The National League Central made baseball history in 2013, becoming the first division to send three teams to the playoffs: the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds. Yes, it's true that only has been possible the past two seasons, but it still shows how deep the Central is. That should be the case again in 2014 with a likely improved Brewers squad joining the competition.
The Cardinals tied the Red Sox for the major-league lead in wins last season with 97, edging out Pittsburgh by three games for the Central title -- St. Louis lost in six games to Boston in the World Series. St. Louis continues to say "Albert Pujols Who? as it led the National League by a wide margin last season in runs despite ranking No. 13 in homer. The Cards were No. 1 in on-base percentage and the majors' best team with runners in scoring position, led by Allen Craig. The lineup looks to have three new faces this season: second baseman Kolton Wong, one of team's top prospects, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, the Cards' big free-agent signing, and center fielder Peter Bourjos, acquired from the Angels for David Freese. Peralta hugely upgrades the most glaring offensive spot St. Louis had in 2013. Mark Ellis is insurance at second in case Wong isn't ready. The pitching staff is largely the same and should improve with youngsters like Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller only getting better with age. St. Louis is +500 on BetOnline's baseball odds to win the NL pennant.
Pittsburgh ended the National League's longest playoff drought last season and the majors' longest drought of winning seasons -- 20 years -- by finishing 91-68 and beating the Reds in the wild-card game. The Pirates then pushed the Cardinals to five games in the NLDS. Baseball fever is definitely back in the Steel City. Pittsburgh has been strangely quiet this offseason, instead expecting continued growth from its many talented young players. There might not be enough hitting around NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, however. Pittsburgh also is on hold as to whether starting pitcher A.J. Burnett will return. He was pretty good in the regular season before faltering late. Pittsburgh seems to be counting too much on yet another excellent season from Francisco Liriano, who was the 2013 NL Comeback Player of the Year. The Pirates are +1200 at sportsbooks to win the pennant.
Cincinnati made the playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons in 2013 but has yet to advance a round, so the Reds decided to cut bait with Manager Dusty Baker. Pitching coach Bryan Price replaces Baker, who has a history of regular-season success but failing in the postseason. The Reds haven't had any big additions. They let on-base machine and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo walk in free agency as well as innings-eating pitcher Bronson Arroyo. Cincinnati is counting on rookie Billy Hamilton, who set the single-season stolen base record in the minors, on replacing Choo atop the lineup. Hamilton might struggle to get on base as he's not a good hitter, but once he does it's almost an automatic steal of second. The rotation can deal with the loss of Arroyo if ace Johnny Cueto stays healthy and Tony Cingrani builds off a solid rookie year. Cincinnati is +800 for sports bettors to win the pennant.
There is not much positive to say about Milwaukee's 2013 season. The Brewers won 74 games, their fewest since 2004. Former NL MVP Ryan Braun has become arguably the most despised player this side of Alex Rodriguez after being suspended the final 65 games of last season and finally admitting what everyone knew: Braun lied previously about using PEDs. Braun does remain one of the best hitters in the majors and Milwaukee has two young players in outfielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura whom any team would envy. The team also beefed up the rotation by adding Matt Garza. Presuming ace Yovani Gallardo can bounce back from a lousy 2013, the starting five should be solid. The Brewers are +3000 on baseball odds to win the pennant.
There's no likely about it: the Cubs should finish last in the NL Central again this season and will be well below .500 for a fifth straight year. Theo Epstein's rebuilding plan is taking shape in the minors but Cubs fans probably don't see all the kids until 2015 and Central contention until 2016. Epstein was all-in on the bidding for Japan's Masahiro Tanaka, which would have given the Cubs a young ace to go with all their young stud hitters in the minors, but Tanaka chose the Yankees. The Cubs should be better than last year's 66 wins as long as they hang onto current ace Jeff Samardzjia all season, but it's quite possible he's dealt by the July 31 deadline. Chicago is +2500 on baseball odds to win the pennant.
MLB Free Picks Projected Finish: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Chicago.