As well as the Cincinnati Reds played last summer during the regular season, adapting and overcoming injuries, they couldn’t play better in 2013. But they can play longer and that’s the goal and likelihood. The Reds won 97 games and the National League Central Division title last year, but they got knocked out of the playoffs early by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants after leading the series 2-0.
The two biggest things on the Reds’ minds in the off-season came to pass in a way. One was moving Drew Stubbs out of center field to the Cleveland Indians because he kept striking out too much and used up his chances. The other was not moving star closer Aroldis Chapman out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation. Well into spring training it seemed the Reds were committed making the Chapman move and then, out of nowhere, Chapman announced maybe should stay as the closer where he was an All-Star last year. That was probably the best plan for the team.
Shin-Soo Choo came over to the Reds from the Indians in the Stubbs deal, but no one seems to think that he can play center adeptly enough. So there may be some shuffling going on. Todd Frazier was a versatile rookie last year and he is starting at third. The rest of the starting lineup is in intact and the starting rotation, led by scheduled opening day hurler Johnny Cueto, looks tough.
St. Louis residents like to pride themselves on being just about the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, and just about every year the Cardinals reward them with a contending team. Losing starter Chris Carpenter for the season and probably forever to injury, is not going to help the cause. The Cards are pretty solid all around, but some regulars like Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal (both going on 36) may be showing signs of age. Right now Furcal, David Freese and closer reliever Jason Motte are on the disabled list.
It doesn’t seem as if the Cardinals closed the gap on the Reds during the off-season, but they could eke into the playoffs and make some noise, which they did last year a year after winning the Series as a long-shot.
The Milwaukee Brewers suffered a talent drain after they won the division title two years ago and they are now seemingly a .500 team. Star Ryan Braun is the best player on the team, but now that his name has surfaced in the Biogenesis Clinic investigation you have to wonder if he will make it through the season unscathed and unbothered or Major League Baseball will end up suspending him for patronizing the wrong business at the wrong time. Losing Braun would pretty much doom the Brewers to a life as the second coming of the Houston Astros.
Meanwhile, if you ever had any fondness in your heart for the Pittsburgh Pirates, even if it was long ago when Roberto Clemente was playing, you should throw a little love Pittsburgh’s way in hopes that they can finally end their 20-year streak of sub-.500 finishes. They were close last year at 79-83 after a late-season collapse. But it’s got to happen soon or the Pirates will be dropped to AAA.
And then there are the Cubs. Last year Chicago finished 61-101. They were pretty horrible. Any Cubs fan that thought Theo Epstein was going to come over from the Red Sox, wave a magic wand, and everything would be all right, was a tad optimistic. It was obvious from the start that rebuilding was not going to be accomplished overnight. (Of course what is the definition of overnight in the context of going 105 years without a World Series title–five years?). Checking out the Cubs roster can be pretty demoralizing. They really don’t have more than two or three guys that seem likely to cause any excitement in the batting order.
It also seems that anyone in the pitching rotation positively seems capable of winning eight games. Many more from any individual except maybe a healthy Matt Garza would be a bonus.
Wrigley Field will be 100 years old in 2014 and no doubt the Cubs want to put together a smashing celebration. Just maybe they’ll be able to field a spicier lineup by then.
This is how the NL Central Division will look: 1) Cincinnati Reds; 2) St. Louis Cardinals; 3) Pittsburgh Pirates; 4) Milwaukee Brewers; 5) Chicago Cubs. 6) Houston Astros, in memoriam after being forcibly moved to the American League West Division where they can finish last instead.