Here we go, baby! The Cardinals’ stomping grounds…the big dog’s play pen…the ‘ol NL Central. A championship always makes predictions interesting…especially when one of the teams in the division actually won the Central last season while a different team won the World Series.
The division as a whole is weakened – Pujols and Fielder both left for the American League, the Cubs seem to be settling in for a lengthy re-building phase, and the Astros appear to be packing for the AL. But that doesn’t mean this division isn’t ready to provide one helluva’ season. All the changes could lead to a tight cluster of teams near the top half of the standings…and none of them particuliarly like each other.
So…let’s get into it:
1. Cardinals: They’re the reigning World Champions…that has to mean something. But whatever it means, it doesn’t mean as much as the return of Adam Wainwright. With Waino back in the rotation, the National League is in for an entertaining comeback tour. Add to that a more mature Garcia, an improved Westbrook, and a consistent Lohse…and the Cardinals’ main four are looking strong. Yes, Carp’s out for a bit…but he’ll pitch before long this year. Lynn is more than capable of keeping his spot warm – it was just two months ago that people were expecting him to compete for a spot – and a back-up plan of a rested Roy Oswalt ain’t too shabby. So let’s talk offense…
Pujols left, but Berkman returns to first base while Beltran signs on to man the outfield. Holliday is ready to finally live up to the hype in St. Louis. David Freese looks prepared to put together a full season at third. And Molina appears to be taking strides in the right direction at the plate instead of just behind it. Add to that the fact that Allen Craig will likely make the Opening Day roster, and the Cardinals offense is looking strong. But perhaps the most noticeable positive change could be at second base.
For years the Cardinals have allowed second base to wallow in mediocrity. Skip started off promising – flashing .300 potential – but injuries and inconsistencies have derailed his seasons more often than not. As a result, the organization has sought an upgrade in 2012. They may have found one in Tyler Greene. Greene offers unique speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths while flashing a bat capable of hitting for both average and power. That combination of speed, average, and power – along with his willingness to take a walk – make him a potentially dangerous upgrade at second. He could be the most significant offensive change in the Cardinals’ lineup…if he works out.
2. Reds: The Reds under-performed last season…and Jocketty knew it. This team is a contender as is…no need to overreact and sell the farm. But that doesn’t mean Walt stood still, either. The Latos deal shows a desire to win now – perhaps while the team still fields a right side infield of both Phillips and Votto – but may not translate into an extreme upgrade in the rotation. Of course, the Reds have the luxory of being the only member of the Big 3 in the NL Central that did NOT lose an offensive centerpiece. That says something. But the big quesiton is which Reds team is the real Reds team?
In 2010, the team won the NL Central…but did they over-perform? In 2011, they finished a sub-.500 third…but again, they likely under-performed. The likely answer is that the Reds are actually somewhere between their 2010 and 2011 finishes. Ultimately, the Reds’ season could rest on the iffy shoulders of Scott Rolen. A strong, 130-140 game season by Rolen…and the Reds could push the Cardinals. But an early end to the season…or a sub-par offensive campaign…and the Reds will find themselves battling for position as also-rans.
3. Brewers: Yes, losing Prince Fielder will mean that much. The Cardinals lost Pujols…but with the signing of Beltran and the reasonable expectations surrounding Allen Craig and David Freese, one could argue that his departure will hardly be noticed in the standings. The Brewers, however, did nothing to replace Prince. Combine that with Shaun Marcum’s reported shoulder concerns and the Brewers’ roster appears vulnerable. And I don’t know anyone who expects the Brewers to replicate their unbelievable home record from 2011.
4. Pirates: The Pirates may not be a true contender, yet…but their days as perennial bottom-feeders appear to be over. McCutchen and company will keep this team afloat in a six-team division, but don’t expect much more than that by September. Now all they have to do is figure out how to avoid the cellar in the next five years when the Astros have migrated to the AL and the Cubs are beginning to emerge from their re-building period.
5. Cubs: The small bears are clearly preparing to contend in the future…but not now. Whenever you have a team so willing to sacrifice the short-term for the long-term, counting on them for many wins is never a good idea. Theo will likely preach patience and hope…at the expense of wins in the now. Another losing season for the Cubs…but that could change in the next few years.
6. Astros: In their farewell tour of the National League, the ‘stros are already looking ahead. Why fight for third now when you could begin preparing to contend in seasons to come? That’s the question Jeff Luhnow is facing with this team. All decisions, deals, etc. will be focused on the AL next summer. In the meantime, enjoy watching the Astros as an NL Central team for the last time. They’ll be missed.
And once again…we wrap it up. A generally weakened division, the NL Central should at least be interesting to watch. The gap between the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers could be smaller than it has been in the last ten years. But ultimately, the Brew-crew should fall off and the Cardinals should pull ahead come September.
P.S. If you haven’t been there already, go check out the rest of the UCB Predictions HERE.