The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers ended the MLB season with a bang in 2011. The Brewers won the division while the Cardinals went on to win the World Series.
Things have changed since then.
With the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, as well as the additions of Mat Latos, Carlos Beltran, and Aramis Ramirez, the NL Central will sport a new look in 2012. As expected, the changes came and the questions followed. Can the Brewers and Cardinals persevere despite their off-season losses? Will the Reds be able to bounce back from a disappointing 2011? Which team will surprise in 2012?
Coming off a disastrous 56 - 106 season in 2011, the Astros made it clear they were committed to the rebuilding process, trading away their premier talents in Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. Yes, the Astros still have Carlos Lee, but his big numbers have diminished over the past two years and his career is clearly nearing its end. The Astros are deficient in big-league ready talent, a big bat in the middle of their lineup, and everything else needed to win in the MLB. The highlight of the season won't be a World Series title, but the rights to the number one overall pick in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft.
Worst Case: 51 - 111
Best Case: 66 - 96
Breakout Player: Brett Wallace
On paper, the Cubs don't look too bad. During the off-season, they added Ian Stewart and David DeJesus along with pitchers, Chris Volstad and Paul Maholm. One thing that the Cubs are lacking is elite talent. Their lineup and rotation has plenty of above average players, but at no position are the Cubs great. The Cubs don't have a dominant ace to lead their rotation. Matt Garza occasionally displays dominance in outings but he is not consistent enough to be a dependable number one.
Same goes for the lineup. The Cubs are missing a big run-producing bat in the middle of their lineup. Alfonso Soriano is no longer the feared hitter he once was. Starlin Castro could establish himself as a great hitter this year but he doesn't have the power that a team prefers to have at the three-hole.
A winning record isn't out of the question for the Cubbies this year but the playoffs are. Don't expect the Cub's 103-year-old curse to expire in 2012.
Worst Case: 72 - 90
Best Case: 83 - 81
Breakout Player: Ian Stewart
On July 19, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 51 - 44 and sitting pretty in first place. Many began to speculate that this was the start of a new era for the franchise. Sorry Pittsburgh, the Pirates concluded the season with a 72 - 90 record, marking their 19th consecutive losing season.
Do the Pirates have what it takes to win in 2012?
Their chances are as good as they've ever been. GM, Neal Huntington made it clear that he wanted to strengthen the top of the rotation, and he did by adding veterans, A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard.
Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker will continue to be productive in 2012, but the fate of the Pirates lies in the hands of two young bats. Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez have star potential. In 2011, Tabata showed flashes of excellence while Alvarez struggled from start to finish (.191 average in 2011). If Tabata and Alvarez are able to unlock their potential and provide Pittsburgh with regular production in 2012, look for the 19-year-old losing streak to end in 2012.
Worst Case: 77 - 85
Best Case: 84 - 78
Breakout Player: Jose Tabata
The Brewers had a successful season in 2011, taking the NL Central title before being eliminated in the playoffs by the St. Louis Cardinals. But the story this off-season was the loss of All-star first baseman, Prince Fielder. Fielder signed a 9-year $214 million contract with Detroit Tigers after finishing 3rd in the NL MVP voting in 2011.
The Brewers may have lost Fielder but they still have a team that is capable of returning to the playoffs in 2012. Ryan Braun had his 50-game PED suspension overturned and won't miss a beat this season and Milwaukee did manage to acquire Aramis Ramirez via free agency, who should put up solid numbers in 2012 despite turning 34 in June.
Pitching shouldn't be a concern for the Brew Crew. Greinke, Gallardo, and Marcum provide the Brewers with a strong top-end of the rotation, while John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez provide the team with two elite options out of the bullpen.
It will be interesting to see how the Brewers handle the 2012 season with the absence of Prince Fielder. Ryan Braun will still put up the big numbers but will Aramis Ramirez be able make up for some of the production Milwaukee lost with Prince Fielder?
Worst Case: 81 - 81
Best Case: 91 - 71
Breakout Player: Johnathan Lucroy
St. Louis Cardinals
Prince Albert has left his kingdom in St. Louis after averaging over 40 home runs through 11 outstanding seasons. The three-time MVP signed an absurd 10 year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels during the off-season. There is not a player in the league that is as consistent and skilled as Pujols is at the plate, but the Cardinals did add Carlos Beltran to the lineup in attempt to mend the wounds left from Pujols' departure.
SP, Adam Wainwright missed all of the 2011 season while he recovered from Tommy John surgery, but will be back in the rotation in 2012. The Cardinals desperately need Wainwright to return to his dominant 2010 form in order to contend in the NL Central this year.
The defending World Series champs have the talent to return to the playoffs but questions remain on whether or not the team can remain healthy. Lance Berkman is 36 and Chris Carpenter will turn 37 in April. Will these two decline in 2012? If not, will their body's allow them to play a full season? Furthermore, Rafael Furcal has been plagued with injuries for the past two seasons and Carlos Beltran has averaged a meager 96 games played over the last three seasons. The Cardinals have a legitimate shot at the playoffs in 2012 as long as they stay healthy.
Worst Case: 82 - 80
Best Case: 92 - 70
Breakout Player: Jon Jay
GM, Walt Jocketty, and the Cincinnati Reds remained active during the off-season, acquiring pitchers, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall, Ryan Madson, and outfielder Ryan Ludwick. Latos is 6' 6" and has a fastball that has touched 99 mph on the gun. Over the last two seasons, Latos has compiled a 3.21 ERA in 379 innings and has all the ingredients to become an elite pitcher in the MLB. Cueto and Latos will provide the Reds with a solid one-two punch at the top of their rotation for 2012.
Last season, the Reds' lineup virtually received no production from their left field and shortstop positions (left fielder Jonny Gomes hit .211; shortstop Paul Janish hit .214). This could change in 2012 with the help of shortstop, Zack Cozart, and left fielder, Ryan Ludwick. Cozart hit .324 with 2 home runs in his first 11 games in the big leagues in 2011 before being sent to the DL with a hyperextended elbow. Cozart should provide the Reds with an upgrade in production at shortstop in 2012.
The Reds also signed veteran outfielder, Ryan Ludwick to a one-year deal. Ludwick struggled at the plate the past two seasons but has been offered an opportunity to turn things around in Cincinnati's hitter-friendly ball park.
With the additions of Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson, the Reds bullpen worries have been solved but questions still remain with the rotation. Homer Bailey exhibited flashes of dominance in 2011 but was on and off the DL all year with shoulder problems. Bronson Arroyo is coming off of a horrific season in 2011 in which he gave up a record 46 home runs. The Reds will need steady production from Bailey and Arroyo in order to have a shot at taking the NL Central in 2012.
Worst Case: 82 - 80
Best Case: 96 - 66
Breakout Player: Mike Leake