Change has come to the NL Central: Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa are out, Theo Epstein is in, and nobody knows the precise status of Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun.
2012 looks to be an intriguing season already. Will the St. Louis Cardinals chase postseason glory again? Can the Milwaukee Brewers defend their title? Is change really coming to Wrigley? What about the 2010 NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds? Can the Pittsburgh Pirates (with apologies to the Houston Astros) pull off a winning season?
Here are my early predictions for 2012, from worst to best.
The Houston Astros may be the worst team in the MLB. Wandy Rodriguez is a decent pitcher, and Brett Myers and Bud Norris performed respectably, but the Astros led all of baseball in losses, and led by a large margin.
The Astros just do not have any impact players or even much in the way of utility players. An aging Carlos Lee is their best player, and he cannot lead them out the hole they are in.
Perhaps a switch to the AL will do the Astros some good.
The Pittsburgh Pirates surprised the baseball world last year when they put together an impressive first half, but they could not keep it together. Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens all pitched well last year, but they are not going to dominate many teams, even if they replicate their success.
The Pirates' offense needs some more pop before they can contend. They need at least one player to hit .275 or belt 25-30 home runs. Andrew McCutchen is a good player, but he cannot anchor this team by himself.
The Cubs have holes nearly everywhere. With Aramis Ramirez gone, and Carlos Pena's departure likely, the Cubs will experience a severe power outage in 2012. Starlin Castro cannot carry this offense alone.
Matt Garza is a good pitcher and a legitimate ace, but after him, the Cubs have problems. Dempster and Zambrano are expensive underachievers, and they are the best of the rest.
The Cubs defense was the worst in baseball last year, and the only bright spot is that it cannot get any worse.
Relief pitching is the Cubs' best area. With Sean Marshall, Jeff Samardzija, Kerry Wood and a hopefully better Carlos Marmol, the bullpen has the potential to be very good. But the Cubs need a lot of work before they can challenge the National League Central title again.
After climbing all the way to the top of the division in 2011, the Brewers suffered a few setbacks almost immediately. Much was made over the Brewers acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum last offseason, but make no mistake—the Brewers' success was built around offense. In 2011, the Crew finished around the middle of the league in ERA, but a healthy third in batting average and first in slugging percentage.
Without Prince Fielder and possibly without Ryan Braun for 50 games, the Brewers are a different team. Aramis Ramirez will provide some pop, but he is not on a Fielder/Braun level, and his immobile style of playing third base will not help the Brewers' already sloppy defense.
Cincinnati could make another run at the NL Central crown this year.
The Reds' offense is solid. Joey Votto is nearly guaranteed to provide another year of MVP-like production, and Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce can provide some extra pop. Cincinnati also knows how to make the most out of their lineup, as they placed second in the National League in runs in 2011.
The big question mark for the Reds is pitching. Johnny Cueto has developed into an excellent young pitcher and could thrive in the ace role. Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo have not lived up to potential, and their performance could make or break this team.
Aroldis Chapman could possibly make his way into the rotation as well, but his power might limit the amount of innings he can effectively pitch. Dusty Baker has a track record of overworking young flamethrowers (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior), so the Reds need to be especially careful with Chapman.
St. Louis is still in good shape, with or without Albert Pujols. Yes, Albert Pujols was their best player, but the Cardinals are a balanced and dangerous club.
The return of Adam Wainwright is essential here. With Wainwright, the Cards will have two aces, and a very good number three pitcher in Jaime Garcia. The top of the rotation alone is enough to keep the Cardinals in postseason discussions.
Luckily for St. Louis, the Cardinals' offense is also good, even without Albert Pujols. Lance Berkman has shown he can put up MVP numbers and Matt Holliday is good when healthy. If David Freese really breaks out, the Cards could have a potent offense.
There a lot of variables here, with much depending on Adam Wainwright and new manager Mike Matheny. But if the Cardinals can play to their potential, they are the best team in the NL Central.