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Multiple playoff contenders? Consider NL Central

Reds favorite, with Cards in position to challenge; Pirates, Brewers improved

Multiple playoff contenders? Consider NL Central

The National League Central has a reputation in some quarters, and that reputation isn't entirely good. It also isn't entirely fair.

Over the past 10 seasons, the Central produced the most playoff teams of the three NL divisions, as well as the most NL pennant winners. And once again in 2013, the odds are good that multiple playoff teams will come from the NL Central.

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The clubs in best position to do that are the ones that did it last year. The reigning champion Reds made a nice upgrade to their lineup, bringing in Shin-Soo Choo to lead off, but otherwise bring back most of a club that won the division by nine games. The Cardinals lost two starting pitchers from their end-of-year starting five, but they're confident in what they have to replace Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse.

So it's no exaggeration to say the rest of the division is chasing the Redlegs and Redbirds. After all, one or both of those two teams has made the postseason in each of the past four seasons.

Each of the three challengers has reason to think it's closer to the top. The Pirates made a major upgrade at catcher, and they're counting on steps forward from some promising young players. The Brewers believe they fixed the bullpen that cost them so many wins last year. The Cubs overhauled their rotation, likewise fixing what was their biggest problem in 2012.

They're all still chasing the Reds and Cards, but they may be getting closer.

You may notice someone has been left out of this discussion, by the way. That's because there's a little more elbow room in the Central this year. Formerly baseball's most populous division, it's now down to five clubs thanks to the Astros' move to the American League West.

We polled our NL Central beat writers -- Brewers reporter Adam McCalvy, Cardinals reporter Jenifer Langosch, Cubs reporter Carrie Muskat, Pirates reporter Tom Singer and Reds reporter Mark Sheldon -- and asked them to rank the clubs in four major categories as well as to give some input as to the race as a whole.

BEST LINEUP

This was the closest call, and a true three-team race. Milwaukee led the NL in scoring last year, a mere 11 runs ahead of St. Louis. Cincinnati was well behind in ninth, but will have a full season of Joey Votto and new acquisition Choo. All three clubs have deep, dangerous lineups. In the end, it's the Cardinals by a nose, thanks to the combination of a superb heart of the order, significant contributors at seven of the eight everyday spots, and top prospect Oscar Taveras on the way. The Brewers will do without Corey Hart for the early part of the year, costing them a serious power threat from a lineup that's built on power. And while the Reds are improved, it's hard to believe that they've improved so much as to narrow what was a large gap. All three teams will score some runs, that much is for sure.
Our selection: Cardinals

BEST ROTATION

This was the one area where there was real consensus -- unanimity, in fact. When you're able to move a talent like Aroldis Chapman to the bullpen, it's a pretty good indication. The Reds have the two keys to a quality rotation: front-line quality and depth. Johnny Cueto has the second-best ERA of any NL starter over the past two seasons, and he's backed by four legitimate big leaguers in Bronson Arroyo, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake. Latos and Bailey both have upside to be more than quality mid-rotation starters, to boot. If everything goes right, the Cardinals have a group that could match Cincinnati's, but St. Louis has many more questions in its starting five. Jaime Garcia in particular could be excellent, but must prove he's healthy. Milwaukee could have a sneaky-good rotation headed by Yovani Gallardo and Lohse, followed by some very talented youngsters, but with young talent comes unpredictability. The Pirates have reason for optimism, and the Cubs are improved, but the Reds and Cards have the two best rotations in the division.
Our selection: Reds

BEST BULLPEN

The Reds had the NL's best bullpen ERA last year, and they bring pretty much the entire group back -- headed by the amazing Chapman, he of the 100-mph heat and wicked slider. Jonathan Broxton returns for a full year in a setup role, and pitchers like Sam LeCure, Jose Arredondo and Alfredo Simon provide depth. This is an excellent group, and it should be helped by a rotation that ought to eat up lots of innings. The Cardinals were a close runner-up in our poll, thanks to their strong end-game sequence of Edward Mujica in the seventh, Mitchell Boggs in the eighth, and Jason Motte in the ninth -- plus emerging youngster Trevor Rosenthal. The Pirates, Brewers and Cubs each got a little consideration, but as with the rotations, this is basically a two-team race.
Our selection: Reds

BEST DEFENSE

The Reds may be a little weaker defensively than they were a year ago, but they still outpace the division, according to our panel. Gold Glovers at two infield positions is a very good start, with Brandon Phillips and Votto making up an airtight right side of the infield. Zack Cozart is a quality defender at short, and there's quality at the outfield corners. Drew Stubbs will be missed in center, but this is still a solid defensive team. The Pirates are strong up the middle with Russell Martin, Clint Barmes and Andrew McCutchen all plus defenders, and the Cards will likewise be strong at catcher, shortstop and center field. This is not a division laden with top-flight defensive teams, but they're nearly all pretty solid, and Cincinnati is at the top of the heap. Defense was the only category where all five teams were named on at least one ballot.
Our selection: Reds

FAVORITE

The Reds are deep and potent, one year after cruising to a division title and coming up just short of an NL Championship Series appearance. They pitch. They hit. They play defense. They addressed their primary weakness on offense. And they have the depth to withstand some injuries.

CHALLENGER

Last year's runner-up is in the best position to dethrone the champs. The Cardinals once again sport an extremely dangerous lineup and should have a deep bullpen. The uncertainty is in their rotation, which could be very good but has quite a few questions.

DARK HORSES

The Pirates and Brewers both had tastes of contention last year, and each returns a similar formula to what they used a season ago. The Bucs will try to ride their starting pitching and just enough offense to their first winning season since 1992. They're hoping that the addition of Martin, plus the maturing of some young hitters, will be enough to put them in the picture at year's end.

The Brewers bring a high-powered offense that will likely once again live by the home run, though they'll have to do without Hart for a while. Their rotation has promise, and added some quality and stability with Lohse, which should take pressure off some of the youngsters. Meanwhile they'll hope that a revamped bullpen is good enough after it struggled last year.

NEVER SAY NEVER

The Cubs should be better. The question is how much better. They upgraded their rotation, but health questions surround Matt Garza and Scott Baker, leaving it unclear just who will be in their starting five. The long-term prognosis here is good; the 2013 prospects are a bit fuzzy.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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