The National League Central often gets ridiculed for being a "weak" Division, but I've always disagreed.  You have the consistently competitive St. Louis Cardinals, one of the best ran franchises in baseball with their ability to constantly compete by also rebuilding within as well as one of the top teams in the N.L. with the Cincinnati Reds.  The pesky Milwaukee Brewers are always respectable while the Pittsburgh Pirates have been knocking on .500 for two years now.  Hell, even the lowly Chicago Cubs are being heralded for the direction the franchise is headed.  We've got a clear-cut favorite to win the Division and a second place team that will keep them on their toes all season long.

1 - Cincinnati Reds (90-72)

Projected Starting Lineup:

CF - Shin-Soo Choo

2B - Brandon Phillips

1B - Joey Votto

LF - Ryan Ludwick

RF - Jay Bruce

3B - Todd Frazier

SS - Zack Cozart

C - Ryan Hanigan

Projected Bench:

C - Devin Mesoraco

3B/1B - Jack Hannahan

IF - Jason Donald

OF - Chris Heisey

OF - Xavier Paul

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Johnny Cueto

2 - Mat Latos

3 - Bronson Arroyo

4 - Homer Bailey

5 - Mike Leake

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Aroldis Chapman

SU - Jonathan Broxton

SU - Sean Marshall

MR - Jose Arredondo

MR - Manny Parra

MR - J.J. Hoover

LR - Sam LeCure

Top to bottom, the Reds are the most complete team in this Division.  The lineup is deep with newcomer Shin-Soo Choo in the leadoff role and MVP candidate Joey Votto manning the middle of the order.  Jay Bruce could potentially hit up to 40 home-runs with his power capability and Brandon Phillips is one of the better all-around 2B in the league.  Zack Cozart, who was stellar when he debuted in 2011, was mediocre with the bat in 2012 - his first full season.  His glove is spectacular and the combination of him and Phillips up the middle is possibly the best in baseball, but he needs to prove he's going to be a top-of-the-line SS in the league rather than simply Brendan Ryan 2.0.

The Spring Training plan was to have electric closer Aroldis Chapman moved to the rotation.  I was against this idea since day one - he's unhittable as a closer and with a manager like Dusty Baker who has a history of wrecking young arms, it was a move that spelled disaster.  Luckily, logic has prevailed in Cincy and "The Cuban Missile" will be closing for the Reds this year.  The 1-2-3 punch of him, Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton is sure to make things very difficult for other teams late in games in 2013.

The rotation is just fine without Chapman.  Johnny Cueto was extremely underrated as the ace of the rotation last year while Mat Latos proved to be a top number two guy in baseball.  Homer Bailey showed improvement, Bronson Arroyo remained ever consistent and durable; and now Mike Leake has scouts raving about him for his performance in Spring Training.  If he can provide a solid arm for the back of the rotation, Cincinnati will be even more difficult to stop in the Central.

The defending Central Division champs are most likely going to defend their crown after a very successful offseason.

2 - St. Louis Cardinals (87-75)

Projected Starting Lineup:

CF - Jon Jay

RF - Carlos Beltran

LF - Matt Holliday

1B - Allen Craig

C - Yadier Molina

3B - Matt Carpenter

2B - Daniel Descalso

SS - Pete Kozma

Projected Bench:

C - Tony Cruz

1B - Matt Adams

IF - Ryan Jackson

IF/OF - Ty Wigginton

OF - Shane Robinson

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Adam Wainwright

2 - Jaime Garcia

3 - Lance Lynn

4 - Jake Westbrook

5 - Shelby Miller

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Mitchell Boggs

SU - Trevor Rosenthal

SU - Edward Mujica

MR - Marc Rzepczynski

MR - Fernando Salas

MR - Randy Choate

LR - Joe Kelly

The Reds will never feel 100% comfortable with their Division lead throughout 2013 and it is going to be because of the St. Louis Cardinals.  They're more than a simple thorn in the side, the Cardinals have a legitimate shot at the Division if they can avoid injuries/get healthy and play at their top level possible.

One through five, the lineup is solid.  Jon Jay and Allen Craig seemingly get two or three hits a game while Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran mash the hell out of the ball.  Yadier Molina was one the anchor for the team last year and was even placed in some modest MVP discussion.

I'm not completely sold on the rotation.  Adam Wainwright just signed a fat new extension which was well-deserved.  He's one of the top pitchers in the N.L. when healthy - that's the only concern for him.  The durability.  Jaime Garcia simmered a lot of expectations people had for him after 2011 with a mediocre 2012 season.  With Chris Carpenter again out, Garcia must show he can be the rotation's number two guy.  I don't think Lance Lynn will be as good as he was coming out of nowhere as a rookie last year with his stint at starting - before being moved to the bullpen.  Jake Westbrook is solid as a four guy, but the true wild card here is Shelby Miller.  The team's top pitching prospect won the fifth spot out of Spring Training and has all the tools to really emerge as a Rookie of the Year candidate.  Keep an eye on him.

Jason Motte, their closer, is on the DL to start the season, so premiere set-up man Mitchell Boggs will man the role in the meantime.  It's a safe move with Boggs being the veteran, but I almost wished the Cardinals would have tried what the Tigers are doing this year by allowing a young stud to try and flourish.  Trevor Rosenthal has legitimate closer stuff, but he'll do just fine as a set-up man regardless.

Injury issues are already piling up for the Cardinals with the loss of Chris Carpenter for the entire season and Motte and playoff hero David Freese all on the DL.  If Motte and Freese can come back, they'll make a run for the Division and Wild Card.  Don't count out on top prospect Oscar Taveras making his debut some time this summer.

3 - Milwaukee Brewers (78-84)

Projected Starting Lineup:

RF - Norichika Aoki

2B - Rickie Weeks

LF - Ryan Braun

3B - Aramis Ramirez

C - Jonathan Lucroy

CF - Carlos Gomez

1B - Alex Gonzalez

SS - Jean Segura

Projected Bench:

C/1B/OF - Blake Lalli

C - Martin Maldonado

IF - Yuniesky Betancourt

OF - Khris Davis

OF - Logan Schafer

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Yovani Gallardo

2 - Kyle Lohse

3 - Marco Estrada

4 - Chris Narveson

5 - Mike Fiers

Projected Bullpen:

CL - John Axford

SU - Jim Henderson

SU - Brandon Kintzler

MR - Michael Gonzalez

MR - Burke Badenhop

MR - Tom Gorzelanny

LF - Alfredo Figaro

This is where the Central begins to dwindle in terms of quality and where the "bad" label comes from.  Milwaukee is far from a playoff contender despite having one of the best hitters in baseball with Ryan Braun.  He's a perennial MVP candidate and could jack 40 bombs this year.  That doesn't mean Milwaukee is going to be any good.

Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy are both above average at their positions - although Lucroy has major durability issues.  But, that's about it.  Not to take anything away from Norichika Aoki, who had a solid first year in the MLB in 2012, but a regression would not be surprising in the slightest.  Carlos Gomez got a nice new contract and while he's a great fielder, he's far from being that consistent spark plug in the lineup the Brewers wish he would be.

The rotation is respectable at some spots and shotty in others.  Yovani Gallardo is above average and a solid - but not great - number one starter.  The addition of Kyle Lohse looks good on paper, but he has missed all of Spring Training holding out for a contract and it remains to be seen if he'll be that anchor in a rotation like he was in St. Louis.  There is a reason it took this long for him to be signed.  Marco Estrada is a once top heralded prospect who has struggled to really make a bang.  2013 is his opportunity and Mike Fiers had a nice taste test in the Majors last year, time to prove he's worthy of a full season campaign.

The rotation is atrocious.  They cost Milwaukee a slew of games last year and they're going to do it again this year.  John Axford walks too many people to be a closer and has anybody out of Milwaukee - and baseball freaks like me - heard of Jim Henderson or Brandon Kintzler?  Didn't think so.  They aren't terrible - I actually like Kintzler's potential - but these are not guys helping end meaningful games in September.

I am just not a believer of the Brewers.  Many people may pick them as a sexy pick to compete for the Division, but not me.  They'll wind up being under .500.

4 - Pittsburgh Pirates (75-87)

LF - Starling Marte

2B - Neil Walker

CF - Andrew McCutchen

3B - Pedro Alvarez

1B - Garrett Jones

C - Russell Martin

RF - Travis Snider

SS - Clint Barmes

Projected Bench:

SS - John McDonald

C - Michael McKenry

1B - Gaby Sanchez

IF/OF - Josh Harrison

OF - Jose Tabata

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - A.J. Burnett

2 - Wandy Rodriguez

3 - James McDonald

4 - Jeff Locke

5 - Jonathan Sanchez

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Jason Grilli

SU - Mark Melancon

SU - Tony Watson

MR - Jared Hughes

MR - Justin Wilson

MR - Chris Leroux

LR - Jeanmar Gomez

I want to predict the Pirates can finish above .500.  I want it for that fanbase who has been waiting two decades for a competitive team, but I don't see it happening.  At least not this year.

Andrew McCutchen is fantastic.  If you still don't know much about this superstar, do yourself a favor and pay a modest amount of attention to the Pirates this year to see how good he is.  There's, unfortunately, not much else to keep your eye on with this roster.  Starling Marte was nice as a prospect who came up last year and made a little noise, he has a chance to be a breakout candidate in 2013.  I've always thought Pedro Alvarez has huge power potential, despite his inability to hit for average or get on base consistently.  If he can work a few more walks, he could become another Adam Dunn (the good kind) type of player.

The pitching is suspect, to the say the least.  A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are just fine as top guys in the rotation while James McDonald showed he has some good stuff last year, but I don't see them accumulating enough wins to warrant playoff discussion.  Joel Hanrahan was their closer last year, but he's in Boston now after an offseason trade and veteran set-up man Jason Grilli is getting an opportunity to close.  He won't be terrible, he won't be stellar.  He'll be a solid closer for a team under .500.  Not like there's a better arm in the bullpen worthy of his spot.

I look at this roster and I sulk.  I see guys like Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez getting rotation spots when they could be going to prospects like Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole.  Unfortunately, baseball is a business and keeping those guys in the minors saves Pittsburgh money down the road.  One, if not both, will likely make their debuts some time this summer, but it will probably be too late by then for the Pirates to be relevant.

5 - Chicago Cubs (68-94)

Projected Starting Lineup:

CF - David DeJesus

SS - Starlin Castro

1B - Anthony Rizzo

LF - Alfonso Soriano

RF - Nate Schierholtz

3B - Luis Valbuena

C - Welington Castillo

2B - Darwin Barney

Projected Bench:

C - Dioner Navarro

C/1B - Steve Clevenger

IF/OF - Brent Lillibridge

OF - Scott Hairston

OF - Dave Sappelt

Projected Starting Rotation:

1 - Jeff Samardzija

2 - Edwin Jackson

3 - Scott Feldman

4 - Travis Wood

5 - Carlos Villanueva

Projected Bullpen:

CL - Carlos Marmol

SU - Kyuji Fujikawa

SU - Shawn Camp

MR - James Russell

MR - Michael Bowden

MR - Hisanori Takahashi

MR - Hector Rondon

A lot of people have been praising the Chicago Cubs organization since Theo Epstein took over and with good cause.  They went from a horrific team with no direction to a horrific team with an impressive minor league system.

Don't get too used to the names you see above.  Much of those guys are stopgaps to at least make the team competitive in the slightest.  Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are part of the future and capable of All-Star nods now.  Them, along with their best pitcher Jeff Samardzija are the faces of the franchise now and will be going into the future.  Cubs fans should be excited about watching this trio flourish together.  Rizzo, especially has a chance to be a top star in baseball.

Carlos Marmol has an unhittable slider and a few years of closing under his belt, but that does not mean he should be trusted.  His walk numbers are astronomically high and he has even been getting hit the past season or two.  The Cubs are desperate to get rid of him and it has to happen eventually.  Kyuji Fujikawa could end up closing games some time this season for the Cubs if that happens.

The big name guys in this organization are still in the minors.  Top prospect Javier Baez was very impressive in Spring Training and could debut towards the tail end of 2013 while Jorge Soler and Albert Almora continue to get minor league seasoning.  The Cubs need pitching prospects, there is very few of them, so look out for a guy like Matt Garza or even newcomer Edwin Jackson to have trade rumors as Epstein tries to bring in some young arms for the future.


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