MLB NL Central Division: Why the Cincinnati Reds Are Now the Best

Cliff EasthamSenior Writer IIJanuary 12, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25:  Ryan Madson #46 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch against the New York Mets in the ninth inning during a game at Citi Field on September 25, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

In an offseason that began slowly, GM Walt Jocketty of the Cincinnati Reds pulled off probably the best deal of all. Keith Law of writes,

"The Cincinnati Reds got perhaps the deal of the offseason so far by signing Ryan Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million deal, a guaranteed contract that allows Madson to try to demolish any concerns about his ability to handle the ninth inning on a full-time basis and re-enter the free-agent market next winter."

The signing of Madson was the cherry on top of the Hot Stove sundae. Bringing in Madson solidified the bullpen and will allow Dusty Baker to utilize newly-acquired southpaw Sean Marshall as the setup man.

Francisco Cordero had been the Reds' closer since coming over from Milwaukee prior to the beginning of the 2008 season. In his four years with the Reds, he saved 150 games and had an ERA of 2.96, and his k/9 ratio was 7.6.

In 2011, the Reds were eighth in the National League with 22 blown saves.

Before acquiring Marshall from the Chicago Cubs, Jocketty had unloaded nearly all of his blue chips for Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres. Only time will tell if that deal was worth the cost. Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger all went west so the Reds could add a quality starter to their rotation.

The infield of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Zack Cozart and Scott Rolen makes for one of the best in the business. If Cozart bounces back from Tommy John surgery and Rolen can stay healthy enough to play 100 games, the Reds should excel. Rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco should get the chance to become a starter and prove that all the hype was right.

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: Starting pitcher Matt Latos #38 of the San Diego Padres throws the ball during the first inning of the game against the Chicago Cubs at Petco Park on September 26, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty
Kent Horner/Getty Images

The outfield of Chris Heisey, Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce could produce 90 HR and 550-plus strikeouts.

With the Brewers losing first baseman-slugger Prince Fielder and facing a possibility of starting the season without MVP Ryan Braun for 50 games, this leaves a lot of question marks. The Reds would appear to be better at almost every position and would also have a comparable rotation and a better bullpen.

With St. Louis losing perennial all-star Albert Pujols, the Cardinals have put a huge hole in their lineup. Lance Berkman will fill in admirably for Pujols at first base, but face it, he is not  Pujols.

The Cardinals did bring in free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran from the San Francisco Giants. Since 2008, his power has dropped considerably. He is averaging only 22 HR per 162 games since then.

Adam Wainwright is expected to return this season and give the Cards a 1-2-3 punch of himself, Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. I would have to say the Reds would have a slight edge in the rotation, as the Cards get thin after Garcia. Kyle Lohse had a good season in 2011, but the Reds can counter with either Bronson Arroyo or Mike Leake. The bullpen belongs to Cincinnati.

The Chicago Cubs have improved their pitching, getting southpaws Paul Maholm and Travis Wood. Their addition of one-time closer Manuel Corpas didn't give them much help at the end of their bullpen. They had to give up set-up man Sean Marshall to get Wood from the Reds. Carlos Marmol is still considered to be their closer, and Kerry Wood's 2012 home is still a mystery.

They gave up slugger Aramis Ramirez to the Milwaukee Brewers for Casey McGehee, which, on face value, does not look like a smart move. Legal problems could cause them problems at shortstop, with Starlin Castro being involved in a sexual assault matter. Their best bet to make them have any contention for a division championship would be to sign Fielder, who remains a free agent.

The Pirates continue to chase the brass ring after a surprising first half to the 2011 season. They didn't re-sign Maholm, but did get free-agent lefty Erik Bedard. They brought veteran centerfielder Nate McLouth back from the Braves as a fourth outfielder, or perhaps a corner outfielder. I do not look to see them make much noise in 2012.

The bottom-feeding Houston Astros are chillingly barely breathing. You can't feel a pulse, but if you put a mirror beside their mouth, it does seem a little foggy. About the only sounds they have made have been the minor-league contract signing of outfielder Travis Buck.

The remaining faces on the no-name team are Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. It is unlikely they will create any disturbance to the upper echelon of the Central Division.

My predicted order of finish:

1. Cincinnati

2. St. Louis

3. Milwaukee

4. Chicago

5. Pittsburgh

6. Houston