I get to see a lot of the coverage on the NL Central on TV broadcasts during the season. I live in Indiana, and as you know, there is no Indiana team.
To combat this, the local channels will broadcast most Cubs games. Once you factor in that WGN is a superstation that is based in Chicago, one can be well-versed in all things NL Central.
With that, I know these teams a little more than someone who is just reading about them and seeing their highlights.
Last year, it basically broke down like this:
The Cubs had the most talent.
The Cardinals were the most disciplined and had the best leadership.
Milwaukee was on the verge of exploding offensively and was changed by the arrival of CC Sabathia.
Houston was the team that looks like nothing on paper, but they had this gritty fight-it-out quality and a knack for getting things done that kept them around.
Finally, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati had the future of their organizations hunkered in the minor leagues (at least for most of the season).
Milwaukee is the team that has all the pieces to be good, they just don’t have the experience.
This division is defined by star power, and especially young star power.
You have guys who have been around like Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, and Lance Berkman.
However, you also have the New Kids on the Block like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Edinson Volquez, Jay Bruce, Geovany Soto, and Joey Votto. These guys should bring the Central into a new era.
Let’s look at the Reds. I’m not sure there’s a team in more of a start-over mode than these guys. In the past year, they have let Ken Griffey and Adam Dunn go and have seen guys like Jay Bruce and Joey Votto emerge. Brandon Phillips has also blossomed into a star.
They’re headed in the right direction, that’s for certain, but when is it going to click?
Ramon Hernandez has been brought in, which should finally give the Reds stability at catcher after having juggernauts like Jason LaRue and Kelly Stinnett man the plate for years.
However, the key to this team is going to be the young guys.
Common sense would tell you that Bruce, Votto, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Micah Owings are going to continue to improve, and if that can be pulled off, the sky is the limit. I just don’t know when it’s going to happen.
My guess is that it’s going to be really ugly to start off this year and then it starts working late in the season when it can’t be salvaged and no one realizes that the Reds finally got good. Then next year, they’re going to come out of nowhere and surprise everyone. Well, at least some people.
Excitement is brewing in Chicago. The Cubs were good last year, and it looks like they got better over the offseason as well.
Jeff Samardzija came onto the scene late last year and has a chance to be a real good starter later in his career. For now though, will be a bullpen stopper, in the mold of David Price and Joba Chamberlain.
They also brought in Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman, and Luis Vizcaino to strengthen that bullpen after the “loss” of Kerry Wood.
Carlos Marmol steps into the closer spot and has a chance to be better than Wood. He kind of reminds me of the situation in Anaheim a few years back with K-Rod; a guy who was more talented than the guy ahead of him, but was blocked for a few years before getting the job and exploding. You watch.
The lineup is right up there with the Mets. Alfonso Soriano is fantastic, as is Aramis Ramirez. Derrek Lee is still pretty good and Geovany Soto broke out as one of the five best catchers in baseball.
The key might be Milton "My parents must have never played a board game” Bradley. He was great last year with Texas and no one doubts he has tons of ability. But he is more brittle than my grandfather on a cold day and now has to play in the field every day he is in the lineup. We will have to wait and see if he can stay healthy (not even considering the personality issues yet).
The bottom line is that the Cubs are the class of this division and have a real good chance to do some things this year. If Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden can stay healthy, especially Harden, this team can soar to new heights. If not, last year is going to look real similar.
Onto Enron Land. Talk about a team that stayed pat in the offseason. When Mike Hampton is your biggest acquisition, you know you didn’t move much.
Still, the ‘Stros have some good parts. Lance Berkman is great, Carlos Lee is a lock for 30 and 100, and Hunter Pence is a budding star that has finally gotten past his unrealistic expectations and now can move towards carving out a nice little career. You can’t forget about Roy Oswalt either.
The problem is that this version of the Astros reached their ceiling a few years back when they lost in the World Series.
If they want anything to happen, something fresh is going to have to be thrown in the kettle. When you have had the same guys around for years and years, it gets old. It gets boring. The chemistry starts to wane because you aren’t successful and nothing is changing. The Astros need some change.
Like I said before, Milwaukee is on the verge of exploding.
Ryan Braun is turning into a uber-star, all Prince Fielder does is hit homeruns and kill people on the basepaths, and if Yovani Gallardo can even live up to even a little of his hype, things will be looking good in Beer Town. You can’t forget about Corey Hart either. He’s a real talent that flies way under the radar.
I think the key for this team will be up the middle.
JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks set the table for this lineup. Weeks has been a major disappointment since he was picked second overall earlier this decade, and Hardy has been up and down the last few years. If they can get on base ahead of the big boppers, the runs are going to come in bunches. If they can’t, Braun and Co. are going to be real lonely.
Look for the Brewers to have some real offensive explosions, but to be let down at times by a weak rotation.
I’m sorry to say, Pittsburgh fans, football season is over. But maybe baseball season won’t be so bad either.
As bad as the Pirates have been, and they’ve been pretty horrendous, I think things are finally going to start getting better. This team is extremely young, and history has told us that abnormally young teams seem to get better over a period of time (think Tampa Bay).
It’s not just youth, there’s some real talent there too.
Nate McLouth had a great ’08 and is only 27, the magical year for hitters.
The starting rotation is all guys 25-and-under and has shown flashes. Between them, Tom Gorzelanny, Zack Duke and Ian Snell have all been good at certain points in their career, but never at the same time. If the two of them can hit, the Pirates might be onto something.
What about the St. Louis Pujols? They might be the most intriguing team to look at. From top to bottom, they’re real solid. They have great coaching and a great tradition with winning and their fans. Plus, they have Albert Pujols.
When you just think about the Cardinals, they can seem kind of boring.
Kyle Lohse? He wasn’t even a good Twin.
Joel Piniero? Pass.
Khalil Greene? Bust.
Brian Barden? Who?
Skip freaking Schumaker is starting at second? Good luck St. Louis.
But think about it for a second. Lohse was good last year and Piniero has had a passable career. Adam Wainwright has shown flashes of greatness in that Joba Chamberlain I-relieved-before-I-started-and-lit-it-up kind of way. Don’t sleep on the pitching staff.
The outfield is really intriguing. Between Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, and Colby Rasmus, a lot of things can happen. That’s going to be the key to this team.
The infield, outside of Pujols, is going to be underwhelming. That’s just the reality of the situation.
If Ludwick and Ankiel can stay consistent and if Rasmus can reach his potential, the Cardinals are going to come out of nowhere.
Plus they have Pujols.
Ok, here’s how I think things will shake out...
1. 1. Cubs
2. 2. Brewers
3. 3. Cardinals
And here’s the links to the three previous breakdowns...
Look for the two West division previews to come out over the next few days.