The Central Division brought one of the biggest surprise teams of the year in Milwaukee. They had the Rookie of the Year at third base in Ryan Braun, as well as good young players and pitchers. But in the end their youth and inexperience caught up to them and they were unable to catch the Cubs at the top of the Division.
Will it be another two team race in the Central, or will the Cardinals climb back to the top? Will the Astros make a push for the Division crown with new shortstop Miguel Tejada?
Chicago Cubs (88-74)
Happy 100 years Cub fans! Yes it has been 100 years since your last World Series title. So many good teams and yet no championship. Could this be the year the Cubbies break the curse of the goat? I think they have the team that could compete for the National League title.
Their pitching was one of the best rotations in the league last year as they were second in the NL in ERA and first in BA against. Carlos Zambrano is one the best pitchers in the game. The rest of the rotation with Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, and Jason Marquis combined for 37 wins last year.
The one weakness of this team was the bullpen. This year Carlos Marmol will relieve Ryan Dempster as the closer. And you can't forget about Kerry Wood. If Wood is healthy he could turn into one of the better relievers in the game.
The Cubs lineup is strong with a lot of power, but not as much speed. Their only real stolen base threat is Ryan Theriot who had 28 last year. Soriano had 19.
But who needs speed when you have Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano?
The Wildcard in this lineup is going to be Kosuke Fukudome. He is going to be put into a lot of RBI situations in the five or six hole, and if he can deliver he will have more than 100 RBI.
The Cubbies look like the team to beat in the Division, and I think they will win but not without a struggle from Milwaukee, Houston, and St. Louis.
Milwaukee Brewers (85-77)
The Brewers were somewhat of a surprise last year. Most people thought it might take another year for the young talent to mature and gain experience, but it didn't take very long. Now the Brew-Crew are in the heart of the playoff picture to start the season.
The starting rotation will the anchored by All-Star Ben Sheets. Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, Yovani Gallardo, and Chris Capuano will provide a solid staff. The bullpen has been upgraded from last year with new additions Guillermo Mota, Salomon Torres, Seth McClung, and new closer Eric Gagne.
The key for this team will be whether or not Gagne can be a dominate closer again. If he can, this team will be right in the thick of the race, but I don't think he will and that will be the downfall of the team.
The Brewers lineup has a mix of youth and experience. The experience comes from new catcher Jason Kendall and new center fielder Mike Cameron. Bill Hall will go back to his comfortable spot at third base and the Rookie of the Year, Ryan Braun, will move to left field.
I think this team is going to give the Cubs trouble, but I think they still might be a year away from winning the Division and getting a Wildcard.
Houston Astros (83-79)
The Astros had an off year last year and finished 17 games under .500. The face of the franchise, Craig Biggio, retired in the offseason and with that the Astros went out and got some talent.
They traded for Miguel Tejada right before the Mitchell Report came out. They also added a good young outfielder in Michael Bourn and a proven closer in Jose Valverde.
Their starting rotation is strong at the top with Roy Oswalt, but the rest of the rotation has issues with consistency. Woody Williams and Wandy Rodriguez had rough years, but there is some hope with Brandon Backe able to start the year after being on the DL most of last year.
Their lineup definitely got a jump start with the addition of Miguel Tejada. If Kazuo Matsui can continue to build upon a great postseason, he and Berkman, Lee, and young Hunter Pence will add to a solid lineup.
Their bullpen got a much needed upgrade with Valverde, but also Brocail, Geary, and Oscar Villarreal should add to a solid pen.
I think this team will be right in the thick of the race, but they need to go out and get another front line starter to go with Oswalt if they want to pass the Cubs.
St. Louis Cardinals (79-83)
The Cardinals took a major hit last year during opening night against the Mets when they lost ace pitcher Chris Carpenter for the season. Their season just never really got started and they finished third in the Division. This year, they will again be without Carpenter for at least the first few weeks after having Tommy John Surgery.
Their lineup isn't what it was that past few years when they went to the playoffs and the World Series. Yes, Albert Pujols is one of the best pure hitters in the game, but who is going to protect him in the lineup?
Troy Glaus? He has been injury prone the past few years and has a problem of striking out often. Chris Duncan? Rick Ankiel? Ryan Ludwick? I don't think so.
Their starting rotation is average with Wainwright and Looper at the top both coming off decent seasons. Joel Pineiro and Matt Clement will have to pitch like they did when they first came up to the majors for this team to be successful.
The bullpen might keep them in some games with Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, Randy Flores, Tyler Johnson, and Jason Isringhausen doing the closing.
I think this will be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Cardinals, but they still get to play the Reds and the Pirates in their Division so their record won't suffer that much.
Cincinnati Reds (71-91)
The Reds had a bad year last year and the way their lineup is shaping up, it could be a rough year in Cincinnati again.
The one thing that the Reds have is starting pitching. They do have two front line starters in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, and a young stud pitcher in Homer Bailey. Their bullpen doesn't look to be that bad either with Francisco Cordero as the closer and Weathers and Stanton setting up for him.
The problem with this team is the lineup. They have some young talent in Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips, but Griffey isn't getting any younger and it seems Dunn strikes out twice a game.
I think these guys will start off the season slow and the trade rumors will start to pour in for one of their pitchers and for Jr. If they're smart they should try to get some young prospects to come in and build for the future.
Pittsburgh Pirates (65-97)
There is not much to say about the Pirates except wait till next year.
Their starting rotation has been up and down the past few years. Gorzelanny, Snell, and Maholm are good young pitchers but might need another year of experience and a bullpen behind them before they climb out of the basement of the NL.
Their lineup has some strong points with Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez making the All-Star game. Nate McLouth is a good outfielder and Jack Wilson does the job defensively. They need to find a guy to protect Bay in the lineup or Jason won't see any good pitches this year.
The Pirates traded away their closer and now have Matt Capps finishing games. Marte, Grabow, and Meek provide some relief in the pen but not much.
The Pirates need to think about trading some of the older players and getting prospects to rebuild for the next few years.
In Part Three of this seven part series of predictions, I will be breaking down the NL west. Will Joe Torre lead the Dodgers to the playoffs, or will arguably the best starting rotation in the league in Arizona carry them back to the playoffs? And don't forget about Colorado.
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