2013 NL Central Preview

2013 NL Central Preview

The NL Central got a little lighter over the offseason, with the departure of the Astros.  No offense to Houston fans, but teams in the NL Central definitely benefited from having the ‘stros on their schedule regularly every season. Even with inflated win totals, the NL Central is home to some very potent teams in 2013, including the Cardinals, Brewers and of course the Reds. Check out the previews for each of the NL Central teams by using the tabs below. Each preview has been meticulously prepared by one of the top sports bloggers for each of the respective teams, giving us the best look at how each team is projected to perform in 2013.

 

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Chicago Cubs

2013 Cubs Preview

This 2013 Cubs preview is brought to you by Brian of BullpenBrian.com.

Brian Corbin is a Chicago-based sports blogger having covered Cubs baseball year-round at BullpenBrian.com since 2007. His copy also appears on the Yahoo! Sports Contributor Network and has been published on the Chicago Sun-Times News Group web sites and numerous baseball blogs. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bullpenbrian. Enjoy!

Since taking the reins of the Chicago Cubs roughly 17 months ago, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have concentrated on rebuilding the Cubs’ roster around a core of young, talented and cost-controlled players.

While much progress has been made reshaping the franchise into a more unified and efficient organization from top to bottom, the product on the field left fans suffering through a disastrous 101-loss season in 2012, the second most defeats in the team’s long history.

The Cubs set a single-season franchise record by utilizing 53 different players on last year’s roster, which evolved partly from the club’s July 31 non-waiver trade deadline deals involving pitchers Ryan Dempster and Paul Mahlom, outfielder Reed Johnson and former 2008 Rookie of the Year, catcher Geovany Soto.

Those deals opened the doors for top-prospects Brett Jackson (center field) and Josh Vitters (third base) to make their major-league debuts in August, the results of which, where less than encouraging. Jackson, 24, struck out 59 times in 142 plate appearances while Vitters, 22, mostly appeared over-matched against big league pitching hitting .121 in 99 at-bats. Both players are expected to start the upcoming season at Triple-A Iowa.

However, nothing quite sums up the 2012 Cubs like outfielder Bryan LaHair. Thanks to a blistering start at the plate, he was eventually named the Cubs’ lone All-Star representative. But as the season wore on LaHair progressively struggled, then lost playing time and was eventually bench. The Cubs parted ways this offseason working a deal to send LaHair to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan. And still I wonder; has a major-league All-Star ever fallen out of favor so quickly?

Yet despite the team’s record, lack of talent and overall poor play, not all went wrong for the Cubs last season. The arrival of 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo in late June was one highlight of the season. He lived up to lofty expectations hitting .285 with 15 HRs and 48 RBI in just 87 games.

Meanwhile, Darwin Barney set the National League record, and tied the Major League record, for most consecutive games at second base without a fielding error (141), and of course went on to win his first Gold Glove Award.

In his first season as a full-time starter Jeff Samardzija proved to be a capable top-of-the-rotation arm; shortstop Starlin Castro wrapped up his third season by playing in all 162 games and Alfonso Soriano had one of his best seasons in Chicago, clubbing a team-high 32 HRs and driving in 108 runs.

Each of these players return in 2013, at least as of spring training, and each will be relied heavily upon as a continued strength.

Supplementing these strengths was a focus of the organization this offseason. Obviously there were a ton of holes to fill, but the Cubs smartly tackled starting pitching depth first by signing Scott Baker (recovering from Tommy John surgery), Scott Feldman and the well-traveled Edwin Jackson.

Then came a small splash-signing when the club landed reliever KyujiFujikawa–a dominate closer in Japan during the past six seasons, and the likeliest candidate to supplant the usually inconsistent Carlos Marmol at closer.

Lastly, the Cubs added outfield depth with the additions of Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston, who project to split a platoon role in right field with incumbent David DeJesus transitioning back to his old stomping grounds in center field.

For all intents and purposes, it was a successful winter season for Chicago. They plugged holes with mostly affordable, stop-gap veteran players who can potentially be flippable assets for prospects during the July trade deadline.

Perhaps the single biggest miss for the Cubs during the winter was their inability to trade both Marmol (still owed $9.8 million) and Soriano (still owed $36 million through 2014).

Although the Cubs had a November deal in place to trade Marmol to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Dan Haren, the trade fell through with the Cubs concerned over Haren’s medicals. However, it’s widely believed the Cubs can find a taker for Marmol before opening day.

Soriano’s trade situation appears more difficult. He has 10-5 rights (10 years of big league service, five with the same club) and a full no-trade clause. The Cubs are on the record as willing to eat all but $10 million of Soriano’s remaining contract (essentially making him a $5 million per-year player over the next two seasons) but the options are limited, and Soriano has expressed a desire to remain in Chicago.

A close second on the miss list was failing to sign a third baseman. The Cubs instead opted to re-sign Ian Stewart to a one-year, $2 million contract after a disappointing season (.201, 5 HRs, 17 RBI).

Stewart missed the majority of the campaign due to a nagging wrist injury, which required surgery during the All-Star break and subsequently cost him the rest of the year (he played in just 55 games). However, Stewart’s deal is non-guaranteed, meaning, if he fails to make the team out of spring training the Cubs can release him without taking a significant financial hit.

Whether or not Stewart makes the team, Luis Valbuena will also see playing time at third base, and ideally the Cubs would hope both players can form a serviceable platoon at the hot corner.

Ultimately, the upcoming season is one full of questions. Can Matt Garza stay healthy; should the Cubs sign him to a long-term deal? Will Rizzo succumb to a sophomore slump? Is Barney all glove and no-hit? Is Castro all-hit and no glove? What about Welington Castillo at catcher? Jackson, Vitters?

Finding the answers is all in the name of rebuilding, and could leave the Cubs on the brink of trying to avoid another triple digit loss season. But as frustrating as it will be for fans to stay patient while the Cubs flop in the standings, they should at least take comfort knowing the organization is making tough decisions to turn the Cubs into a consistent playoff contender year-in and year-out.

Much of that success will count on the development and additions of talented prospects such as Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Albert Almora, who are each helping steadily grow the Cubs’ minor league rosters into one of the top-ranked farm systems in baseball.

Unfortunately for Cubs fans, rebuilding doesn’t happen after one season, or one offseason for that matter. It takes time, and in Chicago’s case, at least one more season. It’s always the ‘wait til next year’ feeling that’s the hardest part.

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Cincinnati Reds

2013 Reds Preview

This 2013 Reds preview is brought to you by Shane of  Reds Card Collector.  The blog is a unique look at the journey of a baseball card collector as he puts together collections and discusses the history behind the cards and the players. Enjoy!

The 2013 baseball season should be another great year for Reds fans. Although the Reds didn’t make a big splash in free agency this past offseason, they did address areas of concern that had plagued the team during the 2012 season. The most notable change to this year’s ballclub is the addition of Shin-Soo Choo to the roster. While the approaching season holds much promise for this ballclub, there are questions that surround this team.

Shin-Soo Choo can hit, but can he play center field?
The most glaring issue the team faced last year was filling the spot for the leadoff hitter. The Cincinnati Reds had hung their hopes on Drew Stubbs filling that role, but with 166 strike outs and an on-base percentage of .277 he was anything but ideal for that spot. By bringing in Choo, Cincinnati should have the definitive answer to the leadoff dilemma that haunted them last year, but will Choo be able to play defensively in center field considering he spent most of his career in right field for the Cleveland Indians. The friendly confines of Great American Ballpark may prove to be advantageous to Choo. Only time will tell.

Can Aroldis Chapman make the transition from closer to starting pitcher?
Cincinnati arguably has one of the best rotations in the National League with Arroyo, Bailey, Cueto and Latos. The four of them combined for 58 of Cincinnati’s 97 wins last season, an impressive feat for playing within “hitter-friendly” Great American Ballpark. Moving Chapman from closer to starter will only enhance an already great rotation. The big question though is whether or not Chapman’s arm will be up to throwing 100+ mph fastballs during the course of six or seven innings.

Will Todd Frazier be able to put up numbers equal to last season?
Frazier was a vital asset for the Reds last season when he filled in for Scott Rolen and Joey Votto during their stints on the DL. This year with the departure of Rolen, Todd Frazier will be the starting third baseman for the Reds. Frazier had a great 2012 season batting .273 with 25 home runs and 67 RBIs. These numbers helped Frazier to finish third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. Frazier was a big contributor to the success of the team last year and will be expected to do as much, if not more, in the coming months.

Will Joey Votto be able to return to form in 2013?
Prior to being injured in a June 29th slide in San Francisco, Votto was hitting .342 with 14 home runs, 49 RBIs and a .465 on-base percentage. After spending almost two months on the DL last year, Votto failed to homer the remainder of the season. In order for the Reds to remain atop the National League Central this year, Votto must produce the same numbers he did the first half of last season.

With the exception of a few players, this year’s Reds squad is almost identical to last year’s team that captured the National League Central. It’s no surprise that many are predicting a first place finish again for the Reds this year, but don’t count out the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. I don’t think the Reds will run away with the division, especially with the departure of the Houston Astros from the National League Central, but I do look for them to come out on top again this year if only by a handful of games. Their first true test of the season will come on Opening Day when the Reds host the Los Angeles Angels.

Reds owner Bob Castellini and General Manager Walt Jocketty have been very patient and methodical about building a winner for Cincinnati and it would appear that all the pieces are in place for that to happen. The Reds have made the postseason in two of the past three years and anything less than an appearance in the National League Championship Series this year will be considered a failure. If that were to happen, don’t look for Dusty Baker to return as manager in 2014.

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Milwaukee Brewers

2013 Brewers Preview

This 2013 Brewers preview comes from Damion, who is actually a writer for the Royals blog, RoyalRevival but was awesome enough to put together a Milwaukee preview. You can follow Damion on his blog or on Twitter @RoyalRevival for the latest news and info coming out of Kansas City. Enjoy!

On August 15, the Colorado Rockies scored two runs off of Jim Henderson in the bottom of the 9th to walk off against the Brewers 7-6. The defeat dropped Milwaukee to 52-64 and 18.5 games behind the division leader Cincinnati Reds. The Brewers lineup lacked the 1-2 punch from 2011, the rotation was now without former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, and the bullpen couldn’t record an out. For a moment it appeared that the Brewers window might be closing.

But then something incredible happened. The Milwaukee Brewers caught fire, winning 31 of the final 46 games of the season. In fact, their 19-11 record over the final 30 games ranked as the fourth best finish by any team in baseball. When all was said and done, the Brewers finished 83-79 and just five games out of the second wild card. For Milwaukee it was more a case of running out of time than it was not having the talent to reach the post season.

Looking ahead to 2013, there is a lot to like regarding the Milwaukee Brewers. Let’s start out with the simplest reason: Ryan Braun. Obviously, Ryan Braun’s hitting prowess needs no introduction. When your career OPS is .942 and your two most comparable players through your age 28 seasons are Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez, you’ve had a decent start to your career. Even more incredible is that Braun’s defense, which was at one point epically awful, has now creeped up to being league average.

The Brewers offense doesn’t stop at Braun. Despite losing Prince Fielder to free agency, Milwaukee still reached the 200 home run plateau and ranked fourth in the league with 202 big flies. The Brew Crew also scored the third most runs in all of baseball, while the hitters contributed more WAR than any other team in baseball not named the Los Angeles Angels.

Of course, a big part of the production came from the usuals: Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks. There were also a couple of the more underrated signings of the 2011-12 offseason. Aramis Ramirez hit 50 doubles and 27 home runs. Norichika Aoki pitched in nearly 3 wins above replacement hitting .288 and stealing 30 bases. But there was also the surprise emergence of Carlos Gomez.

Gomez, who has always been known for his speed and outfield defense, experienced a power surge unlike any that he had ever experienced. Over Gomez’s final 67 games of the season he recorded 14 of his 19 home runs while hitting .281/.321/.506. We will have to wait and see if Gomez can sustain this kind of power, but if you are a Brewers fan it is hard not to be optimistic.

On the pitching side, the Brewers have got to be excited about a couple of the young arms. The player development system, which struggled to develop the pitching over the past few years, provided the team with two quality young arms in 2013.

Former 22nd round pick Mike Fiers threw 127 quality innings striking out over a batter per, while posting a FIP of just 3.09. Top prospect Wily Peralta also surfaced in Milwaukee and recorded a 2.48 ERA in his 29 innings of work for the big league team. Those two will join bullpen convert Marco Estrada and the perpetually underrated Yovanni Gallardo in the Milwaukee rotation.

For a team located at 83-85 wins on the win curve, Milwaukee had an eerily quiet off season. They chose to focus their efforts on adding arms to a bullpen that ranked 25th in baseball in fWAR and last in ERA. Hopefully the additions of Tom Gorzelanny, Mike Gonzalez, and Blake Bradenhop will be enough to repair the pen. Ultimately, their bullpen should be better with just a bit more luck. (Their xFIP in 2013 was nearly a run lower than their ERA.)  There is also still time for them to make a move for Kyle Lohse, in an attempt to push them just a few games higher up the win curve.

The 2012 Milwaukee Brewers have not gotten the praise that they deserved. They finished the season as strong as anyone and baseball. The keys for a playoff appearance will be the youngsters in the rotation sustaining their success, the bullpen bounces back, and repeat performances from guys like Gomez, Aoki, and whoever takes over for the injured Corey Hart at first base.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 Pirates Preview

This 2013 Pirates preview was written by Jimmy over at Buried Treasure: A Pirates Blog. Follow the blog for news and articles or follow on Twitter @JimmyCoverdale for the latest updates coming out of Pittsburgh. Enjoy!

In the end, 2012 became the twentieth forgettable year in succession in Pittsburgh. From 16 games above .500 in early August, the club collapsed to finish with a 79-83 record. Nonetheless, the offseason
has not seen an overhaul of changes; the management team is still intact, with Clint Hurdle recently awarded with a contract extension. The big acquisition over the winter was Russell Martin, receiving the
club’s highest contract given to a major league free agent signing in the history of the franchise. After Martin, Huntington followed up with low-risk/high-reward type signings, increasing the depth that was
lacking in 2012, with closer Joel Hanrahan being the only significant loss.

Whatever happens with the Pirates offense, Andrew McCutchen is likely to be the star of the show. He finished third in the National League MVP voting and was worth 7.4 wins above replacement last season
according to FanGraphs with a wOBA of .403. Outside of McCutchen, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, the line-up has a multitude of question marks; projecting the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates could provide a wide range of results.

Offensively, at least, the Pirates appear to be a boom or bust club – with the respective performances of Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Clint Barmes, Travis Snider and Starling Marte being the main question marks. Can Pedro Alvarez sustain success, avoiding slumps that derailed him at times in 2012, so that he can produce in the clean-up spot? Will Martin’s .222 BABIP regress towards the mean
so that he can improve his .211/.311/.403 2012 batting line? Will Sanchez be able to produce as part of the first base platoon? Barmes was above average against left-handers last season (.331 wOBA); however can he hit right-handed pitching and be productive at the plate as well as on the field? Is this finally the year that Snider puts it all together in the majors – at the sixth time of asking? And can Marte adjust to hit major league pitching and find success in the lead-off spot? At the very least the club appears to have a solid defensive unit; nonetheless they will have to improve on an offensive unit that combined for a .304 wOBA (90 wRC+) last season if the club will be competitive in 2013.

The club does project to have the depth in place if their starting options fail to produce offensively. Backup catcher Michael McKenry was a strong option off the bench last season and, if he makes the
club, Brandon Inge would provide power in a backup role. There’s also Jose Tabata and Alex Presley, coming off poor seasons, as well as the unproven Clint Robinson, Jordy Mercer and Jerry Sands – all likely see some time in Pittsburgh in 2013, whether it is off the bench, as the club’s designated hitter in AL ballparks, to cover for injury or lack of production. While there are no top hitting prospects on the verge of the majors, Tony Sanchez and Adalberto Santos (among others) could also be called upon later in the season if they force their way up the ladder.

While things are a little clearer with the rotation, the club still has question marks – albeit with a lot of depth in place for cover. Opening Day starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (3.51 ERA, 3.52 FIP) tops the group with Wandy Rodriguez (3.76 ERA, 3.93 FIP) following him, however this is where things get murky. James McDonald is projected to be the number three starter; however after an impressive first half in
2012 (2.37 ERA, 3.00 FIP), McDonald proceeded to pitch himself out of the rotation (7.52 ERA, 6.37 FIP in the second half of the season) – so his spot depends on which version turns up this season. To begin
the year, two of Jeff Karstens (who has durability concerns and picked up a shoulder injury early on in Spring Training), prospects Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson and minor-league signing Jonathan Sanchez
will round out the rotation. Further options and depth will be available to strengthen the rotation as the season progresses; Francisco Liriano will likely available in May after breaking his non-pitching arm and Charlie Morton in July after Tommy John surgery, with the Gerrit Cole watch also likely to begin early on in the season.

While the bullpen has lost closer Joel Hanrahan, Jason Grilli was arguably the superior pitcher last season – he had a .291 ERA (2.80 FIP) in 58.2 innings with 90 strikeouts – and will be given chance to finish games in 2013. Mark Melancon (acquired in the Hanrahan trade), Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Bryan Morris (the last survivor from the Jason Bay trade) will all find a spot in the pen, with Chris Leroux,
and Justin Wilson, among others, battling to join them. One of General Manager Neal Huntington’s strengths has been to build a strong bullpen and the club again appears to have plenty of depth heading into the season.

The club has suffered two straight second half collapses that has resulted in an extension of the losing streak to 20 years. With the most recent second half collapse coming from a position where a winning record appeared to be a guarantee and the ‘Hoka Hey’ saga over the winter, 2013 appears to be a make-or-break year for Neal Huntington and the rest of the front office. Further progression will be required, with the minimum level likely to be win number 82; however that milestone is played down so often by the management team that the Pirates will have to contend in 2013 – or face the ominous prospect of wholesale changes next winter.

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Saint Louis Cardinals

2013 Cardinals Preview

This 2013 Cardinals preview is brought to you by Nick of PitchersHitEighth.com. Follow the blog for the latest news out of St. Louis or keep up with the team by following on Twitter @PitchersHit8th. Enjoy!

The 2013 St. Louis Cardinals are a team expecting to continue their playoff expectations, while reloading their talent base from a minor league system rated best in MLB by several publications.
The Cards have had significant losses in recent years, with players departing via free agency or seasons lost to injury.  2013 will be no different, as Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal have already been ruled out.  In their stead, Redbird farmhands Pete Kozma and (likely) Shelby Miller will be expected to step up and make contributions.
Injury risk looms just around the corner for this team, but increased depth from guys like Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, and Oscar Taveras should buoy the Cards should any further long-term absences occur.  Keep an eye on the middle infield, the true weakness of this team.  If Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, and/or Pete Kozma can put a solid season together, the Cards should win a lot of games.
With continued veteran leadership from players like Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright the Cards are in a good position to be led by those players and the next wave of Cardinals Allen Craig, David Freese, and a bevy of young power arms, into the playoffs.

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Check out the rest of our divisional previews for 2013

About Aaron Garcia

Aaron is an avid sports fan who passionately follows the NFL, NBA and MLB, in addition to NCAA Sports. He is an Arizona State University grad who loves the Dodgers and the Patriots.