2013 National League Central Division Preview

Greg Judy@gregjudy06Contributor IIIMarch 17, 2013

2013 National League Central Division Preview

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    The National League Central has a fresh new look this season. Since Houston (and its 107 losses) has fled the NL for the American League, the talent level in the NL Central has evened out. The division will most likely be more competitive this season, as four out of the five teams—the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates and Reds—have the capability to capture the division title. The Cubs, who are obviously in a rebuilding phase, will be the only team that will not compete this year. 

    Expect two of the division's teams to pull away from the pack in August and compete for the division title through the last week of the season.

    With that being said, let’s take a look at the teams, players, prospects and projections for the 2013 NL Central.

5. Chicago Cubs

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    Since the Astros have left the division, the Cubs will now be the footstool of the NL Central. The team won only 61 games last season, so there is much room for improvement. The team continues its rebuilding process and will not look to contend until 2015 or beyond.

    Key Departures: None

    Key Newcomers: Edwin Jackson, RHP (FA Washington, 10-11, 4.03, 168K); Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP (Japan); Scott Hairston, OF (FA New York Mets, .263-20-57-.299)

    Impact Player: Alfonso Soriano, LF—Soriano is playing to get out of Chicago. After underachieving for the past several seasons, the 37-year-old Soriano had somewhat of a breakout season in 2012, posting his best numbers in five years (.262-32-108-.322). If Soriano’s hot bat continues this season, the Cubs will try to trade him to any team that is willing to take on his $18 million-per-year contract.

    Top Prospect: Javier Baez, SS—In 80 games at Single-A, the first-round pick in 2011 batted .294 with 16 home runs and 24 stolen bases. Baez has power and speed, but his defense needs a little work, as he had 17 errors in only 75 games at short.

     

    Projected Lineup (2012 Stats)

    1. Tony Campana, RF (.264-0-5-30 SB)
    2. Starlin Castro, SS (.283-14-78-25)
    3. Alfonso Soriano, LF (.262-32-108)
    4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (.285-15-48)
    5. Scott Hairston, CF (.263-20-57)
    6. Darwin Barney, 2B (.254-7-44)
    7. Luis Valbuena, 3B (.219-4-28)
    8. Dioner Navarro, C (.290-2-12)

    Projected Rotation

    1. Edwin Jackson, RHP (10-11, 4.03, 168K)
    2. Jeff Samardzija, RHP (9-13, 3.81, 180)
    3. Matt Garza, RHP (5-7, 3.91, 96)
    4. Travis Wood, LHP (6-13, 4.27, 119)
    5. Scott Feldman, RHP (6-11, 5.09, 96)

    Closer: Carlos Marmol, RHP (20 SV, 3.42 ERA)

     

    The Good News: Continuing Theo Epstein’s rebuilding process, the Cubs will look to trade players with hefty contracts mid-season for prospects. Look for outfielder Brett Jackson to make a big contribution mid-season. He is my pick to win NL Rookie of the Year.

    The Bad News: The “lovable losers” will endure another bad season.

    The Reality: After having their worst season since 1981, the Cubs have nowhere to go but up. Any progression is good.

    Prediction: 70-92, No. 5 NL Central

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pirates have seen their win totals increase since their dismal 57-win 2010 season. The team has made strong runs for first place and even spent some time there in both 2011 and 2012, but they fizzled down the stretch and could not finish above .500 in either season. This season will be no different. The Pirates have strong expectations for 2013. But without the Astros to beat up on, the team will finish below .500 for the 21st-consecutive season.

    Key Departures: Joel Hanrahan, RHP (Trade with Bos., 36 SV, 2.72 ERA), Kevin Correia, RHP (FA Min., 12-11, 4.21, 89)

    Key Newcomers: Russell Martin, C (FA NYY, .211-21-53)

    Impact Player: Andrew McCutchen, CF—Last season, McCutchen solidified himself as a top-tier National League outfielder after posting career highs in almost every statistical category and finishing third in NL MVP voting. If the Pirates have any hope of competing in the NL Central, they need the 26 year-old center fielder to duplicate his numbers.

    Top Prospect: Gerrit Cole, RHP—I think there is no question that Pittsburgh’s top prospect is Gerrit Cole, ranked as the No. 7 prospect by Baseball America. In his first season as a pro in 2012, Cole was 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 136 K’s in 26 starts at high-A Bradenton, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates will plan to keep Cole in Indianapolis for most of the season. But if the season tailspins quickly for Pittsburgh, look for the Pirates to call him up early.

     

    Projected Lineup:

    1. Starling Marte, LF (.257-5-17-12)
    2. Andrew McCutchen, CF (.327-31-96-20)
    3. Pedro Alvarez, 3B (.244-30-85)
    4. Garrett Jones, 1B (.274-27-86)
    5. Neil Walker, 2B (.280-14-69)
    6. Travis Snider, RF (.250-4-17)
    7. Russell Martin, C (.211-21-53)
    8. Josh Harrison, SS (.233-3-16)

    Projected Rotation

    1. A.J. Burnett, RHP (16-10, 3.51, 180)
    2. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP (12-13, 3.76, 139)
    3. James McDonald, RHP (12-8, 4.21, 151)
    4. Vin Mazzaro, RHP (4-3, 5.73, 26)
    5. Francisco Liriano, LHP (3-2, 4.40, 58)

    Closer: Jason Grilli, RHP (2 SV, 2.91 ERA)

     

    The Good News: The Pirates boast one of the most powerful middle lineups in the National League. If McCutchen, Alvarez, Jones and Walker stay healthy, the Pirates have a good chance of breaking the .500 barrier for the first time in 21 years.

    The Bad News: With the losses of Hanrahan and Correia, the pitching staff has declined. Besides Burnett and Rodriguez, the Pirates will begin the 2013 season with a mixture of inexperienced arms and retreads.

    The Reality: The Pirates will have their 21st-consecutive losing season. With this roster, the team cannot compete with St. Louis, Cincinnati, or even Milwaukee.

    Prediction: 77-85, No. 4 NL Central

3. Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Brewers are one of the best offensive teams in Major League Baseball. Last year, the Brewers were third in slugging pct. (.437), runs scored (776) and RBIs (741). But pitching is another story for the team. After taking the NL Central title and winning 96 games in 2011, the Brewers struggled through injuries and underachievement in 2012, winning only 83 games. Can the Brewers stay healthy and rebound from a disappointing 2012 to compete in the NL Central this season? Can the pitching staff exceed expectations (which are not very high to begin with)?

    Key Departures: Shaun Marcum, RHP (FA NYM, 7-4, 3.70, 109K)

    Key Newcomers: Tom Gorzelanny, LHP (FA Was, 2.88 ERA, 72 IP)

    Impact Player: Ryan Braun, LF—Allegations of PED use did not slow Braun’s stride last year. Let’s see if new allegations have any effect on Braun’s performance this year. The Brew Crew needs Braun to have another MVP-caliber season in order to even have a chance to compete.

    Top Prospect: Tyler Thornburg, RHP—After being drafted in 2010, Thornburg has quickly made his way up the ladder of Milwaukee’s farm system. Thornburg went 10-4 with a 3.20 ERA at two levels last season before being called up to the big leagues in September. If Thornburg does not make the big-league roster after spring training, he will most assuredly be called up within the first couple months of the season, especially given the fact that the starting pitching may fail early.

     

    Projected Lineup:

    1. Carlos Gomez, CF (.260-19-51-37SB)
    2. Norichika Aoki, RF (.288-10-50-30)
    3. Ryan Braun, LF (.319-41-112-30)
    4. Corey Hart, 1B (.270-30-83)
    5. Aramis Ramirez, 3B (.300-27-105)
    6. Jonathan Lucroy, C (.320-12-58)
    7. Jean Segura, SS (.264-0-14)
    8. Rickie Weeks, 2B (.230-21-63-16)

    Rotation:

    1. Yovani Gallardo, RHP (16-9, 3.66, 204K)
    2. Mike Fiers, RHP (9-10, 3.74, 135)
    3. Marco Estrada, RHP (5-7, 3.64, 143)
    4. Mark Rogers, RHP (3-1, 3.93, 41)
    5. Tom Gorzelanny, LHP (4-2, 2.88, 93)

    Closer: John Axford, RHP (35 SV, 4.67 ERA)

     

    The Good News: Led by ace Gallardo, the young and injury-prone pitching staff has nowhere to go but up. Thankfully they have excellent run support, as well as speed on the base paths.

    The Bad News: The pitching staff could do what everyone predicts they will do: sputter and fall.

    The Reality: The Brewers’ batting order is good enough to keep most teams on their toes. But the pitching staff will just not be good enough to compete with the heavy hitters of the National League.

    Prediction: 82-80, No. 3 NL Central

2. Cincinnati Reds

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    The Reds enter the 2013 season with only minor changes. After winning the NL Central for the second time in three years, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty addressed the team’s need for a leadoff hitter by trading for Shin-Soo Choo. The only question on the minds of Reds fans is how well Aroldis Chapman, arguably the best closer in 2012, will pitch as a starter.

    Key Departures: Drew Stubbs, CF (Trade w/ Cle., .213-14-40-30SB), Scott Rolen, 3B (FA, .245-8-39)

    Key Newcomers: Shin-Soo Choo, OF (Trade w/ Cle., .283-16-67-21SB)

    Impact Player: Aroldis Chapman, LHP—The success of the Cincinnati Reds hinges on the success of the 25-year-old “Cuban Missile." After dominating the National League as a closer in 2012, Chapman has been moved from the bullpen to the rotation. What will happen when the most dominating closer in baseball is moved to the rotation? Look for Chapman to develop his breaking ball and add more pitches to his repertoire. The 106 MPH fastball will still be there, but Chapman will be forced to use it less if he wants to last to the later innings.

    Top Prospect: Billy Hamilton, OF—It’s no surprise that Hamilton is the Reds’ top prospect. After setting a minor league record for steals in a season (155), Hamilton hopes for a call-up in 2013. But the Reds have a logjam at outfield. Unless one of the outfielders meets injury, Hamilton will likely stay at Triple-A Louisville until the rosters expand in September.

     

    Projected Line-up:

    1. Shin-Soo Choo, CF (.283-16-67-21SB)
    2. Brandon Phillips, 2B (.281-18-77-15)
    3. Jay Bruce, RF (.252-34-99)
    4. Joey Votto, 1B (.337-14-56)
    5. Ryan Ludwick, LF (.275-26-80)
    6. Ryan Hanigan, C (.274-2-24)
    7. Todd Frazier, 3B (.273-19-67)
    8. Zach Cozart, SS (.246-15-35)

    Projected Rotation:

    1. Johnny Cueto, RHP (19-9, 2.78, 170K)
    2. Mat Latos, RHP (14-4, 3.48, 185)
    3. Homer Bailey, RHP (13-10, 3.68, 168)
    4. Bronson Arroyo, RHP (12-10, 3.74, 129)
    5. Aroldis Chapman, LHP (5-5, 1.51, 122)

    Closer: Jonathan Broxton, RHP (27 SV, 2.48)

     

    The Good News: This team is stacked. Jocketty has done his part in ensuring that the Reds will not only make the playoffs, but move on to the World Series for the first time in 23 years.

    The Bad News: Moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation may turn out to be a bad idea after all. You can’t throw 100 MPH for five straight innings.

    The Reality: The Reds will come close to last season’s perfection. But with the Astros taken out of the division, and increased competition from St. Louis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, the Reds will not win the division again.

    Prediction: 92-70, No. 2 NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals

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    After losing Albert Pujols, arguably the best pure hitter since Ken Griffey Jr., to free agency, many thought the Cardinals, who had also lost manager Tony LaRussa to retirement, were due to have a rebuilding year. But, thanks to a late-season surge as well as breakout seasons by Lance Lynn, Kyle Lohse and Jason Motte, the Cardinals exceeded expectations, advancing to the NLCS for the second consecutive season.

    But after losing Lohse and Lance Berkman to free agency and Chris Carpenter to injury (again), do the Cards have what it takes to repeat that unpredictable season?

    Key Departures: Kyle Lohse, RHP (FA, 16-3, 2.86, 143K); Lance Berkman, 1B (FA, .259-2-7); Skip Schumaker, Utl (Trade w/ LAD, .276-1-28)

    Key Newcomers: Ty Wigginton, IF (FA Phi., .235-11-43)

    Impact Player: Carlos Beltran, RF—Beltran enjoyed his second consecutive healthy season in 2012, following two consecutive injury-plagued seasons. But the question on every Cardinal fan’s mind is: At age 36, how long can Beltran stay healthy? While no one can fill the shoes of Albert Pujols, Beltran tried to do the best he could, leading the Cardinals in home runs (32), his highest total since 2007. Beltran is the key to the Cardinals’ success.

    Top Prospect: Oscar Taveras, OF—Although Taveras still has another year in the minors, he may be a September addition to St. Louis’ roster and may receive some playoff playing time. But right now, the 2012 Double-A Texas League batting champ is road blocked behind Beltran, Matt Holliday and John Jay.

     

    Projected Line-up:

    1. John Jay, CF (.305-4-40-19SB)
    2. Rafael Furcal, SS (.264-5-49-12)
    3. Carlos Beltran, RF (.269-32-97-13)
    4. Matt Holliday, LF (.295-27-102)
    5. Yadier Molina, C (.315-22-76-12)
    6. Allen Craig, 1B (.307-22-92)
    7. David Freese, 3B (.293-20-79)
    8. Ty Wigginton, 2B (.235-11-43)

    Projected Rotation:

    1. Lance Lynn, RHP (18-7, 3.78, 180K)
    2. Adam Wainwright, RHP (14-13, 3.94, 184)
    3. Jake Westbrook, RHP (13-11, 3.97, 106)
    4. Jaime Garcia, LHP (7-7, 3.92, 98)
    5. Joe Kelly, RHP (5-7, 3.53, 75)

    Closer: Jason Motte, RHP (42 SV, 2.75)

     

    The Good News: If Beltran, Holliday and Molina stay healthy, the Cards will be tough to beat.

    The Bad News: With the losses of Carpenter and Lohse, the starting rotation has been worn a little thin.

    The Reality: Each year, the Cardinals are a threat to win the World Series. Even though, on paper, it seems that the Cards have many holes to fill, they always find a way to come through. This year will be no different. Counted out by many, Mike Matheny’s Cardinals will find a way to win the National League Central in 2013, earning him National League Manager of the Year honors.

    Projection: 94-68, No. 1 NL Central