The National League Central Division underwent a bit of a makeover this offseason as part of Major League Baseball's division realignment.
The Houston Astros, a founding member of the NL Central, moved to the American League West to create balanced leagues and divisions. Since the Milwaukee Brewers joined the Central in 1998, it was the largest division in the majors with six teams.
While the loss of the Astros technically improves the playoff chances of each remaining member, the NL Central can't beat up on hapless Houston anymore -- which could hurt in the battle for a wild-card spot.
The Cincinnati Reds will look to become the first team to repeat as division champions since the Chicago Cubs won back-to-back titles in 2007-08.
The Pirates have finished fourth in the Central in consecutive seasons but owned the division lead in the second half of the season in both 2012 and 2011.
Today, we take a tour around the division and offer our predictions for the season.
2012: 97-65, 1st place.
Manager: Dusty Baker (sixth season, 419-391 with Reds).
Key additions: CF Shin-Soo Choo, INF Jack Hannahan, UTL Jason Donald.
Key losses: 3B Scott Rolen, CF Drew Stubbs, RHP Ryan Madson.
The number: 9 -- Complete games thrown by Reds pitchers in 2012 -- the most in the National League.
The player: 1B Joey Votto. This former MVP was having an MVP-caliber season before surgery on a torn meniscus caused him to miss almost two months. Healthy again, Votto will be one of the best players in the majors.
The prospect: OF Billy Hamilton. This speedy 2009 second-round pick set a minor league record with 155 stolen bases between Class A and Class AA in 2012.
The skinny: The Reds didn't add many new ingredients to what was a winning formula last season, instead focusing their offseason on re-signing a handful of players. But one key addition, Choo, gives them a bona fide leadoff hitter, one of the team's few weaknesses last year. Fireballer Aroldis Chapman returns to role as closer. Without losing many key players -- and with a seemingly healthy superstar -- the Reds should be favorites to repeat as NL Central Division champions.
Predicted 2013 finish: 1st
St. Louis Cardinals
2012: 88-74, 2nd place.
Manager: Mike Matheny (second season, 88-74 with Cardinals).
Key additions: OF Ty Wigginton, LHP Randy Choate, SS Alex Gonzalez.
Key losses: RHP Kyle Lohse, 1B Lance Berkman, OF Skip Shumaker.
The number: 211 -- Total innings the Cardinals lost when Lohse opted for free agency.
The player: 1B Allen Craig. The man who replaced Albert Pujols in St. Louis signed a five-year, $31 million deal this offseason. He hit .307 with 22 homers and 92 RBIs in 2012. If he continues to put up those good numbers, his contract could be quite a bargain.
The prospect: RHP Shelby Miller. This 2009 first-round pick is ready to break in at the major league level.
The skinny: A second-half surge propelled the Cardinals to the postseason, but losing Lohse to free agency could prove costly. The Cardinals likely will start the season with closer Jason Motte on the disabled list. But St. Louis has long been a team with a great offense and a mediocre pitching staff, yet every year the Cardinals seem to be in the thick of things. This year should be no different.
Predicted 2013 finish: 2nd
2012: 79-83, 4th place.
Manager: Clint Hurdle (third season, 151-173 with Pirates).
Key additions: C Russell Martin, LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Mark Melancon.
Key losses: RHP Joel Hanrahan, C Rod Barajas, INF Brock Holt.
The number: 16 -- Games over .500 the Pirates were before a late-season collapse sealed their 20th consecutive losing season.
The player: RHP James McDonald. This lanky starter pitched magnificently in the first half of 2012 and was a big reason why the club owned the division lead near the All-Star break. But inconsistent mechanics and posture brought about a troubling second half. If he pitches at his best, the Pirates are a much better team. If he struggles, so will the Pirates.
The prospect: RHP Gerrit Cole. This former No. 1 overall draft pick likely will make his major league debut this year and could be an impact arm in the team's rotation.
The skinny: In consecutive seasons, the Pirates let strong starts slip away in the second half. With team management at risk of losing their jobs if the Pirates fail to break a 20-year streak of losing seasons, the team is in "win-now" mode. A tough first-half schedule and early injury issues in the starting rotation could mean the Pirates have a rough start.
Predicted 2013 finish: 3rd
2012: 83-79, 3rd place.
Manager: Ron Roenicke (third season, 179-145 with Brewers).
Key additions: RHP Kyle Lohse, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP Mike Gonzalez, RHP Burke Badenhop.
Key losses: RHP Shaun Marcum, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, LHP Manny Parra.
The number: 158 -- Total stolen bases in 2012, the most of any team in the majors.
The player: LF Ryan Braun. For a second consecutive season, Braun enters opening day facing scrutiny about potential violations of the league's banned substances policy due to his affiliation with the Biogenesis clinic in Miami. But the scrutiny didn't faze him last year as he finished second in MVP voting.
The prospect: RHP Wily Peralta. After making his major league debut last season, Peralta could be an impact pitcher in Milwaukee's rotation this year.
The skinny: The Brewers fared just fine without Prince Fielder in 2012. In fact, the offense generated more runs than in Fielder's final year. What fell apart for Milwaukee was its pitching staff, which led the NL in strikeouts but finished third-to-last in runs allowed. The bullpen was especially troublesome as closer John Axford struggled. Without improvements on the mound, the Brewers could slip.
Predicted 2013 finish: 4th
2012: 61-101, 5th place.
Manager: Dale Sveum (second season, 61-101 with Cubs).
Key additions: RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Scott Hairston, OF Nate Schierholtz.
Key losses: 1B Bryan LaHair, RHP Chris Volstad, INF Blake DeWitt.
The number: 2,882,756 -- Total 2012 attendance at Wrigley Field, the first time the club finished with less than 3 million fans since 2003.
The player: 1B Anthony Rizzo. An impact rookie in 2012, Rizzo is one of the few bright spots in a Cubs lineup stuck in rebuilding mode. He was a key acquisition of Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, when he joined the Cubs before last season. In 87 games, Rizzo hit 15 homers and drove in 48 runs.
The prospect: SS Javier Baez. A first-round pick in 2011, Baez is still a couple of years away from the major leagues but adds to the organizational depth at an important position.
The skinny: In the second year of Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, the Cubs still are retooling their roster and planning for the future. The team could deal starter Matt Garza, closer Carlos Marmol and outfielder Alfonso Soriano by August in an effort to build the minor league system. As a result, the major league team will struggle again.
Predicted 2013 finish: 5th
First Published March 29, 2013 4:00 AM