The 2012 NL Central race was very interesting as for the first time since 1997; the Pittsburgh Pirates were in first place at the All-Star break. The Pirates were playing as if their streak of consecutive losing seasons would end at 19 and they would make the playoffs for the first time since 1992, but they faltered down the stretch and ended the season at 79-83, their 20th straight losing season. The Reds were the recipients of the Pirates miscues as they won their second division title in the three years. The Cardinals also made the playoffs for the third time in four years, earing the second of the two Wild Card spots. The Milwaukee Brewers won 14 of their last 23 but finished five games behind the Cardinals at 83-79. Pirates finished four games under .500 at 79-83 followed by the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros who finished a combined 78 games behind the Reds. The Reds had a two games to none lead in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants but lost three straight, ending their season. The Cardinals made it all the way to the NLCS where they lost to the Giants in seven games. This season will be a little different as the Houston Astros left the NL Central and now play in the AL West.
Chicago Cubs: The Chicago Cubs had a bad season last year, finishing with over a 100 losses for the first time since 1966. The Cubs had a bad offense as they ranked 28th in the league in runs with 613. 1B Bryan LaHair, who was second on the team with 16 HRs and made his first career All-Star appearance, signed with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League. The Cubs signed P Edwin Jackson to a four year, $52 million dollar contract in the offseason. Jackson will most likely be the Cubs #2 starter behind Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs don’t have a good offense as SS Starlin Castro, 1B Anthony Rizzo, and OF Alfonso Soriano are the only guys in the lineup capable of putting up big numbers. The Cubs are still in a rebuilding phase, which is why they will be bringing up lots of prospects this season, so expect the Cubs to be a non-factor in the Central race this year.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds finished the 2012 season with their highest win total since 1999. Manager Dusty Baker has taken his team into the playoffs twice in the past three seasons. The Reds lost OF Drew Stubbs and 3B Scott Rolen in the offseason but traded for OF Shin-Soo-Choo who will most likely be the Reds leadoff hitter. Shoo had 67 RBIs and will look to make an immediate impact to a team that struggled to score runs as they ranked 21st in the league last year. 1B Joey Votto battled a knee injury last year, playing in only 111 games but hit .337 with 14 HRs and 56 RBIs. Votto says that he is healthy entering this season. RF Jay Bruce had a career high 34 HRs and 99 RBIs en route to his second straight All-Star appearance. 2B Brandon Phillips had 18 HRs and 77 RBIs last year but will have less pressure on him now that he is isn’t in the leadoff spot. The Reds pitching staff had the 5th best ERA in the league last year. P Johnny Cueto had a career high 19 wins as he became the ace of the team and P Matt Latos went 14-4 in his first year with the team. The Reds bullpen is one of the league’s best as they have Jonathon Broxton, who they signed in the offseason as a setup man, and fireballer CP Aroldis Chapman. Baker was thinking of the possibility of moving Chapman to the starting rotation but Chapman has always been in favor of being in the bullpen. The Reds are the clear favorite to win the NL Central and also will be looking to improve on their NLDS collapse last year.
Milwaukee Brewers: If the Brewers could have played the whole 2012 season like the played the second half of the year, they could have maybe made the playoffs. LF Ryan Braun had yet another MVP-type season last year, batting .319 with 41 HRs and 112 RBIs. Braun led the Brewers offense that ranked 3rd in the league with 776 runs. The Brewers will need to find a replacement for OF Corey Hart, who will be missing the first two months of the season due to having knee surgery in late January. 3B Aramis Ramirez had over the 100 RBIs for the first time since 2008 and along with 2B Rickie Weeks, will each t help Braun carry the void that Hart left. P Yovani Gallardo was the only Brewer to have more than 10 wins last season. The Brewers brought in some much needed when they signed veteran P Kyle Lohse this week. Lohse had a career high 16 wins with the Cardinals last year and will take some of the pressure off of Gallardo. The Brewers have a team that can win the division, but the question is can they stay consistent all season long? If so, they have a change to win the Central but if not, they can find themselves in 3rd place just like last year.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates played 2/3 of the season last year like a playoff team. The problem was that last 1/3 of the season was horrible as the pressure got to the Pirates. So is this the year that the Pirates finally their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons? The Pirates didn’t do much in the offseason but did bring in a couple pitchers that could be their 4th or 5th starters in SP Francisco Liriano and SP Jonathan Sanchez. Both have had seasons with 10+ wins but both have been struggling as of late. The Pirates do have their stud in OF Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen had his best season setting career highs in HRs, RBIs, and batting average. He hit .327 with 31 HRs and 96 RBIs and finished third in the NL MVP voting but was chosen by the player’s as the National League Outstanding Player of the Year. The Pirates have power in their 3-4-5 spots with McCutchen, 3B Pedro Alvarez, and 1B Garrett Jones. Alvarez and Jones combined for 57 HRs and 171 RBIs last year. P A.J. Burnett surprised everyone last year in his first season with the team, finishing the year with a record of 16-10 and 180 strikeouts. Behind Burnett, the Pirates also have P James McDonald and P Wandy Rodriguez. Both pitchers will look to take some of the pressure off of Burnett this year as they try to make a playoff push. It will be an interesting first couple of months for the Pirates as everyone around the league will be wondering what Pirate team shows up. Will it be the team that was in first place at the All-Star break last year, or will it be the team that faltered down the stretch?
St. Louis Cardinals: In there first season without 1B Albert Pujols; the 2012 Cardinals earned the 2nd Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The Cardinals were one game away from making it back-to-back World Series appearances but in the end lost to the Giants. Now entering manager Mike Matheny’s second season, the Cardinals look to make it back to the World Series for 2nd time in three years. Replacing Pujols was the main question entering last year but 1B Allen Craig had a great season in his first full season as a starting first baseman. He batted .307 with 22 HRs and 92 RBIs. Outfielders Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday both had excellent seasons, combining for 59 HRs and 199 RBIs. The Cardinals also have one of the best catchers in the MLB in C Yadier Molina. 3B David Freese will start the season on the 15-Day DL due to a strained lower back. The Cardinals have their ace in Adam Wainwright but everyone was talking about the play of P Lance Lynn. Lynn, pitching in his first full season, went 18-7 with a 3.78 ERA. The Cardinals will however have to replace Kyle Lohse, who signed with the Brewers. We know the Cardinals have a superb offense but replacing Lohse and seeing if Lynn can improve off of last year will be the storyline for the Cards this year.
Prediction: The Reds are the clear favorite to win the division and in the end I think they will win the division. A wild card spot will not come from this division this year so if the Cardinals want to make the playoffs for the third straight year, they will have to win the division.
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs
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