The National League Central in 2011


Out on a limb and call this the craziest division in baseball. I don’t see any club that can be amazing… heck, even in the AL Central I would understand if you though a team like the White Sox could be incredibly dangerous. If the Cubs sort out some issues and just play baseball, any of four teams could find itself playing in the postseason.

St. Louis Cardinals
What I expect in 2011: 88-74, playoffs

What they did in 2010: 86-76

Key personnel changes: As we’re going to find is the case with many clubs this year… either alot was done or nothing was done… and the Cardinals look very similar in 2011 to the team that played in 2010. Since Adam Wainwright is now hurt… it’s hard to say they’re better and be convincing.

Lance Berkman? Gerald Laird? Look, they signed Ian Snell on a flyer and then the guy retired two months later.

But there might be some interesting stuff taking place outside of our view, that involve changes in some way.

Matt Holliday is now firmly entrenched with the organization… which could mean better play. I mean that. Last season it was free agency and can they afford him and Albert Pujols and the playoffs and missed opportunities and… this year, pretty smooth sailing into the new season.

In a division where no team is a 90-win certainty, easy-going balance is a nice thing to have.

And Berkman could be another Larry Walker addition… end of his career, but something to contribute.

My expectations: I’m putting the Cardinals into the postseason based on one reason… no real drama.

I mean even the Pujols thing… does anyone really think Albert Pujols is getting traded? Really? Because the situation you would have to put in place for me to buy that it could happen would be insane and involve his never being able to set foot within 100-miles of St. Louis again.

And if he’s not getting traded… even that situation brings about little drama. Until he actually leaves, he’s staying. Let’s talk about Sabathia opting out… because Pujols in another uniform doesn’t make sense and any suggestion of it won’t make sense until December.

The middle of this order… now featuring Pujols, Holliday and Berkman… should produce. And the pitching seems solid enough, even without Wainwright.

There are holes, but this is a decent National League club.

I’m not planning on a major run beyond what they gave us in 2010. I’m just expecting alot less from everyone else.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Well… two areas…

First, if everything goes right in a place like Milwaukee, that group could get to 92 or more wins. I don’t see where this St. Louis team can get much beyond 90. So if last year wasn’t a fluke for Cincy… or if Marcum and Greinke are consistent and the Brewers play well… the Cardinals are in trouble. Big trouble.

And second, Chris Carpenter played well last year. Will he stay healthy? Because alot is riding on his ability to start over 30 games.

(By the way… when was the last time Berkman spent alot of time in the outfield? Just asking. Don’t tell me. The Cardinals probably don’t want to know.)

Milwaukee Brewers
What I expect in 2011: 86-76

What they did in 2010: 77-85

Key personnel changes: You could say Milwaukee pushed their entire stack of chips to the middle of the table. Because they are going for it in 2011.

They kept Prince Fielder… who is going to leave and play for Chicago in 2012. (Always follow the money… and that’s where the money will be once St. Louis and Albert Pujols get over it and shake hands.)

I like the addition of Shaun Marcum almost as much as the addition of Zack Greinke… and actually, I might like it more than Greinke. Not because he’s better… on his game, Greinke is up there with the best… but because Marcum has done nothing except continuously improve, even while playing in the AL East, and he’s only 28.

It is possible this club could set things up nicely for 2012 and beyond. Hey… this is yet another season with their doom and gloom predicted because the next off-season will force them to change… and yet here they are once again.

Still… they have obviously set themselves up for a year they believe will deliver a winner.

My expectations: I think they’ll have a winning season. I don’t know beyond that. And I’m not comfortable predicting greatness for them. Things in Milwaukee are… summed up in a single word… complicated.

Get this as an example… if the bottom drops out, who are the Brewers likely to try and trade?

You answered Prince Fielder.

(And if you did… don’t be impressed by my getting it right… it’s the obvious answer. And if you didn’t… you probably tilted your head when you saw I said Prince Fielder and started nodding… because looking to get a return on Fielder right away (instead of from future draft picks when he leaves) makes sense if they fall out of contention.)

So… let’s check out the market for him…

Barring injury, the Red Sox and the Yankees don’t need Fielder… not now and not in the future… and won’t get involved in any talks for him. (You’d have a better chance of seeing those two clubs trying to figure out how to add Pujols. And that ain’t happening either.) Phillies are set too. Cardinals have Pujols. Cardinals plan to keep Pujols.

I’m running out of places that could be playoff bound and looking to add him as a rental.

Chicago is the location everyone… including me… expects to see Fielder in 2012. Maybe bring him in early? Negotiate an extension for the trade to happen? Problem though… the Cubs signed Carlos Pena for 2011 and can’t play both of them without a designated hitter. And Pena being successful would be a necessary part of the Cubs being in any playoff scenario.

Yup… figuring out how to trade Fielder would get complicated.

And it keeps going. Do the Brewers have any way to add players in the middle of the season? I don’t really know. Trades over the past few years… including this off-season… don’t exactly have them loaded with remaining prospects.

And… as to the actual team… you heard Zack Greinke is injured, right?

He hurt his ribs and should be back quickly. My problem is this… a rib injury could linger for the whole year. It is one of those things that a pitching motion just doesn’t treat kindly. And if it is bothering him… well… even the slightest alteration in his motion could make him less effective.

See what I mean? Questions. All over the place. Complications.

People that visited the club during spring training said the players were having fun and it was looking good. Awesome. I hope I’m wrong and they win the division.

Just doesn’t seem that simple.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): I haven’t mentioned players like Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo yet. Still haven’t mentioned Corey Hart.

In other words, there are lots of places on this roster where Milwaukee has talent.

Their rotation is very solid. I know the National League has a couple of great rotations… so I won’t go crazy in building up the Brewers… but in the Central, on paper, in Milwaukee it is about as good from top to bottom as it gets and I think leads the division.

If Braun has an MVP type of year… definitely possible… and two of their pitchers are in the conversation for postseason awards… again, possible… this team will be tough to beat.

Cincinnati Reds
What I expect in 2011: 82-80

What they did in 2010: 91-71

Key personnel changes: Edgar Renteria. I honestly don’t know what else to say. This team wasn’t looking to make a splash… and they didn’t… and yet they committed about $45 million to contracts this off-season, not including extensions for Bruce, Cueto and Votto.

My expectations: About two years ago I mentioned that I thought Tampa had massively overachieved when they went to the World Series in 2008… so in 2009 I predicted a mid-80s win total. A return to their true level. I was a bit wrong on that. I have watch Tampa for a while, and they are a talented club. Still… that surge in 2008 had to be followed by a drop.

While I like Cincinnati just fine, I have a really hard time wrapping my head around 90-plus wins for a second year. For instance… starting pitching. The Reds have some good pitching, and a deep staff. Can you name some of their starters? And if I told you that Bronson Arroyo is one of their best, what would your reaction be?

Of course, Arroyo is joined by guys like Edinson Volquez. They won’t be amazaing to kick off games, but they should be ok. And the bullpen is light years above any other Central team. Because of that, their pitching is good overall. But their rotation is not nearly as good as Milwaukee’s.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): I’ve got them dropping. Proving me wrong means taking the division again. And… yeah… they could.

Votto… Bruce… Rolen… Stubbs… Phillips… you may not be comfortable and familiar with the names, but the batting order has the ability to drive opponents nuts in many ways. Virtually all of them are capable of showing power… and are capable of proving me wrong.

I guess I’m probably wrong in saying Tampa for a comparison. Because much like Texas a couple of years ago… we’ve got a solid batting order and a good bullpen, but no horse leading the rotation.

Chicago Cubs
What I expect in 2011: 78-84

What they did in 2010: 75-87

Key personnel changes: Hmm… Carlos Pena is in town, and Kerry Wood is back. Nice trade for Matt Garza. If those are the additions and Xavier Nady is the big departure, there isn’t much to complain about. It’s a nice, tidy improvement without going broke. Some risk… and yet no long obligations that will kill them if they don’t work.

My expectations: Not much.

I want to expect big things here. Matt Garza and Carlos Pena could be big pieces in a successful season.

Despite the presence of pitchers like Dempster and Zambrano, the move to the National League and the experience of facing the Red Sox or Yankees about 25% of the time could turn Garza into one of the top pitchers in the National League. (Ok… look… I’m not going crazy. I’m just suggesting that Garza could win 15 or more while going seven innings every start with solid stats.) If you told me you thought Chicago had the best rotation in the division, I wouldn’t agree… and I wouldn’t laugh at you either.

But I see alot of ways to pitch to this batting order and stay out of trouble.

And the full roster… well…

It reminds me of someone that has something good, but it always looking for something better.

Carlos Pena is fine… they can’t wait for Fielder to hit the market, and dare to believe Pujols might be willing to call Chicago home.

They have contracts they want to get rid of, and can’t wait for them to finish… say Soriano… and yet they are counting on those very players to contribute in order to have a winning year.

It doesn’t add up.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): If… and it is a big if… everyone contributes, the Cubs could not only have a winning record, they could win this division.

As I already mentioned… there are worse rotations than one starting with Zambrano, Dempster and Garza. That’s actually not bad. I think it’s second in the division… but it could be very strong.

With some of those bad dollars coming off the books, the Cubs could look to add a player or two. That funny Fielder scenario I set up, where Chicago is the likely landing spot if Milwaukee moves him but unfortunately they have no room, could be as simple as basing a trade around Pena for Fielder.

The point is… with no club poised to run away, the Cubs won’t be out of the race. And if they are playing well in July, they could be active. Of all the clubs in the NL Central with a shot at the postseason, they have the best opportunity to add an impact player.

Houston Astros
What I expect in 2011: 69-93

What they did in 2010: 76-86

Key personnel changes: Nothing.

I have no jokes. I don’t want to try and make one. The Houston Astros did nothing.

I saw Bill Hall play last year. I’ve seen him play in past years. His 2006 with Milwaukee was an unexpected treat. He’s borderline… possibly better than a utility player, not quite strong enough year after year to be playing every day… and he’s had a good career. He will not dazzle Houston.

Matt Lindstrom is a good addition for Colorado. Hard to be amazed though by a guy that has spent four years playing in the National League, and the past two seasons (when he was 29-30 years old) were weaker than the first two (when he was 27-28). Go deeper into comparing the first two years to the last two… less games pitched… less innings pitched… higher ERA, higher batting average against… you see where this is going.

The Houston Astros did nothing.

My expectations: Carlos Lee?

A top of the rotation that features a winning record from last season? (Umm… barely.)

That’s the really good stuff?

See? Hard to get excited in Houston.

Carlos Lee has more or less become the anchor everyone was expecting. It’s not that he’s really bad… it’s just that with nothing else around, nothing happens.

And that top of the rotation pitching combined for 25 wins in 2010… and 12.5 wins on average from your top two guys doesn’t get you very far.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): The Astros are on the market… will not make any significant moves during the season… and have a roster filled with questions marks and low expectations.

It’s going to be a long summer for this club.

(On a potentially bright note… do you have your own catching equipment? Because if you show up at any Tuesday or Wednesday home game in May or June, and have your own equipment, the Astros are running their “Be a Big Leaguer for a Day” promotion. Show up around 3pm, get set up behind the plate, and a coach will throw ten times off the mound to you. The contestant that drops the fewest pitches gets a uniform and the start in that night’s game. They even have a cool slogan. Astros fever… catch it!)

Pittsburgh Pirates
What I expect in 2011: 63-99

What they did in 2010: 57-105

Key personnel changes: I like Lyle Overbay. Don’t know why. Just do. And that’s all I have to say about this.

My expectations: So… damn… young.

Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez lead the way of names to know. I like Neil Walker at second base.

But there isn’t much to build victories on.

Lyle Overbay is a good addition for this team in that he… to my knowledge… is a steady player that wants to get on the field. Not a bad guy to have around the youngsters. But he’s not a top six guy for any batting order, and in Pittsburgh they will have him in a middle-of-the-order location. (Yikes.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): It’s a waiting game. Can the Bucs get the pieces in place before some of this youth reaches a point where they can leave?

For 2011… anything above 65 wins will be impressive.

(They still have the best ballpark I’ve ever been to.)

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