A quick reminder: We’re suspending our usual schedule this week in order to participate in the annual UCB Predictions Project. We’ll be back on track next week with our Tuesday edition of Bird Watching (the podcast may or may not go up considering the Easter holiday). Enjoy!
It’s time for everyone’s favorite division…the NL CENTRAL!!! (*applause*, ridiculous shows of affection, etc. etc. etc.). Let’s get right to it.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: Yes, I know. This makes me look like a homer. But I should point out that I initially typed “Reds” for the first place slot and then changed my mind. I just honestly feel the Cardinals are going to finish ahead of the Reds this season. With the depth of starting and bullpen pitching available to Mo and Matheny this year, the ascension of Matt Carpenter at both 2B and 3B (and even 1B if needed), the reconstruction of Descalso’s swing, and the plethora of young position players ready and waiting to contribute if needed – the Cardinals could be deeper at most positions than they have been in ten years. The result should be improved consistency and a bit of protection against injuries. Add an improved Wainwright to the picture, and the Redbirds could shock a lot of people this year and take down the Reds for first place in the NLC.
2. Cincinnati Reds: This is still a playoff team, but let’s be honest…a lot of things lined up for the Reds last season to produce that staggering record 6 wins better than their pythagorean prediction. First, a Cy Young caliber season by Cueto – even if no one can stand the jerk enough to vote for him. Second, an insanely healthy lineup that somehow avoided major injuries until Votto went down late in the year (when Frazier was able to fill in). Third, a starting rotation that included 4 of 5 pitchers with a sub-4.00 ERA. Fourth, a chasing team decimated by injuries and plagued by crazy luck and a rookie manager (the Cardinals) – not to mention a year-from-TJ-surgery Ace. Don’t get me wrong – the Reds are still a great team – but expecting the same consistency and dominance this year is a bit naive. Look for injuries and inconsistencies to pull the Reds back into a dog fight with the Cards for the NL Central lead. In that scenario, the depth of the Redbirds’ 40-man roster and Triple A reinforcements should prevail.
3. Milwaukee Brewers: This division just got a lot more interesting with the signing of Kyle Lohse in Milwaukee. Lohse most likely won’t enjoy the same success in Miller as he did in Busch, but he still should be effective. With Ryan Braun, Ramirez, and Hart in the lineup, the Brew Crew will take advantage of their home field to generate enough offense, and Gallardo and Lohse should provide enough day-to-day match-up ability on the mound to win. But the biggest factor could be a full season of Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. A lot of people underestimate Lucroy’s significance to this team, as a leader, a catcher, and a hitter. He could be the difference between a fourth and third place finish – perhaps even a second Wild Card spot (although the loss of the whipping-boy Astros to the AL makes a second Wild Card from the NLC unlikely).
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: I was convinced all season long that the Pirates would finish third in the division and compete for a second Wild Card spot. Now, with the addition of Kyle Lohse to the Brewers’ roster, the Pirates suddenly become a less consistent, less potent team when compared to Milwaukee. Still, the culture is changing in Pittsburgh, and the Pirates could finally figure out how to maintain their success for an entire season in 2013. Look for them to be major players in the trade market come July if they can position themselves in a contending spot in the division.
5. Chicago Cubs: Not much to see here. The Cubs are still years away from relevancy. Unfortunately for them, the Astros split town for the AL leaving the ChiCubs to fall to last place in the division. Ah well…another year, another loser.
When it comes right down to it, the Cardinals and Reds will fight it out for the division in August, but the Brew Crew and Pirates may have a shot at a second Wild Card spot if they can take advantage of the Cubs and other lowly teams. A lot of people have pointed at the loss of the Astros in the division as a difference maker this year in the Central. I don’t see it playing much of a part in the division race itself, but it could drastically impact the race for a Wild Card spot. Suddenly teams can’t pad their record with a few extra wins against a minor league roster.
Guess we’ll find out.