National League Central Division Preview

The Cincinnati Reds ran away with the NL Central title last season, beating out the second-place St. Louis Cardinals by nine games. Despite leading the division by one game at the All-Star break, the Pirates collapsed in the second half and finished in fourth place, 18 games out of first. The Central will have a bit of a different look in 2013, as the Houston Astros (55-107, sixth place, 42 games back in 2012) have joined the American League West. Here’s a preview of the division for this season…

Chicago Cubs

The North Siders appear to be rebuilding again this year after losing 101 games in 2012.  Darwin Barney, Anthony Rizzo, and Starlin Castro make up a very strong and young infield that will be the team’s nucleus in the future.  Jeff Samardzija has improved greatly over the past few years and has been declared the ace of the staff. The Cubbies’ rotation also includes injured Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson, who was given a nice payday.  But aside from a handful of solid players, this team is pretty mediocre.  If the Cubs can find a team willing do work with the money issue, it’s likely that Alfonso Soriano will be traded sometime during the season, along with other players if they decide to clean house completely.  Frankly, a lot of things will have to go right for the Cubs and wrong for the rest of the division for them to see any success, and they’ll most likely get bumped down to the basement of the NL Central with the Astros moving to the AL West.

Cincinnati Reds

The defending division champions bolstered their club by acquiring Shin-Soo Choo from the Cleveland Indians. Choo, who’s posted a career .381 OBP, gives the Reds an ideal top-of-the-order hitter to get on base in front of Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce, among others. Their bandbox of a ballpark will continue to pad offensive stats, although their pitching remains strong. Cincy’s rotation features returning starters Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and noted shoplifter Mike Leake. Flamethrower Aroldis Chapman was a potential starter, but will return to the closer’s role. Jonathan Broxton and southpaw Sean Marshall will set the table for one of the toughest closers in the league. A 97-win team last year, the Redlegs will be hard to beat again in 2013.

Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee made a splash on Monday by signing RHP Kyle Lohse to a three-year, $33 million contract. While Lohse was a top-tier free agent, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and, after a career-year in 2012, is due for regression (good article about this HERE from Beyond the Box Score). Furthermore, Miller Park had the highest home run factor of any MLB stadium, even greater than the aforementioned Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. That being said, any increase in his fly ball rates could be trouble for Lohse when pitching in Milwaukee. One last thing on him – the signing forces the Brew Crew to surrender their first round pick to the Cardinals as compensation. The small market Brewers, who have a relatively weak farm system to begin with, can’t afford to be losing top picks — but they signed Lohse anyway.

As for the whole club, Ryan Braun was linked to steroids again this offseason but continues to put up monster numbers. He followed his 2011 MVP campaign by hitting .319/.391/.595 with a National League-leading 41 home runs. The Kyle Lohse signing does shore up the starting rotation, which is led by Yovani Gallardo. Former Bucs Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez both signed with the Brewers and are pegged for the bullpen. With Braun leading the charge, the Crew could be a pesky club this year. The Pirates have struggled against the Brewers in recent years, and we wouldn’t be surprised if that trend continued.

Pittsburgh Pirates

We’ll have a separate Pirates preview coming later this week.

St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis is a tough team to dissect because they have shown over the past two years that they never roll over and will fight until the 27th out is recorded.  Former skipper Tony La Russa and current manager Mike Matheny have been masters at using all 25 players they have to win games any way they can.  This year, the Cardinals won’t have any major additions, but lost starter Kyle Lohse to free agency.  Chris Carpenter has been declared unlikely to pitch at all in 2013.  That leaves Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook as the only sure-things in the rotation, with Jaime Garcia attempting to recover from an arm injury.  The bullpen will consist of Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, and Marc Rzecpczynski, among others.  Most of the team’s offensive production will come from Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig, assuming they can all stay healthy.  Yadier Molina will continue to be one of the top catchers in the game, but after that, the lineup will be made up of young guys like Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.  These types of scrappy players have been what makes the Cardinals such a dangerous team that always seems to find a way to win.  No matter what, it’s impossible to sleep on this team, and you can expect them to be in the playoff picture throughout the whole season.

The Central might not be the most exciting division in baseball, but there are certainly a few contenders that could make it an interesting race. We’re curious to see how the loss of Houston affects the remaining five ballclubs, especially the Pirates. The Reds seem to be the team to beat at this point, although we wouldn’t count out the others. How do you see the Central unfolding in 2013?

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