2013 MLB Preview: NL Central

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The National League Central is a team down this year as the Houston Astros made a move to the American League. It won’t mean much as the Astros made little impact on the division and really on the MLB. It does leave the division with five teams and better chance for every team to make the playoffs. That will not be easy though as the division contains a number of teams just looking to get back to winning with almost none of them standing out as true powers. One will win the division but who it will be is a mystery until these teams step on to the field. The Central is a division that has a number of teams in the process of rebuilding with some of the teams in the midst of over 100 years of rebuilding. Last year the Cincinnati Reds won the division and they look to do the same this year to begin to dominate the division. They will be up against another team who continues to be a power by finding ways to win even without the biggest pool of talent. The St. Louis Cardinals are a team that continues to look less than great and yet continues to win as one of the top teams in the divisions. Then there is the rest of the teams in the division that continue to try to rebuild their teams to compete. The team closest to the rebuild is the Milwaukee Brewers who were competitors only a few short years ago. There is the Pittsburgh Pirates who seem to be right on the edge of returning to prominence again if they can finish strong. Then of course are the “Loveable Losers” also known as the Chicago Cubs who continue to sit at the bottom of the league time after time. The five teams remaining in the NL Central are all looking to get to the top of this group that seems to change patterns on a year to year basis. The Central has a lot of teams that have a lot of questions and that means a great fight to be the next champion of the division.

 

Chicago Cubs

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The Chicago Cubs have been referred to as the loveable losers by so many people it has become an unofficial nickname but one they would prefer not to have. It has been 104 years since the Cubs were able to host the World Series Trophy. They also have yet to appear in a world series since 1945 although they have come close in past years. The Cubs seem to be cursed when it comes to winning and many use the infamous Billy Goat Curse as an excuse. The reality is that although they have had some unfortunate circumstances they have not been a well-managed team. The team continually tried to spend big money to get out of the basement but times have changed in Chicago. Last year the Cubs were worse than ever but it was the beginning of a new era where money would not solve everything. If there is someone who can tackle this job properly it is Epstein who turned around the once woeful Boston Red Sox who own the third longest World Series Drought of all time at 85 years until they won in 2005 with Epstein was at the helm. He now looks to do the same in Chicago and if there is anyone who can steer this team in the right direction it is Epstein. The plan is not finished yet and so there will be another losing season and last place season but there is hope for the future.

 

Strength:
Management’s Plan
– Theo Epstein helped to end an 85 year World Series drought in Boston and he is looking to do the same thing in Chicago as the plan will likely leave the Cubs at the bottom of the division but it could finally give the Cubs the management they need to start winning games in the future

Weakness:
The Curse Continues
– The Cubs are a legendary team and one of the many legends is the Billy Goat Curse that seems to continually bring about terrible luck for the Cubs which continues to this day as they continue to fail season after season

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– It is hard for a team as bad as the Cubs to lose anyone that had made their team better as the limited losses will not make much of an impact with their biggest loss, Ryan Dempster, leaving in a trade in 2012

Biggest Addition:
Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP (Free Agency)
– The Cubs have a lot of holes in their lineup and they are going to fill them slowly with Fujikawa being one of those place fillers as the Cubs will slowly groom the veteran Japanese pitcher for the closing role

Player to Watch:
Starlin Castro, SS
– If there is one bright spot on the Cubs it is their young shortstop as Castro is the future of this club and a player they can build around and he will look to build on three solid seasons to help the Cubs in their rebuild

 

Cincinnati Reds

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The Reds have been a part of the up and down nature of the National League Central but have remained near the top every year. 2012 was no different as the Reds would go into the season thought to be a third place team and yet would win the division. They would do this with a number of good players and a lot of good luck. They would benefit from unprecedented good health and a pitching staff that came together perfectly. In 2013 the likelihood of everything coming together again is not good and the Reds will need to hope that the holes they had that were disguised last year are filled now. The Reds would sign a number of players to long-term deals hoping that stability will win games. They will look to Aroldis Chapman and Shin-Soo Choo to help fill some holes as both will be new to their spots. For Chapman he will be new to the rotation, or so the Reds hope, as he looks to move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. For Choo he will be new to the team as one of the few new additions to the team who will look to fill the much-needed leadoff spot. The Reds need a lot to go right this season just like they did last season. It can happen, like 2012 showed, and no matter how unlikely it is the Reds will be in the hunt once again this year.

 

Strength:
Starting Rotation
– The pitching staff was great last year for the Reds and they are an experienced group that is expected to lead this team to the postseason again especially if Aroldis Chapman can turn out to be a solid starter there will be very little holes in the rotation

Weakness:
The delicate balancing act
– Last year the Reds had plenty of things go right and they will need that to happen again as a few things going wrong could sink their season and things going wrong are generally a guarantee in professional sports

Biggest Loss:
Nobody
– The Reds went into the offseason with one thing in mind and that was to retain their core players which is what they did signing their best players to long-term deals as they would retain their core and not lose any key players

Biggest Addition:
Shin-Soo Choo, OF (Trade)
– The Reds have some power in the batting order but their biggest challenge has been to find someone to leadoff and get on base and Choo is their attempt to get that guy as a good average hitter that will bat at the top of the order for the Reds

Player to Watch:
Joey Votto, 1B
– Votto has had a rocky few seasons as a battle with depression and anxiety would cut his 2009 season short and then he would win the 2010 NL MVP but since then has been plagued by injuries and is looking to get back to his 2010 form this year

 

Milwaukee Brewers

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The Milwaukee Brewers would reach their goal in 2011 when they would win the division after spending like a big market team. They would begin to take some hits after that season though as the salaries would catch up to them and they would begin losing their top players. The first to go would be Prince Fielder in 2012 and it clearly had an effect on the team. The Brewers would finish in third place and out of the playoffs only a year after winning the division. The Brewers are once again feeling the pinch of their earlier attempts to spend as they would lose a number of pieces to the team. The Brewers kept most of their offence this year which is a good thing but the same could not be said for their pitching staff. The starting rotation would lose some key players and the pinch to spend less would not allow them to sign reinforcements. This would leave the Brewers with a very inexperienced rotation that might force the offence to make up for their issues. The Brewers needed 2011 to be their championship year and when it wasn’t it made them suffer for years to come. The Brewers are on the decline as they cannot spend with the best of them in free agency and have not built a strong prospect pool to replace those who left as they will continue their fall in the NL Central.

 

Strength:
Offence
– With Ryan Braun at the helm the Brewers are a potent offensive team as they have a number of good batters that play a number of roles in the batting order which gives them a good set up to score runs

Weakness:
Pitching
– The pitching staff would have been boosted by Ryan Dempster but they didn’t get him and would be left with two pitchers who have some MLB experience while the other three will be relatively new to an MLB rotation

Biggest Loss:
Shaun Marcum, RHP (Free Agency)
– Marcum is not an Ace in the MLB but he is a good pitcher with great control that could have been a good part to this inexperienced rotation but with his contract up he left leaving the Brewers without one of their top pitchers

Biggest Addition:
Tom Gorzelanny, LHP (Free Agency)
– He is an experienced pitcher and should provide some solid innings for the Brewers in the bullpen which is good considering the pitching rotation is a big unknown and could be an inconsistent aspect to the team

Player to Watch:
John Axford, RHP
– After a great 2011 season where he only blew 2 saves and had an ERA less than two Axford took a step back in 2012 going 35/44 in saves and will try to get back to his 2011 numbers while putting last year behind him to provide that solid 9th inning the Brewers need

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Pirates are one of the many teams that have struggled for years but they are somewhat different from those teams. They have had a bad run and were almost constantly competing with the Cubs to be the second worst team in the division. Lately though the Pirates have shown signs of life and look like a postseason team year after year. Their only issue is that they cannot finish off a season like they start the season. The Pirates always start the season off as a great team and then slow down to the point where they quickly fall out of the postseason. The Pirates are looking for that finish this year so that they can break a 20-year losing streak. The Pirates are trying to earn their first winning season in 20 years and they have what they need to do it if only they can find that late season kick. They will look to their emerging stars led by Andrew McCutchen to help them get that winning season. It is tough to say what the Pirates will be this year as they have proven that they are a good team yet they continue to fall short. There is no doubt that they can get that winning season and even challenge for a playoff spot but history is not promising. This year the Pirates may finally break through as the winning season seems to finally be here but a postseason berth does not seem in the cards.

 

Strength:
Young Talent
– The Pirates are a very talented team with a young star at the helm in Andrew McCutchen and others with plenty of potential like Travis Snyder and Pedro Alvarez leading the way for the Pirates and their powerful offence

Weakness:
Late in the Season
– The Pirates have charged out of the gate for the last two years but when it came time to finish off the season they ran out of steam in what has become a pattern for the team that they need to break to take that next step

Biggest Loss:
Kevin Correia, RHP (Free Agency)
– The Pirates solid rotation took a bit of a hit this offseason when they lost veteran pitcher Kevin Correia who if nothing else was a consistent pitcher with 12 wins in each of the last two years he left a hole in the pitching rotation

Biggest Addition:
Russell Martin, C (Free Agency)
– On a team full of young bats Martin provides veteran leadership and behind the plate he will be able to manage every pitcher on this staff especially after spending time with the New York Yankees and the staff on that team

Player to Watch:
Andrew McCutcheon, OF
– McCutchen is the leader of this team and after the season of his career last year that saw him finish in third in MVP voting a lot more is expected of him as he will be the linchpin in the Pirates’ attempt at a winning season

 

St. Louis Cardinals

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The St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in the MLB in 2011 winning the World Series in a very unpredictable season. Then the exodus began as the Cardinals would lose some of the most important pieces for the 2012 season. It was expected that the Cardinals would find themselves taking a step back without some of their leaders from the season earlier. The Cardinals would prove everyone wrong last year as they would not take a big step back instead finding ways to win. They would battle the Reds for the division last year and although they would not win they would earn another postseason berth. The Cardinals are one of the few teams in the MLB that continues to show organizational strength year after year. They may not always have the biggest names or payrolls but they are always in the fight now matter who is on the team. They are a unique franchise and year after year they find ways to win so it is always tough to count them out. The Cards will be in the fight again this year as they fight the Reds once again for that top spot. It has become one of the best battles in the MLB and will continue once again this year as the Central may come down to these two teams. The Cards might just fall short of a division title although a wild card spot is not out of the question.

 

Strength:
They Find ways to win
– They don’t have to have an experienced Manager or a 3-time MVP on their team to win games as the Cardinals are a franchise that simply knows how to win games no matter who is on their team

Weakness:
Injury Bug
– The Cardinals are a veteran team and with that comes injury trouble as they lost two good players in Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman from their team and if that trend continues they may lose even more over the next years

Biggest Loss:
Kyle Lohse, RHP (Free Agency)
– The Cardinals rotation was heavy on veterans last year which helped when Chris Carpenter went down with injury but they will be one short this year as Kyle Lohse will not be with the team leaving the team with one less good veteran pitcher

Biggest Addition:
Randy Choate, LHP (Free Agency)
– The Cardinals bullpen is far from balanced as Marc Rzepczynski is the only left-handed reliever and so the Cardinals went out to get another pitcher that can do what Rzepczynski does to reduce the load

Player to Watch:
Chris Carpenter, RHP
– Carpenter was a key to the Cardinals World Series win in 2011 but in 2012 he would not pitch much as he would require surgery for nerve issues in his shoulder but looks ready to return for the new season as he puts the shoulder issues behind him to lead the Cards’ rotation

 

Prediction:
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs

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