THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…: 2011 National League Central Preview

Posted: March 24, 2011 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
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In a year characterized by the unexpected in the National League, the Central was home to the biggest and most enduring example. It was a division where if you had predicted its final act to play out as it did last March, your conversation would have resembled more of an SNL skit than a legit sports conversation. However, what went down on the field was no laughing matter anywhere outside of the Cincinnati area, as the Reds resurrected themselves to a form they hadn’t seen since the mid-90’s, and knocked off all the usual suspects in the division title race in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago. They were led by a perfect storm of veteran resurgence, quick impact rookies and coming of age from the incumbents, most notably first baseman Joey Votto’s MVP season.

2010 Final Standings

1. Cincinnati Reds (91-71)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
4. Houston Astros (76-86)
5. Chicago Cubs (75-87)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105)

Behind Votto's huge season, the Reds sprung the surprise division title of the year. Is it the first of many?

The Reds consistency and season long hunger were responsible for them rising above 3rd place for the first time since 1999, but also disappointing efforts from the rest of the division played a role in this picture as well. Each team in the division has taken steps to change their approach from last season to narrow the gap on the Reds’ five game margin of victory. The Cardinals put a premium on adding more offense to a mix that depended almost entirely on Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday a year ago. The Brewers completely rebuilt their pitching staff, which often made sure no lead was too safe last summer. On the bottom half of the division, the Cubs made few moves, but the ones they did were big impact ones. The Astros and Pirates got in on the act slightly, adding in vets to bring some hope of consistency and turnaround to their clubs. But in the end, is it enough? Did everything just work out right for the Reds for the moment, or is the beginning of a long term new pecking order in the Central?

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Yadier Molina-St. Louis Cardinals

First Base: Albert Pujols-St. Louis Cardinals

Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Cincinnati Reds

Third Base: Scott Rolen-Cincinnati Reds

Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Chicago Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun-Milwaukee Brewers

Center Field: Colby Rasmus-St. Louis Cardinals

Right Field: Corey Hart-Milwaukee Brewers

Braun's .304/25 HR/103 RBI season was a down year by his standards, but he is still is the class of NL Left fielders.

Starting Pitcher: Chris Carpenter-St. Louis Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke-Milwaukee Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Carlos Zambrano-Chicago Cubs

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Milwaukee Brewers

Bullpen Righty: Evan Meek-Pittsburgh Pirates

Bullpen Lefty: Sean Marshall-Chicago Cubs

Closer: Carlos Marmol-Chicago Cubs

BEST PLAYERS

1. Albert Pujols-Cardinals
2. Joey Votto-Reds
3. Ryan Braun-Brewers
4. Matt Holliday-Cardinals
5. Chris Carpenter-Cardinals
6. Prince Fielder-Brewers
7. Zack Greinke-Brewers
8. Brandon Phillips-Reds
9. Yovani Gallardo-Brewers
10. Carlos Zambrano-Cubs

Pujols led the NL in home runs and RBI a year ago, proving once again in baseball, there's Albert & then everyone else.

If there’s any sport that doesn’t need a “Who’s the best player” debate, its baseball. Albert Pujols makes sure that discussion starts at #2. His future may be in question, but what he will do this summer is definitely not. In history, Votto’s 2010 MVP will look even more impressive due to the fact he took it home in the face of one of Pujols’ best campaigns. Picking who’s better between Braun and Holliday is so close it almost depends on what either of them did in their last at-bat. Carpenter is a force on his own, and he finished in the top 3 in the Cy Young race again, but is the top pitcher once more in the Central due to teammate Adam Wainwright’s season ending elbow surgery.

LINEUP

1. Brewers
2. Cincinnati
3. Cardinals
4. Cubs
5. Astros
6. Pirates

For years the Brewers have been able to club the ball all over the place, but last season they finally got production from everyone at once, with Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart both joining the party with 30 home run seasons, in addition to Braun and Fielder’s usual great years and Casey McGehee having a great year as well. The Reds get production from literally everywhere, and have seven regulars capable of having 20 homer seasons. The Cardinals’ lineup potential lies very much on the shoulders of Rasmus’ consistency in front of Pujols/Holliday.

ROTATION

  1. Brewers
  2. Reds
  3. Cubs
  4. Cardinals
  5. Astros
  6. Pirates

No team turned a weakness into strength more aggressively than the Brewers did with their pitching. Yovani Gallardo was on an island much of the time in years past, but with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum now joining him to become the division’s foremost rotation. The Reds run out someone who can win every day, and have a too many arms for slots, but not the top tier guys that are in Milwaukee. The Cubs boosted their staff in the same way, by adding Matt Garza, while the Cardinals lost their grasp on best rotation when Wainwright hit the surgeon’s table.

Zambrano heads a deep Cub pitching staff...when his temper lets him display his talents freely.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Brewers (Greinke & Gallardo)
2. Cubs (Zambrano & Dempster)
3. Cardinals (Carpenter & Garcia)
4. Reds (Arroyo & Volquez)
5. Astros (Myers & Rodriguez)
6. Pirates (McDonald & Correia)

As before, the Brewers jump in matchup difficulty is clear. Matter of fact, it would have challenged even the Cardinals healthy 1-2 combo for supremacy. Having strong top of the rotation is strength for nearly the entire division, with even the Myers/Rodriguez fifth place combo combining for a 25-20 record a year ago, that was often marked by a lack of run support. A full season of a healthy Edison Volquez for the Reds could be yet another plus for the Reds.

BULLPEN

  1. 1. Reds
  2. 2. Cubs
  3. 3. Cardinals
  4. 4. Brewers
  5. 5. Pirates
  6. 6. Astros

The Reds throw a lot at opponents in the pen, and have the biggest non-closer (for now) matchup concern in perhaps all of baseball in Aroldis Chapman and his 103 miles per hour fastball. He’s complimented by the division’s best closer in Francisco Cordero and a group of solid situational guys. The Cubs boast a ton of solid arms, and the return of Kerry Wood, in addition to Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol gives them three hard throwing late inning arms. In Pittsburgh, in the event they have a late lead, their Evan Meek/Joel Hanrahan combo combined for 170 strikeouts in 2010, most of any reliever combo.

3-4-5 HITTERS

  1. 1. Cardinals (Pujols/Holliday/Berkman)
  2. 2. Brewers (Braun/Fielder/McGehee)
  3. 3. Reds (Votto/Rolen/Bruce)
  4. 4. Cubs (Byrd/Ramirez/Pena)
  5. 5. Pirates (McCutchen/Alvarez/Overbay)
  6. 6. Astros (Pence/Lee/Johnson)

Holliday brought another Silver Slugger award to St. Louis during his first full season under the Arch.

Pujols and Holliday is the best 3-4 combo in baseball on their own, and could nearly support this claim on their own. However, if Berkman can give the Cardinals even 75% of what he has done in the past; this could become the most dangerous heart of any lineup in the NL. The Cubs may have scored the biggest boost to any Central lineup in Carlos Pena, who still managed to hit 28 home runs last year, despite a .196 average ( which was a down year, not a fall off).

TABLESETTERS

1. Brewers (Weeks & Hart)
2. Reds (Stubbs & Phillips)
3. Cardinals (Schumaker & Rasmus)
4. Houston (Bourn & Hall)
5. Pirates (Tabaka & Walker)
6. Cubs (Fukodome & Castro)

The Brewers have a ridiculous amount of pop & speed at the top of their order, but the Reds have a guy that had a quietly major season last year in Drew Stubbs, who totaled 22 home runs, 77 RBI and 30 steals. While his .255 average will have to improve, especially in front of Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, he could be poised for a major breakout this summer. The Cubs are reluctant to lead off with Starlin Castro yet, but Fukodome is the worst leadoff hitter in the NL, so they would be smart to pull the swap.

BENCH

1. Reds
2. Cubs
3. Cardinals
4. Pirates
5. Brewers
6. Astros

They had no need to make a lot of aggressive moves this summer to their core, so instead they built up their bench with Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis, who add even more depth to their attack. The Cubs have a lot of potential power on their bench in Tyler Colvin, who’s 22 homers led all rookies a year ago. One of the Pirates rare strengths is their reserve bats, which feature Matt Diaz and Ryan Doumit.

DEFENSE

1. Reds
2. Brewers
3. Cubs
4. Cardinals
5. Astros
6. Pirates

The Reds boast one of the best infield defenses in the game, and Phillips and Scott Rolen took home Gold Gloves for their performances last year, in addition to pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s GG as well. The Cardinals also feature two Gold Glovers in Pujols and Molina, and Rasmus can cover a ton of ground in the outfield as well. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have centerfielders with plus range in Marlon Byrd, Carlos Gomez and Gold Glover Michael Bourn, respectively.

SPEED

1. Reds
2. Astros
3. Brewers
4. Pirates
5. Cardinals
6. Cubs

Bourn looks to lead the NL in steals for the 3rd consecutive season in '11.

Phillips, Stubbs and Jay Bruce all give the Reds lineup 20 steal potential. In Houston, Michael Bourn has led the NL in steals for the last two years, with 61 in ’09 and 52 last year. Jose Tabaka and Andrew McCutchen give the Pirates two real stolen base threats that can also stretch hits into the gap into extra bases.

MANAGER

1. Tony LaRussa (Cardinals)
2. Dusty Baker (Reds)
3. Clint Hurdle (Pirates)
4. Mike Quade (Cubs)
5. Brad Mills (Astros)
6. Ron Roenicke (Brewers)

Both LaRussa and Baker are master strategists who constantly get the most out of their entire roster on a nightly basis. Much of the battle between the Cardinals and Reds will come down to the game of managerial chess between the two. Veteran manager Clint Hurdle was the most important offseason move for the Pirates, as they continue to move more young talent into the mix. Ron Roenicke will be expected to produce immediate results in his first year as a manager in Beer Town.

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS TO WATCH

1. Aroldis Chapman (Pitcher, Reds)
2. *Jordan Lyles (Pitcher, Astros)
3. *Devin Mesoraco (Catcher, Reds)
4. Mark Rogers (Pitcher, Brewers)
5. Matt Carpenter (Third basemen, Cardinals)

Whether it is as a starter, setup man, closer or mixture of all these roles, Chapman will be one of the biggest impact players in the game in his first full season in Cincy. He was clocked as high as 105 miles per hour at times last year, so the sky (or his breaking ball) may truly be the limit for him. Lyles and Rogers will make some spot starts throughout the year, with Lyles having a clearer path towards a Major League rotation.

FINANCES

1. Cubs
2. Cardinals
3. Brewers
4. Reds
5. Pirates
6. Astros

The Cubs have a lot of bad contracts on deck still (Soriano, Ramirez, Fukodome), but still have a lot of financial freedom to make a move if they find themselves in the mix in what will be a tight division. The Cardinals may be forced to look into the market for pitchers if they sense a repeat from last year, but may be hamstrung in how big of a contract they can take on with Pujols’ day at the bank looming in the winter. The Astros are being shopped by owner Drayton McLane, so they won’t be spending much.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Zack Greinke (Brewers from Royals)
2. Matt Garza (Cubs from Rays)
3. Kerry Wood (Cubs from Yankees)
4. Shawn Marcum (Brewers from Blue Jays)
5. Lance Berkman (Cardinals from Yankees)

Greinke could be the focus of a lot of attention all summer if he brings his '09 Cy Young form to the NL with him.

If Greinke follows the mold of other recent AL Cy Young winners that matriculated over to the NL (Sabathia, Lee, Halladay), then he could become a force in a major way once he returns from injury in May. Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter last season, and was among the best in the AL for years. Berkman gives the Cardinals a much needed presence in their lineup that they’ve lacked since moving Ryan Ludwick last summer.

PREDICTION

1. REDS
2. BREWERS
3. CARDINALS
4. CUBS
5. ASTROS
6. PIRATES

This will be the most competitive division in the National League all summer. The Reds will repeat at taking the crown, although it’s far from the beginning of an uncontested dynasty. Last year, they had a lot of things come together at the right time and it paid off. This year all of those same elements won’t produce on the same level, but the youngsters such as Votto, Bruce, Chapman, Stubbs Mike Leake and Travis Wood will continue their upswing with more experience, and the veterans will provide more of a supporting than featured role. However, it won’t be by another five game margin like 2010, as the Brewers and Cardinals will mount significant attacks all summer, and the Cubs will be improved as well. In the end, the Brewers lack of depth won’t let them overtake the champs, and the Cardinals without Wainwright will lose some tough games he would have been the difference in. Both clubs will stay within striking range of the Wild Card and could also make a legit push for the division title if the Reds succumb to injury or a prolonged.

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