October 2, 2012; St. Louis, MO. USA; Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman (54) throws to a St. Louis Cardinals batter during the ninth inning at Busch Stadium. The Reds won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

NL Central Predictions

Every spring, it is always fun to make pointless and meaningless predictions on the outcome of the upcoming baseball season. Regardless of the total lack of importance in the grand scheme of things, it always fun to see how things turned. Bragging is order for those predictions that turn out correct and the mistakes are quickly ignored and forgotten.  This is the second of a series of six divisional predictions. Click here for a look at the NL East. Let’s have some!

Jun 14, 2012; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) is congratulated by second baseman Brandon Phillips (4) and right fielder Jay Bruce (32) after hitting a home run during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

NL Central

This division was reduced to five teams when the Houston Astros, the worst team in the division over the past few years, was moved to the American League starting in 2013. Two teams stand head and shoulders above the rest and there is little difference in the 3 remaining teams. Whichever team has the most break out performances and the fewest injuries will take third but they will be hard pressed to over take the top two.

5) Milwaukee Brewers: One MVP outfielder and one front line starter are not enough to make a contender. Ryan Braun is a super star and Yovani Gallardo is a legitmate #1 starter but the rest of the roster is filled with question marks. Corey Hart is out until at least early May, Mat Gamel is out for the year, Aramis Ramirez is aging with a bad knee, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy have battled injuries in the past, and young Jean Segura is an unproven commodity at short. Carlos Gomez had a nice 2012 campaign but has never never consistent. Norichika Aoki was a pleasant surprise last season but can he repeat his performance? The rest of the rotation are young and no one knows how they will perform over the duration of a long season. The bullpen is anchored by the John Axford, whose 2012 ERA was closer to 5.00 than 4.00 (4.67). The rest of the bullpen is uninspiring. Someone has to finish last in the division. Looks like it will be the Brewers.

4) Chicago Cubs: The sole reason for placing the Cubs over the Brewers is pitching depth. Chicago doesn’t have any stars in their rotation but they did a great job adding steady performers to their staff. Jeff Samardzija and  Edwin Jackson are dependable starters who can offer stability at the top. If Matt Garza and Scott Baker can get healthy and return to their previous skill levels, the Cubs can go 4 deep in their rotation with quality pitchers. Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman, and Travis Wood can all fill out the fifth slot, can pitch in middle relief, or spot start. The rotation will have to be strong because the offense may sputter at times. Budding stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo will have to carry most of the weight at the plate. Veterans Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus can help out but they are well past their prime. The rest of the offense is filled with role players that offer little threat to the opposition. The bullpen could be a big detriment for the Cubbies. Carlos Marmol needs to harness his enormous talent and be a steadying influence for the pen. It won’t matter how well the rotation performs if Marmol and company can’t hold down leads.

Mar 13, 2013; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) against the Toronto Blue Jays during a spring training game at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

3) Pittsburg Pirates: It is the rotation which will hold the Pirates back in 2013. It is a standard, patch work staff that anyone who follows a small market team will recognize. The top three spots could be good, not great, but all have warts. A.J. Burnett had a fine 2012 but 2010 and 2011 should be fresh in your memories. Wandy Rodriguez is as steady a performer as you can ask for but is certainly on the down side of his career. The intriguing guy here is James McDonald, who has shown some real talent but had a second half meltdown last year. The rest of this staff is band-aids and prayers. The Pirates are just trying to make due until some of their youth matures and is ready for the majors. The bullpen is also a question mark. Veteran Jason Grilli was superb in 2012 but what are the chances he can repeat? Mark Melancon could bounce back and be a steadying force in the pen. On offense, it is all about Andrew McCutchen. Just how far can he carry the Pirates? He is a terrific all around player but his surrounding cast is not the best. If guys like Travis Snider, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker can just take forward steps in their development and rookie Starling Marte can hit the ground running, Pittsburg could be a serious challenger in the Central. In the long run though, the pitching just won’t be good enough.

2) St. Louis Cardinals: It always seems the Cardinals are in contention, no matter who they lose or add to their roster. The Cardinals offense doesn’t have the superstar presence of Albert Pujols any longer but there is talent spread throughout the line-up. Carlos Beltran is aging but can still put up very good numbers for stretches at a time. Matt Holliday has been a steady producer for years. Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, and David Freese are all above average players at their positions. John Jay is an improving player in center. Only the middle infield spots have been a void of offense. Pete Kozma, Ronny Cedeno, and Daniel Descalso will man second and short but offer little at the plate. The bullpen is a strong one, anchored by Jason Motte. Mitchell Boggs was a key performer in 2012, and hopes to repeat this season. The pen has a number of good arms and should be dependable for the Cards. The rotation is the key to this team. Adam Wainwright has ace stuff and will lead Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, and Lance Lynn. Throw in young stud Shelby Miller and the Cardinals just might have the strongest staff in the division. If the Reds falter, St. Louis could over take them.

1) Cincinnati Red: http: The Reds just may be the strongest team in the National League. The offense is led by first baseman Joey Votto, who, when healthy, is a perennial MVP candidate. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce offer key production to the line-up. The Reds are also counting on Shin-Soo Choo to get on base in front of the big boys. Choo has been a very good player himself in the majors, although he is terribly out of position in center. Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart are emerging players hoping to continue developing over the 2013 season. Ryan Ludwick is a reliable player in left who can drum up some power but his may lose some playing time if speed demon minor league star Billy Hamilton can earn a roster spot. The Reds are hoping Johnny Cueto can match his 2012 numbers but he is a prime regression candidate. If he does repeat his numbers from a year ago, he will be an ace. Mat Latos and Homer Bailey are solid performers and Bronson Arroyo just keeps pitching at an acceptable level. The big question is if Aroldis Chapman can make the transition from a phenomenal bullpen arm to a starter. No one should expect the statistical domination he produced in relief but if he can hold out physically, he has the stuff to be a top notch ace. Mike Leake is also around for rotation depth. If Chapman starts, the bullpen will certainly suffer. Jonathan Broxton has the experience but is not the same pitcher he was several years ago. Sean Marshall thrives in the set up role but struggled as a closer. If Cueto holds form, and Chapman can make a successful move into the rotation, and Broxton and Marshall can anchor a strong pen, the Reds are going to be hard to beat. The Reds have the depth to survive some adversity, and if things don’t go terribly wrong, they can be the jewel of the NL Central.

Summary: This division will field two or three of the weakest team in the National League. If one of those three can have a surprise year, it will probably be at the eventual expense of the Cardinals or the Reds, and may cost one of those teams a wild card spot. Clearly, the Cardinals and the Reds have the most talented, best balanced squads in the division. It will be interesting to see how they stack up with the best teams from the East and the West divisions.



Tags: Andrew McCutchen Chicago Cubs Cincinnati Reds Joey Votto Kansas City Royals Milwaukee Brewers NL Central Pittsburg Pirates St. Louis Cardinals

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