MLB Preview: NL Central
The MLB season is fast approaching.
1. Cincinatti Reds (2012: 97-65, First Place)
Why they'll win: The Reds are the most complete team in the Central, although that is not really saying much in a division with the Cubs and Pirates as members. They have supreme leadership in the clubhouse with Brandon Phillips and a dynamic lineup featuring Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos are about as good as it gets for a rotational top-three.
Why they won't win: Injuries. The only thing that could bring the Reds down from the top of the Central is the fragility of Bruce and Votto, along with any other injuries that may arise. The Reds are almost a sure thing here if they stay even reasonably healthy in 2013.
Cuban Flame: Aroldis Chapman has been ridiculously good as a late inning reliever/closer for the Reds since defecting from Cuba. This season the Reds will toy with the idea of moving the flamethrower to the starting rotation. Will Chapman be able to spread out the 100 mph cheese over five-plus innings? Can he survive a season of Dusty "The Pitcher Killer" Baker managing his innings? Only time will tell...
Jay BRuth: The legend of Jay Bruce has cooled a bit since his eye-opening debut season of 2008 when he hit 21 home runs in just over 400 at-bats. If he can cut down on his strikeouts (155 last season) he could make a legitimate run at the MVP award. If not, he will likely be known as the poor man's Adam Dunn for all of eternity.
2. Milwaukee Brewers (2012: 83-79, 3rd Place)
Why they'll win: I had no inkling the Brewers would win 83 games last season after losing Prince Fielder among others heading into the season. But, thanks to a big season from Carlos Gomez and a sneaky good campaign from centerfielder Norichika Aoiki the Brewers hung around until late September. They will need more of the same, and a big season from newly acquired Kyle Lohse, who owned the NL Central last season.
Why they won't: We are talking about a team that is starting 36 year old Alex Gonzalez at first base. Gonzalez played 24 games last season and hit just .259 in 81 at bats. Matt Gamel's season-ending injury at the onset of spring training caused the team to scramble, but sure the cupboard was not so bare as to only yield Gonzalez.
Go-Go: Carlos Gomez is sneakily becoming one of the most dynamic outfielders in the National League. Last season the former Twin batted .260 with 19 home runs, 50 RBI and 37 stolen bases. Gomez, entering his sixth season in MLB, is still just 27 years old.
Late Lohse: Kyle Lohse, another former Twin, did not sign with the Brewers until March 26, approximately one month after Milwaukee opened camp in Arizona. Lohse was dominant with the Cardinals last season under Dave Duncan (16-3, 2.86 era, 143 K), but it will be interesting to see how long it takes the righty to catch up, fitness-wise.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (2012: 88-74, 2nd Place)
Why they'll win: Because they always seem to win. It doesn't hurt to have Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran as your corner infielders, either. The rotation loses Chris Carpenter (Retired) and Kyle Lohse (FA, Brewers) but still features Adam Wainwright and Jamie Garcia.
Why they won't: Yadier Molina will likely not be able to repeat his 2012 career year, and there is little chance that Beltran can stay healthy for another entire season. The rotation drops off precipitously after Wainwright/Garcia, and the closer (Jason Motte) is already injured.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (2012: 79-83, 4th Place)
Why they'll win: The Pirates were surprise contenders last season in the Central when they enjoyed a breakout season from third baseman Pedro Alvarez and a career year from journeyman pitcher AJ Burnett. The good news is that they still employ Andrew McCutcheon and signed Russell Martin to play
shortstop catcher. .
Why they won't win: Well, they are still the Pirates, after all. Pittsburgh has not had a winning season since 1992, the longest streak in all of professional sports. Unless AJ Burnett has another insane season and somehow the bullpen comes together to form a Voltron....it's not going to happen, especially without Houston to beat up on 15 times a year.
5. Chicago Cubs (2012: 61-101, 5th Place)
Why they'll win: A flu epidemic sweeps through Major League Baseball and forces all other teams to use high school players in games against the Cubs. Or, if Henry Rowengartner breaks his arm in just the right way and emerges as a top-flight starter and mentor to 50-year-old
Gary Busey Chet Steadman, who regains his 1980's-era form.
Why they won't win: They are the Cubs. Don't worry, they won't win.