The National Central Division is one in transition. The Reds have a great team, but the rotation might let them down enough to not reach full potential. The St. Louis Cardinals have the most balanced team, and are my favorites to win the division. But health is a major concern, and could be huge in determining how their final standing. The Brewers aim to make it a three team race, and with the addition of Kyle Loshe may have done just enough to do so. The Pirates are looking for their first .500 or better season since 1992 and may have pieced enough together to reach that mark. Meanwhile, the Cubs are looking to continue a rebuilding process that saw bright spots despite their first 100-loss campaign since 1966.
- Division’s Best Player: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers (41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB, .319/.391/.595, .986 OPS)- Yes, there are PED allegations swirling around his name. But until something is proven, he has established himself as a premiere player in the major leagues. Which begs the question: “What is next?” Well, hopefully the rumors aren’t true and we can see one of the best overall players continue to put up admirable numbers. The 2011 NL MVP is the most gifted player within the division.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals (14-13, 3.94 ERA, 198.2 IP, 184 K’s)- At age 31, Adam Wainwright has two World Series titles, a Gold Glove, and two top-3 Cy Young finishes. Something tells me he is just getting started. For all the talk about the Mark Teixeira trade, I still count this as one of the Braves biggest mistakes. He’s a tall, powerful right hand-er, with a 94 mph fastball and a curveball that doesn’t make sense. He’s ready to take over the mantle of staff ace from Chris Carpenter, and with a new five-year, $97.5 million dollar contract, Cardinals fans can rest easy he will end his career in St.Louis.
- Division’s best Manager: Dale Sveum, Chicago Cubs- Dale Sveum was always a baseball pick for manager of the Chicago Cubs. He is known as a guy with vast knowledge of the game, a hard worker, and someone old-school enough not to put up with some of the antics young players can throw out. So why did I pick a guy who just lost 101 games his first season? Well, look at the positives. Up until July the Cubs played fairly competitive baseball, including a 15-10 July.
- Division’s “X” Factor: Cincinnati Reds Rotation- This isn’t a joke when I say this, the Reds rotation has the possibility to make them really good, or really bad. How good they are will depend on Bronson Arroyo, Matt Leake, and Homer Bailey. That is the part that makes me nervous. If two of them step up, all will be fine in Cincy. If two of them don’t, you might be looking at a ball club that, although expected to finish 1st, could end up fighting for the Wild Card. That is a group they don’t want to get too mixed up with.
- St. Louis Cardinals (2012 Finish: 2nd (88-74))- I haven’t forgotten about them. I know everyone is falling in love with the Reds and their powerful offense. But I haven’t forgotten about the St. Louis Cardinals. How could I? With a lineup that includes Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina I like those odds. I also like the odds of Jon Jay becoming one of the best leadoff men/center fielders in the National League. David Freese will be back, and all he has done since his breakout in the 2011 World Series is follow that up with a 2012 in which he hit .293, with 20 home runs and 79 RBI (he also made the All-Star team). The rotation is led by Adam Wainwright, Jamie Garcia, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn; Lynn won 18 games last season. That’s a quartet I trust more than any other offered within the division. So Why did I pick them to finish first? Well it’s pretty simple, really. While the names might not pop, and the fanfare isn’t there, they have the most solid overall team top to bottom. Those kinds of teams tend to win divisions.
- Cincinnati Reds (2012 Finish: 1st (97-65))- Coming off a 97-win season, I shouldn’t be this skeptical about a team with so much talent. But I’m just that, and I worry that Cincinnati should be more worried. They have the smartest hitter in baseball in Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips make their lineup one of the best in the league. Their rotation has potential, but which one will show up? I’ve been high on Cueto since he burned me his rookie season in fantasy baseball (yes I picked him to be awesome, he just wasn’t awesome year one or two). Homer Bailey frustrates me more than any pitcher I’ve cheered for my own favorite team. He has everything he needs to be an elite starter in this league, and even seemed to have it all figured out last season. Then spring came and he looked just as lost as he has in the past. Aroldis Chapman is a closer, period, end of all discussion. Why can’t we figure this out yet? Didn’t we see how the Joba Chamberlain experience worked out? Daniel Bard? I respect Walt Jocketty as much as any executive to work in the majors, and he has built a fine team. But facets of it make me weary of picking them as legitimate contenders. And I say if Dusty Baker can’t get it right in 2013, it might be time he’s shown the door.
- Milwaukee Brewers (2012 Finish: 3rd (83-79))- The Kyle Lohse signing during spring training sent a message to the top-2 teams in the division that the Brewers aren’t just content with laying in the weeds this summer. The lineup has Rickie Weeks, Aramis Ramirez (I think it might be time to legitimately start paying attention to his overall numbers. They are pretty dang good), and Ryan Braun. I’ll take that middle of the order in this division. And if Corey Hart comes back from his knee injury this could make for a very interesting three team race. I consider this a three team race because Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, and Marco Estrada make for a solid top of the rotation. If the bullpen can keep things together late, the Brewers could make serious noise in the Wild Card race.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (2012 Finish: 4th (79-83))- The Pirates have had a tendency to fade late after starting strong. Still mired in a streak of losing seasons that has eclipsed 20 years, they look to get to the .500 mark and beyond this year. they have the parts to do it, Andrew McCutchen is as good as advertised after almost winning the batting title and finishing third in MVP voting. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and james McDonald make for a strong front of the rotation. I expect Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon to join the rotation later this summer, which could give the Pirates a great glimpse toward the future while infusing the team with talent to give them a little extra down the stretch.
- Chicago Cubs (2012 Finish: 5th (61-101))- The Cubs are still in rebuilding after starting all over with the arrival of Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein in late 2011. They are doing a good job so far, shedding veterans that didn’t fit long-term, adding talent at key positions (Anthony Rizzo) and giving the Cubs the much-needed farm system face life it has needed for more than a decade. It isn’t a coincidence that things feel more businesslike in Chicago. The Cubs have a new plan, a second-year manager in Dale Sveum that has the ability to lead this revamped team, and players that are now buying into the system. As for 2013, there isn’t much hope for a playoff berth, but the rotation headed by Edwin Jackson and Jeff Samardzija should make for interesting and competitive games. Keep an eye on the closer situation and what they end up doing with Carlos Marmol in July (or sooner). My gut tells me he has hung one too many of those sliders and the attitude of his demotion won’t keep him in a Cub uniform for much longer.