No Pujols or LaRussa, Theo Epstein trades one major city for the other, and Ryan Braun breaks the hearts of every little Hulkamaniac around the world. A lot went on this offseason in the AL Central, but where is the division headed?
Houston Astros: 6th Place
Ugh, do I really have to write about these guys, or can I short-cut it like I did the Mariners? Curses, I can't even find a player to get excited about.
JD Martinez. JD Martinez. JD Martinez...
No, that's preposterous. Just because you're decent on an incapable team doesn't all of the sudden make you good.
Umm, Jordan Schafer. Jordan Schafer. Saying it over and over again doesn't make things easier, sort of like drinking ipecac over and over again doesn't make it taste good—no matter how many times you try it you're still going to puke. Don't try that on your own. Simply reading through the Astros' roster will suffice for your vomitary needs. Trust me.
Chicago Cubs: 5th Place
Epstein is in town, as is his apparently adopted son Anthony Rizzo. Seriously, does anyone get the feeling that Epstein was secretly an army vet and overseas he served with Rizzo's father, only to promise him that if he ever made it back he would do whatever it took to make sure his son succeeded? The guy is obsessed with Rizzo. It's unhealthy.
Despite retaining his prized draft-day prospect, Epstein still has a lot of work to do with this organization. Long gone are the days of Wood and Pryor (oh wait, Wood is back with meager hopes of retiring where he started like he's some 3D version of Star Wars or Titanic), leaving a pitching staff without a real blue-chip to call their own. Starlin Castro looks to be on the rise, but the outfield of Soriano, Dejesus, and Marlon Byrd may as well visit casting calls for the sequel to Gone Fishin'. And apparently Bryan LaHair is simply keeping the seat warm until Godfather Epstein bestows the honor upon his test-tube baby Rizzo.
The only bright spot on the staff, Matt Garza, doesn't even seem to be on Epstein's good side as he was involved in every trade rumor since the former Red Sox GM took over. Send him over to the Motor City, Theo, we'll take him as long as you're fire-saling.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 4th Place
One of last season's feel-good stories until the midway point, after which they completely OD'd on their life-high and fell flat on their faces. They're probably a sexy pick with some critics, but the problem is that they didn't get any better in the offseason.
Again, they will be dependent upon Pedro Alvarez to start producing, and players like Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata to provide some sort of lineup support to budding All-Star Andrew McCutchen. That's way too much uncertainty.
They added Erik Bedard to the rotation, but he's basically the villain from Unbreakable minus the crazy haircut and wheelchair. The unfortunate thing about this is that Bedard remains the brightest piece of the rotation despite his Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which is a condemnation of management more than anything.
They were entertaining last season, but in terms of sequels, they're more Dumb and Dumberer than Godfather: Part II.
St. Louis Cardinals: 3rd Place
I'll be the first to say it: The Cardinals will miss Tony LaRussa more so than Albert Pujols. If LaRussa were still managing this team then I probably would've picked them to win the division. They do have some good pieces remaining—Berkman may continue his Mickey Rourke story-arc, Carlos Beltran is on-board, Matt Holliday is a professional-hitter, and youngsters David Freese and Allen Craig (once off the DL) look ready to contribute. But without stellar performances from both Wainwright and Carpenter, St. Louis will have trouble staying relevant.
Minus LaRussa, I have a hard time seeing this team overachieving, as they did last season. I mean, look at what happened to Road House 2 without Patrick Swayze. First off, you don't replace Patrick Swayze without getting a restraining order first. Second, to replace him with Jonathan Schaech was just downright insulting. In the grander scheme of things, the script must not have grabbed Swayze's attention, and the same can be said here about LaRussa as he walked out the door, thinking to himself, "There's always barber college".
Cincinnati Reds: 2nd Place
Joey Votto is on board long-term, which is great news for every Reds fan. He, alongside Jay Bruce, head a lineup of good complimentary bats and budding prospects. Devin Mesoraco got a cup of coffee in the big leagues last season but should be primed to shoulder most of the catching duties this season. Drew Stubbs is potentially a 30-30 guy, and Brandon Phillips provides much-needed veteran leadership to an otherwise young team.
The big addition was Mat Latos. Unfortunately, he'll begin the season battling injury and a lot of pressure will be on Opening Day starter Johnny Cueto to perform. Cueto, who surprised with a phenomenal season last year, should pair with Latos to rival Milwaukee as the best top of the rotation duo in the division—when healthy.
What may decide whether Cincinnati can battle with the Brewers for the division title is whether Homer Bailey ever validates his first-round draft status or continues on the path of mediocrity. Aroldis Chapman, despite a thunderous left arm, has been rather uninspiring since his transfer from the Dominican Republic, and if the Reds are to take the next step he will need to become an elite eighth inning commodity.
Milwaukee Brewers: 1st Place
The Brew-Crew needed Braun back more desperately than the Hoosiers needed Jimmy. Though I doubt Ron Roenicke shot hoops with Braun and his ridiculously deflated basketball, I wouldn't be surprised if Milwaukee went to great lengths to ensure Braun's innocence. I'm sure someone in the league office had a first-born to kidnap and hold for ransom, right?
How much will Milwaukee miss Prince Fielder? Will Braun receive the Miguel Cabrera treatment now and simply be intentionally walked in most big situations? Aramis Ramirez should be adequate enough to provide moderate protection, but don't expect another MVP season from Braun.
The strength of this team, and what I like most about them, is the pitching, most notably Zach Greinke. Greinke really found his stride in Milwaukee towards the end of the season, posting ERAs of 2.27, 3.02, and 3.00 in the final three months. Don't forget, he was a Cy Young winner in Kansas City, so he has an Ace's arsenal. Now more comfortable with his new team I expect a complete season from a vintage Greinke.
Behind him, Gallardo and Marcum provide a lot of insurance. Gallardo has had a sub-4.00 ERA every year in the majors, and Marcum adjusted very well last season coming over from Toronto. With John Axford locking down the ninth innings look for Milwaukee to be atop the NL in most pitching categories.