Seems only fitting that, in the aptly named Central, every one of these teams -- except the lowly Cubs, of course -- are creeping toward the middle. No one -- again, sorry Cubs -- has really separated themself from a solid pack that features the retooled Reds, the sturdy Cardinals, the Biogenesis-tainted Brewers and the upstart Pirates.
The edge here goes to the Reds, who balance a dangerous lineup, anchored by perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto, with a lethal rotation and suffocating bullpen. Aroldis Chapman is back at closer after flirting with a starter's job for most of spring training, and the Reds still have plenty left over with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo.
Only the Cardinals can lose a pitcher like Chris Carpenter, really the soul of that staff, and still have the organizational stability to be considered a favorite in the division. Look at what happened last season, when St. Louis said goodbye to two of the city's sports icons, Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, yet didn't skip a beat in getting back to the playoffs. It doesn't hurt that Adam Wainwright is heading into a contract year, and manager Mike Matheny, unfazed stepping into La Russa's shoes, will be more comfortable.
Braun, who escaped a positive testosterone test, after his MVP season, is once again playing under a PED cloud as this Biogenesis scandal is a long way from winding down. The multi-tool McCutchen is becoming the face of a new Pirates' generation, one that Pittsburgh hopes is a winning one after 20 straight losing seasons.
As for the Cubs, well, it's too bad for them the Astros switched to the AL West.
1. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
2. Jason Motte, Cards
3. Sean Marshall, Reds
2. Russell Martin, C, Pirates
3. Edwin Jackson, RHP, Cubs
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH