nl-central-logosContinuing on in the MLB preview series we come to the newly smaller NL Central. It’ll be a bit tougher for the teams as they won’t have the Astros to beat up on anymore. That mantle will pass to the Cubs who are continuing The Theo Rebuild. The rest of division will be more competitive as the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers all the capability to be champs and Pittsburgh will hang on the fringes of the conversation.

Other previews: NL West

5) Chicago Cubs
Without the Astros, the Cubbies will be the new divisional doormat. LF Alfonso Soriano is playing to get out of Wrigley and if continues his strong 2012, then he’ll be gone along with his albatross of a contract. 1B Anthony Rizzo and SS Starlin Castro are both young players who are productive but haven’t reached their peaks yet. Unfortunately that’s about it offensively until they call up OF Brett Jackson. Edwin Jackson finally has some job security though counting on him for ace-like stuff is not wise. Jeff Samardzija is a good #2 starter and who knows when Matt Garza will be back from injury. For some reason Carlos Marmol is still the closer, despite the signing of Kyuji Fujikawa who might be the only bright spot of the bullpen.

4) Pittsburgh Pirates
The Bucs have seemed like they’re on the verge of breaking before fizzling out in the second half. CF Andre McCutchen is one the best players in the game and he’s the offensive centerpiece. 3B Pedro Alvarez has power, but must make more consistent contact and 2B Neil Walker has been quietly productive the last few seasons. C Russell Martin is their big offseason acquisition though depending on him for consistency is a risky proposition. AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are solid, veteran starters who are joined by Francisco Liriano, who will try for an ERA under 5.00, and James MacDonald who faded badly after a hot start. Jason Grilli takes over the closer role from Joel Hanrahan, who was traded to Boston. There’s just not enough talent to compete over the entire season for the Pirates.

3) Milwaukee Brewers
Scoring runs will not be a problem for the Brew Crew. They have perennial MVP candidate LF Ryan Braun as well as 3B Aramis Ramirez and 1B Corey Hart(when he comes back from injury). CF Carlos Gomez and RF Norichika Aoki are each capable of swiping 30+ bags and even C Jonathan Lucroy is productive at the plate. However, their pitching is the exact opposite. Yovani Gallardo is a strikeout machine, but no one else in the rotation inspires much confidence. Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada have promise, but the rotation will have a hard time keeping up with Gallardo. If John Axford can bounce back from last season, then it would go a long way towards solidifying a bullpen that will likely be overworked this season due to starter struggles.

2) St Louis Cardinals
Losing a player the caliber of Albert Pujols didn’t faze the Cards in the slightest, as they nearly went back to the World Series. Their offense will have no problem scoring runs with the likes of LF Matt Holliday, RF Carlos Beltran, 1B Allen Craig, 3B David Freese and C Yadier Molina though Beltran is the key of he can maintain his current production despite his age. The rotation took a hit with the loss of Kyle Lohse to free agency and Chris Carpenter to injury (again) and it will fall to Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn to carry the weight in their absence. On the bright side that opens up spots for their heralded prospects Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Trevor Rosenthal could come back in the picture, but he’s in the bullpen where he’ll set up for closer Joson Motte.

1) Cincinnati Reds
The Reds made only minimal changes in the offseason, but didn’t need to do anything big given how complete their roster is right now. Trading for CF Shin-Soo Choo takes care of the leadoff spot, though putting him in center is a defensive risk. 1B Joey Votto, RF Jay Bruce and LF Ryan Ludwick will supply the power while Choo and 2B Brandon Phillips take care of the speed. The success of the team’s pitching could hinge on what is done with Aroldis Chapman. Seemingly ticketed for the rotation, he’s said he prefers being a closer. Even if he moves back there, the rotation has high strikeout guys in Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, plus there’s Homer Bailey who seems to finally be putting it together. Jonathan Broxton was signed to close, though who knows if that will happen now. Still he’ll lead a collection of solid arms that had the lowest bullpen ERA in the league.