The National League central division will sport a new look for the 2013 Major League Baseball season as the Houston Astros will be taking their talents to the American League West. With Chris Carpenter unlikely to pitch this year due to an arm injury, the Cincinnati Reds are now the overwhelming favorite to finish atop the division for the second consecutive season. The Reds finished 2012 nine games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, which was the largest margin for any division winner last year. Yet, the Cardinals are still very strong after being only one victory away from the World Series this past October. Therefore, the 2013 versions of the Reds and Cardinals are projected to make the postseason while the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates will fall short. In addition, as with the last three seasons, the Chicago Cubs will finish with a losing record.
1. Cincinnati Reds: One of the youngest and best pitching staffs in baseball is getting a facelift. Moving Aroldis Chapman into the rotation and allowing him to pitch more innings will increase his value. A closer can only do so much in 70 innings, but a starting pitcher who throws 150 to 200 innings is far more important. After agreeing to a two-year extension with manager Dusty Baker in October, the Reds made a splash in the trade market when they acquired Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade a couple months later. Only nine teams scored fewer runs than Cincinnati in 2012, so replacing Drew Stubbs with Choo is a major upgrade after Stubbs had an on-base percentage of .277 in 136 games last season. The Reds hope that Choo along with a healthy Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips will help augment their offense.
2. St. Louis Cardinals: After finishing the 2012 regular season with the best run differential in the NL Central, the Cardinals once again showed their postseason prowess by upsetting both the Braves in the wild card game and the Nationals in the divisional round. Over the last ten seasons, the Cardinals have more wins in the playoffs than any other baseball club. Although Carpenter pitched in just three games in 2012 prior the playoffs, the Cardinals still had the fourth-best regular season ERA among the 30 rotations in baseball. Moreover, they led the league with a .338 on-base percentage last season. With almost their entire roster returning for 2013, the Cardinals are primed to return to the postseason.
3. Milwaukee Brewers: Even with Prince Fielder leaving Milwaukee after seven years with the team, the Brewers still had the most runs and best slugging percentage in the National League in 2012. As long as Ryan Braun is not suspended for his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, Milwaukee will begin with almost the same lineup as the team had last season. While Corey Hart will miss around a month due to surgery on his right knee, these Brewers could make an impact in the 2013 NL Central with their overpowering offense and young rotation. If their pitching staff begins the season as Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers, then they will not have a starter over the age of 30. Even if Chris Narveson is a starter for this team in 2012, he turned 31 just a few months ago. While Shaun Marcum left Milwaukee to go to the Mets via free agency, the Brewers will still be able to make a playoff push. However, they will most likely be on the outside looking in at the end of September.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: Although Andrew McCutchen had a breakout season in 2012 and was one of the best players in the MLB, the Pirates still had one of the worst offenses. The Astros, Cubs and Mariners were the only teams to have worse on-base percentages last season and it is debatable if McCutchen will be able to duplicate his 2012 campaign in 2013. Pittsburgh was in the middle of the pack regarding most meaningful pitching statistics, so a postseason berth for this year’s edition of the Pirates will be difficult. There are a few changes to this team from last year, so those tweaks could prevent the Pirates from floundering in the second half of the season for the third consecutive year. They signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year deal and will have Wandy Rodriguez in the rotation for spring training and hopefully the full season. While the playoffs might be out of reach, the Pirates could get to the .500 mark for the first time since 1992, the last time the franchise made the postseason.
5. Chicago Cubs: Unfortunately for the North Side residents of the Windy City, the Cubs remain a punching bag. While they bolstered their rotation with names like Edwin Jackson, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, none of these starters inspire too much confidence for a pitching staff that finished in the bottom ten in almost every meaningful category in 2012. The worst part about this situation for the Cubs is that their bats are even worse than their arms. The only significant addition for the 2013 Cubs is 28-year-old outfielder Nate Schierholtz, whom Chicago signed to a one-year contract. He along with Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Alfonso Soriano will hope to move the Cubs out of the basement in the runs scored department. They drove in the second-fewest runs in 2012 and will most likely finish at the bottom of this division if they are unable to increase that total by a large margin.