After looking at the NL East yesterday, it's time to move to the NL Central today. It's another division that will be hotly contended, although it is a top-heavy division.
Notes: I fully expect the North Siders to struggle at the plate in 2012. Starlin Castro is a budding star, but there’s little else to get excited about. David DeJesus is not a leadoff man and Bryan LaHair is not a cleanup hitter (though they pretend to play them for Chicago). If those two facts alone don’t suggest how poor the Cubs are offensively, I don’t know what does. They’ll get what they can out of Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto, but it will surely not be enough to compete on a serious level. Garza, Dempster and Maholom anchor a rotation that is respectable but not one I have high expectations of. Journeymen Randy Wells and Chris Volstad round out the pitching staff. Marmol, Samardzija and Wood are a compelling 1-2-3 out of the bullpen, but the rest of the staff is mediocre at best.
Notes: The lineup will produce quality runs because of guys like Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce. They are a well-rounded bunch at the plate and they’ll hold their own throughout the season. If Zack Cozart transitions well and Drew Stubbs can get back to being more productive, they could be fantastic. Starting pitching is solid for the Reds, but not something that will carry the squad. Cueto is reliable, Latos is overrated while Arroyo, Leake and Bailey are predictable but mediocre. Madson and Marshall, plus Masset and Arredondo, make the bullpen reliable and capable. It's unclear as of now just how Aroldis Chapman will be used, as his transition to being a starter is far from complete. The Reds are solid throughout but spectacular nowhere.
Notes: Perhaps the worst of the worst, the Astros will be terrible offensively in 2012. I apologize if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true. Jordan Schafer will get his chance to prove himself in the leadoff role, but Altuve, Martinez (JD), Bogusevic and Paredes are far from household names with proven track records. At least an aging, less mobile, less explosive, overpaid Carlos Lee is still around, right? The pitching will be decent and clearly the relative strength, given Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, JA Happ, Livan Hernandez and Jordan Lyles make up the rotation. Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon will anchor the bullpen, but the rest of the relief corps is underwhelming to say the least. Note: this is what rebuilding looks like.
Notes: Another balanced squad, Milwaukee looks to get back to their old ways after a tumultuous offseason. They saw Prince Fielder walk and Ryan Braun get suspended for 50 games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, only to have him beat the case for the first time in MLB history. Weeks, Braun and Aramis Ramirez give them star power. Mat Gamel will need to live up to his once highly-touted prospect status in his attempt to replace Fielder at first, while Nyjer Morgan and Alex Gonzalez, plus Carlos Gomez, will play complimentary roles. Gallardo and Greinke are fantastic, while Wolf, Marcum and Narveson are all solid, capable, reliable starters. Axford and Rodriguez are fantastic relievers, but there’s little proven depth behind them.
Notes: The Pirates have been a sexy pick to surprise people this upcoming season, but I’m not buying it. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are the only two proven hitters. Presley, Tabata, Jones and Alvarez are promising but unproven. It’s hard to say just how they’ll produce and a lot of the Buccos’ success will depend on them. A rotation of James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens will hardly scare anyone. They aren’t terrible, but they’re definitely not outstanding. Hanrahan, Meek and Grilli are above average, but not by much. The rest of the bullpen is below average. The Pirates are still a ways away from being legit, in my opinion.
St. Louis Cardinals
Notes: It’s yet to be seen just how the offense will react to losing Albert Pujols, but they’re still pretty potent with Holliday and Berkman anchoring things. Furcal and Beltran are legit, too, but need to stay healthy if the Cardinals want to get back to September success. David Freese needs to parlay his success in the World Series into a solid regular season. The rotation, led by Chris Carpenter, gains a stud in Adam Wainwright who returns from surgery. While Carpenter may miss the start of the season (minor injury), the rest of the rotation is solid. Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are all steady contributors who are capable of shutting the opponent down from time to time. Motte is a capable closer who isn’t the most experienced, but has the moxy to work through the ninth. Rzepczynski, Salas and Eduardo Sanchez (not Kenny Powers’ father) round out the reliable bullpen.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
This division is squarely up for grabs. The Cardinals, Reds and Brewers are all capable of taking the division by storm and winning it outright. I give the slight nod to St. Louis given their experience and I feel like they are the least risky option of the three. The Reds and Brewers will nip at their heels along the way and probably all take turns leading the division at one point or another. The Reds’ starting pitching could be problematic and Milwaukee will need to find consistency scoring runs. Make no mistake, this race could go a number of ways. I don’t see it falling in favor of the Pirates, Cubs or Astros, however. Pittsburgh has too many question marks and not enough quality starting pitching. The Cubs are going to struggle to score runs with any kind of consistency. The Astros will probably struggle in just about every aspect of the game. They may be the worst team in baseball in 2012.