Thursday, January 5, 2012

How the rest of the NL Central stacks up

Neil Walker Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates is congratulated by teammate Neil Walker #18 after hitting a three run home run against the St Louis Cardinals in the third inning during the game on August 16, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I've already written alot about the Cardinals chances and makeup of their club next season. As we know already know Albert Pujols, Octavio Dotel, Ryan Theriot, Arthur Rhodes, Nick Punto, Gerald Laird, and probably Edwin Jackson are gone. Carlos Beltran and JC Romero were added and guys like Tyler Greene, Tony Cruz, Eduardo Sanchez, etc. will likely be in the big leagues for good next year. What this post is going to focus on is the Cardinals competition for the NL Central in 2012.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are going on season 104 without a World Series title this year. They've revamped their front office hiring Theo Epstein to head baseball operations. He then hired Padres GM Jed Hoyer and former Brewers coach Dale Sveum as manager. It looks like Epstein plans on rebuilding with youth, so I wouldn't expect the Cubs to turn it around next season. They've also got rid of clubhouse cancer Carlos Zambrano this week, and Aramis Ramirez left for the Brewers. Epstein is also looking to deal Matt Garza as well. Top lefty reliever Sean Marshall was traded to the Reds for Travis Wood in the offseason.

The Cubs have added Ian Stewart to play third base and David DeJesus to play right field. The strength of this team is the middle infield that has Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney. 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto is a solid catcher, but has never regained his rookie form. They are still saddled with Alfonso Soriano's contract for another three years. Their pitching staff looks weak and Carlos Marmol is their only established reliever now.

Cincinnati Reds

After winning the division in 2010, the Reds finished a dissapointing third place last year under .500 as well. Still, this is a team that could compete for the division in 2012. They have a potent offense led by 2010 MVP Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce. Scott Rolen and Ramon Hernandez are aging and will need to spelled by Juan Francisco and Ryan Hanigan at times this year. Youngsters Chris Heisey and Zack Cozart will be given a shot to be everyday players in 2012 as well.

The Reds made a big splash trading for Mat Latos from the Padres. They had to trade Edinson Volquez, Yadier Alonso, and two other prospects to get him. Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake round out the rotation. The Reds also added lefty Sean Marshall, who has been one of baseballs best relievers the last couple of years. The Reds are still in the market for a closer and could still re-sign Francisco Cordero. I would  think the Reds will be the Cards biggest competition in 2012.

Houston Astros

This team was awful last year losing 106 games, the most in the majors. They traded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn at the trading deadline last year, and their best player is probably Carlos Lee now. Former Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow takes over as GM. Needless to say, he has a massive rebuilding project in Houston. Luhnow's first move was to trade closer Mark Melancon to the Red Sox for shortstop Jed Lowrie and pitcher Kyle Weiland.

Lefty Wandy Rodriguez is their best pitcher, but he may get traded. Brett Myers is also a candidate to get traded as well. Their third starter is Cardinal killer Bud Norris. 2008 first rounder Jordan Lyles made his debut last year, but he may have been rushed to the big leagues at age 20. He had a 5.36 ERA last year. Most of the Astros top prospects are in A ball so I expect the Astros to be just as bad in 2012. 2012 will also be the Astros last season in the National League. They will be moving to the American League West for the 2013 season.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers won their first NL Central crown last year, winning 96 games. However, Prince Fielder is likely to sign elsewhere and Ryan Braun is facing a 50 game suspension for PEDs. They still have All Stars Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart. The Brewers improved their defense at short with Alex Gonzalez who replaces Yuni Betancourt. They've also improved their offense at third base replacing Casey McGehee with Aramis Ramirez.

The pitching staff returns intact led by Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke. Shawn Marcum pitched well during the first half of the season, but faded down the stretch and the postseason. Crafty lefty Randy Wolf also returns. Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly accepted arbitration even though he was unhappy about being a setup man. 2011 Rolaids Relief Award Winner John Axford had a great season as closer last year, leading the NL in saves and posting a 1.95 ERA. I look for the Brewers to still be a good ballclub, but I doubt they are a 90 win team this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates were actually in first place breifly in July last season. They then faded, but manager Clint Hurdle is turning this team around. Their pitching improved in 2011, with James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton all having career years. All Star closer Joel Hanrahan finally put it together last year. The offense is led by CF Andrew McCutchen and 2B Neil Walker, who look to fixtures for years to come. LF Jose Tabata signed a long term extension last year, and when healthy is a good leadoff hitter.

The Pirates added left handed starter Erik Bedard, OF Nate McLouth, and INF Clint Barmes in the offseason. 3B Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be a future star, but struggled mightily last year batting .191 and hit for little power. He will have to compete with Josh Harrison for playing time this year. The Pirates have a good farm system, and they should finally have a winning season soon. They haven't finished above .500 since 1992, but this could be the year they finally do.

I don't see why the Cardinals can't compete this season in the NL Central. Even without Pujols, they stack up well against this division and the National League in general. Ace pitcher Adam Wainwright will be returning from Tommy John surgery, and the Cardinals were able to win without him last year.

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