Friday, February 24, 2012

NL Central Preview

1st Place-Milwaukee Brewers
2011 Record: 96-66
2011 Pythagorean: 90-72
2012 Projected: 94-68
No Prince Fielder? No problem.  Milwaukee vastly improved the left side of their infield, and Fielder's departure opens up a full-time gig for Mat GamelAramis Ramirez was one of the best bats available besides Fielder, Pujols and Jose Reyes, and as long as he stays healthy I think he'll do fine with the Brewers.  The loss of Fielder means the lineup is right-handed heavy this year, but I don't think scoring will be too much of an issue for the team that paced the Senior Circuit in home runs last season and could get 30 apiece from Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart.  But the Brew Crew will win the division again because they have the pitching to go with their hitting; Zack Greinke, Shaun Macum and Yovani Gallardo form one of the more underrated big threes in baseball, and Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson are reliable back-end of the rotation guys.  Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford are a lethal one-two punch at the end of gamesAnd in case you missed it, reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun won his appeal and will not serve a 50 game suspension for failing a drug test.  Losing him for two months likely would have cost the team multiple wins and perhaps a playoff berth, so having him available for the entire season is a crucial bonus.  Fun fact; the Hebrew Hammer swiped more than twice as many bases (33) last year than anyone else on the team.  Yeah, the Brew Crew can hit the ball a long way, but they don't run much.

2nd Place-Cincinnati Reds
2011 Record: 79-83
2011 Pythagorean: 83-79
2012 Projected: 90-72
I think this year's squad will play more like the 2010 version that won the NL Central instead of last year's sub-.500 disappointment.  Their offense (second in the league in runs scored) wasn't the problem last year, but their below average pitching was.  That weakness could be a strength in 2012, with burgeoning ace Mat Latos joining Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and potentially Aroldis Chapman in the rotation (all of whom are in their mid-20s--besides Arroyo--and therefore still have some room to grow).  The Reds also snagged Ryan Madson on a one year/8.5 million dollar deal to fill the closer vacancy left by Francisco Cordero.  The lineup is a force to be reckoned with; Joey Votto is one of the best hitters in baseball, Jay Bruce could mash 40 home runs, Brandon Phillips does everything well, and Drew Stubbs, the NL version of B.J. Upton, could explode if he cuts down on his strikeouts (but Dusty Baker really needs to stop batting him leadoff after he whiffed 205 times last season).  Even if Scott Rolen breaks down again and Chris Heisey doesn't sock 20 homers, Cincy still has plenty of weapons capable of putting runs on the board.  Like everyone else, they just need their pitching to hold up.

3rd Place-St. Louis Cardinals
2011 Record: 90-72
2011 Pythagorean: 88-74
2012 Projected: 89-73
The defending World Series champs needed an epic collapse from the Atlanta Braves and every break along the way just to win the NL Wild Card last year, and they enter 2012 loaded with question marks.  How will the club adjust to life without Albert Pujols, the face of the franchise since 2001, and Tony LaRussa, the team's skipper since 1996?  Can brittle shortstop Rafael Furcal stay healthy and provide any value out of the leadoff spot?  Will Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran replicate their successful 2011 comeback campaigns? What can be expected of Jon Jay, Allen Craig and David Freese? Who will man second base? Can Adam Wainwright be the ace he was before missing all of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery? How long can Chris Carpenter remain a top shelf starter?  How will the bullpen respond to stability? I think it's safe to say the Redbirds wildly overachieved last year considering Wainwright didn't start a game, Matt Holliday missed extended time and Pujols suffered the worst season of his prolific career.  The Machine is irreplaceable, but getting Wainwright back and adding Beltran to the mix should compensate for his loss.  The Cards still have enough hitting and pitching to get back into October, but this is a top-heavy team and there's just too much uncertainty to predict another World Series crown.  If Berkman and Beltran break down, the lineup will lose a lot of its punch, and if Wainwright and/or Carpenter can't stay healthy then they'll be in trouble.  The fate of this team rests in the hands of a few, which is always risky in this fickle sport.

4th Place-Pittsburgh Pirates
2011 Record: 72-90
2011 Pythagorean: 70-92
2012 Projected: 74-88
Pittsburgh was the feel good story in baseball for most of the summer; they were in the hunt for a playoff berth in late July and seemed to have turned their fortunes around after two decades of losing seasons.  With the Bucs playing the role of lovable underdogs, PNC Park was full again, the media jumped on the bandwagon and it looked like the team was a only a couple deadline deals away from getting themselves over the hump.  But anybody who paid attention could see they were clearly overachieving, that they were winning with smoke and mirrors, they didn't have the pitching nor the hitting to make a serious postseason run, and that they were nothing more than a flash in the pan.  Sure enough, the ax fell and they went 21-46 after my birthday, July 19th.  Now I don't think the Pirates are that bad, but there's no way they're as good as they appeared to be in the first half, either.  There's enough young talent here to be optimistic; Andrew McCutchen could be this year's Matt Kemp, and he's surrounded by a decent group of complementary players like Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Jose TabataAlex Presley, and Pedro Alvarez, who needs to start making more contact if he wants to become the next Mike Stanton (otherwise Clint Hurdle will be forced to play Casey McGehee more).  The rotation is headed by two high-risk, medium-reward guys in A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, but they're surrounded by mediocrity; Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald will all probably regress somewhat.  I like the Evan Meek/Joel Hanrahan combo as the eighth and ninth inning firemen, but the bullpen is in serious need of a lefty reliever.  If everything breaks right (Bedard and Burnett stay healthy/return to form, McCutchen and Alvarez bust out), we could see the first Pirates team with a winning record since Barry Bonds led them to the brink of the World Series in 1992.

5th Place-Chicago Cubs
2011 Record: 71-91
2011 Pythagorean: 70-92
2012 Projected: 72-90
The Cubbies are like the New York Mets of the NL Central; they were serious contenders a few seasons ago but a bloated payroll combined with age, injuries, and bad signings prompted a swift fall into the cellar.  New team president Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do here.  He made a flurry of boring moves this winter (David DeJesus? Ian Stewart?), but failed to land the coveted Prince Fielder and admittedly it's gonna be a while before Chicago can compete with the top dogs in their division.  At least he has some young talent to build around, which is more than the Astros can say!  Starlin Castro is a star in the making, Bryan LaHair has potential at first, Matt Garza is a proven frontline starter, and Carlos Marmol could be the game's best closer if he improves his command.  I expect Ryan Dempster and Geovanny Soto to bounce back, especially since the latter is an every-other-year kind of player (and last year wasn't pretty).  The lineup will sorely miss the powerful tandem of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Pena at the heart of it, and will suffer from having to fill their spots with Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano  Unfortunately the rotation is still a disaster, especially since it's relying on some combination of Paul Maholm, Randy Wells, Chris Volstad, and Travis Wood to make a lot of starts.  The bullpen is pretty weak, especially if Marmol can't limit baserunners. 

6th Place-Houston Astros
2011 Record: 56-106
2011 Pythagorean: 62-100
2012 Projected:59-103
Houston fielded the worst team in the majors last year and haven't done much to improve their fortunes.  They gave traded away their two best position players, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, at the deadline last year.  The duo left behind a lineup that's absolutely terrible and has the look of a minor league offense; full of uninspiring, mediocre young players.  Carlos Lee is the only "threat" there (as dangerous as a .261/.316/.431 hitter the past two years can be) and he'll turn 36 in June.  I have hope for J.D. Martinez, but honestly believe that nobody else wearing an Astros uniform will provide league average production.  I mean, Jed Lowrie? Jose Altuve? Jordan Schafer? C'mon.  And those are the guys at the top of the lineup.  The rotation isn't terrible but it lacks a true ace.  Wandy Rodriguez looked like he could be that guy a few years ago but he's plateaued as a streaky number two and Brett Myers, who was supposed to lead the staff after finishing tenth in the NL Cy Young race during a surprising 2010, suffered a demoralizing regression to the mean.  Expect both names to be floated around in trade offers during July. At least Bud Norris made great strides last year, and 2012 could be the season that the soon-to-be-27-year-old takes off.  I view him as a Brandon Morrow-type in that he has the stuff to be a top shelf starter, but needs to harness his control in order to do so.  In the bullpen, Brandon Lyon has to prove that he can stay healthy enough to be a full time closer again.  Mark Melancon will be missed.  There's just nothing to like about this team, and I'd be shocked if they managed to keep their loss total out of the triple digits.  The 'Stros blew up their team and started from scratch, which means a lengthy rebuilding process for the several more years.

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