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2014 National League Central preview

(Updated March 23, 2014)

The Cardinals have played in two of the last three World Series, and they have made 10 trips to the postseason since 2000.

They've overcome the loss of Albert Pujols quite nicely, winning 97 games in 2013 -- Year 2 since the Angels gave the slugger the largest non-Alex Rodriguez contract in baseball history.

But the feel-good story of this division in 2013 was the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had their first winning season since 1992, back when a skinny outfielder named Barry Bonds was named National League MVP.

How the times have changed.

The NL Central was the only division to have three 90-game winners last season, and the competition should be pretty fierce again in 2014.

Let's look at the division, with predicted order of finish:

1. St. Louis Cardinals

Last season: 97-65; defeated Pittsburgh 3-2 in NLDS, defeated Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 in NLCS, lost to Boston 4-2 in World Series

Projected lineup: 3B Matt Carpenter, CF Peter Bourjos, LF Matt Holliday, RF Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 1B Matt Adams, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Kolten Wong

Projected starting rotation: RHP Adam Wainwright, RHP Shelby Miller, RHP Michael Wacha, RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Carlos Martinez

Closer: RHP Trevor Rosenthal

Key addition: Peralta. Many of us frowned when the Cardinals -- maybe the model franchise for all of baseball -- signed the shortstop who served a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. St. Louis gave Peralta a shockingly high $53 million for four years. Peralta, who batted .303 with 11 homers and 55 RBI in 107 pre-suspension games for the Tigers last season, fills a huge need for St.

Louis. He was productive in 2013 and 2011, but disappointing in 2010 and '12. Will Peralta again struggle in an even year? How much of his past success was the result of PEDs? We'll find out soon.

Key loss:Carlos Beltran. The Yankees gave the outfielder a three-year, $45 million contract after a two-year tenure in St. Louis in which Beltran batted .282 with per-season norms of 28 homers and 91 RBI. The Cards won't overpay for aging sluggers, and they believe they have plenty of young bats to overcome another big free-agent loss.

Key question:Can they replace Beltran's production? As we hinted in the paragraph above, the simple answer is yes. Five of the six most significant hitters in St. Louis' lineup -- Carpenter (.318), Holliday (.300), Craig (.315), Molina (.319) and Peralta (.303) -- batted .300 or better last season. Factor in Adams, and all six had an OPS of .815 or higher. They should be just fine.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

Last season: 94-68; defeated Cincinnati in wild-card game; lost to St. Louis 3-2 in NLDS

Projected lineup: LF Starling Marte, SS Jordy Mercer, CF Andrew McCutchen, 3B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, C Russell Martin, 1B Gaby Sanchez, RF Jose Tabata

Projected starting rotation: LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Charlie Morton, LHP Wandy Rodriguez, RHP Edinson Volquez

Closer: RHP Jason Grilli

Key addition: Volquez. A sure sign it was a quiet offseason for the Pirates: Volquez, who was 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 2013, is the choice here. He hasn't had a productive season since 2008, when he was 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA, but the Pirates gave him a one-year, $5 million deal with the hopes of him locking down the fifth spot in their rotation. Volquez's production since 2009 -- his ERAs in that span are 4.35, 4.31, 5.71, 4.14 and 5.71 -- suggests that's not realistic.

Key loss:A.J. Burnett. As we explained in our NL East breakdown, Burnett could be a valuable addition for the Phillies. He was a combined 26-21 in two seasons with the Pirates, and last year he struck out 209 batters in 191 innings. Burnett for Volquez isn't a good tradeoff for Pittsburgh.

Key question:Can they score enough to contend? Marte could be a future star, and McCutchen is the reigning NL MVP. Alvarez isn't going to hit for average (.233 in 2013), but he does provide some serious pop (36 homers and 100 RBI last season). After those three, however, the Pirates are looking at a lineup in which the other five hitters -- Mercer, Walker, Sanchez, Martin and Tabata -- all had an OPS or .772 or lower in 2013. Mercer batted .285 and Tabata hit .282. The other three -- Sanchez (.254), Walker (.251) and Martin (.226) -- hit .254 or worse.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Last season: 90-72; lost to Pittsburgh in wild-card game

Projected lineup: CF Billy Hamilton, 2B Brandon Phillips, 1B Joey Votto, RF Jay Bruce, LF Ryan Ludwick, 3B Todd Frazier, C Devin Mesoraco, SS Zack Cozart

Projected starting rotation: RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Mat Latos, RHP Homer Bailey, RHP Mike Leake, LHP Tony Cingrani

Closer: LHP Aroldis Chapman

Key addition: Bryan Price. He was the Reds' pitching coach for four years under since-fired manager Dusty Baker. Now, he is charge of a team that has won at least 90 games in three of the last four seasons. This is Price's first managing job, and he has some difficult tasks ahead. One of which is replacing ...

Key loss:Shin-Soo Choo. The leadoff hitter cashed in during the offseason, securing a seven-year, $130 million contract from the Rangers. In 2013, Choo's only season in Cincinnati, he had a .423 on-base percentage and an .885 OPS. He scored 107 runs, hit 21 homers and stole 20 bases. Without him at the top of the lineup, Cincinnati will depend heavily on an electric rookie.

Key question:How good is Billy Hamilton? We know he's a stolen-base machine -- Hamilton set a minor-league record by swiping 155 bases in 2012 -- but can he get on base enough to make a big impact? In 502 games in the minors, Hamilton stole 395 bases, but he batted .280 with a .350 OBP and .728 OPS. He stole 13 bases for the Reds last September. Hamilton playing every day could be one of the most fascinating story lines to follow the next couple months.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Last season: 74-88

Projected lineup: CF Carlos Gomez, SS Jean Segura, LF Ryan Braun, 3B Aramis Ramirez, C Jonathan Lucroy, LF Khris Davis, 1B Mark Reynolds, 2B Scooter Gennett

Projected starting rotation: RHP Yovani Gallardo, RHP Kyle Lohse, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Marco Estrada, RHP Wily Peralta

Closer: RHP Jim Henderson

Key addition: Garza. He returned to the NL -- thanks to a four-year, $50 million contract -- after a disappointing 13 starts with the Rangers last summer (4-5, 4.38 ERA). Prior to his trade to Texas before the 2013 deadline, Garza had ERAs of 3.32, 3.91 and 3.17 with the Cubs the last three seasons. If Gallardo can bounce back, the Brewers' rotation should be solid at the top.

Key loss:Norichika Aoki. The outfielder was traded to Kansas City for relief pitcher Will Smith (not the Fresh Prince; that would have been too lopsided a deal). Aoki batted .287, stole 50 bases and scored 161 runs in two seasons for the Brew Crew.

Key question:Is Braun back? Yes, he has returned from his disgraceful suspension. But will the Brewers get the Braun who won five Silver Sluggers in a six-year span from 2007-12? During those years, Braun batted .313 with per-season norms of 102 runs, 34 homers, 107 RBI and 21 steals. Braun has been very good this spring, and the Brewers desperately need him to return to form.

5. Chicago Cubs

Last season: 66-96

Projected lineup: SS Starlin Castro, 3B Luis Valbuena, 1B Anthony Rizzo, RF Nate Schierholtz, LF Junior Lake, CF Ryan Sweeney, C Welington Castillo, 2B Darwin Barney

Projected starting rotation: RHP Jeff Samardzija, LHP Travis Wood, RHP Edwin Jackson, RHP Jason Hammel, RHP Carlos Villanueva

Closer: RHP Jose Veras

Key addition: Veras. The Cubs' 26 blown saves last year were the second-most in the NL. Their curious solution for that was signing Veras to a one-year, $4 million contract. Veras had five saves in his first seven big-league seasons, then had 21 for the Astros and Tigers in 2013. The 33-year-old has seven more strikeouts (384) than innings pitched (377) in his career.

Key loss:Dioner Navarro. The catcher had only 240 at-bats for the Cubs last season, but he made the most of them -- hitting .300 with 13 homers, 34 RBI and an .856 OPS. The Cubs' starting catcher, Castillo, had five fewer homers (eight) and two fewer RBI (32) in 140 more at-bats (380) than Navarro last year.

Key question:Will they get any pitching? There are about 10 big questions for the Cubs, and a pitching staff that ranked 12th in the NL in ERA (4.00) and last in walks is right at the top. Samardzija (8-13, 4.34 ERA) is the "ace," though Wood (9-12, 3.11) was the most productive starter in Chicago's rotation. The other three projected starters -- Jackson (4.98), Hammel (4.97) and Villanueva (4.06) -- had ERAs above 4.00 and were a combined 22-34 in 2013.

2014 division previews

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