FanIQ MLB Preview - A 3 team race is in store for the 2012 NL Central
Here is FanIQ's preview and predictions for the National League Central.
1) St. Louis Cardinals
Key additions - Carlos Beltran
Key losses - Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan
Yes, they lost Albert Pujols to free agency. Yes, they lost manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to retirement. However, with the signing of Carlos Beltran, the return of Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and a minor league system that has gone from one of the worst to one of the best in baseball, new manager Mike Matheny isn't exactly walking into a rebuilding year for the defending World Series Champions. With Pujols taking his talents out west, the obvious question coming into 2012 is who will replace the production Albert brought to the lineup. Carlos Beltran isnt Pujols but he is a very capable replacement that should fit nicely into the Cardinal lineup. Lance Berkman is coming off a monster year in 2010 but at 37, really can't be looked at as somebody who can produce more. That means Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and 2011 postseason hero David Freese will be looked upon to increase their numbers from last season. Freese had a coming out party in the NLCS and World Series but has yet to play a full season in the big leagues. He, along with Holliday, will have to stay healthy in order to give the Cardinals a shot offensively.
The return of Adam Wainwright along with workhorse Chris Carpenter gives the Cardinals two legit aces at the top of the rotation. Wainwright will be watched closely as he comes back from Tommy John surgery, which means Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook will have to pick up the slack. Lance Lynn has been working out this spring as a possible 6th starter to ease the burden while free agent Roy Oswalt has made it known that he would love to be a Cardinal if need be. In the bullpen, the Cardinals are loaded from top to bottom with hard throwing, power arms with Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez and Jason Motte at the back end. If the Cardinals can get the game to the 6th or 7th with a lead, there is a good chance they will walk away with a win.
Still, health is a huge key for this team. Yes, they have one of baseball's best minor league systems but if they are expecting that system to provide full-time players for most of 2012, then it'll be a long year for the Cardinals.
2) Cincinnati Reds
Key additions - Mat Latos, Ryan Madsen, Sean Marshall
Key losses - Francisco Cordero, Yonder Alonso, Edison Voloquez
To say that the Cincinnati Reds are in it to win it is an understatement. The Reds went out this offseason and made a huge splash by trading away a package of prospects to the San Diego Padres for ace Mat Latos and then shipping Travis Wood to the Chicago Cubs for arguably the best lefthander in the division, Sean Marshall. Add in Johnny Cueto and the Reds have as good of 1-2 punch as any team. The key to the Reds will be how Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo fare. Bailey has been inconsistent at best while Arroyo has gradually declined in recent years. As of now, Aroldis Chapman is penciled in as the 5th starter. Can the fireballer make the transition from reliever to starter?
With the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League, Joey Votto officially becomes the division's premier first baseman. He will make a serious run at NL MVP on a Reds team that figures to score a ton of runs in 2012. The key for the Reds offense will be Jay Bruce, who will serve as protection for Votto. With Brandon Phillips and Zach Cozart batting in front of Votto, Bruce will be given plenty of chances to drive in runs and show the world he is one of the best players in the division. Scott Rolen will be looked at to rebound from an injury plagued 2011 while rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco makes the transition from minor leaguer to every day player as the backstop. Can Mesoraco duplicate the success he has had in the minors offensively?
The Reds bullpen figures to be one of the best in the division. Ryan Madsen replaces Francisco Cordero as closer while Sean Marshall, Nick Massett, Logan Ondrusek and Bill Bray figure to provide plenty of matchup problems for manager Dusty Baker to use.
The Reds underachieved in 2011 and with the moves Walt Jocketty made this offseason, it's make or break for the Reds. Unfortunately, I'm not completely sold on them winning the division over the Cardinals
3) Milwaukee Brewers
Key additions - Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez
Key losses - Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, Yuniesky Betancourt
The reigning division champions head into the 2012 season minus one big cog, Prince Fielder. It doesnt take a rocket scientist to understand just how much this loss will effect the Brewers offensively. Fielder and Braun were the best 1-2 punch in the National League last season and this year, expect Braun's numbers to drop significantly. In fact, i'm going on record as to saying Braun will be among the league leaders in intentional walks in 2012. Aside from that, Braun will be under a serious microscope in 2012 to see how he responds after having his positive PED test overturned, saving himself from a 50 game suspension. The Brewers did go out and get Aramis Ramirez to try and offset the loss of Fielder but I'm not sure that is going to be enough. Matt Gamel has shown some flashes of becoming the next big thing in Milwaukee but he's not Prince Fielder. Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and new shortshop Alex Gonzalez are going to have to be even better then they were last year for the Brewers to score runs in 2012.
I look for the Brewers to rely heavily on their starting pitching. Yovanni Gallardo and Zach Greinke are going to have to shoulder the load if the Brewers are going to compete for the division. The key will be if Shaun Marcum can find himself after he struggled in the playoffs. If he's right, the Brewers have a pretty formidable 1-3 in the rotation. Throw in Chris Narveson and veteran Randy Wolf and the Brewers can compete with both the Reds and Cardinals in terms of starting pitching. In the bullpen, nobody has as good of 8th and 9th inning relievers like the Brewers. Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford are as good as they come. The question is, who picks up the slack in middle relief. If the Brewers can shorten the game, they'll win more times then not.
Unfortunately, the loss of Fielder is going to be too much for the Brewers to overcome and win the division
4) Pittsburgh Pirates
Key additions - AJ Burnett, Casey McGehee, Clint Barmes
Key losses - Paul Maholm, Derrek Lee
Before the 2011 All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the biggest surprise in the majors. Now, can Clint Hurdle's bunch make that next step and be a true contender for the NL Central? The Pirates will look to build on what they accomplished behind rising superstar Andrew McCutchen, who is the face of the franchise. Neil Walker and Jose Tabata are nice compliments to McCutchen but the Pirates will still need guys like Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones and Rod Barajas to deliver offensively. The biggest question is what kind of production the Pirates will get from Pedro Alvarez. He struggled and was eventually demoted to the minors last season. If he can come anywhere close to the production the Pirates envisioned when they drafted #2 overall, the Pirates could be for a serious run in 2012
The Bucs envisioned AJ Burnett to be their ace in 2012 but after fouling a ball off his face in bunting practice, Burnett will be lost for 8-12 weeks with a broken orbital bone. That means Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Erik Bedard will be the starting 5 for the Pirates. The Pirates pitching was a major plus for the team last season and just because there are no "household" names in that bunch, dont think the Pirates cant get the job done. The Pirate bullpen was very solid in 2011 and I expect them to be the same this year. Joel Hanrahan was one of the best closers in the NL in 2011 and with Evan Meek, Daniel McCutchen and Chris Resop form a very productive and under-rated bullpen.
The Pirates are still a very young team and while they wont be a factor in winning the division, I look for them to be that thorn in the side that gives the Reds, Brewers and Cardinals fits whenever they play.
5) Chicago Cubs
Key additions - Anthony Rizzo, David DeJesus, Theo Epstein
Key losses - Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, Sean Marshall
Theo Epstein wasn't kidding when he said the Cubs were going to be in rebuilding mode. New manager Dale Sveum is going to have his hands full with a Cubs team that is going to struggle in 2012. Gone from the old regime are well known players like Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Derek Lee and in their place are Brian LaHair, Ian Stewart and Chris Volstad. The Cubs do have a solid infield nucleus with Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Geovanny Soto but will need their veterans leaders to step up and produce for this organization to be competitive. That means Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano both need to play like stars.
The starting rotation is anchored by Matt Garza, for now. Theo Epstein has been shopping him around since he signed on as GM but right now, apparently the asking price is a bit high for other teams to be interested in. Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Chris Volstad round out the rest of the rotation that is average at best. I wouldnt be surprised at some point if closer Carlos Marmol is on the chopping block. When he's on, he is as good as they come. When he's off though, it is an implosion of epic proportions.
I admire Cubs fans for sticking with their team through thick and thin. You've suffered a championship void of 104 years and unfortunately, 2012 wont be your year either. That said, Theo Epstein has a long term plan for your organization. Hopefully, success comes sooner then later because quite honestly, no fan base deserves a championship more then you.
6) Houston Astros
Key Additions - Livian Hernandez, Zach Duke, Jed Lowrie
Key losses - Hunter Pence, Michael Bourne
It is hard to believe that in 6 years the Astros have gone from contender to not even pretending and 2012 will be more of the same. Carlos Lee is probably the only recognizable name you'll see offensively and that's only because the Astros can't find anybody to trade him to. Other then that, the lineup is littered with players who should be in the minors getting more experience. Instead, they are subject to playing in the majors before they are ready only because the team needs bodies to fill out a roster. The best of the bunch is Jose Altuve and JD Martinez.
The starting rotation consists of Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and JA Happ. For whatever reason, the Astros moved their innings eater starter in Brett Myers to the bullpen to be closer, meaning Jordan Lyles and a pitcher to be named fill out the 5 starters. I'd love to tell you who will be joining Myers in the bullpen but I'm not sure the Astros have any idea.
This organization is doing very little to try and improve themselves. This is their last year in the NL Central and the only real question is, will the Astros lose more games this year then they did last? I'd say probably so considering they at least had Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne for part of 2011.
What are your predictions for the National League Central?