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MLB Preview: National League Central

The 2011 Major League Baseball season ended with the National League Wildcard team from the NL Central winning the World Series over the Texas Rangers. The Cardinals got exceptional help from their veterans in Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman, together with heroics from youngsters like David Freese and Allen Craig. The National League Central in 2012 will be down because Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are no long present. The division did not particularly add any big bats or arms, with the exception in Cincinnati with Mat Latos. Below is the 3rd installment of The Official KRUI.FM Major League Baseball Preview Series. Sit back, get yo popcorn ready, and enjoy!

Final Standings from the NL Central in 2011:
1. Milwaukee Brewers (96-76)
2. St Louis Cardinais (90-72)
3. Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)
5. Chicago Cubs (71-91)
6. Houston Astros (56-106)

Team Break Downs:

#6 Houston Astros (56-106)
Losses: No major losses
Additions: SS Jed Lowrie, OF Jack Cust

The Astros had the displeasure of boasting the worst record in MLB in 2011. This team is epitome of a young, inexperienced team with the lack of real veteran leadership. The only starter that has played extensive time is Carlos Lee at first, but around the outfield nobody is old than 28, and the rest of the infield was born after 1984. The Astros one bright spot that they can take solace in if the development of Wandy Rodriguez over the past few seasons, actually pulling off a near .500 record and a sub-4.00 ERA. No matter how much we delve into this roster, the outlook is very dire and we are probably looking at the Astros having the worst record in baseball for a 2nd straight campaign.

#5 Chicago Cubs (71-91)
Losses:SP Andrew Cashner, RP Sean Marshall, SP Carlos Zambrano, C Koyie Hill, 1B Carlos Pena, 3B Aramis Ramirez, OF Tyler Colvin
Additions: OF David Dejesus, 1B Anthony Rizzo, 3B Ian Stewart, SP Travis Wood, SP Paul Maholm, Sp Chris Volstad

The North Side is going to look a lot different this year than in 2011 because of all the moves that new President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer have made. The Cubs will quiet possibly be the most dynamically different team this season in the division. 2012 will not be the Cubs year to win the division because of the talent at the top of the division, but they are rebuilding and doing a lot right. The acquisitions should prove to reap wins, but losing the most productive offensive 3B, Ramirez at the hot corner will be interesting, with Stewart stepping in there. The pitching rotation has a definitive ace in Garza, an unknown behind him in Dempster and a whole bunch of young guys behind them. Dishing Zambrano to the Marlins will prove to be better off for both squads as the Cubs were able to acquire Volstad out of the deal, and Zambrano can start fresh in what could prove to be a much more fitting location demographically with a better system and coach in Ozzie Guillen for Carlos. They signed David Dejesus to an interestingly high contract after his worst season of his career last year in Oakland, but Epstein hopes that the veteran can bring some order to the youngsters such as Starlin Castro at SS who was a casualty on defense in 2011, but was a stud with the bat. Marlon Byrd has slimmed down quite a bit, increased his speed and according to many sources say he will be in the best shape of his life come opening day. The Cubs have a lot of questions to be answered, and they will go through quite a few growing pains here and there, but the foundation is being set and the future is bright in Chicago at the friendly confines.

#4 Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)
Losses: SP Ross Ohlendorf, SP Paul Maholm, 1B Derrek Lee, OF Ryan Ludwick
Additions: SP A.J. Burnett, SP Erik Bedard, 3B Casey McGehee SS Clint Barmes, C Rod Barajas

Surprising young, talented teams always playe a huge role in MLB and the Pirates were that squad for the first half last season. The pitching of Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens mixed in with the talent on the offensive side had the Pirates right in the thick of things in the division. Inexperience proved to be deterimental, but the Buckos are back this year with virtually the same roster and a lot of quality young talent. Andrew McCutchen might very well be the most heralded young talent at CF in Major League Baseball because of his ability to do everything and be a 5 tool player. The key for McCutchen is to remain confident when his supporting cast is not producing. His average slipped slightly last year because he was trying to do way too much. Jose Tabata will look to help him out and break out year in Left, and Casey McGehee to revitalize and get to his success of a couple years ago in Milwaukee. Look for Starling Marte to possibly get called up mid-season to be a force in the OF as well. The Double AA batting champ last year could add depth to that outfield and could make it one of the most talented in the league. The Pirates will be rebuilding and are going to be an anomaly who could win a bunch of games in a big streak, but then also drop quite a few as well. It should be an interesting year for them.

#3 Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
Losses: SP Travis Wood, CL Francisco Cordero, SP Edison Volquez, SP Dontrelle Willis, IF Edgar Renteria, OF Jonny Gomes
Additions: SP Mat Latos, RP Sean Marshall, CL Ryan Madsen

Mat Latos was a huge add for the Reds who are looking to cash in on free agency this year with a divison win, because now is as pertinent a time as any for the Reds. Scott Rolen is not getting any younger, and they are coming off a year in which they were very disappointed with the results. Jay Bruce and Joey Votta are quite possibly the best 1-2 punch in the division now that Braun is missing Fielder, and Stubbs being one year more experienced to be able to set the table for Joey and Jay. The biggest question for the Reds is whether Aroldis Chapman can transition his 100+ MPH fastball from the bullpen to the starting rotation. The pressure for him is low though because of how talented Johnny Cueto, Latos and Mike Leake are at the top of the rotation. Cueto had his best season last year with a sub-3 ERA and he should look to continue his success, being the man at the top of the rotation. The addition of Latos and Madsen should prove to give more depth as well. Cordero was a basket case at times last season and Madsen will hopefully bring more consistency to Cincy.

#2. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
Losses: 1B Albert Pujols, RP Octavio Dotel, IF Nick Punto, 2B Ryan Theriot,
Additions: OF Carlos Beltran

The Cardinals have an interesting dynamic coming into 2012 because they are defending World Champions, but their current roster does not yell, “DETHRONE US IF YOU DARE!” The starters are a good mix of veterans and youngsters, but it is pretty difficult to see Berkman having the same kind of year that he did last year, moving back to 1B with Pujols leaving. Beltran did post his best slugging numbers in the last 4 years in 2011, but he is also getting up there in age. Furcal is still a defensive weapon and they were smart to retain him at SS, as well as Matt Holliday in RF who is obviously the only sure-thing superstar on this offense. David Freese and Allen Craig will need to continue to grow, and Freese absolutely has to stay healthy. The pitching will be relieved of the heavy workload with Adam Wainwright coming back after missing the 2011 campaign. Reports have said that he is tossing very well and that he will be at full strength. Carpenter proved in the postseason that he can still hurl the ball with the best of them, and Jaimie Garcia is continuing to blossom into a stud. The nagging problems for the Cards will be consistency in the regular season, which they struggled with last year, and developing the bullpen without Dave Duncan. Jason Motte will need to be a solid closer for them and they will need to work determine roles for McClellan, Salas, and Boggs in relief. The Cardinals have extremely high expectation after coming out of nowhere to win it all last year.

#1. Milwaukee Brewers (96-66)
Losses: 1B Prince Fielder, P Takashi Saito
Additions: 3B Aramis Ramirez, SS Alex Gonzalez, SS Cesar Izturis

Milwaukee won the NL Central last season convincingly and were clearly the best team in the division for the regular season. The big bats for the Brewers were NL MVP Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Fielder is now in Detroit and Braun is facing a 50 game suspension for a positive drug test, that he is appealing. Assuming nothing about Braun and expecting that he plays the Brewers still appear to have some incredible possibilities this year. Rickie Weeks put on a ton of muscle before last season, and he has continued his work ethic and will come into this spring as strong and fast as ever. Nyjer Morgan came on last year as a role player with swagger and confidence, rallying the guys around him and he should keep getting better. The right side of the infield improved with Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez over Mat Gamel (moved to 1st) and Yuniesky Betancourt at SS. Ramirez will ultimately try to play the poor mans Fielder behind Braun. The pitching is still one of the best in the game with Yovani Gallardo and Greinke being the top 2 with Marcum, Narveson, and Wolf behind, all with strong years in 2011. The bullpen has one of the best set-up closer combos in the NL with K-Rod setting up for Axford. The Brewers will be addressing the gaping hole left by Fielder and if they can do that they should be able to compete at a high level in the divison.

Division Outlook:
The Central Division will be undoubtedly down this season compared to the past few seasons. Defaulting to the defending World Series Champs winning the division does not work here because the Reds and Brewers both make strong cases. Every team has a lot of questions and lot to work on as the season nears and through the first half of the year. The Astros will more than likely be dismal yet again, and the Cubs and Pirates will struggle with youthful talent and consistency. The Central division is really one of the more difficult divisions to project because of the variables for each of the top tier teams and how the division is polarized. Regardless of who wins the division, the Central probably will not field a wildcard team, unless a 5th wildcard team is implemented this year by MLB.

My “Early” Prediction:
1. Cincinnati Reds (94-69) Wins tie-breaker against Brewers
2. Milwaukee Brewers (93-670) Loses tie breaker against Reds
3. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
4. Chicago Cubs (81-81)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (78-84)
6. Houston Astros (50-112)

As stated previously, this division might be the hardest to pick. It’s difficult to pick against the Cardinals because they are going to be very similar to the San Francisco Giants of 2010. Their pitching will carry them through the season because it will have to with the lack of hitting numbers. Holliday will be an all-star, but he is really the only offensive all-star for them without Pujols to help improve stats. Their season hinges too much on Berkman and Beltran being solidly consistent and it’s hard to put all the eggs in that basket. Lance Berkman can be compared to Vladimir Guerrero in 2010, having a revitalizing season with Texas, then going to the Orioles and falling off, but he could also keep riding the success. That being said, the Reds have Votto and Bruce which gives them an advantage because they are plausibly the best hitting team in the division. That coupled with Latos and Cueto at the top of the rotation and there is the formula for success. The Reds will have growing pains and a lot of those could surround Chapman and Mike Leake at the tail end of the rotation, but the run support should be quality for them. The Brewers only really lost Fielder, but they made some adds to hopefully counteract the impact Fielders absences will play with Ramirez and Gonzalez. 2012 can prove to be the first opportunity for Mat Gamel to play a full season and he could jump at the chance, but even if he is a solid role player, the Brewers could possibly have 3 hitting all-stars on the roster in Weeks, Braun, and Ramirez (statistically the best 3B in the NL last season, and if not for his poor start, would have been last year). The Brewers Pitching is also better than the Cardinals in the sense that it has an established system in the bullpen. If Motte can’t be consistent, they will struggle, and without Dave Duncan it is difficult to see them overcoming that issue as easily as with him. By the same token, David Freese and Allen Craig are unproven guys that the Cardinals will need to rely on. Freese had great success in the postseason in 2011 and if he can continue that, he will be an all-star, but that remains to be seen. The Brewers and Reds appear to have the strongest chance of winning the division because of the depth and balance between hitting and pitching, even though the Cardinals are probably built better for the postseason. The defending World Series Champs have too many holes, but if they are able to answer those nagging questions, the Cardinals could make a run in August and September like last year.