This article is Part Two of a six-part series in which I analyze each division in baseball and tell you exactly how I believe things are going to shake out this season.
I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share his observations and thoughts.
Today, I turn my focus to the NL Central.
St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)
The Cardinals are the dynasty team of the National League, no question. Since Albert Pujols has been the team's centerpiece, they've made the playoffs six times in nine years. Now, finally, for the first time in nine years, he has some protection in the batting order—and that's dangerous.
Not to mention they scored Felipe Lopez from the bargain bin late in the offseason. This dude put up a career year last year, hitting .310 between Arizona and Milwaukee. If you remember the last time he played for the Cards in 2008, he only hit .385 in 43 games.
I don't expect another .300 season from Lopez, but I think he'll be solid as a semi-everyday player and hit around .285. He could surprise, however.
The man he's fighting for a starting spot with, David Freese, also came out of nowhere last year. St. Louis received him from the Padres for Jim Edmonds two years ago.
We will soon see how the Cardinals overwhelmingly got the better end of that deal. Freese hasn't hit less than .300 at any minor league level, and he was called up at the end of last year and didn't miss a beat.
Tony La Russa has stated publicly he doesn't want to manage a team at this point in his career that won't be able to win a championship.
The Cardinals' brass have thus accommodated him by locking down Matt Holliday, easily making the team the favorites to the point where a nutless monkey could do La Russa's job and the team would still make the playoffs.
That, and pitching coach "Papa D" has a knack for producing career years from alleged has-beens and never-will-bes. I wouldn't put it past him to bring Brad Penny back into the Cy Young discussion this season.
Cincinnati Reds (83-79)
In this division there really is one clear-cut favorite and five other teams who could finish behind them in any order. The Reds don't have a shot at the playoffs at all, but here's what I like about them:
They have a great balance of youth and veteran leadership. Joey Votto posted a career year last year and should be in talks for MVP this year. With the O.C. at shortstop and a full season of Scott Rolen playing third, he's got three established veterans on the infield with him to learn from—not to mention they can still play despite their age.
Then there's the talented squad of young outfielders fighting for starting spots: Jay Bruce, Chris Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, and Jonny Gomes. All are worthy of starting, but one will have to be on the bench.
Bruce had a terrible season last year, missing significant time due to injury, and he'll need to put it together quickly if he wants to keep his job.
The pitching staff has some question marks. The "Harangutan" went down with injury last year, but the Reds must believe he can regain his old form now that he's healthy or they would've traded him over the offseason.
Then there's Homer Bailey, who really turned it on during the last six weeks of the season last year. Whatever clicked for him, he needs to harness that.
And of course, there's my man "Roldy" Chapman, the Cuban defector. He's the biggest question mark of all, and it remains to be seen whether he'll even start the season in the big leagues. He'll need some seasoning if the Reds want him to become a full-fledged starter, and I think that's what the plan is.
Of course, the idea of having Chapman's 101-mph fastball as a weapon to use in later innings is tempting, especially with Arthur Rhodes having hit the big four-oh and Francisco Cordero on the decline.
Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)
The Brewers have a young star-studded lineup, no question about that. It's officially Escobar season in Milwaukee. Alcides Escobar, that is.
The defensive wizard will be the starting shortstop for the Brewers for years to come, and he can hit for average, hitting .304 in 38 games last year.
The problem is his walks; he drew four in 134 PAs. He won't be a capable leadoff hitter for the club until he gets those walks up.
Also, coming out of nowhere with a great season last year was Casey McGehee. All signs would lead you to believe that last year was a fluke and that there's no way he'll put up those kind of numbers again. But if he does, he'll give Prince Fielder some protection hitting behind him, adding a whole new level of danger to the already imposing lineup. We'll see.
The problem is the pitching. After last year, GM Doug Melvin made it clear that the Brewers were going to free up some budget room and go after some big-name free agent pitchers.
Well, they got Randy Wolf—not bad—and Doug Davis—worth it for the innings he'll eat up, but not much else. A Triple-A starter could take his place and probably win just as many games.
Then there's the ancient duo they've got penciled in to pitch the eighth and ninth innings, LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman. I don't think either of them will have much left in the tank, but I suppose they'll get along with newly acquired veteran catcher Gregg Zaun.
During mound conferences they can even discuss their favorite Jethro Tull albums.
Chicago Cubs (79-83)
The Cubs had their shot at the playoffs two years ago, and they blew it; now it doesn't look like they'll have a chance to end their streak of futility anytime soon.
Their core players are aging quickly and there aren't any decent prospects on the horizon who can step in and replace them.
Alfonso Soriano has been having knee problems, but he'd better use all the money he's raking in from his eight-year contract to go find the doctor from The Six Million Dollar Man and build him some new ones.
Who knows—it's possible that Soriano goes down with injury this year, and it could be the best thing that ever happened to this club. Not likely though.
I wouldn't count on Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez to repeat last year's numbers either.
A couple of glimmers of hope, however—Geovany Soto supposedly got in shape over the offseason, so I expect him to bounce back after his embarrassing sophomore slump. Xavier Nady should give them a decent outfield option if he can remain healthy. As well, rookie Tyler Colvin has been ripping the cover off the ball this spring, but he'll be on the bench.
Pittsburgh Pirates (73-89)
It's hard to know what to expect from the Pirates. Obviously they're in the middle of a complete overhaul and are building for a few years down the road, but they still have to send nine guys out there every day, and some of them might turn some heads.
Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones are two pieces that are in place for the future; they will both have career years this season as they wait for the rest of their future teammates to show up.
In the meantime, Akinori Iwamura will be fun to have around, although he'll probably be gone by the trade deadline.
My bold prediction this year is that the Bucs climb out of the cellar this year, don't quite snap their streak of losing seasons, but do show glimpses of mediocrity every once in a while. An accomplishment in my book!
Houston Astros (68-94)
The management of the Astros came to a startling realization after last season: Their aging stars aren't going to cut it for a championship run and they have virtually no farm system from which to replace them.
Lance Berkman is on the decline and can no longer be counted on to anchor this lineup.
The bench is also very thin, and if the Astros lose one or more key players to injury, we may end up seeing GM Ed Wade's kid playing the outfield.
This team needs to rebuild from the ground up, much like the Pirates are doing, by getting what they can from trading the players they have to stock the farm system.
Berkman should be gone by midseason, and I'd like to see several others shipped off in what should be an all-out fire sale. The only player with enough potential to be worth holding on to is Hunter Pence, who should be a perennial All-Star.
Check back in the next few days for future installments of this six-part analysis.