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NL Central Hot Stove preview: One team down, plenty of contenders remain

Ryan Ludwick Ryan Ludwick turned his career around in Cincinnati but could be back there in 2013. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

SI.com's breakdown of the offseason plans for all 30 major league teams continues today with Jay Jaffe's look at the NL Central. To read his AL West breakdown from Wednesday, click here.

NOTE: Teams are presented in order of finish from 2012. The Houston Astros, who are moving to the AL West for the 2013 season and beyond, were featured in that division's breakdown.

Cincinnati Reds

2012 Results: 97-65, NL Central champions, lost Division Series

Third-Order Record: 85-77

Pending Free Agents: RHP Jonathan Broxton, IF Miguel Cairo, LF Ryan Ludwick, RHP Ryan Madson, C Dioner Navarro, 3B Scott Rolen

By far the biggest free agent here in terms of impact going forward is Ludwick. After two subpar seasons that owed much to a San Diego detour that messed up his swing, the 33-year-old leftfielder rebounded to hit .275/.346/.531 with 26 homers in 2012, then declined his end of a $5 million mutual option, making him a free agent, though a return hasn't been ruled out. The 37-year-old Rolen is said to be leaning towards retirement after a year in which he hit .245/.318/.398 and played just 92 games due to shoulder and back troubles; given the emergence of Todd Frazier, the Reds appear ready to turn the page even if Rolen does decide to continue playing. Cairo (.187/.212/.280 in 156 PA) and Navarro (.290/.306/.449, albeit in just 73 PA) are the kind of spare parts a team can sign via minor league contracts.

Broxton returned to health after missing most of 2011 with elbow woes, but he didn't dominate, striking out just 7.0 per nine for the Royals and Reds, compared to 11.7 with the Dodgers from 2005-2010. He did put up a 2.82 ERA, and figures to draw consideration as somebody's closer -- perhaps even in Cincinnati, if the Reds are serious about moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation. Chapman's path there took a turn when Madson tore his ulnar collateral ligament during spring training and needed Tommy John surgery in April; Madson turned down his end of an $11 million mutual option and will hit a market that's crowded with closers.

Top Prospect on the Verge: LHP Tony Cingrani

A third-round 2011 pick out of Rice University, Cingrani was drafted on the strength of his work as a reliever. The Reds pushed him into the rotation in the low minors, and he's been a revelation, with two plus pitches: a 92-95 mph fastball that plays up due to his height (6-foot-5) and deceptive delivery, and a swing-and-miss changeup. His slider is a work in progress that will ultimately determine whether he winds up a mid-rotation starter or a power reliever. In 146 innings split between High-A and Double-A, he put up a 1.73 ERA while striking out 10.6 per nine; he made three late-season appearances for the big club and whiffed nine in five innings. The Reds don't have a rotation opening at the moment, and if they did, Chapman would be ahead of Cingrani, so the latter could wind up in the bullpen in 2013. Even there, he could well be an impact arm.

Speedster Billy Hamilton hit .311/.410/.420 and set a professional record with an astounding 155 steals in a season split between High-A and Double-A. He's the fastest man in baseball, but he's just 21 years old and in the midst of a switch from shortstop to centerfield. Don't expect the Reds to rush him.

Targets: Leadoff hitter/center fielder and leftfielder

Long an Achilles heel in any Dusty Baker-constructed lineup, the Reds got league-worst production out of the top spot in their lineup, with Zack Cozart and company hitting a combined .208/.254/.327. Someday, Hamilton should occupy the spot, but for the moment, the Reds need somebody who can get on base with consistency in front of big bats such as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Michael Bourn and Shane Victorino are two players who fit the profile; neither will come cheap but both could additionally shore up centerfield, where Drew Stubbs hit a dismal .213/.277/.333.

In left, the Reds and Ludwick are both interested in a return, even at a higher price tag; fourth outfielder Chris Heisey dropped from 18 homers and a .487 slugging percentage to seven homers and a .401 mark, which isn't adequate for a corner outfielder in a hitter-friendly park.

Bottom line: The Reds have won two division titles in three years, and they've got a talented core that should keep them in contention, but they will need to shell out some money to shore up a glaring weakness.

St. Louis Cardinals

2012 Results: 88-74, 2nd place in NL Central, lost National League Championship Series

Third-Order Record: 91-71

Pending Free Agents: 1B Lance Berkman, LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP Kyle Lohse

Of the Cardinals' free agents, Lohse is the only one who contributed significantly in 2012. He's hitting the market at a good time, coming off a career year in which he ranked fourth in the league in walk rate (1.6 per nine), fifth in ERA (2.86) and seventh in innings (211). His four-year, $41 million extension seemed like madness when he re-upped with the Cardinals in September 2008, but with two solid seasons offsetting earlier injury-related troubles, he stands to reap another windfall. Berkman was limited to 97 plate appearances due to recurrent knee woes that have him considering bringing the curtain down on a near-Hall of Fame career, while Fuentes left the team in mid-August to deal with a family problem after making just five appearances.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Shelby Miller

The 21-year-old Miller came into the year ranked number eight on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, but he had an uneven season at Triple-A Memphis, where he was tagged for 1.6 homers per nine and a 4.74 ERA. A late-season tweak in his mechanics helped, and he wound up striking out 10.5 per nine before a September promotion to the big club, where in 17 innings (including the playoffs) he whiffed 20 hitters. Miller has the potential to be a No. 1 starter; he offers a mid-90s fastball with a curve and changeup that could both become plus pitches, though he needs to gain consistency and comfort throwing his offspeed stuff in any count.

Even with Lohse a free agent, there's no rotation opening for Miller at the moment, though the Cardinals will find room for him at some point. It's worth noting that Jaime Garcia has been battling shoulder problems since June and needed four doctors before he could find one who didn't recommend surgery. It's also worth noting that triple-digit heat-throwing 22-year-old reliever Trevor Rosenthal, who struck out 9.9 per nine in 19 second-half appearances, is viewed as a starter long-term; this is a team that's loaded with depth and talent

Targets: Second base and shortstop; lefthanded long relief.

Postseason heroes though they may have been, middle infielders Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma are the weak links in the St. Louis lineup, and their track records strongly suggest they won't hit much. Kozma isn't even slated to be the regular, but Rafael Furcal is battling to avoid Tommy John surgery, and if he does go under the knife, the team could use an upgrade beyond Kozma, who had a career .236/.308/.344 line in the minors.

Meanwhile, one of the bigger differences between the Tony La Russa Cardinals and the Mike Matheny ones was the lack of a go-to southpaw reliever. Marc Rzepczynski couldn't live up to his 2011 showing, graybeards Fuentes and J.C Romero didn't last long, and rookie Sam Freeman was left off the postseason roster.

Bottom line: The Cardinals just missed out on a second straight trip to the World Series, but they're still well-equipped to contend, and their organization is bursting with young talent -- Miller, Rosenthal, centerfielder Oscar Taveras, first baseman Matt Adams and more -- that figures to fortify their efforts beyond 2013.

Milwaukee Brewers

2012 Results: 83-79, third place in NL Central

Third-Order Record: 83-79

Pending Free Agents: SS Alex Gonzalez, RHP Livan Hernandez, RHP Shaun Marcum, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, C Yorvit Torrealba

Of Milwaukee's free agents, by far the most significant is the 30-year-old Marcum, who was limited to 21 starts due to elbow tightness but pitched to a 3.70 ERA with 7.9 strikeouts per nine when he was available. It sounds as though the Brewers aren't likely to bring him back, perhaps because they've seen his medical file. Gonzalez played in just 24 games before a torn ACL ended his season; he's 35, and has been supplanted by the arrival of Jean Segura in the Zack Greinke trade, though he may be brought back as a mentor/backup. Rodriguez was a disaster on and off the field, with a 4.38 ERA and another domestic violence arrest. Hernandez was terrible (7.68 ERA, 2.5 HR/9) even by his own standards as a low-grade staff filler. Torrealba played just six games with the Brewers, the third team for whom he toiled in 2012; he hit .227/.293/.330 with four homers.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Wily Peralta

A 23-year-old Dominican righty, Peralta battled inconsistency at Triple-A (4.66 ERA, 4.8 BB/9) but sparked in a September audition, with three quality starts out of six and a 2.25 ERA. He throws a four-seamer that can touch 96, a low-90s sinker that draws even more favorable reviews, an above-average slider and a decent changeup — an arsenal that could make him a mid-rotation starter if he can maintain his command and control. His emergence is a major reason why general manager Doug Melvin is willing to let Marcum walk, and along with Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada (and, if he can ever stay healthy, 2004 first round pick Mark Rogers), he gives the cost-conscious Brewers a foundation of affordable starters who can miss bats.

Targets: Starting rotation, bullpen, outfield

Even with the aforementioned plus Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers need another starter. While Melvin left the door open for a Greinke return, the likelihood is that the team winds up with a mid-tier solution than a top-tier one, with names like Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Lohse and Brandon McCarthy drawing mention.

In the bullpen, John Axford lost his job as closer temporarily and was rocked for a 4.67 ERA while walking an unsightly 5.1 per nine, though he did save 35 games. Rodriguez wasn't much help, and neither were Kameron Loe (4.61 ERA) or lefty Manny Parra (5.06 ERA); in fact, the unit as a whole ranked dead last in the NL with a 4.66 ERA. A housecleaning is in order.

Elsewhere, even with the sudden emergence of Carlos Gomez as an offensive threat (.260/.305/.463 with 19 homers to go with 37 steals), the team may seek another productive outfielder, particularly with the possibility of Corey Hart staying at first base. One name that's been mentioned in recent weeks is that of Josh Hamilton, who bopped 43 homers despite an uneven season that saw him burst from the gates and then struggle during the summer. The thought of pairing Hamilton and Ryan Braun in the lineup is a tantalizing one, and while this may seem like a bratwurst-in-the-sky fantasy, current Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron was Hamilton's "accountability partner" in both Cincinnati and Texas, making for an intriguing connection that goes beyond money.

Bottom line: A year after reaching the National League Championship Series, the Brewers battled injuries and signficant underperformances that led them to trade Greinke. Just when it looked as though they were dead — 12 games under .500 late in August — they closed the year on a 29-13 run triggered in part by strong pitching from their young guns, thereby not only salvaging some respectability but offering hope for the future. Expect them to contend in 2013.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2012 Results: 79-83, 4th place in NL Central

Third-Order Record: 77-85

Pending Free Agents: C Rod Barajas, RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Jason Grilli, RHP Chad Qualls, LHP Hisanori Takahashi

The Pirates have already turned down their $3.5 million option on Barajas, who hit an ugly .206/.283/.343 with 11 homers and threw out just six percent of opposing base thieves. The 37-year-old backstop is said to be open to a return at a lower price, though Michael McKenry has emerged as the starting catcher going forward. Correia was functional as an innings-eater, tossing 171 frames of 4.21 ERA ball but striking out only 4.7 per nine. He made $3.2 million in 2012 including incentives, but complained when he was briefly bumped from the rotation late in the year, and the team doesn't sound inclined to invite him back. Grilli had an excellent season in a setup role (2.91 ERA and a career-high 13.8 strikeouts per nine) at age 35, and is the most likely to return, though general manager Neal Huntington will no doubt have to strike a hard bargain with his agent, Gary Sheffield (Grilli is Sheff's first major league client). Qualls is the anti-Grilli, a 34-year-old journeyman who was tagged for a 5.20 ERA for three teams, mostly in low-leverage duty. Takahashi was rocked for a 5.54 ERA split between the Angels and Pirates.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Gerrit Cole

The No.1 overall pick of the 2011 draft out of UCLA, Cole split his first professional season between the team's High-A and Double-A affiliates and concluded with one start at Triple-A Indianapolis. He didn't dominate, but delivered a 2.80 ERA and struck out 9.3 per nine across the three levels, allowing only seven homers in 132 innings. Cole's fastball can touch 100 mph, and his slider and changeup are both well above average; he's an ace in the making but his command and approach still need work, as he has a tendency to overexpose his fastball and fall into predictable patterns. He won't start the year in the majors, but should be up at some point in midseason, and eventually work his way to the top of the Pirates' rotation.

Targets: Outfield corners, shortstop, starting pitching.

The Pirates got an awful .230/.278/.326 line from their leftfielders, with Alex Presley and Jose Tabata both flopping miserably, and 23-year-old rookie Starling Marte hitting an uneven .257/.300/.437 in 182 plate appearances. Rightfielder Travis Snider, 24, failed to do much after being acquired in late July as well, hitting .250/.324/.328 in 145 PA, with a hamstring strain contributing to his power outage. Neither Marte nor Snider is worth giving up on, but the team needs a more reliable bat in the mix, particularly if Garret Jones sticks to first base, where the team got just .236/.290/.403 production including disappointments from Gaby Sanchez and the traded Casey McGehee.

At shortstop. Clint Barmes was beyond awful with the bat (.229/.272/.321), and while his defense was good enough to lift him above replacement level, the Bucs could stand to gain some offense there as well.

Among their starters, James McDonald needs to rebound from an awful late-season collapse, and the team is going to need more than just Jeff Karstens and Jeff Locke to round out the corps even with Cole on the way.

Bottom line: The Pirates went 49-32 from May through July, rocketing into the division and wild-card races and looking as though they would finally break the .500 barrier that had eluded them since 1992. Alas, they went just 9-22 in September and October, plummeting out of the race and back into ignominy. There's talent here, but if they're to climb out of the doldrums, the Bucs need to shore up their glaring weaknesses.

Chicago Cubs

2012 Results: 61-101, 5th place in NL Central

Third-Order Record: 62-100

Pending Free Agents: RHP Shawn Camp

In the first year of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, the Cubs moved into rebuilding mode, and unloaded most of their pending free agents during the season, namely Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Marlon Byrd, Jeff Baker, and Reed Johnson; additionally, Kerry Wood retired. That leaves them with Camp as their only free agent. The 36-year-old (37 in November) led the league with 80 appearances, and pitched to a 3.59 ERA with solid peripherals. The Cubs would like him to return, and Camp figures to receive a raise beyond the $550,000 base salary he made via a minor league deal.

Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Brett Jackson

The 23-year-old Jackson was nearly obliterated by major league pitching upon being recalled in August, batting just .175/.303/.342 with four homers and 59 strikeouts in 142 plate appearances (120 at-bats, 10 shy of exhausting his official rookie status). However, there was a method to the madness, as Theo Epstein said in October. Jackson was promoted so that manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson could get a good look at him, and impart some tough love about the adjustments to his swing that will need to be made in order for him to succeed at the major league level.

The same more or less went for third baseman Josh Vitters, who was even worse (.121/.193/.202 with 33 strikeouts in 109 PA) in his major league trial. Both players will begin the season at Triple-A Iowa, and hope to follow the model of first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who was overwhelmed as a rookie with the Padres in 2011 (.141/.281/.242). Upon being traded and spending most of the first half of 2012 in Triple-A, he returned to the majors and lived up to his billing, hitting .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers in 368 PA.

Targets: Starting pitching, outfield depth, bullpen

Assuming they don't trade Matt Garza this winter, the Cubs have three rotation spots spoken for, with Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood behind Garza. Finding veteran arms on short-term deals to round out a unit whose lack of depth was exposed after the Dempster and Maholm trades is a priority; the likes of Brooks Railey and Chris Rusin showed they weren't up to the task yet.

In the outfield, the Cubs may start the season with David DeJesus in center and Bryan LaHair in right. As mentioned, Jackson will start the year in Triple-A and Tony Campana proved offensively inadequate in center beyond his 30 steals. At some point, Chicago hopes to capitalize on the strong season of Alfonso Soriano (.262/.322/.499 with 32 homers) by offloading him and at least some of the $36 million he's owed over the next two years. They may be a ways away from a LaHair-Jackson-DeJesus outfield, so another bat in the mix would be welcome.

Carlos Marmol saved 20 games, but he lost the closer job early in the year thanks to a lack of control, and finished with an unsightly 7.1 walks per nine. He's owed $9.8 million for 2013, money the Cubs don't need to be spending if they're not contending. Moving him to save some cash would be a boon, but the Cubs need a viable alternative to fill his slot — not necessarily a name-brand stopper, but perhaps a pitcher who could seize the opportunity to earn the scarlet letter C, boosting his future earning potential before the Cubs flip him the way Oakland's Billy Beane has done with so many closers.

Bottom line: The Cubs aren't going to compete in 2013, or 2014 for that matter. Finding players who can fill out the major league roster while Epstein and Hoyer upgrade the system is the order of the day, and saving some money by offloading Soriano and Marmol would be welcome.

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