National League Central predicted order of 2014

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Post-Gazette baseball writer Bill Brink breaks down the Pirates' division and looks ahead to September and puts the five team in predicted order of 2014 finish:

St. Louis CARDINALS

2013: 97-65 * First place NL Central

Manager: Mike Matheny (third season, 185-139).

Key additions: Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta, Mark Ellis.

Key losses: Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas.

The number: .330. That was the Cardinals' MLB-leading batting average with runners in scoring position last season, 48 points above the next-highest team and the highest in the majors in 40 years.

The player: Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, who batted .318 and led the NL in runs, hits and doubles, earning him a fourth-place finish in MVP voting, will move back to third base after playing second last season.

The prospect: Kolten Wong. Wong, the Cardinals' No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America who hit .301 in his minor league career, will have the chance to win the second base job in spring training.

The skinny: The Cardinals filled their hole at shortstop by signing Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract. They will move Allen Craig to right field to replace Beltran, at least until top prospect Oscar Taveras is ready, and allow Matt Adams to play first base. A solid pitching staff, led by Adam Wainwright and containing several strong young arms, returns. The team is just as strong as the squad that reached the World Series last season and poised to make another deep playoff run.

Cincinnati REDS

2013: 90-72 * Third place NL Central

Manager: Bryan Price (first season).

Key additions: Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker.

Key losses: Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Hanigan, Bronson Arroyo.

The number: 202. That's the number of innings they must replace in the rotation after Arroyo's departure via free agency.

The player: C Devin Mesoraco. Given the everyday job after Hanigan's departure, Mesoraco will look to improve on his .649 OPS from last season.

The prospect: OF Billy Hamilton. A player with blinding speed but a questionable bat, Hamilton will attempt to replace Choo in the leadoff spot. Hamilton can lead the league in steals - if he gets on base enough.

The skinny: Injuries have affected the pitching staff this spring. Closer Aroldis Chapman took a line drive off the face and needed surgery, delaying his start to the season. Johnny Cueto has back issues and missed a start, and Mat Latos had offseason knee surgery that might push back his first regular-season outing. The offense lost a table-setter in Choo, but Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips will power yet another strong offense.

Pittsburgh PIRATES

2013: 94-68 * Second place NL Central

Manager: Clint Hurdle (fourth season, 245-241).

Key additions: Edinson Volquez, Chris Stewart.

Key losses: Marlon Byrd, A.J. Burnett, Justin Morneau, Garrett Jones.

The number: 3.91. That's the average number of runs per game the Pirates scored last season, ninth in the NL.

The player: Gaby Sanchez. The incumbent first baseman destroys left-handers, but improvement against right-handers would strengthen the lineup.

The prospect: Gregory Polanco. The top prospect in the organization, according to Baseball America, Polanco is a physical freak who could join the Pirates this summer and lock down right field.

The skinny: The Pirates didn't make any moves to improve their offense, which in 2013 lagged behind a stellar bullpen and strong rotation. They're banking on the players they have continuing to improve at the plate. Pedro Alvarez could reduce his strikeouts, Neil Walker could hit better right-handed and Jordy Mercer could assemble a full season's worth of good offense.

Milwaukee BREWERS

2013: 74-88 * Fourth place NL Central

Manager: Ron Roenicke (fourth season, 253-233).

Key additions: Matt Garza.

Key losses: Norichika Aoki, Burke Badenhop.

The number: 3.19. That's the ERA of the bullpen last year, fifth-best in the majors.

The player: Khris Davis. The Brewers are moving Ryan Braun to right field so Davis, who hit 11 home runs in 153 plate appearances as a rookie last season, can play left.

The prospect: Jimmy Nelson. Nelson, a 6-foot-5 right-hander and the top prospect in the organization, got a taste of the majors last season, but Roenicke has said he needs improved command.

The skinny: The Brewers get Braun back after a 65-game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic and banned substances. They signed Garza to a four-year, $50 million deal to bolster a rotation that finished 21st in the majors in ERA last season. Avoiding early trouble, like their 6-22 record in May last season, will help them become competitive once again.

Chicago CUBS

2013: 66-96 * Fifth place NL Central

Manager: Rick Renteria (first season).

Key additions: Jose Veras, Justin Ruggiano

Key losses: Dioner Navarro, Kevin Gregg, Scott Baker, Brian Bogusevic.

The number: .693. That was the team's OPS against both right-handers and left-handers in 2013.

The player: Jeff Samardzija. The right-hander struck out a batter per inning pitched in 2013, but the Cubs could trade him if they cannot agree on a contract extension.

The prospect: Javier Baez. Starlin Castro, whom the Cubs signed to a long-term contract, blocks Baez at shortstop, so the Cubs have moved Baez to second base at times during spring training. He will start the season at Class AAA Iowa.

The skinny: The Cubs aren't going anywhere this season, but Baez represents a portion of their exciting future. He and third baseman Kris Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, could join Castro and Anthony Rizzo in the near future to complete a talented young infield. Outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora wait in the wings as well, but the Cubs don't have much in the way of elite pitching prospects.


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