U.P.P. *sigh*…come on…you know that never gets old…
First Place: St. Louis Cardinals
GO CARDS!!! No, this is not just my bias talking. I truly think the Cardinals win the division this year. The loss of Wainwright is painful, but Kyle McClellan will shore up the staff on the back-end, albeit while being asked to carry the light end of the innings workload. Lohse is looking strong, Westbrook will get it together, and Garcia should dial it in within the next week and a half. Yeah, Carp’s health/age is a question mark…but I’ll side with Carp in any duke-it-out showdown with the shadow of decline any day. Honestly, the biggest question facing the Cardinals’ pitching staff is the bullpen. Motte’s been ineffective in a ‘pen already stretching to cover the absence of K-Mac, and our second lefty option is…less than inspiring. If we can’t figure Motte out – and fast – this team is in for a wild ride in the later innings this season.
Offensively, a lot hinges on Theriot and Berkman. The rest of the lineup is looking strong, but Schumaker’s production may be dependent on not carrying the everyday leadoff load. If Theriot can’t handle it at least part of the time, Skip’s production will drop. Holliday and Pujols will handle their share of big boppin’ punch, but as we saw last season, they can’t do it all. If Berkman is not the answer in RF (can’t regain his hitting form, can’t stay healthy, can’t hit lefties, etc.), then this team is right back where it was last season. Platoon RF situation with Craig/Jay, exposed third baseman with gimpy ankles in Freese, and a big offensive question mark with significant downside at SS. The emergence of Matt Carpenter may provide some insurance at third…but Tyler Greene is NOT the answer at SS if Theriot can’t produce. Honestly, the best way to cover Theriot’s possible down production is a healthy Berkman.
Okay…enough with the bad news…all in all, the Cardinals are the team to beat in this division. Improved offensive potential and clubhouse chemistry has this team positioned to win the division in 2011…but the reality is that we are still exposed. If Berkman goes down, I don’t see our RF situation in quite as rosy a light as some others do with Craig and Jay. If Theriot can’t get the job done…um…tough? If Freese gets injured…bring up the guy with less than a season at AAA? All in all, I think we’ll be fine…and barring injury, we win the division. But our weakness is, again, depth and offensive gambles. In 2011, the Cardinals win the division due to higher offensive ceiling and a return to form by key players (Freese, Skip, etc.). But it’s by no means a sure thing.
Second Place: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds had an outstanding season last year. They really performed above their potential, if I’m being honest. Rolen was strong 2/3s of the year, Votto won the MVP, and their pitching staff was surprisingly durable all year long. In 2011, expect all of that to change. I don’t see Votto repeating his MVP year (although he’ll be good), and I expect Rolen will begin to slow much earlier in the season. In fact, I expect Renteria and Rolen may try to lean on each other throughout the season at third. Of course, none of that means the Reds have an impotent offense by any stretch of the imagination. With guys like Phillips and Bruce beefing up the top half of the order, they’ll still produce…but in the words of another UCB’er, “this team can be pitched to.” But can they pitch?
The Reds are known for not having “that guy” in their rotation…but having a lot of “those guys.” They’re starting 5 (8?) is stocked full of “used to be’s” and “should be’s”, but that don’t get the job done, son. Cueto and Volquez can be exciting to watch…but they haven’t reached that elite status quite yet. Sure, I’ve seen concern about Cueto’s injury and the struggles of others in the rotation, but I don’t know how much credence to give those concerns. Even if those guys go down for a time, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, and Mike Leake are locked and ready to go. No, I think the Reds’ 2011 story will closely resemble the 2010 story…just with a different ending. They’ll be good on offense, good on defense, but the spectacular may desert them (no MVP season for Votto, no stunning production from Rolen, etc.). Their pitching will be good to solid…but nothing to jump up and down about. It may be enough to win the Wild Card (although I doubt it with Atlanta/Philly dukin’ it out in the East), but it won’t be enough to win the division. In 2010, the Reds over-performed and the Cardinals under-performed. I expect both those outliers to self-correct in 2011.
Third Place: Milwaukee Brewers
This team kinda’ scares me a bit – if for no other reason than their potential to dominate any three-game series at any given time. With Greinke and Gallardo heading the rotation, the pitching will be solid to strong. Greinke’s injury early hurts a team that could have benefited from a quick start – and let’s not forget Greinke has struggled in the past with anxiety but never before found himself in a pennant race – but I think he’ll help this team enough in the latter 2/3s of the season that they’ll be in the mix. Their offense is, without question, stacked. At least three All-Stars (Fielder, Braun, and Hart) sit durably in their every day lineup along with a sluggin’ infielder in Rickie Weeks. Unfortunately for Brewers fans, the good news ends there.
Sure, Milwaukee boasts a potent 1-2 punch in their rotation…but they seem to be handing those out in cereal boxes these days. More and more, it’s beginning to look like the big “contending question” for a team is, “What else ya’ got in your rotation?” I’m not impressed with the Brewer’s answer. Add that to the sudden invasion of medical issues in Brewers camp and their admittedly shallow depth to begin with, and I see the Brew-crew contending for second with the Reds early on but falling to durability and depth issues late in the season. They’ll finish the season somewhat comfortably in third but no better. Perhaps this team’s biggest threat is to the win-loss records of the Reds and Cardinals (spoiler, anyone?).
Fourth Place: Chicago Cubs
I tried really hard to keep myself from being biased on this one. I know the “in” thing seems to be picking the Cubs as some kind of semi-surprise team in the Central…but I’m just not buyin’ it. For one, an awful lot of things have to go right for the Cubs to be in contention. Ramirez has to hit, stay healthy, be consistent, and be a real force all season long. Dempster and Zambrano have to stay in the rotation and dominant against very tough NL Central pitching staffs. Soriano has to figure out how to put his ego-charged swing aside and actually figure out how to get on base for other guys to drive in. Fukudome has to actually live up to at least a portion of the hype behind him since day one. Soto has to…well…okay, he might be a bright spot for the Cubs…but he hasn’t logged more than 331 (2009) / 322 (2010) at-bats in a season for the last 2 years! Maybe if he can reduce his “Rounds Fought (RF)” total with his pitchers, his durability will improve a bit. Personally, I think he should just go for the knockout straight away…save his energy for actually catching a few more innings.
Look…it’s not that I don’t think the Cubs have what it takes…they do (Pena, Soto, good rotation, decent closer, etc.)…but they just haven’t shown an ability to pull it all together. And I don’t see a reason to believe this season will be any different. Hell…Quade’s first Spring on the job, his team gets in a damn brawl in his own dugout…with themselves!!! No…if anything, I think we see a drop-off in performance for the Cubs this year. This team is NOT done redefining itself…not by a long shot. They’ll hang around a bit and battle it out with the Brewers for that third spot, but come July, the wheels will start to come off. Watch for Zambrano to lose his mind again and get traded by a front office with an itchy trigger finger. The Brewers, on the other hand, will ride Greinke, Gallardo, Fielder, Braun, Hart, and Weeks into a strong push for second place but ultimately finish ahead of the dysfunctional Cubs in third. Looks like more of the same from the Cubs for 2011.
Fifth Place: Houston Astros
The Astros have a few things going for them. Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn, Clint Barmes, and Brett Wallace will band together and will this team out of the cellar…but don’t expect much more than that. They don’t have much in the way of pitching (although BudChuck will certainly get his share of wins agains the Cardinals) outside of Happ…and who can really expect much from them anyway in that band box of a stadium? It’s encouraging for Astros fans that the Pirates are still in the division to provide an NL Central cushion…but I would urge them to keep in mind that every other division has only 5 teams. That puts the Astros in Pseudo-Last place in the NL Central. Maybe the team is headed in the right direction with the emergence of a small youth movement in Houston (Wallace?), but you gotta’ keep it in perspective. The Cards, Reds, Brewers, and Cubs aren’t exactly slowin’ down to let the Astros catch up. They’ve got their work cut out for them.
Sixth Place: Pittsburgh Pirates
What a sad, sad little team. I really wanted to put the Pirates in fifth this year…but I just couldn’t do it. Short of McCutchen and Jones, they got nothin’. No pitching, no offense…a few interesting young guys…but that’s it. All in all, it’s just depressing in a division that keeps getting better and better…the Pirates are still the Pirates. I think the only thing I can say here is…Move along, move along…nothing to see here…move along.
That’ll do it for the NL Central U.P.P. (stop doing that!). In short, the Cards and Reds fight it out bitterly ’til the end, the Brewers and Cubs tustle over respectable third, and the Pirates and Astros have a pillow fight to end all pillow fights. Tomorrow…the NL West (they have baseball out there?).