The tarmacs are clearing in Florida and Arizona because spring training is just around the corner. While most fans in the National League Central are still shoveling the snow out of their driveways, visions of finishing atop the division are already dancing in their heads. Here are my predictions of how the Central will finish by the end of the 2012 campaign.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Record: 97 - 65, 1st in the NL Central
It may be hard for people to wrestle with the fact that the Cardinals could potentially finish with a better record after letting arguably the greatest hitter of all-time take his talents to the West Coast and one of the greatest managers of an era calling it quits.
However, the Cards will look to do just that as they seek to replace Pujols and his career-low WAR of 5.4 with Carlos Beltran (4.4 WAR between New York and San Francisco) and a healthy Adam Wainwright (5.9 WAR in '10). Lance Berkman also looks to have found the Fountain of Youth in St. Louis and will be a more than serviceable replacement for Pujols if he stays healthy in '12.
2. Cincinnati Reds
Projected Record: 92 - 70, 2nd in the NL Central, Clinches Wild Card
While several teams in the Central have tried the addition by subtraction theory, Cincinnati has gone with the straight addition by addition theory.
Offense clearly isn't a problem for the Reds, as the only team to outscore them in the division was St. Louis. This makes dealing for Mat Latos the biggest splash in the pool for Cincinnati this off-season.
While it's bad business to overpay for saves, picking up a reliever who has struck out more than a batter an inning for the last three seasons on a one year deal will pay dividends if, for some reason, the Reds find themselves out of contention as the trade deadline approaches.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
Projected Record: 84 - 78
The Brewers have conducted the third type of baseball math that no fan really wants to experience: subtraction by subtraction. With Prince mashing homers in another zip code, Milwaukee has decided to enter the 2012 season with 26-year-old Mat Gamel taking over at first base.
Gamel raked in the Minors in '11 with a .912 OPS, so Milwaukee has a lot at stake hoping he can step in for Fielder. Between the loss of Fielder and the nearly inevitable suspension of Ryan Braun for 50 games, Milwaukee has quite a few obstacles to navigate if the look to repeat as the King of the Central.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
Projected Record: 74 - 88
It's going to pain Pirate fans to have to read this, but Pittsburgh is in the middle of rebuilding and is looking to build a core that will be able to compete in the near future. Sound familiar?
This time, however, there is more merit when GM Neal Huntington says things like that because he actually follows through with things that he says. Pittsburgh has finally adopted the small market approach to baseball, staying away from high profile, expensive "core" players like Derek Bell, Jeromy Burnitz and Pat Mears, and instead investing in players like Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Gerrit Cole in the Major League Baseball draft.
The free-agent signing of Erik Bedard could prove to be a steal at one year, $4.5 million if he can somehow stay healthy up until the trade deadline. While there will be several high points this season, like watching Andrew McCutchen gracefully roam the outfield, Pittsburgh is (seriously) still a year or two away from seriously contending for the Central crown.
5. Chicago Cubs
Projected Record: 68 - 94
Everyone knows that Theo Epstein is one of the hardest working front office employees in baseball. That's good, because the new president of baseball operations for the Cubs has his work cut out for him.
Epstein has stated that he wants to build the foundation not to compete for a year or two, but for the long-term. The Cubs needed to move perennial distraction Carlos Zambrano first and foremost, and ate the majority of his contract to do so, but they still have the albatross contracts of Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Dempster to solve before they can really start making headway on truly rebuilding.
6. Houston Astros
Projected Record: 58 - 104
The good news: the team leader in home runs, RBI, R, and OPS is returning to Houston in 2012. The bad news: that player is Carlos Lee and his respective numbers in each of those categories was 18. 94, 66, and .788. More good news: Houston won't have to worry about finishing last in the NL Central very much longer.