PhillyPhanatics.com’s Major League Baseball previews continue with the National League Central
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The NL Central, a mostly small-market division – despite the Cardinals’ and Cubs’ significant resources – looks to have some clear distinction between contenders and teams that a realistically short of the talent necessary to compete in 2012. There could be some surprises, since every team in the division has some bright spots and also some weaknesses.
Ron Opher tries to sort out among the “haves” and the “have nots” in PhillyPhanatics.com’s NL Central preview.
2011 record: 96-66, 1st place
CL John Axford
Season outlook: The Milwaukee Brewers put all that potential together last season and won their first ever NL Central title and a spot in the NLCS. Their failure to recognize that something was amiss with starter Shaun Marcum (19 earned runs in his last 4 regular season starts, then 0-3 with 16 earned runs in his 3 postseason starts) probably cost them a shot at the World Series. Just as after their 2008 wildcard season, the Brewers will have to overcome the loss of a major star through free agency this time around as well. In 2009, it was C.C. Sabathia leaving and winning a World Series with the Yankees. In 2012, Prince Fielder joined the Tigers, who, like the Brewers, came up as runners up in their league championship series last season. The Brewers, who replaced Fielder in the lineup with former Cub third baseman Aramis Ramirez and on the field internally with onetime prospect Mat Gamel, are flying under the radar this season. If Ryan Braun can weather whatever storm remains from his successful appeal of a positive PED test and come close to duplicating his 2011 MVP season, there’s no reason why Milwaukee can’t contend again in 2012.
Projected finish: 2nd place
St. Louis Cardinals
2011 record: 90-72, 2nd place
Key additions: Carlos Beltran
CL Jason Motte
Season outlook: The St. Louis Cardinals, like the Brewers, are dealing with the departure of the centerpiece of their lineup, first baseman Albert Pujols. Also gone are manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who both retired on top. While Adam Wainwright returns to the mound after missing all of 2011, that boost is tempered by Chris Carpenter beginning 2012 on the disabled list with a bulging disc in his neck. The Cardinals did sign Carlos Beltran to join their lineup, and shifted the resurgent Lance Berkman to first base. It would be wrong to write off the Cardinals, but the perception remains that their World Series win and run up to claiming their wildcard spot in the postseason were rather fluky, and will be difficult to duplicate.
Projected finish: 3rd place
2011 record: 79-83, 3rd place
Season outlook: After falling off from their 2010 NL Central win, the Cincinnati Reds look to be serious contenders in 2012. Not much has changed for the Reds since 2010. Young stars like Joey Votto (2010 NL MVP, who recently signed a 12-year, $200 million contract extension) and Jay Bruce are counted on to lead the way, but veterans Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen must also contribute significantly. Losing closer Ryan Madson for all of 2012 to Tommy John surgery after a spring training injury is an obstacle, but the Reds have a deep bullpen that should be able to succeed regardless. The key factor for 2012 is the starting pitching. Johnny Cueto looks to build on his 2011 injury-shortened, but effective season (9-5, 2.31 ERA, 1.09 WHIP in 24 starts), while Bronson Arroyo looks to move past his 2011 disaster (9-12, 5.07 ERA, NL-leading 46 HRs allowed). If hard-throwing Homer Bailey (thumb injury) and the ‘Cuban Missile’ Aroldis Chapman can offer a meaningful contribution, the Reds can ride their arms and potent lineup back to the top in what again looks like a 3-team chase for the NL Central crown.
Projected finish: 1st place
2011 record: 72-90, 4th place
Season outlook: The Pittsburgh Pirates flirted with contention in 2011, but in the end, their string of consecutive losing seasons reached 19 – dating back to the departure of Barry Bonds after the 1992 NL East-winning campaign. It’s hard to say that brighter times are ahead in 2012, as the talent change is rather neutral. The last two drafts, however, have provided a boon to the Pirates that should not only bring them a winning season by 2014, but could deliver a division title by 2015. Keep an eye on the mound with 2010 top pick Jameson Taillon, who spurned Rice University for $8.5 million bucks (from the Bucs) and 2011 top pick Gerrit Cole out of UCLA. Add 2011 second-round pick Josh Bell, a high school outfielder from Texas with top-of-the-first-round talent who was set to go to the University of Texas, but ultimately found an offer he couldn’t refuse in the form of a $5 million bonus (a record for a second-rounder). The Bell situation upset both the Red Sox, who had been tracking Bell all throughout high school, and infuriated commissioner Bud Selig (former owner of the rival Brewers) in that the Pirates were shrewd enough to take in luxury tax money with their low major league payroll, while investing over $50 million in bonuses to build a nucleus of potential franchise players through the draft (rules are about to change to prevent that). Another top player – outfielder Starling Marte – may arrive this September, after a stellar 2011 at AA Altoona and an eye-opening spring training. The Bucs have already taken steps toward respectability, but are eyeing a much higher goal than that.
Projected finish: 4th place
2011 record: 71-91, 5th place
Season outlook: It is hard to understand how a team with the resources of the Chicago Cubs can paint themselves into the corner of owing so much money to so many underproductive players (Alfonso Soriano $54 million over next 3 seasons, Ryan Dempster – $14 million for 2012). The team is finally rid of Carlos Zambrano, traded to the Marlins for a younger underachiever – Chris Volstad. A lot is riding on the move to bring in GM Theo Epstein from Boston. Epstein is preaching patience, as he looks to make his mark in the Windy City. One move he made that hearkens back to his Red Sox roots was trading the hard-throwing but disappointing Andrew Cashner to the Padres for first base prospect and former Boston farmhand Anthony Rizzo, who was suddenly buried on San Diego’s depth chart with their acquisition of Yonder Alonso from the Reds. It will take more than bringing in other organization’s leftovers to turn the Cubs around, but Epstein knows what he’s doing and should be able to get the job done – assuming ownership and Cubs fans, who have been waiting since 1908, can be just a little more patient.
Projected finish: 5th place
2011 record: 56-106, 6th place
CL Brett Myers
Season outlook: The Houston Astros are using 2012 to see which of their younger players can play, and which ones can’t. Carlos Lee is still a middle-of the-order bat and Brett Myers will return to being a closer after being a starter for the last four seasons. Wandy Rodriguez is also a veteran presence on the mound, as is Chris Snyder as a backup catcher. Everyone else in a key role has two years or less of major league experience. A new owner is in town, with a new front office (Ed Wade won’t be able to stock the Phillies anymore). With the Astros set to move to the AL West in 2013, the good news is that their likely sixth-place finish in 2012 will be their last for a long time – since MLB will have six 5-team divisions beginning next season.
Projected finish: 6th place