Earlier this week, I brought you my previews of the NL West and the AL West in 2012. Working my way east, let’s take a look at the NL Central, where 2011’s two best teams each lost multiple faces of their respective franchises (at least temporarily), creating a wide open division.
Most Improved Team
I picked the Reds to win the Central in 2011 and it backfired. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips did their part, but Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs stagnated and the young pitching failed to materialize. They outscored their opponents, but won just 79 games. Still relatively young, we could have expected them to win 83 or 84 games without doing anything in the offseason. Instead, they mortgaged the future for a window of opportunity. With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder out of the division and Votto probably not around for long himself, the Reds traded a boatload of young talent for Padres ace Mat Latos. Latos joins Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey to form what could be an excellent young rotation. The bullpen is rebuilt, with Ryan Madson representing a major upgrade over departed closer Francisco Cordero, and Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo now in the fold. Aroldis Chapman could augment the rotation or the bullpen if he takes a step forward in ’12. Votto is by far the best hitter in the division (and probably the league), and has a solid core around him. I see this team winning 88 games and returning to the playoffs.
Least Improved Team
October’s magic aside, the Cardinals were a fringe playoff team at best last year, with the run differential of an 89-win team, and more than a few older players on the squad. Dump Pujols and his nearly guaranteed six wins, and the team had a lot of work to do in the offseason. They may miss Pujols less than one might think, with Lance Berkman moving to first base, newcomer Carlos Beltran offering similar offense and much better defense in right, and Allen Craig ready to fill in the gaps when he returns from injury. Still, they have holes at second base and center field, and an aging rotation, with a lot of innings on the arm of Chris Carpenter, regression due from Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson gone. If Adam Wainwright immediately returns to Cy Young form after missing a year due to injury, this team could contend. That’s no guarantee, though, and the aging offense and bullpen may not find the same fountain of youth they found under Tony LaRussa last year. I see a .500 team in the gateway city.
We shouldn’t count out the Brewers, particularly if Mat Gamel can step up and fill some of the void left by Fielder, or if Tyler Green is ready at third base and Aramis Ramirez moves to first, but they’ll be without Ryan Braun for 50 games as he serves his suspension, and what was a top-heavy lineup may not be heavy anywhere in April and May. The pitching is still solid, with Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo probably the two best pitchers in the division, but Shaun Marcum may have been a mirage in ’11. With this in mind, I’m going with the Reds, who need some magic of their own to convince Votto to stay in flyoverland.
Pittsburgh seems unlikely to take another step forward, as they outplayed their pythag in ’11 and didn’t add much besides some upside in Erik Bedard and a serviceable shortstop in Clint Barmes. The Cubs seem prepared to hit rock bottom this year before rebuilding under Theo Epstein, and the Astros are awful and not getting much better. I see the division playing out like this:
1. Cincinnati, 88-74
2. Milwaukee, 83-79
3. St. Louis, 81-81
4. Pittsburgh, 71-91
5. Chicago, 66-96
6. Houston, 65-97