NL Central Preview: Cards Try to Repeat

Each day this week, the VALLEY NEWS will run season previews of every major league team, division by division. Today, we continue with the National League Central, with teams listed in order of finish last year:

St. Louis Cardinals

2013: 97-65, first place (lost World Series to Boston).

Manager: Mike Matheny (third season).

He’s Here: SS Jhonny Peralta, CF Peter Bourjos, INF Mark Ellis, OF Randall Grichuk, OF Oscar Taveras, RHP Jorge Rondon, assistant batting coach David Bell.

He’s Outta Here: OF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, RHP Edward Mujica, RHP Chris Carpenter, RHP Jake Westbrook, OF Adron Chambers, OF Brock Peterson, RHP Fernando Salas, RHP John Axford, INF Ryan Jackson.

H ot Spots: The pitching staff is brimming with young arms, with RH Michael Wacha, RH Michael Miller,

RH Trevor Rosenthal, Martinez, RH Seth Maness and RH Seth Siegrist all coming off big rookie debuts. RH Joe Kelly won the fifth spot in the rotation during spring training and RH Carlos Martinez was put in the bullpen as the setup man. The trade of Freese, the 2011 World Series MVP, to the Angels opened a spot for 2B Kolten Wong, a first-round pick in 2011, with 3B Matt Carpenter moving from second base to third. Ellis is a viable veteran alternative at second if Wong falters.

Outlook: A team that’s been to the World Series twice in the last three years looks primed for another postseason run. St. Louis is deep enough to perhaps postpone the debut of Taveras, a top minor league prospect, and keep monitoring the workload for all those young arms. RH Adam sWainwright finished second in NL Cy Young Award balloting and Wacha missed a no-hitter by one out in his final regular-season start, then was sensational in the postseason. Jaime Garcia is a question mark coming off shoulder surgery but there’s an abundance of backup starting options. Peralta fills the biggest void, replacing the light-hitting combination of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso. Bourjos adds a much-needed base-stealing threat and is considered among the top defenders in center field.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2013: 94-68, second place (beat Reds in wild-card game, lost to Cardinals in division series).

Manager: Clint Hurdle (fourth season).

He’s Here: RHP Edinson Volquez, C Chris Stewart, OF Jaff Decker, RHP Vance Worley.

He’s Outta Here: RHP A.J. Burnett, 1B Garrett Jones, OF Marlon Byrd, C John Buck, C Mike McKenry, 1B Justin Morneau.

H ot Spots: The Pirates entered the offseason with question marks at first base and right field. Four months later, they still have them. 1B Gaby Sanchez appears to be the frontrunner at first, though he may platoon with left-handed veteran Travis Ishikawa after Andrew Lambo failed to stick in spring training. RF Travis Snider had surgery to repair the toe issues that dogged him in 2013 and understands this is likely his last shot to stick as an everyday player, with the Pirates grooming touted prospect Gregor Polanco to take over next spring. The departure of Burnett leaves a hole in the rotation, though Hurdle is optimistic pitching coach Ray Searage can duplicate with Volquez the magic Searage found with LH Francisco Liriano, who resurrected his career in 2013.

Outlook: After ending 21 years of misery, the Pirates didn’t exactly break the bank over the winter looking for an encore. They were never really serious contenders to keep Burnett, and the big (or even medium) bats they needed at first and in the outfield signed elsewhere. Still, a major step back seems unlikely. CF Andrew McCutchen is coming off an MVP season, RH Gerrit Cole appears ready to replace Burnett as the fiery leader of the rotation, and the entire bullpen returns a year after being a major reason the Pirates were the surprise of the National League. Catching the Cardinals, however, will be difficult. A more likely scenario is Pittsburgh hanging around the fringe of the wild-card race and deciding in late August whether to gear up for a postseason run or prepare for 2014, when Polanco and pitching prospect Jameson Taillon are expected to be in the fold.

Cincinnati Reds

2013: 90-72, third place (lost wild-card game to Pirates).

Manager: Bryan Price (first season).

He’s Here: 2B-OF Skip Schumaker, C Brayan Pena.

He’s Outta Here: Manager Dusty Baker, CF Shin-Soo Choo, RHP Bronson Arroyo, C Ryan Hanigan.

H ot Spots: The bullpen. Right-handed starter Mat Latos had surgery for torn cartilage in his left knee the day camp opened and won’t be ready for the start of the season, forcing Simon’s move to the rotation as a fill-in; he hasn’t started since 2011. All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman got hit in the face by a line drive on March 19 and had surgery to have a plate inserted in his forehead to help heal fractures above his left eye and nose; he’ll be out for at least a month. RHP Jonathan Broxton is still recovering from forearm surgery. LHP Sean Marshall developed a sore shoulder in spring training. No one else on the staff has any significant experiencing closing games. The bullpen is depleted to start the season, giving Price — the Reds’ former pitching coach — a big initial challenge in his first season as manager.

Outlook: The Reds return the core of a team that has made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons before losing in the first round. The offense will miss Choo, who was one of the majors’ best leadoff hitters last season. CF Billy Hamilton takes over at the top of the lineup, trying to get on base enough to use his unmatched speed. The 23-year-old outfielder played his first season at Triple-A last year and batted .256 with an on-base percentage of only .308. How he fares full-time in the majors will be a major focus. LF Ryan Ludwick is back after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury sustained on opening day. He lacked power after he returned, but got healthy and strong in the offseason and should provide the Reds with much-needed power from a right-handed hitter. All the injuries to pitchers during spring training — RH Homer Bailey also was limited by a groin strain — give the Reds a big concern as the season opens.

Milwaukee Brewers

2013: 74-88, fourth place.

Manager: Ron Roenicke (fourth season).

He’s Here: RHP Matt Garza, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, 1B Lyle Overbay, 3B-1B Mark Reynolds, LHP Zach Duke, LHP Will Smith.

He’s Outta Here: 1B-OF Corey Hart, OF Norichika Aoki, RHP Chris Narveson, INF Yuniesky Betancourt, RHP Burke Badenhop, 1B Mat Gamel.

H ot Spots: RF Ryan Braun has been playing well this spring in returning from last season’s 65-game, season-ending drug suspension — both at the plate and in his new position in right. It appears he’s over the thumb injury that hampered him last season, too. Garza, the team’s surprise, high-profile free-agent acquisition, had a rough start to the spring, though the veteran right-hander and Roenicke didn’t sound overly concerned. 2B Rickie Weeks batted .348 over his first 10 spring training games in his bid to prove he’s healthy from a hamstring injury and ready to reclaim at least a portion of the second base job from 2B Scooter Gennett.

Outlook: After the Brewers endured an injury-marred 2013 season, staying healthy was a primary concern for general manager Doug Melvin. That occurred for the most part this spring, save for RH Francisco Rodriguez’s unfortunate run-in with a cactus and 3B Aramis Ramirez’s recovery from offseason surgery to remove a non-cancerous polyp. After a breakout season in 2013, CF Carlos Gomez and his speed-power combo make him an intriguing leadoff hitter, though he also struck out 140 times. The lineup is lengthened with the return of Braun and Ramirez, back from injury, to join new mainstays SS Jean Segura, Gomez and C Jonathan Lucroy. The biggest storyline this spring? The stray dog taken in by the team and named “Hank” after Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who started and ended his career in Milwaukee. Adopted by a team executive, Hank has turned into a hit with fans.

Chicago Cubs

2013: 66-96, fifth place.

Manager: Rick Renteria (first season).

He’s Here: RHP Jose Veras, LHP Wesley Wright, C George Kottaras, OF Justin Ruggiano.

He’s Outta Here: Manager Dale Sveum, LF Brian Bogusevic, RHP Marcos Mateo.

Hot Spots: Until the top prospects arrive, all eyes for now are on SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo. Castro missed time in spring training because of a strained right hamstring, and both players are coming off disappointing seasons. Can they bounce back? That’s one of biggest questions facing the Cubs as they wait for their touted prospects to develop in the farm system. Another big one is RH Jeff Samardzija’s future. He’s scheduled to start the opener, but he’s a strong candidate to be dealt given his one-year contract and the inability to lock him in to a long-term deal. Also, it remains to be seen if RH Edwin Jackson can shake off a brutal season.

Outlook: The Cubs are set to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. That might be the only thing they celebrate this year. Actually, if Castro and Rizzo progress and top prospects such as Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant progress, the Cubs will take that. Contending, however, still appears to be a long way off. For now, they continue to sell hope — that the young players will develop and that Wrigley Field will be renovated, generating revenue for the team. That project remains on hold because the Cubs want assurances that the neighboring rooftop owners won’t sue over obstructed views.