Here are my NL Central predictions for 2009. Remember, it's all my opinion.
1. Chicago Cubs (95-67)
The Cubs, for the third year in a row, should finish tops in the division once again. This is probably the only division where there's a clear consensus among most people. Top to bottom, the Cubs are the most talented team here. They've got the offense, pitching, and defense.
Of course, like many teams, they have questions in all those areas (especially the bullpen), but overall, they are a solid team that will likely have the best record in the NL once again. The big question with them as always will be the postseason, but that's an issue for another time.
2. St. Louis Cardinals (85-77)
The Cardinals are going to be much improved in 2009, and are going to be in the race until the end and play spoiler for the top teams. They have Wainwright for the full season, and Carpenter is looking really good, so their rotation should be solid.
Their offense will be good as well. I'm a bigger believer in Ludwick than most. He won't be near last season's numbers, but I can still see him being a well-above-average offensive outfielder for them.
They have too many problems in other areas for me to put them over the top, though. Second and short continue to be problem areas for them, but now third has also become a problem, with Glaus being out for the first couple months. They're looking at David Freese to replace him during that time.
The bullpen will likely continue to be a huge problem for them, as they still don't have that situation sorted out. If Chris Perez gets the job, he should be fine. He's one of my favorite prospects. But he's also injured right now, and would most likely struggle at times. If Jason Motte is put into that role, then watch out, as his whole "not having anything other than a fastball" problem would become evident.
Their middle relief is a mess too. Ryan Franklin is probably the only solid reliever there. Overall, the Cards should be a good team and better than some people might expect, but they just don't have the pieces to put it all together.
3. Cincinnati Reds (83-79)
The Reds were one of the teams I covered in my "Breakout Teams" series, and although they won't be one of the top two teams, they'll still be significantly better than they were last season, and will hurt a lot of teams vying for postseason spots.
Their rotation will be better than expected, with Harang and Cueto both improving, in addition to Volquez at the top. Their lineup definitely has some question marks, but it should be pretty potent with Phillips bouncing back, Votto performing even better than he did last season, Bruce breaking out, and Encarnacion once again being a nice bat at third.
Although I'm usually pretty harsh on Wily Taveras, he's still a great source of speed when he does get on, and he provides solid defense in center. Ramon Hernandez also figures to have an impact offensively, as he moves to The Great American Launching Pad (props to Matthew Berry for that one).
Their bullpen has some sore spots, but Burton, Weathers, and Cordero should be a nice trio of relievers. Losing Affeldt will hurt, though. The Reds have too many holes to seriously compete, but they will greatly improve and could be contenders in 2010.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (78-84)
The Brewers knew what they were getting themselves into when they traded for CC Sabathia. They were mortgaging everything for a chance to win then. That didn't happen, though, and with him and Ben Sheets now gone, the Brewers figure to drop off greatly from where the were last year.
Their rotation, aside from Yovani Gallardo, is filled with 4/5 starters, their bullpen is pretty much awful outside of Villanueva, and their offense is average at best. They've got Braun and Fielder (who is horrendously underrated), but everyone else is either average or below average, though I could be underrating JJ Hardy.
All in all, the Brewers are in position to have a very disappointing season in 2009, but could return to contention in 2010 when guys like Gamel, Salome, and Escobar come up and guys like Gallardo and Parra have improved. 2009 just isn't their year, though.
5. Houston Astros (73-87)
The Astros actually made a nice run toward the postseason toward the end of last season, though they shouldn't expect they same this season. They're a mediocre ballclub. The offense is all right, with Berkman, Lee, and Pence, but the pitching and defense is horrendous.
Their starting pitching is sad (aside from Oswalt, and maybe Wandy), and their 'pen is atrocious. The 'Stros have too many mediocre players to contend this year, and unfortunately for them, their farm system is just as bad (worst in the league, actually), so the future isn't too bright either. This is a bad ballclub that's heading in the wrong direction.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (67-95)
I feel bad for these guys. They have such poor management and once again are going to finish in the cellar. They really are the laughingstock of the league. Everything about this team outside of McLouth, Capps, Grabow, Doumit, and Maholm (and maybe Andy Laroche, who I think could have a breakout season) is poor.
The Pirates haven't done anything to get better, and I don't know how they expect to be competitive by continuing to field such awful teams. Unlike the Astros, though, they seem to be going in the right direction, as they have a number of offensive prospects and a couple pitching prospects that will help the team improve within a couple years.
As of now, though, they will continue to be one of the worst teams in the league.
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