The National League Central is mourning this season for the loss of the dearly departed Houston Astros -- and the free wins that came with them. However, we must all soldier forward, and the Central faces the coming season one team lighter but a bit more dangerous -- the Pirates continue their slow climb toward .500, and the Cubs are no laughing matter this year like they were the last. Still, the Reds and Cardinals are the class of the group.
Again, teams are ranking from 1st to 5th -- best to worst -- on their lineups, fielding, rotation, and bullpen. When I talk about a pitcher's spot in a team's rotation, I don't use whatever rotation guesstimate is out there before the teams get fully set to break camp, but instead rank the pitcher I think is best as the ace, the second-best as the No. 2, and so on for simplicity's sake.
First Place: The Cincinnati Reds
Even without the Astros to beat up on (10-5 last year against Houston, though they're hardly alone in that regard), the Reds should win the Central for a second straight year. They're probably not a 97-win team again -- not unless they're able to roll five effective starting pitchers for the entire season like they were in 2012 -- but at the plate, the team's actually gotten better. In addition to Joey Votto, one of the best pure hitters in baseball, the team returns Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, gets a full season from Todd Frazier at third base, and most importantly adds Shin-Soo Choo to the everyday lineup. Choo came over from the Indians in a deal that sent Drew Stubbs packing -- also a positive for the Reds everyday lineup. Reds fans will be hoping Zack Cozart takes a step forward from last year's tepid performance at the plate, and that catcher Devin Mesoraco finally lives up to his billing and becomes the complete package behind the plate Cincinnati hopes he can be. Ludwick is a candidate to regress and Brandon Phillips's bat dropped off last year; he's getting old for a second baseman, so the Reds have to hope he can hold on for another few seasons.
The Reds return most of the same fielders as well, with one glaring exception: Cincinnati not only traded their centerfielder for Shin-Soo Choo, but they've decided to play Choo there and bat him leadoff as well. Choo has played all of 83 innings in CF in his 8 years in the majors, but his performance there was good enough this spring that the Reds aren't moving Jay Bruce over to relieve him. Scott Rolen was one of the best defensive 3B in baseball for a long, long time, but at this point in his career putting Todd Frazier there full-time counts as an upgrade -- Rolen still wants to play this season, but right now is a free agent. Despite his woes at the plate last year, Brandon Phillips remains one of the best fielding 2B in the game and Zack Cozart is a very good fundamental fielder at short. The outfield defense is what's really concerning -- three corner outfielders, with the RF Bruce probably the strongest fielder among them. If the Reds under perform this year -- especially in their pitching staff -- and everybody's healthy, this might be the main culprit.
Not to take anything away from the team I'm picking second in the Central, but the Reds have the best staff top to bottom in the division. Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey were all aces last year and there's no indication any of those performances were flukes. The Aroldis Chapman experiment has ended with his relegation back to the bullpen (that's what happens when your plus plus plus fastball turns into just a plus fastball, your plus plus slider turns into a kind of fringy slider and you don't have a credible third pitch) but Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake are decent options at the back of the rotation, assuming age doesn't catch up to Arroyo quite yet and Leake is able to pitch more like his sophomore season that he did last year. It's the three-headed monster at the top of the rotation that will determine whether the Reds win this division or finish second or even third place; injuries could torpedo them quickly, as there's not much starting pitching depth in the system at all.
Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Broxton, and Sean Marshall are three great options for the Reds at the top of the pen -- Chapman everyone knows about, but Marshall might be one of my favorite relievers in baseball. I wish that current managing styles put more emphasis on actual relief aces these days -- guys who come in like troubleshooters regardless of what inning it is to get the team out of jams when they have the lead -- and I think a guy like Marshall, a former starter, could stand to pitch another 15 to 20 innings over the 60 or so he'll likely get in a setup role. Nevertheless he's been one of the most effective relievers in the league since moving to the pen and as he's only 30 years old, there's absolutely no reason why that shouldn't be true for years to come. Alfredo Simon is coming off a great (if lucky) 2012 and seeing as he's out of options, there's no reason he shouldn't make the team regardless of his spring. If he doesn't, he'll quickly find a home somewhere else soon.
Second Place: The St. Louis Cardinals (Wild Card)
The Cardinals should once again be nipping at the Reds' heels when the season ends, though probably by a smaller margin than the nine wins that separated the two teams last season. The Cards should feature the best lineup in the division this season -- it was the Brewers that scored the most runs in the NL last year, but we'll get to why that bit of history won't repeat itself in a minute -- headlined by a guy who should be in the Hall when his career ends, Carlos Beltran, and a guy who's putting together an impressive resume, Matt Holliday. Yadier Molina's reinvented himself at the plate over the past two seasons and Allen Craig has been a very pleasant surprise for the Cardinals since his call-up considering his relatively pedestrian minor league performance -- I want to say he can't sustain a slugging percentage over .520 for much longer, but it's one of those situations that until he shows he can't, you kind of have to accept that he can; the same is true of David Freese, who's gotten better at the plate every season he's been in the league. Freese starts the season on the DL with Matt Carpenter playing third, but he should be back soon enough. Jon Jay is a solid-hitting centerfielder, and while Pete Kozma likely won't contribute anything of note -- the team desperately needs Rafael Furcal to get healthy -- and Daniel Descalso is just as hopeless, they're the seven and eight hitters, respectively. The six guys above them are more than capable of hitting the baseball.
Kozma and Descalso aren't any great shakes in the field either, but they can handle their positions well. Beltran is old and his knees aren't anything close to what they used to be, but he and Holliday can still handle the corners just fine. Freese is workmanlike at third, as is Jon Jay in center, and Allen Craig's move from the outfield to first base should hide most of his defensive inadequacies, though it puts increased pressure on his bat. The true defensive standout of the bunch is Yadier Molina behind the plate, of course, but one man does not a defense make. Still, given the catcher's added responsibilities with positioning the defense, among other things, that's worth more than having, say, a great defensive right fielder.
I'm not as high on the Cardinals rotation as I am on the Reds', especially not on the group's front end, but they're still extremely talented and clearly the second best set of starting arms in the Central. Adam Wainwright's becoming an institution in St. Louis; last year represented a step back for him in terms of his ERA, but his underlying peripherals remained fairly consistent so it's reasonable to expect some kind of bounce-back. Jaime Garcia's back as the No. 2 starter, and he actually underperformed his peripherals by about half a run last season -- but he also only pitched around 120 innings. If he stays healthy and consistent, he'll be a big boost to St. Louis's staff, and I like his chances there. Jake Westbrook seems to alternate good and bad years on the mound and by that metric, he's shaping up for a poor 2013 but there's nothing written in stone that makes it so, and I have no idea what to expect from Lance Lynn -- he had a solid rookie campaign last season, but came to camp looking like a completely different man. He didn't drop as much weight as John Lackey did during his year off, but it's going to be interesting to see how that affects him. I still like him as a No. 4 starter, though. And the Cardinals announced yesterday that Shelby Miller, a highly touted pitching prospect who hit some extreme rough patches last year with his command but seems to have conquered them, will make the rotation as the fifth starter. He's the kid to watch: he could be a rookie of the year candidate -- or he could lose his ability to locate pitches again and get sent right back down. Considering his raw ability though, he's the kind of pitcher you love to have as your fifth guy -- by midseason, he could have pitched his way up to being your No. 2.
The Cardinals bullpen lags behind the Reds', but not by much. Closer Jason Motte is doubtful for the start of the season with an elbow injury that hopefully won't evolve into something more problematic. Mitchell Boggs is a strong substitute, but the strength of the Cards pen is Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica. Mujica came over from the Marlins last year and while he's probably not going to put up an ERA of 1.03 for the Cards again, he really did pitch very well for them and has had a good track record with the Marlins and Padres the past couple years. Trevor Rosenthal pitched a great 22 innings for St. Louis last year near the end of the season and is the next best pitching prospect in the system behind Miller; I have my qualms about leaving him in short relief since he spent most of his time coming up as a starter and I think he deserves a chance to see how that plays out on the big stage, but if someone falters or gets hurt, he'll get his chance. Another former Marlin, Randy Choate, is one of the best LOOGYs in the game, so it's nice to see him back in St. Louis for 2012 plying his trade again.
Third Place: The Chicago Cubs
The Cubs had an odd offseason -- many expected them to either jump into the free agent market with both feet or abstain entirely from any serious contracts, biding their time while their farm caught up with the expectations of GM Jed Hoyer. Instead, they split the difference: the Cubs were very active in the middle tier of this winter's market, never truly in on the big names like Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke, but acquiring a small stable of new players for the major league roster. The result is a team that's spending a decent chunk of change but can expect to hit .500 -- so long as management doesn't decide to sell their assets off halfway through the season. The lineup is less than impressive, though Starlin Castro should still hit .300 and Anthony Rizzo is looking to build his first big major league season at the plate. Alfonso Soriano experienced something of a mild resurgence last year, getting on base at an almost (but not quite) reasonable .322 clip while slugging .499 with 32 home runs. Soriano will get at least 20 home runs again -- he always does -- but at 37 years old it's hard to see him taking many more steps forward in any aspect of his game. David DeJesus is an acceptable hitter out of the leadoff spot, the Nate Schierholtz/Jerry Hairston platoon in right field should be effective for the team and Welington Castillo can hit a little bit from the catcher spot. 2B Darwin Barney can't, but that's why he hits 8th -- and it's not why he's on the team. The only reason Ian Stewart continues to be tolerated at 3B is because the alternative is either Luis Valbuena or Brent Lillibridge -- and Cubs fans will see one or both of them on full display to start the year, because Stewart's hurt at the moment.
Barney's on the team because he's one of the top defensive 2B in the league, and combined with Starlin Castro's alleged steps forward at shortstop over the offseason and throughout camp the Cubs should have the best up-the-middle defense in the division. DeJesus is acceptable in centerfield, and both Schierholtz and Hairston can handle the rightfield corner. While none of the Cubs' options for 3B can hit a lick, they should all be able to handle third with competence. Anthony Rizzo is a good first baseman who has the ability to hold down either corner outfield position if need be. Alfonso Soriano's been a statue in left the past few seasons, though the Cubs were very happy how he responded last year to a new fielding regimen so it's not as bad as it could be, and while Castillo has a big arm, he's still raw at receiving the ball and doesn't move around too well behind the plate. Despite Soriano, who's not as much of a punchline as his reputation implies, I think the Cubs will field the best defense in the Central on a regular basis.
The Cubs put a decent amount of money into the rotation this offseason, giving Edwin Jackson a big contract and ostensibly locking him down for the foreseeable future -- we'll see about that. Jackson's been the most mobile pitcher in baseball this side of Octavio Dotel for a while now, and even a multi-year deal seems unlikely to keep him in one place for too long. The Cubs signed Scott Baker as well, but he's still not back from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him last season; the rotation looks to be shaping up with Jeff Samardzija as the ace, the Cubs hoping he'll repeat his breakout season last year -- whether that's so they can extend him or deal him it's hard to say, but Samardzija is resisting the Cubs' overtures to buy out his arbitration years. Matt Garza's the best pitcher in this rotation when he's healthy, but Garza's entire career in Chicago has been plagued by being unable to stay that way long enough for management to deal him off to a contender. He'll miss the first month of the season with a strained lat. Scott Feldman and Travis Wood are fine guys to put at the back of the rotation, but until Garza and Baker are healthy they'll be in the middle of it, which should lead to some bad outings for the Cubs staff. Still, Garza should be ready fairly shortly, and even with Baker likely taking a bit longer to return the Cubs should have a middle-of-the-pack rotation in the Central.
However, the bullpen, which hasn't been a particularly strong unit for the Cubs in recent years, is even less accomplished this time around. Carlos Marmol is perhaps the most overpaid reliever in baseball relative to his actual ability to help his team win a game, and beyond that the next best track record in the pen belongs to… Shawn Camp? Really? Kyuji Fujikawa might be a sleeper for them; Hisanori Takahashi could turn last year's poor performance around, but I doubt it. While it's true the Cubs shouldn't have invested heavily in their pen this offseason, and it's a good thing they didn't, that doesn't make the unit any better at getting outs and not allowing runs.
Fourth Place: The Pittsburgh Pirates
I think the Pirates, Cubs, and Brewers will be fairly close this year; if the Pirates have luck on their side, they could even break .500. The Pirates haven't had luck on their side in almost two decades now, though, and instead they have Clint Hurdle. I think they'll end up a few wins short. The lineup is the team's strength: Andrew McCutchen leads the group and might win an MVP someday soon; Pedro Alvarez and tenured Pirate Garrett Jones make up the rest of the middle of the order, while newcomers Russell Martin (free agent signing) and Travis Snider (trade with the Blue Jays late last year) get acclimated near the bottom. Snider in particular is a guy with a lot of potential at the plate who's never quite put it together; I wouldn't be shocked to see it all finally click for him. Okay I would, because it's the Pirates, but he should be a decent bat. Platooning with him in right field is Jose Tabata, who has a similar story; he hasn't panned out yet, and probably never will, but hope springs eternal. Starling Marte's the kid Pirates fans are really waiting to see; speed out of the leadoff position with the potential of average power could go a long way toward getting guys on base and in scoring position for McCutchen et al to drive in. One of those guys would be Neil Walker, who will likely continue to hit second for Pittsburgh; considering the sorry state of second base around the league he's a perfectly good guy to have, and he can walk a little too.
In the field, Marte is wasted in left, but McCutchen is good enough in center that it's not a huge deal. Snider and Tabata can both handle right field well enough, and Garrett Jones is best left to first base at this point in his career. Shortstop Clint Barmes's name didn't come up in the hitters' section because Clint Barmes has no business being mentioned with them; he'll OPS around .600 again this year and make $5.5 million to do so, but he can at least hold down his position pretty well. Though he didn't get his wish to play shortstop in the WBC for Team Canada, Russell Martin is still solid behind the plate. Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates' future first baseman and plays like it at third; Neil Walker's solid at second base but nothing fantastic.
The rotation continues to be an issue for the Pirates, and it's not going to do them any favors until Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are finally ready to make substantial contributions at the major league level -- which could happen late this year. But until then, AJ Burnett is the staff ace. He and Wandy Rodriguez aren't bad pitchers, per se, but at this point in their respective careers they're not anchoring any rotations. James McDonald is out of options, has put up two straight years of 4.21 ERA baseball and is starting to get expensive; any more backsliding by him and the Pirates might non-tender him at the end of the season. Jonathan Sanchez has made the team as a fifth pitcher, which tells you where the Pirates stand in terms of MLB-ready starting depth.
The bullpen looks better than it did last year, mostly because I think Mark Melancon is a good bounce-back candidate and Jason Grilli has finally found his niche in Pittsburgh. I don't think the Pirates will miss Joel Hanrahan much, and Jared Hughes is a very nice arm out of the pen. Still, the bottom of the pen gets more than a little bit dicey -- Jeanmar Gomez, for instance -- and with the other options being such luminaries as Vin Mazzaro and a very old Jose Contreras, it's unlikely there's much help on the way.
Fifth Place: The Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers scored the most runs in the National League last year and even finished with 83 wins, but it's unlikely that history will better itself, let alone repeat. The Brewers have a couple problems hanging over their heads right now, and the first of which come in their lineup. The key hitter for Milwaukee is former MVP Ryan Braun, who's been fantastic the last few seasons at the plate. There's a substantial chance -- a very, very likely chance -- that the Brewers will lose him for 50-100 games this season as part of the witch-hunt currently being conducted by MLB against clients listed on the ledgers of the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic in Miami, Florida. Among their primary targets is Braun. Even if the Brewers get a full season of work out of their star outfielder, however, Mat Gamel will miss the entire season with a torn ACL and Corey Hart's gone until at least May with a knee injury -- and with knee injuries, who really knows how he's going to come back. In addition, a number of key Brewers hitters -- right fielder Norichika Aoki, centerfielder Carlos Gomez, catcher Jonathan Lucroy -- all hit well over their heads last year and are due for some correction. Of the three, Aoki is the most likely to sustain his success and Gomez the least, with Lucroy's great lefty split probably being for real, but not that for real. On the plus side, Rickie Weeks is probably a bit better than he appeared in 2012, though that's by no means guaranteed considering he's a second baseman entering his thirties. Aramis Ramirez is the only real stable presence in the lineup not named Braun; he's aging, but he's still good. Jean Segura could break it open big time in his first full season as an MLB shortstop but considering how his bat profiles, the odds are against it; the fact that there are depth charts out there listing Alex Gonzalez, a middle infielder with a career .292 OBP and .399 SLG, as the Opening Day first baseman is disgraceful.
Which is where Yuniesky Betancourt comes in, because the Brewers signed him to a major league contract yesterday after he was released by the Phillies. Yes, that Yuniesky Betancourt. There's only the one. Betancourt's bat is probably an upgrade over Gonzalez's at first base for the time being, though it's unclear how well he would transition to first base considering he's been a butcher everywhere else he's played on the diamond. Leaving the specter of Betancourt getting 1000 innings in the field this year for Milwaukee aside, Carlos Gomez remains massively overrated in centerfield -- he's probably the poster child for speed making up for poor fielding instincts -- but Aoki should help him out in right and Braun won't do too much damage in left. Ramirez can handle himself at third and Segura has an exceptional glove at short; Weeks is a solid second baseman and hopefully whichever converted middle infielder is tapped for the job can handle first.
The Brewers made another move in free agency this week, signing Kyle Lohse to a three-year contract and surrendering the 17th overall pick in the draft to the ether. Yovani Gallardo is the staff ace, a bonafide No. 1 and the best pitcher in the division that won't make the playoffs. The Brewers are going to miss Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum this season, however, as their departures slot guys like Chris Narveson into the regular starting rotation. Marco Estrada was promoted from spot starter to a full time rotation member last year and took to it rather well; considering the totality of Lohse's career and not just last season, I'd say Estrada stands a good chance of actually pitching better than the Brewers' new FA acquisition. I'm nowhere near so generous to Mike Fiers, and as promising as Mark Rogers is, his arm fatigue problems are neither a new nor minor issue; he probably will never be a substantial major league contributor due to injury.
The bullpen for the Brewers has a lot of cheap, fungible arms in it; even closer John Axford is coming off a very bad, very hittable year in relief. The second best arm in the pen after his is probably Burke Badenhop, former Tampa Bay Ray, and after that… Mike Gonzalez? Mike Gonzalez once lost two baseball games for the Baltimore Orioles in four pitches. It was the 15th inning, game was tied at 1 against New York, and Gonzalez was the last man in the pen. He's brought into the game and throws one pitch to Robinson Cano. Cano takes to the right field gap for a double putting the Yankees up two. Then Gonzalez throws a strike, then a ball, and then breaks poor Chris Dickerson's face with a fastball. Gonzalez is ejected and Showalter has to bring in Jeremy Guthrie, the next day's starter, to end the inning. The Orioles lose. Brad Bergesen starts the next day instead of Guthrie. The Orioles lose. That's what Mike Gonzalez brings to a ballclub. (He was still pretty good last year for Washington.) Tom Gorzelanny's probably the next best arm in the pen, which is a fancy way of saying "HERE THERE BE MONSTERS." As we do not go where there are monsters, our foray into the Brewers' bullpen concludes.
The Reds won't be the juggernaut they were last year and the Cardinals will challenge them for the division a bit more -- especially if they decide to call top prospect outfielder Oscar Taveras up for a substantial chunk of this season instead of next -- but both teams should finish comfortably ahead of the teams beneath them. The calculus changes if the Pirates get super-aggressive with their pitchers or all of the unsustainable offense from last year's Milwaukee crew turns out to be, in fact, sustainable; however, I think the chances of that happening are fairly slim.