Previewing the NL Central

Updated: March 30, 2012, 2:27 PM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: ESPN.com has teamed with ESPN The Magazine and the SweetSpot Blog Network to produce this year's preview capsules. Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian examined the American League and the National League, respectively. They ordered the teams based on how they think they'll finish, while also breaking down each team's best- and worst-case scenarios.

The SweetSpot bloggers provided the projected lineups, pitching rotations and bullpens, which are mostly approximations based on the latest information. In most cases, they don't include players who will open the season on the disabled list. The lineups reflect the most likely batting order against a right-handed starter and are subject to change.

Click on the links below to go directly to a capsule for each National League Central team:

Chicago Cubs | Cincinnati Reds | Houston Astros
Milwaukee Brewers | Pittsburgh Pirates | St. Louis Cardinals



Information courtesy of Fungoes

THE PICK

1st Place
  • Best-case scenario: Adam Wainwright comes back from elbow surgery to win 15 games, Carlos Beltran and David Freese compensate for the huge loss of Albert Pujols by hitting 50 homers between them and the reigning champs do what they didn't do last season -- win the division.
  • Worst-case scenario: The roster is loaded with players who have injury histories, and Beltran, Freese, Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal all spend time on the DL. That's too much lost production, especially without the big man in the middle for the first time in 11 seasons.

Information courtesy of Redleg Nation

THE PICK

2nd Place
  • Best-case scenario: Mat Latos, the new ace of the pitching staff, shines. Joey Votto wins his second NL MVP award, Brandon Phillips signs a long-term deal and the Reds slug their way to their second NL Central title in three seasons.
  • Worst-case scenario: After pitching in spacious Petco Park, ex-Padre Latos struggles in a cozier stadium. Aroldis Chapman's arm can't hold up, Votto doesn't get enough pitches to hit, the Reds don't score much, the team finishes third and Phillips walks away as a free agent.

Information courtesy of Disciples of Uecker

THE PICK

3rd Place
  • Best-case scenario: Ryan Braun produces another MVP-caliber season, Zack Greinke wins 20 games and signs a long-term contract, Rickie Weeks hits 35 homers and the Brew Crew shock all of baseball by repeating as NL Central champions. Prince who?
  • Worst-case scenario: Without Fielder hitting behind him, Braun's intentional walks soar from two to 32, Aramis Ramirez is exposed for what he is -- a complement, not a cornerstone -- and the enigma that is Greinke can't handle the pressure of performing during a contract year.

Information courtesy of Pitt Plank

THE PICK

4th Place
  • Best-case scenario: Andrew McCutchen takes another step forward, and Pedro Alvarez finally figures things out and becomes a productive major leaguer. The Bucs find whatever magic they had in the first half of 2011 and end their historic streak of 19 straight losing seasons.
  • Worst-case scenario: The 1943 finish to 2011 is a true barometer of this team's future, Alvarez continues whiffing and is branded a bust, and the Pirates make it 20 straight seasons below .500. For reference, the Yankees have 21 losing seasons & in franchise history.

Information courtesy of View From the Bleachers

THE PICK

5th Place
  • Best-case scenario: Starlin Castro gets 220 hits, Anthony Rizzo becomes the first baseman of the future and Cubs Nation starts to believe that new team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer will someday deliver the club's first championship since 1908.
  • Worst-case scenario: Despite good work being done on the farm, the major league team is irrelevant. There is no punch at the infield corners, Alfonso Soriano remains untradeable and ace Matt Garza is dealt for prospects. Only the abysmal Astros keep the Cubs out of the cellar.

Information courtesy of Austin's Astros 290 Blog

THE PICK

6th Place
  • Best-case scenario: All the kids acquired in recent trades come quicker than expected, giving hope to fans that Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Roy Oswalt weren't traded in vain. The 'Stros still finish last, but they feel good about their future as they move to the AL West in 2013.
  • Worst-case scenario: Carlos Lee's $18.5 million salary can't be moved, and his 25 homers represent a third of the team's total. The Astros lose a club-record 110 games, and their fans get depressed about having to beat the Rangers and Angels in 2013 instead of the Cubs and Bucs.