Fresh off of winning the National League Central crown in 2012, the Cincinnati Reds are the favorites to repeat but could face some roadblocks in their quest to get back to the postseason.
The team won 97 games and were the first team to clinch its division last season, so it had plenty of time to prepare for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Reds were sent home earlier than expected, and they are hoping to avoid an even bigger letdown this season.
Cincinnati has the talent to make a title run, but it will have to produce in order to get back to the playoffs.
With a balanced lineup and great pitching staff, it will take a lot for this team not to make some noise this year. The Reds took two of three from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to start the season in what could be one of the most evenly matched series of the season.
So what could keep the Reds from repeating as NL Central winners?
*All stats are from MLB.com.
Left fielder Ryan Ludwick could be out until the All-Star break with a torn labrum, according to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It's a big loss, and the Reds can't afford to have another key player go down for an extended period of time.
The Reds were the only team in baseball to not have a starting pitcher miss a start last year, but they have gotten a few scares so far this year.
Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo were hit by comebackers on back-to-back days in spring training, but both pitchers did well in their season debuts. However, Johnny Cueto and Latos each had slight scares in their first games. Cueto had to be checked on by trainers early on Opening Day, and Latos appeared to be limping after a pitch on Opening Day. Both stayed in the game and pitched well.
The Reds have a great rotation, but there's not a lot of depth in the organization if someone were to get injured.
With Ludwick out, the outfield depth has gotten even thinner. Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo each dealt with injuries during the spring, and the team can't afford to have either one miss time.
Injuries can wreck any team's season, and multiple injuries would be the only way the Reds fall out of contention.
Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart played big roles as rookies last season, and now they have to find a way to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
For Frazier, he will be expected to have a bigger impact on offense. He is tied with Choo for the team lead with four hits, and the second-year player is the only player on the team to get a hit in each of the first three games.
Frazier clubbed his first homer of the season on Thursday and was inches away from a multi-homer game (box score courtesy of MLB.com). The third baseman can hit absolutely towering shots. He is going to have to continue to hit well in the No. 6 spot to give Jay Bruce some protection.
On the other hand, Cozart is falling victim to the sophomore slump. He entered Friday 0-for-11 but hit two homers against the Washington Nationals (game summary via MLB.com). It's still really early, but the Reds will need him to contribute this season.
Cozart had 15 home runs and 33 doubles as a rookie, so he has some pop in his bat. With him hitting seventh, there's no weak spot in this lineup. He has the bat to knock in guys, but he will need to start getting hits. He is the only starter on the team without a hit.
Both of these youngsters were instrumental to the team's success last year, and they will have to find a way to build on their great rookie seasons.
J.J. Hoover was outstanding after being called up last season. His earned run average and WHIP were second on the team to only Aroldis Chapman. However, he has gotten off to a rocky 2013 campaign.
The right-hander had a great spring and forced his way onto the roster. The regular season has been disappointing for him. In only 2.1 innings this season, he has allowed two runs on three hits and three walks. He picked up the loss on Opening Day.
Two appearances are nothing to go overboard about, but Hoover needs to regain his control. If he can avoid the sophomore slump, the Reds will have four shutdown relievers at their disposal.
For the past few years, the Reds have been one of the best defensive teams in baseball. This year will be an adventure in the field at a couple of important spots.
Todd Frazier will finally stay at one position. Now that Scott Rolen appears to be done, Frazier will be the team's third baseman of the future. In 2012, he played third, first and left field. He was an adequate fielder at each of those positions, but there is still room for improvement.
Although the 27-year-old is not a liability, he is not the fielder that Rolen was. It's not fair to compare him to arguably the greatest defensive third baseman ever, but Reds fans are used to having every ball hit to the hot corner turned into an out.
On Wednesday, Frazier botched a potential double play that ended up costing the Reds a lead late in the game. His team picked him up an inning later, but there will be growing pains at third this season.
Frazier will have some struggles on defense, but Shin-Soo Choo in center field will be an adventure.
Choo, who has a cannon for an arm, wasn't a good right fielder, so putting him in center will expose his flaws even more. The team is hoping that having Bruce and Chris Heisey on the corners can help Choo in the gaps.
The 30-year-old doesn't have the speed that former Red Drew Stubbs had, so there will be plenty of balls that fall in for hits that were outs last year. With that and Choo's defensive struggles, the pitchers on the staff will be forced to throw extra pitches.
Overall, this is a very good defensive team. There is a huge weakness in center, but the improved offense should be able to overcome any deficiencies in the field.
Cincinnati had baseball's best bullpen in 2012, but now it will have to avoid taking a step back this season.
Aroldis Chapman has been lights out in three appearances this season, and Jonathan Broxton has looked good. Sam LeCure has also been strong early on. The three of those pitchers have a 0.00 ERA in a combined eight innings in three games.
As mentioned, J.J. Hoover has struggled early. It's tough to see him being as dominant as he was last season, but Cincinnati needs him to have a solid year. With Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman closing out the game, Hoover will be used to get out of tough jams.
The biggest question mark is Manny Parra. The southpaw made the bullpen out of spring despite not having an earned run average below 5.00 since 2008 and has only had an ERA below 4.39 once in his career.
John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Marshall is dealing with shoulder fatigue, which could explain why Parra made the roster. He gives the Reds another left-handed option out of the bullpen, but he will need to improve in order to stay on the team.
Parra will be the reliever to watch this season, but the rest of the bullpen should be fine. Give Hoover some time to adjust to making his first Opening Day roster. There are high expectations for the 25-year-old, and he will get back to throwing strikes quickly.
If either Parra or Hoover struggles, the Reds could be in trouble. Parra will be used mainly when the team is behind, but he could be needed to play a bigger role if Marshall's fatigue sticks around.
If anyone is going to challenge the Reds in the NL Central, it's the St. Louis Cardinals.
They are going to be without shortstop Rafael Furcal and Chris Carpenter this season, and Carlos Beltran is already ailing, according to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
St. Louis finished with the fourth-best rotation ERA in baseball last season, so it has quality arms.
The Cardinals were a top-five offense last season, and there is no reason to think that they will drop off this season.
Beltran and Matt Holliday were National League Most Valuable Player candidates a season ago. Allen Craig and David Freese are talented bats, and the team has a deep lineup.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs shouldn't pose much of a threat to anyone in the division. The Milwaukee Brewers could stir things up if Kyle Lohse has a big year, but their pitching staff isn't very strong after the front two.
No rival team has a combination of hitting and pitching quite like the Cardinals. They also have experience, which could help them as the season goes on.
As much as Reds fans hate to admit it, the Cardinals are the biggest threat in the division. St. Louis won 88 games in 2012, but it fell out of the race early. If the Reds struggle to overcome Ludwick's injury or have other problems, the Cardinals will be looking to make a run at the division.