MLB Preview 2012: Predicting the National League Central Division
In 2011, it could be argued that the National League Central was the toughest division in the National League. The division boasted two playoff teams in the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals and also the World Series champions.
However, 2012 seems to be a year of turnover for the division. Two of the divisions best hitters have moved on to greener pastures with Prince Fielder signing with the Detroit Tigers and Albert Pujols signing with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Even the players in the division have a complete change of image as Ryan Braun is dealing with a positive drug test result from back in November.
There's been so much change in the NL Central, that one of the teams in the division is leaving the league all together in 2013.
The one thing to expect from the NL Central is a tight race. In it's last year of being the only six-team division in Major League Baseball, there are several teams who can take home the NL Central crown.
6. Houston Astros
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The biggest merchant of change in the NL Central is the Houston Astros. As mentioned on the last slide, the Astros will be playing their last season in the National League before making Bud Selig's realignment plan a reality in 2013.
It's gotten so crazy in Houston, that there is a possibility that this might be the last year of having the team being known as the Houston Astros.
However, change isn't limited to the front office in Houston. On the baseball diamond, the Astros are continuing their transition from the best years in franchise history that were lead by Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, to the current youth movement lead by Brett Wallace.
It's hard to put a finger on when the Astros can expect to return to their glory days, but they will at least have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Entry Draft.
The pick should give the Astros a building block for the future, but they'll need plenty more to move their way up the NL Central standings—or the AL West.
5. Chicago Cubs
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The Chicago Cubs are entering Year 104 of the Curse of the Billy Goat, so they decided to shake up their front office in hopes of finally winning a World Series championship. The Cubs hired Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox to be the new President of Baseball Operations.
His first two moves should be solid ones as he hired Jed Hoyer away from the San Diego Padres to become the new general manager and Dale Sveum from the rival Milwaukee Brewers as the new manager.
From there, the Cubs wheeled and dealt their way through the offseason, but not in the form of spending huge amounts of cash via free agency. Instead, the Cubs attempted to stockpile arms (Travis Wood, Chris Volstad) and prospects (Anthony Rizzo) in an attempt to build for the future.
The Cubs are in a situation where they have to sit and wait for the garbage from the old regime (Alfonso Soriano) to rot in order to build what Epstein hopes is a championship-caliber team.
While Epstein may have a plan to build the Cubs into World Series champions, the reality is that the process will take time and the Curse of the Billy Goat will continue for Year 105.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
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As some of you may know, my primary assignment for Bleacher Report is as a featured columnist for the Minnesota Twins. With that, I can honestly say that the Pittsburgh Pirates remind me of the Twins return to relevance after an abysmal stretch in the 1990s.
After the Twins World Series championship in 1991 (which ironically was the last time the Pirates posted a winning record), they tried to fill their many holes with free agent signings. For many years this didn't work until Terry Ryan came on board in 1996.
After several bad seasons in Minnesota, Ryan decided to deal a lot of his older veterans for young prospects in order to rebuild their farm system.
The results didn't show right away, but eventually those prospects became major league ballplayers, and the Twins returned to relevance in 2002 with their first American League Central championship.
The Pirates haven't been wheeling and dealing veterans left and right, but they've been able to stockpile talent via the draft in an attempt to build their farm system. After getting a whiff of the NL Central lead in August, it can be said that the Pirates are finally on the right track.
With prospects like Garrett Cole and Brad Lincoln on the horizon to join budding star Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates might have enough firepower to end their streak of 20 straight losing seasons.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
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The Brewers have seen significant turnover both on and off the field after being eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series in 2011.
The Brewers face of the franchise, Ryan Braun, won his first National League Most Valuable Player award in 2011, only to have a tainted by what he calls a drug test that was handled so badly it wound up with a positive result.
While Braun won't have to sit out the original 50-game ban handed down by Major League Baseball, there's still the issue that Braun will have to clean up his image. There is a possibility that Braun might press too hard in an effort to vindicate himself and drag the Brewers down in the process.
On the other hand, the Brewers lost Braun's protection in the lineup when Prince Fielder left for Detroit. The Brewers had performed admirably in free agency to try and replace Prince, but in reality Aramis Ramirez and Mat Gamel are not Prince Fielder.
There are also sudden issues on the pitching end as well for the Brewers. While the Crew didn't lose any significant pieces via free agency, they still have to worry about Zack Grienke and Shawn Marcum continuing their horrid performances down the stretch for Milwaukee last season.
There are a lot of question marks in Milwaukee, but if the Brewers can keep everything together they have a shot at exceeding expectations.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
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Even the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals couldn't avoid change last offseason. We all know the Cardinals biggest change was Albert Pujols shockingly leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles. With Pujols leaving, there is a giant hole in the Cardinals lineup.
The Cardinals are hoping they can catch lightning in a bottle twice with Lance Berkman. Berkman had an incredible season last year when most people thought his career was in the tank. Berkman will move to first base to replace Pujols, but the big question is whether he can replicate his 2011 success.
To also help ease the transition, the Cardinals added Carlos Beltran who also had a renaissance season of sorts with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants.
However, there are issues with the pitching now that Chris Carpenter has been battling a bulging disc in his neck that now will force him to miss Opening Day.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Cardinals will be Mike Matheny replacing Tony LaRussa as the team's manager. LaRussa was the one who deserved a lot of credit for making sure his team didn't quit toward the end of the season, as the Cardinals battled back to get in the playoffs and win the World Series.
It will be interesting to see how first-time manager Matheny handles these things as the Cardinals get set to defend their World Series championship.
1. Cincinnati Reds
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I mentioned earlier that the Pittsburgh Pirates reminded me of the Minnesota Twins from the 2000s. The Cincinnati Reds remind me of another team from another time that wasn't as long ago.
The Reds have turned into this year's version of the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers. Remember two offseasons ago when the Brewers made several high-profile moves and wound up winning the NL Central and making it to the National League Championship Series? That could be a path taken by the Reds in 2012.
The Reds went out and tried to fix several areas on what was a weak team in 2011. Their biggest weakness was their pitching staff, so they added several arms to help.
The biggest acquisition was Mat Latos, who was acquired for several top prospects in the Reds organization. The good news about the Latos trade was that the prospects they traded away (Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal) were both expendable due to the cornerstones at their positions (Joey Votto was at first base and Devin Mesoraco at catcher).
The move gives the Reds the ability to keep up with the toast of the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Reds also obtained a closer after Francisco Cordero struggled in 2011. It was a surprising move to see the Reds go get Ryan Madson from the Philadelphia Phillies and to sign him to just a one-year deal. Madson should be able to slam the door for the Reds, and at an affordable price to boot.
The Reds have a bunch of young talent and their offense has several pieces waiting to mash balls out of the hitters paradise known as Great American Ballpark.
With Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto entering the last year of their contracts, the Reds knew that they had to go for it. With as much change going on in the National League Central, they have a real shot to come out on top—just like the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers did.