Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

2012 MLB Division Preview: NL Central


1. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals did lose their franchise guy in Albert Pujols, and ace starter Chris Carpenter is out indefinitely. However, they did add Carlos Beltran this offseason, they won the World Series last year, and the reigning division champions also lost their all-world first baseman.

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

It’s going to be a close race in the top three, but the Cardinals will ultimately win out. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig make up a powerful core of sluggers, with third baseman David Freese bringing in the streaky, Luke Scott-esque power surges from time to time. The Cards have the offensive muscle, because it’s also easy to forget Yadier Molina at the plate. He has grown as a hitter over the years, and Molina is hands-down the best defensive catcher in baseball. He fully deserved the extension.

The role hitters on this team like Jon Jay and Rafael Furcal provide value, with Jay being a solid, unspectacular replacement in center who is far from a household name. He isn’t anything special, but he’s at least an average CF. Furcal’s career has been damaged by injuries to the extent that he has been effectively robbed of a stellar career. You can do a lot worse at shortstop than Furcal, and he has “veteran upside”, which basically means that he can outperform expectations if he’s healthy and things go well for him. Is it likely? No. Will the Cards take it? Yes.

Carpenter may be on the shelf, but this pitching staff is still quite strong. Lance Lynn isn’t exactly a black hole at the No. 5 slot, and you can never rule out a fre agent signing (like Roy Oswalt, however unlikely it may be). Kyle McClellan provides some quality depth, and the Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball with the pitching depth to afford losing a pitcher of Carp’s caliber.

Jake Westbrook has looked so much better so far in Spring Training, and you know what you’re going to get out of the league-average pitcher; quality innings getting eaten up. He has some terrible games here and there when his sinker isn’t working, but he’s as good of a No. 4 pitcher as you can hope for. Adam Wainwright is a pitcher who epitomizes what it means to be an “ace”, so definitely expect a big 5 WAR year from him.

Although Kyle Lohse can be described as mercurial, he is a 2 WAR, average pitcher but projecting him is an inexact science. His value fluctuates from between 1 and 3 WAR in any given year, but a 2 WAR season is a safe estimate. Jaime Garcia will slot in comfortably behind Wainwright, and this rotation will be elite once Carpenter gets back.

The Cardinals bullpen is seven deep with Jason Motte and Fernando Salas being the 1-2 punch at the top, and the Cards also feature veterans like Romero, Scrabble, Boggs, and Linebrink in what is a solid ‘pen overall.

Tab these guys for something close to 9o wins, and they will win the division by taking down the Brew Crew and the Reds in a long, captivating battle in the weak NL Central.

2. Milwaukee Brewers

Man, it’s just so tough to differentiate between the three top teams in the division. There is a huge gap between the top three and bottom three teams in the division, but the gaps between the top three teams are almost negligible.

The Brewers lost Prince Fielder and have to play Mat Gamel at first, but they also have a better situation at third base with Aramis Ramirez at the position; the second best hitting 3B in the National League. He will be good for 3-3.5 WAR, which is more than we can say for the man whom he replaced.

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

The big story of the offseason for the Brewers was the Ryan Braun steroids saga, and it’s a catch 22 for the Brewers star. If he kills it and wins the MVP, then everyone will say that he is still on the stuff. If he ends up having a poor year, then people will say that it is because he is no longer taking steroids. I think he’ll surpass 6 WAR (yeah, I’m setting the over) and anyone who brings up the steroid card is a crazy conspiracy theorist.

The best news for the Brewers this offseason was the departure of Yuniesky Betancourt, and the subsequent upgrade at shortstop with Alex Gonzalez in the fold. He may not be able to hit and was the subject of a terribly lopsided trade with the Toronto Blue Jays for the criminally underrated Yunel Escobar, but Gonzalez led the league in DRS last season and is a decent SS.

The rotation is full of quality in the top four spots, but it might just be that I’m too optimistic on Shaun Marcum‘s prospects of a bounce-back, 3 WAR year. I genuinely feel bad for the guy, since he’s always hurt and never got enough credit in Toronto. Zack Greinke is going to be the Cy Young winner next season and make good on those nasty peripherals last season. His xFIP was way low, and it was like his Cy Young year in Kansas City. Greinke isn’t overrated, and his K.C. season was not an anomaly; this guy is legitimately one of the best pitchers in the game. And hey, No. 2 starter Yovani Gallardo isn’t bad either and would be the No. 1 on most other teams.

The bullpen is top heavy and lacks sufficient depth, but the top truly is heavy. Francisco Rodriguez is mercurial- it really doesn’t feel right typing out his whole name- but K-Rod’s mark in the baseball world shouldn’t be based on his annoying celebration, terrible contract with the Mets, or his overrated, record-breaking season. He is a 1.5 WAR SU who should be tabbed for a sub-3.00 ERA season and is one of the better relievers in the game. But of course, it’s all about closer John Axford and his stache. You can’t top that guy, he dominates and is at least a top ten closer.

3. Cincinnati Reds

Well, uh, that’s what we call selling the farm. Edinson Volquez, Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brandon Boxberger was a steep price to pay for front-line youngster Mat Latos; but it was worth it. Forget that Volquez is “the Opening Day starter” in San Diego, because Latos would have obviously been the ace over there and is far better than Volquez. Seriously, somebody tried to tell me that Volquez is underrated and better than Latos, because Latos is “an injury risk” and his down year is a sign that he was lucky.

Latos was actually unlucky last season, to the point where he was a 3-4 WAR pitcher in 2011 with a BABIP and batted ball stats that inflated his ERA. He is the best pitcher in an otherwise average rotation, with Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake comfortably in the 2 and 3 spots. We’ll see if Homer Bailey can bounce back and become a capable starter, and we’ll also see if Bronson Arroyo can avoid being a negative WAR player.

The injury of Ryan Madson kills what was a steal of a deal for the Reds, but another subject of their steal will be closing for them. Sean Marshall was the most valuable reliever in baseball last season, and he is one of the most underrated players in baseball. This is a 2+ WAR reliever we are talking about, and a guy who made the most out of his time as a set-up man in Chicago. It was a small price to pay to get him, and it has certainly paid off for the Reds- a true blessing in light of the Madson injury. Maybe Marshall will finally get his due as the closer in Cincinnati.

The rest of the bullpen looks solid with Bill Bray, Nick Masset, and the always-interesting Aroldis Chapman. Will he start or stay in the pen? I think we’ll see him taking the mound to start the first at some point this season; even if it involves him pitching once because Arroyo got sick in the dugout before the game. I’ll take it. Anything to see this guy pitch.

As you all heard, Joey Votto will be reaping the benefits of a ten year, $225 million deal. Does he deserve it? Absolutely. This guy is going to have a long career, because he is a more athletic first baseman. He will have to average 4.5 WAR per season, and the Reds know that he will be a burden to bear at the end of his deal. However, he is their franchise guy.

The problem I have with this deal is that it could jeopardize Brandon Phillips‘s future in Cincinnati; a player whom I have the utmost respect for. At a position that is bereft of quality hitters, Phillips goes above and beyond the call of duty and is a supremely talented offensive and defensive player at the position. I hope he stays on this team, because I can’t see him anywhere outside of Cincy; with the possible exception of New York. I’ve become used to the Yankees bringing in people like CC and Granderson; players that I never thought would have ended up in Pinstripes. By the way, that was just a joke all-too-serious Yanks fans. I mean, that Robinson Cano guy is pretty good and is an even better hitter than Phillips.

Zack Cozart is a shortstop I can’t take my eyes off, and he’s my darkhorse pick for NL Rookie of the Year. Cozart is a quality SS in the making, and he’s the hipster pick for NLROY with all the focus being on that Bryce Harper guy.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates dealt reliever Jose Veras to the Milwaukee Brewers for Casey McGehee, as the one-year wonder- what some say- was collateral damage after the Aramis Ramirez trade. He and Pedro Alvarez are two reclamation projects at 3B, but there is reason to be fairly optimistic for both players. Power simply doesn’t randomly leave a player, and McGehee did have some fishy batted ball stats. Alvarez is starting to look better, and he’s still a young guy with potential. I can see one of them panning out and becoming at least a 2 WAR option for the Pirates.

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The bullpen is underwhelming but certainly adequate with solid, won’t-knock-you-out guys like Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek. The rotation is in bad shape, because it’s a collection of No. 3 and 4 starters. Erik Bedard is a quality pitcher, and he’s always healthy, right? A.J. Burnett was a nice acquisition, but there’s a reason why the Yankees traded him for basically nothing. I like Charlie Morton, but he’s a No. 3 starter and a “not bad” groundball pitcher. Kevin Correia, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens are decent innings-eaters, so this rotation isn’t all bad; but it sure isn’t anything to be proud of.

The outfield looks good with Alex Presley poised to break out in left field, and the solid Jose Tabata in the other corner. Sandwiched between them is superstar Andrew McCutchen, who was the subject of a fantastic extension that brought much happiness to a fan base that needed some more of that going around. He is a 6 WAR beast in center who does everything well, and he’s one of those guys everyone pays to see. Second baseman Neil Walker is a less heralded star, but the underrated 2B fills out a division with three of the best ten second basemen in baseball (Rickie Weeks being the third).

5. Chicago Cubs

The rebuilding process in Chicago is under full force, and Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have done a tremendous job so far. Their signing of David DeJesus was a steal, and it gives them a quality, underrated RF with pop and solid defense. The other two outfield spots are suspect, and that’s a kind word when referring to the black hole that is Alfonso Soriano (defense-wise and contractually).

Bryan LaHair is hardly the first baseman of the future, but all Cubs fans can do is to be optimistic regarding his future prospects at the position. I mean, they only have to play him until Anthony Rizzo is available, a player whom both Epstein and Hoyer think highly of. There are legitimate concerns as to whether Rizzo can effectively hit high velocity fastballs in the Bigs, and those who think Rizzo has the potential to be the next huge star are wrong. He is, however, a safe prospect and a future 3 WAR player who will bring stability at a position that needs stability for some time to come.

There was no doubt that A-Ram wasn’t staying with the Cubs, so the team replaced him with veteran Ian Stewart in a trade with the Rockies that involved the much-maligned Tyler Colvin. This was a solid deal that will help both players, as both desperately needed a change of scenery to get their careers on the right track. Stewart isn’t exactly Brooks Robinson in the field, but he carries a quality bat for the position and could be an asset again if he can up his average and get his power back to where it was.

Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

The Chicago Cubs were finally able to dump of Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins in a mutually beneficial deal, but the move didn’t help the rotation much. It’s still subpar, with the exception of a nice 1-2 punch with Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster at the top. Garza’s value was at its highest, and I’m surprised that he wasn’t traded. Oh well, that’s four more wins for the Cubs that they will gladly keep, even though he is bound to regress from a huge 2011 campaign. But when I say regress, I don’t mean that he will pitch poorly. He’s still a quality, 3.5-4 WAR pitcher.

The loss of Sean Marshall really cuts into this bullpen’s value, because it’s Carlos Marmol and a whole lot of nothing. Moving away from the bullpen, Cubs fans have to love the players in the middle of the infield. Darwin Barney will never be a special player and is overvalued by some, but he is a quality 2.5 WAR player, and that’s all you can ask for when you have a rebuilding team. Barney is a young, solid second baseman who combines nicely with the developing talent at short that is Starlin Castro. At catcher, Geovany Soto has the power and the overall offensive ability to be a fixture there for quite some time; his patience is also a plus.

6. Houston Astros

Want to set the over/under at 55 games? This team is terrible, and I don’t think there is any room for debate on that one. Their MLB team could lose to some Triple-A squads.

The bullpen is a mess, with former innings-eater Brett Myers slotted in as the closer. He’ll most likely end up being an average reliever, but it hardly rings confidence that an unspectacular starter is the closer. He isn’t a bad pitcher, but he’s certainly a step down from Mark Melancon. Brandon Lyon will, thankfully, never close again, but at least he can be a mediocre set-up man for the Astros. The rest of the bullpen is filled with uncertain young pitchers, but it’s always good to take a look at the young guys and see what they have to offer when you are a rebuilding team. Who to watch for? Henry Sosa.

Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

That Melancon trade was actually a beneficial one for the Astros in the end, since a rebuilding team would much rather have a quality shortstop with upside and a young, versatile, four-pitch No. 5 starter than a closer. Melancon will be missed, but the return value was more than sufficient from the Astros point of view. I like Kyle Weiland more than J.A. Happ, and the ‘Stros can use all the pitching help they can get. Wandy Rodriguez is everyone’ s favorite lefty, and Bud Norris makes most people’s all-underrated team, but they are the only above-average starters on this squad.

Nobody will be heaping lavish praise on an outfield of J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer, and Brian Bogusevic any time soon. I’m pretty sure that Schafer’s claim to fame will always be his home run to start off his career. The rest- including a suspension- is a wash. Martinez actually has some potential, but we won’t be praising him for at least another year.

One Houston player to watch out for is second baseman Jose Altuve, who is an overlooked player in a division that is stocked with talent at the keystone. He is a quality player in the making with 3 WAR upside and is one of the lone bright spots on this team. After all, this is the same team that deploys the legendary outfield of Martinez, Schafer, and Bogusevic.

I have a feeling that Carlos Lee has cursed his team with that bad contract, because that is sports’ true curse; bad contracts that forever saddle a payroll. This is especially true for a rebuilding team, and it’s usually the poor teams with those bad contracts. Why? Most good teams have good front offices, and it’s the bad front offices that make the poor decisions to overpay for players. An Astros writer tweeted about why he hopes Carlos Lee will be traded, and I said something to the effect of “If anyone wants him”, and he replied “And there’s that” (or something like that). Finding a suitor for Lee will be impossible, so here’s to hoping that he suddenly regains control of his career and ends up being half the hitter Berkman was in 2008.

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Tags: Chicago Cubs Cincinnati Reds Houston Astros Milwaukee Brewers Pittsburgh Pirates St Louis Cardinals