MLB: A Complete Breakdown with Predictions for the NL Central
Moving along in our breakdown of every Major League team and division, it's time to look at the NL Central. This is baseball's largest division with six teams and last season, the Cincinnati Reds were the winners, making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
It's a division that has two teams looking for some kind of success after years of frustration in the Cubs and Pirates. Two of the teams will be fighting it out all summer, and the other two should be around .500.
Is this going to be Albert Pujols' final season with the Cardinals, and can he lead them back to the playoffs? Can the Reds win consecutive division titles? What will the Brewers do with Zack Greinke?
Here's the answers to those questions and a whole lot more in a complete breakdown of the NL Central with predictions.
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The Pittsburgh Pirates are going through one of the toughest stretches in North American pro sports history. With a losing season in 2010, they put together their 18th straight such campaign which broke the record for the most consecutive losing seasons of the four major sports. It doesn't look like they'll snap that string this season.
The Pirates have a lot of young players, and it's going to take time for them to contend, especially in a six-team division.
The only addition made to the offense in the offseason was bringing in veteran first baseman, Lyle Overbay. He spent his last five seasons with the Blue Jays and hit 20 home runs last season. He'll bring some pop to a lineup that has some in other areas.
The problem from the start is the starting rotation. It has some guys in it that can pitch and have potential, but it isn't looking too strong.
The first starter right now looks to be James McDonald. He came over from the Dodgers last season and pitched effectively in 11 starts for the Pirates. He had a losing record of 4-5, but his ERA was 3.52 and in 64 innings; he struck out 61 hitters. After that, which isn't a lot with McDonald, is a lot of question marks.
Paul Maholm would be next, and his career has gotten progressively worse. After a solid 2008 season in which he made every start but only earned 18 decisions (9-9), Maholm has been terrible. Last season was the worst of his career as he went 9-15 with an ERA of 5.10. In 185.1 innings, he allowed 228 hits and walked 62 batters which equals a very high WHIP of 1.57.
After him are guys like Kevin Correia and his very high ERA, coming over from the Padres, and Ross Ohlendorf who went 1-11 last season.
The brighter side of the Pirates team is their offense. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen probably offers the most promise as a former first-round draft pick, but he can also show a little more.
The Pirates have a nice young core, though, primarily with second-year players Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. Tabata showed some nice ability, as he hit .299 last season and stole 19 bases in his rookie season with an awful team. He finished eighth in NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Perhaps the strength of the Pirates is their bullpen. They have a great eighth and ninth-inning tandem with Joel Hanrahan saving games, and Evan Meek setting him up after a breakout 2010 season that landed him an All-Star appearance.
Overall, the team has a very strange mixture right now. Their offense has a lot of talent but room to improve, the starting rotation isn't good at all, and the bullpen appears to be great.
With not a lot of changes from last season, expect another bad year and losing season for the Pirates.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: sixth
2011 prediction: 60-102, sixth place
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After Lou Piniella stepped down as manager of the team with a quarter of a season to go last season, the Cubs rebounded to finish 24-13. That was under new manager Mike Quade after being 51-74 until he took over.
If everything goes right, although it never seems to do so, the Cubs could win some games this season.
Their lineup, though, has a lot of holes in it. Sure it has a bunch of big names like the newly signed Carlos Pena, along with veterans Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. But most of their hitters have question marks.
Starting with new first baseman, Carlos Pena, who hit .196 last season with the Rays. That was the lowest batting average in baseball among all qualifiers, and that comes a year after batting .247. He only signed a one-year deal so he'll have motivation, and he'll hit home runs at Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing out, but he doesn't bring a lot of promise.
Over at third base is Ramirez, who didn't do too much with the bat last season either. He got off to a horrific start before picking it up a bit, but only hit .241. That's not a great corner infield hitting duo to say the least, although both are capable of hitting 30 home runs.
The guy to pay attention to is shortstop, Starlin Castro. He's going to be a mega star in this league if he isn't already one. He'll only turn 21 years old this March and hit .300 in his rookie season before turning legal drinking age. He finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting and added to his young resume 31 doubles and five triples.
He's what the future offense of the Cubs will be built around, not the previous guys mentioned or the guys about to be mentioned.
The outfield may be the most overrated in all of baseball other than the Yankees. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano is still playing these days without a glove, speed like he used to or a great bat. Once again, he's another one of those guys who can hit home runs, but who can't at Wrigley Field? This will be Soriano's fifth season with the Cubs, and he certainly has not lived up to the contract.
In center field will be Marlon Byrd, who after a nice 2009 season, saw his power and overall production tail off last season. Kosuke Fukudome will be allowed to play games again without Lou Piniella as manager and will bring his inconsistency to the table.
One thing that's looking good on paper for the Cubs is their starting rotation. The biggest offseason addition for the team is right-hander Matt Garza, who'll bring stability and big-game experience to the team. After spending time on winning teams such as the Twins and Rays, Garza comes to the Cubs off a 15-win season that included throwing a no-hitter.
He'll be the second starter, pitching after another 15-game winner from a season ago, Ryan Dempster.
The biggest question mark in the rotation will be Carlos Zambrano. After going through some mental problems last season that got him suspended for a while, what will he be able to do? The former Cubs ace didn't do poorly when he returned last season, finishing with an 11-6 record.
The back end of the bullpen is solid with Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood making a return as a setup man after years with the team as a dominant starting pitcher.
With some additions this offseason, the Cubs should make a slight improvement.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: second
2011 prediction: 78-84, fifth place
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Since getting swept to the White Sox in the 2005 World Series, the Houston Astros have not returned to the playoffs. The last five seasons have been tough and have included four different managers.
Last season, the Astros got off to a terrible start but came on nicely to finish the season at 76-86. They improved midseason, and they should be able to win a few more games this season.
The team made some additions this offseason, adding infielders Bill Hall and Clint Barmes. Both of those guys have seen their careers fizzle after early success. Hall hit 35 home runs for the Brewers in 2006 and never came close to that again, and Barmes spent his whole career with the Rockies and did poorly after a bounce-back 2009 season.
The best infielder for the Astros entering this season appears to be third baseman, Chris Johnson. The 26-year-old hit .308 in 341 at-bats during his first season of getting nice playing time.
The Astros outfield is pretty solid with a couple of power bats and an absolute speedster. In left field is Carlos Lee, and although he failed to drive in 100 runs for the first time since 2004 (99 that season), he still has a lot of pop.
Playing at Minute Maid Park in Houston, a right-handed hitter like Lee could hit home runs forever. The Crawford Boxes make the park look like a little league field, and that'll help Lee's power albeit he'll turn 35 years old this season.
On the other side in right field is Hunter Pence. He'll enter his fifth season and he's shown plenty of consistency throughout his career. In each of his last three seasons, he's hit exactly 25 home runs.
The center fielder is stolen base machine, Michael Bourn. Both his stolen bases and batting average decreased last season, but he's still pesky at the top of the lineup.
The starting rotation, especially the top three for the Astros, has the capability of being shut down. Wandy Rodriguez is the ace and pitched effectively last season even with a losing record. Brett Myers wasn't only great last season but pitched at least six innings in each start except his final one.
The closer will be Brandon Lyon, who appeared in 79 games last season and saved 20 games.
With some power, speed and quality starting pitchers, the Astros should hover around .500 all season.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: fifth
2011 prediction: 79-83, fourth place
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The bottom three teams in the NL Central won't really be competing this season, but these next three all have opportunities.
The Milwaukee Brewers aren't necessarily the favorites to win this division, but they have a lot of talent, and it got a whole lot better in the offseason.
They made a trade for Royals' ace right-hander Zack Greinke, and putting him in front of co-ace Yovani Gallardo should make for one of the best top-two tandems in the National League.
In fact, the entire Brewers starting rotation is solid and is a big reason to believe they can possibly be a dark horse in the division.
Another new member of the staff is right-hander Shaun Marcum. Coming over from the Blue Jays, Marcum went 13-8 last season with an ERA of 3.64. He's followed by veteran Randy Wolf, who'll return for a second season with the Brewers. That foursome isn't bad, and with the offense Milwaukee has, it should win a lot of games.
The offense isn't only good but extremely powerful. Of course, it has the two big bats in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, but it also has other pieces that can really contribute.
The new shortstop will be Yuniesky Betancourt, who came over from the Royals in the Greinke trade. He's the weakest member of the starting lineup, and he isn't terrible. Although he only batted .259 last season, Betancourt had career-highs in home runs with 16 and RBI with 78. He's batted as high as .289 in his career back in both 2006 and 2007 with the Mariners.
Around him on the infield is Fielder at first base, who through all sorts of trade rumors is still with the Brewers. Fielder's production really took a dip last season after a monstrous 2009 season in which he hit 46 home runs and drove in 141 runs. Last season, he only hit 32 home runs and only drove in a miniscule 83 runs while only playing in one less game (161 compared to 162). Look for him to rebound in a huge way this season and perhaps be traded at the deadline if the Brewers are having a terrible season.
At second base is Rickie Weeks, who off one solid season earned a four-year, $38.5 million contract extension. Weeks had been considered a major disappointment leading up to last season, before he had a career-year. His 29 home runs and 83 RBI were both more than he'd ever had, and now, the Brewers will hope that he lives up to his new contract.
Rounding out the infield at third base is the highly productive Casey McGehee, who in his first full season drove in over 100 runs in 2010.
If you think that's a nice infield, check out the outfield. It all starts with left fielder Ryan Braun and includes right fielder Corey Hart coming off a career-year as well.
The offense could be considered terrific but has to see good seasons out of both Weeks and Hart again to be feared.
The bullpen looks a little shaky, and the closer will be John Axford, who did a great job last season. Overall, the Brewers look like a pretty solid club and could possibly contend for a Wild Card spot.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: fourth
2011 prediction: 83-79, third place
St. Louis Cardinals
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In 2011, the only thing related to the Cardinals that you'll hear about is Albert Pujols and his impending free agency. That's unfortunate, because the Cardinals are a good team. It's almost similar to the Denver Nuggets of the NBA. A good team whole spotlight is entirely on a player who may be leaving at season's end.
On the field, the Cardinals will attempt to return to the playoffs after falling short last season in their race with the Reds.
Pujols leads an offense that is starting to look different season-to-season. Newcomers this season include shortstop Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman.
The infield is very lopsided, as other than Pujols, it has zero power. Second baseman Skip Schumaker is a pesky little leadoff hitter but batted under .300 last season for the first time since 2006. He only hit five home runs. Shortstop Ryan Theriot, last season with the Cubs and Dodgers, hit all but two home runs in 586 at-bats. Rookie third base David Freese in 70 games only hit four home runs.
It's very strange to see a team that has a home run machine along with three contact hitters on its infield. Nonetheless, the other three guys can make things happen using small ball and speed.
Perhaps all the power that's needed for St. Louis will come from the outfield. After a slow start last season in his first full with the Cardinals, Matt Holliday finished with nice numbers including over 100 RBI. Colby Rasmus is continuing to progress in center field, and in right field, Lance Berkman and Jon Jay will fight for the job in spring training.
The starting lineup is not the only part of the team with a strong duo. The starting rotation has its version with Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright leading the way.
Although he's aging, Carpenter is still going strong. He put together his second consecutive strong season coming back from elbow surgery, winning 16 games and leading the league in starts with 35.
Listed second on the depth chart, although he should be the ace, is Adam Wainwright. Since becoming a starter in 2007, he's been terrific, and the last two seasons have been Cy Young-caliber. He didn't win the award last season, losing out to Roy Halladay, but Wainwright won 20 games with an ERA of 2.42. These two pitchers are arguably the best 1-2 punch in the NL.
After them, the rotation doesn't get much thinner with last season's rookie sensation Jaime Garcia looking to back up a wonderful 2010. Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse round out the bottom of the rotation.
Along with a nice staff, the Cardinals also have a good back end of the bullpen. On paper, this team looks good, so will they take back the division? That'll be hard with the way the young Reds are developing.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: third
2011 prediction: 90-72, second place
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The Cincinnati Reds made sure every baseball fan knows they're back—for good. Last season, with 91 wins, the Reds returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1995. Albeit they got swept in the NLDS to the Phillies and their rotation, the Reds had a successful first season of relevance and have exciting young players to go along with it.
They even own the reigning NL MVP in Joey Votto. That's right, the Reds first baseman got the award and beat out the Cardinals first baseman.
Votto finally put it all together last season and had an elite year while leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages. He battled Albert Pujols through a big chunk of the summer for a potential Triple Crown award that hasn't been won in the NL since Joe Medwick in 1937. Neither player won it, but it shows you what Votto brings to the table. He can hit and can also knock it out of the park.
He isn't the only Reds player who can hit. As a team, the Reds led the NL in batting average last season.
Another guy who is on the rise in the lineup is right fielder Jay Bruce. He put up career numbers across the board last season and even hit the walk-off home run that clinched the Reds the NL Central.
Those are the players that most people know about, and then, there's another rising star in center fielder Drew Stubbs. He showed power last season, hitting 22 home runs.
The entire lineup for the most part is very dangerous and productive, and it's even better playing 81 games at Great American Ballpark.
One thing the Reds haven't been known for recently—playing at the aforementioned bandbox of a ballpark—is starting pitching. That sentiment is starting to change with the talent and youth that the Reds have.
Ace Johnny Cueto is getting better by the season and was a victim of poor run support last season. Edinson Volquez hasn't done much since his outstanding 2008 season when he won 17 games but has the potential to win that many this season. He missed time last season after being suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.
With two youngsters at the top and bottom, the lone veteran Bronson Arroyo splits them up. Arroyo has been extremely consistent over the years and won a career-high 17 games last season. It was his third consecutive season of winning at least 15 games. The final two starters are Homer Bailey and Travis Wood with Mike Leake looking to earn a job this spring.
In the bullpen, Francisco Cordero may be the closer and a good one, but all eyes will be on Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban defector made 15 appearances last season and will be Cordero's setup man.
The stat to look at when it comes to Chapman this season? How many times does he crack 100 miles per hour on the radar gun and what will be his season high? You can bet he'll get it up to 105 at least once when the summer comes around, especially in hot Cincinnati.
The Reds bring the same exact team back as last season virtually everywhere, and there's no reason to believe they won't win this division again. In fact, they should be even better this time around.
NL Central team rankings
Starting rotation: first
2011 prediction: 93-69, first place