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Bob Matthews' Column

NL Central

 

The Cincinnati Reds have always been one of my favorite teams, partly because their fans love the sport so much.  In many places, the baseball team helps melt away the summer, before the real season starts – the NFL. Not so in Cincinnati, where the Reds still are the kings.


I used to look forward to Major League Baseball opening the season in Cincinnati. I don’t exactly why or when the tradition ended, but it was a mistake.


Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff series since 1995 but I expect the futility streak to end this season.  The Great American Ball Park will be hopping.


 CENTRAL DIVISION


1—Cincinnati Reds (predicted record 92-70). The addition of Shin-Soo Choo and a clean bill of heath for Joey Votto should help the Reds repeat as division champs…Choo (career .381 on-base percentage) is the quality leadoff man the lineup has lacked. Cincinnati’s leadoff men had a .208 batting average and a major league-worst .254 on-base percentage last season…Votto is a good bet to win the NL batting title after a knee injury took a big toll last season…The lineup is solid top-to-bottom: CF Choo, 2B Brandon Phillips, 1B Votto, LF Ryan Ludwick, RF Jay Bruce, 3B Todd Frazier (power in the top six spots), C Ryan Hanigan, SS Zack Cozart…Speedy Billy Hamilton (a minor-league record 155 stolen bases last season) is almost ready…Very good starting rotation: Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake…Overpowering closer Aroldis Chapman anchors a deep bullpen, including Jonathan Braxton, Jose Arredondo and Sean Marshall…Thrived in hitter-friendly home stadium (50-31 last season)…Bench is a weakness. Not much to spend on reserves after long-term deals for mainstays.

 


2—St. Louis Cardinals (87-75). There isn’t a tougher team to gauge. ..The top six hitters in the lineup are very good: CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, 1B Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 3B David Freese…Middle infield (2B Daniel Descalso and SS Pete Kozma) don’t have much pop…Top OF prospect Oscar Taveras is close to being ready…Decent top four starting pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook) but veteran Chris Carpenter (career-threatening nerve disorder) and departed free agent Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA) will be missed…Deep bullpen is an asset…Left-handed reliever Randy Choate fills a need…Very good at Busch Stadium (50-31) but not so good on the road (38-43)…Finished second in the division for the third straight year…Finished 9 games behind Cincinnati last season. Should be closer this year and contend for a wild-card playoff berth.

 


3—Milwaukee Brewers (84-78). They can hit. The first NL team since Colorado in 1996 to lead the NL in runs, home runs and stolen bases…Pitching is another story. The staff’s 4.22 ERA was fourth-worst in the NL.  Only Chicago, Colorado and Houston were worse and they combined for 306 losses…Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse are the only reliable starters and the bullpen is extremely suspect (NL-worst 4.66 ERA in 2012). Closer John Axford led the majors in blown saves…Lost 26 games on opponents’ final at-bat…Potent bats include leadoff man Norichika Aoki (.290, 10 HRs, 50 RBI, 30 stolen bases as a rookie surprise), Ryan Braun (41 HRs, 112 RBI), Aramis Ramirez (27 HRs, 105 RBI), Corey Hart (30 HRs); 83 RBI) will miss the start of the season with a knee problem), catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.320, 12 HRs) and the much-improved Carlos Gomez (19 HRs, 37 stolen bases)…Hoping Jean Segura can plug the hole at SS and 2B can Rickie Weeks can bounce back from a poor 2012 season…Best combined home record in 2011-12 (106-56)…Weak bench.


4—Pittsburgh Pirates (82-80). They should end their MLB-record 20-season losing streak…Started fast the past two seasons but collapsed both years (combined 37-76 after August 1)…CF Andrew McCutchen could become a superstar. ..Second baseman Neil Walker, when healthy, in one of baseball’s most underrated players…Russell Martin is a big improvement at catcher…Slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez and OF Starling Marte have star potential…1B Garrett Jones crushes RH pitching…Need more from OF Travis Snider and SS Clint Barmes…Decent bench…Pitching staff’s 3.86 ERA was first time under 4.00 since 1998…Team-record 1,192 strikeouts by pitchers…Solid RH-LF 1-2 starting punch in A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez.  Rest of the rotation is a mystery, including former Red Wings and Minnesota star Francisco Liriano…Top pitching prospect Gerrit Cole could be called up soon…The bullpen is a bigger mystery. Lost closer Joel Hanrahan (76x84 saves in 2011-12) in a money move.  Journeyman Jason Grilli will try to pick up the slack…The Pirates, a joke for far too long, finally have a foundation and are on the upgrade.


5—Chicago Cubs (54-109). How low can they go? Theo Epstein is in full-scale rebuilding mode and will take no shortcuts. Veterans OF Alfonso Soriano, starting pitcher Matt Garza and reliever Carlos Marmol simply don’t fit and remain prime trade bait for prospects…Consistent decline since 97 wins in 2008 (83-75-71-61; from a +184 run differential in 2008 to minus-146 in 2012) and the trend figures to continue for at least a year or two…Used 29 pitchers in 2012 and 14 had ERAs above 5.00. Used 24 position players and 13 hit under .220…23-58 on the road and 15-27 in one-run games…The few bright spots include talented but erratic SS Starling Castro and emerging slugging 1B Anthony Rizzo…Former Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija gets a shot as ace starting pitcher (some of his teammates would swing and miss at a football). Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa could be the closer soon…The Cubbies won the World Series in 1908. They might win another one before 2108. But no guarantees.

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