Monday, March 12, 2012

Reds Stronger, Brewers Still Formidable for 2012

There has been some years where the NL Central has been a weak division, but 2012 will not be one of those years. I expect the defending World Champion Cardinals to make the playoffs again this year, but they will get a strong challenge from the Reds and Brewers. The Pirates are improving as well, while the Cubs and Astros look to battle for the cellar of the division. Those two teams will help pad the records of every other team in the division. With two wild cards in play now, its possible at least one of them come from the Central.

The Reds won the NL Central in 2010 with strong performances from 2010 MVP Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Scott Rolen. The Reds finished below .500 last year primarily due to bad pitching. Bronson Arroyo and Edinson Volquez were terrible, while only Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto(aka Johnny Karate) were their only decent pitchers and they both missed some starts. The Reds traded four players including Volquez and prospect Yadier Alonso for Mat Latos this December. They also traded left handed starter Travis Wood(who was mediocre last year) to the Cubs for left handed reliever Sean Marshall, who's been one of baseball's better relievers. They were also able to pick up former Phillie Ryan Madson to be their closer, and he has a great changeup similar to a Trevor Hoffman or John Franco in their prime. Former Rockie Jeff Francis was also signed to compete for a rotation spot. Aroldis Chapman and Homer Bailey will also compete for rotation spots so the Reds have plenty of options.

The Reds will also have a rookie catcher in Devin Mesoraco and a rookie shortstop in Zack Cozart this year. They will be backed up by Ryan Hanigan at catcher and by Paul Janish and former Phillie Wilson Valdez at short. Apparently a team has never made the playoffs with both a rookie catcher and shortstop before, so that's a concern for Cincinnati. Manager Dusty Baker does prefer veterans however, and they may end up splitting time. Former Cardinal Ryan Ludwick was signed to be their fourth outfielder and could form a platoon with left fielder Chris Heisey. Scott Rolen suffered through an injury plagued year in 2011 and needs a healthy year in 2012. Juan Francisco is his primary backup. Votto, Phillips, and Bruce are certain to put up big years and Drew Stubbs could if puts it together. Stubbs has a power and speed combination but struck out over 200 times last year and needs to improve.

As for the Brewers they had an interesting offseason after losing in the NLCS to the Cardinals. MLB announced that 2011 MVP Ryan Braun failed a PED test during the playoffs, but Braun's camp said the results were tainted with. He was facing a 50 game suspension, but an arbitrator overturned it in Braun's favor. While Braun will not be suspended, Prince Fielder left in free agency for a monster contract with the Tigers. Mat Gamel will take over at first after being a part time player last year. The Brewers signed former Cub Aramis Ramirez to take over third and replace some of Fielder's production. New shortstop Alex Gonzalez should be a big improvement defensively over Yuni Betancourt, although Gonzalez isn't much of a hitter. Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks had big years for Milwaukee last year, and they will need big years again if they want to contend for the division. Cardinal nemesis Nyjer Morgan returns at center field after a career year last season.

The Brewers still have a strong pitching staff that returns for 2012. Yovani Gallardo had the best season of any starter and won 17 games and struck out 207 hitters last year. Zack Greinke got better as the season went on and also struck out over 200 batters last year. Shawn Marcum was opposite, he started wearing down towards the end of the season and was rocked in the playoffs. Soft tossing lefty Randy Wolf returns and he's still a good middle of the rotation starter. Francisco Rodriguez surpirisingly accepted arbitration and returns as John Axford's setup man. Rodriguez prefers to close out games, but manager Ron Roniecke plans to keep Axford as closer. Axford led the NL with 46 saves last year.

I think the Cardinals match up well with these two teams, but it won't be a cakewalk to win the division. The Cardinals didn't even win it last year and won the wild card on the last day of the season. This year their is a new playoff format with a second wild card. The two wild card teams play a one game playoff while the three division winners wait. So it's more important to win the division now. The first five weeks of the season the Cardinals play only division rivals with the exception of one Opening Day game with the Miami Marlins. In those five weeks there are two seperate series with both the Reds and Brewers, so the Cardinals need to get off to a fast start.

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