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NL Central Division preview: No more Astros to pick on

The new-look National League Central Division never seems to get the respect it deserves, but that could change in 2013.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are the frontrunners for the NL Central crown, but don't discount the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates. It could be another long season for the Chicago Cubs as they continue their rebuilding process.

NL Central teams no longer have the Houston Astros to beat up on throughout the course of the season, which should increase the competition level between the other five clubs.

Chicago Cubs (2012: 61-101 – 25.68 units, 74-82-6 over/under)


Division odds: 20/1
Season win total: 72.5

Why bet the Cubs: Starlin Castro is an up and coming talent with Anthony Rizzo backing him in the lineup. Darwin Barney is a capable No. 2 hitter and is a gold glove fielder. Jeff Samardzija has talent along with Matt Garza if both can stay healthy. Edwin Jackson is a decent No. 3 starting pitcher with veteran experience.

Why not bet the Cubs: Fourteen different pitchers had a 5.00 ERA or worse last year. Only one regular offensive player batted .300 or better and that was Reed Johnson who is no longer with the club. Shortstop Starlin Castro had 27 errors which is a huge issue at such an important defensive position. Carlos Marmol is inconsistent as a closer and will cost Chicago some games.
 
Season win total pick: Under 72.5
 
Cincinnati Reds (2012: 97-65 - +18.73 units, 60-89-13 over/under)

Division odds:
10/17
Season win total: 91

Why bet the Reds: Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips lead a solid lineup from top to bottom that should improve with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo. Ryan Ludwick has hit over .300 in his last 80 games and seems to fit nicely into a group that needed a little more power. The rotation features plenty of power arms in Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey. This pitching staff gets even more powerful when considering the relief corps. Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo are all solid options late in games.

Why not bet the Reds: The bench isn't very deep, so injuries to this lineup will be problematic. Votto and Phillips must remain healthy for this offense to be potent.
 
Season win total pick: Over 91
 
Milwaukee Brewers (2012: 83-79 - -9.18 units, 89-68-5 over/under)

Division odds: 15/2
Season win total: 81

Why bet the Brewers: Ryan Braun is the only player in baseball with 100+ runs and 100+ RBI in each of the last four seasons.  Jean Segura could stabilize the shortstop position after hitting .329 in his last 22 games. Yovani Gallardo is an underrated ace with at least 200+ strikeouts in four straight years. The rest of the rotation is filled with potential in Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta, and Marco Estrada.

Why not bet the Brewers:
John Axford struggled as the team's closer with a 5-8 record with a 4.67 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 75 appearances last year. Chris Narveson and Estrada are injury- prone. The bench is suspect as Mat Gamel has not lived up to his potential. Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, and Rickie Weeks are inconsistent. Weeks and Ramirez both struggled at the beginning of the season last year.

Season win total pick: Under 81

Pittsburgh Pirates (2012: 79-83 - -2.58 units, 69-84-9 over/under)


Division odds: 12/1
Season win total: 77

Why bet the Pirates: This young lineup should continue to improve and get better each season. Andrew McCutchen is a duel offensive threat with his speed and power. Three Pirates hit at least 25 home runs last seasons with Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones joining McCutchen. The team ERA was under 4.00 for the first time since 1998. They acquired Wandy Rodriguez in the middle of last season and he brings experience to the starting rotation.

Why not bet the Pirates
: The Pirates finished just 16-36 in their last 52 games of the 2012 season. The back end of the pitching rotation is a problem. James McDonald could be the ace of the staff, but he also pitched like a rookie at times last season. The bullpen lost Joel Hanrahan who was a stabilizing force and is now depending upon Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli to lock things down.

Season win total pick: Over 77

St. Louis Cardinals (2012: 88-74 - -4.23 units, 78-79-5 over/under)


Division odds: 9/4
Season win total: 86

Why bet the Cardinals:
A solid offensive lineup returns. Allen Craig ranked seventh in the NL in batting average and slugging. Matt Holliday had a team-high 102 RBIs with Jon Jay hitting over .300 as a leadoff hitter. The bench got stronger with the addition of utility man Ty Wigginton. Adam Wainwright will be back for a full season after elbow surgery last year and is joined by Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn in the pitching rotation. Shelby Miller is waiting in the wings as well.

Why not bet the Cardinals:
While there is talent in the starting rotation, there is also some uncertainty. Jaime Garcia was inconsistent away from home with some terrible numbers on the road last year. Lance Lynn's stamina faltered at the end of the season and Jake Westbrook's ERA has been 4.65 or worse in two of the past three years. Offensively, health could become a problem with Holliday, Rafael Furcal, and potentially Carlos Beltran.

Season win total pick:
Over 86

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