COMMENTARY | There is a general consensus regarding the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers' playoff chances, a feeling of pessimism. The Brewers didn't land a big fish in free agency or make a newsworthy trade to bolster the roster. Milwaukee's train of thought was clear and simple heading into the winter - don't touch the offense, revamp the bullpen and give the young arms a shot to win a job in the spring.
We're nearly two months away from opening day, and the transactions have begun to die down around the league as rosters take form. Early projections for the National League Central division give the Cincinnati Reds a leg up on the competition, with the Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs falling in line. Remember, the punching bag known as the Houston Astros no longer resides in the NL Central.
With the Astros out of the picture, it figures to be a more wide-open race.
Here is how the Brewers stack up against the competition just weeks before pitchers and catchers report for spring training:
Cincinnati Reds (Last season: 97-65, 1st)
There's plenty of reason to believe that the Reds will be repeating as division champs in 2013, and it starts with their pitching. Not only does the starting rotation feature Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, but the back-end of the MLB's top bullpen is solidified with the re-signing of Jonathan Broxton to go along with Sean Marshall and fireball closer Aroldis Chapman.
Considering the uncertainty surrounding not only the end of the rotation but also the bullpen as a whole for the Brewers, the Reds on paper appear to have a significant advantage on the pitching front. On offense, we know where the Brewers stand, and the Reds did struggle to put up runs last season, but that can largely be attributed to the six-week absence of Joey Votto from the lineup.
Votto is back, and so are Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. If that wasn't scary enough, the Reds dealt for Shin Soo-Choo in the offseason while parting ways with Drew Stubbs. It's pretty evident that this trade benefits the Reds immediately, and there is at least an argument when it comes to who has a more potent offense, even if the Brewers probably have a slight edge.
St. Louis Cardinals (88-74, 2nd, wild card)
The Cardinals caught a scare towards the end of the 2012 season when the Brewers were suddenly pushing for the final wild-card spot. In the end, the deficit was too much to overcome, and the Cardinals went on to reach the postseason. Their starting rotation, like that of the Reds, is no slouch.
That starting five is headlined by Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia and while the bullpen had its struggles last season, ranking No. 20 in ERA, St. Louis signed left-hander Randy Choate in an effort to improve the odds of getting the lead to Jason Motte. In can be argued that St. Louis should have done more to improve its relief situation, especially when compared to the effort Milwaukee made this winter.
Even after the departure of Albert Pujols, the Cardinals had one of baseball's top five offenses, and along with the Brewers will enter 2013 with one of the top lineups in the National League.
Pittsburgh Pirates (79-83, 4th)
For the second year in a row, Pittsburgh flirted with the top of the division standings before running out of gas in the second half. It's not a bad team, but if there was ever a worse time for a team to hit its peak than right now, you'd be hard-pressed to find it.
With the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers fighting for the top spot, there isn't much room for error in Pittsburgh. It's a team that had a decent starting rotation, a plus bullpen and a below-average offense in 2012, even with Andrew McCutchen, and at least two of those areas have to improve for Pittsburgh to have any shot at the NL Central.
Trading closer Joel Hanrahan doesn't give off the impression that this team wants to compete right now, and considering the Pirates' best acquisition as far as immediate impact was Russell Martin, it appears that Pittsburgh is loading up to make a run later on down the road - not the worst strategy considering the current state of the division.
Chicago Cubs (61-101, 5th)
The Cubs made it clear in 2012 that they were starting from scratch, giving prospects like Anthony Rizzo time with the big-league club while Starlin Castro turned into an All-Star. General manager Theo Epstein is looking to give his deprived fan base a World Series, but he will have to wait for Alfonso Soriano to be off the books first.
The only significant addition Epstein made was starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, who has already become an MLB journeyman despite being just 29 years of age. Names like Joe Mather and Bryan LaHair are now absent from a team yet a few years away from making its run.
The Brewers have their work cut out for them with Cincinnati and St. Louis who like Milwaukee made strides this winter to improve areas of weakness. The same cannot be said for Pittsburgh and Chicago, teams that have a futuristic mindset entering the 2013 season.
That may put the Brewers smack dab in the middle of the NL Central, or depending on how the many uncertainties in the rotation and bullpen turn out, not to mention how Mat Gamel fills in for Corey Hart, right in the middle of the race for a playoff berth.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.