Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

Now that we moved past the Phillies and their ridiculous starting rotation, we can move on to what should be a very competitive division in 2011, the NL Central. The Reds surprised everyone but themselves by taking the Central, then getting promptly trounced by the Phils in the NLDS.  Cincinnati returns as the favorite in the NL Central, but will face some stiff competition for the divisional crown.

NL MVP Joey Votto will look to defend
his crown and propel the Reds
The Cincinnati Reds rode a ton of homegrown talent into the NL playoffs last year and will look to do the same in 2011.  They are a very likeable team that sports a fantastic starting lineup.  First baseman Joey Votto lived up to the expectations and walked away with the NL MVP in 2010.  Though his numbers may take a small dip, he will still be the cog in the middle of the Reds' lineup.  The outfield of Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Jonny Gomes is excellent and each player should expect an increase in performance.  Brandon Phillips is one of the more skilled second baseman and will share the middle of the infield with World Series hero Edgar Renteria.  The lineup will be able to carry the Reds, but don't count out the pitching rotation.  Although the youth of the staff was a big reason they got swept in the playoffs, the rotation should take a step forward this season.  Edison Volquez can be very dominant when he is healthy, while Travis Wood and Mike Leake will improve on impressive rookie debuts.  Leading the starters in Bronson Arroyo, who will never truly shut down the opposition, but can be a very effective pitcher.  The Reds closer to start the season will be Francisco Cordero, but look for Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman and his 105 MPH fastball to step in as the season progresses.  It's always tough to repeat as division champ in the NL Central, but the Reds have the talent to do it.

The Milwaukee Brewers spent their offseason sacrificing their future for immediate success.  They did a very good job doing so.  They made one of the more underrated free agents signings, getting SP Shaun Marcum and his 3.64 ERA.  They then traded their top prospects to acquire 2009 Cy Young winner Zach Greinke from the Royals.  These moves immediately turned a big weakness, starting pitching, into a strength.  Greinke and Marcum now lead a staff that as includes Yovani Gallardo, an very exciting young pitcher who can blow away the competition.  Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson round out a now solid rotation that will help the Brewers compete in the Central.  This is to compliment on of the best lineups in the NL.  Ryan Braun has gotten better each season and will continue to provide outstanding performance for the Brew Crew.  Although it may be his last season in Milwaukee, 1B Prince Fielder will provide tons of power and can carry the team through rough times.  The lineup also includes Cory "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" Hart, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and speedster Carlos Gomez.  The offense will continue to provide for the Brewers, but the big difference this year is the pitching.  A much improved rotation will make Milwaukee true contenders in the NL Central.

The St. Louis Cardinals started off spring training with the NL Central crown in their sights.  They then suffered the biggest loss of the spring, starting pitcher and Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright to an elbow injury.  This threw a top heavy rotation into disarray.  Chris Carpenter now steps into the ace role, though he is an injury risk himself.  Jamie Garcia had a good season converting from the bullpen, but he will be hard pressed to match his numbers from last season.  The 3 and 4 starters are Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse, who can be effective but don't strike fear into any lineup.  The bullpen is OK, but will have a lot of pressure to make up for a depleted rotation.  The Cards will rely on their offense to carry them through the season.  The good news there is that the Cardinals still sport a very nice lineup.  I mean, I will take any lineup that has Albert Pujols in it.  St. Louis made a nice offseason pickup in Lance Berkman, which will give the Cards an outfield with Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus that can really hit the ball well.  Yadier Molina has shown himself to be a decent at the plate, which compliments is stellar defense.  The team will play the 2011 season with the Pujols contract situation hanging over their heads, which will add some pressure to a lineup that will have to carry the pitching.  However, if there is a manager that can pull them through the distractions, it Tony LaRussa.  All this said, the Cardinals took steps backward (aided by the Wainwright injury) to start the 2011, and will need all around great performance by everyone to challenge the Reds and the Brewers.

3B Aramis Ramirez will be the X-factor for
the Cubs offense
The Chicago Cubs. Oh, the Chicago Cubs. My favorite team in all of sports will continue to be the reason my sports life is miserable.  Outside of Marlon Byrd and Carlos Marmol, every player on the 2010 vastly underperformed and drove the Cubs to a 5th place finish and a return to the land of sub-.500 baseball.  After a very promising 2008 and 2009 seasons, Lou Pinella gave up by June and "retired" from managing in August.  The Cubs hired interim skipper Mike Quade over fan favorite Ryne Sandburg (you can see my recap of this here).  The bright side for the Cubs is that they enter the season once again with lowered expectations.  This did not keep the Cubs from making some offseason acquisitions (both from the Tampa Bay Rays).  They signed Carlos Pena to fill the hole at first base and traded some top prospects for pitcher Matt Garza.  While he isn't the ace the Cubs needed, he will be a solid addition to a staff that is good top to bottom, even though it lacks that top line guy.  The Cubs hope Carlos Zambrano, who clearly embraced the departure of Pinella, can continue his great end to the 2010 season (sub 2.00 ERA and 8 wins).  Funny man Ryan Dempster is the leader of the staff, while Randy Wells and youngster Andrew Cashner round out the staff.  Thankfully, Cashner beat out embattled starter Carlos Silva, who exchanged pleasantries with Quade when he was cut.  Carlos Marmol will hope to repeat a stellar 2010 season as the Cubs closer. The lineup can be could as long as the hitters can live up to their potential.  Pena joins Byrd, Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovanny Soto, who are all very capable hitters.  The key will be the performance of 3B Aramis Ramirez, who could be entering his last season in Cubbie Blue.  He has the talent and leadership to carry the North Siders offense.  The Cubs have the potential to compete in the Central, but just have way too many "what-ifs" to truly contend.  Instead, the Cubbies should focus on building for the future and taking key division games from their rivals.

The Houston Astros actually finished off the 2010 fairly strong, even after trading ace Roy Oswalt to the Phillies.  The Astros have had to battle a rapidly aging lineup, a depleted pitching staff, and a weak farm system to attempt to return to the playoffs.  They just don't have the talent right now to compete with the previously mentioned NL Central teams.  Their lineup consists of the talented Hunter Pence, speedy one-trick pony Michael Bourn, and home run hitter Carlos Lee. 1B Brett Wallace has a chance of having a good season, but the rest of the offense in incredibly underwhelming.  As far as the rotation goes, their best pitcher is Wandy Rodriguez has taken good steps forward in the past few seasons.  J.A. Happ, acquired in the Oswalt trade, will have the opportunity to be an impact player this season.  Brett Myers is coming off a great year, so expecting him to return to Earth quickly based on past performance.  Unfortunately for Stros fans, the Houston franchise is pretty stagnant with the need of a new direction.  They will struggle through the 2011 season, only hoping to steal some wins from the teams atop the division.

Young 3B Pedro Alvarez will be small ray of sunlight
for the hapless Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates having been the running punchline of the NL for at least the past ten year.  The front office has proven to be completely incompetant, trying to save money by trading away their best talent for mediocre prospects.  The only thing that keeps the Bucs fans coming is the truly gorgeous PNC Park.  Their pitching staff has been a complete joke and is not looking any better.  The rotation consists of Kevin Correia, Paul Mahom, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald.  They are all capable or surprising teams from game to game, but none are able to put together consistent numbers.  Closer Joel Hanrahan will have some good save opportunities simply because most of the Pirates games will be so close.  On the offensive side, Pittsburgh has two exciting players, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.  McCutchen is actually a very good player, able to hit for average and power, and can steal 30 bases a season. He is still young and will only continue to get better. Alvarez is a top draft pick who is getting his first real shot in the majors and is full of great potential.. He should be the power hitter the Pirates build around for the next 10 years.  The rest of the lineup is full of castaways and Triple-A level players.  There is little hope for the Pirates, who sport the #19 farm system according to Baseball American.  Unless someone with money and a real vision can take over the Pirates, the will continue to dwell in the NL Central cellar.

Baseball's largest division should be neck and neck down to the wire.  The Reds and the Brewers are the favorites in the division, but the Cubs and Cardinals can challenge if everything goes just right.  Both Cincinnati and Milwaukee boast outstanding lineups and good pitching staffs.  In the end, I am going with my gut and picking the Reds, putting a lot of faith in their ability to repeat their 2010 results.  However, the Brewers have the urgency necessary to take it down to the last week of September, so don't be surprised to see the Brew Crew in the postseason.  My pick for the NL Central in 2011: The Cincinnati Reds.

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