Baseball preview: National League Central

03/30/2014 1:25 PM

03/30/2014 1:26 PM

St. Louis Cardinals

Last year: 97-65 (first, NL Central)

New faces: 2B Mark Ellis (Dodgers), SS Jhonny Peralta (Tigers), OF Peter Bourjos (Angels)

Former faces: 3B David Freese (Angels), OF Carlos Beltran (Yankees), RHP Chris Carpenter (retired), RHP Edward Mujica (Red Sox), RHP Jake Westbrook (unsigned)

Better, worse or same? Worse

Why: Winning 97 games is not easy to repeat, and the Cardinals didn’t do enough this off-season to say it’s likely to happen again. But it is likely they’ll be the favorites to win another division title. The pitching staff is backed by ace Adam Wainwright and other strong starters such as Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia. Offensively, losing Carlos Beltran will hurt, but the addition of Jhonny Peralta should soften the blow. More important, they still have arguably the best catcher in the game, Yadier Molina, and will rely on another strong season by TCU product Matt Carpenter at third base.

Cincinnati Reds

Last year: 90-72 (third, NL Central)

New faces: INF/OF Skip Schumacher (Dodgers), C Brayan Pena (Tigers), INF Ramon Santiago (Tigers)

Former faces: OF Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers), RHP Bronson Arroyo (D’backs), C Ryan Hanigan (Rays)

Better, worse or same? Worse

Why: They lost two key pieces from last year’s team in Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo, which sets them back. But there is new life in the Reds’ clubhouse with Bryan Price taking over for Dusty Baker as the team’s manager. Price had been the pitching coach and oversaw a strong staff and will do so again with returning starters Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey. Offensively, Joey Votto remains one of the game’s best hitters and fits in nicely with Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. The unknown going into the season is how speedy Billy Hamilton will handle the leadoff spot. Regardless, expect the Reds to remain competitive and in the hunt this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year: 94-68 (second, NL Central)

New faces: RHP Edinson Volquez (Dodgers), C Chris Stewart (Yankees), OF Jaff Decker (Padres)

Former faces: RHP A.J. Burnett (Phillies), OF Garrett Jones (Marlins), C Michael McKenry (Rockies), OF Marlon Byrd (Phillies), 1B Justin Morneau (Rockies)

Better, worse or same? Worse

Why: Much like the Cardinals, they didn’t have an active enough off-season to say they improved dramatically. But they still have much of the same nucleus from last year’s team that took them to the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and closer Jason Grilli is back as well as starters Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole. But there has to be some level of concern with questions surrounding first base, right field and who fills the void left by A.J. Burnett. Expect the Pirates to stay in the hunt, though, and challenge to make the postseason a second consecutive season.

Milwaukee Brewers

Last year: 74-88 (fourth, NL Central)

New faces: RHP Matt Garza (Rangers), LHP Will Smith (Royals), 1B Mark Reynolds (Yankees), RHP Francisco Rodriguez (Orioles)

Former faces: 1B Corey Hart (Mariners), OF Norichika Aoki (Royals)

Better, worse or same? Better

Why: They addressed their rotation by signing Matt Garza, who joins Kyle Lohse and Fort Worth’s Yovani Gallardo as a formidable 1-2-3. And disgraced slugger Ryan Braun should play the full season after being slapped with a steroids suspension last year. A cause for concern is the bullpen, which is less experienced than it has been in the past. But expect the Brewers to rebound some after a forgettable season last year.

Chicago Cubs

Last year: 66-96 (fifth, NL Central)

New faces: RHP Jason Hammel (Orioles), RHP Jose Veras (Tigers), OF Justin Ruggiano (Marlins), LHP Wesley Wright (Rays)

Former faces: C Dioner Navarro (Blue Jays), RHP Kevin Gregg (unsigned), RHP Scott Baker (Mariners)

Better, worse or same? Same

Why: The future is bright for the Cubs, who have stockpiled their farm system the past few seasons with a handful of former Rangers prospects. This year, though, is not. The projected Opening Day lineup does not feature a batter who hit .300 last season and only two — Anthony Rizzo and Nate Schierholtz — who drove in more than 50 runs. The pitching staff is shaky, too, with four of the five starters having losing records last season, including three with an ERA north of 4.00. Another dreadful season looms in Wrigleyville, but at least there is promise.

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