A look ahead at the National League Central division in 2013:
The Cincinnati Reds dethroned the 2011 world champion St. Louis Cardinals during the season, but the Cardinals again turned it on in the playoffs and came within a game of getting back to the World Series again. Both the Reds and Cardinals were knocked out by the San Francisco Giants, who are likely the NL favorite again this season.
And neither the Reds nor Cardinals should fall back to the pack. Cincinnati won 97 games and looks every bit as strong as last year. The Reds upgraded offensively with Shin-Soo Choo taking the place of Drew Stubbs in center field. Joey Votto lost some power numbers with his injury last season and looks for a bounce-back year. Cincinnati could have had a different kind of postseason experience if 19-game winner Johnny Cueto was healthy, too.
The Cardinals have already lost 2011 World Series hero Chris Carpenter to a season-ending injury, which puts more pressure on Adam Wainwright and the rest of a capable rotation. St. Louis also lost shortstop Rafael Furcal to an elbow injury, so it's up to Pete Kozma at shortstop.
The Milwaukee Brewers were in the wild-card mix until the final week of the season and have Ryan Braun leading a still-solid offense (if he doesn't face punishment in the Biogenesis scandal). They might just surprise, but they certainly need Braun in their lineup.
The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates contended in the first half and were 16 games over .500 on Aug. 8 and firmly in the playoff race. But they collapsed down the stretch and continued their streak of losing seasons that dates to 1992. This could finally be the year to erase that, but we've heard that before.
And it's a steep fall from there to the Chicago Cubs, who embark on the second year of Theo Epstein's reclamation project. After losing 101 games in 2012, there's nowhere to go but up.
1. Cincinnati Reds (97-65, lost to Giants in NLDS 3-2); 2. St. Louis Cardinals (88-74, 9 GB, wild card, beat Braves, then Nationals in NLDS 3-2; lost to Giants in NLCS 4-3); 3. Milwaukee Brewers (83-79, 14 GB); 4. Pittsburgh Pirates (79-83, 18 GB), 5. Chicago Cubs (61-101, 36 GB), 6. Houston Astros (55-107, 42 GB, now in American League West)
Three Impact Newcomers:
- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds: Choo isn't likely to be as good in center field as Drew Stubbs, but the career .289 hitter should be a massive improvement at the plate from the strikeout machine Stubbs.
- Edwin Jackson, Cubs: The oft-traveled Jackson is now in Chicago, where he'll eat innings on a team that needs to chew on plenty of them. He won't put up dazzling numbers, but neither will the Cubs, so it's a nice fit.
- Russell Martin, Pirates: You can tell there hasn't been too much offseason movement in this division with Martin in this spot. He did hit 21 homers last season with New York, but his .211 average was a far cry from his All-Star days as a catcher with the Dodgers. Still, he just turned 30.
Top 3 Story Lines
- Watching Ryan Braun: The Brewers' star left fielder had a great season (.319, 41 HR, 112 RBI, 30 SB) might have won the NL MVP again if not for his links to a positive drug test from 2011. Now he's been linked to PEDs again in the Biogenesis scandal. More developments are sure to come. He shook off the distractions last season and hopes to again, maintaining his innocence. It helps he plays in a small market, for sure.
- Aroldis Chapman's role in Cincinnati: He wants to be a closer, and his front office wants him in the starting rotation. There might be some more nuance to that, but the Reds need to figure out what to do with the hard-throwing Cuban lefty, whose stuff might be more electric in the late innings.
- No more Astros to kick around: With an unbalanced schedule, the rest of the division got to fatten up on the worst team in baseball the past two seasons, the Houston Astros. The Cardinals were 11-4, the Pirates 12-5 and the Reds 10-5 against Houston last season. But Houston is now in the American League, meaning fewer easy matchups.
- Brewers: RF Norichika Aoki, 2B Rickie Weeks, LF Ryan Braun, 3B Aramis Ramirez, C Jonathan Lucroy, 1B Taylor Green (Corey Hart out until May), CF Carlos Gomez, SS Jean Segura
- Cardinals: CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, 1B Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 3B David Freese, 2B Daniel Descalso, SS Pete Kozma
- Cubs: CF David DeJesus, SS Starlin Castro, 1B Anthony Rizzo, LF Alfonso Soriano, RF Nate Schierholtz, 3B Luis Valbuena, C Wellington Castillo, 2B Darwin Barney
- Pirates: LF Starling Marte, 2B Neil Walker, CF Andrew McCutchen, 1B Garrett Jones, 3B Pedro Alvarez, C Russell Martin, RF Travis Snider, SS Clint Barmes
- Reds: CF Shin-Soo Choo, 2B Brandon Phillips, 1B Joey Votto, LF Ryan Ludwick, RF Jay Bruce, 3B Todd Frazier, SS Zack Cozart, C Ryan Hannigan
- Brewers: RHP Yovani Gallardo, RHP Marco Estrada, LHP Chris Narveson, RHP Mike Fiers, RHP Wily Peralta or RHP Mark Rogers
- Cardinals: RHP Adam Wainwright, RHP Lance Lynn, LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Jake Westbrook, RHP Shelby Miller or RHP Joe Kelly
- Cubs: RHP Jeff Samardzija, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Scott Feldman, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Scott Baker (RHP Matt Garza on DL to start season)
- Pirates: RHP A.J. Burnett, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP James McDonald, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kyle McPherson or LHP Francisco Liriano
- Reds: RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Mat Latos, RHP Bronson Arroyo, RHP Homer Bailey, RHP Mike Leake or LHP Aroldis Chapman
Predicted order of finish
1. Cincinnati Reds; 2. Milwaukee Brewers; 3. St. Louis Cardinals; 4. Pittsburgh Pirates; 5. Chicago Cubs