I took a look at the NL East last time, now it’s time to take a look at a much weaker NL Central. Not quite as much parity in this division, but considering there are six teams, there could be some surprise finishes.
Now, I’m a Pirates fan, so lets hope they can weasel their way into a top three spot for the first time in ages. And as I stated before in part one, I think the Mets will win the Wild Card, and if they don’t it will be the Phillies, leaving only one playoff spot for the six teams in the Central.
Who will emerge as the NL Central champion?
Winners of the division last year, they boast a just as good if not a better lineup and starting rotation than last year. The bullpen is solid with Chad Gaudin, Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol (possibly the best setup man in the game).
The rotation also has immense amounts of potential, and if they fail to be superb, they will be average at worse. Big Z, Carlos Zambrano will be the opening day starter. He will be followed by an ace in the making in Ryan Dempster, a consistent pitcher in Ted Lilly, and a former ace in Rich Harden.
In a seven game series, if Harden is healthy this would be a deadly rotation to face. Sean Marshall is no pushover as the fifth starter either.
The lineup is just as good as last year. Soto, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Kosuke Fukudome bring speed and power back this year. Fukudome is the biggest question mark, but with the addition of an inconsistent Milton Bradley (no not the board game, the hot head), Fukudome is their sixth best hitter. Not much to worry about there.
If Harden and Bradley can stay healthy, there is no stopping this club from breaking the longest World Series drought in baseball history.
This team finished second to last in the standing last year, only in front of the abysmal Pittsburgh Pirates. They lost a power bat in Adam Dunn this offseason as well. Can they improve?
I think they will be a little bit on the decline, but not by much. Their rotation has potential to win some games without offense—and their offense has potential to win some games without pitching, but I don’t see the two clicking together into a playoff contender.
The pitching is young, very young with Harang leading second year guys Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. Bronson Arroyo, Micah Owings, and Homer Bailey are all also young and can be studs, but mostly likely won’t. Arroyo has seen that boat sail, and Bailey still has a year or two before he matures. Same can be said about Cueto and his inconsistencies.
The bullpen is weak with Fransisco Cordero as the closer. The lineup, like the pitching staff is young, but has potential. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips can be the best at their positions, but the team around them is a bunch of question marks. Willy Taveras, Juan Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, and Ramon Hernandez bring some pop to the lineup, but their averages are nothing to look at twice.
The fact that Ivan 'Pudge' Rodriguez is the backstop for this team is telling. I can see this team slipping from their third place finish last year. Their whole team is full of aging former all-stars. We should see dips in production across the board.
Roy Oswalt is their only legitimate pitcher, unless you count Wandy Rodriguez—who only seems effective at home. Jose Valverde is the closer—their bullpen has no depth beyond that. Their lineup is full of players that have done it before, but are now on the way down.
'Pudge' Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada are way past their primes and are part of the steroid scandals. Berkman is a beast, but he’s not getting any younger either. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are young, but have been on and off. Carlos Lee is their only staple and even he saw a bit of a drop off last year.
Behind the arms of Sabathia and Sheets the Brewers were last year’s NL wild card. They will contend again, but this time the bats will have to pick up some of that slack as they lose two of their aces. They seem to be in the same boat as the Reds at this point, both will battle for positioning for a wild card.
The all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman is the anchor of the bullpen. And really the only threat from the starting rotation is Yovani Gallardo, who I think will put up great numbers.
Most of the lineup is back, with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun leading the charge. Jason Kendall, Ricky Weeks, JJ Hardy, Bill Hall, Mike Cameron, and Corey Hart make this a decent lineup in the central. But someone remind me why this team is carrying four catchers again?
Ah, my favorite team. I miss those days of Barry Bonds (the skinny version), Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke. Well, back to reality.
Last place last year, and not looking much better this year. Although, their AAA outfielders might be the best out there.
The Bucs' pen is one that won’t falter, when they get the opportunity that is. Tyler Yates and John Grabow will lead into the ninth where Matt Capps should be one of the best closers again this year.
The rotation is full of talent, but just like the other rotations mentioned so far (minus the Cubbies), it is full of questions. Paul Malholm is solid, followed by potential ace Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Russ Ohlendorf, Dumatrait, and/or Jeff Karstens.
The lineup is weak once again. Ryan Doumit at catcher and NAte McClouth in the outfield are studs. We’re still awaiting the debut of Andrew McCutchen from AAA to round out the outfield with McClouth and Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce waiting in the wings. This should be one of the best outfields in the near future in the NL.
Aside from that, Freddy Sanchez brings consistency and leadership, while Andy LaRoche is a stud in the making. Unfortunately, this lineup is set to do well in 2011 or 2012, not now. Eric Hinske is also a sleeper as he produced Jay Bruce like numbers last year, but is obviously not as reliable and will have to pass Nyjer Morgan in the left field depth chart.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals contended with the bats of the Astros, and the star studded teams of the Brew crew and Cubbies last year, all without their ace Chris Carpenter. They did it with grit—the same grit that won them a recent World Series. They look for players with heart like Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein. How much heart do they have this year?
When I think heart, I think Rick Ankiel. When I think MVP, I think Albert Pujols. These two will lead a lineup that consists of Ryan Ludwick, Yadier Molina, Khalil Greene, Troy Glaus, and the very underrated Skip Schumaker. In fact, this whole team may be underrated, and underestimated until September.
The Cards' also get their ace back in Chris Carpenter (who I hate so much), while keeping an ace in the making in Adam Wainwright. Todd Wellemeyer also has the potential to be an ace. Kyle Lohse and Joel Pineiro round out a very dangerous rotation that could contend with the Cubs.
While the Cardinals can contend with the Cubs and will keep it very close, the difference top to bottom in the lineups tells me that Cubs will repeat. The Cardinals will also contend with the Mets and Phillies for the wild card, and if I had to pick a team to pass one of the powerhouses, I would go with St. Louis. Unfortunately, I think they will come up just short.
As for the Brewers and Reds, they lack a few things. The Brewers lack a legit pitching staff, and the Reds need more experience.
This will have them a few games back of the Cards, each contending for third place right around .500. The Pirates will improve but still haven’t caught up with the rest of the division. And the Astros, well, like their ‘studs’ they’re on the way down.