2013 Major League previews: NL Central

A look at the National League Central Division clubs and projected standings for the upcoming season. Will the Reds repeat?

This is the sixth and final installment of our in-depth view of each of Major League Baseball's six divisions for the upcoming season.

1. Cincinnati Reds

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 97-65, 1st in NL Central
Pitching: 3.34 ERA ranked 4th in MLB
Hitting: .726 OPS ranked 13th in MLB

Lineup: A full season out of first baseman Joey Votto, who missed time last year after injuring his knee, and the addition of outfielder Shin-soo Choo at the top of the lineup will do wonders for what was already a productive offense. 79 home runs in the form of outfielders Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick, and third baseman Todd Frazier return to provide pop in the lineup. Ludwick presents somewhat of a question mark, but he should put up similar results, if healthy.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips and catcher Ryan Hanigan are well above-average players and will complete what will rival the Cardinals as the best lineup in the Central. Prospect Billy Hamilton will most definitely be on the 25-man roster at some point and show off his blazing speed.

Pitching: Health was a key to the Reds pitching staff in 2012, as starters Johnny Cueto (2.78 ERA in 2012), Mat Latos (3.48), Bronson Arroyo (3.74), Homer Bailey (3.68), and Mike Leake (4.58) made all but one start. All five pitchers return to form a steady rotation.

Keeping Aroldis Chapman as closer was most likely the best option for the 2013 Reds. The Cuban native allowed his first earned run on June 7th last year on way to an incredible season. Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton will compliment Chapman in what will once again be a productive bullpen for the Reds.

Outlook: Cincinnati only improved their roster from a club that amounted to 97 wins last year. The Reds will receive plenty of noise from the St. Louis Cardinals, but the Reds claim the most complete team in the division. Expect them to repeat as winners of the Central.

Will Jay be the "x-factor"?
2. St. Louis Cardinals

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 88-74, 2nd in NL Central, Wild Card
Pitching: 3.71 ERA ranked 8th in MLB
Hitting: .759 OPS ranked 6th in MLB

Lineup: St. Louis returns five regulars who posted batting averages of .293 or above last season. They certainly won't hurt offensively in 2013. The Cardinals took a hit when they received the inevitable news that shortstop Rafael Furcal would miss the season following Tommy John surgery. He will be replaced with Pete Kozma in the lineup. The club will keep their eyes open for an upgrade mid-season.

Centerfielder Jon Jay proved himself a catalyst at the top of the lineup and will look to replicate his .373 on-base percentage and 19 steals. Outfielders Matt Holliday (27 home runs in 2012) and Carlos Beltran (32), along with first baseman Allen Craig (22) and catcher Yadier Molina (22) will provide plenty of pop in the middle of the order.

The Cardinals will host more power from their reserves, including first baseman Matt Adams. Oscar Taveras will provide a great safety net should any of the outfielders go down with injury. Taveras figures to have a role with the big club sometime this season. Infielder Matt Carpenter will also provide a great bat off the bench, though he could get several starts per week at second base.

Pitching: Fresh off a five-year, $97.5 million extension, ace Adam Wainwright will lead the rotation. Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, he held a 3.28 earned-run average after the 2012 All-Star break and figures to at least match that for the full season this year. Lefty Jaime Garcia, who has battled through shoulder concerns, will fit next to Wainwright.

Lance Lynn lost around 40 pounds in the offseason and hopes that his new physique will better equip him to take on 180+ innings. Lynn pitched well enough to make the All-Star team last year but was briefly moved to the bullpen in the second half. Jake Westbrook will return, as well. Top pitching prospect Shelby Miller won the fifth spot over Joe Kelly, though the latter will fill a spot in the bullpen.

The relief corps will start the season without Jason Motte, as the club hopes his elbow issue is a brief concern. The bullpen features fireballers galore. Mitchell Boggs will temporarily close games in Motte's absence, while Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal will handle set-up duties.

Outlook: St. Louis will make plenty of noise in the NL Central and will at least compete for a Wild Card spot. With the best farm system in the minor leagues, the Cardinals have plenty of top talent ready to fill in over the next two seasons. Taveras will get playing time in the majors this year, while second baseman Kolten Wong is a year away from starting games on a consistent basis.

Pitchers Kelly and Rosenthal provide quality insurance should a starter go down. Starter Michael Wacha made a major impression in spring training and is on the cusp of the majors. The Cardinals could also use their minor-league depth to facilitate a trade mid-season.

Braun has one MVP already
3. Milwaukee Brewers

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 83-79, 3rd in NL Central
Pitching: 4.22 ERA ranked 22nd in MLB
Hitting: .762 OPS ranked 5th in MLB

Lineup: Milwaukee returns an intriguing lineup, though they will be without first baseman Corey Hart until sometime in May. Assuming Major League Baseball does not find a way to suspend superstar Ryan Braun, the offense should perform as well as it did last season.

Right fielder Norichika Aoki, in his second year, is a solid leadoff hitter. Aoki will be followed by second baseman Rickie Weeks, Braun, and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The Brewers hope Weeks hits like he did from 2009-2012 as opposed to the .230 batting average he put up last season. Ramirez was a key pick-up by Milwaukee a year ago and figures to put up the same numbers (.300 batting average, 27 home runs). Centerfielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura may struggle to hit for average, but both bring speed to the lineup.

Pitching: It seemed like Kyle Lohse would go unsigned until June before Milwaukee swept in and signed the right-hander to a three-year deal. Lohse gives more credibility to their rotation. Yovani Gallardo will lead the starting five, as they wait to see if he is able to take that next step to ‘ace' status. Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, and Chris Narveson will make up the rest of the rotation. While those final three guys will miss plenty of bats, it s questionable if they can make up for the inefficiencies in the bullpen.

Milwaukee had the worst bullpen earned-run average (4.66) of any team last year. They added relievers Burke Badenhop, Mike Gonzalez, and Tom Gorzelanny, but none have had consistent, proven success as relievers. Closer John Axford hopes to rebound from a poor season last year that featured bad control (39 walks in 69.1 innings), a high earned-run average (4.67), and nine blown saves in 44 opportunities.

Outlook: Milwaukee's offense will have a strong year, but it won't mask an inefficient bullpen. Their starting rotation will be interesting to watch, but they do not have many back-up options outside of Wily Peralta if they face injuries. The Brewers will most likely hover around .500.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 79-83, 4th in NL Central
Pitching: 3.86 ERA ranked 13th in MLB
Hitting: .699 OPS ranked 25th in MLB

Lineup: Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen will be as exciting as any player to watch in 2013, but he will not be enough to elevate what projects to be a mediocre offense. Pedro Alvarez should hit 30 or more home runs again this season, though the third baseman will most likely always struggle to hit for average. Garrett Jones blasted 27 home runs last year, but his career .321 on-base percentage is very poor for a first baseman.

Second baseman Neil Walker is a pretty solid bat at his position. Catcher Russell Martin is a new addition who will pop 15-20 long balls, but expecting him to hit .240 will be a chancy venture. Outfielder Starling Marte will need to break out offensively this season if Pittsburgh wants to elevate its offense above mediocrity.

Pitching: A.J. Burnett put up good numbers last year (3.51 ERA, 180 strikeouts in 202.1 innings) and will frontline the rotation with Wandy Rodriguez. The ex-Astros lefty will pitch his first full season in a Pirates uniform. Starters Jeff Locke, James McDonald, and Jonathan Sanchez will make up the rest of the rotation. Jeff Karstens and Francisco Liriano will see time in the rotation this season.

Jason Grilli will take over the closer spot from Joel Hanrahan. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes are pretty good options to precede Grilli, but it is questionable what to expect out of the rest of the bullpen.

Outlook: It is hard to imagine Pittsburgh making a run this year with no part of their team that projects above average. Help is on the way, though. Top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole will make his first appearance in 2013, sure to be followed within the next couple seasons by fellow top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon. Their farm system also boasts two exciting position prospects in Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, who are still a few years away.

5. Chicago Cubs

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 61-101, 5th in NL Central
Pitching: 4.51 ERA ranked 24th in MLB
Hitting: .680 OPS ranked 28th in MLB

Lineup: It seems inevitable that the Chicago Cubs will trade Alfonso Soriano, who was their most productive hitter last season. Chicago just hopes that Soriano will be able to hit like he did last season (32 home runs, .821 OPS) before that happens. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro are both capable of All-Star seasons and probably represent the other threats in the Cubs lineup.

Pitching: The Cubs signed starter Edwin Jackson to a reasonable four-year contract, and he will fit alongside Jeff Samardzija at the top of the rotation. Samardzija made a big leap last year with a 3.81 earned-run average and 180 strikeouts through 174.2 innings. It's possible that he could improve on those numbers this season.

Matt Garza will be out through April, but the Cubs hope to get him back healthy as he is also a trade candidate mid-season. Scott Feldman, Travis Wood, and Carlos Villanueva will make up the final spots of the rotation, though one will be displaced when Garza returns.

After a failed off-season trade that would have sent Carlos Marmol to the Angels for Dan Haren, Marmol will return to the closer role. Marmol's control issues remain, while the rest of the bullpen does not elicit much confidence.

Outlook: The Cubs remain a few years away from serious contention. Rizzo will definitely be a player to watch this season, as he represents the future of the Cubs offense. Chicago has some plus hitting talent in the minors who project as future All-Stars. Shortstop Javier Baez with outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler will be a thrill to watch in the minors this season.

Links to previous articles in this series:
2013 Major League previews: AL East
2013 Major League previews: AL Central
2013 Major League previews: AL West
2013 Major League previews: NL East
2013 Major League previews: NL West

Pierce Jefferson can be reached via email at piercerjefferson@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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