Much like the AL Central, the NL Central is not as strong as the other divisions in its league. However, I do think the NL Central could be a bit stronger than the AL Central this year, because there are at least 2 potential playoff contenders in the division, and there were 3 teams that finished above .500 last year. It will be very interesting to see how this division fairs, now that the Astros aren’t around to beat up on. Here’s what I see:
- Cincinnati Reds (96-66)
- St. Louis Cardinals (83-79)
- Pittsburgh Pirates (81-81)
- Chicago Cubs (78-84)
- Milwaukee Brewers (70-92)
Reds: If you assumed you knew the Nationals had the best team ERA in 2012, who would you think was just 0.01 behind them in second place? The Giants? The Phillies? The Braves? Nope – it was the Reds. Granted they pitch in the NL Central, which isn’t exactly overrun with offensive talent. But, this is a very nice pitching staff, and the bullpen (which had an impressive 2.65 ERA) looks to be even better with Jonathan Broxton there for the whole year. Shin-Soo Choo will be a very nice addition to the middle of an already powerful lineup, with Votto, Bruce and Phillips. Ryan Ludwick’s resurgence last year was also a pleasant surprise, and if he can stay healthy, it will be quite the outfield in Cincy. But, then there’s this guy in AAA – Billy Hamilton. If you don’t know that name, get used to hearing it. The guy broke Vince Coleman’s minor league steals record, stealing 155 bases last year! He is developing the plate discipline, and learning better ways to get on base. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we saw him in Cincinnati before the All-Star break. With a nice pitching staff, and an offense that can put up runs in chunks, this team looks poised to win again – especially against the pool of mediocrity that is the NL Central.
Cardinals: You look at this lineup, and it’s hard to fathom how it ended up 3rd in the NL in OPS in 2012. Can they really pull it all together again? I say . . . kinda. In part, because they play in the NL Central. Don’t get me wrong – Beltran and Holliday are nice at the center of that lineup. But, they’re also not getting any younger. And, I’m not sure Allen Craig or Matt Carpenter aren’t due for some sophomore slump issues. Injuries are also going to be an issue for this team, as Furcal and Chris Carpenter already look like they’re done for the season. Carpenter is the bigger loss, in my opinion. Wainwright has had glimpses of “ace”-type stuff, but he’s had more years where he looked like a .500 pitcher with an ERA hovering close to 4.00. And, once you get past him, you’re looking at Westbrook, Lynn, Garcia and a rookie (albeit, a highly touted one) in Shelby Miller. Nothing about this team screams “playoff contender,” but they seem to find a way to surprise us on a regular basis.
Pirates: It was tempting to put the Pirates ahead of St. Louis. And, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if they finally broke the streak of losing seasons, and finished in 2nd this year. The addition of Wandy Rodriguez was smart, because he will continue to play in a division he’s familiar with. And, when Francisco Liriano comes off the DL, I expect he will fair better in the NL than he did in the AL. They didn’t do anything to improve their offense (an offense that finished tied for 11th in the NL with a .699 OPS), so they will have to rely heavily on Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutcheon. But, the bigger concern for me is the bullpen. Hanrahan is gone to Boston, and they’ve moved Jason Grilli into the closer spot – a guy who only saved 2 of his 5 opportunities a year ago. That gives me cause for concern, and combined with the lack of offensive moves, I can’t justify putting the Pirates any higher than .500.
Cubs: There’s no doubt they’re rebuilding. Every trade they’ve made since Epstein & Co. took over has been to rid themselves of the money-wasting contracts left over from the previous clueless GM, and rebuild the program from the ground up. And, so far, it seems to be moving in the right direction. Only one bad contract remains (Soriano – who happened to hit 25 HR last year), and the talent in the farm system is definitely improving. As for the talent on the major league team . . . well, it’s definitely younger. Starlin Castro is a star in the making, and Anthony Rizzo could become very Joey Votto-like. And, Darwin Barney did win a Gold Glove at 2B, though his bat isn’t exactly electric. But, the biggest reason for what I expect to be a significant uptick in their win total is the improved starting rotation. Samardzija has improved every year; Garza (when he gets off the DL) will be a very nice #2; the addition of Edwin Jackson in the #3 spot will do nicely, and then Travis Wood, Carlos Villanueva and Scott Feldman can fight it out for the last 2 spots. The bullpen is likely to blow several leads (or make deficits even more impossible to overcome), but Kyuji Fujikawa might be able to help with that. It’s definitely an improved team, though still not a winning team.
Brewers: Why the drop so far down after they finished above .500 just a year ago? I’ll give you three reasons: 1) “Winning”: In the NL, only the Reds had more wins last year against sub-.500 teams, and only the Astros had fewer wins against winning teams than the 2012 Brew Crew. And, now that they don’t get to play the Astros for 12-15 games, the Brewers are likely to take a step back. 2) Injuries: Cory Hart won’t be back until mid-May at the earliest; Mat Gamel (the prospect they’ve been expecting to replace Prince) is out for the season, again; and, not long before I wrote this, Aramis Ramirez was put on the DL, and will be out until probably the end of April. Ryan Braun is awfully good, but he can’t be expected to carry this offense alone. 3) Pitching: can you name 3 pitchers in Milwaukee? Yovani Gallardo is pretty well known. John Axford has become more notorious than anything else of late. I wonder how many knew they signed Kyle Lohse. But, all in all, this is not an impressive pitching staff. They had the worst bullpen ERA in the NL a year ago, and were middle-of-the-pack with their starters. They’ve brought in some new guys to help, but only Tom Gorzelanny had an ERA under 3.00 last year (2.88), and only Burke Badenhop (who??) had a WHIP below 1.30. I see this team taking significant steps backwards.