National League Central forecast 2014

Teammates wait to fist-bump St. Louis Cardinals starting Teammates wait to fist-bump St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, right, as he walks into the dugout upon being relieved in the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Mets on Sunday, March 16, 2014, in Jupiter, Fla. Photo Credit: AP / David Goldman

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1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Manager: Mike Matheny, third season, 185-139, .571

GM: John Mozeliak, seventh season

2013: 97-65, First place, 3 games ahead, lost World Series to Boston, 4-2

The Pirates put Pittsburgh back on the baseball map last season. But the road to the top of the NL Central still goes through St. Louis, and no one else in the division is as talented or as deep as the Cardinals, who have a successful infrastructure like no one else in the majors.

Losing Carlos Beltran -- the veteran they rallied around last October -- will sting some, but this is a franchise that is used to reloading. Remember, St. Louis allowed Albert Pujols to walk, so there's no wasted sentiment here -- or misplaced morality, for that matter. The Cardinals signed PED offender Jhonny Peralta to fill their void at shortstop before most teams began making calls to free agents, and blew away the competition by giving him a four-year, $53-million contract. On top of that, they traded hometown hero -- and 2011 World Series MVP -- David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, who replaces him in centerfield, one of the team's few holes. Replacing Freese wasn't much of an issue as the Cardinals simply moved Matt Carpenter -- more homegrown talent -- to third from second base, where Kolten Wong will take over.

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See how there always is a plan in St. Louis? It's not a coincidence that this franchise has been to the playoffs in 10 of the last 14 seasons, and the Cardinals' constant influx of young pitching is a big reason why. Adam Wainwright may spend his career as the annual Cy Young runner-up to Clayton Kershaw, and the Cardinals will be interested to see how playoff sensation Michael Wacha and up-and-comer Shelby Miller build on their first full seasons.

As for the bullpen, Trevor Rosenthal already looks like an elite closer at age 23, making life a little less stressful for third-year manager Mike Matheny, who is due for a ring after advancing to the NLCS in 2011 and World Series last season.

2. PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Manager: Clint Hurdle, fourth season (245-241, .504)

GM: Neal Huntington, seventh season

2013: 94-68, Second place, 3 games behind, won wild-card game

Outlook: With 94 victories, the Pirates didn't just sneak over the .500 mark to earn their first winning record in two decades. They did it in style, then added street cred by beating the Reds in the wild-card game. There's momentum here, and defending MVP Andrew McCutchen, but it's a tall order to improve on last season.

3. CINCINNATI REDS

Manager: Bryan Price, first season with Reds (replaced Dusty Baker)

GM: Walt Jocketty, seventh season

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2013: 90-72, Third place, 7 games ahead

Outlook: The Reds pushed the re-set button by moving former pitching coach Bryan Price to the manager's chair, but it's not like they're starting from scratch. A formidable offense anchored by Joey Votto and Jay Bruce has pitching as well, but the horrifying injury to Aroldis Chapman -- who is not expected back for two months -- could have a longer impact.

4. MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Manager: Ron Roenicke, fourth season (253-233, .521)

GM: Doug Melvin, 12th season

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2013: 74-88, Fourth place, 23 games ahead

Outlook: It's arguable that no one in baseball will be scrutinized more closely than Ryan Braun, who is coming off a 65-game PED suspension that abruptly ended his 2013 season. Braun repeatedly lied about his PED involvement until that point, and now the Brewers must hope he can be an MVP again without the drugs.

5. CHICAGO CUBS

Manager: Rick Renteria first season with Cubs (replaces Dale Sveum)

GM: Jed Hoyer, third season

2013: 66-96, Fifth place, 31 games ahead

Outlook: You'll be hearing a lot about the Cubs' young talent, but it won't mature fast enough to pull first-year manager Rick Renteria out of the cellar.

LENNON'S BEST OF THE NL CENTRAL

Best everday lineup: Cardinals

Best player: Andrew McCutchen

Best power hitter: Pedro Alvarez

Best overall Hitter: Joey Votto

Best in the clutch: Yadier Molina

Best baserunner: Jean Segura

Best infielder: Todd Frazier

Best outfielder: Carlos Gomez

Best catcher: Yadier Molina

Best starting pitcher: Adam Wainwright

Best reliever: Mark Melancon

Best closer: Aroldis Chapman

Best pitch: Aroldis Chapman's fastball

Manager: Mike Matheny

General manager: John Mozeliak

Stadium: Wrigley Field

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