This is where my objectivity as a baseball analyst is tested every year. Will I really call ’em like I see ’em or will I just mail it in as a Cardinals homer? Most years, it’s not really an issue; the Cardinals have been the class of this division for quite some time. But this year, I really think they’ll be hard pressed to keep up with the Reds, who might be the most complete team in the league. Should be another fun race to keep an eye on in 2013.
1st place: Cincinnati Reds
When you have Joey Votto and THIS bullpen, you’ll win plenty of games. The Cincy attack is deeper thanks to the addition of Shin-Soo Choo, but Votto is the best hitter in the league. He simply squares up every swing. With Votto in his prime and a great supporting cast surrounding him, the offense should be fine. Speedster Billy Hamilton is waiting in the wings and might provide a mid-season boost if Ryan Ludwick’s injury persists. The ‘pen is absolutely lights out, reminiscent of the Nasty Boys of 1990. They made the right call keeping Chapman in the closer role; he’s absolutely dominant. That move backs up all the other power arms: Broxton, Marshall, LeCure, Hoover…I mean, it’s just ridiculous. The rotation isn’t necessarily scary, but it’s good enough. If you want to nitpick, the defense is mediocre. Otherwise, this is a championship-caliber team.
2nd place: St. Louis Cardinals
You could argue that the Cardinals were actually the big winners when Albert Pujols left town to sign his megadeal with the Angels. 16 months after that signing, Pujols is limited to DH duty in Anaheim, while the Cardinals have reinvested his millions by inking Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal and re-signing Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. The farm system continues to produce help for the big league club in the form of Allen Craig, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Lance Lynn; in coming years, “Baby Vlad” Oscar Tavares and 2B prospect Kolten Wong will look to continue that trend. The loss of closer Jason Motte has left the bullpen in an early season disarray. If Motte returns or Edward Mujica can take the job and run with it, the Cards should contend for a wild card spot and possibly the division crown.
3rd place: Milwaukee Brewers
This team is better than I realized. The offense is really solid. Despite losing Prince Fielder last season, they still led the league in runs. Ryan Braun is the real deal and the complimentary pieces are really solid. Aoki developed into a really nice leadoff hitter for them; Segura, Weeks, Ramirez, Lucroy, Gomez, and Hart (when he finally returns) make for a relentless lineup. The real issue is pitching. Gallardo is a legit #1, but after that, the cupboard is bare. The Kyle Lohse signing gives them another veteran starter and Marco Estrada is solid, but the rest of the rotation and the bullpen is full of unknowns. Can Jon Axford reclaim his All Star form? Can Wily Peralta or Chris Narveson contribute? What happens if Corey Hart has a setback? These questions will keep Milwaukee from contending in this top-heavy division.
4th place: Pittsburgh Pirates
For the past two seasons, the Pirates have started hot out of the blocks only to fade miserably down the stretch. Losing all of those division games against Houston probably means that their window to eclipse 81 wins for the first time in 20 years might have closed. Andrew McCutchen is a star but the rest of the offense is substandard. Some of the veteran arms (A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano) could keep them afloat if they have career years. But they’ll simply be holding the fort down while Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon marinate down on the farm. When those two arrive, it’ll be a different story for the Pirates. Until then, they’ll struggle to compete.
5th place: Chicago Cubs
Theo and Co. are in full rebuilding mode. They’ve been stockpiling minor league talent and the ETA for many of these prospects is still 2+ years away. But that makes the offseason signings of Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva somewhat confounding. Why not give their rotation spots to some younger players who could develop at the MLB level? Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol are probably the most tradeable assets for Theo; maybe they’ll finally deal them for some more minor leaguers. When all the youngsters arrive, the Cubbies will contend. But for the next couple of seasons, I don’t see them finishing higher than 4th in this division.