2013 MLB Predictions: National League Central Preview
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The National League Central is home to some of the most passionate fans in Major League Baseball, and the action on the diamond does not disappoint.
The division has pumped out several World Series contenders over the past decade, with no end in sight heading into 2013.
The Cincinnati Reds are the defending champions, but they still feel the sting of blowing a 2-0 lead to the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants in the National League Divisional Series.
While the Reds won the division, the St. Louis Cardinals have been the class of the division, with a World Series championship in 2011 and an appearance in the National League Championship Series a year ago.
What's also great about the division is that they have two up-and-coming teams, with the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates showcasing some great young talent.
Then the Chicago Cubs have some great...um...tradition? But they also possess some young studs worth keeping an eye on.
The NL Central will be another great race this season, and here is how it will play out.
5) Chicago Cubs
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2012 Record: 61-101 (5th in NL Central)
Key Additions (Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus): RHP Scott Baker, C Dioner Navarro, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Cory Wade, RF Nate Schierholtz, LHP Edwin Jackson, IF Brent Lillibridge, RHP Carlos Villanueva, LF Scott Hairston
Key Departures: 1B Bryan LaHair, OF Tony Campana,
The Chicago Cubs are going to miss the departing Houston Astros, who headed to the American League. because it means that they'll finish in last place in the National League Central.
However, the Cubs are beginning to establish their organization with several promising prospects.
At the major league level, the one that will have the biggest impact is first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Rizzo destroyed Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season and slugged his way on to the major league roster.
The 23-year-old hit .285 with 15 home runs and 48 runs batted in over 87 games and will need to take another step forward in 2013.
The other prospect creating buzz is Jorge Soler.
Soler, who was ranked 34th in Baseball America's top 100 prospect list, has been creating plenty of buzz with his majestic power and ability that can be described as all-around awesomeness.
He'll begin the season at the lower levels of the system, but he'll have Cubs fans (and his major league teammates) eager for his arrival.
Alas, it will be a while before that promise translates to the win column.
Theo Epstein's first couple of years with the North Siders have been rough at the major league level, but he's building something in the lower levels of the Cubs system, as The Curse of the Billy Goat will hit the 105th season.
4) Milwaukee Brewers
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2012 Record: 83-79 (3rd in NL Central)
Key Additions (Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus): RHP Burke Badenhop, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP Michael Gonzalez
Key Departures: RHP Kameron Loe, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, RHP Shaun Marcum, LHP Manny Parra
Outlook: The Milwaukee Brewers had a brilliant second half last season, but they came up just short in their quest for a playoff spot. The question now is whether that will translate into a successful 2013.
The Brewers have several good things going for them.
Despite what people may think of Ryan Braun's alleged performance-enhancing drugs use, the fact remains that he has never been officially busted and these claims are allegations.
While more things come out of the woodwork, Braun will continue hitting third and being the best player in the National League and, possibly, all of baseball.
That will be a big help for the Brewers lineup, who will need to pick up where they left off in a September that saw them go 18-10.
The obstacle in that is the slew of young players that helped them achieve it.
Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers all shined in the second half, but the downside to playing young players is that they can have consistency issues.
If the Brewers play like they did in the second half of 2012, they have a shot to win the division. If the young players stumble, the beer will be the main attraction at Miller Park this summer.
3) Pittsburgh Pirates
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2012 Record: 79-83 (4th in NL Central)
Key Additions (Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus): OF Felix Pie, C Russell Martin, RHP Jonathan Sanchez, LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Jose Contreras, SS John McDonald
Key Departures: C Rod Barajas, RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Kevin Correia
Outlook: Will this be the year the Pittsburgh Pirates end "The Streak?"
The streak, of course, refers to 20 straight losing seasons for the Pirates, dating back to a seven-game loss to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 National League Championship Series.
During that time, Pittsburgh lost 90 or more games nine times, including seven straight heading into the 2012 season.
Yet, 2012 was the first time the Pirates showed the ability to end the streak, thanks to the star power of outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen hit .327 with 31 home runs, 96 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 32 attempts last season, and will be the vital cog for the Pirates to finally have a winning season.
For the first time in a while, he may have some help.
The Pirates have several prospects that are on the verge of helping the major league club, including former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, who pitched well against the United States in the World Baseball Classic.
Both will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, but they provide hope that the Pirates can have a winning season and make a run for their first playoff appearance since the streak began.
2) St. Louis Cardinals
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2012 Record: 88-74 (2nd in NL Central, Lost in seven games to San Francisco Giants in the NLCS)
Key Acquisitions (Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus): LHP Randy Choate, 1B Ty Wigginton, C J.R. Towles
Key Departures: RHP Kyle Lohse, 1B Lance Berkman, LHP Brian Fuentes
Outlook: The St. Louis Cardinals are something that is pulled out of a bad horror movie. Every time you think you've killed them off, they keep coming at you.
That was true last season when they took advantage of the second wild card spot and defeated the Atlanta Braves, before being pushed to the limit by the Washington Nationals.
Despite facing a seven-run deficit in Game 5, the Cardinals were able to advance and push the Giants to the brink, before finally falling in seven games.
So you'll have to excuse me if I don't think that Rafael Furcal's ligament replacement surgery is a death blow for the Cardinals.
Pete Kozma did a solid job in replacing Furcal in the lineup late last year by hitting .333 with a pair of home runs and 14 runs batted in over 26 games down the stretch, and the former first-round pick should be able to do the same in 2013.
Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly will be back-of-the-rotation (and in Rosenthal's case the bullpen) names, but they'll have a top flight impact for a team that just keeps coming.
The rest of the division knows this, and will bring everything they have at the Cardinals. But like I said, the Cardinals will just keep coming.
1) Cincinnati Reds
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2012 Season: 97-65 (1st in NL Central, Lost in five games to the San Francisco Giants in NLDS)
Key Additions (Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus): OF Shin Soo-Choo, SS Cesar Izturis, 3B Jack Hannahan, C Miguel Olivo, LHP Manny Parra, RHP Clay Hensley
Key Departures: 3B Scott Rolen, RHP Ryan Madson, LHP Bill Bray, OF Drew Stubbs
Outlook: For much of the 2012 season, it looked like the Reds were on a collision course with the Washington Nationals for the right to go to the World Series.
Of course, neither team made it to the National League Championship Series last October, as both teams suffered excruciating National League Divisional Series failures.
After blowing a 2-0 lead to the San Francisco Giants last October, the Reds still had a lot of potential to get back to that spot, heading into the offseason with a majority of the roster intact.
Then the Reds acquired Shin Soo-Choo from the Cleveland Indians.
Choo represents a quality hitter to place at the top of the lineup while knocking Brandon Phillips down. He is money in the bank when it comes to a 20/20 season, and will get on base enough to allow the rest of the big bats to improve a lineup that was 21st in the majors in runs scored per game.
By the way, the key word in that last paragraph is "improve."
That's because the Reds will improve in many ways coming into the 2013 season.
Aside from the addition of Choo, the Reds may have Joey Votto for a full season after he was limited to 111 games with a knee injury. According to Baseball Prospectus, it was the second time that he's seen the disabled list in his six year career, so a return to form is a given.
Young bats Zack Cozart and Todd Frasier will also see their numbers improve this summer.
Frasier will become the new starting third baseman after the departure of Scott Rolen, after putting up solid numbers while filling in for Votto at first base a season ago.
Meanwhile Cozart will have his second full season after hitting .246 with 15 home runs last summer. He is 27, but another year in the majors can lead to improvement.
The Reds also have pitching to match their offense, as Mat Latos and Jonny Cueto lead a rotation that, according to ESPN, had the 5th best earned run average in the majors.
That's not even mentioning that fireballer Aroldis Chapman is returning to the bullpen (according to Hardball Talk) and will supplant Jonathan Broxton (despite his three-year, $21 million deal he signed over the winter) as the team's closer by mid-season.
All of this means that the Reds will have the opportunity to avenge last season's choke come this October.