After a 20-year drought, the Pirates were back in the playoffs last season, defeating division rival Cincinnati in the wild-card game. Pittsburgh has a terrific duo in 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen (21 HRs, 27 SBs) and 3B Pedro Alvarez (36 HRs, 100 RBIs). The rest of the lineup isn't that powerful, so veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano (16–8, 3.02 ERA) and young starters Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke will have to keep opponents in check. The loss of A.J. Burnett (10–11, 3.30 ERA) will hurt, but with McCutchen and Alvarez, the Pirates will take another step forward and win this division.
The Cards are looking to get back to the World Series after finishing as the runner-up last year. Their offense lost some firepower when Carlos Beltran (24 HRs) and 2011 World Series hero David Freese left for other teams. However, new OF Peter Bourjos will mesh well with a team that has veterans such as C Yadier Molina, OF Matt Holliday, and new SS Jhonny Peralta.
The Cardinals also have an elite pitching staff — four pitchers, including ace Adam Wainwright (19–9, 2.94 ERA), won 10 or more games last year. If everyone stays healthy, the veteran Cardinals will challenge for the NL Central title.
Cincinnati is looking to break through in this top-heavy division. The pitching staff took a hit when starter Bronson Arroyo (14–12, 3.79 ERA) left for Arizona. That leaves Mat Latos (14–7, 3.16 ERA), Homer Bailey (11–12, 3.49 ERA), and Johnny Cueto (5–2, 2.82 ERA) to lead the staff. If the Reds have a late lead, fireballer Aroldis Chapman (38 saves) is a dependable closer.
OF Jay Bruce (30 HRs, 109 RBIs) leads a talented offense that also features 2B Brandon Phillips (18 HRs, 103 RBIs). Both will have to keep up their production since Shin-Soo Choo (21 HRs, 54 RBIs) left for Texas in the off-season.
First-year manager Rick Renteria leads a major rebuilding project. The good news is 1B Anthony Rizzo is coming off his best season (23 HRs, 80 RBIs) and 24-year-old SS Starlin Castro (10 HRs, 44 RBIs) has a ton of potential. OF Nate Schierholtz, (21 HRs) provides power in the middle of the lineup.
Chicago's pitching is shaky and the pressure will be on Jeff Samardzija (8–13, 4.34 ERA) and Travis Wood (9–12, 3.11 ERA) to step up in the rotation. Finishing close to .500 is the next step for the Cubbies. That's a long-shot in this tough division.
Former NL MVP Ryan Braun is back after serving a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and will look to restore his reputation this year. OF Carlos Gomez (24 HRs, 73 RBIs) and C Jonathan Lucroy (18 HRs, 82 RBIs) are reliable on offense.
The pitching rotation will be improved with the addition of the steady Matt Garza (10–6). He headlines a staff that includes Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, and Wily Peralta, all of whom won 11 or more games last year. The Brewers lack the star power to be a playoff contender, but could play the role of spoiler.
Photos: FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALVAREZ), DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WAINWRIGHT), JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (BRUCE), MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES (CASTRO), MIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES (GOMEZ)