NL Central 2014 preview: The Cardinals lead the pack, but who's next?

Mike Oz
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With opening day coming soon, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. Next: The National League Central.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

1. CAN THE CARDINALS BE JUST AS GOOD AS THEY WERE IN 2013?
Heck, they might be better. The Cardinals return most of their World Series lineup, missing only an aging Carlos Beltran and not-so-effective anymore David Freese. They've added Jhonny Peralta to play short, moved Allen Craig to the outfield since Matt Adams has established himself at first and acquired Peter Bourjos from the Angels in their Freese swap. With their young pitching maturing (you remember Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, right?) and two essential veteran leaders in Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, the Cardinals seem to have all the pieces. 

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2. WHAT DOES A POST-SUSPENSION RYAN BRAUN LOOK LIKE?
Ryan Braun has served his time and he's back. While baseball fans aren't just going to shrug away his 65-game suspension, Braun is squarely focused on forgetting about his past and all the PED controversy it contains. He's been beastly this spring, hitting .379/.486/.690 with a couple of homers. No one will doubt Braun's talent, but we'll see what kind of mentality he has now and what kind of leadership he can give a Brewers team looking to finish higher than fourth.

3. DO THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES HAVE ANOTHER MAGICAL SEASON IN THEM?
If your favorite team was out of it in 2013, you adopted the Pirates and got behind their plight. They had their first winning record and first playoff berth in 21 years. And now they have the difficult task of proving they can do it again. In a tough division. Without A.J. Burnett. The Pirates didn't do a heck of a lot this offseason, but they return the NL's MVP in Andrew McCutchen, an ace-in-the-making in Gerrit Cole, plus a revived Francisco Liriano. Young pitcher Jameson Taillon is on the way too. Much like last year, if you're a Pirates fan (longtime or adopted), this season will be tense again.

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4. CAN THE REDS NEW SKIPPER GET THEM OVER THEIR PLAYOFF HUMP?
The biggest move the Cincinnati Reds made this offseason was at the manager's desk, where pitching coach Bryan Price replaced Dusty Baker. Baker won a lot of games the past few seasons with the Reds, but he didn't win the ones that mattered most — in the playoffs, where they've been booted early three of the past four seasons. The talent is there with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce leading the lineup and Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani on the mound. The Reds thought Baker was the problem, so now we see if Price can fulfill Cincinnati's postseason potential.

5. CAN THE CUBS JUST FAST FORWARD A COUPLE YEARS?
Three teams have a chance to make the playoffs out of the NL Central, but the Chicago Cubs aren't one of them. The Cubs have a bright future ahead — with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant on the way, preparing to smash homers out of Wrigley Field. This year? Well, it's not the future yet. The most interesting part of the Cubs' season might be watching what happens with pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who might get traded or signed to a big contract extension.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

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1. Gerrit Cole: A.J. Burnett is gone and it's expecting a lot for Francisco Liriano to have as good of a season as he did in 2013. The Pirates aren't really asking Cole — a 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick who went 10-7 last year as a rookie with a 3.22 ERA — to be their ace so much as they need him to be their ace. Liriano is getting the opening day start, but Cole is the future of the franchise.

2. Shelby Miller: By the end of the season, Michael Wacha had become the beloved young pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation, a wunderkind of a postseason winner who was nearly unstoppable until the season's last day. But let's not forget how good Shelby Miller was for most of the season. As a 22-year-old, he posted a 3.06 ERA and a 15-9 record. If he can pick up where his September left off (3-0 with a 2.76 ERA), the Cards will be thrilled.

3. Billy Hamilton: The Reds lost Shin-Soo Choo in free agency, and young speedster Billy Hamilton will replace him in center field. We all know Hamilton is dangerous on the base paths because of his ridiculous speed. But dozens of stolen bases won't immediately fill the hole left by Choo, who had a .423 on-base percentage in 2013. Hamilton needs to prove he can hit and play defense like an emerging star, and the stolen bases will just be a cherry on top.

4. Khris Davis: Not to confused with Chris Davis of Baltimore (though they both crush/khrush a lot), the 26-year-old Brewers outfielder is going to get a chance to play every day now that the Brewers have traded Norichika Aoki. Davis got more playing time last season when Braun was suspended. The Brewers liked what they saw — 11 homers in 56 games with a .279 average — enough to trade Aoki and open up a starting outfield spot. This spring, Davis has hit four homers. Many more might be on the way.

5. Junior Lake: Of the promising young guys that the Cubs are hoping to see do big things in the future, Junior Lake is the one the Wrigley faithful can enjoy right now. Bryant and Baez are coming, but Lake looks like he'll be hitting homers next week. The 23-year-old outfielder hit six last year in 64 games, but has almost matched that this spring, with four homers and 16 RBIs.

PREDICTIONS

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NL Central MVP: Andrew McCutchen

NL Central Cy Young: Michael Wacha

NL Central Rookie of the Year: Billy Hamilton

NL Central breakthrough star: Tony Cingrani

Order of Finish

1. St. Louis Cardinals: Too much pitching, too much talent.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates: They've got young pitching too, just not as much as the Cardinals.

3. Cincinnati Reds: Injury concerns this spring make the Pirates a better choice for second place. 

4. Milwaukee Brewers: Unless Hank has super puppy powers, they're not finishing any higher than this.

5. Chicago Cubs: You already knew this.

NEXT: AL Central | ALREADY: AL East, NL East

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Mike Oz is an editor for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!