It was harder to win the NL Central last year than any other division in all of baseball—even the AL East.
While the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox battled it out for the AL East crown with Baltimore and Toronto each NL Central team had to compete against five other teams instead of just four. It's the most unfair league-created problem in all of professional sports.
Adding an extra team to any given division race lowers the playoff outlook of every team in that division before any pitches are thrown.
Major League Baseball recognized the problem this year and have forced the Houston Astros to accept a move to the American League in 2013.
The Astros move was the first in a series of incidents that have helped to make the National League Central the most unpredictable division in baseball.
Tony La Russa's retirement and Albert Pujols' departure to Anaheim looms equally large in determining the power landscape of the division. St. Louis has been decimated by these moves and will likely be a completely different team heading into 2012. The presence of a player like Pujols completely alters an opposing pitcher's approach. His absence will do the same thing.
Now, the news that 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun failed a PED test and faces a 50-game ban from Major League Baseball has rocked the already weakened division. Couple that news with the fact that it's become very likely that Prince Fielder will be taking his talents elsewhere and the Brewers will be a shell of their former selves into at least June of next year.
Who Will Win the NL Central in 2012?
The Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds are the big winners in all of this commotion. The Cubs could make a play for a Fielder and then make the claim that they are the only NL Central team to actually improve in the offseason. Everyone else has either significantly declined (St. Louis/Milwaukee) or not made any moves (Cincinnati).
The Reds are a young team with loads of potential and are just one season removed from winning the division themselves. This could be exactly what they need to gain the confidence to dominate next year. Take Braun, Fielder and Pujols out of a division and pitching ERAs should begin to plummet.
All of this adds up to a your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine feeling about the 2012 NL Central race. Their are still plenty of moves to be made, but I don't think anything can be as significant as what we've seen so far.