The St. Louis Cardinals coasted to the National League Central title last year, finishing a full seven games in front of the Chicago Cubs, who were considered the heavy favorite to three-peat as the division champs coming into last spring. The Cardinals will have an even easier time of winning the division this season, according to PECOTA. If the system is right, the Cardinals will be the only NL Central team to even have a winning record.

The Cardinals are projected to win the division by nine games, which would give them plenty of time after the clincher to set up their post-season rotation in an attempt to erase last year’s disappointment of being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series. Yes, it’s certainly a case of putting the cart in front of the horse to predict September champagne-popping days in February, but that’s what makes this time of the year so much fun for baseball fans.

St. Louis Cardinals
Projected record: 88-74
Why They Might Win: PECOTA projects the Cardinals to give up an NL-low 653 runs with a rotation fronted by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright-along with a bullpen that features All-Star closer Ryan Franklin. The Cardinals also have a fellow named Albert Pujols, who happens to be among the best players in the game.
Why They Might Not Win: Carpenter has a lot of wins on his résumé, but he also has a lot of innings and a lot of arm problems. The lineup drops off significantly beyond Pujols and Matt Holliday.
Player Who Could Surprise: Center fielder Colby Rasmus is pegged to hit 22 home runs by PECOTA, up from 16 last season, and he has the raw talent to put up even bigger numbers.
Player Who Could Disappoint: David Freese is projected to hit just 12 home runs with a .254 average, which would make the Cardinals’ decision not to acquire a veteran third baseman in the offseason look bad.

Chicago Cubs
Projected record: 79-83
Why They Might Win: The Cubs have as much star power as any team in the division, with Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano. They are also, uh, sort of overdue for some good luck, considering it’s been 102 years since their last World Series victory.
Why They Might Not Win: The Cubs have a lot of players who have become injury-prone as they have gotten older. Lilly might not be ready to start the season after undergoing shoulder surgery in November, and that will be a bigger obstacle for the Cubs to overcome than some might think.
Player Who Could Surprise: You get the feeling Carlos Marmol doesn’t have Lou Piniella‘s complete faith. The fiery manager screwed around with Kevin Gregg as the closer for most of last season. Marmol will be the closer this season, and PECOTA sees him doing just fine, with a 32-save year.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Soriano is on the decline and PECOTA thinks his days as a premier player are long gone, projecting him to hit 19 home runs and steal nine bases, and making that 40-40 season with the Nationals in 2006 seem like eons ago.

Milwaukee Brewers
Projected record: 78-84
Why They Might Win: Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun form a fearsome duo in the middle of the lineup, and the Brewers have hitters who can hurt you up and down the lineup. New pitching coach Rick Peterson should bring a fresh approach.
Why They Might Not Win: Even PECOTA doesn’t think Peterson can work miracles with the talent on hand. It projects the Brewers to give up an NL-worst 777 runs despite signing left-handers Randy Wolf and Doug Davis as free agents to stabilize the rotation and LaTroy Hawkins to serve as all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman‘s set-up man.
Player Who Could Surprise: Outfielder Jim Edmonds is attempting a comeback after sitting out last season, and PECOTA believes he can still help in a limited role, with projections of a .353 on-base percentage and a .496 slugging percentage.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Wolf is projected to have a mediocre year, going 9-9 with a 4.33 ERA-not what the Brewers are expecting after signing him to a three-year, $29.75 million contract.

Houston Astros
Projected record: 77-85
Why They Might Win: They still have remnants of their glory days, with Roy Oswalt leading the rotation and Lance Berkman anchoring a strong middle of the lineup that also includes superstar-in-waiting Hunter Pence and reliable run-producer Carlos Lee. New manager Brad Mills is well-regarded in the game, something that couldn’t necessarily be said in the Astros’ clubhouse about his predecessor, Cecil Cooper.
Why They Might Not Win: The rotation falls off considerably after Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, and the bullpen is riddled with question marks. The falloff is just as steep in the lineup beyond Berkman, Pence, Lee, and Michael Bourn.
Player Who Could Surprise: J.R. Towles has flubbed multiple opportunities to be the everyday catcher, but PECOTA pegs him to be a respectable starter this time, projecting him to bat .253 with 10 home runs.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Matt Lindstrom has teased talent evaluators with his 100 mph fastball for a long time, but he projects to be no better with his new team than he was with the Florida Marlins. PECOTA predicts a 4.35 ERA for him as Brandon Lyon‘s primary set-up man.

Cincinnati Reds
Projected record: 77-85
Why They Might Win: They have a solid starting rotation, fronted by veterans Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang and including young talents like Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey and, at some point, Edinson Volquez, when he recovers from Tommy John surgery. The Reds also have one of the more athletic teams in the league.
Why They Might Not Win: Because they never win anymore; the once-model franchise is on a streak of nine consecutive losing seasons. The Reds have some players who are stars or potential stars, such as Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Cueto, but there’s a lack of overall depth in the organization.
Player Who Could Surprise: Bruce is expected to hit .275 with 32 home runs by PECOTA after having his 2009 season-his first full year in the majors-ruined by a broken right wrist.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman is projected to have a 4.27 ERA with 93 strikeouts in 72 innings. Normally, that would be a good rookie season, but the expectations are huge for the hard-throwing left-hander in the Queen City after he signed a $30-million contract in the offseason.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected record: 72-90
Why They Might Win: They have some intriguing young players, led by Andrew McCutchen, who showed the look of a potential superstar as a rookie last season. They have the makings of a solid starting rotation, with no member older than 27.
Why They Might Not Win: Well, they’re the Pirates-owners of the North American major professional sports record streak of 17 consecutive losing seasons. They lack a true thumper for the batting order, a true top-of-the-rotation starter and a true closer.
Player Who Could Surprise: After frustrating the New York Mets and Washington Nationals, left fielder Lastings Milledge is ready to finally put things together in his first full season in Pittsburgh, according to PECOTA: The system pegs him to hit .277 with 18 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf is projected to go 7-9 with a 4.48 ERA. That would shave four victories and add .56 points to his ERA from last year, his first full season as a starter.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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I'm sorry to say that as usual, the coverage of the NL Central is by far the weakest in this series. These team summaries are, on average, 10% shorter than for any other division, and a pale shadow of what was done for the NL West and AL Central, where the average article was half again as long as these and full of meaty stuff. The content isn't anything to write home about, either. St. Louis will win because they have three or four really good players? Well, DUH. Pittsburgh won't because "Well, they're the Pirates"? Ditto. The same for the Reds, who "never win anymore," despite one of the more interesting cadres of up-and-coming pitching talent in the league. Come on, guys -- this is the best baseball analysis site in existence for the other 24 teams, so why not for these six? Did somebody from St. Louis or Chicago or one of those other places work you over in a dark alley or something? :-)
"Superstar-in-waiting" Hunter Pence? Really? Seems a little strong.
Nothing personal to John, but this is really, really weak stuff. If I wanted analysis like: "Why they might not win: "Because they never win anymore"..." I'd just hop over to ESPN or read some Ken Rosenthal. I thought BP was supposed to be better than this. I thought I was paying for actual analysis. Aroldis Chapman as a player who might disappoint? Who might he disappoint? Most of us Reds fans don't expect him to be in Cincinnati this year and certainly aren't counting on anything from him for a successful 2010. Bruce as a player who might surprise? Every projection system I've seen calls for a breakout. The only people who would be surprised are those who don't expect the top prospects in the game to be any good. As for his "ruined" 2009, he put a .773 OPS as a 22 year old despite the worst BABIP in baseball -- none of which had to do with his broken wrist. How about Chris Heisey for a player who could surprise? Or maybe Matt Maloney? Or even post-hype sleeper Bailey who found the mid 90's stuff he lost for 2 years? How about Bronson Arroyo and his declining peripherals or Votto and his inflated BABIP for a guy who might disappoint? I don't need the projection for my favorite team to be all flowers and rainbows nor does analysis need to be an exercise in linear algebra, but something more than a cursory, non-analytical, non-insightful look would be nice for a season preview. This article is behind the paywall, right? Are "causal" fans who might enjoy this level of analysis really paying for BP content? It's increasingly clear that the bulk of the interesting analysis is taking place elsewhere these days.
I'm with RMR - and i'm not even a Reds fan. Thin, superficial ESPN-style hit-and-a-lick coverage. Also, BP has noted that Chapman was never expected make the team this year's ST. Who could disappoint? Why not Cabrera? The catching situation? Depth - I just looked this up - their AA rotation looks loaded. Before I say "bring back Sheehan" (which BP needs anyhow) and replace the Cards fetishing with a more BP level of analysis. I'm no expert but I think I could have written this in < an hour, just by reading BP...
I don't think the St. Louis prediction is "fetishing;" they're clearly the best team in the division, as the PECOTA predictions confirm. However, your basic point is correct -- this contention should be made with solid analysis (for example, of the extended "addition by subtraction" campaign that turned the mediocre Cardinals of mid-season into the Holliday-bearing beasts of August and September) that we come to BP to get. The same applies to the other teams.
The bulk of the Cardinals advantage over the Cubs is in crack-high induced roster and playing time projections on the Cubs roster. How stupid would you have to be to come to the conclusion that David Patton, the #8 and #9 starter Silva and Atkins are going to combine for 200 innings of 5+ ERA pitching? For reference the Cubs had about 120 innings of 5+ ERA pitchers last year. The Cards are 'projected' with 0 pitchers with 5+ ERA despite having 155 innings of 5+ ERA pitchers last year and a weakened pitching staff. Maybe that explains why the write ups were so short, because the writers know they don't know what's going on in the NL Centeral.
Disappointed, I'm a Reds fan, and I don't think they'll be great, but heck, I can come up with "they don't win anymore".
This was just bad work. Period. He mailed one in basically.
"Nothing personal to John, but this is really, really weak stuff." I agree. When is someone like CK or Kevin Goldstein et al. going to step up and deal with the PECOTA issue? I never, NEVER expected this sort of head-in-the-sand behavior from BP.
And to set the record straight John, we all LOVE your work, just not this.
The Cardinals pitching is nowhere as good as PECOTA suggests and the Brewer and Cubs are better teams than this suggests. I think these are 3 teams in the 81-85 range with maybe a Cardinals team that has Carpenter all year being as high as 86-87. This will be a 3 team race, 4 teams if the Reds get a lot out of Bailey or Chapman.