2010 MLB Division Previews: National League Central

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2010 MLB Division Previews: National League Central
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Like its American League counterpart, the National League Central is considered to be much of a wide-open race. The one difference is they've got more of a legitimate favorite that could very well go deep into the playoffs.

The reason that they've got a favorite in St. Louis, yet can be considered wide-open is the pure fact that there is a lot of unknown for some teams. Even the Cardinals have their own questions.

There is a lot of talent in this division, but no one really has an idea which team's talent is going to make the biggest statement. The Cubs and Brewers both made the playoffs in 2008, but dealt with some injuries and let-downs. Cincinnati was a hot pick for a lot of people to turn some heads, but things didn't exactly work out like expected.

Still, people thought that for a reason, Cincinnati has some arms and young bats. Chicago attempted to make their club deeper after being hit with injuries and Milwaukee did some work of their own.

I haven't even brought up Houston and Pittsburgh, but not many people will. This division could definitely support two playoff teams, and if things click for some of them, they could contend for the NL crown.

*Denotes Free Agent has an Option Year

 

Chicago Cubs – NL Central

Last Year: Finished Second in NL Central

Additions: P Carlos Silva, OF Bobby Scales, P Mike Parisi, OF Marlon Byrd, 1B Chad Tracy, OF Xavier Nady, 1B Kevin Millar

Subtractions: OF So Taguchi, OF Reed Johnson, P Rich Harden, P Kevin Gregg, P Chad Fox, P Aaron Heilman, OF Milton Bradley, P Neal Cotts, 2B Aaron Miles

2010 Free Agents: 1B Derrek Lee, 1B Chad Tracy, OF Xavier Nady, *3B Aramis Ramirez

Three Strikes: P Randy Wells, OF Xavier Nady, 1B Kevin Millar

Randy Wells is in an interesting piece to this team. I can’t decide if I want to buy into him improving or falling off, but where do you go from a 3.05 ERA as a rookie? He could very well improve, while seeing his ERA rise. It’s unenviable part of early success.

I think Xavier Nady could be a complete wild card in terms of what he’ll bring to the table early in the season. But by the end of the year, when he starts to recover from that Tommy John surgery, I think he’ll have earned himself a longer term contract.

If I were the Cubs, I’d find a way to get Kevin Millar on the roster in some capacity. Not just because he has experience in “busting curses” but because he leads the league in bringing fun to the clubhouse.

What’s different?

The biggest difference is the clubhouse. Milton Bradley was widely regarded as an enigma in Chicago (where hasn’t that been the case?) and he’s now off in Seattle. It cost the Cubs to move him though, as they had to take on the salary of Carlos Silva.

If Silva can at least eat some innings and earn some of the money he is getting paid, it won’t look so bad, but it’s hard to see the Bradley move as positive, even if they were able to move him.

Their outfield was ravaged by injuries last year, so they went out and signed Marlon Byrd to play center and also grabbed Xavier Nady as a low-risk, high-reward type of a signing. Those moves added much needed depth to the outfield.

Their rotation is a little worrisome as Rich Harden departs and they’ll have to get over the early loss of Ted Lilly for a short period to start the season.

Summary

Those lovely little Cubbies, what can you really say about them?

They are a no longer the NL Central favorites after a season in which they battled locker room turmoil and some tough injuries.

Alfonso Soriano is not the same player he was a few years ago, that is a reality they’ll have to face. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be one of their more productive hitters. To do that, he needs to stay on the field. Same goes for Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee.

Pitching wise, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, and Ted Lilly make up a solid rotation. The problem is that they’ll not only need to fill the fifth starter spot, but temporarily Lilly’s place. It will test their depth early on.

The other blow to their pitching staff was the season ending injury to Angel Guzman, who was expected to be a primary set-up option for the wild Carlos Marmol. They’ll now also need to test their bullpen depth.

Point is, this team might not be deep enough to handle multiple injuries, as we saw them struggle last year in the outfield. They have the horses to compete in the NL Central, but those horses can’t be in the stable.

 

 

Cincinnati Reds

Last Year: Finished Fourth in NL Central

Additions: SS Chris Burke, SS Miguel Cairo, OF Josh Anderson, P Aroldis Chapman, P Jose Arredondo, 2B Aaron Miles, SS Orlando Cabrera

Subtractions: 3B Danny Richar, P Kip Wells, 3B Adam Rosales, OF Willy Taveras

2010 Free Agents: *SS Orlando Cabrera, *P Bronson Arroyo

Three Strikes: P Homer Bailey, OF Drew Stubbs, 3B Scott Rolen

I wrote off Homer Bailey last year at this time when trying to peg a prospect that might have run his course. Bailey proved me wrong and went on to finally display his high-ceiling talents. He’ll need to carry that on in 2010.

Drew Stubbs is in the running to be the Reds everyday center fielder. Stubbs has speed to burn as he stole 10 bases out of 14 opportunities last year in 42 games. Keep an eye on him if he beats out Chris Dickerson.

Cincinnati had a hot second half last year and a lot was attributed to the addition of Scott Rolen. When Rolen was in the lineup for the Reds, he got on-base at a steady clip, knocked in 24 runs, and provided an on-the-field veteran presence.

What’s different?

The Reds made minimal changes from a year ago, but the one instant impact change they did make was signing Orlando Cabrera. The wily veteran will be a field general on the diamond and bring instant leadership to the club.

Cincinnati’s biggest splash however was signing young Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. The left-handed starter has made a quick impression on the club, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be starting in the major leagues from outset of the season.

Either way, the signing was a big move for Cincinnati and a big victory for clubs in their position financially. Hopefully it pans out for them and the millions they spent won’t be a disaster.

Summary

I can’t get over how dangerous their rotation would look if they had Edinson Volquez, who will likely miss 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo lead a rotation with youngsters Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. If Chapman is in the mix, this could prove to be the ultimate strength of their team.

Their bullpen was one of the best in the game last year and will need a repeat performance from the likes of Arthur Rhodes, Danny Herrera, and closer Francisco Cordero.

A full year of Scott Rolen and the addition of Orlando Cabrera to the left side may be a healthy does of wisdom that the young players need. If Jay Bruce can stay on the field to give them some punch with Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, the lineup has the makings of a viable contender in the NL Central.

 

 

Houston Astros

Last Year: Finished Fifth in NL Central

Additions: 1B Chris Shelton, P Gary Majewski, P Casey Daigle, P Matt Lindstrom, 3B Pedro Feliz, P Brandon Lyon, P Gustavo Chacin, P Brett Myers, P Shane Loux, OF Cory Sullivan, C Kevin Cash

Subtractions: P Doug Brocail, P Mike Hampton, OF Darin Erstad, SS Miguel Tejada, P LaTroy Hawkins, P Jose Valverde

2010 Free Agents: 2B Kaz Matsui, 3B Pedro Feliz, *1B Lance Berkman

Three Strikes: P Wandy Rodriguez, C J.R. Towles, P Matt Lindstrom

Wandy Rodriguez had himself a full year of health and productivity in 2009. Has he reached his ceiling though? I’m sure the Astros would take that season and a good effort from Roy Oswalt in a heartbeat.

How much longer will the Astros wait for J.R. Towles to emerge? This could be the last chance for the 26-year-old to latch on as the starting catcher. And boy could the Astros use some continuity behind the plate.

With Jose Valverde gone, Houston brought in both Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom to fill the back-end of the bullpen. Who knows which one will end the year in the closers role, or if either will, but I’ll put my dumb money on Lindstrom.

What’s different?

After number one choice Manny Acta turned Houston down for the Cleveland job, Houston went out and grabbed Brad Mills, Terry Francona’s right-hand man. Some are wondering why Acta would pass up an opportunity to return to an organization he came up in.

Acta was attracted to Cleveland’s deep farm-system and current pieces, which can’t be a good endorsement for what Houston’s situation currently is. But Brad Mills will do his best to work with what he has. This is mainly a team with a lot of established pieces.

The Astros did add a few veterans from the NL Champion Phillies, third baseman Pedro Feliz and starting pitcher Brett Myers. They did what they could to add Lyon and Lindstrom after Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins both bolted.

Summary

The Astros lineup is comprised mainly of known names and veterans, with the exception of catcher and shortstop. It’s the usual characters for Houston, provided Berkman is healthy, with Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Micheal Bourn and Kaz Matsui.

The rotation will try and sport a two-headed monster with underrated Wandy Rodriguez and bounce-back candidate Roy Oswalt. The rest of the rotation brings a serious batch of questions that will need quick answers to remain in contention.

Tim Byrdak, Jeff Fulchino and Alberto Arias get much needed help from Lyon and Lindstrom, but Valverde will not be an easy piece to replace.

The Astros do field one of the more sound defensive teams in the game, but that alone won’t be enough for them to climb out of the NL Central. Brad Mills will need to bring a different voice to the club and they’ll need some unknowns in the rotation to step up and be reliable.

 

 

Milwaukee Brewers

Last Year: Finished Third in NL Central

Additions: OF Adam Stern, OF Carlos Gomez, C George Kottaras, C Greg Zaun, P Chuck Lofgren, P Randy Wolf, P LaTroy Hawkins, P Kameron Loe, OF Jim Edmonds, 2B Joe Inglett, P Doug Davis, OF Norris Hopper

Subtractions: OF Corey Patterson, 2B Felipe Lopez, OF Mike Cameron, C Jason Kendall, OF Frank Catalanotto, P David Weathers, SS JJ Hardy, P Braden Looper, C Mike Rivera, P Seth McClung,

2010 Free Agents: *P Doug Davis, *P Jeff Suppan, *P Trevor Hoffman

Three Strikes: SS Alcides Escobar, 3B Casey McGehee, P Manny Parra

Defensive wizard Alcides Escobar is considered the future of the Milwaukee Brewers. They were willing to trade Matt LaPorta in the CC Sabathia deal, but inconsistent J.J. Hardy kept them from including Escobar in any proposed deal. Now it’s his time to shine and he’s eager to prove he isn’t just all-glove and speedy base-running.

Mat Gamel is the third baseman that got all the talk coming up the ranks and while he’s just 24-years-old, it was Casey McGehee that hit .301 in 116 games last year. McGehee deserves to start at third, but you have to wonder how quickly they’ll want to go with Gamel (when he returns from injury) if McGehee doesn’t repeat.

Manny Parra started 27 games last year and that’s as full of a season as you are going to get without actually going wire-to-wire. Parra is also 27 in age, which means it’s now or never for him to hold onto a rotation spot. A 6.36 ERA isn’t going to cut it.

What’s different?

Milwaukee made a lot of changes to their roster and will feature new players in crucial roles for the team.

Greg Zaun, Carlos Gomez, LaTroy Hawkins, Doug Davis, and Randy Wolf are all new additions expected to contribute. Zaun and Gomez will start at catcher and in center field respectively, while LaTroy Hawkins aims to be the primary set-up man for Trevor Hoffman.

Needing arms in the rotation, the Brewers brought back Davis from Arizona and added Wolf to slot in behind young Yovani Gallardo.

And as mentioned, they’ve dove into the Alcides Escobar era by trading away J.J. Hardy.

The mainstays of their team, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Gallardo, and Corey Hart are still around, but Milwaukee hopes most of their additions can be important pieces in hopes of returning to the playoffs.

Summary

Offensively, they are one of the more dangerous lineups in the game with Fielder and Braun in the middle. Last year, Corey Hart battled a down-year and Rickie Weeks was off to a decent start before an injury claimed most of his season in May.

Now the nucleus of that lineup can hopefully remain intact and also improve on their speed with Escobar and Gomez now in the lineup.

The Brewers definitely needed the additions of Davis and Wolf, as their options past Gallardo looked pretty grim. Parra and Jeff Suppan are expected to fill out the rotation and neither was all that impressive in 2009.

In the bullpen, Todd Coffey, who is coming off an excellent year, will be aided by the addition of Hawkins in hopes of getting Trevor Hoffman the ball in the ninth. But beyond that they’ll need people to step up. David Riske should be a part of things eventually after throwing just one inning of work in 2009 due to injury.

A lot of people like this Brewer team to make some noise, especially in an NL Central division that can be viewed as winnable. However I still think there are some questions within their pitching staff. If a starter falters or goes down with an injury, their depth will be tested and it could present problems.

Their lineup will score runs, that is a given, but at some point, they’ll need the pitching to produce.

 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Year: Finished Last in NL Central

Additions: 2B Akinori Iwamura, P Chris Jakubauskas, P Wil Ledezma, P Javier Lopez, P Vinnie Chulk, SS Bobby Crosby, P Brian Burres, OF Jonathan Van Every, P Neal Cotts, P Brian Bass, C Luke Carlin, OF Ryan Chuch, P D.J. Carrasco, P Brendan Donnelly, P Octavio Dotel

Subtractions: P Phil Dumatrait, P Matt Capps, SS Brian Bixler, OF Brandon Jones

2010 Free Agents: 2B Akinori Iwamura

Three Strikes: OF Garrett Jones, 3B Pedro Alvarez, 1B Steve Pearce

You have to wonder what exactly Garrett Jones is all about. He came out of nowhere to lead the team in home runs despite having just 77 at-bats under his belt. Those at-bats came as a Twin two years prior to 2009 and at this point, Jones is 28 years old. You see it click for players late in stages all the time, but Jones is different

Was he a 300 at-bat fluke or is he able to put in a year’s worth of production that equals his small sample size?

Pedro Alvarez needs to arrive as soon as possible if you ask me. He just brings so much needed pop to a lineup that is lacking an established run-producer. The quicker he gets to the majors, the quicker he can establish himself.

The Pirates long thought that Steve Pearce could be a capable run-producer, but so far, no luck. Pearce may lose out first base to former Mariners catching prospect Jeff Clement. Pearce is going to turn 27 midway through April, which means the clock is ticking for him to show up.

What’s different?

With some of the additions the Pirates made, you would have thought they are trying to find the final pieces to make a division run. I think the Pirates overall just have a tough time defining themselves.

Acquiring the likes of Bobby Crosby and Ryan Church are just adding spare parts. I love the Akinori Iwamura addition, but that really isn’t enough in the grand scheme of things.

Pittsburgh let closer Matt Capps go and brought in veteran Octavio Dotel to close out games. Dotel has shown in the past that he can close games, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll do it successfully for the Pirates over the long haul.

He is the back end of a rebuilt bullpen that includes Javier Lopez, Brendan Donnelly, and at some point, trade deadline addition Joel Hanrahan.

Summary

The Pirates are attempting to avoid their 18th straight losing season in 2010, but there aren’t many that think they can do it. The Pirates have lost at least 94 games the past five seasons and have finished sixth in the Central all but once in that span.

It’s hard to pinpoint their exact strength, which is making this difficult to talk about. There are pieces of the team that I would feel okay about, like their top three starters. But Paul Maholm and Zach Duke have to put it together consistently and Ross Ohlendorf has to take the next step.

Their bullpen is completely rebuilt with a lot of veteran additions. That may work out great, or turn out to be a disaster. You can just never tell with bullpens, but especially one put together in this fashion. Brendan Donnelly held a 1.78 ERA in 30 games last year for Florida, but he’s 38 years old with a elbow that’s been strung together.

Ronny Cedeno was much better with Pittsburgh last year than he was with Seattle, but it isn’t like he lit the world on fire. Andy LaRoche is a nice player, but so far, hasn’t established himself as a great one. You don’t know what you’re going to get out of Lastings Milledge or Jeff Clement, and Ryan Doumit needs to stay healthy for an entire season before you can count on him.

There aren’t very many players that you can look at and honestly say, “Yeah I feel good about that player there.” Iwamura is one and the other may be Andrew McCutchen, and he was just a rookie last year, so who knows what year two has in store for him.

It is very hard to like Neal Huntington’s crew as they don’t have a lot of solid answers to initially believe in them. At this point in the season, it’s very hard to get behind them finishing any higher than fifth place.

 

 

St. Louis Cardinals

Last Year: Won NL Central, Lost in Playoffs

Additions: 3B Ruben Gotay, P Brad Penny, P Rich Hill, SS Felipe Lopez

Subtractions: 2B Jarrett Hoffpauir, P Brad Thompson, P John Smoltz, OF Rick Ankiel, 3B Mark DeRosa, 3B Troy Glaus, SS Khalil Greene, P Joel Pineiro, P Todd Wellemeyer

2010 Free Agents: SS Julio Lugo, P Brad Penny, P Dennys Reyes, *1B Albert Pujols

Three Strikes: 2B Skip Schumaker, P Kyle McClellan, 3B David Freese

You really need to hand it to Skip Schumaker, who handled the transition to second base like a champ. After making an abundance of errors in spring, Schumaker came back and only committed nine in 133 games at second. Oh and he hit .300 and scored 85 runs at the top of the Cardinals lineup.

Kyle McClellan is attempting to transition into the rotation after two straight years of solid relief work. He’s pitched in at least 66 games the past two seasons and had a 3.38 ERA in relief last year. McClellan is in a battle with Jaime Garcia for the fifth rotation spot.

Who is David Freese? To be quite honest, I didn’t know until I saw him marked as the starting third baseman for the Cardinals. Despite being arrested in December on a drunk-driving charge, Freese has been able to impress Cardinals brass with his hitting. There won’t be a lot of pressure on the hometown kid with the likes of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the lineup.

What’s different?

This team is relatively unchanged. They were able to re-sign Matt Holliday and return pretty much the core of the team that led them to a NL Central division title. They did let Joel Piniero walk, but their answer to replacing him was Brad Penny.

The bullpen and lineup also went through minimal changes. Trade acquisition Mark DeRosa walked and Troy Glaus also went in a different direction. Rookie David Freese is expected to take over that position and if healthy, Brendan Ryan could be the full-time starter at shortstop.

Probably their most cunning addition was Felipe Lopez, who they got at a big time bargain despite his career year. He’ll be able to spell Ryan, Freese, and Schumaker off the bench and be sort of a “super-sub” for the Cardinals.

Oh and there was that little addition on the coaching staff that probably got the most buzz out of anything as the Cardinals welcomed back Mark McGwire as their hitting coach.

Summary

There is a lot to love about the reigning NL Central Champions, but that doesn’t mean they are completely concern free.

While they’ve got two Cy Young contending pitchers at the top of their rotation in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, the rest of the rotation is not as strong as it looked last year. Kyle Lohse struggled at times last year and while Brad Penny was stellar since joining the Giants, he is far from guaranteed to continue that level of success.

Now if both pan out and the top two stay healthy, it won’t matter who even takes the ball as the fifth starter, as that will be a dangerous top four, but they are far from flawless.

Their bullpen doesn’t have names that will blow you away, but you can’t argue with Ryan Fraklin’s 38 saves and the fifth best bullpen ERA in the game last year. Blake Hawksworth, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs who?

I said it with the Pirates and I’ll say it again, you just don’t know what you are going to get with a bullpen. On the surface, that bullpen looks very modest, but the Cardinals sported one of the best in the NL last year, so who are we to argue?

And then of course their lineup is so much stronger than it was at this time last season. What was considered their one question is now their biggest strength as they can throw Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday at you back-to-back. That just makes everyone around them better hitters.

They’re probably the favorites in the division coming into the year, but they are far from a lock to win it, especially with all the questions that both they and the rest of the division have.

 

"2010 MLB Division Previews" is a part of a month long series of articles that are previewing the 2010 MLB season. For the other parts of "2010 MLB Division Previews, " other features, and a schedule, click here . Winners and projections will be available after all divisions have been previewed.

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