NL Central Preview: New Chapter Added to Cards-Cubs Rivalry
By Aaron Somers
We are officially less than 24 hours away from opening day around Major League Baseball. I know; I can’t believe it either. We made it through another cold winter, and with spring training in the rear view mirror, it’s just about time to hear the two words that every loves: Play ball. I just hope those words aren’t coming out of Jim Joyce’s mouth when the Cardinals square off with the Padres at 4:15 ET. MLB is once again ready to take center stage and fans around the country will be tuning in to watch the game’s best back in action. My prayers have been answered and the Cards game will be on ESPN, so I will be able to watch it in its entirety from my home in Philadelphia (Not that any of you care).
Ordinarily, I’d give some love to the NCAA tournament and the Final Four, which begins this weekend, but this year, it’s all things baseball. Why, you ask? Well I don’t really like to talk about it, but I had Louisville winning it all. When they were upset in the very first round by the 13 seed Morehead State, my bracket was effectively busted right from the start. At least I had my Syracuse Orange to root for. Oh wait, they were upset in the second round. Alright, that’s enough bitching from me for now. Hopefully baseball season brings better fortune.
As writers, analysts, and fans make their predictions for the upcoming season, I will take the time to join in and do the same. Last year, the NL Central was especially unpredictable and not too many people saw a way in which the Cincinnati Reds would surpass the Cardinals to win the division. If anything, last season reminded us to always expect the unexpected. Expect more of the same this season. Baseball’s largest division may in fact be one of its most interesting in 2011, so my job of making predictions will not be easy.
*Note: Predictions are in ascending order from last to first, which I’m sure you have already figured out after seeing the Pittsburgh Pirates at the top of the list.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (Last year: 57-105)
This should come as no surprise given the fact that the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992. I think it’s reasonable to expect about 10 more victories out of this ballclub, and maybe, just maybe, they won’t have the worst record in MLB. The Pirates may still be bad, but to their credit, there is no question that they are improving. I really do like some of the pieces that they currently have in place such as Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, but that’s not quite enough to get this team out of the basement. Be patient Pittsburgh fans, your time will come. Potential is a beautiful thing.
5. Houston Astros (Last year: 76-86)
The Astros are very much a work in progress. Rodriguez, Myers, and Happ bring some solid consistency to the top of the rotation, which is encouraging. However, the staff lacks a true dominant ace. The same is true for the Astros offense. They have several above average players who can produce respectable numbers such as Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, and Chris Johnson, but there is no true superstar in the lineup. This team should improve as some of its younger players gain more experience, but unless Houston can land a big name or two, they won’t be considered a legitimate threat in this division.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (Last year: 77-85)
Don’t mistake the Brewers as a poor team just because I have them finishing fourth. They are on the verge of making some noise in the National League. Obviously, the additions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke to go along with Yovani Gallardo make this pitching staff dangerous. This is also one of the most powerful offenses in the league, and the way I see it, there are four 100-RBI guys in this lineup. I have a feeling that Prince Fielder will have an MVP-type season as he plays for a new contract, and this team will score a ton of runs. Ultimately, I think the bullpen and the defense will be the downfall of the Brew Crew as they have major problems in both areas. All in all, Milwaukee will not be an easy team to beat by any means this year.
3. Cincinnati Reds (Last year: 91-71)
Call me Lance Berkman, but I believe that the Reds had a few players perform above their actual talent level in 2010. NL MVP Joey Votto will once again anchor what will most likely be a top-ten offense, and Drew Stubbs is a rising star in center field. However, I question whether or not Scott Rolen can repeat last year’s performance at the age of 35 and there are also some shortstop questions for this team. The pitching staff which looked great last season has been simply terrible this spring and Kung-fu Queto has some health concerns. The bullpen is outstanding, but you only go as far as your pitching takes you, and I don’t have confidence in the starting rotation. To top it all off, the Reds are starting the season with five players on the DL for the first time since 2007.
2. Chicago Cubs (Last year: 75-87)
The Cubs are primed for a drastic turnaround in 2011. If Zambrano can pick up where he left off last year to go along with ace Ryan Dempster and new addition Matt Garza, this pitching staff will be superb. Don’t forget about Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol holding things down at the back end either. To me, Starlin Castro is a budding superstar in this league. Marlon Byrd is an extremely underrated all-around player, and if Aramis Ramirez returns to his old form, I think this team will have just enough offensive firepower to compete at the top of the division. Carlos Pena can’t have any worse of a season than he had last year, so his power numbers should help as well. Everyone tends to forget about Geovany Soto behind the plate, but he is one of the game’s best offensive catchers. Finally, I love the attitude that Mike Quade has brought to this clubhouse. He realizes what it takes to win, and this team is motivated to break their curse.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (Last year: 86-76)
This team can still succeed without Adam Wainwright. First of all, baseball’s best player is still in St. Louis. I have faith that Pujols will come out and make a statement this season, putting to rest any questions of possible distractions. The one-two punch of Pujols and Holliday is one of the most dangerous in MLB, and Lance Berkman will have more of an impact than people think. Colby Rasmus should finally show some signs of reaching his sky-high potential, and if David Freese remains healthy, he can hit for a decent average. Carpenter and Garcia will need to be money at the top of the rotation, and based on the way Kyle Loshe and Kyle McClellan have performed in spring training, starting pitching might not be a major concern after all. Of course it always helps when you have a leader like Yadier Molina behind the dish directing traffic. As much as many fans hate him, Tony La Russa always seems to find a way to put his team in the best possible position to succeed.
I went back and forth many times before settling on these predictions and as of right now, everything is up in the air. However, if these predictions pan out, we are in store for some exciting Chicago-St. Louis match-ups. It’s the oldest rivalry in all of baseball, and the Cardinals’ addition of Ryan Theriot adds something to the fire. The rivalry was at one of its highest points during the McGwire/Sosa era, but this year has the potential to reach that level, especially if things are tight down the stretch. The Cubbies may have a shot at the wild card, but I ultimately see the Redbirds getting hot at the right time and winning the NL Central by a very slim margin.