Cincinnati Reds. Open and shut case, right? NL Central Division winners. Preview, done.
Not so fast.
After years of rebuilding, tinkering and teasing, it seems that the Cincinnati Reds have what it takes to become the class of the National league. The Reds unexpectedly won 91 games in 2010 (leading to a sweep and a no-hitter at the hands of the Phillies in the NLDS) and bouncing back to 97 games in 2012 after a sub-.500 2011 (getting bounced in 5 games to the eventual champion SF Giants), but 2013 is the first year where organization is facing external expectations. Most writers, bloggers and talking heads are calling for an easy Cincy playoff lock. With good reason.
The Reds are positively stacked. They may have the NL’s best offense, starting with arguably the league’s best hitter in 1B Joey Votto, and a cast of All-Star-caliber sluggers: 2B Brandon Phillips, OF Jay Bruce, OF Shin-Soo Choo, 3B Todd Frazier and OF Ryan Ludwick. The bullpen might actually be just as strong as the offense, with Aroldis Chapman re-taking his place as closer, and Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton and Manny Parra throwing in front of him.
The starting rotation begins with ace Johnny Cueto and nominal co-ace Mat Latos, but doesn’t give up much from there. Homer Bailey is a solid 3/4 starter that’s capable of ace-like performances (see his 7 inning, 1-hit, 10 strikeout start in the playoffs), while Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo are steady options at the back of the rotation. Truly, the Reds don’t have any apparent weaknesses. They should win this division.
But as good as they’ll be, I don’t necessarily think they’ll be head and shoulders above the rest of the division, specifically the St. Louis Cardinals.
The 2011 World Series champs return nearly all of their hitters that led to the second-highest run scoring unit in the NL, while also keeping together and exceptional bullpen including Mitchell Boggs, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Jason Motte. The rotation is the team’s weak spot, but also it’s deepest. Adam Wainwright is in a contract year, and though Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and #1 prospect Shelby Miller don’t look like a force behind him, having youngsters Joe Kelly and Rosenthal ready to start at if any injury happens is an incredible luxury.
The Brewers are a banged up group, missing Mat Gamel and Corey Hart already with knee injuries, but also kept together a large portion of the NL’s most productive scoring offense from 2012. Yovani Gallardo, Chris Narveson, Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers and newly signed Kyle Lohse turn in a very underrated rotation that the Reds and Cards won’t want to see in five series per season. Still just not enough firepower and a suspect bullpen will keep them firmly entrenched behind Cincy and St. Louis.
This is going to be a very tough division, perhaps the toughest in the NL. Even the Pirates, currently riding a 20-season losing streak, are equipped to contend for a Wild Card spot with a vastly improved rotation and a young offense that could either be clueless yet again, or extremely potent. Let’s not just give this away freely to the Reds.
Top Dog: Cincinnati Reds
That being said, I’m not suggesting that the Reds won’t win the division–they should and they probably will. But to anoint them the unquestioned winners is silly considering that St. Louis and Milwaukee are turning in very solid, very well managed clubs and will play the Reds 18 times in the next five months. It’s going to be very difficult for Cincy–the talent gap just isn’t as severe as say, Detroit and the AL Central.
First Loser: St. Louis
These Birds are young, deep and improving. If enough of their rookies and second year players develop, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them challenge the Reds until the last week of the season. Still, a lot more has to go right for them that probably wont than in Cincinnati’s case.
Cellar Dweller: Chicago Cubs
It’s Year Two of the Theo Epstein Era in Chi-town, and while it’ll be eventful, I’m not certain it’ll be such in the way that will please the Cubs faithful. The Cubbies are still in strip and acquire mode, meaning that useful veterans like OF Alfonso Soriano, OF David DeJesus, SP Matt Garza and RP Carlos Marmol could be gone by July for prospects.
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
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