Can the Cards Repeat? (NL Central Preview)

The NL Central is a division with some issues this year as it is one of the most unstable divisions in baseball. Almost every team looks shaky in the central division that could see just the best of the worst win and earn a berth in the postseason. Along with the uneasiness of the team’s performance there is also controversy in the division. The division is a strange one with so many moving parts it will be a hard division to predict. The only team that has not had much negative talk around them is the Cincinnati Reds who have started to build a winner.  Along with all of this the division also boasts the defending World Series Champions who weren’t even the best team in the division last year. The St. Louis Cardinals will look to defend their title but will do it without a superstar and more holes than last year. The rest of the division will be looking to unseat the champion but will all have an uphill struggle. The Chicago Cubs seem to be making true believers out of skeptical people who do not believe curses exist. The Pirates remain one of the worst teams in the league and have paid for it with some of the lowest attendance in the league. The Astros finished last season in last place and have not improved enough to show that they can make an impact in the division. Then the Brewers who won the division last year will be without a superstar and under scrutiny thanks to another superstar. With so many issues in the division it might come down to a race for last place rather than a true race for first but that could make it more exciting than ever.

 

Chicago Cubs

 

 

 

 

 

There are streaks in major sports that give headaches to all fans of the team that holds the record but the Cubs fans have everyone beat. The Cubs have yet to win a World Series in over 100 years as they last won the championship in 1908, their last appearance in the World Series was in 1945. A lot of this bad luck has been attributed to the dreaded Billy Goat Curse put on them. This of course is not the entire reason for their performance as the truth is that the management has made a mess of the organization spending the 6th most on payroll and finishing with only 71 wins last year. The Cubs seem a long way away from their back to back division titles in 2008-09 as they continue to trend down. The trend began to change last year when they hired former Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein who has some experience turning around cursed teams. As the GM of the Red Sox Epstein overcame the curse of the Bambino and built a team that broke an 85 year World Series drought and became a perennial power in the MLB. Epstein did not do too much in the offseason, although he did get rid of volatile starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano. This year Epstein will likely make a few moves but mainly gauge his team to see what needs to be done and there will be a lot. The Cubs will probably get worse before they get better as they will miss the postseason again this year but there is hope for the future.

 

Strength:

Top of the Rotation

– there is not much in the way of strength for the Cubs but if there is anything that they may have in their favour it is the top two pitchers in their rotation as Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster will both be able to win some games for the Cubbies this year

 

Weakness:

Defence

– There are plenty of holes but the most glaring hole for the Cubs is their lack of defence as they have very few good fielders and the loss of Aramis Ramirez in the hot corner has only made it worse as they will need to focus on this to be able to win

 

Biggest Addition:

Travis Wood, LHP

– Adding to the depth of the rotation Wood has a great fastball and cutter and if he can get better with his secondary pitches he will be able to provide some great support to the top of the rotation

 

Biggest Loss:

Carlos Zambrano, RHP

– The trade of Zambrano was the biggest move by Epstein as they traded their best pitcher away but the lack of drama that comes with getting rid of Zambrano may make up for the loss of a great arm in the rotation

 

One to Watch:

Starlin Castro, SS

– Castro is the building block of the Cubs as he represents the future of the team and with a great bat and developing power all that is left for him to become a complete player is to improve on his fielding

 

Cincinnati Reds

 

 

 

 

The Cincinnati Reds have had a few up and down seasons as they finished 1st in 2010 but then fell to 3rd place in 2011. Last year saw the Reds struggle to gain any advantage in the division race as they played .500 baseball almost all season. As months went by the Reds continued to come close to even records at the end of every month. As the season progressed the Reds lost steam and started losing more games as they were driven further out of the wild card race. Instead they watched their rivals the St. Louis Cardinals take advantage of a late season collapse that propelled the Cards into the postseason. The Reds will look to change their fortunes this year as they have reloaded and added a few pieces to their team. They were not extremely active in the offseason only adding two players but it was enough to add to their already deep lineup. The Reds will be looking for a division championship and nothing less this year and they may be on their way to doing just that. With so many holes in every other team the Reds seem to be the most stable in the Central division. The reds are the squeaky clean team in the division as they do not have controversy surrounding them or have not made any major changes to the team. For this reason the Reds look to be the favorites to run away with the division but may get challenge down the stretch. The biggest test for the Reds will be whether or not they can take their opportunity in a year where competition is changing to win the division and make an appearance in the postseason?

 

Strength:

Overall Team Depth

– The Reds are the deepest team in the division as they have a number of good players that can step in at any moment which will afford them the chance to find a suitable replacement in case of injury instead of falling apart after losing a player

 

Weakness:

Late Relief pitching

– It is not that they do not have talent in the closing role it is more so that they have yet to decide on who the closer will be because there is uncertainty as to whether or not Aroldis Chapman or Ryan Madson is truly up to the challenge

 

Biggest Addition:

Matt Latos, RHP

– the starting rotation for the Reds is not overpowering but everyone is good and adding Latos to the mix creates even more depth to the rotation that will now see a rotation that will give the team a chance to win almost every night

 

Biggest Loss:

Yonder Alonso, 1B

– The batting order for the Reds is a very strikeout happy one and the loss of a disciplined hitter like Alonso will only add to one of the biggest issues of a team that looks to be on their way to a division championship

 

One to Watch:

Aroldis Chapman, LHP

– The biggest issue with Chapman is deciding where to use his as the fastball pitcher who regularly hits 100 mph could be a great closer if he can handle the pressure or could be a great starter if his arm can hold up either way Chapman has matched the hype so far and will be an essential part to the resurgence of the Reds

 

Houston Astros

 

 

 

 

The Houston Astros will be recovering from a terrible season this year as they look to forget about the 2011 season. Last year the Astros started off bad and just got further into a hole throughout the season. They kept the fans in a constant funk as they did not have one winning month all season as they started with a 10-17 April and ended the season with a 9-16 September. The Astros struggled in almost every aspect of the game as the only thing they had was run production, and that was still at the bottom of the league. A large part of this was the fact that the Astros had parted with some of their best players before the 2011 season including Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. In the middle of the season the Astros finished the job getting rid of the rest of their impact players Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn as they officially kicked off their rebuild. They started it with picking first in the MLB draft after finishing the season 56-106, their worst record in the team’s 50-year history, putting them last in the division and in the league. This year the rebuild will begin in its first full season and with little movement in the offseason there is little promise for the coming months. The Astros have done essentially nothing to improve their team meaning that they will struggle to get better as they could hit another 100 loss season. The expectations are low again and the Astros will likely find themselves at the bottom of the league only playing to see where they need the most improvement for the future as they will not be a factor this year.

 

Strength:

Nothing

– Really this is the hardest team to try to find a strength for as they essentially have nothing to look forward to this year. A strength may emerge during the season but as of right now the Astros are bad in every aspect of the game

 

Weakness:

Everything

– As for the weaknesses there are simply too many to pick as they have no power or run production in their offence, they have no pitching in either the bullpen or the starting rotation and have no defence to speak of meaning it will be a rough year for the Astros

 

Biggest Addition:

Jed Lowrie, INF

– The former Red Sox infielder will be the biggest piece to the offseason that was generally quiet as he will add some experience with a big club from the Boston Red Sox and may be able to bring some decent hitting and fielding to the team

 

Biggest Loss:

Michael Bourn, CF (2011)

– With little activity in the offseason the biggest loss may actually be from last year when the Astros traded away Michael Bourn that took away one of their few good bats and one of their few defensive players

 

One to Watch:

Jose Altuve, 2B

– As the Astros look to rebuild their young players will become keys to the future success of the team and one of these players in Altuve who will look to get back to his form from the Minors when he won the Minor League batting title

 

Milwaukee Brewers

 

 

 

The Milwaukee Brewers had a great year last year as they were able to concentrate on their issues and fix their problems. The Brewers had one main problem for the past few years as they had seen a great offence go to waste thanks to an average rotation. Before the 2011 season the Brewers looked to change this as they signed Zach Greinke and traded a prospect for Shaun Marcum to lead their pitching rotation. Greinke and Marcum were able to lead the rotation towards success as the potent offence led by first baseman Prince Fielder. AS these two aspects of the team began rolling the Brewers also found a great replacement for Trevor Hoffman as John Axford became one of the best closers in the game and led the Brewer bullpen to success. The Brewers finally seemed to put everything together and were able to take the top spot in the division beating the Cardinals and earning a playoff berth. The postseason was not as successful for the Brewers though as they lasted two rounds but could not make the World Series. The Brewers were eliminated in the NLCS by the St. Louis Cardinals who won four straight games after the Brewers took the first two. This year the Brewers will be trying to overcome the loss last year and the controversy surrounding MVP Ryan Braun. Braun was to miss 50 games after testing positive for Steroids but after an appeal will now miss no games. The biggest question is whether he will be the same player this year and if he can help the Brewers overcome some key losses to win the division and make their way to the postseason.

 

Strength:

Starting Rotation

– The Brewers added Shaun Marcum and Zach Greinke for the 2011 season that has made them a great rotation add in Yovani Gallardo and Randy  Wolf and the Brewers have a scary rotation that will defiantly win them games

 

Weakness:

Defence

– The defence took a hit with the loss of their first baseman and it is hard to predict whether or not Ryan Braun can be his 2011 self with so much controversy and the rest of the defence will remain an issue and could be their biggest issue this year

 

Biggest Addition:

Aramis Ramirez, 3B

– Ramirez will look to replace the big hole left by the loss of Fielder as he will bring a big bat and some good defence in the hot corner but he will have some pressure to produce especially if Braun cannot return to his 2011 version

 

Biggest Loss:

Prince Fielder, 1B

– Fielder was the linchpin to the Brewers offence as a true power hitter among the best in the league at hitting HRs when the Brewers needed it and the loss of his bat and his defence at first will be a big hit to the Brewers

 

One to Watch:

Jonathan Lucroy, C

– A very successful 2011 has made Lucroy the top catcher on the team and his ability to hit in every aspect at the plate makes him a very valuable player if he can continue to develop which will be the big question for 2012

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

 

 

 

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates continue the NL Central trend as they have been one of the worst teams in the last few years. This has had a big effect on the franchise as a whole with the Pirates suffering the worst drop off of attendance out of every team. They have struggled to bring in fans in a city that loves their teams, as long as they win. With the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Penguins both winning the Pirates have been the forgotten son of the Pittsburgh sports world. They have attempted to change that though as they began to build a young talented team without spending over the top money for their players. Last year the Pirates saw some returns from their strategy as they began to become a much better team. Although they showed signs of improvement they were still not great as they finished the season with a 72-90 record. They did show signs of life though earning a 13-13 record in May and July and earning a 16-11 record in June. These positive months were the reason that the Pirates were actually in the hunt for the division more than halfway through the season. Unfortunately for them it did not play out as they had hoped but it is a positive to look to as they start the 2012 season. The Pirates are an improving team as they are beginning to put together what could be a winner. This winning Pirates team is not here yet though as they will likely sit in the middle of the division again this year.

 

Strength:

Late Relief Pitching

– There is no question that Joe Hanrahan is the best player for the Pirates as he will be a big part to most of the Pirates’ wins as long as he can continue to overpower hitters and save games as the Pirates’ closer

 

Weakness:

Batting Power

– They have some great speed in the lineup but they lack any power to get these players around the bases and that problem is made worse with the Derrek Lee situation as they do not have any power without him

 

Biggest Addition:

Rod Barajas, C

– The lack of power in the lineup could be solved with this veteran catcher as Barajas has the ability to hit balls out of the park and although he is not a pure power hitter he could add some HRs to the lineup

 

Biggest Loss:

Derrek Lee, 1B

– Without a team Lee remains in limbo but it seems almost sure that he will not be returning to the Pirates if he decides to return to baseball and that is not good news for the Pirates as Lee represented the only power bat in the lineup

 

One to Watch:

Alex Presley, OF

– He is not a power bat but he can get on base as Presley dominated in the minor leagues and continued to hit well in the majors last year if he can improve his fielding he could be a great building block for a young team

 

St. Louis Cardinals

 

 

 

 

 

There is no better way to end a season than the way the season ended for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals ended their season soaked in champagne as they won the World Series in a very unlikely end to the season. The Cards were not on their way to the postseason at the beginning of September as they sat far out of the wild card race. Then the craziness started as they went 18-8 in the final month while the Atlanta Braves began to collapse. As the Braves continued to collapse the Cardinals came closer to the wild card spot until the final day. In the final day the Cardinals needed to win in order to complete one of the biggest comebacks in MLB history, the AL wild card in 2011 was the largest, and did just that as they made the postseason. They took this hot streak into the postseason as they moved all the way to the World Series where they again came back to become the World Champions. This is where the Cards stand coming in to the 2012 season as they will defend their championship without two key pieces. One is in the dugout as legendary manager Tony La Rusa retired after last season and will be replaced by first time manager Mike Matheny who will look to keep the ship going in the right direction. The other missing piece is veteran power hitter Albert Pujols who moved on in free agency. The Cardinals may have these losses to deal with but are still a very good team that could be back in the postseason to defend their title. The Cards will be back at the top but don’t expect another amazing comeback as they will battle for 1st place in the division all year.

 

Strength:

Batting Power

– Even with the loss of Pujols the Cards still boast the most powerful lineups in the division with Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Matt Holiday, and World Series hero David Freese in the middle of the lineup

 

Weakness:

Defence

– First base will be a big hole but the rest of the defence is not much better as the middle of the infield has seen a lot of instability and even with Rafael Furcal helping out the biggest hole will be at second base

 

Biggest Addition:

Carlos Beltran, OF

– Beltran will attempt to make up for the loss of Pujols’ bat in the lineup and if he can continue to return to his old form he will do just that as Beltran will be a great power veteran hitter in the middle of the lineup

 

Biggest Loss:

Albert Pujols, 1B

– Clearly the Cardinals did not want to spend the $250 million to bring back Pujols and that will be the biggest hole as first base will now see some inexperience and the bat of one of the best hitters in the league will be gone

 

One to Watch:

John Jay, CF

– Jay had a breakout year last year after taking over the Centre Field position full-time after Colby Rasmus was traded and he did well hitting for a good average and filling the spot well defensively he will continue to develop and become a good top of the lineup hitter

 

Prediction:

1. Cincinnati Reds

2. St. Louis Cardinals

3. Milwaukee Brewers

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

5. Chicago Cubs

6. Houston Astros

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