NL Central preview: Retooled contenders lead way after big free agent departures

David Brown
Big League Stew

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on expected standings and award-winners. Up next is the NL Central.

David Brown: We heart Middle America so much, Kev, that we stayed an extra day to talk about the biggest division in the major leagues. It's got six teams (for the moment) and stretches all the way from Pennsylvania to Texas. It's much more competitive than the "other" Central Division, too. I'm talking about the NL Central, which happens to contain the reigning World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.

[ Related: Video: AL playoff predictions | NL forecast ]

I'm not sure which I've seen more: Stories about how there's no way the Cardinals can be as good without Albert Pujols, or stories about how they'll win anyway despite his departure to the Angels via free agency. But they'll also have to win without skipper Tony La Russa, who is semi-retired now, and pitching guru to the stars Dave Duncan. Does new manager Mike Matheny even know how to change pitchers once, much less four times in an inning like the Cardinals used to love to do? (Perhaps that's an exaggeration.)

I do like how Adam Wainwright has been looking this spring, but Chris Carpenter's absence due to poor health is troubling. As fantastical as the Cardinals run to a title was last season, many things had to go right. Lightning rarely strikes twice like that.

'Duk: Agreed. All the "ah, it won't be so bad stories" are predicated on so many different things happening. David Freese and Jason Motte putting together full seasons. Lance Berkman extending his drink from the fountain of youth. Carlos Beltran staying healthy for an entire season. It can certainly happen — and I think the Cards are a playoff team as presently assembled — but the franchise isn't going to be writing any manuals on smooth transitions. Heck, the injury to Chris Carpenter and the fact that Allen Craig won't be ready for opening day are already examples of that. I'm interested to see how Mike Matheny — aka the Robin Ventura of the Senior Circuit — handles his first year.

As you mentioned, though, it's going to be a competitive division. And with the offseason that the Cincinnati Reds put together, perhaps we'll get to see the resumption of those fireworks that Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina started back in 2010. Yes, Walt Jocketty's squad would again seem to be a contender.

Or at least it better be with Joey Votto's future uncertain past 2013 and all the players the Reds sent to San Diego for Mat Latos. Are we looking at the most complete team in the division?

DB: Well, I would have said yes about the Reds had they not gotten the bad news on Ryan Madson's elbow. Closers should be, and can be, replaceable in a pinch. It should be just as hard/easy to get three outs in the ninth as it is in the seventh. But we've turned the ninth inning into some kind of holy territory, where it's believed that few men can tread. If Dusty Baker starts making strange decisions about who pitches the ninth inning, it could have a trickle-up effect on the rest of the pitching staff. When Dusty starts messing with a pitching staff, I get nervous. Other than a lack of confidence there, I like where the Reds stand. With Votto a leading MVP candidate, Brandon Phillips one of the best players in the league (and on Twitter), with Scott Rolen due for 130 healthy-ish games, with Jay Bruce's power ready for duty, plus few weak spots from 1-9 in the order, they should have one of the top offenses in the league.

Aroldis Chapman will get outs either in the rotation or the bullpen. The biggest question on the pitching staff might be if Homer Bailey can overcome having the worst possible name for a pitcher (yes, it's worse than Bob Walk) to become what the scouts always said he could become. No matter, I give these guys an edge on the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with Ryan Braun in the lineup.

'Duk: Yeah, what has Dusty got against Sean Marshall anyway? Will I have to file some sort of discrimination charge on behalf of my fellow southpaw? Most managers would be glad to have that type of insurance back there, but Dusty wants to go with a closer-by-committee to start the season. Let Marshall sink or swim, I say.

[ Related: Ailing Reds wonder how to use Aroldis Chapman ]

But onto the Brewers. While everyone in St. Louis was busy adding up WARs in an attempt to prove that Pujols was replaceable, I don't get the feeling they were doing the same thing in Milwaukee with Prince Fielder's departure. As I've said before, it was likely one of the most amicable superstar splits in modern sports history and Brewers fans didn't even get the benefit of a World Series title on the ballplayer's way out like Cardinals fans did with Pujols. Fielder's signing with the Tigers would have been a lot more palatable had Mat Gamel followed the script and blossomed into a force, but that just didn't happen. Still, the lineup should be OK with Braun free of his legal complications, Aramis Ramirez's power added at third and contributions from Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart (if he's healthy).

No one's going to complain, either, if Nyjer Morgan can match — or better — his 2011 OPS + of 111 and Jonathan Lucroy goes out and earns that new contract extension from behind the plate. I think the pitching staff needs a huge year from either Zack Greinke or Yovani Gallardo — I'm talking about true ace-type stuff — but the Brewers should be fine. Three million fans will again be able to watch good baseball and possibly more in October, which is more than you can say about the fans 90 miles south.

DB: Why do you always have to bring up the White Sox? We left that division behind yesterday, didn't we? Speaking of left behind, should I even bother asking if the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to finish above .500 for the first time since the Andy Van Slyke era? (Where did he go, again?) It could be my mind playing tricks, but I swear these guys were in first place in July. Clint Hurdle's SuperFunHappySacBuntFactoryEmporium was looking super-duper. But ... too much, too soon? And because the Pirates can't have nice things, they played 25 games under .500 from July 19 to the end.

Now with A.J. Burnett bunting his way to a busted eye, Charlie Morton already on the DL and Erik Bedard always threatening to go on the DL, I still don't know where my optimism is supposed to come from. There's only one Andrew McCutchen — even if they locked him up for years to come. Gerrit Cole ain't coming through that door in the next few weeks. Am I to believe that Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Tony Sanchez et al will mature and the Bucs somehow will go 82-80? Will they at least finish ahead of the Cubs?

'Duk: Well, they did finish ahead of the Cubs by a game in 2011, which I guess is something if you're into maintaining a raging inferiority complex against the Windy City (Oh wait, this is Pittsburgh we're talking about and not Cincinnati. Nevermind.)

The Pirates and Cubs will both have to preach patience to their fans (again) this year, but Pittsburgh is probably in a better spot for the future. While the Ricketts went out and got Theo Epstein and Co. in the offseason, they can't boast of the top tier of prospects that are waiting in the wings for the Pirates. At least not yet. Combine Cole with Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia in a rotation a couple years down the road and the Pirates are really talking about a foundation on which to build. But the fan base is definitely going to see 20 straight losing seasons and at this point, they might as well go for the nice and even round number. It'll make for better press clippings when they finally do turn this thing around.

When (and if) that day finally comes around, the Pirates will likely have to do it without the benefit of fattening up on wins against the Astros. Will you miss Houston in the NL as much as the team's diehards and NL opponents will?

DB: Hey, did we just skip the Cubs? OK, I can see that. As for the Astros heading to the American League in 2013, I tend to side with Lance Berkman on this. It's foreign, it's unsettling, it's new — therefore, I hate it. But once they inevitably add the DH to the NL in a few years, the line between leagues will be blurrier than ever. Remember when the AL had a president and the NL had a president? And they'd never meet until the World Series? Our grandkids might not even know an MLB with distinct leagues. Imagine what ol' Lance will liken that to. Murder, probably. Not to get all dystopian on you about the future. We can worry about the present just as much with these Astros.

In a broad sense, I like where they're heading with new owner Jim Crane and new GM Jeffrey Luhnow. So far, Luhnow seems to be emphasizing the right things with scouting and statistical analysis and such. We just need to give him time. The 'Stros have been one of my favorite franchises since Jose Cruz wore his socks thick in the outfield at the Astrodome. J.R. Richard is a saint. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio go on my All-'90s team (somewhere). Do you notice how I'm avoiding talking about Carlos Lee and the contemporary Astros? That's not fair. I always pay attention when Bud Norris pitches (so I can compile Bud Norris Facts about him). I'm eager to see J.D. Martinez play 150 games in the majors and if he can hit .330. I want to see Brett Wallace not traded for the 17th time and become somebody. I can't wait to see Brett Myers save 35 of the Astros 53 wins! Bring me some crawfish nom nom!

'Duk: Yeah, it's all about the little moments down here on the bottom half of the NL Central. And I'm excited to watch those from the Cubs because if the franchise is going to do it right, you might as well get to experience the story from beginning to end. And so I'll watch Starlin Castro develop further, see if value pickups like David DeJesus, Ian Stewart and Paul Maholm can prove the arriving genius of Epstein and Hoyer and cross one more year off the contract of Alfonso Soriano (only two more $19 million years after this one!) Patience will be required yes, but it's a lot easier to apply when you think you're moving toward something bigger.

* * *

Predicted order of finish for the NL Central
'Duk: 1. Reds, 2. Cardinals, 3. Brewers, 4. Pirates, 5. Cubs, 6. Astros
DB: 1. Reds, 2. Brewers, 3. Cardinals, 4. Cubs, 5. Pirates, 6. Astros

NL Central MVP
'Duk: Joey Votto, Reds
DB: Joey Votto, Reds

NL Central Cy Young
'Duk: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
DB: Zack Greinke, Brewers

NL Central ROY
'Duk: Zack Cozart, Reds
DB: Devin Mesoraco, Reds

Previously: AL East, NL East, AL Central

Up next: AL West

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
Marlins' Hanley Ramirez finding common bond with Jose Reyes
Tim Brown: Magic Johnson, new ownership group will revitalize struggling Dodgers
Mega Millions: Which sports franchises could you buy with $400 Million?

What to Read Next