Better Know a Division: The 2013 NL Central

Like I mentioned in my earlier preview, the task of doing this sort of thing is daunting. Especially for me because, and this not meant to offend any of my NL Central team loving friends, I don’t really pay that much attention to this division. I know major storylines and I know who won and who didn’t, but beyond that, I had to look up a lot of stuff in order to do this preview. But I like challenges and this definitely was a challenge.

For National League fans, and for the teams they root for, there is at least one noticeable difference in the National League Central Division, it’s the first time since 1997 that there are only five teams and with the Houston Astros moving to the American League West, a lot of the NL Central teams will be missing their “punching bag.” Well, one of them, we’ll get to them later.

Last year, was an interesting year for the National League’s Central teams. The absence of Albert Pujols in the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup made everyone wonder if they’d miss him – they didn’t.

People were also left to wonder if the distraction of a positive PED test and eventual victorious appeal would have any effect on 2011 MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers – it didn’t.

And even though the Cincinnati Reds are the ones who ultimately won the Division with an impressive 97-65 record, it was the Wild Card winner, St. Louis, that went on to compete in the NLCS. Both teams ended up falling victim to the eventual World Series winner, San Francisco Giants.

So without further ado, here’s your 2013 NL Central Preview.

Cincinnati Reds
Notable Additions: OF Shin-Soo Choo, IF Jack Hannahan.

Subtractions: OF Drew Stubbs, 3B Scott Rolen, SS Didi Gregorius.

Projected lineup
CF Shin-Soo Choo
2B Brandon Phillips
1B Joey Votto
LF Ryan Ludwick
RF Jay Bruce
3B Todd Frazier
SS Zack Cozart
C Ryan Hanigan

Projected rotation
Johnny Cueto
Mat Latos
Bronson Arroyo
Homer Bailey
Mike Leake

The poor Reds.

After winning the Division and going up 2-0 in a five-game Division series with the Giants, heading home to clinch, they dropped the next three which allowed the Giants to advance and ultimately win the 2012 World Series. It was a disappointing end to a great season by Cincinnati but it also served as a lesson to the younger players on the team. When you’re that close to making the League Championship, you know there’s a shot of getting there the following year when your team is still intact.

There was the possibility of the Reds moving Aroldis Chapman into the starting rotation but that idea was nixed and I think that’s a good thing. As entertaining as it would have been to see Chapman as a starter, the Reds are better off with him coming out of the bullpen and firing those 100 mph fastballs in relief.

Some guys who need to improve are Bronson Arroyo who posted a 3.74 ERA in 2012 which was much better than the 5.07 he posted in 2011 which was his worst to date in his career. If Arroyo goes the way of 2012 and not the way of 2011, the Reds will be in good shape.  Johnny Cueto, whose season was cut short by an injury in the Division Series looks to repeat his stellar 2012 in which he finished with a 19-9 record, a 2.78 ERA and a fourth place finish in the NL Cy Young vote.

Offensively, the Reds are hoping to have Joey Votto back healthy and for a full season. They will also have young Todd Frazier for the whole season, last year Frazier batted .273/.331/.498/.829 in 128 games with 19 home runs and 67 RBI. The offense will also have the addition of Shin-Soo Choo and his nice on base percentage (.373) along with the potential for him to hit from 15-20 home runs – he hit 16 last year.

St. Louis Cardinals
Notable addition: IF-OF Ty Wigginton

Notable subtractions: RHP Kyle Lohse, 1B Lance Berkman, RHP Chris Carpenter (out for the season with nerve damage).

Projected lineup
CF Jon Jay
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Matt Holliday
1B Allen Craig
C Yadier Molina
3B David Freese
2B Matt Carpenter
SS Pete Kozma

Projected rotation
Adam Wainwright
Jaime Garcia
Jake Westbrook
Lance Lynn
Shelby Miller

The Cardinals shocked everyone last year in the playoffs by knocking out the Washington Nationals in the Division Series in jarring fashion. The Cardinals were down 6-0 in the decisive fifth game of the series and went on to win the game against the usually reliable Drew Storen. The Cardinals were down 7-5 to begin that ninth inning and found themselves up 9-7 with a chance to compete in the NLCS and the Nationals up to bat to save their season. They didn’t and the Cards won.

With the loss of Albert Pujols last season, people expected the Cards to fold (ha ha) but they didn’t. In fact, some guys really stepped up their game and helped lead the team to the playoffs. Even with the absence of Pujols, St. Louis’ offense was among the league’s best. They boasted a .271 team batting average and they scored 765 runs (both were 2nd in the NL). The team as a whole also had the league-high in on base percentage (.338).

Carlos Beltran lead the team with 32 home runs and 97 RBI to go with a .269/.346/.495/.842 batting line. Matt Holliday had hit .295/.379/.497/.877 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI and Yadier Molina may have surprised a lot of people by hitting .315/.373/.501/.874 with 22 homers.

You also can’t forget guys like Allen Craig who stepped in for an injured Lance Berkman and clubbed 22 home runs in 119 games or David Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP, who also contributed with 20 home runs and 79 RBI last year.

If the Cards can get something similar out the offense this year, they’ll be in a good shape.

As for their pitching, Chris Carpenter is out for the season and could be gone for good so with that in mind and Kyle Lohse hit free agency and finally signed with division rival Milwaukee earlier this week, the other guys in the rotation Wainwright, Garcia, Westbrook, Miller and Lynn will have to step up. Garcia battled some shoulder problems last year but looks to come back strong in 2013. Wainwright is now the Cards’ grizzled veteran pitcher. He threw just under 200 innings in 2012 and finished with a somewhat bulky 3.94 ERA but the Cards hope he improves on those numbers in 2013. He did lead the team with 143 strikeouts.

Look for the Cards, if everything goes right, to make things not so easy for the Reds. Actually, if everything does go right, the could topple the Red and reclaim first place in the division.

Milwaukee Brewers

Notable additions: LHP Mike Gonzalez, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, RHP Kyle Lohse

Subtractions: RHP Shaun Marcum, OF Nyjer Morgan, RHP Francisco Rodriguez.

Projected lineup
RF Norichika Aoki
2B Rickie Weeks
LF Ryan Braun
3B Aramis Ramirez
C Jonathan Lucroy
CF Carlos Gomez
1B Alex Gonzalez
SS Jean Segura

Projected rotation
Yovani Gallardo
Marco Estrada
Mike Fiers
Chris Narveson
Wily Peralta

I’ll admit, I’m not too familiar with the Brewers. I know Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks and apparently this Norichika Aoki guy was really good in Japan but other than that, I had to do a lot of reading up on the team in Milwaukee.

They just signed free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse to a contract this week and Loshe, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals had a great year for them finished with a 2.86 ERA, a 16-3 record, he led the team with 143 strikeouts and his WHIP was 1.09.

Offensively, the aforementioned Braun can always be counted on to have big numbers. He led the team in every offensive category including nose hairs. Sorry, I’m kidding, I had to throw a Major League reference in there somewhere. Back to Braun, whose nose hairs are nor offensive at all, finished with a .319/.391/.595/.987 line and hit 41 home runs and drove in 112 RBI.

And if you thought the Yankees were the only ones with a problem at first base, you’d be wrong. With the loss of Prince Fielder in 2012, the Brewers had tried a few different players in the position including Corey Hart who injured his knee. This year, look for Alex Gonzalez to man the right corner of the infield after 1,559 games as a Major League shortstop. That should be fun. Hopefully, he won’t succumb to the knee injury curse of 2012 in 2013 and Hart should be back by early May.

As I said, I’m not familiar with the Brew Crew but if things go right they could in the thick of things near the end of the season. If they go spectacularly wrong, and this includes a chance of MLB suspending their best player for his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic, and a number of mishaps in the pitching rotation, the Brewers could fall into the cellar door of the division. (With the Cubs in the Division, I don’t think they would quite make it into the actual cellar.)

Pittsburgh Pirates
Notable additions: C Russell Martin, LHP Francisco Liriano, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, RHP Mark Melancon, OF Jerry Sands, RHP Stolmy Pimentel.

Notable subtractions: RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Kevin Correia, C Rod Barajas.

Projected lineup
LF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker
CF Andrew McCutchen
3B Pedro Alvarez
1B Garrett Jones
C Russell Martin
RF Travis Snider
SS Clint Barmes

Projected rotation
A.J. Burnett
Wandy Rodriguez
James McDonald
Jeff Karstens
Jonathan Sanchez

The Pittsburgh Pirates looked like they were going to possibly make the playoffs for the first time since I was in college and until the end of July it was heading in that direction. And then, the team remembered who they were and missed the playoffs again.

But, it wasn’t a lost season at all, in fact, they had some great things happen to them in 2012. Number one being AJ Burnett coming over from the New York Yankees and emerging as the ace of the staff. I guess a change of scenery and getting away from the New York sports media worked wonders for Burnett, eh?

Offensively, they were carried by Andrew McCutchen who batted .327/.400/.553/.953 and led the team in home runs (31), RBI (96), hits (194) and on base percentage (.400).

Russell Martin, who doesn’t hit for a high average (and definitely didn’t last year) does have power and shows some patience at the plate so he should be a good addition to the lineup. Plus, he’s worked with AJ Burnett which helps with the departure of Rod Bajaras.

And more on the pitching staff, with the loss of Hanrahan, the Pirates brought back Jason Grilli who led the team in holds with 32 and who will now be the team’s closer. Grilli finished 2012 with a 2.91 ERA in 58.2 innings. Should Grilli falter, the Pirates brought in Mark Melancon who has closer experience. They also have Wandy Rodriguez back who was a mid-season trade acquisition and he looks to help the staff perform well.

Looks for the Pirates to possibly have a repeat of last year where they hang around for a while but ultimately, due to their lack of offense other than McCutchen, fail to make the playoffs yet again.

Chicago Cubs
Notable additions: RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Carlos Villanueva, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Scott Feldman, RHP Kyuji Fujikawa, OF Scott Hairston, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Dioner Navarro.

Notable subtractions: 1B-OF Bryan LaHair

Projected lineup
CF David DeJesus
SS Starlin Castro
1B Anthony Rizzo
LF Alfonso Soriano
RF Nate Schierholtz
3B Luis Valbuena
C Welington Castillo
2B Darwin Barney

Projected Rotation
Jeff Samardzija
Edwin Jackson
Scott Feldman
Travis Wood
Carlos Villanueva

There’s no way around it, Chicago was bad last year. They finished 61-101 and if it weren’t for the Houston Astros who finished with a record of 55-107, they would have been last in the Division. Unfortunately, that’s probably the way it will go this year because they are still in major rebuild mode.

Obviously, they had a lot of issues last season but number one was that they finished ranked 29th in the Majors in on base percentage (.302), 28th in runs scored (613), 26th in batting average (.240) and 27th in slugging percentage (.378). Yikes.

Some bright spots for Chicago? (Okay, side note, when I went to Baseball Reference, the Cubs didn’t have a top player listed for 2012.) Anthony Rizzo who hit .285/.342/.463/.805 in 87 games, Starlin Castro who played all 162 games and batted .283/.323/.430/.753 and old man Alfonso Soriano who despite only batting .262, clubbed 32 home runs with 108 RBI in his age 36 season.

Last year, Ryan Dempster was a bright spot in the pitching rotation but since the Cubs were sellers at the trade deadline he was shipped off to the Texas Rangers. He was then signed this offseason by the Boston Red Sox.

Jeff Samardzija could be a bright spot for the pitching rotation. Don’t let his 9-13 record from 2012 fool you, he had 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings pitched. If he can get his stuff together while he’s still relatively young (27), he can emerge as a star for the Cubs this season.

So what’s my final prediction?

1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs

Like with the AL Central, things could flip flop in a couple of spots. The Cards could just as easily finish first just as the Brewers and Pirates could flip spots in third and fourth. The only thing for sure with this division is poor Chicago finishing last.

[Thanks to ESPNBaseball ProspectusBaseball Reference and MLB Trade Rumors for the numbers, lineups etc.]

You can follow Stacey on Twitter at @StaceGots

Stacey is co-Editor-in-Chief of It's About The Money and is co-host of the It's About The Yankees, Stupid podcast. When she's not blogging about baseball, she's blogging about the New York Knicks and when she's not doing either of those things, she's tweeting.