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National League Preview: The Best of the Rest

Who will compete for playoff spots out of the National League Central and West divisions in 2014?

One day, our children will judge us for letting beards like this happen.
One day, our children will judge us for letting beards like this happen.

NL Central Winner: St. Louis Cardinals

Trades: 2011's hero David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas were sent to the Angels for outfielders Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.

Free Agent Signings: The Cardinals' lone FA signings of note were shortstop Jhonny Peralta and Mark Ellis, an insurance policy at second base in the event that youngster Kolten Wong struggles.

Free Agent Departures: Rafael Furcal, who hadn't played since 2012, sought greener pastures with the Miami Marlins. Reliever John Axford signed with the Cleveland Indians. Carlos Beltran returned to New York with That Other Team. Chris Carpenter hit free agency and, after struggling with injuries for several seasons, opted for retirement.

Injuries: Reliever Jason Motte, who missed most of 2013 due to Tommy John surgery, recently began facing live hitters for the first time and should rejoin the bullpen some time in April. Starter Jaime Garcia, who underwent shoulder surgery last season, has not been so fortunate; he was shut down with shoulder discomfort early in camp and has yet to return to action. Ellis returned to spring action last week after dealing with knee issues.

Projections: If you really want to nitpick with St. Louis, you could point to the Cards' loss of Carlos Beltran. Or you could harp on the possible danger of a starting rotation comprised of at least two sophomores (Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller) and possibly three (Carlos Martinez). In truth, the Cards remain much the same team that went to the World Series last year, while their two primary divisional competitors each took some serious hits since 2013 (see below). It's hard to envision a scenario where the Cardinals don't win the NL Central running away, unless that scenario involves natural disasters or catastrophic rips in the time/space continuum. Even at the Cardinals' expense, best not to hope for either.

NL Central Wild Card Contender #1: Cincinnati Reds

Trades: An oddly complicated three-way trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks sent southpaw David Holmberg to the Reds. Longtime Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan went to the Rays in the deal.

Free Agent Signings: Lefty relievers Manny Parra and Sean Marshall, second baseman Skip Schumaker, and catcher Brayan Pena were pretty much it in the major league contract department.

Free Agent Departures: The big loss was Shin-Soo Choo, who collected on his free agent payday with the Texas Rangers. Rotation staple Bronson Arroyo left for the desert, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Injuries: The most dramatic injury the Reds sustained was the liner that broke Aroldis Chapman's face. He will return at some point this season, but is probably lucky to walk away from the accident with just some nasty staples in his head. Mat Latos underwent knee surgery at the start of camp training and will probably not make his first start until the season is a week or two old. Homer Bailey has missed two spring starts with groin discomfort. Schumaker recently dislocated his shoulder, an injury that will knock him out of action for at least a month. Speaking of shoulders, Marshall will start the year on the DL while his recovers.

Projections: The addition of prospect Tony Cingrani to the Reds' rotation is an upgrade from Arroyo, and a starting corps that includes him, Latos, Bailey, and Johnny Cueto could be one of the better staffs in the league (assuming health for all, which could be a big If). The trouble will be getting them runs to work with. While Joey Votto and Jay Bruce remain elite hitters, the loss of Choo and the decline of Brandon Phillips will reduce the sluggers' RBI opportunities and opposing pitchers' willingness to pitch to either hitter. They will contend for the NL wild card, but the division is probably not a fair fight.

NL Central Wild Card Contender #2: Pittsburgh Pirates

Trades: Acquired catcher Chris Stewart from the Yankees for a player to be named later.

Free Agent Signings: Pittsburgh's signings were exceedingly rare and low key, especially when compared to the players they lost. They snagged pitcher Edinson Volquez and got Clint Barmes to reup, but little else.

Free Agent Departures: The Pirates took a number of hits this offseason, as A.J. Burnett, Justin Morneau, and Marlon Byrd—all key players in their 2013 playoff run—split the scene. For good measure, catcher John Buck went to the Seattle Mariners and first baseman Garret Jones signed with Miami.

Injuries: Wandy Rodriguez missed most of 2013 with a flexor tendon injury but has pitched with no issues this spring. First baseman by default Gaby Sanchez dealt with a knee issue early in camp but appears to be recovered. Knee surgery for Stewart means the Pirates will rely on prospect Tony Sanchez behind the dish for at least the first month of the season.

Projections: There is still a great deal of talent in the Pirates lineup; see: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez. Pittsburgh's rotation already has an ace in Gerritt Cole, and starting pitching could be a strength if Wandy Rodriguez proves fully recovered and Francisco Liriano continues his comeback story. Unfortunately, the Pirates struggled to score runs in 2013 even with the additions of Morneau and Byrd (their Pythagorean record worked out to roughly 88 wins, 6 fewer than their real-world total), and it's hard to see how the folks left in their places will improve on that. The Pirates appear to be in slightly worse shape than the Reds in 2014, and while they will probably compete for the wild card again, another playoff run is more likely in 2015, when some of the fruits of their strong farm system (namely, prized outfielder Gregory Polanco) should ripen.

NL Central—The Rest: The Cubs are a lot like an ocean liner; it will take a long time to turn them around, and it won't happen this year. The Brewers should improve slightly with the addition of Matt Garza and (sure, why not?) the return of Ryan Braun, but they remain far behind the pack in their division and the National League in general.

NL West Division Winner: Los Angeles Dodgers

Trades: None of note

Free Agent Signings: Even after handing Clayton Kershaw his well deserved KACHING extension, the Dodgers still had plenty of cash to spare. Dan Haren, Jamey Wright, and Paul Maholm were inked as rotation depth, while former Indians closer Chris Perez and former Ray J.P. Howell were added to the bullpen. The Dodgers also signed two prized Cuban infielders, Alexander Guerrero (who will start the year in the bigs) and Erisbel Arrebuena (who will go to Albequerque). Oh, and they resigned hirsute reliever Brian Wilson and benchwarmer Juan Uribe.

Free Agent Departures: Mark Ellis left for the Cardinals, volatile closer Carlos Marmol departed with the Marlins, and oft injured starter Edinson Volquez signed with the Pirates.

Injuries: Chad Billingsley, still recovering from Tommy John surgery, will start 2013 on the DL. Matt Kemp, who underwent ankle surgery last year, will do the same, as will Josh Beckett, due to a thumb ailment. Carl Crawford has experienced shoulder inflammation and remained in Arizona during the Dodgers' trip to Australia. Adrian Gonzalez has dealt with some back issues this spring, but was sufficiently healed to play both games in Sydney this past weekend.

Projections: As with the Cardinals, it's hard to envision the Dodgers not winning their division. Despite an ailing Beckett and Billingsley, their starting rotation still boasts a top three of Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And though Matt Kemp has become a huge question mark, their lineup will start the year with Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez, which is not too shabby. Barring injuries, etc., etc.

NL West Wild Card Contender #1: San Francisco Giants

Trades: None, apparently

Free Agent Signings: Got Tim Hudson to return to the Bay Area. Signed ex-Mariner Michael Morse. Resigned veteran lefty Javier Lopez and starter Ryan Vogelsong.

Free Agent Departures: Andres Torres and Barry Zito both filed for free agency and have not been heard from since.

Injuries: The Giants' 2013 season was undone largely by injuries (which some blamed on so many of their players participating in the World Baseball Classic, a lament Mets fans will find familiar). This spring, apart from Marco Scutaro experiencing some back issues, the Giants have largely avoided the trainer's table.

Projections: For the Giants to succeed in 2014, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval will have to do an awful lot, considering the rest of the lineup is not fearsome (and, apart from Brandon Belt, not all that young, either). They will also have to hope Matt Cain's awful 2013 was a blip on his radar, Tim Lincecum will fully right himself, and Tim Hudson can rebound from his ankle injury. They look a little too fragile and full of holes to contend for championship, but I would have said the same thing each year they won a championship, so what the hell do I know?

NL West Wild Card Contender #2: Arizona Diamondbacks

Trades: Traded once prized prospect Adam Eaton to the White Sox for Hector Santiago, then sent Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to the Angels for Mark Trumbo. Third base prospect Matt Davidson was also sent to Chicago in exchange for Addison Reed, who will take over Arizona's closing duties. A three-way deal with the Rays and Reds sent Heath Bell to Tampa Bay in exchange for Justin Choate.

Free Agent Signings: Inked starter Bronson Arroyo and signed our old friend Oliver Perez. Also resigned veteran third baseman Eric Chavez.

Free Agent Departures: Willie Bloomquist left for Seattle, Wil Nieves signed with the Phillies, and reliever Tony Sipp went to the Padres.

Injuries: Young hurler Patrick Corbin will likely undergo Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2014. Daniel Hudson is recovering from Tommy John and looks to return in July, while Matt Reynolds hopes he can come back from the same operation in September. Cody Ross is dealing with hip issues and won't come off the DL until mid-April. Arroyo's been day-to-day with a back ailment. So it's been a great spring all around for Arizona.

Projections: Arizona's Grission-Based Plan didn't quite work out in 2013, as they finished at exactly .500 for the second season in a row. They were a chic pick to bounce back in 2014, but the injury to last year's ace Corbin is a serious blow to that dream. Highly touted young arm Archie Bradley will help when he joins the rotation at some point this season; hopefully this will happen when he's good and ready, and not as a desperate bid to save the jobs of either GM Kevin Towers or manager Kirk Gibson (both in the last year of their respective contracts). Paul Goldschmidt had a stellar season last year, but apart from him and Trumbo, the lineup has little firepower. Without Corbin, it will prove tough for Arizona to compete for a playoff spot this year.

NL West—The Rest: The Rockies could leapfrog the Diamondbacks if all breaks well for them, but both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez will need to stay healthy for them to do so. The same could be said for the Padres, subbing in newly acquired Josh Johnson and Chase Headley for the injury-prone stars.