MLB 2012 Season Preview: NL Central

Jonathan IrwinContributor IIMarch 12, 2012

MLB 2012 Season Preview: NL Central

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    Last season saw the World Series champion come out of the National League Central.

    Will the Central bring that kind of magic in 2012? Will that magic come from St. Louis, or a different team?

    Only time will tell, but following is a preview of how the Central will go down this season. There will be bottom feeders, there will be dominant forces, and in the end there will be a lot of baseball awesomeness.

6. Houston Astros

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    All you have to do is read the team on the slide and know how bad things are in Houston. That's all besides the PR mess that represents the move to the American League.

    Offensively, this team has fallen apart around the diamond. When Carlos Lee is your only proven veteran—and "proven" is an outdated statement with his decline—you know you're in trouble.

    The pitching is a disaster. Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris are not exactly the definition of "ace." Brett Myers, the Astros' only 200-inning pitcher in 2011, is being relegated to closer.

    Things are bad in Houston, and they're not getting better anytime soon.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates, generally an NL Central bottom feeder, are slowly crawling their way back up in the baseball world.

    Offensively they don't look like much, but there are pieces to brag about. Andrew McCutchen continues to turn heads, and he's still got room to grow and get better. Joining him are other high-upside hitters such as Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez.

    Pitching is the real downside to all this "crawling out of the hole" business brewing in Pittsburgh. A lot of people are talking about top prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but they're not at the Show yet.

    Instead the Pirates will settle for Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett. That's all you need to know when evaluating Pittsburgh's 2012 competitive prospects.

4. Chicago Cubs

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    Theo Epstein is a move in the right direction for the Chicago Cubs, but no one expects a miracle turnaround in 2012.

    Nonetheless, the Cubs still have enough competitive drive to finish in the middle of the NL Central field.

    In typical Epstein fashion, the offseason was filled with high-upside trades. Ian Stewart has some potential left, but the biggest move for Chicago was landing Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo didn't look like much in pitcher-friendly Petco, but he's got a huge ceiling.

    Those two join Starlin Castro and Geovany Soto, creating an offensive core that brings some hope to the lineup.

    Pitching is where the struggles truly begin for Chicago. Matt Garza had an ace season last year, but the struggles of Ryan Dempster are cause for concern. Though their upside is limited, the acquisitions of Chris Volstad and Travis Wood will bolster the rotation somewhat.

    All in all, Chicago is in the middle of rebuilding. No one expects them to win the division, but they'll see plenty of bright spots on their 2012 horizon.

3. St. Louis Cardinals

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    Even though the Redbirds came out of nowhere to win the 2011 World Series, I have no faith that lady luck will be as kind in 2012.

    St. Louis is going to struggle.

    Their pitching loses Edwin Jackson and gains Adam Wainwright. That's got to be an improvement, right? Well, Wainwright is returning from Tommy John surgery, which saw him miss all of 2011. Then there's Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook—all of whom aren't getting any younger.

    There is hope in Jaime Garcia and top prospect Shelby Miller, but the top of this division is too tough for them to have an impact this season.

    Offensively, the Cardinals have an Albert Pujols-sized hole in that lineup. Instead of doing what it takes to replace their slugger, they're hoping Carlos Beltran is enough to fill his production.

    He's aided by an aging Lance Berkman, a middle infield with no upside and the hope that David Freese's postseason magic was a sign of upside—instead of just a hot streak.

    St. Louis had a miracle season in 2011, but all signs point to 2012 disappointment.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

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    Milwaukee's in the same hole as St. Louis. Great team in 2011, lose a big (no double meaning there) hitter in the winter and scramble things together heading into 2012.

    But, where St. Louis still has some major flaws, Milwaukee's for the most part solid.

    They've lost Prince Fielder, but will attempt to fill his void with veteran Aramis Ramirez and minor league monster Mat Gamel. Even without the big man, the Brew Crew brings back studs Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart.

    The biggest unknown is how Ryan Braun will be affected by Fielder's absence. Braun has a devastating bat, but his resume outside of the third spot—and Fielder's protection—is uninspiring.

    Despite the offensive questions, Milwaukee retains one of the Central's best rotations. Yovani Gallardo is the staff ace, and he's backed by one of the best in Zack Greinke.

    Following those two is an equally devastating tandem in Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. Both are solid inning-eaters who know how to win baseball games.

    Milwaukee will continue to field a solid team. But, just like 2011, there's still one team that is just that much better.

1. Cincinnati Reds

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    For our 2012 NL Central Champions, we turn our heads back to Cincinnati.

    The Reds roster is filled with high-upside players and are made to win.

    Offensively, they're one of the best in the Central. The middle of their lineup is solidified by Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Votto is one of the best players in the league, and Bruce has a huge ceiling.

    They're joined by veterans Scott "I just keep rolling" Rolen, Brandon "I tweet as often as I save runs" Phillips and Drew "5-tool stud" Stubbs.

    Rounding out the crew are Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco. Both are high-upside players who could pay huge dividends in 2012.

    On the other side of the ball, we find one of the biggest improvements to Cincinnati's roster.

    The rotation features ace Johnny Cueto, who continues to grow and improve. Backing him is huge acquisition Mat Latos. Latos was an ace in San Diego, and he has the youth and upside to become a huge boon for the Reds.

    Rounding out the rotation is a list of inning-eating, mediocre upside arms. The x-factor in the Reds pitching is fireballer Aroldis Chapman, who could break out in a huge way in 2012.

    The Reds flashed brilliance in 2010 and suffered setbacks in 2011. However, 2012 is a new year, and this season is looking real good.

Final Breakdown

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    1. Cincinnati Reds: They'll ride high-upside pitching and a devastating offense to an NL Central title.

    2. Milwaukee Brewers: Losing Prince Fielder will hurt, and their season rides on how Ryan Braun performs.

    3. St. Louis Cardinals: They kind of have a good club, but too many question marks lead to a questionable season.

    4. Chicago Cubs: Chicago's moving in the right direction, but 2012 won't be their season.

    5. Pittsburgh Pirates: So, who's getting traded this season?

    6. Houston Astros: They're the 'Stros, what do you expect?