NL Central preview: Surprise! Cincinnati Reds are team to beat

Cincinnati Reds celebrate after winning the NL Central
The Cincinnati Reds should celebrate once again as NL Central champs. (John Grieshop/Getty Images)

In the last five seasons, four different teams have won the NL Central, so what can we expect in 2013? It’s a new season with new players and one less team — not that the Houston Astros were going to be competitive, but the remaining NL Central teams no longer have the Astros to beat up on.

So, will it be competitive, or will someone run away with it? I expect a tight race this year top to bottom; maybe a team or two will fall out of the race around the trade deadline as we’ve seen in past years, but who will win it? Will there be more than one team from the NL Central in the playoffs? If so, then who will be in? Here are my predictions for how the division will shake out:

1. Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are the clear favorites. They didn’t make a lot noise with free agents and were quiet in the trade market, but when you finish 97-65 with a young team, moves aren’t necessary. The few notable moves included signing free-agent relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton (three years, $21 million), who went 4-5 with a 2.48 ERA and 27 saves in 2012 with the Royals and Reds, and the trade for Shin-Soo Choo, who adds more offense to an already big-hitting Reds team. With young guns like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Aroldis Chapman, expect the Reds to be contenders for years to come.

Key Additions: Choo, Broxton
Key Losses: Scott Rolen, Ryan Madson, Drew Stubbs

2. St. Louis Cardinals. This Cardinals team, like pretty much every year, will be a strong competitor in the division. No matter who the Cards lose from season to season, they always seem to compete and find a way to make the playoffs. It doesn’t help the other teams in the division that the Cardinals also have one of the highest ranked farm systems in the majors. The Cardinals were fairly active this offseason, but expect them to fill holes from within, much like they did last season with Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. The Cards have the best chance to keep up with the Reds because of their depth and solid bullpen.

Key Additions: Randy Choate, Ty Wigginton
Key Losses: Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse

3. Pittsburgh Pirates. This is where it starts to get tricky. There are the two clear front runners in the Reds and Cardinals, but the other three teams are all fairly interchangeable in talent level. The Pirates might not have enough to compete for a top spot, especially if last season’s late collapse lingers. The Pirates made quite a few moves in the offseason, including trading closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox and signing coach Clint Hurdle to an extension. I would expect to see the Pirates finish much stronger than last season with the addition of some veteran free agents who have experience in division races.

Key Additions: Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano
Key Losses: Joel Hanrahan, Kevin Correia, Erik Bedard

4. Chicago Cubs. This may be because I’m a Cubs fan, but I believe the Cubs made moves to put them in a position to win more games, just not quite enough to compete for a playoff spot. They are about a year or two away from contending because they have too many holes to fill in order to win 90+ games — center field and third base come to mind). The Cubs revamped their starting rotation, as well as adding a few role players in other spots. As long as they don’t fall too far behind in the standings, we shouldn’t see the roster dismantled at the trade deadline as we have the past few years. However, expect to see the Cubs trade Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Marmol and possiblly Matt Garza at some point in the season, especially if they are out of the running early.

Key Additions: Edwin Jackson, Scott Hairston, Scott Baker
Key Losses: Tony Campana, Bryan LaHairScott Feldman

5. Milwaukee Brewers. This was a tough call putting the Brewers here instead of the Cubs. I just think the Cubs did a good job this offseason with the free agents and the Brewers didn’t. While Milwaukee added a few small-time players who could potentially help, they just didn’t have that one big signee who will be difference maker. They have Ryan Braun, who can single-handedly impact a game, but that may not be enough to compete in this highly competitive division.

Key Additions: Shaun Marcum
Key Losses: Francisco Rodriguez, Nyjer Morgan

The Reds are clear frontrunners for the NL Central. But baseball is a funny game, and anything could happen between now and October. An injury here or there could hugely impact the outcome of this division, so it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out starting in April.

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