The NL Central should be the tightest, most competitive division in baseball. I could easily see any one of four teams winning the crown. A short capsule will preview each team, listed in predicted order of finish.
1- Cincinnati Reds
If the Reds are going to win this year, they will need a strong performance from the starting staff. Manager Dusty Baker has plenty of talent in the rotation with Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo at the top along with youngsters Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey. Aroldis Chapman could be coming soon as well, once he gets his arm back into shape after a spring back issue put him on the shelf. The bullpen should be solid with closer Fransisco Cordero and two quality left handers.
The key to the offense will be a full season from first baseman Joey Votto. One of the best young hitters in the game, Votto missed much of last year dealing with personal problems. If he’s right, adding a healthy Votto to young hitters like Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs will compliment veteran hitters Scott Rolen, Johnny Gomes, Orlando Cabrera, and Brandon Phillips to make this one of the deepest lineups in the league.
2- St. Louis Cardinals
Manager Tony LaRussa always gets the most out of his teams and this year should be no different. The rotation has two Cy Young quality arms in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, but the loss of Joel Pineiro will hurt. Pitching guru Dave Duncan has his work cut out for him in trying rebuild the careers of Kyle Loshe and Brad Penny. The bullpen features Ryan Franklin as the closer and two solid lefties in Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller.
The lineup has some holes, but the middle of the order will be among the best in the league with Albert Pujols, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Holliday. Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick will need to have big years for the Cards to make a playoff push, but that’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
The lineup will not be a problem for manager Ken Macha, at least so long as second baseman Rickie Weeks can stay healthy. But to win this division, the Brewers will need a comeback year from right fielder Corey Hart and strong pitching. Newcomer Carlos Gomez can fly in center field but needs to address his ability to get on base. Of course, if they can get guys on ahead of them, mashers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder will have huge, huge years.
Pitching, on the other hand, could be an issue. The Brewers brought in veterans Doug Davis and Randy Wolf to compliment ace Yovanni Gallardo but they’ll need to find two reliable starters behind them from a group including Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Manny Parra. Few with the bullpen however, as Trevor Hoffman is back to close with a strong supporting cast led by LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Coffey. The fact that they will carry just one left hander could be a concern.
4- Chicago Cubs
Though I see a fourth place finish, the Cubs have enough talent to win the division if all goes well. That’s a big “if” though when you consider they would need a full, productive season from Alfonso Soriano. If can’t do the job, Xavier Nady is there to help. The Cubs lack depth on the middle infield and an injury to shortstop Ryan Theriot could spell doom for Chicago. Sluggers Derek lee and Aramis Ramirez need big years and help from catcher Geovanny Soto.
The pitching staff has all the makings of a disaster. After volatile ace Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs will be counting on Ryan Dempster and Carlos Silva to provide quality innings while Ted Lilly is out with an injury. If Silva can become a somewhat effective pitcher again is a huge question, and not one I see a positive answer for. There are quality arms in the bullpen, but none of them have shown consistency at the major league level.
5- Pittsburgh Pirates
Manager John Russell plans to bat his pitcher in the eighth spot this season, ahead of shortstop Ronny Cedeno. I have never agreed with the logic behind that kind of move. It just feels like a gimmick to me. They do have a superstar in the making in centerfielder Andrew McCutchen along with right fielder Garret Jones, who had a big season after his call-up last year. There is some talent overall, but not much of it.
The pitching staff had better get it done if the Pirates want to hold off the Astros for a fifth place finish. Zack Duke and Paul Maholm provide a solid top two and Ross Ohlendorf is an average number three. The bullpen was re-made during the winter with a host of veteran arms, if they stay healthy, it could be the strength of this team.
6- Houston Astros
Nothing to see here… move along, move along. Seriously though, new manager Brad Mills comes over from Boston to take the reigns of a last place team. And I don’t think it will be close. The only bright spots are centerfielder Micheal Bourn and right fielder Hunter Pence. Lance Berkman will start the year on the DL after a very disappointing 2009 and there isn’t much to protect slugger Carlos Lee.
The pitching staff is anchored again by Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, who had a good year in 2009. After that, the Astros are hoping Brett Myers can find his old form, but he was never all that great to begin with. Matt Lindstrom will close games to start the year as $15MM man Brandon Lyon couldn’t wrestle the job away from him.
Coming soon: the NL West