With opening day mere days away, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the baseball season ahead. David Brown and Mike Oz will examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few critical players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and break-out stars. Next: The National League Central.
Home of the looking-to-win-it-all Cincinnati Reds, the always-right-there St. Louis Cardinals and the teams of Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers) and Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates), it's the NL Central. Did we forget someone? Oh yeah, the Chicago Cubs (just kidding, Chicago, we love you). Let's see what's up this season in the middle of the NL.
1. Is Joey Votto all of the way back from his injury issues? Probably so — he's slugging .674 with four homers in spring training. He had no homers in his final 167 plate appearances (in part, it would seem, because of a knee injury). If he's 100 percent Joey Votto, it's hard to find anyone better. He just has to show it in real games now. (DB)
2. Wait, the Pirates are really going to finish over .500 and also tie for a playoff spot? Hey, why not break through the morbidity of 20 straight losing seasons by making the postseason as well? A number of things have to happen. It would be nice if Starling Marte develops quickly and Travis Snider becomes all he can be alongside Andrew McCutchen in center field. Assuming that A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez will replicate their 2012 performances, if James McDonald and at least one other starting pitcher (it couldn't be Jonathan Sanchez, could it?) get the Pirates into the seventh inning, they should be OK at the end of games. A key addition is going to be rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole. He might not be another Stephen Strasburg, but there's a good chance he'll be another... Jordan Zimmermann. (DB)
3. What's the biggest hole on the Cardinals? Even though Jason Motte is out with an injury, the Cardinals have depth to replace him. If Mitchell Boggs can't close, then Trevor Rosenthal can. Even though Kyle Lohse left via free agency, they have Shelby Miller to replace him. If any of the outfielders go down, they have Oscar Taveras to replace one. What they don't seem to have is a shortstop in the wings, with Pete Kozma getting the chance to play every day. This might be a problem all season. (DB)
4. How much will Kyle Lohse's addition help the Brewers? People joke that Milwaukee is the place where old Cardinals pitchers go to retire -- see Jeff Suppan -- but Lohse is better than that. His presence means Marco Estrada and some of the other youngsters don't have to carry all of the load (with Yovani Gallardo at the top.) (DB)
5. Is there any chance the Cubs don't finish last? Only if the AL rejects the Astros. So, there's always next year! But ... if Ryan Braun is suspended for 50 games (which nobody should count on) and or Pirates super-extra collapse and the Cubs max out (they'll be better than they were in 2012), then maybe. (DB)
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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Jeff Samardzija: The former Notre Dame football player turned pitcher gets the ball on opening day for the Cubs, a team that could use an ace. He's starting to look the part. Sure he was 9-13 last season — he plays for the Cubs! — but his other stats were better than this W/L record: his 3.81 ERA, for instance. His K/BB went from 1.74 in 2011 to 3.21 in 2012.
2. Shin-Soo Choo: Acquired from the Indians in the offseason, the Reds hope Choo be a nice upgrade over Drew Stubbs. On a team that's close to making a run at the World Series, a Stubbs/Choo-type upgrade could push the Reds over the hump.
3. Pete Kozma: Thrust into the starting lineup when Rafael Furcal was lost for the season with injury, Kozma could be more than a stop-gap for the Cardinals. The 24-year-old, first-round pick impressed in 26 games last season (.333/.383/.569).
4. Gerrit Cole and/or Jameson Taillon: The Pirates rotation is full of could-go-either-way vets like the aforementioned A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. What the Pirates could use more of is good, young pitching. They've got two guys waiting in the wings in Cole (22) and Taillon (21). Look for one (or both?) of them at some point this season, and hope they usher in a new era of Pirates pitching.
5. Carlos Gomez: Gomez has been around so long that you not may realize he's still only 27. He finally showed signs of reaching his potential in 2012. So, a couple weeks ago, the Brewers signed him to a three-year extension. He still needs work (see: .260 batting average), but he could improve again this year and be an important piece as the Brewers try to build a contender around Braun.
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Order of Finish
2. Cardinals and Pirates (tie)
NL Central MVP
Oz: Joey Votto (Reds)
DB: Ryan Braun (Brewers)
NL Central Cy Young
Oz: Johnny Cueto (Reds)
DB: Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
NL Central Rookie of the Year:
Oz: Shelby Miller (Cardinals)
DB: Gerrit Cole (Pirates)
NL Central Break-Through Star
Oz: Jeff Samardzija (Cubs)
DB: Travis Snider (Pirates)
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