votto, seems poised for a repeat in 2013. This team is stacked: perennial MVP candidate Votto at first, Rookie-of-the-Year runner-up Todd Frazier at third, slugger Brandon Phillips at second, and silver slugger Jay Bruce in right. Newly-signed Ryan Ludwick was to be given an outfield role, but was injured on Opening Day and will be replaced by Chris Heisey.Ryan Hanigan behind the plate and Zack Cozart at short provide solid defense and are more than adequate with the bat. Along with signing Ludwick this off-season, the Reds also elected to upgrade their lead-off spot in the lineup — which proved to be a bit of a black hole last season – by trading for outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. This team will score a lot of runs, but it’s not like they’ll need to: The Redlegs’ rotation in 2012 had the 4th best team ERA in the game (3.34). This rotation will be led by ace Johnny Cueto, who received more than a few votes for the Cy Young Award last season. Behind him is the talented Mat Latos, innings-eater Bronson Arroyo, and the improved Homer Bailey. There was some speculation that fireballer Aroldis Chapman would join this rotation, but as it stands manager Dusty Baker has decided to leave him in the role of closer, where he dominated last season. In the ‘pen along with Chapman is newly-acquired setup man Jonathan Broxton and middle reliever Sean Marshall. The Reds can make a strong case for being the most well-rounded team in the majors. The one thing that may be sub-par is the outfield defense; Shoo is not known for his defense and Ludwick is only getting older. This may only be a problem in away games outside of the cozy confines of Great American Ballpark, though.

Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman celebrates a save against the Brewers last year with a somersault. Manager Dusty Baker did not approve. (Image via The Majors)

The St. Louis Cardinals are frequently cited as the best-run organization in baseball. Every year, they seem to find a way to contend in the postseason, whether by winning the division or sneaking in as a wild-card. Their farm system is the strongest in the MLB, and their team ain’t too shabby either. The current centerpiece of this team is catcher Yadier Molina. Yad’s defense has been stellar throughout his career, throwing out 45% of players attempting a stolen base. While catchers are notoriously inept with the bat, Molina put up a .315/.373/.501 triple-slash line in 2012. The Cardinal’s lineup also features talented outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. At the corners in the infield, Allen Craig and David Freese should put up some nice number as well. All-star shortstop Rafael Furcal will be out all season due to Tommy John Surgery though, and his replacement Pete Kozma may not fare all that well based on his minor league numbers. Its clear that the Cardinals offense is a strength, but I’m less bullish on the starting rotation. With Chris Carpenter gone, Adam Wainright (signed to a 5-year, $97.5 contract extension) will be the undisputed ace of the club. Behind him are a slew of league-average pitchers: Westbrook, Garcia, and Lynn. The fifth spot will be up for grabs between sophomore Joe Kelly and top-prospect Shelby Miller; the loser will head to the bullpen. Closer Jason Motte will start the season on the DL due to right elbow strain, but Mitchell Boggs should serve as a capable replacement. Trevor Rosenthal will serve as the setup man. The Cards are a virtual lock for a wild-card berth, with the slim possibility of taking the division. That being said, the team will need to stay healthy, as many of their key players are prone to injury.

Not many runners successfully steal 2nd base with Yadier behind the plate. (Image via STL Today)

The gap between the Milwaukee Brewers lineup and its pitching is pretty significant: In 2012, the lineup scored the 3rd most runs in MLB, but the starting rotation owned a 3.99 ERA and the bullpen a 4.66 ERA. Despite this, the rotation and ‘pen somehow combined to get the most strikeouts in the NL. Again, offense isn’t the problem — outfielders Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki, and Carlos Gomez will supply plenty of production (and maybe Rickie Weeks, if he can reproduce his second half of 2012). But after a relatively inactive off-season, it’s the young rotation that will be under pressure to keep the games close. Although Yovani Gallardo will provide some stability and Marco Estrada looks promising, after them, things get murky. Michael Fiers probably pitched over his head last season, Chris Narveson owns a career 4.67 ERA, and Wily Peralta’s minor league numbers do not impress. In an effort to improve, the Brewers signed free-agent Kyle Lohse just a week before Opening Day. He could help, but don’t expect a sub-3.00 ERA again. The Brewers better pray that Braun’s links to the Biogenesis clinic aren’t links at all, and that first baseman Corey Hart makes a quick recovery from the operation on his torn meniscus. The Brewers should finish in 3rd place in the NL Central this season.

The Brewers will hurt if MLB winds up suspending Braun for any links to the Biogenesis clinic. (Image via USA Today)

Led by outfielder Andrew McCutchen’s tremendous first half, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked poised to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992, and maybe even make it to the playoffs. On August 1st, 2012, the Pirates owned a 60-44 record. With 58 games left, all they had to do was win 22 of them to finish above .500. But it was not to be. A gradual collapse coinciding with regression from McCutchen dashed the hopes of the Pirates and their fans, forcing them to look towards the off-season and hope for improvements to the team. Improvements did come, but perhaps not to the magnitude most fans would have liked. The Pirates have one of the smaller payrolls in MLB, and as such didn’t go after the pricy free-agents such as Zach Greinke and Josh Hamilton. They did add catcher Russell Martin to replace the awful Rod Barajas. Martin doesn’t hit for average, but he brings some pop to the plate with above average defense behind the plate. The Pirates also traded all-star closer Joel Hanrahan for reliever Mark Melancon, all-defense no-offense Ivan De Jesus, and a few minor leaguers. To shore up the rotation, the Bucs signed free-agent Francisco Liriano, but he’ll be on the DL until May. The offense will be led by McCutchen with significant contributions from the young Starling Marte, Neil Walker, and Garrett Jones. This lineup definitely has some power, although its easy to see them getting out-slugged by the Cardinals or Reds. On the pitching side, trade deadline acquisition Wandy Rodriguez and the revitalized A.J. Burnett seem set to lead the rotation. If prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon continue to develop, the Bucs will sport an above-average starting staff. In the bullpen, the re-signed Jason Grilli will take over the closer role from Hanrahan. Grilli can certainly close out games, but relievers Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes are not as dominant and could give up the lead before the Bucs reach the 9th. While the Pirates don’t figure to make the postseason, its entirely possible that this is the year they break .500.

Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen was a one-man army for much of 2012. (Image via NY Times)

With the Houston Astros departing for the AL Central, the Chicago Cubs will almost surely claim last place for their own. Cubs president Theo Epstein has done a good job improving the Cubs’ farm system, but until those prospects reach The Show, the Cubs are destined for mediocrity (to put it lightly). Starlin Castro has potential to be a star as does Anthony Rizzo, but those two are about the only thing Cubs fans have to look forward to. Alfonso Soriano had a nice season last year, but he is now 37 years old. The rest of the lineup is filled with the likes of Scott Hairston, Nate Schierholtz, Darwin Barney, etc…the Cubs are going to have a hard time scoring runs. For what it’s worth, the rotation isn’t terrible, featuring Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Carlos Villanueva, and newly-acquired pitchers Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman. Villanueva and Wood will likely wind up in the bullpen once starters Matt Garza and Scott Baker return from the DL. Regardless, the Cubs are on track to make it 105 years without a World Series win.

Infielder Anthony Rizzo, shown here participating in last month’s World Baseball Classic for Team Italy, will play a big role in the future of the Chicago Cubs. (Image via ESPN)

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