The National League Central in 2012


Very interesting division. The Reds could be a dominant team… maybe the Cardinals and Brewers could be very good… but overall there is no team that stands out as awesome for any particular reason.

There is no pitching (like Philadelphia or San Francisco)… and most people don’t appreciate exactly how good Joey Votto is, meaning that with the departure of Pujols and Fielder, it’s easy to predict this as a division up for grabs. (And Votto is really good. Am I missing something… or is he now unquestionably the best first baseman in the National League? I say he is.)

Cincinnati Reds
What I expect in 2012: 88-74

What they did in 2011: 79-83

Key personnel changes: Added Ryan Madsen… lost Ryan Madsen to injury. Traded for Mat Latos.

My expectations: Ouch.

That sound you hear is the plans made by the Reds hitting the ground with the announcement of Ryan Madsen’s injury. Granted… Cincinnati didn’t exactly set out to sweep Madsen off his feet and bring him in with confetti and parades. And they still have a very good club heading into the season. But it was hard to place them in that upper tier of clubs with big expectations before he got hurt. It was more a case of them being better… while St. Louis and Milwaukee were both taking significant hits… and a division that really has no other team in the solid category for postseason consideration.

Now, I’m still placing them there because no one else is stepping forward. And Madsen is a closer… very nice to have a really good one, but hardly a priority. (Ask Kansas City how well it works out having a good closer when the team never has a lead in the ninth.) Still, things don’t seem as clear.

There’s nothing not to be impressed by when Votto and Phillips are locking down one side of the infield, and Jay Bruce has emerged behind them in right as a very good player.

What I really like is the addition of Mat Latos. Still young… very talented… if Latos can give the Reds more than 200-innings of work, then he could be a significant force in settling down a potentially rocky rotation. (For a description of the rocky pitching, see: Aroldis Chapman. Is he a starter? A reliever? A piece to keep opposing managers guessing? Even the Reds don’t seem to know yet. So you can love Johnny Cueto all you want… the reality is that Arroyo had a difficult 2011, and Bailey may still be young… he hasn’t delivered much so far. (Check out Bailey’s starts… 20, 19, 22 in the past three years… struggles to pitch 6 innings in any start.)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): You may note that I have just 88 wins taking this division.

I really expect the Reds to simply be a consistent, steady ship sailing to the division crown. Nothing spectacular… nothing amazing… just very good, every day.

And the problem is that St. Louis might get everything lined up… Milwaukee could have very good pitching to substitute for a drop in offensive production… while in Cincinnati there is nothing to get you to believe they are going to explode to 95 or so wins. They don’t have a combination of Halladay – Lee – Hamels on the mound… or a Fielder – Cabrera combination in the batting order. What they have is very good players on a very good team.

Milwaukee Brewers
What I expect in 2012: 84-78

What they did in 2011: 96-66

Key personnel changes: Prince Fielder is gone. Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez are the two big additions.

We need to point out Ryan Braun winning his challenge of the suspension… as it gets him back on the field instead of missing 50 games.

My expectations: Let’s take a look at Mr. Gonzalez.

I saw a report that talked about his “power” in the lineup. To be fair… he did hit 38 home runs over 2010 and 2011 combined. Not too shabby. But, he was also below .250 both years with an on-base under .300. No… it wasn’t even close… his 2011 on-base percentage was .270.

Forgive me for not being overwhelmed by what Milwaukee did to improve in 2012 after losing Fielder.

To be fair… the Brewers were not a one-hit wonder. They are better than the credit I’m giving them. Still… I think the Ryan Braun fun will create a bit of a headache this year. If nothing else, I wonder if he will be able to deliver another MVP-worthy season, especially with a constant media presence watching.

Still… if Shawn Marcum can get back on the field, I do like parts of their rotation very much. So…

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Fielder was never what you might call graceful in the field. I think Mat Gamel might work out nicely. Gamel doesn’t have the bat… but the glove will be improved. No… he’s not Fielder… not even close… but it’s not as disastrous as it could be.

Greinke, Marcum and Gallardo could be the most solid trio in the division, and one of the best in baseball.

And then they have a good bullpen, that actually goes more than one good arm, with Francisco Rodriguez rebounding nicely after his trade and setting up in 2012.

If the Brewers stay healthy, a trip to the postseason is possible, and that includes taking the division crown.

St. Louis Cardinals
What I expect in 2012: 81-81

What they did in 2011: 90-72, World Series Champions

Key personnel changes: Albert Pujols is gone. But you knew that. Probably knew Tony La Russa stepped away as well.

Carlos Beltran is in… as is Rafael Furcal. Adam Wainwright returns.

My expectations: My problem is that as the team faces Carpenter’s health and the departure of Pujols, people are crowning Adam Wainwright as a major return. I’m ok with expecting Wainwright to contribute… and even to get stronger as the year goes on. But coming back from surgery and being brilliant out of the gate? I’m skeptical.

Where that leaves us is with two questions: (1) Can anyone in this division run away and hide? Chances are, no, not a single team can. And, (2) can the Cardinals stay relevant early on so they can make a charge later in the season? And to that, I want to say yes, but my view of things is no.

Now look… you just heard me brag about Greinke, Marcum and Gallardo. Well, Wainwright, Carpenter and Lohse aren’t too bad. It looks like Carpenter will be out until around June… but Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia could do nicely in bridging the gap until his return (while contributing once he is back… and frankly, Garcia could do more than contribute).

The thing is… Carpenter is hurt. And Pujols and La Russa are gone. And because of that, I’m not really ready to let a team that needed a late season charge to even make the playoffs last season just coast into the postseason in 2012.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Even with Pujols gone, I see the Cardinals in very much the same place they were last year during spring training… when Wainwright went down, everyone thought the season might be over, and they went on to win a championship.

Ok… stay with me…

If Carpenter isn’t out for long with his troubles, they could have enough pitching to overcome the loss of Pujols. Carlos Beltran is a good addition for this club, and there is plenty of talent on the roster (and in the minors).

I don’t expect it… but I wouldn’t count them out just yet.

Pittsburgh Pirates
What I expect in 2012: 76-86

What they did in 2011: 72-90

Key personnel changes: Should we get excited about the A.J. Burnett trade? That was pretty much the big off-season move.

My expectations: I want to like Pittsburgh, but you saw the drop off last year. They finished 72-90. Anyone remember where they were at 100-games?

When I did my 100-game review last year, the Pirates were at 52-47. They were on top of the division. 15-43 was how they played the rest of the season.

So while I do think we will see another year of improvement from Pittsburgh… let’s keep things in perspective.

Andrew McCutchen has become a really good player. While his batting average dipped significantly in 2011, don’t be fooled… his on-base percentage stayed rock-steady at .364 and he clubbed 23 home runs with 89 RBIs. He’s 25 and headed in a very good direction. Two or three bloop hits a month and his average is right up there with his other numbers. (Worth noting… he strikes out more than he walks, and those strikeout numbers jumped by about 40 extra in 2011 compared to 2010 while his at bat totals were basically the same. Numbers like on-base suggest otherwise, but patience is a good thing. He doesn’t need to get too aggressive or wild. Something to watch.)

Jeff Karstens turned in quite an impressive 2011. It was greeted with a 9-9 record… and, yeah, sure, no one looks at wins and losses anymore in evaluating a pitcher. Right? But this is the preview column, where final standings are predicted, and if Karstens in 2011 was an exception and not the new rule… see, this team has some shaky areas.

Joel Hanrahan has been a very good closer, and looked really solid last season. I say the Pirates are likely to keep him… but last year was so good compared to the rest of his career that a good start might find him on the trade market for even more quality youth.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Things are pointing in the right direction for Pittsburgh. The Central is not a tremendous division… with players like the AL West, NL East or AL East… and as such they could finally register a winning record and get into the playoff hunt very soon. I just think it’s still a year… and some starting pitching… away.

Chicago Cubs
What I expect in 2012: 71-91

What they did in 2011: 71-91

Key personnel changes: Signed Kerry Wood. Traded for Anthony Rizzo (who will start the season in the minors). Finally traded Carlos Zambrano away. (And by the way… Chris Volstad might not be incredible, he is still a pretty decent return for Zambrano.)

My expectations: Anthony Rizzo.

He’s likely starting the year in the minors. He’s a player to watch tomorrow. And that’s the Cubs. They are not positioning themselves for a run at the playoffs in 2012. Sure, they will say all the right things… but they are looking at 2014. (As the best possibility.)

There are players like Alfonso Soriano that aren’t going away. They are anchors on the major league roster. (Get this… Soriano still has three years left on his contract. Three years! Haven’t they been trying to get him off the roster since 1982? Sure seems like it.)

Enjoy watching Starlin Castro… because he is a really good player… and also because there isn’t much else.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Interesting… but the Cubs do have some trade chips. I don’t see Rizzo going away… Epstein and Hoyer had him in Boston, he went to Hoyer from Epstein in the Adrian Gonzalez trade, and now the reunited Epstein and Hoyer have him in Chicago. But he could be a trade chip if the offer is right.

Matt Garza is likely to get traded.

And Ryan Dempster could bring back a player or two if he has a good start to the year.

David DeJesus had a poor 2011, and could be a hot commodity if his numbers rise back to career averages.

So realistically the Cubs are a team to watch because of what they could do for others as a trading partner. And that is also where things go right or wrong with them. They’ll flirt with 70 wins and 90 losses… within a few of that either way. But what they do for 2014 and beyond is what will determine the success, failure and surprises of 2012.

Houston Astros
What I expect in 2012: 61-101

What they did in 2011: 56-106

Key personnel changes: Added Jed Lowrie in a trade.

My expectations: I’ve been optimistic in predicting 61 victories. There have been no changes to improve a 56-win team, and the minors are years away from contributing anything.

I always liked Jed Lowrie. But he has had a history of problems with staying healthy, and is battling a thumb issue as the season approaches. And even if healthy, last season was one of three in which he has appeared in more than 50 games. In the year with his most at bats and most games played of those three, he delivered his lowest batting average and on-base percentage.

Time is not treating Carlos Lee kindly.

And even if Wandy Rodriguez isn’t traded… make no mistake, if he’s not on the disabled list, he will be traded… he’s 33 and not exactly at the beginning of a blossoming career.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): I’ve got very little to say. The reality is the Astros will finish last in the Central this season and are basically only putting a team on the field as a way of hoping a couple of members of the roster might generate some trade interest.

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