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MLB Baseball Preview 2013: National League Central

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This is an intriguing division as I see them as having two powers, two teams on the rise, and then one kind of in between. There is a good chance they send two participants to the playoffs. Meanwhile, there is star power for days among these five teams.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

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Strength: They’ve already exercised some of their biggest strength and it is their depth. They lost Chris Carpenter for the year early on which stung, but they had a de factor four pitcher battle for the fifth spot so with Carpenter out, Lance Lynn was now guaranteed a spot (I’m convinced he’d have won the fifth spot anyway) and the last spot was a three man battle that Shelby Miller eventually won. They have a strong lineup, but there is some fragility to it with Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, and even Matt Holliday showed some creaks and cracks in 2011. Their flexibility within their 25 and some hot prospects on the horizon allows them to afford some bumps along the way (though they’d obviously prefer to stay intact).

Weakness: I love their ace, Adam Wainwright, and I’m a big fan of Lynn, but he has to show he can do it again and so that 2-5 is a bit shaky. Jaime Garcia is a quality lefty, but he has an injury cloud hanging over him related to a shoulder injury from last year. Meanwhile Jake Westbrook is middling and Shelby Miller, while an elite prospect, is a complete unknown in his first MLB season as a starter. They have Joe Kelly on hand who filled in admirably last year along with some other depth so while it is a weakness, it can be covered. Plus they have prospects who could reasonably be dealt if the right deal came along.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Craig is a guy I have been all in on since November so I’ll point you to this piece from December 10th for more on him. I think he stays healthy and puts up a huge season.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: I think Yadier Molina backslides a bit. His late-20s surge was unexpected, but he has turned into an elite hitter all of a sudden. He will remain very good, but just come down a touch from his perch.

Prospect to Watch: Oscar Taveras is too obvious and though I’ve gone obvious at times in these previews, I’ll go with Kolten Wong here. It’s not that I don’t believe in Matt Carpenter, who was installed at second base – a new position to him – this offseason. Rather, I don’t believe in David Freese’s ability to stay healthy meaning Carpenter will go back to his original position of third base opening second for Wong. Wong is just 22 years and hasn’t yet taken a cut in Triple-A so they’ll ride out Daniel Descalso for now (while Freese is on the shelf), but if Wong holds his own in the PCL then he will be up this summer.

Prediction: 90-72

CINCINNATI REDS

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Strength: Even with the loss of Ryan Ludwick to a torn labrum, I love this ballclub’s lineup top-to-bottom. Adding Shin-Soo Choo was arguably the best addition of the offseason given the horrid performance the Reds got out of leadoff men last year. His defense in center will likely be questionable at best given that he’s new to the role and rightfielder by trade, but his offense will more than offset it. The Reds got a .254 on-base percentage from their leadoff hitters last year. TWO-FIFTY-FOUR!! That is unthinkably bad. That isn’t ninth hitter material and they led off with it. The only team to ever field worse was the 1969 Padres whose leadoff batters were somehow allowed to post a .237 OBP. Anyway, beyond that, they have one of the best hitters on the planet in Joey Votto along Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Ludwick replacement Chris Heisey, all who deliver plenty of power.

Weakness: They lack the depth of their divisional counterparts which is why I gave St. Louis the slight edge for the division. I keep hearing analysts and talking heads citing the Reds incredible feat of having five guys start 161 of their 162 games as if it’s a repeatable skill and not just incredible good fortune. That said, as long as Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey remain healthy, finding fill-ins for Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo won’t be as trying.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Most of their guys are well-established already, though I did mention that I like Choo for an excellent season in my NL Bold Predictions. I also think Frazier can take a step forward with a full season locked into a role.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: I just never trust Arroyo. His home ballpark exposes his biggest flaw as he gives up too many homers and the fact that he has a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four seasons is a modern day miracle. I don’t know how he can keep it up, but he will probably stick 200 innings of 3.50 ERA in my eye by season’s end.

Prospect to Watch: Everyone will be watching Billy Hamilton no matter what I say. In fact, many were wonder aloud if he’d be Ludwick’s replacement (which was silly). In case you aren’t too familiar with the speedy minor leaguer, he stole a minor league record 155 bases between High- and Double-A. Just insane. However, he is learning a new position (centerfield, from shortstop) and his bat isn’t nearly as good as his speed and he needs to improve there, too, if he expects to reach the majors and make an impact.

Prediction: 88-74

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

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Strength: They inching ever closer to relevance and they have a squad ready to break their horrendous streak of 20 seasons without a winning record. They don’t have one overwhelming strength, but their lineup is the best entity on this team. Led by Andrew McCutchen, the lineup is supplemented by capable bats in Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and even Russell Martin, who isn’t a bad #7 hitter in the NL. Plus Starling Marte appears to be a guy on the rise ready to make an impact atop their lineup.

Weakness: I’m a longtime fan of James McDonald and I loved the A.J. Burnett trade when they made it, but their rotation beyond those two leaves plenty to be desired. Wandy Rodriguez is a capable backend lefty, but he is their #3 as Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez fill out the last two spots. They are hoping for Burnett Part II with Francisco Liriano, but he has to get healthy first. That said, this could shift from weakness to strength if their “Prospect to Watch” comes up and makes an impact.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Marte is a do-everything, power-speed combo guy in the McCutchen vein whose defense and speed should keep him in the lineup while his bat comes together at the big league level. He really emerged in 2011 at Double-A and followed it up with a great Triple-A campaign during which he hit 21 doubles, 13 triples, and 12 homers in just 99 games before reaching the majors for a 47-game stint.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: He’s already declined so much that I’m not sure Jonathan Sanchez can actually get worse, but he is someone I just don’t believe in at all.

Prospect to Watch: Gerrit Cole, the #1 overall pick from 2011, is someone I see making an impact in 2012. I’m very excited for his MLB career to begin. He has an amazing fastball that sits in the mid-90s while his pair of plus secondary pitches (slider and changeup) make it even more devastating. He has true ace potential, something the Pirates haven’t had in seemingly forever. If one of Locke, Liriano, or somehow Sanchez can be even average while Burnett, McDonald, and Wandy fulfill their expectations, then adding Cole in May or June would really transform this team into something more than a cute little story. A lot of “ifs” so my prediction will reflect the unlikelihood of it all coming together, but regardless I think Cole makes a dent in the MLB this summer.

Prediction: 82-80

CHICAGO CUBS

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Strength: I think they had an excellent offseason as they moved their plan forward brilliantly getting worthy veterans to fill in gaps as they continue to develop youngsters. The team strength would’ve easily been the rotation had Matt Garza not gotten hurt, however I will stick it despite the injury, just a little less adamantly. Jeff Samardzija is developing into a stud before our eyes and Edwin Jackson is a quality arm I’ve been a huge of fan for years. Guys like Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva round out the rotation as they await the return of not only Garza, but also Scott Baker, though they knew he’d miss some time due to injury when they signed him.

Weakness: The bullpen is a mess as Carlos Marmol just can’t get anyone out. The lead up to him isn’t particularly strong, either, outside of possible Kyuji Fujikawa. The Japanese import may soon have Marmol’s job as the ninth inning stopper as it appears to simply be “when” not “if”. Fujikawa has steamrolled Japan Central League the last several years out of the bullpen tallying 370 innings of 1.36 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with a 36 percent strikeout rate and seven percent walk rate. Even if he dominates, that still only gives them one prime reliever, however for a team on the rebuild like the Cubs, a weak bullpen is hardly something to fret over.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Samardzija is someone I’ve raved at multiple outlets including here at GuySpeed. He is ready to make the proverbial leap into stardom as a frontline pitcher. He has great velocity and filthy secondary stuff capable of keeping hitters off balance and missing a ton of bats. The Cubs aren’t ready to compete for anything more than respectability, but when they are, Samardzija will be a key.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Marmol. So bad at getting batters out which just so happens to be his only job.

Prospect to Watch: All of their exciting prospects are a long way out so Cubs fans will have to wait to get too geeked over these guys, but they should the minor league goings-on of Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez. I cheated and chose three, but it also shows you just how bright the future is for Cubs under the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime.

Prediction: 74-88

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

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Strength: Their lineup led baseball last year and it will be a force again in 2013, but it has to in order to keep up with the runs a lot of their pitching staff will be allowing. Ryan Braun is the obvious centerpiece, but Rickie Weeks, Aramis Ramirez, Norichika Aoki, Jonathan LuCroy, Carlos Gomez, and Corey Hart (when he returns from injury) make it one of baseball’s deepest. Shortstop Jean Segura was a key cog in the Zack Greinke trade and I think he will do some nice things from the eight-spot, too.

Weakness: Their bullpen is very problematic. First off, it appears early on as if John Axford’s issues are still present. His stuff remains positively nasty so he can still strike out the world, but he still makes far too many mistakes leading to base runners or worse, homers. They don’t have any obvious replacements either so even getting to Axford is problematic. In fact, I worry about their rotation in spots, too. There are a lot of unproven arms behind Yovani Gallardo and I guess Kyle Lohse because even if he doesn’t repeat 2012, his floor is still decent enough. Guys like Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, and Wily Peralta have a lot to prove.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Aoki, coming in from Japan last year, had a fantastic debut and he really only played five whole months as he was squeezed out for playing time in April until injuries struck. He played three full games then pinch-hit in 15 others totaling 27 plate appearances. And yet despite that he still hit .288 with 10 bombs, 30 stolen bases, 81 runs scored, and 50 RBIs from the top of the lineup. An extra month of time plus a year under his belt will yield even more.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: I can’t see Lohse going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP again. He may throw another 211 innings, but they are likely to be closer to league average this time around like his 2011 which was really good: 14-8, 3.39, and 1.17.

Prospect to Watch: That’s another problem with this team, they don’t have any prospects. I mean, they have some prospects, but they just aren’t particularly special. Peralta debuted last year and got 29 innings of work, so if he can make a leap forward, that will be a major boon for the Brewers, but I think he will have his struggles in his first full season as a big leaguer.

Prediction: 74-88

PREVIEWS: AL EAST | AL CENTRALAL WEST | NL EAST | NL CENTRAL | NL WEST

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