Originally published at TwinsTarget.com.
Historically, the National League Central has been filled with some of the best and worst teams in baseball.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros have been the two most consistent teams in the division this past decade, with the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers always in the mix. The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates have had very little success, though the Reds have managed two third-place finishes this decade.
The past few years, though, the division title has been fought over by the Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers, with St. Louis managing six titles in the past 10 years, three others going to the Cubs, and one to the Astros. This year, Houston is a mess, but the Brewers and Cubs appear ready for a fight.
Here's how I see the NL Central playing out in 2010.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)
The Cardinals made a statement to the rest of the division last year by going after left fielder Matt Holliday. St. Louis made it clear to both the Cubs and Brewers that they intended to not only run away with the division but enjoy a long postseason run, as well.
They did run away with the division, but they were eliminated shortly thereafter in the playoffs. For a team like the Cardinals that builds around two or three outstanding players, the proverbial “window of opportunity” is very short.
Albert Pujols is still in the prime of his career and shows no signs of slowing down, but there's no telling when either of St. Louis' premier starting pitchers—Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter—will lose their edge.
Without the contributions of these three, St. Louis won't have a chance at a World Series title. But that's not to say the Cardinals aren't capable of bringing on additional talent. By re-signing Holliday and acquiring Brad Penny this offseason, the Cardinals are acknowledging their small window and plan to win now.
St. Louis' main problem for the past few years has been the infield. The Cards converted Skip Schumaker to second base last year, and even though the former outfielder doesn't boast the best defense, he provides above-average offense at a key position while giving manager Tony LaRussa a late-inning defensive replacement for the outfield.
Brendan Ryan gave the Cardinals a pleasant surprise last year by providing outstanding defense at shortstop while putting up an OPS of 740. Entering his age-28 season, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to repeat that performance.
At third, where the Cardinals relied on Mark DeRosa last year, they will probably wind up giving the nod to rookie David Freese, who won't turn many heads.
If the Cardinals can manage to help Pujols and Holliday score some runs, and if they can clinch the division early enough to get their Carpenter/Wainwright/Penny postseason rotation set up, they could be a legitimate World Series threat.
2. Chicago Cubs (85-77)
With injuries and incompetence spoiling the 2009 season, the Cubs have even less time to win with their veteran core of talent. Aramis Ramirez is entering his age-32 season, while Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Ted Lilly are both within sight of 35.
Despite having added another year onto an aging rotation, the Cubs still have one of the best starting four in the league in Carlos Zambrano/Lilly/Ryan Dempster/Randy Wells. All four will be capable of keeping an offensively challenged Cubs lineup close, but scoring runs could be a problem for the North Side of Chicago.
Outside of Ramirez, Lee, and Geovany Soto, the Cubs have no real offensive threat. Kosuke Fukudome will draw plenty of walks but won't provide enough power for a corner outfielder. Mike Fontenot has shown that he isn't capable of playing every day, while Marlon Byrd and Ryan Theriot cannot be counted on for anything more than slightly above-average offensive contributions.
Assuming injuries don't ravage the team once again, the Cubs will have all the motivation in the world to at least go down fighting in the NL Central race this season. With no more than a few years left of Ramirez and Lee at their peaks, Chicago needs to hurry if they want to take advantage of the two outstanding players.
General Manager Jim Hendry knows his time is short and made a valiant attempt at buying a division title last year, a plan which ultimately failed miserably. With a new ownership, Hendry will be fighting for his job. Anything short of the Cubs' third division title in four years will probably wind up being too little.
While they certainly have the motivation, the Cubs may not have the offense (or bullpen) required to win the division, but they'll certainly be in the thick of the wild card race.
3. Cincinnati Reds (83-79)
Just like last year, the 2010 Reds are packed with promise and possibility. First baseman Joey Votto, right fielder Jay Bruce, and second baseman Brandon Phillips are three of the most talented young players in the league.
With a core like that—along with a rotation consisting of Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Johnny Cueto—Cincinnati should have no problem remaining competitive for the majority of the season.
Prior to last year, the Reds had virtually no options at the up-the-middle positions (catcher, shortstop, center field), giving them the fourth-worst defense in the league.
Rookie Drew Stubbs provided outstanding defense (with an acceptable bat) last season, though, and Ryan Hannigan took over a lot of the playing time at catcher. Cincinnati signed Orlando Cabrera this offseason to fill the last of the three holes, although the Reds are still bare in left field. (Yonder Alonso could force Votto into left field if he is promoted this year, however. For now, though, Chris Dickerson will get most of the reps.)
Cincinnati had a very young team overflowing with potential stars, and a lot could go wrong. Injuries to Bruce, Cueto, Harang, Edinson Volquez, and Votto derailed any hope at contention last season, and the last thing the 2010 Reds need is a rampaging injury bug to illuminate their lack of depth.
The Reds will have some motivation to keep their heads above the water until around June, because their ace, Volquez, is slated to return from Tommy John surgery and could provide the difference in a very competitive NL wild card race.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (82-80)
Sporting perhaps the best 3-4 hitters in the game in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers' 2010 season will be decided by their pitching. Last year, Milwaukee starting pitchers combined to post a 5.37 ERA—in spite of Yovani Gallardo's 3.73 effort.
The Brewers sacrificed some offense this past offseason by swapping JJ Hardy and Mike Cameron for Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gomez, which freed up enough money to invest in three years' worth of Randy Wolf.
The 33-year-old Wolf posted a 3.23 ERA last season with the Dodgers, and Milwaukee hopes he can help anchor an abyssal rotation. Of course, Garrardo and Wolf can't do it alone; at least one of Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, or Dave Bush will need to put together a solid season.
Milwaukee's problems have rarely included the ability to score runs, but there could potentially be holes in the team's lineup in 2010. Escobar needs to be allowed time to adapt to the Senior Circuit pitchers, Corey Hart is regressing before the Brewers' eyes, and Carlos Gomez will be given regular at-bats. Needless to say, Milwaukee will be very dependent on the trio of Rickie Weeks/Braun/Fielder.
That being said, the Brewers could do themselves a favor by finding a place for Mat Gamel, whose left-handed bat is a rarity in the current Milwaukee lineup. His defense will probably keep him away from the hot corner (and he'd have to get through Casey McGehee), but Gamel could do minimal defensive damage in outfield.
Although they have a solid bullpen, the Brewers' rotation will continue to be their weak point. There isn't much starting pitching help awaiting in the upper minors, so a great deal of the success/failure of the 2010 season will ride on the shoulders of Suppan, Parra, and Bush.
5. Houston Astros (74-88)
The Astros of the last few years have been stuck between a rock and a hard place, needing to decide to either push in all of their chips and go for broke or fold and start the rebuilding process.
Houston has done neither, opting instead to use well below-average players to fill the holes between their decent enough core. At many positions in the Astros lineup, even a replacement-level player would be an upgrade.
For Houston fans, it is sad to watch a core of Michael Bourn/Lance Berkman/Carlos Lee/Hunter Pence slowly outgrow their prime while the team wallows in mediocrity. When your four best positions players take up 44 percent of your payroll, you don't have much money to fill in the gaps. The remaining four players expected to fill out the Astros' 2010 lineup are Kazuo Matsui, Pedro Feliz, JR Towles/Jason Castro, and Tommy Manzella.
Ed Wade (who was recently given a two-year extension) can be thanked for the plethora of outrageous contracts found on the Astros' roster. This offseason, Wade gave a combined $19.5 million over the next three years to no-hit/all-glove Pedro Feliz and overrated closer Brandon Lyon.
Wade has pieced together a very solid core of offensive talent and a good front of the rotation in Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt, yet there is virtually no talent anywhere else—and no depth in case of injury.
When you throw in the fact that they have no farm system to speak of, it's a sad state of affairs in Houston. Another year will fly by for Astros fans, and their strong nucleus of players will be a year older.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94)
The Pirates have long been stuck in the cellar of the NL Central. As things currently stand, that doesn't appear to be changing. Still, although Pittsburgh has endured 17 seasons without a winning record, their franchise looks to at least be heading in the right direction.
While forfeiting all hope of a .500 record in 2010, Pirates GM Neal Huntington has a bevvy of young talent working its way through the organization. Making seven major trades last season, the Pirates dealt away virtually all veteran talent in return for players like Lastings Milledge, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Clement.
Those three, along with top prospects Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Tony Sanchez, should all be solid contributors at the major-league level within the next few years. (Though it will be fun to watch the Pirates battle with Alvarez over arbitration time; do they wait until July '10 to promote him or not?)
Outside of Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have no face of the franchise. Their rotation is in shambles, as is their lineup. They are an extremely young team that will struggle to win 70 games in 2010.
Fans of the Pirates will once again be rewarded with a losing season, although this time there really is a bright future awaiting them.