Around the division: What are Cubs up against in NL Central?

Around the division: What are Cubs up against in NL Central?
December 30, 2013, 4:30 pm
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Tony Andracki

In a whirlwind baseball offseason filled with megadeals and surprises, the majority of major moves around the league are done.

The only big domino left to fall is Masahiro Tanaka, though Matt Garza is still a free agent and the Cubs and Rays could still trade Jeff Samardzija and David Price, respectively.

While it may appear the next six or seven weeks might be pretty quiet before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, don't count out the surprising landscape-altering moves that have become commonplace in the MLB. Think of the Ian Kinsler-Prince Fielder trade that popped up out of nowhere.

[Top 13 of '13: Historically bad season for Chicago baseball]

But if things stay the way they are, the Cubs will be dealing with what should again prove to be one of the best divisions in baseball.

The NL Central will be without the services of big names like Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, Corey Hart and Justin Morneau, but the minor moves around the division could pay huge dividends in 2014.

St. Louis Cardinals

Manager: Mike Matheny (Record w/Cardinals: 185-139)
Last year: 97-65 (Lost to Red Sox in World Series)
Final 2013 payroll: $119.6 million
Key losses: OF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, Jake RHP Westbrook, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Chris Carpenter, RHP Fernando Salas
New faces: OF Peter Bourjos, SS Jhonny Peralta, IF Mark Ellis, 2B Kolten Wong
Outlook: The Cardinals did away with 2/3 of their starting outfield from last season, letting Beltran walk in free agency and replacing Jon Jay with Peter Bourjos in center. Jay will likely be reduced to a bench/platoon role.

Re-signing Beltran made little sense for the Cards, who can now move Allen Craig to right field full time and allow young slugger Matt Adams to take most of the at-bats at first base.

Carpenter didn't pitch in 2013, so the Cardinals are used to getting on without their pitching anchor, but his impact on the starting rotation has been missed. Luckily, the young power arms (Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller) more than make up for the loss of Carpenter, Mujica and Westbrook on the staff.

[Top 13 of '13: Cubs fire Sveum, showing cracks in foundation]

The trade for Bourjos and addition of Wong at second base will instantly upgrade the defense up the middle. Bourjos is one of the top centerfielders in the game and at 26, the Park Ridge, Ill., native is finally getting another shot to play everyday after totaling just 343 at-bats with the Angels the last two seasons.

They said it: "I'm really excited and feel fortunate to be going to such a great organization with a tremendous fan base. You always hate to leave the place where you grew up, and I'll miss the Angels. But this is a tremendous opportunity for me and I'm planning to take full advantage of it," -- Bourjos after being traded to the Cardinals.

Still to come: The Cardinals are basically done this offseason. They added veteran infielder Mark Ellis to help bridge the gap if Wong struggles or to simply provide quality at-bats off the bench. Matt Carpenter, arguably the top leadoff hitter in the game behind Choo, is back atop the lineup and will anchor third base with Freese now in Los Angeles.

The St. Louis lineup still features Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina, two of the best in the game, and Peralta's bat and Adams' projected full-time role should help make up for the loss of Beltran's pop.

With Jaime Garcia and Jason Motte likely returning from arm injuries, they will give the pitching staff a boost while the young arms will continue to develop.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Manager: Clint Hurdle (Record w/Pirates: 245-241)
Last year: 94-68 (Lost in NLDS to STL)
2013 final payroll: $74.6 million
Key losses: RHP A.J. Burnett, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Marlon Byrd, 1B/OF Garrett Jones
New faces: RHP Edinson Volquez
Outlook: The Pirates' roster is far from star-studded, but they didn't have many glaring needs to address this winter.

As long as Andrew McCutchen is in the lineup and the pitching staff continues their resurgence, the Pirates will be at least a .500 team, with another shot at contending for the division possible.

McCutchen can't do it all himself, however. Young, exciting outfielder Starling Marte (.784 OPS, 41 SB, 83 R in '13) needs to continue his journey toward stardom and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (36 HR, 100 RBI) needs to maintain his production.

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The pitching staff was a pleasant surprise in 2013, with Burnett, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano combining for a 35-26 record and 3.28 ERA in 86 starts. Locke and Liriano are back, along with Wandy Rodriguez (3.59 ERA), young flamethrower Gerrit Cole (3.22) and veteran Charlie Morton (3.26).

The bullpen figures to once again be a strength, with Jason Grilli (2.70 ERA, 33 svs), Mark Melancon (1.39, 16 svs), Vin Mazzaro (2.81), Justin Wilson (2.08) and Tony Watson (2.39) all slated to return.

The Pirates finally ended a two-decade long streak of losing seasons, but they will need a slew of players to duplicate their 2013 seasons to contend again.

They said it: "I do think [Pirates fans] have a belief now in place that they haven't been able to hold on to. It's not just hope anymore. They saw tangible evidence of a team that could show up, play, compete and they were proud of. We need to give them more of that," -- Hurdle on the resurgence of baseball in Pittsburgh.

Still to come: The Pirates need a first baseman and they've been linked to Mets slugger Ike Davis the last few weeks. No trade appears imminent, but regardless, the Bucs could use another bat behind McCutchen that can generate more offense and hit the ball out of the park.

They could also use another starting pitching option in case Volquez doesn't pan out or Liriano regresses, as he's been known to do.

Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Bryan Price (first season)
Last year: 90-72 (Lost in NL Wild Card to PIT)
2013 final payroll: $116.1 million
Key losses: Manager Dusty Baker, OF Shin-Soo Choo, C Ryan Hanigan, RHP Bronson Arroyo
New faces: OF Billy Hamilton, IF/OF Skip Schumaker, C Bryan Pena
Outlook: Choo was exactly what the Reds needed atop the lineup, posting a .423 OBP with 107 runs. But he priced his way out of town and Cincinnati seems content to let speed demon Hamilton take over the leadoff role and center field spot.

Hamilton's impact was felt immediately down the stretch last year, swiping 13 bags and scoring nine runs in just 22 plate appearances. He stole 395 bases in 502 minor-league games (including 155 in 132 games in 2012) and can cover a ton of ground in the outfield, but there are major questions whether he can hit enough to warrant everyday at-bats in front of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.

[MORE -- Kaplan: Cubs will not be outbid on Tanaka]

If Hamilton struggles, the Reds' season could sink fast, but if he succeeds, they may once again be among the NL contenders.

Votto and Bruce provide one of the best 1-2 punches in the game today and if Brandon Phillips stays in town, the offense should still drive in Hamilton and his mates atop the order.

The Reds have young left-hander Tony Cingrani available to slot in Arroyo's spot in the rotation, joining Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake for what may be the best rotation in the NL. Aroldis Chapman headlines an underrated bullpen.

They said it: "If he is what we think he can be, he'll be just what we need -- somebody that puts that bit of fear in every opponent. I watched Ichiro do it. He was a true left-handed htiter, but the speed tool just created a sense of anxiety that was palpable on the field," Price on what Hamilton brings to the Reds lineup.

Still to come: The Reds have reportedly shopped Phillips this winter and could pull the trigger on a deal to help clear some payroll. They could also add another veteran bat to the outfield in case Hamilton or aging slugger Ryan Ludwick suffer extended slumps or struggle to stay healthy.

There is also the option Cincinnati signs another starting pitcher, leaving Cingrani in the bullpen for more seasoning.

Milwaukee Brewers

Manager: Ron Roenicke (Record w/Brewers: 253-233)
Last year: 74-88
2013 payroll: $92.7 million
Key losses: OF Norichika Aoki, RHP Burke Badenhop, 1B/OF Corey Hart, IF Yuniesky Betancourt, LHP Mike Gonzalez
New faces: LHP Will Smith, RHP Tyler Thornburg, IF Scooter Gennett
Outlook: Gennett and Thornburg are not new acquisitions, but both youngsters figure to play key roles for the 2014 Brewers.

Gennett, 23, could unseat Rickie Weeks as the team's second baseman and Thornburg, 25, appears to have a rotation spot locked up.

You could also make the case that Ryan Braun is a "new face" considering the perennial MVP candidate played just 61 games in 2013 due to injuries and a league-mandated suspension for PEDs. The biggest question will be whether he can tune out the noise and return to prominence as one of the game's premier players.

[MORE: Andy MacPhail knows what Theo Epstein is going through]

Around Braun, the Brewers look set in the outfield with Carlos Gomez emerging as a star with highlight-reel defense in center and a coveted power-speed skillset (24 HR, 40 SB). Khris Davis may spell his name differently, but he slugs just like the Orioles' Chris Davis, with 11 HR, 27 RBI and a .596 SLG in 56 games last season.

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is one of the most underrated players in the game and shortstop Jean Segura will look to build off a very good 2013 campaign.

They said it: "He knows what he's up against," short and sweet from Roenicke on Braun's return from suspension.

Still to come: I can't see the Brewers sticking with Juan Francisco as the only first-base option heading into 2014. Maybe they'll slide the aging Weeks over to 1B to make room for Gennett, or they could be in on an Ike Davis move, too.

Beyond that, the Brew Crew may also sign another pitcher or two to help their inexperienced rotation behind Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo.

Milwaukee is not expected to contend in 2014, but could flirt with a .500 record if everything falls into place.