There are six teams in the NL Central, and we’re just about at opening day, so I’m going just going to give thumbnail sketches for this division. The Central is another tough division to forecast with three teams that seem capable of playing into October. So who will win it all?
1. St. Louis Cardinals: This is purely a gut call. Every rational part of me looks at this roster and sees serious flaws past the elite four. Losing Adam Wainwright for the season should have been the final nail in their coffin. But for some reason I can’t help but think that the Redbirds will eek out another division title.
I’m not one who believes in the “contract year” phenomenon. We all remember the guys who out up career numbers in the walk year of their contract, but there really is no evidence that players in the last year of their contract put up abnormally good seasons. That said, I think it eminently likely that Albert Pujols, who already has proven his bona fides as the best baseball player on the planet, will have a monster season that will launch him into the stratosphere. I can easily see he and Matt Holliday putting up numbers that make them as productive as some entire teams – especially in their own division. And it’s not as though the rest of the lineup is completely worthless. Colby Rasmus is a productive bat at the top of the order, and Lance Berkman and Troy Glaus should still have something left in the tank to add decent value.
The real question mark is the rotation. They might call him Mr. Glass, but when Chris Carpenter takes the mound he is one of the best in the biz. Jaime Garcia had a breakout season, and I expect him to maintain his level of production. The rest of the rotation is a profile in mediocrity with guys like Jake Westbrook, Kyle Loshe, and Kyle McLellan, but mediocrity might be enough with the star power up front.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers made a big splash when they traded for Zack Greinke. Clearly the Brewers are going all in for 2011 because it’s likely that neither Greinke or first baseman Prince Fielder will be back after this season. Unfortunately the Brewers have already had a setback with Greinke starting the season on the DL with a fractured rib. That leaves Yovanni Gallardo as the only reliable starter in the rotation as the Brewers begin the season. Even when Greinke returns it’s going to be a rotation of Greinke and Gallardo and pray for the other teams to go (you try rhyming with with either of those names).
The offense should be among the league’s best. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are just a notch below the Pujols-Holliday combo, and the rest of the lineup is much deeper than the bottom of the Cardinals’ lineup. Casey McGehee had a breakout campaign s year ago and adds another layer of depth to the lineup. But this is about as porous a defense as one will find, and considering the fact that it’s backing up a staff that is decidedly pedestrian after the top two, that could signify big trouble ahead.
3. Cincinnati Reds: This might be the contrarian in me speaking out, but I don’t see the Reds making it back into post-season play. Their lineup is still one of the best in the game, featuring reigning MVP Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips has quietly been one of the most consistent second basemen in the game, and right-fielder Jay Bruce is another graduate of one of the finest systems in the game. So the Reds shouldn’t have trouble scoring runs.
But will the Reds keep runs off the board? Their ace, Edinson Volquez, is coming back from injury, and after that there are a lot of question marks, especially with Johnny Cueto out until at least the end of the first month. Bronson Arroyo has been a solid citizen, but it’s tough to see this team going far with Arroyo as a number two starter. The Reds will desperately need youngsters Travis Wood and Mike Leake to step up if they are going to repeat as NL Central champs.
4. Chicago Cubs: The Cubs might actually do better than expected, especially with a starting rotation that features five pretty good starters. Matt Garza is a key addition to a staff that features Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano. Sure Zambrano might flip his lid at some point, but he can still provide decent value in the middle of the rotation.
Oddly it will be the lineup that holds the Cubs back. Bluntly, this is a bad lineup. Sure, Carlos Pena has some pop and his low batting average masks his overall production, but he should not be the anchor of any offense. But this is a team of average at best players backing up a good but not extraordinary rotation. The Cubs might flirt with .500, but that’s going to be good for nothing more than a fourth place finish.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates: Believe it or not the Pirates are on the right track. Kind of. Granted the bar is low, and there really is no place to go but up. While none of the Pirates are likely to be household names, there are a number of guys who are upgrades over what they had a year ago. Lyle Overbay is not the sexiest addition, but he can provide some measure of stability in the middle of the lineup. Andrew McCutchen is the most likely to have a breakout season for the Buckos, who will be looking to see if any of their young pitchers can show signs of sticking around the big show.
The Pirates will lose a lot more than they win. The only thing that matters for them is to see signs of development for their young roster,
6. Houston Astros: There was a pre-season game on the MLB Network tonight featuring the Red Sox and Astros. It was a matchup featuring two teams at complete opposite poles of the baseball universe. The Red Sox not only are likely to be the premier team in baseball this upcoming season, their organizational depth, front office situation, and financial reserves mean that this is the best organization in the game, and likely to dominate for years to come. As for the Astros? Other than a terrible Major League roster, a black hole of a farm system, inept front office leadership, and a marginal financial resources, everything is looking up for the ‘Stros.
In all seriousness, it’s hard not to feel bad for an organization that was once one of the perpetual front-runners in the National League but a few years ago. Looking over this roster and one wonders how they can possibly compete this year and for years to come. It’s going to be a long, long road back for the Astros.