The loss of sluggers Albert Pujols for the Cardinals and Prince Fielder for the Brewers, combined with a new regime in Chicago, a competitive Reds club, and an upstart Pirates team make for an interesting, albeit less competitive NL Central in 2012. 90 wins should bring home a division title.
1. Cincinnati Reds – After winning the division in 2010, the Reds had a disappointing 2011, failing to reach the .500 mark. Expect the Reds to return to 2010 form this year. While still on the younger side, Cincinnati’s core players now have the experience to get this team back to the postseason and possibly make a serious run at a World Series. Fresh off signing a 10 year, $225 million contract, slugger Joey Votto leads a high powered offense that could very well lead the NL in runs and HRs. Picking up Mat Latos last year was a huge addition to the starting rotation, and with flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman waiting in the wings to fill in for an injured starter, the Reds rotation could be very scary. Mike Leake led the team in wins, ERA, and K’s last year, and he’s their #4 starter. The only problem with the rotation right now is that they have no LHP, but expect Chapman to slide in there eventually to solve that problem. The bullpen will be the question mark for this team. Closer Ryan Madsen is out for the season, so Sean Marshall will be getting most of the save opportunities. Will he be able to step up?
2. Milwaukee Brewers – The loss of Prince Fielder is going to crush the Brewers. More than the loss of Pujols to the Cardinals. Newly acquired 3B Aramis Ramirez is going to replace Fielder in the clean-up spot, leaving significantly less protection for reigning MVP Ryan Braun. Braun should be able to shake off his lousy spring training and tumultuous off season, but expect him to get pitched around a lot more. Ramirez, Corey Hart, and Mat Gamel (Fielder’s replacement at 1B), will have to step up behind Braun if this team is going to compete for the division. Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke will anchor a decent pitching staff, and relievers Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford won’t blow a lot of leads in the eighth and ninth, but the bottom half of the Milwaukee’s line up has to produce for this ball club.
3. St. Louis Cardinals – Expect the reigning champs to get off to a slow start this year. The losses of Pujols, skipper Tony La Russa, and pitching coach Dave Duncan will leave this trying to find their identity for at least a couple of months. Tack on that utilityman Skip Schumaker and OF Allen Craig will start out the season on the DL, and the Cardinals offense will be weak and shallow. Matt Holliday becomes the focal point in the offense with the loss of The Machine, and who knows what Lance Berkman and newly acquired Carlos Beltran have left. The pitching staff comes into the regular season ailing as well, with ace Chris Carpenter starting out on the DL. Adam Wainwright, coming off of Tommy John surgery looks like he is ready for another dominant year, and the bullpen remains one of the best in the business. Again, expect St. Louis to stumble out of the gates, but If the Cardinals can find a way to hover somewhere around .500 by the all star break, look for them to make a serious run in the second half, much like last season.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates – After being the feel good story in the first half of last season, the Bucs collapsed in the second half. I don’t know that anyone was really surprised by the collapse, but it certainly gave the organization a glimpse of hope while times were good. Judging by their offseason moves, it looks like the Pirates are all in this year. Instead of shipping off their talent for prospects like they always have in the past, they signed OF Andrew McCutchen to a six year deal, and added a couple of high-risk/high-reward starters in Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett. I like the middle of the line up, with Jose Tabata, McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Garrett Jones, but all eight hitters will have to produce at a high level if this team is going to compete. If this team can finish over .500, call it a successful season in Pittsburgh, seeing that it would be their first winning season in 20 years.
5. Chicago Cubs – GM Theo Epstein was brought in to end the World Series drought in Chi-town, just like he did in Bean-town. And I think he will. But it’s going to get worse before it gets better. At least this year. They finished at 71-91 in 2011, and I don’t see them being any better than that in 2012. Other than Alfonso Soriano, who’s going to drive in runs on this team? David DeJesus? Brian LaHair? Starlin Castro will continue to make strides, but he still isn’t a guy who can hit 20 home runs and drive in 90 runs. The rotation isn’t anything special. They still have Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza at the top of the rotation. Neither of them can be considered aces. Jeff Samardzija earned a spot in the rotation, but surely he will deal with some growing pains in his first year as a starter. The bullpen remains extremely sketchy. There just doesn’t seem to be much to be excited about if you’re a Cubs fan. Epstein is a genius, though. He will turn this team around. It will just take a year or two.
6. Houston Astros – The rotation will be the strength of this team, but that’s not saying much. The Astros lost a league high 106 games last season, and I expect them hitting the triple digits in losses again this year. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, and Livan Hernandez should be able to give manager Brad Mills six solid innings most outings, but their middle relievers could lose any lead they have on any given night. They moved quite possibly their best starter, Brett Myers, to the closer role, which seems pointless if you can’t take a lead into the ninth inning. The lineup for Houston is littered with names most people have never heard of, including myself. J.D. Martinez is their #3 hitter…who? The only good things that will come out of this year for the Astros is getting the #1 pick in the draft, and saying goodbye to the crowded NL Central.