MLB Preview: NL Central

I’ll admit that it’s hard to think objectively here. As you all well know, I’m a Cards homer through and through. And while I thought long and hard about picking Cincinnati to win the division, I just can’t seem to pick against this Cardinal club. Not after last September; not after October. Not even after losing Pujols to free agency, TLR to retirement and Chris Carpenter to a mysterious neck / nerve injury. You can accuse me of thinking with my heart here, but I really think the Cardinals could be one of the NL’s best again this season, even without #5.

1st place: St. Louis Cardinals

Last year, I picked the Cards to finish 3rd in the division after Adam Wainwright’s season ending injury in spring training. Truth be told, Carp’s injury is probably residually related to Waino; in the wake of Adam’s injury, Carpenter threw an NL-leading number of innings, postseason included. All indications are that Wainwright is back and this club will need him in a big way. But the rest of the staff — Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and fill-in Lance Lynn — is solid and the bullpen is filled with power arms in Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez and Scrabble. The lineup boasts great balance with three switch-hitters (Rafael Furcal, Lance Berkman, and Pujols’ replacement, Carlos Beltran). Matt Holliday is still a force in the middle of the order and David Freese seems primed to ride last season’s postseason heroics into a full season of excellence. Carpenter probably won’t pitch until the second half, but the Cards are also in the Roy Oswalt sweepstakes if they need him. One note: this is a fairly brittle bunch of players. In Waino, Carp, Furcal, Beltran, Berkman, and Freese you have a core of oft-injured contributors. But if healthy, they’ll be there. If not…

2nd place: Cincinnati Reds

When they added Mat Latos to the rotation and Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall to their bullpen this offseason, I shuddered. But then I remembered how terrible Dusty Baker is at managing a pitching staff, and my fears dissipated. (Snarky, snarky.) Seriously, this team will be a force this year. Latos and Cueto give them a nice 1-2 punch and the bullpen is still tremendous, Madson’s injury notwithstanding. For some reason, they continue to think of Aroldis Chapman as a reliever, which is fine by me. He’s been electric this spring. Offensively, Joey Votto anchors a veteran lineup that blends Jay Bruce’s raw power with Drew Stubbs’ blinding speed. They have less health risks than St. Louis, so they could easily win the division. But I’m picking them to come up just short this year.

3rd place: Milwaukee Brewers

Having Ryan Braun for the full season puts the Brew Crew back in the conversation. Sure, they’ll miss Prince, but Aramis Ramirez is a nice consolation prize. In Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers have two dominant aces and John Axford is a lights out closer. But you have to wonder how the PED controversy will affect Braun. Will the lingering questions, the constant boos have any impact on his game? Time will tell. Keep your eye on Matt Gamel this season. I watched him tear up AA pitching a few summers ago when he was here in Huntsville (batting cleanup behind Matt LaPorta). He has the minor league pedigree, but it’s never translated into major league production. If he puts it all together, he can help compensate for Fielder’s loss.

4th place: Pittsburgh Pirates

Now we reach the clear-cut second tier in this division. Any of the top three could win the division and any of these next three could be the worst team in the league. I rank Pittsburgh here for one reason: neither the Cubs nor the ‘Stros have a player on their roster with the all-around ability of Andrew McCutchen. But the rest of the lineup is lightweight. The rotation is filled with high-upside guys like Erik Bedard (a K/9 force when healthy) and A.J. Burnett (who still has the “stuff” to dominate on occasion). And the ‘pen isn’t bad; Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek can be pretty solid. Until Pedro Alvarez, Alex Presley, Brad Lincoln and Gerrit Cole put it all together, though, this team struggles to contend in a tough division.

5th place: Chicago Cubs

Here’s the good news: you brought in Theo Epstein, architect of the recent iterations of the Bandwagon Boston Red Sox. Oh, and Starlin Castro is pretty good. Now the bad news: everything else. Theo is blowing this thing up and who could blame him. But if they’re going to deal some of these albatross contracts (most notably, Alfonso Soriano), they’re going to have to absorb some serious payroll, which will hamper their rebuilding. In Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, the Cubbies have the makings of a so-so rotation, but after that it’s grim. Carlos Marmol is a headcase (with $17 million left on his contract). And Kerry Wood is still hanging around, for whatever that’s worth. This team will be very bad for several years. And nothing could make this Cards fan any happier.

6th place: Houston Astros

I simply can’t figure out why they’d take one of their few tradeable commodities (starting pitcher Brett Myers) and convert him to closer. With this lineup and rotation, there’s not going to be much to save. Bud Norris is nice. So is Wandy. But where are the runs coming from? Carlos Lee? Please. Brian Bogusevic? See my point. The only bad part about this for me is that after this year we can’t perpetually beat up on the Astros as a division foe. Enjoy the AL West, fellas.

All Division Team

C Yadier Molina

1B Joey Votto

2B Brandon Phillips

SS Starlin Castro

3B Aramis Ramirez

LF Ryan Braun

CF Andrew McCutchen

RF Carlos Beltran

SP Zack Greinke

SP Mat Latos

SP Adam Wainwright

SP Yovani Gallardo

SP Johnny Cueto

RP John Axford

Manager Dusty Baker, I guess. Although I’ll take my chances with Mike Matheny.

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