Corey Hart's injury may foreshadow some serious questions about the Brewers depth. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Previewing the 2013 NL Central


In what has become something of a tradition here at Reviewing the Brew, I take some time very early in the off-season to give what usually turns out to be fairly poor predictions of how the National League Central Division will turn out.

This year is no different. The only thing that will definitely change is who ends up in last place, since the Houston Astros moved out of our basement and into the American League – because baseball fans in Texas were clamoring for the Rangers-Astros rivalry. Or something.

But the National League Central is still a viable and competitive division, perhaps even more so due to cutting the chaff down to five teams. So, without further ado, we bring you our very early look ahead to the 2013 NL Central.

5. Chicago Cubs

Starlin Castro can play. Too bad the rest of the Cubs can’t. (Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports)

The motto of the Chicago Cubs is “It’s a Way of Life.” For Cubs fans, that way of life is going to feel very rough for a while.

Those poor Cubbies. With Theo Epstein now fully entrenched for his second season at the official helm of the Northsiders, one would think there would be reason to be hopeful if you’re a Cubs fans. That’s all well and good, but you’re going to have to hold off on cashing that in for a little while.

Pros: The Chicago Cubs have young talent, in guys like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. The team seems dedicated to building around Castro and his long-term contract, and he seems all too willing to put this Cubs club on his back. The problem is he doesn’t have a lot of help – but if Anthony Rizzo can keep even moderate pace to the fantastic rookie season he had, things may change in a hurry. Rizzo played only 87 games last year, and posted some of the best numbers on the team (.285/.342/.463). If the Cubs can lock him down, Castro and Rizzo may push this team to a title – just not in 2013.

On the pitching side, the Cubs had one starter with a winning record – who was traded to the Atlanta Braves – in Paul Maholm. That leaves Jeff Samardzija as the undisputed ace of this Cubs staff. His WHIP of 1.29 and K/9 rate of a shade over nine will certainly keep the Cubbies in the game during his starts, but outside of him and newcomers Carlos Villanueva and Edwin Jackson the team will depend heavily on the bullpen. Jeff Russell may be the only one up to the task.

Cons: Right now, the major struggle that the Chicago Cubs are going to have down the road is paying for all the player they want to keep. Edwin Jackson will cost the Cubs $13 million through 2016, and Alfonso Soriano has two years left at $18 million a piece. Matt Garza rounds out another hefty chunk of the payroll at $10.25 million for this season. The return on Jackson’s investment obviously remains to be seen, but there’s little question that Garza and Soriano have largely been liabilities to the team, despite an uptick from Alfonso in 2012. The Cubs need to start making smarter, smaller choices – you know, the way Epstein used to work – if they hope to compete, and be able to afford to keep a core group of players down the road.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates are a real-life Major League Baseball team, folks. At least, they act

The spotlight is squarely on Andrew McCutchen for 2013. Can he – and the rest of the Pirates – live up to the hype? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

like it for most of the season. The fan-favorite Dark Horse of 2012, the Buccos made a run at the Central for the first time in years. Or at least they considered it, but a late-season collapse engineered – in only the way that the Pirates could muster – dashed all hopes of the playoffs, nevermind a winning season.

In what looks to be a much more competitive division, one of those things could change.

Pros: Andrew McCutchen. Need I say more? The cover model for MLB14: The Show, and the unquestionable king of Pittsburgh baseball, Andrew McCutchen will do no wrong for the Buccos in 2013. Outside of Cutch, the Pirates have a few younger offensive players that can be as exciting as they can be inconsistent. Michael McKenry – the Fort to his faithful fans – will likely get more regular work at the backstop, and Starling Marte will try to keep the party going along McCutchen in the outfield. Pedro Alvarez will likely keep his power numbers up, which should desperately help a Pirates offense that needs to pour on runs.

A.J. Burnett is back for one more year, and if he can do half of what he did as a starter in 2012, Pittsburgh’s starting rotation – with James McDonald and a full season with Wandy Rodriguez – should help keep the Pirates rolling with one of the most effective bullpens in the Senior Circuit.

Cons: One word: inconsistency. I don’t know if this is a managerial problem or a player problem, but the Pirates are definitely a two-headed monster. On one hand, they could be one of the best teams in the division on a superficial level. But digging just a shade deeper, you find problems throughout the team. No one in the National League struck out more times than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Only four teams committed more errors on defense. 89% of stolen base attempts went uncaught by the Pirates defense. The team as a whole averaged a little over four pitches per at-bat. Obviously there is a bit of a discipline problem on this team – something that needs to change if the Pirates are going to make a real run at this division.

3. Milwaukee Brewers

Young players like Wily Peralta are going to need to grow up fast for Milwaukee to make a push in the NL Central (Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports)

Don’t hate me, Brewers fans. I just call ‘em like I see ‘em.

To be perfectly honest, putting the Brewers at third this year almost felt like doing them a favor – there’s no doubt at the talent level of this offense, but questions on defense and pitching are enough to keep a skeptical eye on this team throughout the 2013 season.

Pros: That offense, man. It’s hard to find an offense in the National League that could be more potent than the Milwaukee Brewers. Aramis Ramirez is having the time of his life, and despite the curious views of some fellow sportswriters in the BBWAA, Ryan Braun is a defacto nominee for MVP until further notice. With the addition of the hard-running, infield-hit-slapping Norichika Aoki and a (hopefully) healthy Rickie Weeks, this team may be off to the races from the word ‘go’ in 2013.

On the pitching side, it’s high time we recognize the fantastic career we are witnessing from Yovani Gallardo. Yo will turn 27 this year, and in comparable service time – entering his seventh year of Major League play – he is quickly outpacing his peers (besides Tim Lincecum, mainly) with 936 strikeouts, and hoping to make five consecutive 200 strikeout seasons. I’m not saying Yovani is a future Hall of Fame pitcher, but in Milwaukee’s baseball perspective, we are witnessing one of the finest careers a Brewer has ever had. On the relief side of things, it appears that things have changed for the better, at least on paper. The team brought in players that seem to have shifted the focus from simply being a warm body on the mound to a group of hurlers focused on keeping walks down and managing tough situations. Burke Badenhop and Tom Gorzelanny add good resumes and veteran presence to a bullpen that needs serious attitude adjustment.

Cons: The Brewers have a few issues to be concerned about. First and

foremost, Corey Hart‘s injury. Forgive me for this, but there has to be a level of concern from a front office when a player looking for a long-term extension hurts himself working out in preparation for a season. We know that Hart, and Weeks, and a handful of other players on the team have battled injury throughout their careers – it’s nothing to cause a panic, but it does hamper the productivity of this team. That’s because the issue of injury goes hand in hand with the complete lack of Major League depth on this roster. Jeff Bianchi and Mat Gamel DO NOT consitute depth, no matter hwo much we want them to do well. Nor does trolling the MLB retirement home for mid-season pick-ups (I’m looking at you Cesar Izturis). No team is immune to injury, but the Brewers seem content to simply cross that bridge when they get to it.

In terms of pitching, there’s simply a lack of experience outside of Gallardo and Marco Estrada. We are all excited about a full season of Wily Peralta, and hopeful for a return of Mike Fiers as the dominant pitcher we saw when he first came up. Tyler Thornburg has some growing up to do on the mound. With this many questions and this much youth, it’s going to put a lot of strain on the bullpen to hold things up for the season – which is a lot to ask even an improved bullpen such as Milwaukee’s. For this reason mainly, the Milwaukee Brewers may be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff chase.

2. St. Louis Cardinals

God I hate the Cardinals. I don’t care who knows it – because there’s no rationality behind it. I hate them because no matter what happens, they perform well. I don’t get it. Injuries – no problem. Aging? Doesn’t matter. Mike Matheny – SECRET GENIUS.

Why? Why are they so good? And why do they have to rub it in my face?

David Freese is a certified dreamboat. Also, he’s one of the small pieces that make the Cardinals so successful. (Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

Pros: The St. Louis Cardinals can put together a hot streak like no other team in baseball. They have weapons throughout the lineup, and players like Daniel Descalso and David Freese always seem to step up. Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran continue a long tradition of ageless wonders that seem to permeate the history of this team, and returning veteran offensive players like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina make the Red Birds a team that you simply can’t afford to make mistakes against. That, more than anything else, is what keeps St. Louis at the top of the division every year. This team capitalizes on every opportunity opponents give them, at the plate or on the mound.

Cons: While the team may seem tough to beat coming off another big playoff run 2012, it’s only a matter of time until their age catches up to them. Thirteen players on the roster are over 30, and six of those players are 35 or older. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter – the staples of the Cardinals rotation – both battle injuries relentlessly, and every year those injuries get harder and harder to bounce back from. I’m not saying the roster is going to fall apart, just that the players that replace the aging stars will not be as likely to perform at a high level.

But it’s the St. Louis Cardinals, so what the hell do I know?

1. Cincinnati Reds

Cueto is a beast – and the rest of the league just have to get used to that. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Until further notice, here is your predicted winner of the National League Central. I know, this whole thing shook out exactly like last year’s standings – but the truth is that the Red Legs are going to be awful tough to beat again this year. I don’t think the margin of victory will be as high across the board, but this Cincy team is reloaded for another run.

Pros: The Reds have three of the best performing pitchers in the Major Leagues. Big games are commonplace for Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, and Mat Latos. Most of the stars of the Cincinnati team are under team control until at least 2015, also – so as long as the numbers keep up, this team is primed for years to come. Brandon Phillips is remarkably consistent both on offense and defense, and Todd Frazier has a chance to stop being overlooked this year.

Oh yeah, and that Joey Votto guy is OK I guess.

Cons: I will never, EVER, stop hating on Dusty Baker. If there’s one caveat to

Dusty Baker is a card-carrying grumpy old man. A grumpy old man that wins divisions. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

this Cincinnati Reds team, Baker’s managerial style could be it. He’s calmed down a bit, but he can still overwork a pitcher better than anyone in the Major Leagues. No one in Cincinnati can give a fan more reason to complain than Baker can – but he does deliver the goods in the regular season. The postseason, however, is a different story.

Then there’s Aroldis Chapman. Once again, Cincinnati is sorta kinda, pretty sure that he’s going to be a starter. There’s no doubting his talent as a closer – or the heat coming off that fastball. But starting is a different game entirely, and until I see it for real over a whole season, I have no reason to believe that he’s up to the task. He’s got the pedigree to be one of – if not the best closer in baseball history,  but can he do it as a full-time starter? The Reds are willing to bet on it, but I’m still reserved.

So there you have it – my half-witted and far-reaching predictions for this Central Division. How’d I do? Let the comments fly below, or give us a shout on Twitter @ReviewngTheBrew.

 

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