In 2009, the National League Central is most likely going to be a division with one great team, and a mix of a couple of solid teams that will compete and a couple teams that will struggle.
Without any further ado, I present to you reasons why each of the six teams will and will not win the NL Central in '09.
Houston Astros - Houston made no big moves in the offseason and should have a similar look in 2009 as they did in 2008.
Why they will win the Central: Playing in one of the most home-run-friendly ballparks in the big leagues, the Astros offense should not cause them to many problems this year. Sluggers Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada will all be counted on to drive in close to 100 runs.
Hunter Pence and addition Michael Bourn will provide the speed at the top of the order. If Houston wants any shot at winning this division, their starting pitchers not named Roy Oswalt will have to step up in a big way.
Why they won't win the Central: Beyond the dominant Roy Oswalt, and emotional closer Jose Valverde, Houston has very little in the pitching department. Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Brian Moehler, and the constantly injured Mike Hampton can not be counted on to win consistently.
If possible, their bullpen will struggle even more than their starters, giving Houston fans very little reason to cheer when summer comes around.
Pittsburgh Pirates - The Pirates in 2009 will be one of the youngest teams in baseball. They are loaded with young players that have potential, but none seem to be superstars in the making.
Why they will win the Central: The Pittsburgh Pirates will not win the NL Central in 2009. It's just not going to happen. They have some nice young players on offense and some decent young talent in their rotation. Nonetheless, this team will be fighting to not finish at the bottom of the division.
Why they won't win the Central: Inexperience. The Pirates truly have a great deal of potential up and down the lineup, but unfortunately potential doesn't get you where you want to very often. They do not have enough talent right now to compete for a division title.
If they continue to develop their young players, they have a chance in the coming years to be competitive. But for now, it appears the Pirates may extend their record of consecutive losing season to 17.
Chicago Cubs- This team has the potential to be scary good. When healthy they have the best 1-2 punch in the NL and maybe all of baseball. Their offense will continue to be one of the best in the league. All that is left for this team is to get past the first round of the playoffs and see what they can do.
Why they will win the Central: Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Geovany Soto and the addition of Milton Bradley in the outfield makes this one of the most potent offenses in baseball. This team will not have a problem scoring runs.
Zambrano and Harden should continue to make hitters look silly, assuming they can stay healthy. Dempster and Lilly are two of the better third and fourth starters in baseball, and Sean Marshall is a respectable fifth starter.
Why they won't win the Central: The Cubs shouldn't have a problem winning this division in 2009. If they do, it will likely come down to a couple of different things. First, the healthy of Carlos Zambrano, but most of all the health of Rich Harden. If one or both of these guys go down for any extended amount of time, they could make this division a close race.
Secondly, their bullpen could give them problems. Filled with solid veterans, and a flame-throwing youngster Jeff Samardzija, the Cubs bullpen could be a strength. It is however the most likely area of the ball club to go through extended slumps, and that could open the door for some other team to sneak into the playoffs.
Cincinnati Reds- The reds made quite a few moves in the offseason, but nothing that made them serious contenders. Griffey and Ryan Freel are out, Jonny Gomes, Willy Taveras and Ramon Hernandez are in.
Why they will win the Central: The Cincinnati Reds are very similar to the Pirates. Both have lots of young talent, and both have no shot at winning a division title in 2009.
I don't want to put down the Reds, because they should have a better season than the Pirates, and maybe even be competitive in the division for about half the season, however there just isn't enough talent on this team to make them a contender. But for the 11 Reds fans that may read this, I'll give you some hope.
If in 2009, the Reds want to become the Tampa Bay Rays of 2008, Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo and young stud Edinson Volquez will all need to win between 15 and 18 games, and Micah Owings will need to become a position player so he can get enough at-bats to hit 25 home runs.
If all of that happens, I'll give Cincy a small chance at a division title.
Why they won't win the Central: Their bullpen could be one of the worst in all of baseball. Francisco Cordero is reliable as the closer, but in order for him to be effective, the Reds will have to get the lead, and keep it going into the ninth inning. Also, if the starting pitching outside of Volquez struggles like last season, it will be another painful season for Cincy fans.
St. Louis Cardinals- Other than adding Gold Glove-caliber shortstop Khalil Greene, the Cardinals made no moves in the offseason worth noting. Star Albert Pujols made a push for the team to sign Manny Ramirez, but it looks like that won't happen. The Cardinals were a nice surprise in 2008 but ended up not having quite enough to finish the season strong.
Why they will win the Central: I picked this team to come in last or second to last in their division last year, and up until the last month or so of the season, they were competing for the division. Once again I see nothing that convinces me that they have enough talent to win the division.
However, under manager Tony La Russa, anything is possible. If this team has any desire to play in October, it's going to come down to their young hitters being more consistent and their starting pitchers getting batters out.
We all know what Pujols will contribute, the question is can their young talented outfield of Skip Schumaker, 2008 All Star Ryan Ludwick, and erratic-pitcher-turned-power hitter Rick Ankiel, improve upon their impressive numbers from the previous season.
Why they won't win the Central: Their starting rotation is compiled of perhaps five of the most average pitchers in baseball. None of them are dominant in anyway, and all have had problems of getting batters out.
The possible return from injury of Chris Carpenter would be a huge boost to this staff, but nonetheless the Cardinals pitching staff as a whole could struggle for much of 2009.
Milwaukee Brewers -The Brewers offseason will be remembered much more so for who they were unable to keep, rather than who they were able to bring in. Losing C.C. Sabathia, arguably the best pitcher in 2008 to the Yankees, Milwaukee will also be without Ben Sheets, as he underwent surgery to his elbow.
The Brew Crew was able to bring in future Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman to hopefully help their bullpen.
Why they will win the Central: This team has a very good offense, bolstered by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. That offense will have to be productive all season, and starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo will have to stay healthy and return to his impressive form from 2007 if this team has any aspirations of playing meaningful baseball in September.
Why they won't win the Central: Behind Gallardo in the rotation, Milwaukee leaves a lot to be desired. Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra and Braden Looper are a bunch of average pitchers that won't overpower anybody. This team's offense is going to have to carry them, or they will once again be a middle of the pack team.
Lastly, I leave you with my prediction of the final standings for the NL Central in 2009.
1. Chicago Cubs
3. St. Louis
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