Opening Day is just around the corner so I’m previewing all the divisions in Major League Baseball. This brings me to the National League Central.
The Cardinals had an interesting offseason. They were able to resign Matt Holliday but they lost Mark DeRosa, Rick Ankiel, Joel Pinero and John Smoltz to free agency. Keeping Holliday solidifies the middle of the lineup that will feature Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick and the rising star Colby Rasmus. The lineup may be stable but defensively the Cards still seem to have a few holes and the loss of Pinero and Smoltz leaves a gap at the back end of the rotation. Defensively the Cards are still missing an every day third basemen but they are hopeful that David Freese can fill that role, if not they were quick to sign Felipe Lopez to add depth on our bench.
As far as pitching goes the top of the rotation has the two Cy Young runners up, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. The addition of Brad Penny along with the return of Kyle Lohse gives the Cards a fairly solid rotation. The bullpen looks to be set as well with the Cards hoping Ryan Franklin can repeat as an all-star and that Jason Motte can become the primary set up man. All this being said the Cards seem to have the most complete team in the division and I think they will repeat as division champions.
2. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs will be an interesting team to watch this year. They have let go of problem player Milton Bradley and brought in Xavier Nady as a replacement. Other than that this team is the same as last year. Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto all return for another year on the North side. They have a nice top of the rotation in Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly but after that it gets a little less intimidating. The bullpen is solid but Carlos Marmol still needs to prove he is capable of being a shut down closer.
The biggest questions for this team seem to once again deal with things off the field. Will this team let Lou Pinella finally take control? Can Zambrano finally mature and learn to control his emotions? Will the clubhouse be a positive environment now that Bradley is gone? With so many possible distractions off the field, I think the Cubs will finish 2nd in this division.
The Reds are an up and coming team. I really like what Walt Jocketty has done with this team so far. I think they are still a few years away from being completely involved in the division race but they are a team that will help add some credibility and respect to this division. This team really features a lot of young talent. Pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, and Homer Bailey who are learning from Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, they have a nice rotation. Other young stars in the field like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs this team could surprise a lot of people in baseball. Don’t forget perennial all-star Scott Rolen is their third basemen who will bring a lot of leadership and is a great locker room guy. This team has a lot of great pieces in place but I still think they are a year or two away from being a serious contender in the division, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t battling the Cubs for 2nd this year.
This next spot is really hard to predict as I think two teams are about even…..
The Astros are a veteran team but many of their main producers are getting old. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are starting to get up there in age and are losing a little bit of power, speed and their swing is slowing down as well. Their best pitcher is also starting to get old. Roy Oswalt is without a question the “ace” of their staff but he hasn’t been able to carry the same load year after year and if he goes down I wouldn’t put alot of money on Wandy Rodriquez to step up. The Astros have some young talent on their squad like Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn but I’m not sure that is enough to outweigh the age issues. Let’s also not forget they lost their closer Jose Valverde to free agency. So with an aging team and not a lot of consistency in the past I wouldn’t expect the Astros to compete this year.
Next come the Brew Crew from the land of cheese and beer. This team just doesn’t have the pitching to contend. They will win a few games but when it comes down to it their pitching staff just isn’t strong. They can and will produce runs with guys like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun in the lineup but when your “ace” is Yovanni Gallardo, it spells trouble for your team. I am not terribly impressed by their bullpen either and as an old adage says “pitching wins championships”. So with that said the Brewers will be near the basement of this division.
Sorry to those fans of the Buco’s from the Steel City. They’ve endured 17 losing seasons in a row and things don’t look much better this year. After trading away all but one player who was in the starting line up last year I just can’t expect this team to compete. Andrew McCutchen and Lastings Milledge are all this team really has as far as young talent goes. Can this team end the streak of losing seasons? Yes, but don’t expect them to be anywhere near contention.