Last year the NL Central lost baseball’s best player when Albert Pujols fled to the AL West. This year they lost an entire team – gone are the Houston Astros, who take with them a bunch of easy wins for the rest of the division. But there is still some humour within the Central’s confines. The Cubs are still here.
Let’s continue the 500 Level Fan Divisional previews with a look at the NL Central.
Past Five Champions
2012 – Cincinnati
2011 – Milwaukee
2010 – Cincinnati
2009 – St. Louis
2008 – Chicago
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.4
Ryan Braun, Brewers
Until last season, this division had produced four consecutive NL MVP winners, and last year Ryan Braun easily might have won his second in a row. He lead the league in runs (108), home runs (41), and OPS (.987). He hit over .300 for the fourth straight season, and stole 30 bases for the second straight. The school of thought was that Braun would struggle in 2012 due to the scandal of his positive test in the fall of 2011, and with him no longer having the protection offered by Prince Fielder. Instead Braun made his fifth consecutive All-Star appearance, won his fifth straight Silver Slugger award, and finished in the top-25 of MVP voting for the sixth straight year. With injuries hampering Joey Votto, the best player in this division is a no-brainer.
Honourable Mention: Joey Votto, Reds; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Aroldis Chapman, Reds
In a division without any true superstar starting pitchers, the best pitcher just might be a man without a position. Chapman enters the spring with an uncertain future: will he start or will he close? For the argument in favour of him closing, look no further than his 2012 stat line: 71.2 IP, 1.51 ERA, 38 saves, 0.81 WHIP, 122 strikeouts, for a 15.3 K/9 ratio. Even more impressive is how the lefty, who routinely hits 100 MPH, fared against his own division. Facing Central division opponents he posted 20 saves, with a 1.30 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and a ridiculous 16.87 K/9. If he can translate even half of that success into starting, then look out…
Honourable Mention: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers; Johnny Cueto, Reds
Three Storylines For 2013
1. Will Anybody Challenge Cincy?
The Reds were a rarity in baseball last season – they kept their starting five healthy all season. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake started 161 of Cincy’s 162 games. All five of those pitchers return, along with Aroldis Chapman and new signing Jonathan Broxton, to give the Reds a formidable pitching staff . That alone might be enough for the Reds to contend, but then you add a healthy Joey Votto, an ever-improving Jay Bruce, steady-as-can-be Brandon Phillips, a full season from rookie Todd Frazier, and newly acquired Shin-Soo Choo? Scary. It looks like the Central is Cincinnati’s to lose.
2. Outage on the Mound
The fact that Cincinnati brings back its full starting rotation automatically gives them a leg up on the rest of the division. Consider the turmoil everybody else went through in terms of their rotations. Cubs ace Matt Garza will begin the season with injury concerns. The Brewers traded Zack Greinke away at last year’s deadline, and then let Shaun Marcum sign elsewhere. Pittsburgh is banking on substantial contribution from a fragile Francisco Liriano. And the Cardinals let Kyle Lohse go, and then lost Chris Carpenter to a season (and maybe career ending) injury. Even the Reds have a self-inflicted question mark, in terms of what to do with Chapman.
3. Is This Pittsburgh’s Year (Finally)?
1992 was long, long time ago, but that is how long it’s been since the Pirates finished over .500. In each of the past two seasons they have reached the All-Star break riding high, only to suffer a second half collapse. But this year, 2013, might finally – finally! – be the year they break through. Andrew McCutchen is one of the most exciting players in baseball, and he is not alone in the Pirates lineup. Neil Walker is solid at second, Pedro Alvarez finally showed some promise by slugging 30 HR last year, and youngster Starling Marte looked good in a 47 game audition. Add to that catcher Russell Martin, signed as a free agent, and there is some pop up and down the order. There are major questions with the rotation, but you could do worse than A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez at the top. While they might not reach the playoffs, 82 wins should be well within Pittsburgh’s sights….finally.
The Brewers finished four games above .500 and only five games out of the second Wild Card in 2012, and they did that despite having the worst bullpen in all of baseball. The Brewer’s bullpen had a 4.66 ERA (worst), 1.48 WHIP (second worst), and 234 walks (third worst), and also posted an abysmal 4.84 ERA in save situations. For comparative purposes, the best bullpen in the league (Atlanta) posted a 1.68 ERA in save situations. That high late game ERA contributed to this damning stat – the Brewers as a team lost nine games from save situations. If they would have lost half as many, they were a playoff team. John Axfod and co. have a lot of making up to do in 2013.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column on March 25th.