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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .