Divisional Preview: NL Central

Last year the turnaround Reds took the division after pulling away from the St. Louis Cardinals in September, the Pirates and Astros took up the rear, and the Cubs stunk as usual. There were a few minor moves in the division, but nothing too drastic to really up the division.

1) Cincinnati Reds (86-76)

Looking to improve upon a 90+ win season and their first playoff appearance in some time, the Reds return just about all their everyday players and the same rotation. Defense should be a strong point with Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce in the outfield, while Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, and Joey Votto roam the infield. Joey Votto, the MVP of 2010, should lead the offensive attack, which also features Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce. They  may not be the Big Red Machine, but the Reds should put some runs on the board.

The Reds will turn to a young, talented staff which could be good or bad. Players like Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez have all the potential in the world, but have yet to harness it all. If they can turn it on, the Reds will runaway with the division. If not, they’ll be fighting all year with mediocre pitching. One good thing is the depth. Between Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, and Mike Leake fighting for the last couple spots, there won’t be any problems in-season when injuries arise.

Cincinnati is a young team with lots of potential. Whether or not that potential is tapped at once or not can go a long way for the Reds.

Players to watch: Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman

2) Milwaukee Brewers (84-78)

After trading for Zack Greinke, the Brewers have become a sexy pick to win the NL Central. But I would hold my horses. Yes, their rotation has an incredible trio of Zack Greinke, Yovanni Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum. But that’s it. They have no depth. Randy Wolf is okay, but Chris Narveson is currently their fifth option. Besides, Greinke could miss the first month of the season, and in what seems to be a tight race, missing him for a month and replacing him with a scrub could cost the Brewers a few games.

But if the pitching holds up, this team could be dangerous. Despite the presence of Yuniesky Betancourt, the Brewers have a tantalizing lineup. Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, Case McGehee. That IS a formidable heart of the order. The team will score runs, and if they can limit runs, this team will be good.

Players to watch: Rickie Weeks, Yovanni Gallardo

3) St. Louis Cardinals (82-80)

At first I was intending to pick St. Louis to finish on top, but losing Adam Wainwright is huge. That dropped them to third place in my book. I still think the rotation will be alright with a healthy Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, but losing a Cy Young candidate pitcher hurts.

The reason I still believe St. Louis will put up a good fight is the offense. For one, they still have Albert Pujols. As long as you have Albert Pujols and some okay players, you’re going to contend. Albert Pujols is out of this world good, but you already know that. However, they don’t  have all scrubs surrounding him. The lineup still boasts Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus. Yadier Molina remains one of the best catchers in baseball and I am a big supporter in David Freese, so long as his ankle is healthy. The everyday players will keep them competitive, but in the end, their loss of Wainwright will derail their playoff run.

Players to watch: Colby Rasmus, Jaime Garcia

4) Chicago Cubs (78-84)

Ah, the poor old Cubs. Over 100 straight years and counting of not winning a championship. 2011 will be no different. While I do think they will lose this season, I think the Cubs will be better than most people realize. They actually have a decent staff with a real good bullpen. They lack a true ace, but between Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza, and Randy Wells, the Cubs do have an above average rotation that can eat innings and keep the team in most games. From there, the bullpen has the lights out Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Kerry Wood, and prospect Andrew Cashner. The Cubs could be dominant in close games because of the pen, and if they play in a lot of those close games, they could be 2011’s surprise team.

The reason I don’t think that will be the case if the offense. They are old. Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, Fukudome. They were once good and still are okay, but to rely on those players for 162 games is not good enough. Starlin Castro can be a star and Soto is a good offensive catcher. But as a whole this is an old, unreliable offense that won’t help win games.

Players to watch: Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol

5) Pittsburgh Pirates (70-92)

Yes, yes, the team everybody always picks to finish last, I have coming in FIFTH. AN UPSET, I KNOW!

Look, the pitching is shit. I am a James McDonald believer, but he is a #3 starter, tops. Besides him they have guys like Ross Ohlendorf, Brad Lincoln, Scott Olsen, etc. Yeah, it’s not good. The Pirates will be giving up a lot of runs and will be losing a lot of games as a result.

The one redeeming quality in my mind is their young talent on the offensive side of the ball. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Andrew McCutchen. Andrew McCutchen is a stud and one of my big breakout candidates for 2011. He can hit, field, and run. Once the talent around him starts to develop, the Pirates will slowly start to creep back up to .500 baseball. Pedro Alvarez is another breakout candidate. He may never be good with the leather, but he can hit. Once the bat fully comes around, he will be one of the premiere power hits in the NL. To compliment these two in 2011 are Tabata and Walker. Both aren’t great hitters, but they are above average and help Pittsburgh be a middle of the road offensive team in 2011.

Things are still bleak in Pittsburgh, but the sun is starting rise.

Players to watch: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez

6) Houston Astros (64-98)

The Astros suck. Plain and simple. Their rotation will be okay, maybe. The “stud” pitcher is Bret Myers. Granted, his 2010 was awesome. He also won’t be likely to repeat it. JA Happ and Wandy Rodriguez are okay. But after them? They’ll be giving 60+ starts to the likes of Nelson Figueroa, Bud Norris, and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Ouch. The pen isn’t any better.

The lineup does have Hunter Pence, a nice, young outfielder, and Brett Wallace could potentially emerge as a pretty good hitter at first. Michael Bourn has also been a total 8 WAR player the best couple seasons. That’s all nice and well. But you wanna hear the names of the other starts? Yes? Okay:

Humberto Quintero, Bill Hall, Clint Barmes, Chris Johnson, and one Brian Bogusevic. Yeah. Crap. And Carlos Lee may play first base instead of Brett Wallace.

The Astros are bad and will finish in last place. Yes, even behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Players to watch: Brett Wallace, Hunter Pence

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