The St. Louis Cardinals will look to repeat as National League Central champions in 2010. But to do that, it won’t be easy.
The Cardinals weren’t the only team in the Central to make moves acquire and key free agent signings this off-season.
Below is how I see the NL Central shaping up, at least as we stand a little over a week before the first official spring game.
1.) St. Louis Cardinals : The Cardinals won the division by 7.5 games over the Cubs last season and are the clear favorites again in 2010. After resigning Matt Holliday, the Cardinals now have one of the more dangerous lineup in the majors with Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick likely hitting at No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 respectively.
Factor newly acquired Felipe Lopez in to that lineup and prepare to see a lot of runs scored. The Cardinals also return two of the top three 2009 NL Cy Young candidates in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Also, a healthy Brad Penny mixed with pitching coach Dave Duncan could spell good things for the Cardinals’ pitching staff.
On the offensive side, Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus have both greatly improved their hitting after working with new hitting coach Mark McGwire this off-season. Lastly, Pujols said his right elbow, which has been hampering him since 2003, is finally healthy.
This is clearly a scary thought for NL pitchers. Chris Carpenter’s health will be a deciding factor, as will Brad Penny’s effectiveness to the Cardinals’ division title hopes.
2.) Milwaukee Brewers : The Brewers made a couple of notable off-season moves in signing lefties Randy Wolf (11-8, 3.23 ERA in 2009) and Doug Davis (9-14, 4.12 ERA in 2009) from the Dodgers and Diamondbacks respectively and are likely to finish near the top of the division by riding their offensive fire-power.
They boast one of the most powerful lineups in the league with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. The speedy Alcides Escobar will take over for J.J. Hardy at shortstop.
Hardy signed this off-season with the Minnesota Twins. Escobar played in 38 games last season and is regarded as one of the best base stealer’s in the NL. They’ll need to see another strong year out of Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf to remain in contention for the division title
3.) Chicago Cubs: The Cubs finished second in the division last season behind the Cardinals, but didn’t do much this off-season to help their chances at winning the division. They signed outfielders Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady, but didn’t improve their pitching staff.
Ted Lilly was an All-Star last season, but it’s still a question about what we’ll see out of the rest of their rotation. Carlos Zambrano has the stuff to be an ace, but has also been know to be very inconsistent at times. Also, their main offensive contributors are Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee\ and Aramis Ramirez, who all dealt with injury problems last season.
The key for them will be to get those guys healthy and for catcher Geovany Soto to bounce back from an awful 2009 season and repeat his 2008 numbers that earned him National League Rookie of the Year honors.
4.) Cincinnati Reds: The Reds could be one of the biggest surprises this season if their off-season moves pay off. They were the most active team this off-season, re-signing third baseman Scott Rolen and signing free agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera, effectively giving the Reds a solid infield with Brandon Phillips at second base and Joey Votto at first base.
The pitching staff is still a question mark, as Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are consistently inconsistent. Also, the health of Jonny Cueto and Edinson Volquez will be a question. But the Reds signed the top pitching prospect this off-season in Aroldis Chapman, who could likely end up in the Majors sooner rather than later.
The health of Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce will be a concern for the offense, but if those two guys are healthy, the Reds are a legitimate sleeper in the Central.
5.) Houston Astros: The Astros finished fifth in the division last season and will likely end up in the same spot this season. Just about the only things the Astros did this off-season were part ways with their closer, Jose Valverde and sign former Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz.
They did nothing to improve their pitching staff, which ranked 24th in the Majors last season in ERA (4.54) and 23rd in wins with 74. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman seem to be the only run producers in their lineup, so don’t look for this team to run the score up on their opponents very often.
Roy Oswalt sits atop the rotation with very talented young pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris behind him, but they won’t get too much run support to rack up many wins this season.
6.) Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates were the laughing stock of baseball last season when everyone sat and watched as they dismantled their team, trading away guys like Nate McClouth, Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson.
But this gave an opportunity for the world to see what Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones could do. McCutchen, who was heralded as the Pirates’ top prospect, came up to take McClouth’s spot in center field and hit .286 with 12 home runs and 54 RBI to go with 22 stolen bases in 108 games.
Jones was just as impressive, if not more, hitting .293 with 21 home runs, 44 RBI and 10 steals in just 82 games. His RBI numbers would have been up, but most of his home runs were solo home runs.
However, even though McCutchen and Jones are obvious bright spots for the Pirates future, they’ve dug themselves a hole that will take quite a bit of time to get out of.
As it is every year, this year’s race should be a good one and very close.
This story was originally published at RedbirdReport.com .