Baseball Nation previews the N.L. Central

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

How will the N.L. Central shake out?

Rob Neyer: There's one thing we know about the National League Central this year: The Houston Astros will most assuredly not finish in last place again. They can't! They're not in the National League Central any more!*

* Public Service Announcement for anyone who decided to start following baseball just this morning.

But let's not forget just how terrible the N.L. Central was last year. There were only two teams that lost at least 100 games in 2012, and both were in the N.L. Central. The 107-loss Astros are gone, bu the 101-loss Cubs are not. And while we should expect some improvement from the Cubs, there's no obvious reason to think they won't finish last again. Not with all the other clubs actually making some effort to contend. With more-talented rosters, no less.

Grant Brisbee: I don't think the Cubs lose 100 this year. I don't even think they lose 90.

/sees Nate Schierholtz is hitting fifth

Maybe 90.

But I like what they've done with the pitching staff in a short time. I wrote about it before the spring, but they essentially did what the Royals were trying to do, and they did it without giving up a Wil Myers. Now, Garza being hurt indefinitely is going to smart, but even then, they still have a credible fifth starter in place until Scott Baker is ready to contribute. They have a long way to go, and it's not like they're contending this year, but they at least crawled out of the morass of miserable.

Rob: Sure, they're on the right track. But this is a major rebuild, and they avoid last place only if Brewers or Pirates collapse. Which is possible, but unlikely.

Speaking of whom, the race for third place should be a good one. As I wrote earlier this week, Kyle Lohse doesn't make the Brewers serious contenders for a division title, but it probably does push them into winning territory and thus past the Pirates. That club did make a big move this winter by grabbing Russell Martin, for which I applaud them. But man, when you're counting on Jonathan Sanchez every fifth game ... Pitchers are weird and maybe he's decent again. But he would make me very afraid.

Grant: My knee-jerk reaction was to hate the Martin move ... but it was for two years, which is mighty reasonable, and Martin's been a little better than I thought. I was in 1989 mode, focusing on the batting average.

Here's the thing about the Pirates: I don't hate them at any position, with the possible exception of Jonathan Sanchez as the fifth starter. Martin at catcher? That's an upgrade. Barmes as a #8-hitting shortstop? Well, at least he's truly an elite fielder. Starling Marte leading off? That's a stretch, but he most certainly should be getting at bats with the big club. Jeff Locke as the fourth starter? Looking forward to watching him. Up and down the 25-man roster, I can talk myself into who's there for the Pirates, and that's the first time I can remember doing that.

Now all that needs to happen is for them to figure out that the season isn't 81 games.

Rob: Heh. Yeah. Really interesting lineup (until the eighth slot, when you get to replacement level). Really scary rotation, even including the guys who are decent. I mean, comparing the Pirates' five starters to the Reds' or the Cardinals' and ... well, there's just no comparison, really. Hard to see them competing, especially considering that Clint Hurdle's never really been some sort of miracle worker. I actually thought the Pirates punted any real chance at a playoff spot when they brought Hurdle back. Maybe that's not fair, but history's on my side.

Grant: You're just racist against purple people.

Rob: Still, the Pirates should score some runs this season. Just not nearly as many as the Brewers, who actually led the National League last season. Some of that's the ballpark, but a lot is having some really good hitters in the lineup. The tricky part is the pitching. I do think the bullpen will be better this season, and (again) Lohse will help. But the Brewers' season probably depends on them staying exceptionally healthy. Which you can't really count on.

Grant: I think I like the Brewers more than you do. I'd put them in that Diamondbacks tier, where they might not be the favorites in the division, but they will probably be annoying the teams at the top for most of the year. I like the Lohse signing, and I like that it gave them rotation depth -- they have the luxury of moving a guy with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 4.00 to the bullpen. Which they're kind of nuts for, but that's another topic. I guess I'll see how Wily Peralta does before I get too judgmental.

I'd peg Weeks to have a better year, though that might be offset by Aoki and Gomez not being quite as good. Still, they're a solid team with more pitching depth than a lot of people give them credit for. They remind me of the 2010 Diamondbacks because of the dreadful bullpen problems they had last year. You can't expect that again, so they'll almost improve by default.

Rob: True, and also Randy Wolf and his 5.69 ERA are long gone. This is one of those tweener teams; you're not crazy for liking them, but if you're objective you can't really pick them. Nobody should be shocked if they're still in the thick of things in August, which is really all you can hope for if you're playing with the Brewers' payroll.

Speaking of payrolls, the Reds never seem to worry much about money, which is odd considering that Cincinnati is one of MLB's smallest markets. How do they do it? I don't know. But with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo, everybody seems to be wild about the Reds' chances.

That's probably fair, and having Todd Frazier in the lineup more often should help some too, along with (presumably) a full season from Joey Votto. Considering the Reds won 97 games last year -- yeah, how quickly some of us forgot about that -- there's really no reason to choose anybody else this year. Essentially, they're the Midwest's Nationals. No?

Grant: Well ... maybe. I'm taking the Reds, too, but that might change by the end of this chat. They're a good team, a complete team, but making them the overwhelming, can't-miss favorites is selling the Cardinals short.

I'm not sold on Ryan Ludwick for obvious reasons. He was in the bargain bin for a reason before last year, and I'm curious to see how Choo handles center. With Choo and Ludwick in the outfield, flyball pitchers might have some funky years in Cincinnati. And that's what Bronson Arroyo and (to a much lesser extent, I think) Mat Latos are. Maybe I'm just concern trolling, because I think the Reds are the best team in the division. But I don't think the Cardinals are too far behind.

Actually, what I'm really doing is underrating Joey Votto. He's really that good, so I should move the Reds up a tick in my mental ratings by default.

Rob: Yes, but the Cardinals : Reds are Braves : Nationals, right? The problem for us is that we're predicting that both divisions will work out exactly as they did a year ago, and the facts on the ground are never so neat. But the Reds probably improved some this winter, while the Cardinals are almost exactly the same; their big changes are Pete Kozma (who probably can't hit) taking over at shortstop, and Shelby Miller joining the rotation. Miller's a fine prospect, but rookie pitchers, sheesh. I think you have to like the Cardinals as a playoff team, but not a better-than-Cincinnati team. Especially with three of their best players -- Holliday, Beltran, Molina -- on the back side of their careers.

Grant: I suppose the Nats/Braves comp is a good one. And it's possible that I'm not devaluing Jaime Garcia enough for shoulder wonkiness and general inconsistency, or that I'm not pointing and laughing at Pete Kozma like I should. But I see a really, really deep lineup until Descalso, who might get bumped for Matt Carpenter anyway. I don't know. If you're going to mark down Holliday and Molina for being old, you can do the same for Phillips, Ludwick, and even Votto (same age as Molina), no? And if a guy like Westbrook falters, there's Trevor Rosenthal in reserve.

Probably picking the Reds. But not in love with the idea that I'm right.

Rob: (Isn't Joe Kelly the next guy in line for rotation spot?)

Grant: (Right! That too!)

Rob: You should love all your ideas! Golden, all of them!

Here are my bronze N.L. Central standings:

1. Reds
2. Cardinals
3. Pirates
4. Brewers
5. Cubs

Grant: I'm tired of all this agreement!

1. Cardinals
2. Reds
3. Brewers
4. Pirates
5. Cubs

But the Pirates are a soft four. It's not a the-Pirates-are-bad four, I just think a little more of the teams above them.

Rob: Tomorrow, we finish!

Previously, in Previews:

Baseball Nation and the National League East

Baseball Nation and the American League West

Baseball Nation and the American League Central

Baseball Nation and the American League East

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