by: Mauricio Rubio Jr.
email: 
mr@99sportsproblems.com
twitter: MRubio52

Yesterday I took a look at the AL Central and gave a prediction of how I think the teams will finish the year. Today I’ll be looking at a historically weak division, the NL Central. The tempting thing about the NL Central is that it’s attainable. The Cubs are blessed to be in a relatively easy division. The powerhouse teams lost two key contributors in Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. The temptation will be there if the Cubs manage to find themselves in contention early in the year to sell off the farm and go for it now. I know a few Cub fans that would fully endorse that strategy, but they should begin to understand that the Cubs aren’t going for it this year. So with that, here’s how I think they stack up.

1. Cincinnati Reds –  Dusty is gonna Dusty. He’s already pushed two young Reds pitchers to the limit and it’s scary to give him control over Mat Latos, a guy who is getting over shoulder trouble. The projected 5 starters for the Reds are Cueto-Latos-Arroyo-Leake-Bailey. Latos is coming over from a park that suppresses offense, but he was a guy that missed bats. Throughout the minors Latos was consistently above 8 with his K/9 rate. His command was spotty last year, and he lost a tick on his fastball, but he still oozes potential. He’s 23 and he has to work on some things to become the elite pitcher he hinted at becoming 2 years ago. I think he delivers on some of his potential but the GABP will mask some of the gains that he’ll make this year. The real reason I have the Reds winning the division is on the back of that offense. VottoRolenBruce is a bitch of a row to get through. Bruce is displaying the power potential that will eventually make him a star. He improved his road splits last year. Votto should be the MVP of the league this year with both Prince and Albert gone from the NL and a slight regression from Matt Kemp. If the Reds can get any production from the SS position they’ll be a historic offense. Zack Cozart is slated to be the starting shortstop. After last year’s shortstop debacle Cozart will have a longer grace period than most to produce, but he’s 25 and you usually know what a player is at that age. The bullpen will be missing Ryan Madson who is out for the year and will undergo Tommy John surgery. Sean Marshall becomes the closer and he should fill in nicely in that role. The rest of the bullpen is shaky, even phenom Aroldis Chapman will have his “Oh God” moments, but it shouldn’t keep them from competing.

2. Milwaukee Brewers – Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke should be battling for Cy Young votes next year. The rotation after those two gets a little bit shaky, but if Marcum keeps the gains he’s made over the past few years, he’ll remain the solid #3 option that the Brewers need to compete for both the division and the extra wildcard spot. Where they fall into trouble will be offense, which is strange to say of this team. They are replacing Prince with Mat Gamel at first, but Fielder’s production will be sorely missing from this lineup. If Corey Hart isn’t healthy (he’s dealing with a knee issue) it further compounds the issue. Fielder was an OPS machine, and the Brewers brought in Aramis Ramirez to help mitigate the effect of his departure. Braun and Ramirez will be productive, but they won’t replace the production that both Prince and Hart brought to the team. The pitching will keep them in contention, and that bullpen is solid. Axford established himself as a reliable closer, and I expect a disgruntled K-Rod to be traded by the deadline this year. The offense needs to figure it out if they want to win the division, as it stands they should win the second Wild Card spot.

3. St. Louis Cardinals – No Albert, limited Carpenter, limited Wainwright and no Magic Pixie Dust from the old man means a slide back for the Cardinals. St. Louis is depending on too many older players for them to win this division. Carlos Beltran has to stay healthy for the offense to be potent enough to compete with the Reds. Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman are a decent 1-2 punch, but the Machine isn’t looming in this lineup anymore. Rather, World Series hero David Freese and Yadier Molina will be their protection in the lineup. The pitching is going to suffer the loss of Carpenter, who is only supposed to miss a month, but older pitchers with shoulder issues aren’t something to be treated lightly. Wainwright will help, and the bullpen will be solid, but the Cards offense will limit their ceiling in 2012. They will be competitive, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them either win the division or make the playoffs, but I don’t see it happening.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates – They don’t have enough to be taken as a serious contender. Andrew McCutchen is a great player, but the front offices inability to surround him with talent is a concern. Their starting 3B, Pedro Alvarez, has lost his way at the plate and he wasn’t very special to begin with defensively. There’s an ugly hitch in his swing now and he tends to have happy feet in the box. Neil Walker is a good player, but the Pirate offense can’t be taken seriously at this point. They don’t have a front line starter, they’re relying on the corpse of Erik Bedard to be productive, and while they have an ok bullpen, there won’t be too many save opportunities. This is another lost year for a lost franchise, and I bet they’ll still finish ahead of the Cubs. Speaking of which…

5. Chicago Cubs – I did an in depth series on their depth. You can read it here. There’s three parts to it, so take you’re time. I’ll wait.

They’re gonna be awful this year, and that’s part of the grandiose plan that TheoCo has drawn up. The next few years are about two things, accumulating good prospects and getting rid of bad contracts. The Cubs have famously shot themselves in the foot when it comes to spending in the hopes that a World Series trophy would render these next few years as a honeymoon period as the team tries to restock and retool. Well, the Cubs choked all that away in 2007 and 2008, fell spectacularly on their face in 2009, had their manager quit on them in 2010 and hired the cryptkeeper for 2011. Then that Boston craziness happened and we somehow ended up with a competent front office that has a concrete plan for building a serious contender for years to come. It doesn’t look like they’ll stray from that plan either, so get ready for a 70 win season folks, because Soriano is the only established offensive threat the Cubs have right now. The division is certainly gettable for the next few years, but the Cubs won’t bite. They’ll wait, and I’m fine with that.

6. Houston Astros – This franchise is awful. The offense rates below average as it will center around an old fat 1B and a young OF prospect with a flat swing plane. Well, that’s not fair to JD Martinez, he is a legit hitter, but his power will be limited because of his swing, and that’s a bit of an issue at The Ballpark Formerly Known as Enron. The opposition will certainly knock the ball out of the park, but the Astros can’t do it on a consistent enough basis to be taken seriously. The starting rotation is headlined by Wandy Rodriguez, but after that it’s a collection of bad. The bullpen is meh and there’s no hope down on the farm. They’re gonna be bad for awhile.

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