Monday, March 14, 2011

NL Central Preview

2010 Standings
Cincinnati 91-71 (.562)
St. Louis 86-76 (.531)
Milwaukee 77-85 (.475)
Houston 76-86 (.469)
Chicago 75-87 (463)
Pittsburgh 57-105 (.352)

Season Recap
This division was relatively bottom-heavy in 2010. There was a healthy gap between the teams at the top and the ones at the bottom of the heap. In fact, only two teams in the league's only 6-team division finished with winning records. Pittsburgh finished right where most predicted, dead last and by a wide margin. They broke in several new players while some of their offseason additions didn't work out (Akinori Iwamura). Chicago was disappointing again and there was major turmoil mid-season as Lou Pinella stepped down in the second hald as he cited family issues. Houston wasn't great, but they actually finished the season no a high note. They were attrocious early in the season but had a strong second half under Brad Mills. Millwaukee didn't ever really pose a serious threat in the division despite the fact that they were thought to be a serious contender. Pitching was an issue with them and they had some major dry spells from the plate as well. St. Louis was a strong team but just couldn't seem to click when it mattered most. Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols had strong seasons again but the latter portion of the rotation was rocky at best. Add to the that a very mediocre bullpen and almost no offensive output from third base and you begin to see the wholes in this team in 2010. Cincinnati was far and away the most balanced club in the division and their record reflected that. Joey Votto had an all-star caliber season at first base, Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce were solid and the Reds got better-than-expected performances from Orlando Cabrera, Drew Stubbs and Jonny Gomes. Their rotation was solid and the bullpen did a nice job as well, leading the Reds to the divison title and a postseason showdown with the Giants (which they eventually lost).

Big News for 2011

The biggest addition in the offseason was clearly Zack Greinke, who the Royals shipped away to the Brewers in a blockbuster trade. Matt Garza was traded to the Cubs in the winter as well, in return for some solid minor leaguers heading in the Rays' direction. The Cubs continued the Tampa Bay-connection when they signed first baseman Carlos Pena to a surprising free agent contract, despite Pena having the worst year of his career in 2010. Otherwise, there wasn't a whole lot of news out of this division in the winter.

Up and Comers
Pittsburgh continues to try to produce with homegrown talent. They have some solid position players who broke in last season and hope to continue to develop. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata join promising youngsters Evan Meek and Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh continues to build for the future but it's clear that the future is not now. Shortstop Starlin Castro had a sparkling debut season for the Cubs and everyone is excited to see how the Reds will continue to use 100mph+ lefty Aroldis Chapman. Houston will have to hope that Brett Wallace turns it around in 2011 as he looked lost at the plate in '10. Colby Rasmus blossomed for the Cards last season and rookie pitcher Jaime Garcia had a fantastic debut. There is some good young talent in this division and look for more of it as teams start to fall out of contention in the second half of 2011.

Injury Notes
The hands-down biggest news here was Adam Wainwright having to recieve Tommy John surgery after a few days of spring training. Its a devastating blow to the Cards as they move into their last season of control over Albert Pujols. Zack Greinke will miss the first month of the season with a rib injury, which diminishes his impact to a small degree, but the less innings he throws in the first month might mean he can carry more of the burden down the stretch. The Reds would like to see another season of healthy Scott Rolen but that's no guarantee. Otherwise the division seems pretty healthy at this point.

Prediction Time!!!
Cincinnati and Milwaukee have to the favorites at this point, with St. Louis only a small reach behind. After that, its a clear drop-off. The Astros should be better and they will battle the Cubs for the top spot amongst the also-rans. Pittsburgh just doesn't have the pitching at this point to really contend in the division.

Predicted Standings
1. Milwaukee
2. Cincinnati
3. Houston
4. St. Louis
5. Chicago
6. Pittsburgh

On paper, I love the Brewers despite the early season set-back to Greinke. Add to this the fact that Prince Fielder is in a contract year and I think you get the idea that Milwaukee could have something special. This where the Brewers are tricky, however, as they often don't live up to expectations. Cincinnati will be right there if the Brewers faulter at all and the race should be a tight one. Barring injury, this should be a great pennant race. Houston will be in good shape if their pitching continues to make strides and they get a bounce-back year from Carlos Lee. I think they could make a push to finish third, especially based on how they played down the stretch last year. The Cardinals have been disappointing of late and don't show me the signs of positively turning things around any time soon. The bullpen is questionable and there are holes in the lineup once you get past Pujols, Holliday and Rasmus. Chicago is still meddling in mediocrity. There's some talent there, but its just not going to be enough in this division. Pittsburgh will give the young guys another go in 2011, which is the right play for them. Keep an eye on their young pitching and see how much of it gets called up before the season's over. This will be a strong division at the top, but irrelevant in the bottom two-thirds. It could likely produce the wildcard team in the Nationl League.

Next Up: AL Central

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