For the past decade, Major League Baseball has witnessed a level of parity usually reserved for the NFL. From 2001 to 2010, the MLB crowned nine different World Series champions, and National League squads like the Florida Marlins and San Francisco Giants went from division cellar-dwellers to rulers of the roost.
Yet, while the N.L. has seen considerable turnover in its East and West divisions, the N.L. Central has been a rock of consistency in the baseball landscape. In the same time span, the St. Louis Cardinals have claimed five of 10 division championships. And, for as much as the Cardinal franchise has become synonymous with winning, the other Central division teams have shuffled through varying degrees of obscurity, losing consistently while etching out equally unenviable reputations.
However, starting with the upstart Reds’ 2010 ascension through the divisional pecking order, a fissure has begun to compromise the integrity of the Central’s base. Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce’s division-winning homer in August was a chisel-shot to the division’s weakening foundation, foreshadowing the collapse of one of baseball’s most immovable establishments.
Suddenly, a division as predictable as the sunrise was gaining new wrinkles every day. The Cardinals, reeling from an unexpected second-place finish, spent the offseason haggling with its star player, only to open the spring with its ace on the operating table.
Meanwhile, a Brewers team that never seemed to place much value on pitching went out and literally sold the farm to acquire some.
Never mind that the Astros and Pirates did little to improve their chances, or that the Cubs doggedly continue to overpay for subpar talent—in the span of five months, a normally predictable division experienced a seismic shift.
The following is an initial attempt at handicapping what promises to be a tumultuous 2011 National League Central race.