Dusty always seems to find a way, doesn't he?
Led by National League MVP Joey Votto and playoff-tested manager Dusty Baker, the 2010 Cincinnati Reds surprised many with 91 victories en route to a well-deserved Central Division title.
With a nearly identical roster, this year's Reds are in good shape; however, the Milwaukee Brewers have finally addressed their most glaring weakness (starting pitching) and should be battling Cincinnati to the bitter end.
The St. Louis Cardinals have suffered a devastating loss in the face of Adam Wainwright -- their tall, 29-year old ace who draws comparisons to Roy Halladay -- but they should have enough left in the tank to make the NL Central a legitimate three-horse race.
According to my preseason mathematical system this division features two of the worst teams in baseball, the Astros and Pirates, and the enigmatic Cubs will be hovering around in an organizational rut similar to the one in Flushing, New York.
Please read on to see how it all shakes out.
Is it a good thing when Hunter Pence is your clear franchise player?
Infield ranking: 28th of 30; Outfield: 24th; Starting pitching: 22nd; Bullpen: 30th
Manager: 21st; Overall: 29th
I've always regarded the Houston Astros as a respectable franchise so I was a little surprised, after ranking all of the relevant players and managers in baseball, to see that they finished behind the likes of the Pirates, Nationals, and Indians.
Nonetheless, the evidence is clear and it stacks up against Brad Mills' club. The "strength" of this team is its starting pitching, led by Brett Myers and lefties Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ, but they still ranked 22nd of 30.
Elsewhere, the additions of SS Clint Barmes and 2B Bill Hall reek of desperation.
Barmes hasn't been a regular shortstop for awhile now (Troy Tulowitzki took over as The Man in Colorado) and Hall's been nothing more than a reserve in recent seasons. Both guys can hit a little but this has to be one of the worst defensive middle infields in the bigs.
1B/OF Carlos Lee is coming to the end of his rope and yet he still has to be considered one of the top two or three hitters on this team. That's not a good thing.
3B Chris Johnson might provide the only glimmer of hope on this roster, as he hit extremely well after taking over as a full-time starter last season. They'll be plenty of pressure on him to produce with runners in scoring position.
The Astros' bullpen projects as the absolute worst. CP Brandon Lyon has had a nice Major League career but is hardly an intimidating force in the ninth inning. He gets rocked for stretches at a time.
It's not going to be pretty in Houston this year.
Clint Hurdle brings some respectability to this disaster of a franchise.
Infield: 29th; Outfield: 19th; Starting pitching: 30th; Bullpen: 23rd
Manager: 18th; Overall: 27th
Congratulations are in order for the Pirates and their fans...
I honestly cannot remember the last time I didn't have them projected last in the NL Central. This is a major accomplishment.
This step up is a credit to their new, upbeat manager Clint Hurdle, budding star CF Andrew McCutchen, and a few talented young players including 3B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, and RP Evan Meek.
At first glance the Pirates don't look as bad as they normally do, but then there's their starting pitching.
Lefty finesse pitcher Paul Maholm is the staff ace and on a good team he'd be a third starter, at best. Acquisition Kevin Correia always seems to entice teams with his decent stuff, but the fact is he's never been able to harness it and become a consistently effective starter.
This club and its faithful are so desperate for a bright spot in their pitching staff that people are raving about RHP James McDonald like he's the second coming of Bob Gibson. I didn't know a 4-6 record and a 4.02 ERA are Hall of Fame credentials.
I actually think former Yankees' reliever Ross Ohlendorf will be the best Pirates' starter in 2011. I mean that. I don't think it's necessary to sarcastically put that into perspective.
I like the arms at the back of the bullpen with Meek and closer Joel Hanrahan; I just wonder how many leads they'll be handed with their rotation constructed as is.
There's hope on this roster but the winning seasons still seem to be years away.
Am I the only one who has nightmares involving this guy?
Infield: 12th; Outfield: 20th; Starting pitching: 15th; Bullpen: 18th
Manager: 20th; Overall: 18th
Before even getting into the specifics, when I think about this particular Cubs unit I immediately think, "Average team."
Sure enough my projections ended up pointing to an 81-81 record for the sometimes-lovable losers from the North Side.
It seems to be a similar story every season regarding their personnel, so to keep things fresh I'll start with first year, full-time manager Mike Quade.
I really like this guy. I remember watching batting practice at Shea Stadium a handful of years back and Quade (who was Chicago's third base coach at the time) was hitting fungos to the Cubs' infielders. I evaluated his appearance, mannerisms, and demeanor, turned to my friends and said:
"This guy is baseball."
My friends knew what I was talking about and agreed.
Quade looks the part. He talks the talk, walks the walk, and there's no question that his players respect and admire him. That dynamic could go a long way for this club.
As for their personnel, this is what I mean about the same old story:
3B Aramis Ramirez is their key RBI guy if he can stay healthy, drastically-overpaid RF Kosuke Fukudome will get more playing time than he should because of the investment, LF Alfonso Soriano will flash immense talent and consistently swing at breaking balls in the dirt, RHP Carlos Zambrano won't pitch to his full potential because of temper and control issues, and RHP Ryan Dempster will walk more batters than he should.
Sound about right?
The undeniable bright spots on this roster are franchise SS Starlin Castro, young outfielder with pop Tyler Colvin, and stellar closer Carlos Marmol.
If everything went right the Cubs could have a shot to win this division.
But like the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA, everything seems to find a way to go wrong for the Cubbies and their honorable fans.
Can the Cards weather the storm without their ace Wainwright?
Infield: 13th; Outfield: 11th; Starting pitching: 11th; Bullpen: 12th
Manager: 1st; Overall: 10th
This is where things really start to get interesting in the NL Central.
I have the Cardinals projected for 88 victories and no team in the division for more than 90. That means it may come down to a matter of good bounces, bad breaks, horrible calls or small miracles.
Without their injured horse Adam Wainwright atop their rotation, the Cardinals are a very top-heavy club.
What I mean by that is their organizational standouts -- 1B Albert Pujols, LF Matt Holliday, SP Chris Carpenter, and manager Tony LaRussa -- are far more valuable than the rest of their personnel.
Their rotation finished 11th in my ranking system, but I'm still concerned about the Cards' starting pitching without Wainwright. Carpenter can fill in as a legitimate ace (if healthy) but there's an awful lot of pressure on second-year lefty Jaime Garcia.
Garcia was a rookie standout but his underwhelming stuff makes me wonder if 2010 was a prolonged fluke of sorts. The kid definitely knows what he's doing out there but can he locate that well, again, for a full season?
I'm not sure he can. Cardinals fans better hope he can.
I don't like the Lance Berkman addition in right field (not a good enough defender, declining hitter) but I do like Ryan Theriot at short. Theriot has proven that he can hit around .300 under the right circumstances and play well enough defensively.
Last year St. Louis completely lacked offensive production from their defensive-minded shortstop Brendan Ryan. Theriot should have no problem outperforming his strong-armed predecessor.
I love C Yadier Molina; he's as reliable as they come.
The offensive question mark is promising 3B David Freese who, according to the Cardinals' coaching staff, may not be healthy enough to play a full season as a starter. He's a key bat when right.
Man, the Wainwright loss really stings. It's going to be awfully close but -- without their stopper -- I think the Cards will fall short of the playoffs again in 2011.
Will Greinke and Marcum be the difference for the Brew Crew?
Infield: 11th; Outfield: 10th; Starting pitching: 4th; Bullpen: 20th
Manager: 30th; Overall: 9th
I look at those rankings and this just doesn't seem to fit: "Starting pitching: 4th."
The Milwaukee Brewers have pitching? How can this be?
For (what seems like) years I've been thinking and saying, "Wow, if the Brewers could only add some starting pitching to this impressive offensive core of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, and Rickie Weeks..."
And now they've done it. RHPs Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are over from the American League and should provide the lift that's been missing from the Brewers in recent seasons.
The days of Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, Dave Bush, Manny Parra, and Doug Davis are over.
The Brewers now have four legitimate arms atop their rotation with Greinke, Marcum, incumbent ace Yovani Gallardo and veteran lefty Randy Wolf.
They've also upgraded at closer with upstart John Axford over future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. The latter got one last chance to close in 2010 but didn't have enough left in his aging body. Axford, the new blood, is a gamer with a live arm.
The question mark for this club is its new manager, Ron Roenicke. The former bench coach of the Los Angeles Angels served under a great leader in Mike Scioscia, but will he be able to manage with the likes of Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker down the stretch?
We'll have to wait and see.
Greinke's one of the most talented pitchers in the game but his cracked ribs and history of psychological issues are both unavoidable concerns of mine.
I like these Brewers but I have the Cincinnati Reds as a better all-around team by the slightest of margins. I think the Reds will ultimately hold them off but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if Milwaukee surged to take down this division.
Infield: 9th; Outfield: 9th; Starting pitching: 17th; Bullpen: 5th
Manager: 9th; Overall: 8th
What is it with headcases in the NL Central?
There's Zack Greinke of the Brewers and reigning MVP Joey Votto of the Reds, who suffered through some psychological issues back in 2009.
Fortunately for the Reds and their faithful, Votto seemed to completely overcome those troubling issues en route to an incredible 2010 campaign and some very hard-earned hardware.
Votto is the cornerstone of this Reds club that I have selected to repeat as champions of the NL Central. I like Cincinnati's balance and mix of young and veteran players.
Manager Dusty Baker has a good problem on his hands: too many solid starting pitchers.
Right-handers Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez should have spots locked up, but Travis Wood, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey are in a three-way battle for the remaining pair of openings.
Wood should have an upper hand on one of the openings because he'll be the only lefty in the rotation. Handedness aside, he's a good enough pitcher.
Righties Leake and Bailey both have good stuff. Leake is younger and expected to be one of the Reds' top starters for quite some time, so I imagine he has a slight advantage over Bailey.
Bailey was in a similar situation a few years back but has never fully turned the corner. He's shown flashes of greatness and that's why the Reds' front office has refrained from dealing him.
I love their young outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs. Both haven't made as much contact as the coaching staff would like, but they have the potential if they improve their plate discipline. They clearly have the ability to do so.
Stubbs has electrifying potential -- he was a 20-homer, 30-steal guy last season. He'll continue to reap the benefits of a favorable home ballpark, and Bruce should be good for 30-plus dingers of his own.
The quiet strength of this team is its bullpen. Francisco "Coco" Cordero will always take the ball and, more often than not, finds a way to get it done.
Setup men Nick Masset and Aroldis Chapman are as good as they come as a righty-lefty combination. I think Bailey would also be effective as a convert.
In the end, the Reds are the defending champions of this division and they don't have any glaring weaknesses. Their manager is experienced and passionate, their star will be a perennial MVP candidate, their pitching is deep and they have a nice balance of raw talent and veteran leadership.
Can you say, "Repeat?"