NL Central Preview: Full Forecast for Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates and Brewers

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2013

NL Central Preview: Full Forecast for Cubs, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates and Brewers

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    The National League Central got a bit of a makeover this offseason, as the Houston Astros moved to the American League West as part of a small bit of realignment. 

    Losing the Astros will actually help separate the wheat from the chaff in the division, because that franchise is in the early stages of a full-scale rebuilding job that basically made them a punching bag for everyone else. 

    The five remaining teams will miss those wins against the Astros, but it should make for a more compelling summer of baseball. 

    Last year, the Cincinnati Reds took control of the division for the second time in three years and actually had the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants on the ropes in the Division Series before blowing a 2-0 series lead. 

    The St. Louis Cardinals also had the Giants up against it in the National League Championship Series but weren't able to close things out in Game 6 or 7 and missed out on the opportunity to repeat as champions. 

    But those two teams are going to be right back in the playoff mix again this season, with the other three teams looking to take different steps in order to be where the Reds and Cardinals have been at the last few years. 

    Here is a look at what we expect from the National League Central in 2013, including what each teams needs to happen, things that could go wrong and projected final standings. 

Chicago Cubs

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    2012 Record

    61-101, Fifth place in National League Central


    What The Cubs Need To Happen in 2013

    After making a few moves in free agency this offseason, the Cubs are looking to keep their rebuilding effort on the right track. 

    The farm system is still the biggest area of emphasis for general manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein. The front office did a terrific job of adding high-ceiling impact talent to a depleted system in their first year.

    Now they have to see that players such as Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, et al., stay on the right course in the lower levels of the minors. There is a lot more talent in the system than just those three, but they are going to be the stars of the future that will bring a championship to Chicago. 

    In the big leagues, a priority is getting Matt Garza healthy and throwing well before the trade deadline to maximize whatever value he has on the market. He is expected to miss at least the first month of the regular season after straining a lat muscle in spring training. 

    Getting Alfonso Soriano off to a hot start and finding someone willing to take him off their hands, with the Cubs reportedly willing to eat a lot of the money left on his contract, would be a gift. 

    The rotation has a lot more depth this year than in 2012, though no one that really stands out. Edwin Jackson, who was signed to a four-year deal, is still a great enigma. He has an electric arm with a great fastball and the ability to miss bats, but his command and inconsistencies don't allow him to be more than a league-average starter. 

    Jeff Samardzija had a breakout season as a starter last year, posting a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings. He has the stuff to be a well above-average starting pitcher, but he needs to be more consistent with his command in the zone to reach that ceiling. 

    Even though the Cubs tried to trade Carlos Marmol, thanks to Dan Haren's faulty back, he will still be a factor in their bullpen. However, they don't need to use him closing games or in high-leverage situations. He is just as likely to strike out the side as he is to walk in three runs. 

    Instead, establishing Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa as the go-to late-inning reliever is the top priority for this team. He is 32 years old, so his window to succeed is not huge. But if he throws strikes, he is infinitely more valuable than Marmol. 

    Shortstop Starlin Castro remains the best player on the big league roster, though it would be nice to see him improve in certain aspects.

    He is never going to be a player who walks a lot, which is fine because his bat speed and plate coverage are so good. It would be nice to see him get a little more selective at the plate and wait on his pitch, just to get that on-base percentage in the .340-.350 range it was in 2011.

    Anthony Rizzo had a nice debut season for the Cubs last year. He needs to continue that this season, providing the pop in the middle of the order this team desperately needs if/when Soriano gets traded. 

    It would also be good to see the Cubs get something out of either Josh Vitters or Brett Jackson. Both players have been on the prospect radar for years, they are still young (Jackson is 24, Vitters 23) and it is too early to write them off completely. 

    But both Vitters and Jackson have huge holes in their game that they have never been able to fix in the minors, so the odds of that happening in the big leagues are slim. 


    What Could Go Wrong

    Since the Cubs are still in rebuild mode, they are at the mercy of a few players staying healthy and producing. 

    If Garza comes back and doesn't look good, especially since he becomes a free agent at the end of this year, anything the Cubs get back in a potential trade will pale in comparison to what it could have been if he were healthy and pitching up to his potential. 

    Same thing with Soriano, who had a solid season in 2012 with 32 home runs (but still just a .322 on-base percentage). If he plays like he did in 2011, when he had a .289 OBP, it won't matter how much money the Cubs eat. It also doesn't help matters that he has a full no-trade clause. 

    If Castro's inability to take a walk catches up to him, pitchers will be able to exploit holes in his swing and his average will dip even further, making his future looks a little blurry. 

    If Rizzo can't sustain the power production he put up in his half season last year, questions about his bat will creep up one more time. 

    And if Arodys Vizcaino, who was acquired last July in the deal that sent Paul Maholm to Atlanta, has a rocky comeback from Tommy John surgery and can't find the strike zone enough to help out in the big leagues, the bullpen will be significantly weakened.

    Bottom line: The Cubs aren't looking at wins and losses this season. No, 2013 is all about development and figuring out which players will represent the core of the team in the future when their window to contend opens once again. 

St. Louis Cardinals

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    2012 Record

    88-74, Second place in National League Central (Lost 4-3 to San Francisco in NLCS)


    What The Cardinals Need To Happen In 2013

    When the Cardinals lost Albert Pujols last offseason, everyone assumed they would fall off the face of the earth. They failed to realize that the front office and development staff have built up the deepest collection of talent in all of baseball. 

    The Cardinals will have to dip into that farm system in 2013. They started doing it late last season, giving Shelby Miller a late-season audition and using Trevor Rosenthal effectively out of the bullpen in the postseason. 

    One thing this team has a lot of is hard-throwing right-handed pitching ready to contribute in the big leagues,  or very close to it.

    But whenever teams bet on young players, there is always a huge risk. You never know how they are going to handle their first real taste of the big leagues. September call-ups who have success don't mean anything, because the rosters are often so diluted with roster expansion. 

    We know Chris Carpenter will be out for the season, so the Cardinals are banking on Miller, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn to fill the void. Rosenthal will remain in the bullpen, though he has what it takes to start and be very good. 

    Adam Wainwright shined in the second half of 2012 after coming off Tommy John surgery the previous year. He had a 3.28 ERA after the All-Star break with 86 strikeouts in 96 innings. His return to form made it easier for the Cardinals to let Kyle Lohse (who is still looking for a job) leave.

    All of the concerns for this team revolve around the pitching, because the lineup is the best in the National League. Even with Rafael Furcal out for the season, leaving a hole at shortstop that Pete Kozma can't fill over 162 games, they will have no problem scoring runs. 

    What's scary for opponents is that the Cardinals have so much depth in the big leagues that they can afford to leave Oscar Taveras, the best pure hitter in the minors, in Triple-A all season if they want. 

    Keep an eye on Carlos Beltran, though. He slumped badly in the second half last year, hitting just .236/.302/.440 in 250 at-bats. If he can't find his form, don't be shocked if the Cardinals figure out a way to get Taveras up sooner than expected. 


    What Could Go Wrong

    Even though Wainwright appeared to return to form late last season, his command in the zone still isn't where it was before he underwent surgery two years ago. Combine that with the reliance on young arms in the rotation, and the Cardinals could struggle to get outs. 

    It's not a huge concern because the Cardinals have pitching depth, allowing them to pick and choose their spots, but it is worth watching early in the season. 

    Beltran is being paid to be a big bat in the middle of the lineup. Even though there is so much depth in the lineup, not to mention Taveras waiting in the wings, he still has to be a difference maker for the offense. 

    Speaking of Taveras, there is so much hype around him right now. He is just 20 years old, so to expect him to take the world by storm if/when he gets called up is too much. 

    Even though the Reds made all the big moves in the offseason, there is a real case to be made that the Cardinals are the best team in the division. They have more depth than anyone else and should be fighting for another World Series. 

Cincinnati Reds

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    2012 Record

    97-65, First place in National League Central (Lost 3-2 to Giants in NLDS)


    What The Reds Need To Happen In 2013

    Everything for the Reds this season starts with Aroldis Chapman. The team made the (wise) decision to move the hard-throwing lefty out of the bullpen and into the rotation to maximize his value. 

    That move could also address the huge hole the Reds have had in their rotation in the postseason. This is a team that has starting pitching depth, but lacks that true No. 1 starter who can shut down a lineup. 

    We don't know if Chapman will be that pitcher, but we know he has a plus-plus fastball, plus slider and deception in his delivery because he is so lanky. If he can develop even an average changeup and his command holds up as a starter, he has No. 1 starter potential. 

    Mat Latos has good stuff, but he is also a fly-ball pitcher in one of the smallest ballparks in baseball. He will probably be exactly what he was last year—an above-average starter who gives you a lot of innings and can dominate from time to time. 

    Homer Bailey has been on the radar of this team a long time and finally started to realize some of his promise in 2012. He could have some upside left after setting career highs in innings (208), starts (33), strikeouts (168) and WHIP (1.24). 

    If Bailey can progress even a little bit to give the Reds a quality No. 2 starter after Chapman and ahead of Latos, they could be very dangerous. 

    Even though we think of the Reds as more of an offensive team, they finished just 21st in runs scored last season. A lot of that can be attributed to losing Joey Votto, who finished the season hitting .337/.474/.567 in 51 games.

    It also hurt the team that their leadoff hitters had a .254 on-base percentage. Both problems will be fixed when this season starts, as Votto is back to full strength and Shin-Soo Choo, who had a .373 on-base percentage with Cleveland last year, will lead off. 

    Keep an eye on the center field situation, as well. Choo is going to start the season there, but he was a bad defensive right fielder in Cleveland and has only played 10 games in center in his career. 

    Jay Bruce is a better defensive player overall, though he also plays right field. He has the arm and athleticism to at least be serviceable in center. That would make the most sense for the Reds, and Bruce has said that he is willing to play center if the team needs it. 

    Teams can mix and match relief pitchers in the back of the bullpen, so the last thing I am worried about with the Reds is who will close games if/when Jonathan Broxton fails. 


    What Could Go Wrong

    If Chapman's transition to the rotation doesn't work, it's actually not that bad. The Reds can just put him back in the bullpen, where they know he will dominate. 

    However, that does leave the Reds in the same situation they have been in with their starting pitching. They need to find someone who can lead the rotation and shut down a lineup in a big spot. 

    After Chapman, Latos and Bailey have the best raw stuff on the team. But you have to wonder how much better they can be, especially as flyball pitchers in a hitter's park. 

    Todd Frazier looked like the National League Rookie of the Year for most of 2012, but he was dreadful in September. He hit .181/.241/.264 in 72 at-bats. Things got so bad that Dusty Baker had to sit him a lot. 

    Perhaps that was just a case of a rookie wearing down during the daily grind of a long season. It is certainly hard to imagine Frazier being that bad again. But will he be the player whose average, on-base and slugging percentages increased from May to August?

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2012 Record

    79-83, Fourth place in National League Central


    What The Pirates Need To Happen In 2013

    Even though they keep teasing their fans, the Pirates still aren't quite ready to break the magical .500 mark. Of course, that really doesn't matter because .500 still doesn't get you into the playoffs, so who cares if they finish 80-82 or 81-81?

    No, this is a franchise that finally has rays of hope and they are coming very soon. Andrew McCutchen is the best hitter in the lineup, and it isn't particularly close. He had a breakout season in 2012, with a .321/.400/.553 line, 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. 

    The Pirates need to find another hitter soon. Starling Marte has good tools, but is too impatient to get on base at a rate that warrants playing every day. Pedro Alvarez can crush right-handed pitching, but curls up into the fetal position when he sees a lefty. 

    Neil Walker is a solid hitter who can get on base and provide some pop. Other than McCutchen and Walker, there was not one everyday player for the Pirates last year who had an on-base percentage better than .329. 

    All of that is to say McCutchen has to be an MVP candidate again, which he can be, and hope a few players luck into career years to allow this team to score enough runs. 

    The pitching is decent, with A.J. Burnett loving the lineups in the National League much better than the American League and James McDonald having a great first half before imploding after the All-Star break. 

    Wandy Rodriguez is a solid innings-eater but isn't going to give you much more than that, even in the National League. 

    Where the hope comes is in the farm system, where pitcher Gerrit Cole should be ready to debut some time this season and become the best pitcher in the rotation the day he steps on the mound. 

    Jameon Taillon could be right behind Cole, giving the Pirates two pitchers with top-of-the-rotation stuff heading into 2014. 

    While 2014 could be the start of the upswing, it will likely be 2015 when it all comes together. That is when we could see pitcher Luis Heredia, shortstop Alen Hanson and outfielder Gregory Polanco arrive. 

    Losing is not fun, but hope is on the horizon. 


    What Could Go Wrong

    Since the Pirates are banking a lot on the rise of prospects such as Cole, Taillon, Polanco, Hanson and Heredia, it is best to keep expectations realistic. 

    The odds of all those players turning into everyday players, let alone hitting their respective ceilings, is slim. Watch to see how the development goes for each of them this year, especially Polanco and Hanson, as they make their way to the higher levels and could see some holes in their game exposed. 

    Because the lineup in Pittsburgh right now is so dependent on McCutchen, he has to be great every single night. We know he has the talent to do so, though his spike in power last season was a bit of a surprise.

    He has always had power, it just didn't seem like it was as much as he showed last year. If he can't sustain that in 2013, this team is going struggle even more than it did last season to score runs. 

    You may be tired of hearing it, Pittsburgh, but don't sell the future short. It just isn't going to happen in 2013. 

Milwaukee Brewers

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    2012 Record

    83-79, Third place in National League Central


    What The Brewers Need To Happen In 2013

    The Brewers have one way to win games in 2013: Score a lot of runs. That might not be a problem, as the offense is strong, led by Ryan Braun, as they finished third in baseball in that category last season. 

    Where the issue comes is on the mound. Yovani Gallardo has the talent and stuff to be dominant, yet has never been able to put it all together to do so. After him, it is a veritable wasteland of arms, with the exception of Wily Peralta, who should be a good No. 3 in the future. 

    But when you are a team that builds an entire team around its offense, one potentially great pitcher with command issues, a rookie and a lot of spare parts, things don't sound very promising. 

    And even the offense has holes that could lead to a drop in production. Aramis Ramirez had one of his best seasons in the big leagues at the age of 34, hitting .300/.360/.540 with 27 home runs and 115 RBI. If he stays healthy, as he has the last two years, he can be that productive again. 

    Unfortunately, Ramirez has never been the picture of health. Betting on him to be on the field for an entire season again is a risky proposition. 

    Rickie Weeks is so much fun to watch in a batting cage, because he has some of quickest wrists you will ever see. He has just battled injuries and inconsistent play for so long, you can't predict what you will get from him. 

    Norichika Aoki had a solid rookie season with a .355 on-base percentage, but at 31 years old, how long will he hold his value in the big leagues?

    There are so many questions facing this team, even on offense. But you shouldn't worry about them scoring runs. How they prevent them is another story. They need at least one other starting pitcher to step up and give Gallardo some support. 


    What Could Go Wrong

    The Brewers could fall apart in 2013 if they lose Gallardo for any length of time. There is no pitching depth at all, not even in the farm system. 

    Making sure that Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez stay in the middle of that lineup for 145 games will give them a shot to lead the National League in runs scored. If either of them gets hurt, that story takes an ugly turn. 

    It is hard to see the Brewers approaching .500 again with so many questions facing their pitching staff. They need to find a way to address that, either in the draft or free agency, if they want to contend in the next few years. 

Final Projected Standings

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    St. Louis Cardinals 92-70
    Cincinnati Reds 90-72
    Pittsburgh Pirates 79-83
    Milwaukee Brewers 76-86
    Chicago Cubs 74-88

    The Cardinals and Reds are clearly the class of the division, with a small margin separating the two of them heading into 2013. Ultimately, the depth that the Cardinals possess, both in the big leagues and at the high levels of the minors, gives them a slight edge. 

    Have no fear, Reds fans, as the team's 90-72 mark will be good enough to secure one of the two Wild Card spots in the National League.

    The pendulum could swing in the Reds' favor if Aroldis Chapman makes a successful transition to the rotation. It is the right move to try him out in that role, and I think he can be very good. But the Reds could put the dreaded innings limit on him late in the year. 

    The Pirates, Brewers and Cubs don't have a lot separating them right now. The Brewers have the most talent right now, but they don't have enough pitching to stay in the race. Their offense has to be off-the-charts good to keep them afloat. 

    Even though the Pirates won't break .500 this season, they are headed in the right direction. It would not be a surprise to see Gerrit Cole debut in the second half of the season. More help is coming from the farm system, but it will take another year or two before they are challenging for a playoff spot. 

    The Cubs are clearly headed in the right direction, but they are not built to win right now. It will be fun to see how their young players develop, particularly Arodys Vizcaino when he eventually makes his way to Chicago this year.