2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

I’ve thought a lot about this division. A lot. Which should come as no surprise given my lifelong allegiance to the St. Louis Cardinals. In honor of Opening Day, here is my review of the National League Central Division.

There are really two tiers to this division. The Cards, Brewers, and Reds are playing on a different plane. The dregs of this division (Cubs, Astros, Pirates) are some of the worst teams in the majors. Don’t believe me? Have you looked at some of these pitching staffs? The Pirates Opening Day starter is James McDonald. He’s followed in the rotation by the attorneys at Maholm, Correia, and Ohlendorf. Ugh. And the Astros and Cubs are only slightly better, trotting out the likes of J.A. Happ, Bud Norris, and Carlos “Anger Management” Zambrano. If you seriously think you can rely on him for quality, non-tantrum filled innings this year, you’re crazy.

But I digress. It’s the top of the division that commands the most attention. And rightfully so. The Reds are reigning Central Division champions and they return largely intact, only this time aided by the bee-bee throwing left arm of Aroldis Chapman for the entire season. The Brewers made quite a splash in the offseason, acquiring Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum to shore up a beleaguered pitching staff. And despite failing to sign Albert Pujols to an offseason extension and losing ace Adam Wainwright to injury this spring, the Cardinals come into camp this year as a veteran team with something to prove. It should be a fun race.

1st place: Milwaukee Brewers

I really like what the Brewers have done. Adding Greinke and Marcum to the mix with Gallardo, Wolf and Narveson gives them the best rotation in the division. Of course, this is assuming everyone is healthy. Marcum has been a little nicked up and Greinke is going to miss a handful of starts thanks to his basketball regimen. But it sounds like they’ll both be full tilt in a couple of weeks. The offense is also strong, with Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee creating a formidable top of the lineup. It remains to be seen whether CF Carlos Gomez and C Jonathan Lucroy are quality regulars, and closer John Axford is still awfully inexperienced, but I think this team is good enough to win the division outright.

2nd place: Cincinnati Reds

This lineup was stellar last year. The Reds led the NL in batting average, runs, home runs and OPS. Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto is coming into his prime as an offensive force and OF Jay Bruce isn’t far behind. So scoring runs shouldn’t be much of a problem. But I do expect some regression from a few guys: in his minor league career, Drew Stubbs never flashed the kind of power he displayed at the big league level last year; Jonny Gomes’ 2010 also looks like a career year; and regression seems to have already set in for Brandon Phillips and Francisco Cordero. Still, this is a dangerous team. It looks like injuries have taken a little bite out of them, too: SP Johnny Cueto is slated to begin the season on the disabled list. But it would be a total surprise if the Reds did not assert themselves in this division and in the wild card hunt.

3rd place: St. Louis Cardinals

This pains me. It really does. But I’m a realist. A lot of things would have to break right in order for the Cards to surpass Cincy and the Brew Crew. Lance Berkman has to a) stay healthy, b) not kill himself trying to play RF for the first time in 5 years and, c) reestablish himself as an offensive force. Chris Carpenter has to stay healthy all season (he’s already tweaked a hammy this spring) and provide 230 innings of Cy Young-caliber pitching. Kyle McClellan has to respond to an increased workload, shifting from the bullpen to the rotation in light of Adam Wainwright’s season-ending elbow injury. After nice rookie campaigns, SP Jaime Garcia and 3B David Freese must continue to elevate their play. And Colby Rasmus needs to stay motivated all season long in order to stay in the lineup and out of Tony LaRusa’s doghouse. Like I said, a lot has to break right. And I just don’t see it happening. Here’s the good news, Cards fans: we have the best player in the game under contract for at least one more season. But somethings are going to have to break just right for that to continue, too. Enjoy it while you can. Hey, at least we’re better than the Cubs!

4th place: Chicago Cubs

Proof that these guys are absolutely clueless: the Cubs make a huge push to acquire Matt Garza this winter from the Rays. Sounds like a nice move on the surface, right? But Garza is an extreme flyball pitcher, a recipe for disaster in the wind-blown-home-run capital of the world, Wrigley Field. Whatever. Hey, big news: the Cubs re-signed Kerry Wood this offseason, too. I hear Shawon Dunston and Jerome Walton are ready for the reunion tour. This team is awful.

5th place: Houston Astros

Only the Pirates and Mariners scored fewer runs last season than the Astros. So management went out and addressed this problem by acquiring…Bill Hall, a journeyman who hasn’t hit higher than .254 in 5 years. The other big offseason acquisition was Clint Barmes, a banjo-hitting middle infielder with exactly one season of 500+ at-bats. This team is even worse than the Cubs.

6th place: Pittsburgh Pirates

Their cleanup hitter is Lyle Overbay. What else do you need to know?

All-Division Team

C Yadier Molina

1B Albert Pujols

2B Brandon Phillips

SS Starlin Castro

3B Aramis Ramirez

OF Matt Holliday

OF Ryan Braun

OF Andrew McCutchen

SP Chris Carpenter

SP Zack Greinke

SP Yovani Gallardo

SP Edison Volquez

SP Brett Myers

Closer Carlos Marmol

Manager Tony LaRussa

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One Response to 2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

  1. Dylan says:

    Hey! Lyle Overbay hit 5th for the Jays last year and wasn’t too bad. Although he kind of looks like a boulder with a face on it. I actually predict my Astros to finish last. They’re so bad, it’s depressing. We have the worst manager in major leagues and an owner that hasn’t spent money since 2005. It took them until LAST year to realize “Maybe we should trade some of our guys and start rebuilding.” We do have some intriguing young pitching, but I’m not expecting anything this year.

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