Full 2013 NL Central Piece-by-Piece Preview, Predictions

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2013

Full 2013 NL Central Piece-by-Piece Preview, Predictions

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    Last season, the Reds ran away with the NL Central title, winning 97 games and finishing with a nine-game lead over the second place Cardinals.

    However, those Cardinals managed to put together another late-season surge to sneak into the postseason as the second wild card with 88 wins.

    A Brewers team that boasted the top offense in the National League made a late-season push as well but came up just short due in large part to the worst bullpen in all of baseball.

    Meanwhile, the Pirates again contended through the first half only to fall apart down the stretch as their streak of seasons without a winning record now stands at 20.

    At the bottom, the Cubs battled with the Astros to avoid last place, losing 101 games in the process as they continue their rebuilding process.

    So that's how the NL Central played out in 2012; what follows is an in-depth look at the division for the upcoming season.

    * All stats via Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Starting Rotations

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    Chicago Cubs

    1. RHP Jeff Samardzija
    2. RHP Edwin Jackson
    3. RHP Scott Feldman
    4. LHP Travis Wood
    5. RHP Carlos Villanueva

    The Cubs' main focus this offseason was starting pitching, as they signed four guys who are expected to see time in the rotation this year. The big signing was Edwin Jackson, who inked a four-year, $52 million deal and he'll bring a durable veteran presence to the middle of the staff.

    Taking the ball on Opening Day will be Jeff Samardzija, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2012 which was his first full year in the majors. Another step forward could make him the long-term ace of the staff.

    Matt Garza and Scott Baker will both open the season on the DL, as newcomers Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva join Travis Wood in the Opening Day rotation. Wood could factor into the team's long-term plans with a strong season, but other than the rest are simply stopgap options.

    Cincinnati Reds

    1. RHP Johnny Cueto
    2. RHP Mat Latos
    3. RHP Bronson Arroyo
    4. RHP Homer Bailey
    5. RHP Mike Leake

    Finally healthy, Johnny Cueto emerged as one of the league's top pitchers last season, going 19-9 with a 2.78 ERA to finish fourth in NL Cy Young voting.

    The team gave up a ton to acquire Mat Latos from the Padres last offseason, but he proved to be worth every penny with a 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA and giving the team the second frontline starter they needed.

    Homer Bailey also enjoyed a breakout season of sorts, going 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA. The veteran Bronson Arroyo was his usual solid, innings-eating self, and Mike Leake has proven to be a more than capable starter during his short big league career. 

    Milwaukee Brewers

    1. RHP Yovani Gallardo
    2. RHP Kyle Lohse
    3. RHP Marco Estrada
    4. LHP Chris Narveson
    5. RHP Michael Fiers 

    Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf are all gone from last season's Opening Day rotation, and in their place the Brewers have a talented, albeit inexperienced, staff.

    Yovani Gallardo remains one of the NL's top arms and gives the team a true ace, while recent signing Kyle Lohse gives them a second proven frontline arm.

    Journeyman Marco Estrada took over for fellow rotation mate Chris Narveson when he went down with an injury and went 5-7 with a 3.76 ERA in 23 starts. Narveson is back healthy, while Michael Fiers will look to build off of his solid rookie performance (9-10, 3.74 ERA).

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    1. RHP A.J. Burnett
    2. LHP Wandy Rodriguez
    3. RHP James McDonald
    4. LHP Jeff Locke
    5. LHP Jonathan Sanchez

    The Pirates open the season with Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton all on the shelf, so their rotation could look very different a few months into the season.

    Either way, A.J. Burnett will be the ace of the staff after going 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in a bounce back season. He's joined at the top of the rotation by Wandy Rodriguez, who was acquired at the deadline last year and gives the team another veteran.

    It was a tale of two halves for James McDonald, as he was an All-Star snub in the first half (9-3, 2.37 ERA) and one of the worst pitchers in baseball in the second half (3-5, 7.52 ERA). Prospect Jeff Locke and non-roster invitee Jonathan Sanchez fill out the staff for the time being.

    St. Louis Cardinals

    1. RHP Adam Wainwright
    2. LHP Jaime Garcia
    3. RHP Jake Westbrook
    4. RHP Lance Lynn
    5. RHP Shelby Miller 

    Few teams could overcome the loss of two pitchers the caliber of Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter, but if any team can do it's the Cardinals.

    A full season removed from Tommy John surgery, Adam Wainwright should be back to his ace form in 2013, and he'll be counted on more than ever. Solid veterans Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook return as well.

    Lance Lynn won 18 games and made the All-Star team last year before winding up in the bullpen down the stretch, and he'll be back in the rotation. The final spot goes to top prospect Shelby Miller, who has the ceiling to be a future staff ace and is an NL Rookie of the Year front-runner.

    Ranking The Starting Rotations

    1. Cincinnati
    2. St. Louis
    3. Milwaukee
    4. Chicago
    5. Pittsburgh 


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    Chicago Cubs

    MR Hector Rondon (R)
    MR Hisanori Takahashi (L)
    MR Michael Bowden (R)
    MR Shawn Camp (R)
    SU James Russell (L)
    SU Kyuji Fujikawa (R)
    CL Carlos Marmol (R)

    The Cubs will once again endure the roller coaster ride that is Carlos Marmol in the ninth inning, as he enters the final year of his contract.

    The team signed his potential replacement in Kyuji Fujikawa, who racked up 220 saves during his time with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. The 32-year-old signed a two-year, $9.5 million deal with an option for 2015.

    Reliable arms James Russell and Shawn Camp are back, as is Michael Bowden who may be ready to step into a bigger role after a solid 2012 campaign. Rule V pick Hector Rondon and non-roster invitee Hisanori Takahashi round out what should be an improved bullpen. 

    Cincinnati Reds

    LR Sam LeCure (R)
    MR J.J. Hoover (R)
    MR Manny Parra (L)
    MR Jose Arredondo (R)
    SU Sean Marshall (L)
    SU Jonathan Broxton (R)
    CL Aroldis Chapman (L)

    The Reds had the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball last season at 2.65, and they return essentially the same group that posted that impressive number.

    After originally planning to move to the rotation, Aroldis Chapman will instead return to the ninth-inning role where he saved 38 games with a 1.51 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings. That move pushes Jonathan Broxton to the setup role after he was originally re-signed to close.

    Sean Marshall is arguably the best left-handed setup man in the game, and the addition of Manny Parra gives them another southpaw option. Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Jose Arredondo make up the rest of what should once again be a dominant group.

    Milwaukee Brewers

    LR Alfredo Figaro (R)
    MR Tom Gorzelanny (L)
    MR Burke Badenhop (R)
    MR Mike Gonzalez (L)
    SU Brandon Kintzler (R)
    SU Jim Henderson (R)
    CL John Axford (R)

    On the other hand, the Brewers had the worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 4.66, and it likely cost them a postseason berth.

    Closer John Axford struggled after taking home Rolaids Relief Man honors in 2011, and he'll be looking to get back in track in the ninth-inning role.

    Tom Gorzelanny, Mike Gonzalez and Burke Badenhop were all added to improve the bullpen, while setup men Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler will look to build off of last season's  success. Dominican Alfredo Figaro appears to have won a spot as well after pitching the past two seasons in Japan following a strong spring.

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    LR Jeanmar Gomez (R)
    MR Chris Leroux (R)
    MR Justin Wilson (L)
    MR Jared Hughes (R)
    SU Tony Watson (L)
    SU Mark Melancon (R)
    CL Jason Grilli (R)

    After trading All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, the Pirates will turn closer duties over to Jason Grilli. The 36-year-old had a 2.91 ERA and 13.8 K/9 over 64 games last season.

    Jared Hughes (2.85 ERA, 66 G) and Tony Watson (3.38 ERA, 68 G) were both reliable arms last season as well, while Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez both have a decent amount of big league experience.

    Two guys to watch are Mark Melancon, who came over from Boston in the Hanrahan deal, and Justin Wilson. Melancon is next in line to close if Grilli falters, and Wilson is one of the team's top prospects.

    St. Louis Cardinals

    LR Joe Kelly (R)
    MR Randy Choate (L) 
    MR Fernando Salas (R)
    MR Marc Rzepczynski (L) 
    SU Edward Mujica (R)
    SU Trevor Rosenthal (R)
    CL Mitchell Boggs (R)

    Someone from the above group will get the boot once closer Jason Motte returns from an elbow strain, and Mitchell Boggs will return to the setup role where he's thrived the past few seasons.

    Trevor Rosenthal was in the running for the No. 5 starter spot, as was Joe Kelly, but he may be more valuable at this point as a setup man who can dial it up to triple-digits. 

    Randy Choate was signed to give the team another lefty option alongside Marc Rzepczynski, while deadline acquisition Edward Mujica will return to a late-inning role as well. Former closer Fernando Salas rounds out the staff, and will likely be the odd man out when Motte returns.

    Ranking The Bullpens

    1. Cincinnati
    2. St. Louis
    3. Pittsburgh
    4. Chicago
    5. Milwaukee 


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    Chicago Cubs

    C Welington Castillo
    1B Anthony Rizzo
    2B Darwin Barney
    SS Starlin Castro
    3B Luis Valbuena

    All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is the face of the rebuilding Cubs team, and a seven-year, $60 million extension will keep him in Chicago through 2019.

    He is joined by first baseman Anthony Rizzo as the cornerstones of the team's rebuilding efforts, and after hitting .285 with 15 home runs in 337 at-bats, Rizzo should put up big numbers in his first full big league season.

    Darwin Barney provides little offensively, but he took home Gold Glove honors at second base last season, while a platoon of Luis Valbuena and Ian Stewart will once again make Cubs fans miss Aramis Ramirez at third base. Catcher Welington Castillo has a chance to lock down what could otherwise be a problem position for the organization in his first extended look.

    Cincinnati Reds

    C Ryan Hanigan
    1B Joey Votto
    2B Brandon Phillips
    SS Zack Cozart
    3B Todd Frazier

    The Reds will once again have a right side of the infield that rivals any in baseball, with perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips ranking among the best players in the NL at their respective positions.

    Veteran Ryan Hanigan will once again be the starting catcher, while top prospect Devin Mesoraco will have the opportunity to play his way into more at-bats.

    Zack Cozart will look to build off of a somewhat disappointing rookie season, and he'll benefit from hitting down in the lineup this year. Todd Frazier was a revelation last season with an .829 OPS and 19 home runs in 422 at-bats, and he now has an everyday position to call his own.

    Milwaukee Brewers

    C Jonathan Lucroy
    1B Alex Gonzalez
    2B Rickie Weeks
    SS Jean Segura
    3B Aramis Ramirez

    With Corey Hart on the shelf to open the season following knee surgery and Mat Gamel going down with a torn ACL for the second straight spring, veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez will be the starting first baseman to kick off the season.

    Aramis Ramirez did an admirable job replacing Prince Fielder in the lineup last year, hitting 27 home runs with 105 RBI, and he'll once again be counted on as a major run producer. Jonathan Lucroy will step into the No. 5 spot in the order with Hart down after hitting .320 with 12 home runs last season.

    Rickie Weeks continues to be frustratingly inconsistent, but he still has the tools to be a 20/20 guy with potential for more. His double play partner will be former Angels top prospect Jean Segura, who was acquired in the Zack Greinke deal last July.

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    C Russell Martin
    1B Garrett Jones
    2B Neil Walker
    SS Clint Barmes
    3B Pedro Alvarez

    After enduring a season of Rod Barajas as their everyday catcher, the Pirates signed Russell Martin away from the Yankees with a two-year, $17 million deal. He'll provide power and veteran leadership for the staff.

    Pedro Alvarez (30 HR, 85 RBI) and Garrett Jones (27 HR, 86 RBI) both turned in solid second halves as they provided some protection for Andrew McCutchen in the lineup.

    Neil Walker was limited to just 120 games last season but still managed to hit .280 with 14 home runs, as he has quietly become one of the better offensive second baseman in the league. On the other hand, shortstop Clint Barmes provides little-to-nothing offensively but may be the best defensive shortstop in the National League.

    St. Louis Cardinals

    C Yadier Molina
    1B Allen Craig
    2B Matt Carpenter
    SS Pete Kozma
    3B David Freese

    The Cardinals will once again be led by the best all-around catcher in the game in Yadier Molina, who is fresh off the best season of his career when he hit .315 with 22 home runs and 12 steals while capturing his fifth straight Gold Glove.

    On the corners, the Cardinals have a pair of budding stars in Allen Craig and David Freese. Craig in particular could be in for a huge season, after he hit 22 home runs and had 92 RBI in just 469 at-bats last season.

    Up the middle, Pete Kozma takes over at shortstop after Rafael Furcal was lost for the season, and he'll look to build off of a strong late-season showing. Matt Carpenter will attempt to transition to second base as a way to get his bat in the lineup, with Daniel Descalso around to back them both up.

    Ranking The Catchers/Infields

    1. Cincinnati
    2. St. Louis
    3. Pittsburgh
    4. Milwaukee (jump to 3rd when Hart returns)
    5. Chicago


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    Chicago Cubs

    LF Alfonso Soriano
    CF David DeJesus
    RF Nate Schierholtz/Scott Hairston

    After three straight disappointing years, Alfonso Soriano turned in his best season as a Cub last year when he hit 32 home runs and drove in 108. He has two years and $36 million left on his contract, and the Cubs will continue to try to find a taker on the trade market.

    David DeJesus was the closest thing to a true leadoff hitter the Cubs have had in years last season, scoring 76 runs and posting a .350 OBP. He shifts over to center field after playing right most of last season.

    In right field the team will platoon a pair of free agent signings in Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston. Schierholtz has good on-base skills and moderate power, while Hairston crushes left-handed pitching and hit a career-high 20 home runs last season.

    Cincinnati Reds

    LF Ryan Ludwick
    CF Shin-Soo Choo
    RF Jay Bruce

    In desperate need of a center fielder/leadoff hitter, the Reds found their man when they acquired Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians. He's played right field most of his career, but he should be able to make the transition and there is no question his career .381 on-base percentage will play atop the lineup.

    Jay Bruce has quickly emerged as one of the top home run hitters in the National League, launching a career-high 34 long balls last season and driving in 99 runs. The 26-year-old still has some room to improve coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances.

    Ryan Ludwick signed a one-year, $2 million deal to join the Reds last offseason and earned himself a two-year, $15 million extension by hitting .275 with 26 home runs and 80 RBI. 

    Milwaukee Brewers

    LF Ryan Braun
    CF Carlos Gomez
    RF Norichika Aoki

    Through all of the PED controversy, Ryan Braun has remained perhaps the most dynamic offensive player in the game today. He led the NL with 41 home runs last season while hitting .319 and stealing 30 bases for his second straight 30/30 season.

    Carlos Gomez finally turned some of his tremendous potential into production last season, hitting 19 home runs and stealing 37 bases while posting a 3.5 WAR (h/t FanGraphs). The Brewers rewarded his breakout season with a three-year, $24 million extension.

    In right field, Norichika Aoki will have an everyday job after entering camp last year as the fourth outfielder. Signed to a two-year, $2.5 million deal out of Japan, Aoki hit .288 with 10 home runs and 30 steals as a rookie to finish fifth in ROY voting.

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    LF Starling Marte
    CF Andrew McCutchen
    RF Travis Snider

    Andrew McCutchen is one of the brightest young stars in the game today, and he single-handedly carried the Pirates offense through the first half of last season. He should settle in as a perennial 30/30 threat who hits over .300.

    Starling Marte showed enough in a 47-game audition last season that he'll open the season as the starting left fielder and leadoff hitter over Jose Tabata. He hit .303/.361/.462 over six minor league seasons and should develop into a solid table-setter.

    Acquired from the Blue Jays at the deadline, former top prospect Travis Snider will be looking to get his once-promising career back on track. He's still only 25, and after hitting .325/.409/.567 in Triple-A last year he has little left to prove in the minors.

    St. Louis Cardinals

    LF Matt Holliday
    CF Jon Jay
    RF Carlos Beltran

    For as often as a $100 million contract backfires on a team, the seven-year, $120 million deal the Cardinals signed Matt Holliday to back in 2010 has been nothing but positive thus far. He's battled injuries off and on but played 157 games last season and hit 27 home runs with 102 RBI.

    Carlos Beltran was phenomenal in the first half last season, hitting .296 with 20 home runs and 65 RBI, but he fell off to .252 BA, 12 HR, 43 RBI in the second half. The 35-year-old is no doubt on the decline, but he may get a boost from playing in a contract year.

    Jon Jay rounds out the outfield, and he remains the closest thing the Cardinals have to a leadoff hitter. He hit .305/.373/.400 last season with 19 steals and he'll continue to do a little bit of everything for St. Louis. 

    Ranking The Outfields 

    1. Cincinnati
    2. St. Louis
    3. Milwaukee 
    4. Pittsburgh
    5. Chicago 

Top MLB-Ready Prospects

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    Chicago Cubs: CF Brett Jackson

    A first-round pick in 2009, Jackson has shown a great mix of power and speed throughout his minor league career, but strikeouts remain an issue. 

    After striking out 158 times in 407 at-bats in Triple-A, he whiffed a whopping 59 times in 120 at-bats in Chicago. He's tweaked his swing this offseason, and he hit .313/.458/.625 this spring. With David DeJesus set to hit free agency at season's end and a possible trade candidate, the center field job is Jackson's as soon as he proves ready.

    Cincinnati Reds: SP Tony Cingrani

    I'm of the opinion that speedster Billy Hamilton still needs another season in the minors before the Reds consider calling him up, so my choice here is 2012 breakout prospect Tony Cingrani.

    The left-hander went 10-4 with a 1.73 ERA and 10.6 K/9 between High Single-A and Double-A before earning a call-up to the Reds' bullpen for three appearances. There's no room in the rotation right now, but if someone goes down with an injury, he's likely first in line to fill in.

    Milwaukee Brewers: SP Wily Peralta

    Despite a subpar season in Triple-A (7-11, 4.66 ERA), Peralta earned a call-up to Milwaukee last season, and he went 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA in six games (five starts).

    With the Brewers recent signing of Kyle Lohse, he'll likely open the season in the minors once again, but the 23-year-old is ready to make an impact at the big league level.

    Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Gerrit Cole

    The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Cole began his first pro season last year in High Single-A and finished it in Triple-A. All told, he went a combined 9-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 132 innings of work.

    He allowed just eight hits and four runs in 10 innings of work this spring, and it's likely the 22-year-old will join the Pirates' staff at some point in 2013. He has all the makings of a future ace, and he'll team with fellow top prospect Jameson Taillon to give the Pirates a formidable 1-2 punch down the road.

    St. Louis Cardinals: OF Oscar Taveras

    Already a highly-regarded prospect entering last season, Taveras took things to another level when he hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI as a 20-year-old in Double-A.

    He has as high a ceiling as any offensive prospect in baseball right now, and he's on pace to step into the right field job once Carlos Beltran departs in free agency next offseason. Don't be surprised, however, if he pushes for playing time at the big league level much earlier than that.


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    First Place: Cincinnati Reds (94-68)

    The Reds no doubt had some good luck last season on their way to a 97-win season, namely the fact that their starting pitchers didn't miss a game all season, but they still have the most complete roster top-to-bottom of anyone in the division and are among the teams to beat in the NL.

    Second Place: 
    St. Louis Cardinals (88-74)

    Despite losing a pair of key pitchers in Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals still have the horses to make a postseason push. If Shelby Miller can step up and they can avoid the injury bug, don't be surprised to see them in the postseason once again.

    Third Place: Milwaukee Brewers (86-76)

    The Brewers took steps to shore up their bullpen and added Kyle Lohse, as their pitching should be in a better position to support what was the NL's top offense this time around. Still, they're a notch below the Reds and Cardinals to me, and while a playoff push wouldn't surprise me, I think they come up short.

    Fourth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates (77-85)

    The Pirates have been contenders throughout the first half for the past two seasons, only to collapse down the stretch. They have some nice pieces, but somehow I don't think the additions of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin will be enough to push them over the top.

    Fifth Place: Chicago Cubs (67-95)

    All that was standing between the Cubs and last place last season was the slightly-worse Astros, and they're now in the AL West, so the North Siders are headed for the cellar. With an improved pitching staff, they should be able to avoid 100 losses this time around but not by much.