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Who Can Topple the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central? Part 1

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COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals have dominated the National League Central the last decade, winning five division titles since 2004.

Even in 2011, when they finished second behind the Milwaukee Brewers, they defeated Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series on the way to their 11th World Series title. And if the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are to be believed, St. Louis' stranglehold on the division will continue in 2014.

The Cardinals' odds to win the National League pennant are currently 9/2 (meaning a $2 bet on the Cardinals wins you $9), but there are two teams with the ability to dethrone St. Louis this season. The Cincinnati Reds are one of those teams.

Why the Reds could win the division: Dusty Baker is gone. If you said baseball managers have less of an affect on the outcome of a game than any other major sport, I wouldn't disagree. But Baker had a reputation for ruining pitchers' arms (Kerry Wood and Mark Prior while with the Chicago Cubs, especially) and outside of a trip to the 2002 World Series with the San Francisco Giants (and Barry Bonds in his prime), Baker's postseason record was less than stellar.

He won two playoff games in three appearances with the Reds in six seasons. He was replaced by pitching coach Bryan Price, who has been with the team for four seasons. Price has never managed but will have plenty of weapons to contend for the division title this season.

The Red have potentially the best base-stealer in the major leagues in Billy Hamilton, who stole 79 bases a season in five seasons in the minor leagues. Hamilton will replace Shin-Soo Choo in center field and will likely hit leadoff as well.

In 22 plate appearances last season, he posted a .368 average and .429 on-base percentage. Those numbers aren't going to be repeated over the course of a six-month season, but if Hamilton can get on base at a decent rate, he will steal second more often than not. And with a middle of the order that features Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and a healthy Ryan Ludwick, having Hamilton in scoring position could mean an awful lot of runs for the Reds this season.

Starting pitcher Johnny Cueto should be healthy to start the season. Cueto started just 11 games in 2013 while battling a strained right lat muscle that put him on the disabled list three times. He threw 60.2 innings in 11 games last season and finished with a 2.82 earned run average. If he returns to his 2012 form, when he posted a 2.78 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, he could be one of the best aces in the National League.

Although surrounded by trade rumors, the Reds look to be keeping starter Homer Bailey through at least 2014, the last year of his contract. Bailey's 3.49 ERA and 209 IP last season were both career highs and a similar performance this season would go a long way in keeping the Reds in contention. So would another standout year from Aroldis Chapman, the 25 year-old closer with a 98 mph fastball and a 15.3 k/9 ratio last year. The "will he or won't he close" rumors have surrounded him the last two offseasons, but Chapman put things to rest last month by saying he is preparing to close in 2014.

Then there's Tony Cingrani, who made his major league debut in September of 2012 and started 18 games last season in place of the injured Cueto, posting a 2.92 ERA in 104.2 innings. He looks to be the fifth starter behind Cueto, Bailey, Mat Latos, and Mike Leake.

Is that enough to win the National League Central this season? Possibly. Will it be enough? No, and for one reason: Shin-Soo Choo. The nine-year veteran outfielder was second in the National League with a .423 on-base percentage (second to teammate Joey Votto's .425). He was a perfect fit for the Cincinnati offense, scoring 107 times (also second in the National League, this time to the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter). The Reds are hoping Billy Hamilton can do much of the same, but that is asking a lot. Hamilton has played all of 13 games in the major leagues and hit .256 with Triple-A Louisville last season.

The Reds have talent, and Vegas thinks they are the fourth-best team in the National League. But there are too many question marks to expect them to jump a Cardinals team that won 97 games last year and got better this offseason.

Kory Carpenter has followed the St. Louis Cardinals for nearly 20 years and currently lives in Lawrence, Ks. He has written for numerous publications, most recently as a Big 12 basketball contributor for RushTheCourt.net. You can find him on Twitter at @KoryCarpenter.

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