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NL Central Betting Outlook
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Last week, I gave you my in-depth predictions for the American League heading into 2013. Now, it’s the National League’s turn to be dissected. Without further ado, here are your spoilers pertaining to what exactly will occur in the NL this season…

National League Central
Cincinnati Reds

Two division titles in three years is a pretty neat accomplishment, but for the Reds, it’s also one that contains a bitter lasting taste, considering how they’ve failed to get past the first round of the playoffs each time. In 2010, the club went on to get swept by the Phillies (While only scoring four runs in three games), and last year’s trip was especially painful, as they had the eventual world champion Giants on the ropes with a 2-0 series lead, only to blow it and lose in five. Looking up and down their roster, however, there is still much reason to believe Cincinnati can get back to the postseason, and perhaps this time get past that hurdle. On the pitching front, the Reds have a very consistent and balanced rotation, headed by Johnny Cueto, who is coming off a magnificent 2012. The mercurial Mat Latos is right behind him in the No. 2 slot, and despite a slow start that had people questioning the amount of talent Cincinnati surrendered just to acquire him, the former Padre turned his season around and ended up with some very positive numbers when all was said and done. After him, there’s still some steady pitching, with the usually reliable Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Leake. Originally, Aroldis Chapman was supposed to take up one of those rotation spots, but after much deliberation, it was decided that the flame-throwing southpaw would remain the team’s closer, with Jonathan Broxton serving as the set-up man. In other words, the pitching is basically the same as last year, and for the most part, that’s the case for the offense as well.

Of course, it all begins with perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto, who in fact did win the award a few years ago and is still on a torrid pace. There is also one of the best rising power hitters in the game, that being Jay Bruce, and arguably the most complete second baseman in the league, Brandon Phillips. The one significant change Cincy did make with their offense was acquire the dynamic Shin-Soo Choo, who will replace the departed Drew Stubbs, but most see that as an upgrade in the outfield.  In other words, Cincinnati is basically the same team as last year, with one upgrade and a slew of younger players ready to take that next step forward, meaning they should be in a position to contend and take the division once more.

Predicted Record: 88-74
Pittsburgh Pirates

What’s it like to not have a winning season in 20 years? A Pirates fan, while they may not want to, can certainly answer that after last year’s debacle, which saw the club abruptly fall out of contention after a very promising start for the second consecutive season, to ultimately extend the team’s overall historic run of ineptitude another campaign. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a given the Pirates will succumb to the streak yet again, as this is a team that actually has a lot of hope under manager Clint Hurdle entering 2013. Andrew McCutchen, one of the few actual five-tool players in the game, is still there with his unique skillset that would be welcome on any ballclub, and luckily, he has an acceptable supporting cast around him that can fuel a successful lineup. Pedro Alvarez, inching dangerously close to being a bust prior to last year, finally enjoyed his monster breakout season, something that Pittsburgh faithful was waiting for since the day he was drafted second overall in 2008. There’s other similar talent in place that evolved with “El Toro” throughout their farm system, like Neil Walker and Starling Marte, both of whom appear primed to take that next step forward in their careers. Garrett Jones is still there as well with his considerable power output, while the organization added Russell Martin to upgrade the catcher position.

In the starting rotation, the Pirates actually contain a pretty well-rounded group, beginning with staff ace A.J. Burnett, who was terrific for the most part. Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald are two nice starters to have following him up, as you know you’re going to get steady pitching from Rodriguez, while McDonald actually posted a Cy Young-caliber statline in the first half of 2012, before going through a curiously awful second half. He figures to rebound, however. In addition, the Pirates added Francisco Liriano, who could be very useful at the bottom of the rotation. In the bullpen, the Bucs lost all-star closer Joel Hanrahan, but feel confident in plugging Jason Grilli as his replacement, after previously being very effective in a set-up role. There’s definitely still optimism in Pittsburgh, as there should be, but it has to carry over a full season for this roster to finally collectively break through.

Predicted Record: 85-77
St. Louis Cardinals

Boy, the Cardinals have had quite a magical run lately, huh? First there was 2011, when they won it all, despite being down to their final out, and even final strike, multiple times, before coming back against Texas to win the World Series in a memorable seven games. And then last year, St. Louis shocked the world once more in pulling off an improbable comeback against the Nationals in the wild card round, down 6-0 at one point in the deciding Game 5, and were even down to their final out there as well, but even so, somehow trickled by with some last-inning heroics to complete the stunner and advance into the NLCS. This time, however, their magic wand didn’t have enough to propel them all the way through, as they would go on to fall to the eventual champion Giants, ending their storied run, but the building blocks are in place for another eventful season. On offense, the Cardinals have clutch veterans Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina, who figure to contribute their usual notable statistics, while also hosting a few younger bats that are starting to hit their stride in Allen Craig and David Freese. Additionally, Matt Carpenter is a sleeper at second base to pay attention to, capable of above-average power production.

Overall, the Cardinals have set themselves up nicely, but it’s not as simple on the pitching side of things, where they will once again be without longtime staff ace Chris Carpenter due to never-ending nerve damage in his shoulder. In fact, it’s so severe that it’s most likely he’ll never even pitch again. Still, the rotation is built well with a delightful blend of experience and youth, containing Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, and Lance Lynn. The fifth spot was just secured by Shelby Miller, whom scouts believe has ace-caliber stuff, so he’s certainly someone to watch out for as the season unfolds.  Meanwhile, they also have in place a very consistent bullpen, as they do year in and year out, with the proven Jason Motte handling the closing duties. Once again, the Cards look poised to provide yet another dramatic season in St. Louis, but with injury-plagued players sprinkled throughout their roster, health is going to be their No. 1 enemy.

Predicted Record: 84-78
Milwaukee Brewers

Throughout much of 2012, the Brewers looked uninspired and lost in their first year without homegrown star Prince Fielder. However, that wouldn’t be the whole story, as Milwaukee got going at the right time to initiate a surprising late-season push towards the playoffs, and despite falling short in the end, they somewhat salvaged their year and provided the groundwork to remain competitive. Offensively, the Brewers are still in fine shape, led by one of the premiere hitters in all of baseball, Ryan Braun. While PED suspicions continue to cloud what has been an incredible career thus far, there’s no doubt where Braun stands among the game’s elite. He is joined once again by boppers Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart, comprising one of the more feared middle of the orders in the league. Carlos Gomez was just recently locked up by the team with an extension, and after his breakout performance from a year ago, big things are expected of the centerfielder. Furthermore, if Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy return to form at the plate, this is a lineup that should have no problems scoring runs.

As for containing opposing lineups, that’s where Milwaukee potentially faces its greatest challenge. Yovani Gallardo, at this point in his career, is an established ace, and the club just picked up Kyle Lohse, but after them, it’s a collection of youngsters with more questions than answers. Mike Fiers impressed everyone initially after being called up last year, but was mostly bad over the final two months, when his ERA literally jumped up two full runs. How will he respond going into his first full season? Marco Estrada may have the least questions attached to him, after a very impressive campaign in ’12 that saw him average over a strikeout per inning. There are outings where he looks in control, but then he also has his games where he unravels. Can he sustain his success and be more consistent after registering a career high in starts last season? Meanwhile, there is Chris Narveson, who missed just about all of last season following rotator cuff surgery. How will his return fare? Questions abound, to go along with a so-so bullpen anchored by shaky closer John Axford. Obviously, that is never a desired combination, and it could cost them ballgames.

Predicted Record: 79-83
Chicago Cubs

It must be tough being a Cubs fan year in and year out. Aside from that whole not winning a World Series since 1903 thing, this has simply become a perennial losing franchise. In fact, they’re coming off a year that saw them lose 100 games for the first time since 1966, but there might be a glimmer of hope with the nucleus they have in place. On offense, everything is built around the quickly emerging Anthony Rizzo, who was acquired by the club before the season, but didn’t come on until late-June, when he went on to impress right away with huge numbers in just over half a season. Rizzo undoubtedly looks like he’s going to be one of the best first basemen in baseball for years to come. The other young focal point, Starlin Castro, has dazzled at shortstop in his three years in the bigs, with both his glove and his wood. Beyond them is a mostly mediocre bunch, other than veteran Alfonso Soriano. As a result, Chicago hopes to excel the progress of some of their high-end prospects, like Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters, although that seems highly unlikely in the near-future, as both performed miserably at the major league level towards the tail-end of 2012.

With pitching, it’s pretty much the same deal - a couple of very good players to build around, but beyond them, nothing significant at all. In this case, the Cubs have ace Jeff Samardzija, who was very impressive in his first year starting last season and has a chance to develop into a premier frontline pitcher. In addition, Chicago nabbed talented journeyman Edwin Jackson to follow up and eat innings. After him, though, it’s a mess, as Matt Garza is still plagued by health issues that cut his season short last year, while the two starters the team brought in to round out the rotation, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, are very uninspiring and may not even last the whole campaign. Travis Wood is a decent option, but is still inexperienced. The bullpen is iffy, with ticking time-bomb Carlos Marmol closing the proceedings, but with the Astros no longer in the NL Central, they’ll probably have only a few games to finish off successfully anyway. They’re a year or two away.

Predicted Record: 74-88

· Akins: Diamond Trends - Thursday
· BetDSI: Thursday's Best Bet
· Bookmaker: Thursday's Top Wager
· Nelson: June Pitchers to Watch
· Lawrence: June Pitchers Report
· Stanton's shot lifts Yanks past M's
· Twins knock off Red Sox, 'under' hits
· Lester wins 5th straight, Cubs win
· Kluber, Indians shut out White Sox
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