With spring training knocking on the door and snow falling outside my window I can't help but dream of baseball. To get ready for the 2011 season I am going to break down each team in each division and give you my predictions for the winner, MVP, and breakout player from each division starting with the National League Central.
Coming off their first NL Central championship since the post-strike-shortened 1995 campaign, the Cincinnati Reds are looking to make a statement and show they have the staying power needed to remain on top of the NL Central. They look to ride the bat of their superstar in the making, and reigning NL Most Valuable Player Joey Votto to another division title. Apart from Votto, the Reds are loaded with talent both young and old. The Reds, who added World Series MVP Edgar Renteria during the offseason, got serious contributions from their veterans during the 2010 season. But more important to their success was the production from the youth in Cincinnati. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs accounted for nearly half of the team home runs. You already know what Votto can do, but Stubbs has all the makings of a 30-30 guy, hitting 22 home runs and swiping 30 bases last season. On the mound, early injuries paved the way for rookies Mike Leake and Travis Wood to establish themselves in the majors, while long time top prospect Homer Bailey showed flares of greatness in the second half of the season. And let's not forget about 22 year old Aroldis Chapman. The lefty dazzled in his first tour with the Reds coming out of the bullpen last year, and looks to remain in the bullpen for the 2011 season.
St. Louis Cardinals
Now that the Pujols saga is over and Albert has reported to Cardinals camp for what could very well be the last time, the Cardinals should be primed to make a run for the division title. St. Louis added Lance Berkman to what could be the most powerful outfield in the division. Matt Holliday is pretty much a lock to have a .300/30/100 season and if 24 year old Colby Rasmus continues his development and makes more consistent contact he could be a major concern for division opponents for years to come. As good as St. Louis' offense looks, it's going to be their pitching staff that makes them contenders this year. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright are coming off of dominating seasons and are healthy. If Jaime Garcia can match his rookie performance (13-8, 2.70 ERA) the Cardinals will have a scary good rotation. Did I mention they still have Pujols?
The Brewers are a tricky team to read. On paper their pitching staff looks tremendous. Newly acquired Zack Greinke is coming off a rough year in which his ERA nearly doubled from his outstanding 2009 season. Yovani Gallardo battled injuries last year but still managed to strike out 200 batters for the second consecutive season. Ryan Braun is about as consistent as they come averaging a .307 BA and 32 HR over his first four seasons. Prince Fielder is on the last year of his contract, and let's face it, money motivates. All in all the Brewers are a solid team with a lot of questions. Can Corey Hart pick up where he left off last year? Will the bullpen be able to finish games? Will the rotation stay healthy physically and mentally? Will Prince Fielder hit 50 HR again?
This Astros team looks like it's still a long way from having the talent to make a run for the division title. They dropped the ball last year by not trading away veteran talent to rebuild their farm system when they were treading water around .500 at the trade deadline. Their top prospect, catcher Jason Castro, looks to be the starter come opening day, and has the potential to develop into an above average hitter at the catcher position. Outside of that, Houston fans won't have too much to cheer for this year with a team that looks destined to struggle with identity and leadership issues.
Wrigley Field was anything but friendly to the Cubs last season. The Northsiders tied for the worst home record in the majors last year going 35-46. The Cubs look to rebound from a frustrating 2010 season with the help of some new faces. The Cubs acquired former Tampa Bay Rays Carlos Pena and Matt Garza. Pena will fill the left handed power void that the Cubs have been missing for years. Garza should continue to put up strong numbers from the number two spot in the rotation. Kerry Wood is back in Chicago, this time as the set up man to Carlos Marmol who struck out 15.99 batters per nine innings last season. Offensively the Cubs look for production out of their youth with Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Blake DeWitt likely to be starters on opening day.
The Pirates are another team that looks to be a few years away from making a run at the division. Pedro Alvarez, the 2008 2nd overall pick, should have a solid sophomore season as long as he can keep his strikeouts under control. Andrew McCutchen, another first round pick by Pittsburgh, could have a breakout season this year. The 24 year old has shown that he can hit for average, has a little bit of pop, plenty of speed and is anything but a liability in center field. Pitching will be the big struggle for the Pirates this year. Outside of reliever Evan Meek, Pittsburgh doesn't have much to be afraid of on the mound. Look for them to ship Lyle Overbay to a contender in need of a left handed bat come July.
NL Central Champion
I see the Cardinals coming out on top of the NL Central this year. They have too much depth on the mound with Carpenter, Wainwright and Garcia at the front of the rotation and a solid closer in Ryan Franklin. Their offense is strong enough to pickup wins when the pitching struggles. The biggest deciding factor for me in picking the Cardinals this year is their track record for big games and their coaching staff. Tony LaRussa continues to put his players in the best situation for them to succeed and Dave Duncan, in my opinion, is the best pitching coach in baseball.
Who Will Win the NL Central?
Albert Pujols. Remember earlier when I mentioned money being a motivator? Now think about motivator being the biggest contract in Major League Baseball history. Then think about the motivatee being arguably the best hitter in MLB history. Pujols should have plenty of chances to drive in runs this season, and with Matt Holliday hitting behind him it won't be an easy call to put him on base. Look for Pujols to be in the hunt for a triple crown this season.
Starlin Castro. Castro had a monster rookie year. Castro was only the fourth player in the last 50 years to hit .300 or better at the age of 20 or younger. Hit hit .300 with 41 RBI and 31 doubles in under 500 at bats last season. His defense was also solid and should only improve with experience. One more year under his belt and a new hitting coach should help the young Castro get over the sophomore slump and into the land of elite short stops in baseball.