Yet again the National League Central was home to one of the most diverse pennant races in the game a year ago. The Pittsburgh Pirates came out the gate with their best (and longest) runs in nearly 20 years, as they sat in first place at the All-Star Break, in front of the Cincinnati Reds and defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Yet, that grasp on the division didn’t last in the second half, a part of the year where the Milwaukee Brewers put together an assault on pushing into the postseason picture. But in the end, the Reds made the regular season their own down the stretch, winning the Central by nine games, the largest division title margin in either league. Yet, in the end, it was the St. Louis Cardinals who pushed their season the furthest from the Wild Card spot again, finishing one game away from a second consecutive World Series.
1. Reds (97-65)
2. Cardinals (88-74)**
3. Brewers (83-79)
4. Pirates (79-83)
5. Cubs (61-101)
6. Astros (55-107)
This season, it’s a new division in where in the fact it’s a smaller division. Gone are the Houston Astros, who joined the Chicago Cubs as one of two 100 loss teams in the Central. That subtraction will make the fight for the division rougher in and of itself. The Reds are bringing in perhaps their most complete team of any season. The Cardinals loom constant in the division, as the most clutch team in baseball in the last two pennant chases. The Brewers and Pirates are both just outside the hump of the Cards/Reds, but both have shown plenty of fight and have made the changes needed to cut the division down. Meanwhile, the Cubs rebuilding continues, and they could be in position to spring a rise as well. So who’s the best in the revamped middle of the NL?
All Division Team
Catcher: Yadier Molina-Cardinals
First Base: Joey Votto-Reds
Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Reds
Third Base: Aramis Ramirez-Brewers
Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Cubs
Left Field: Ryan Braun-Brewers
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen-Pirates
Right Field: Jay Bruce-Reds
Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright-Cardinals
Starting Pitcher: Johnny Cuerto-Reds
Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Brewers
Starting Pitcher: Mat Latos-Reds
Righty Relief: Mitchell Boggs-Cardinals
Lefty Relief: Sean Marshall-Reds
Closer: Aroldis Chapman-Reds
- Ryan Braun, Brewers
- Joey Votto, Reds
- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
- Aroldis Chapman, Reds
- Matt Holliday, Cardinals
- Brandon Phillips, Reds
- Jay Bruce, Reds
- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
- Starlin Castro, Cubs
The Cardinals led the NL in hits a year ago, and finished in the top 5 in average, runs scored and total bases. With Jon Jay atop the lineup for a full season, those numbers could each increase. Meanwhile, sparked by Braun and a resurgent Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers seven of the eight everyday players reached double digits in home runs.
Heart of the Lineup
- Reds (Votto/Ludwick/Bruce)
- Cardinals (Holliday/Craig/Freese)
- Brewers (Braun/Ramirez/Hart)
- Cubs (Rizzo/Soriano/Castro)
- Pirates (McCutchen/Jones/Alvarez)
The re-emergence of Ludwick (26 home runs, 80 RBI) gave the middle of the Reds line up some much needed right handed power. Votto had another now-standard type of season for him (.337 average, 40 doubles), despite missing over 50 games. Alfonso Soriano had a career-high 108 RBI and topped 30 homers for the first time in 5 years.
- Reds (Choo/Phillips)
- Cardinals (Jay/Beltran)
- Pirates (Marte/Walker)
- Brewers (Aoki/Weeks)
- Cubs (DeJesus/Schierholtz)
There’s a diverse group of lineup lead offs in Cincy. Choo and Phillips are both 20 homer/20 steal candidates, while Carlos Beltran is an early indicator of the big bats up and down the Cardinals lineup (32 homers, 97 RBI). Norichika Aoki had made a big debut, stealing 30 bags and adding 50 extra base hits as well.
Pittsburgh is taking to the strength in numbers approach. With Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez all rotation in and out of the starting linup, there’s always going to be at least two impact bats in reserves. Add in John McDonald, and that’s a deep offering. The Cardinals depth is lead by the presence of a couple of Matt’s (Adams and Carpenter) that will offer various impacts for both resting and alternating lineup approaches.
The Reds had a coming of age in their rotation a year ago. Four of their five starters reached double digits in wins to go along with ERA’s under 4.00; a result strong enough for the team to resist putting Aroldis Chapman in the rotation. The Cubs have boosted their rotation with Edwin Jackson, but the health of Matt Garza and return of Scott Baker are key to if this team can actually surprise the rest of the pack in the Central, which they have the potential to do.
- Reds (Cuerto/Latos)
- Cardinals (Wainwright/Lynn)
- Brewers (Gallardo/Lohse)
- Pirates (Burnett/Rodriguez)
- Cubs (Garza/Samardzija)
Johnny Cueto won 19 games with a 2.78 ERA last season, and continued his accent up the ranks of most underappreciated hurlers in baseball. Lance Lynn won 18 games in an up and down first season as a starter, and Adam Wainwright had a gradual yet impressive, 14-win return, from Tommy John surgery as well. A return completely from him gives the division a legitimate Cy Young front runner candidate.
The back end of the Reds bullpen is a nightmare. Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton are among the best left-right setup combos in baseball, and Chapman waits in the wings as arguably the best power pitcher in baseball (a record 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings). The Cardinals bullpen took a hit when Jason Motte was shutdown indefinitely with an elbow injury. He tied for the NL lead in saves with 42 a year ago.
There’s a trio of Gold Glove worthy centerfielders in the Central, with McCutchen, Jon Jay and Carlos Gomez. But there’s only one award to go out, and The Cutch took it home a year ago. Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto are among the elite defensive infielders in the game, while Yadier Molina (five consecutive GG’s) is among the greatest defensive catchers ever.
With the exception of Milwaukee, it is not a very fast division. The Brewers outfield of Braun, Gomez and Aoki each topped 30 steals, with a total of 97. Pittsburgh has an aggressive, quick team with Sterling Marte, Josh Harrison and McCutchen topping five triples.
- Dusty Baker, Reds
- Ron Roenicke, Brewers
- Mike Matheny, Cardinals
- Clint Hurdle, Pirates
- Dale Sveum, Cubs
Baker has pulled the Reds to two consecutive division championships, while the Cardinals as a team have reached the previous two National League Championship Series, which Matheny did as a rookie manager last year. Hurdle has the Pirates on the verge of snapping their record losing season streak, and received a two-year contract extension to do so.
The Cubs are in the midst of an intentional rebuilding run, but if they wanted to go all in immediately to fight into the picture, the funds are there. Team president Theo Epstein is just biding his time by building within, before inevitably releasing the okay to make the type of additions that no other team in the Central has the resources to match. The Cardinals shored up their final questionable contract situation for the foreseeable future by reaching a $97.5 million extension in March.
- Shin-Soo Choo (Reds from Indians)
- Kyle Lohse (Brewers from Cardinals)
- Edwin Jackson (Cubs from Nationals)
- Randy Choate (Cardinals from Dodgers)
- Kyuji Fujikawa (Cubs via Japan)
Acquiring Choo, who is pending free agency, was a win-now move for the Reds who are looking to find a way to carry their regular season runs into October. After what felt like the longest, coldest winter ever, Kyle Lohse found a 3 year home in Milwaukee, in a move that could tilt the balance in the Central some.
Leap Forward Candidates
- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
- Todd Frazier, Reds
- Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
- Michael Fiers, Brewers
- Jeff Sarmardija, Cubs
Rizzo has raw power to spare, and as soon as he touched Chicago a year ago, he became the guy they built their lineup around. He hit 15 homers in his Cub debut, and shows the type of profile to become an All-Star as soon as this year. Frazier stepped when Votto went down last year and hit 19 homers as third and first baseman, as well as some outfield.
Rookies/Prospects to Watch
- Oscar Tavares (Cardinals, Outfielder – AAA)
- Shelby Miller (Cardinals, Pitcher –MLB)
- Starling Marte (Pirates, Outfielder—MLB)
- Billy Hamilton (Reds, Center Field—AAA)
- Garret Cole (Pirates, Pitcher—AAA)
The Cardinals top two prospects are ready to burst into the MLB scene, but only one has a clear path. Tavares hit like he belonged in the spring, but Miller will get his day in the sun first, as he made the club as fifth starter. Hamilton has stolen 258 bases the last two years in the Reds system, and as soon as he finds a position, he’ll be among the elite speedsters in the MLB too.
While 2012’s Central was the scene of the biggest gap between the best and worst in baseball, which is a thing of the past. There are four legitimate contenders for the postseason bunched together, and if everything plays out as it forecasts, it will be the toughest division to get out of in baseball. While it has produced three of the last six Wild Card winners, winning this division will never have been more important, because the chance to rack up wins, without a title, is going to be difficult.
One thing is certain, is that every team can hit in the division, so the margins of who can keep their red flags flying the lowest is of the utmost importance. The two-time runners up in St. Louis have the talent to win the division, but have the challenge of staying healthy in front of them, as well as a lot of “ifs” regarding their pitching staff. The Brewers can hit, and worked on their pitching some, but the staff as whole is still a cut below St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Winning it one way will be tough. As for the Cubs, they are quietly improving, but it’s going to be closer to two years off before they have everything in place to factor back into the race.
That leaves the Reds in a similar position. They have the bats, pitching and ballpark to shape the division in their favor. The decision to leave Chapman in the bullpen gives them the most dominant unit of any team in the division via their pitching staff. They can play defense behind them, and get the runs to support their effort consistently. If Joey Votto’s knee is healthy, Shin-Soo Choo can be steady enough in the field at his new position in center and health continues to be their ally (only two non-rotation starts in all of 2012), they will hold off the pack, and take their third consecutive Central title. But what happens from there…is still uncertain.
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