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An NL Central Sleeper

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When someone tries to make predictions for the upcoming MLB, or any sport, season, a pretty common tactic is to simply take the division winners from last year and carry them forward to the title the following year unless they've taken some big hits to their roster.

That's why not many people doubt that the Phillies should repeat in the NL East. They've kept the core of their team from 2010, upgraded their ace, and likely will see an upgrade at third base (assuming that Placido Polanco's superior hitting makes up for Pedro Feliz' lost defense). By the same logic, it's why a lot of people are counting the Angels as underdogs in the AL West. They lost Chone Figgins, who was coming off such a strong season that he finished tenth in MVP voting, their staff ace John Lackey, and, though he may be declining, a slugger in Vladmir Guerrero.

With this in mind, it seems like it would be hard to argue against the St. Louis Cardinals heading to victory in the NL Central again. They'll still have Albert Pujols, the best hitter in the sport, at the center of the lineup, backed up by the re-signing of Matt Holliday, who destroyed the NL last season. Going with this, they'll sport one of the best 1-2 punch rotations in baseball, with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainright.

The problem is, it sort of ends there. Outside of Pujols, they'll need to rely on Felipe Lopez to match his 2009 career-year, because the left half of their infield is nothing to write home about. Ryan Ludwick had a monster season two years ago, but fell down to earth in 2008. They'll have breakout candidate Colby Rasmus in CF, though outside of that, this is the team that will rely on a core of four players. They're four great, great players, without a doubt. But if any of them miss significant time due to injury or have a down-year, the Cardinals will be in jeopardy.

Luckily for the Cardinals, the NL Central is generally considered baseball's weakest division, but they do have two solid teams right behind them. The Brewers pack an offensive punch that comes close to the Cardinals offering with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and have quietly built up quite the defensive group with Alicides Escobar and Carlos Gomez up the middle. The Cubs, well, we know the story on the Cubs. They've got a bunch of talented players, they just need them to come together.

To me though, the real team to watch in the NL Central is going to be the Cincinnati Reds. It will take some luck going their way, but the Reds have the potential for a team that matches some of the best in baseball. Joey Votto was incredible last year after dealing with his depression and anxiety issues, and a full-season of that performance would put him in MVP discussions. Brandon Phillips is one of the best second basemen in baseball, and Scott Rolen, in addition to being one of the best defensive third basemen of all time, should bring a great batting average and decent power. The outfield will be roamed by two breakout candidates. Drew Stubbs should play great defense and should get on-base enough to show off his great speed. The highlight, though, is former top prospect Jay Bruce, who despite struggling early in his MLB career, has monstrous power potential, with Bill James even projecting 38 home runs out of the slugger with a solid batting average. There are a few weaknesses, too. Jonny Gomes, Ramon Hernandez and Orlando Cabrera are decent performers, but none can be expected to anchor a team. In the NL Central though, that's a deep-enough offense, with a chance that someone like Yonder Alonso finds a new position, like left field, and helps the team down the stretch.

There's also a chance for a great rotation to boot. Like the offense, the pitching will be lead by solid veterans in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, though Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are certainly big breakout candidates. If one of them reaches potenential and the other is able to reach even half of it, the Reds could be one of baseball's most solid teams, top to bottom.

Would I say that the Reds are the favorites to win the NL Central? No, not quite. It's very hard to bet against a team with so many mega-stars as the Cardinals have, and has shown the willingness to add to that core at the trade deadline. But if a few things go their way, the Reds have a chance to do a lot of damage this year and, with Aroldis Chapman now in the pipeline, be a threat for a while to come.