Moving on from the NL West, we come to the NL Central, the division that arguably had the biggest turnover, not to mention headline-grabbing moves. Pujols and Fielder are gone, Theo is in Chicago, Braun avoided a 50 game PED suspension and Houston will move to the AL West next season, among other items. The Reds, who won the division in 2010, made moves to fix their pitching to go along with a potent offense. The Champs lost Pujols but still have enough to contend, especially with the return of Adam Wainright. Fielder bolted Milwaukee, and Aramis Ramirez will be hard pressed to replace his production. Pittsburgh continues to stockpile talent and appears to be on track. When the Cubs’ biggest addition is in the front office, it doesn’t bode well. At least Houston is there to occupy the division cellar.
1) Cincinnati Reds
After a down year, the Reds look poised to recapture the division they won it 2010, due in no small part to their offense. Joey Votto, now the best 1B in the division, is a cornerstone with big power. RF Jay Bruce is another, though he may struggle with his average. 2B Brandon Phillips and CF Drew Stubbs are 20/20 threats and youngsters SS Zack Cozart and C Devin Mesoraco both have star potential. There’s even a heated battle between Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey for the LF job, so scoring runs will not be a problem for the Reds. The team’s biggest move was trading for Mat Latos to fortify the rotation. He’ll provide quality innings and tons of Ks, while teaming with Johnny Cueto for a solid 1-2 punch. Bronson Arroyo eats up innings but still struggles to prevent runs. Mike Leake and Homer Bailey round out the rotation. The Reds thought they solved their closer problem when they signed Ryan Madson, but he’s now out for the season, needing Tommy John surgery. Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman are candidates to replace him, but there’s enough solid options in the pen to protect leads late.
2) St Louis Cardinals
Losing Pujols was obviously a very big story for the Cards in the offseason, but it’s not like the cupboard is bare. Lance Berkman will replace him at 1B and will hard pressed to replicate last season’s breakout numbers. LF Matt Holliday will provide the bulk of the power along with Berkman. RF Carlos Beltran still has some juice left in the tank, as does SS Rafael Furcal. 3B Daivd Freese, the playoff darling, might be the key as he has never played a full season and will be under pressure. What seemed like a strength only recently in the rotation took a hit with the news Chris Carpenter is out for an undetermined amount of time. They do get Adam Wainright back, but it might be awhile before he regains his dominant 2010 form. Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse look to pick up the slack in the meantime. Jason Motte appears to be the closer, even though Fernando Salas had more saves last season. Super prospect Shelby Miller will find his way onto the staff at some point this season, whether the rotation of bullpen.
3) Milwaukee Brewers
The Bruan PED saga took up most of the headlines in the Brewers’ offseason, though they will have him from Day 1, which will be good since he is one of the best players in the game, though me might have to clean up his image. 3B Aramis Ramirez is not Prince Fielder, so Braun’s lineup protection won’t be as great. Mat Gamel will be the new 1B and 2B Rickie Weeks will be counter to help Ramirez replace Fielder’s production. Their rotation faces questions as last offseason’s big acquisitions, Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum, were bad down the stretch. Randy Wolf is a solid but unspectacular starter, but the Brew Crew have Yovani Gallardo, a true ace and underrated. The mustachioed John Axford broke out last season and is entrenched as the closer with Francisco Rodriguez installed in the set up position. Manny Parra, Jose Veras and Kameron Loe provide reliable middle relief options.
4) Pittsburgh Pirates
For a team that has not been successful lately, the Pirates were briefly near the top of the division last season. Still they are sticking to their rebuilding plan. The star of the team is unquestionably CF Andrew McCutchen, who is a power/speed threat and should be a lineup fixture for years to come. Other players to build around are LF Alex Presley, RF Jose Tabata and 2B Neil Walker, though the rest of the lineup is nothing impressive, especially 3B Pedro Alvarez who failed to live up to the hype last season. While the lineup has some bright spots, the rotation certainly does not. There is no true ace, just a bunch of guys that would normally be at the bottom of a rotation. Erik Bedard, who hasn’t been relevant in years, will be counted on. There are promising arms in Gerritt Cole and Jameson Taillon making their way through the system though. Joel Hanrahan was a revelation as closer last year getting 40 saves, though he is the only decent arm in the bullpen.
5) Chicago Cubs
Bringing in Theo Epstein wasn’t the only change for the Cubbies, though it grabbed the most headlines. Theo still has to deal with the bad contracts of the previous regime before he can truly start rebuilding, chief among those being LF Alfonso Soriano. The team did acquire Anthony Rizzo, their first baseman of the future and brought in RF David DeJesus who should provide some spark from the leadoff spot. SS Starlin Castro is already a star and should continue to grow. Still the rest of the lineup is unimpressive. The pitching staff is not that much better. Matt Garza is the ace and Ryan Dempster is a solid vet, but there’s not much else. Carlos Marmol struggled in the closer role last season and Kerry Wood is being counted on as a setup man and that should tell you all about the state of the Cub bullpen.
6) Houston Astros
The Astros’ last voyage through the waters of the NL Central will not be a pleasant one. Before moving to the AL West, they’ll go through a tumultuous season. 1B Carlos Lee is the only proven bat, but there are a number of unproven youngsters including LF JD Martinez, CF Jordan Schafer, 2B Jose Altuve and 3B Chris Johnson and the team will struggle to score runs. 1B Jonathan Singleton and OF George Springer are elite prospects that are a few years away. Wandy Rodriguez is the ace of the staff, Bud Norris has potential and Livan Hernandez will be counted on to eat up innings, but the other candidates are unproven and will have a hard time keeping their ERAs down. Brett Myers is a serviceable closer, but the rest of the bullpen is mediocre.