This division may be one of the most unpredictable divisions in all of baseball. They have one less team this year, which only allows someone other than the Astros to be the cellar team this year. The debate is who is at the top of the division, and how do the rest of the teams play out. I only see one team making the playoffs from this division so it will be a fierce fight.
1. Cincinnati Reds
Of all the teams in this division, the Reds are the only ones that seem to have the formula to pull away from the pack. They have the best manager in Dusty Baker, the best middle of the order with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Ryan Ludwick, and the best closer in Aroldis Chapman. They also had one of the best off-season acquisitions in the division by getting Shin-Soo Choo as their new centerfielder. Their starting rotation is solid and consistent, led by Jonny Cueto and Mat Latos. They have been at or near the top for a few seasons now. It's time for them to take the next step and be a dominant team.
2. Milwaukee Brewers
Behind the Reds is where the division gets interesting. The Brewers showed last year that they could win without Prince Fielder, thanks a lot to the acquisition of Aramis Ramirez. The offense is still the strength, with Ryan Braun, Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart continuing to make up the core of their lineup. The biggest question mark for them has been pitching. They have tried to bring in pitching with CC Sabathia and Zack Greinke in the past, but none of them last long. This year, they finally seemed to find a more permanent solution to who would back up ace Yovani Gallardo by signing Kyle Lohse just recently. Thankfully, he kept himself in shape privately and is ready to go day one. With the improvements on the mound and the steady explosive offense, the Brewers should be able to compete once again.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates remind me a lot of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals a few years ago. Every year, the Cardinals were picked to be the young breakout team that would make a playoff run. Then they would disappoint. Eventually, they broke through and made a Super Bowl appearance, but haven't done anything since. This is the vibe I'm getting from the Pirates. Every year for the last few years the Pirates have been knocking on the door of being a breakout team. They actually have been pretty good too, until August. Then they go through a monumental collapse ... over and over again. They need to find a way to finish. The main moves they made this off-season was acquiring Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Liriano is starting the year on the DL which doesn't help. So outside of Martin (which is a very positive addition, don't get me wrong), they have the same team as last year. They are getting closer to putting together a full season led by freak athlete Andrew McCutchen, but it's not quite there yet. I do think they break the .500 mark this year though. They still need to break all the way through and fulfill their full potential. They could win this division. Maybe 2014?
4. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are the White Sox of the National League. They are always good, and I have no idea why. They keep losing pieces in the off-season, and they come back stronger the next year. This can't keep happening, can it? I think they take a step back this year. Before last year, they lost Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, and still made the playoffs. This year, they lose Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter is out for the year, and they did nothing to replace them. They can't keep replacing from within and continue to put up the same numbers, can they? If anyone can, the Cardinals can. However, with the competition in this division someone has to take a step back.
5. Chicago Cubs
There is only one certainty in the NL Central this year: the Cubs are terrible. They are getting better, but nowhere near where they need to be to be considered competitive in this division. They have one of the best young talents in the game in Starlin Castro, but he doesn't have enough around him. They are headed in the right direction, but it's going to take Theo Epstein a couple more years to get them back to where they want to be. So Cub fans, be ready for another season of cursing Steve Bartman for ruining your only shot at a title in the last 50 years.