Changes in NL Central means hope for Pirates this season

Baseball’s opening night game last Sunday between new American League (AL) West opponents, the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, began a season that will introduce one of the most sweeping changes in Major League Baseball. The season will also hopefully see the Pittsburgh Pirates achieve their first winning season since 1992.

The most notable of these changes is the Astros’ move from the once-six-team National League (NL) Central to the previously four-team AL West in an effort to balance the divisions and to give teams a more even field in which to win their division and guarantee a playoff spot.

With this move, the AL and NL are now balanced at 15 teams apiece, forcing Interleague play to shift from a three- to four-week novelty during May and June to a year-round necessity. The Pirates and the rest of the NL Central should be relieved that their six-team divisional logjam is finally remedied, even if it means removing the pitiful Astros. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the division is still stacked, and they face an uphill battle to finally posting a winning season.

Let’s look at each team in the NL Central, breaking down off-season moves, strengths and weaknesses, as well as predicting how they will finish come September.

First Place
Cincinnati Reds
The Reds finished last season in first place with a devastating offense and a lights-out pitching staff. Even though they finished last year with the second-most wins in baseball, the Reds were still active this off-season, trading center fielder Drew Stubbs for right fielder Shin-Soo Choo from the Cleveland Indians in a three-team deal. While some people question this move from a defensive standpoint — Choo has never played center fielder in his major league career — the offensive impact is quite apparent. Choo fills the large hole at their lead-off spot and turns the already potent Cincinnati lineup into one of the best in the league.

Second Place
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals seem unfazed by any loss of talent. Each year, several key players suffer injuries, and yet St. Louis keeps winning. This year is no different, with ace Chris Carpenter and starting shortstop Rafael Furcal already lost to season ending injuries.

All that being said, the Cardinals have one of the best farm systems and have several minor league players who are expected to contribute this year, including outfielder Oscar Taveras who will start the year in the minors, and three young pitchers starting in the majors — Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly.

Third Place
Pittsburgh Pirates
After a close call last year, this should be the year that the Pirates have their first winning season in over 20 years. All-Star Andrew McCutchen is fresh off his best season and still has room to grow. Catcher Russell Martin made waves in the off-season by turning down a contract to remain with New York Yankees and instead signing with the Pirates. Hopefully this influx of leadership, in addition to the continued improvement of McCutchen, slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez, and former All-Star Gaby Sánchez, will help the Pirates avoid the late-season slumps that plagued the team the past two seasons.

Fourth Place
Milwaukee Brewers
Even after losing slugging first baseman Prince Fielder last offseason, hitting the ball was never the Brewers’ main issue after leading the league in runs and home runs last season. Milwaukee’s real problem lies with its pitching. Milwaukee recently signed veteran free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse ago to bolster its starting rotation behind ace Yovani Gallardo. While this move certainly helps firm up their starting pitching, there are still major questions with the young pitchers rounding out the back end of the rotation.

The bullpen is also a mess for the Brewers. Last year, closer John Axford blew seven of his first 23 save opportunities — part of the team’s league high 29 blown saves.

Fifth Place
Chicago Cubs
Last year the Cubs were really bad, and this season appears to be no different. Playing for the future is Chicago’s strategy during the second year of general manager Theo Epstein’s rein. The Cubs have a good group of young players lead by Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, but they still need another year or two to reach their full potential.

A strong free-agent class headlined by starting pitchers Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, and Scott Feldman may give the Cubs some spark this season, but the real payoff will come in a few years when all of the prospects Epstein has amassed begin to make the majors.