It's the end of March, and spring training games are getting more competitive.
Pitchers are pitching more innings, and players are starting to get back into the swing of playing major league baseball everyday.
The transition from spring training to the regular season is beginning to take place.
With that in mind, there have been numerous predictions, division breakdowns, rankings, and lists about who will win, lose, win awards, and so on.
Anyone can pick division winners and losers, but it's time to dig into each division beyond just the order in which teams will finish.
The NL Central has the best player in the National League in Albert Pujols, and maybe the best all-around team (on paper anyway) in the Chicago Cubs. But what about the rest of the division?
The All-NL Central Team
- 1B Albert Pujols, STL
- 2B Brandon Phillips, CIN
- 3B Aramis Ramirez, CHI
- SS JJ Hardy, MIL
- LF Ryan Braun, MIL
- CF Nate McLouth, PIT
- RF Ryan Ludwick, STL
- C Geovany Soto, CHI
- RHP Roy Oswalt, HOU
- LHP Paul Maholm, PIT
- RP Jose Valverde, HOU
Best Starting Rotation: Chicago Cubs
The Cubs have a well-balanced team, and the starting rotation isn't any different.
They have a bonafide ace in Carlos Zambrano, who could be the best pitcher in the league if he can stay under control, and the best No. 2 pitcher in Rich Harden.
Harden would be an ace on many teams, despite his health issues.
The rest of the rotation of Ryan Dempster, Sean Marshall, and Ted Lilly are all quality starters. There won't be an easy matchup for opponents any day of the season.
Honorable Mention: Cincinatti Reds.
Best Lineup: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers can flat out hit the baseball, which is good because they'll need to score plenty of runs now that they've lost both C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets.
Every guy in this lineup, with the exception of Jason Kendall, is capable of hitting 30 home runs. In fact, Milwaukee has had four guys in their lineup hit 30 homers in a season at least once.
Five guys hit 20 homers last season, not to mention that the heart of the orderRyan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart can rival any in the entire sport.
Honorable Mention: St. Louis Cardinals.
Best Bullpen: Chicago Cubs
Kerry Wood proved he has what it takes to be a very good closer in the majors last year, and there aren't many teams that could let Wood walk, and not miss a beat.
But the Cubs bullpen is stacked. Energetic set-up man Carlos Mormol will take his electric stuff into the eighth inning before reliable Kevin Gregg, who saved 29 games for the Marlins in 2008, takes over in the ninth.
And let's not forget Jeff Samardija, who not only is a flame thrower, but also might be the best wide reciever in Chicago.
Honorable Mention: Houston Astros.
Best Hitter: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
What can be said about Albert Pujols that hasn't already been said?
He's a triple crown waiting to happen, and it seems the only thing that can slow Pujols down is injury. He's not only the best hitter in this divisionand it's not even close he rivals Stan Musial as the best in the Cardinals franchise history.
That's elite company.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers.
Best All-Around Player: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals
As good as Pujols is on offense, he's almost as good on defense.
He's won a Gold Glove award at first base in 2006, but he has been a very good defensive player at four different positions, including left field, right field, third base, and first base.
Sure, he's not exactly fleet of foot, but he's so good at everything else that it doesn't really matter.
Honorable Mention: Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh Pirates.
Best Starting Pitcher: Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros
Roy Oswalt is underrated, period.
He's as good as it gets, yet he doesn't receive the credit many other lesser pitchers receive.
In his eight seasons in the majors, Oswalt has pitched at least 200 innings six times, and has had an ERA under 3.00 four times. Not to mention, all the guy does is win ball games.
He has posted double-digit win totals in every season he's pitched, winning 20 games twice, and has never posted a loosing record.
In his career, Oswalt is 129-64that's a .668 winning percentage, third among active pitchers behind Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana.
Honorable Mention: Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs.
Best Closer: Jose Valverde, Houston Astros
He's a wacky guy, but it's the perfect mentality for a closer.
After coming over from the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to last season, Valverde had a great year, leading the National League in saves with 44.
The Astros' pieced-together bullpen, as a whole, was far better than most thought it would be, and Valverde was a huge part of that.
Honorable Mention: Matt Capps, Pittsburgh Pirates.
Best Rookie: Chris Dickerson, Cincinatti Reds
Dickerson put up decent numbers in Triple-A last year, batting .287 with 11 homers, 53 RBI, and 26 steals. But he really shined as a September call-up with the big club.
He hit .304 with six homers, 20 runs scored, 15 RBI, and five steals in 31 games played. He has all the makings of a five-tool outfielder, even proving to be a better defensive player than expected.
If Dickerson can improve his plate discipline (0.53 BB/K ratio), and learn to hit left-handed pitching better, he should stick around for the entire season.
Honorable Mention: Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals.
Most Underrated Player: Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals
When Lohse was on the free agent market last offseason, he had a few lookers, but no takers.
Lohse, still only 30 at the time, had gotten the label of "journeyman" pitcher, and no teams were looking at him as a top-tier starter.
He finally signed with the Cardinals last March, a month after pitchers had reported to spring training.
It proved to be a smart move by the Cards, as Lohse would win a career best 15 games, pitch 200 innings, and post a sub-4.00 ERA for the first time in his eight-year big league career.
Lohse made many teams regret passing him up last season, while making the St. Louis brass look like geniuses.
Most Overrated Player: Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs
I know this guy puts up numbers, but Soriano may be the Stephon Marbury of baseball: his numbers are better than he actually is.
Soriano is a classic fastball hitter, and few spots in the order see more fastballs than leadoff. He gets away with batting there because of his speed, but as his speed fades, he'll probably move down in the order.
There is already talk of that happening this season.
For his career, Soriano has batted .293 in the leadoff spot. He's batted .260, .195, and .268 in the three, four, and five spots respectively.
Add to that the fact that he's a terrible defensive player, and has been injury-prone the past few seasons, and you have a guy who's not worth $100 million.
And The Winner Is: Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are the most well-rounded team in the division, if not the whole league. They have great starting pitching, a very good bullpen, and a great lineup.
But there is that curse.
Still, the Cubs will be good enough to win the division again, but after that, it's anyone's guess.
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