For the second part of my early NL previews I will be focusing on the National League Central Division. This is definitely a division on the upswing, with the balance of power swaying away from the Cards & towards the Reds this season and last. And with some great offseason moves the Brewers have thrust themselves into the conversation as well. Here are my previews and predictions beginning with last seasons division winning Cincinnati Reds:
The Reds have spent the last half decade positioning themselves to overtake the powerhouse Cardinals and Albert Pujols. Little by little they have built up a pretty formidable roster with more positives then negatives. Along the way they traded future MVP Josh Hamilton to Texas for hard throwing righty Edinson Volquez. Though he has shown glimpses of his high ceiling, injuries have taken their toll. But he's now almost two years removed from Tommy John Surgery, and anyone who's followed the careers of pitchers such as Josh Johnson knows that if he's gonna come back to his pre-injury form this would be the season. Bookended in the rotation by innings eater Bronson Arroyo, fireballer Johnny Cueto, 3rd year starter Homer Baily and one of their two solid rookie pitchers(Mike Leake or Travis Wood)this Cincinnati rotation is built for the long haul.
The bullpen is saved by hard throwing Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, setup man Nick Masset and veteran closer Fransisco Cordero. Injuries to any of these key components could result in the Reds bringing in some extra help for the bullpen sometime before the trade deadline.
As for the Reds lineup, there are some really great hitters who are only going to get better. Namely 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto & power hitting right fielder Jay Bruce. These two are the pieces the Reds can build around for seasons to come. Add to that the young potential 30/30 candidate, centerfielder Drew Stubbs, slick fielding 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips & veteran 3rd baseman Scott Rolen and you have the makings of a pretty solid lineup. With a couple weak links like journeyman SS Paul Janish & the uber-streaky Jonny Gomes in left the Reds do have some room for improvement.
ST LOUIS CARDINALS
A perennial contender, the Cards always seem to be in the mix. It doesnt hurt that they have one of the best players in history manning 1st base. Of course unless you live under a rock you know Phat Albert might not be playing in the shadow of the arch much longer. A rumored asking price of 10 years and 300 million dollars seems excessive, but I think they will find a happy medium at some point down the road. It might not be until after the season however.
The signing of aging power hitter Lance Berkman to patrol right will give Pujols some added lineup protection to go along with Matt Holiday and center fielder Colby Rasmus. Though they dont have the greatest defensive infield outside of Pujols, rookie David Freese and middle infielders Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker should do well enough offensively to overcome the occasional throwing error. Backstop mainstay Yadier Molina will again handle the pitching staff & play another season as one of the more undervalued players in the league.
The pitching staff looks solid, though an injury to either Adam Wainwrite or Chris Carpenter would prove devastating. They anchor a staff that includes one of last years more pleasant surprises, 5th starter Jamie Garcia & journeyman Jake Westbrook. The final spot will be determined in the spring, with Kyle Lohse having the inside track on P.J.Walters. The bullpen isnt flashy, but it continues to get the job done thanks to 9th inning stopper Ryan Franklin, who even though he isnt the prototypical fireballing closer, does have the ability to make guys "hit them where they are"! Jason Motte, Kyle McClellen & Mitchell Boggs round out a bullpen that looks about average on paper.
One of the big winners in the offseason, the Brewers solidified their struggling pitching staff by bring in Shaun Marcum from Toronto and former Cy Young winner Zach Grienke from Kansas City. He will join a rotation led by ace Yovanni Gallardo & ageless wonder Randy Wolf. The Brewers also signed former closer Takashi Saito who with Latroy Hawkins will try to fill the void left by Trevor Hoffman and bridge the gap between their starters and 2nd year closer John Axford. All in all the Brewers pitching is one of the league's most improved heading into the 2011 season.
Offensively they are built around sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but they do have some other solid bats. Ricky Weeks continues to improve and right fielder Cory Hart looks to build on his comeback season of 2010. Catcher Will Neives isnt a top option at his position, but hopefully will be able to handle the talented pitching staff. Casey McGehee will be the full time 3rd baseman and newly acquired SS Yunieski Betancourt will do his best to fill the void left by the departure of Alcides Escobar.
Houston truly looks like a team rebuilding. With only one player left from before the 2007 season(Wandy Rodriguez)this is definitely a team searching for an identity. They will build around a new-look young core of Hunter Pence(RF), Brett Wallace(1st), ex-Phillie Michael Bourne & Chris Johnson(3rd). The question is what can they really expect out of these guys this season & the answer is NOT TOO MUCH! With a rotation that has less depth then a kiddy pool they'll be counting on Wandy plus two more ex-Phillies(J.A Happ & Brett Myers) to keep them afloat! The bullpen is far from stellar with the lone bright spot being Brandon Lyon who took over the closer's role in late 2010.
Recent acquisitions Bill Hall & Clint Barmes will man the middle of the infield & veteran Carlos Lee will stay in left as long as Wallace can get the job done at first. I see some potential building blocks for the future, but not much to brag about for 2011.......
Considering their payroll, the 2010 Cubs were a huge disappointment at 12 games under .500. Actually it was enough to make lifelong baseball guy Lou Pinella turn tail and run. But this is 2011 and with the new calender comes fresh hope. At least we're hoping new manager Mike Quade wont be found hanging from the clubhouse ceiling around July. They did make an effort to ensure that doesnt happen. Offseason additions Matt Garza and Carlos Pena look to add some pitching depth and pop, so there is reason to be hopeful. Guarded, but hopeful. A healthy Aramis Ramirez is a good way to start. He will join holdovers Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, rookie SS Starlin Castro & catcher Geo Soto as they look to right the ship.
As the rotation goes it's a mixed bag--if they can keep Big Z in anger management & get the usual contribution from Ryan Dempster, then Matt Garza, Randy Wells and the well traveled Carlos Silva should be enough to keep this team over .500. The bullpen is one of the better one's in the division, with reacquired flamethrower Kerry Wood & Sean Marshall splitting setup duty for stud closer Carlos Marmol.
My Mother always told me "if you dont have something nice to say, dont say anything at all". Despite that useful maternal advice, I'm still going to preview the Pirates(Sorry Ma!!). A team that's been met with confusion & frustration by their longsuffering fans for trading away players as soon as they start to blossom, the Pirates are at a turning point once again. They have some solid young talent to build around, but they're gonna have to resist the urge to trade them too soon. Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata & Neil Walker are all players worthy of keeping in the Steel City. Newly acquired vets Lyle Overbay & Chris Snyder should add some leadership, but both are very streaky. The bullpen is a work in progress as well, with hard throwing Joel Hanrahan competing with "future closer" Evan Meek for the 9th inning role in Spring Training. Their rotation is a real mess. Paul Maholm will be their "ace" only because someone has to go first--but him, Ross Ohlendorf, Kevin Correia & James McDonald are only going to help a fantasy team if your player is batting against them!!
PREDICTION: This is going to be a three horse race with the Cards probably being the team to fall back first. I see Cincinnati and Milwaukee staying pretty close for a while but ultimately I think the Reds might have a little more depth and experience. That being said, I would be far from surprised if the Brewers ended up taking this division OR even the wild card if the Reds end up winning the Central.
Stay tuned for part three of my early National League previews--the NL West and the World Series Champion San Fransisco Giants!