Posts Tagged ‘Milwaukee Brewers’

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It is debatable if the NL Central was baseball’s best division a year ago, but what is not is that it had the toughest road to its title a year ago. Between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, the division had three legitimate title holders throughout the year, and in the end sent all three clubs to the postseason, with St. Louis finishing with the league’s best record and Pittsburgh and the Reds facing off in the National League Wild Card Game. It was only fitting that the Cardinals and Pirates had one final showdown, and it was a Division Series showdown that went the full five games and took a two game rally from the Cardinals to pull it off.

2013 Finish

  1.        St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)
  2.        Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)
  3.        Cincinnati Reds (90-72)
  4.        Milwaukee Brewers (74-88)
  5.        Chicago Cubs (66-96)

Fast forward a year later and the Central looks to be even stronger headed into the spring. The league’s most improved team a year ago, Pittsburgh looks to continue to develop and push their fortunes further. With the league’s MVP in Andrew McCutchen leading the way and a team synched around him, it is more than likely to continue trending up. The Reds are looking to be at full strength more often than they were a year ago, and return to the form that made them division champions just two years ago. St. Louis has reached the last three National League Championship Series and two out of the last three World Series, and yet somehow still managed to improve this winter. After a year marred by injuries and the loss of their top star Ryan Braun to a performance enhancing drug suspension, the Brewers look back to full strength, if not slightly improved. The Cubs are a distance away from their division mates, but are continuing a slow burn along their most recent rebuilding effort, and feature a roster slated to show plenty of increasing levels of young talent throughout the year.

In a division that has regularly been a gauntlet to survive, but has still produced multiple postseason clubs in each of the past three seasons. Will the Cardinals continue to ride their run atop the National League, or will they be clipped before they even make it out of their home division?

All-Division Lineup

1. Matt Carpenter—Cardinals, Third Base

2. Joey Votto—Reds, First Base

3. Andrew McCutchen—Pirates, Center Field

4. Ryan Braun—Brewers, Right Field

5. Matt Holliday—Cardinals, Left Field

6. Yadier Molina—Cardinals, Catcher

7. Brandon Phillips—Reds, Second Base

8. Jean Segura—Brewers, Shortstop

 

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright—Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Francisco Liriano—Pirates

Starting Pitcher: Shelby Miller—Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Homer Bailey—Reds

Right Handed Reliever: Marc Melancon—Pirates

Lefty Handed Reliever: Justin Wilson—Pirates

Closer: Aroldis Chapman—Reds

 

If Gomez, who led the NL in Wins Above Replacement a year ago (9.3), produces a similar 2014, it will assure the Brewers of an elite offense.

If Gomez, who led the NL in Wins Above Replacement a year ago (9.3), produces a similar 2014, it will assure the Brewers of an elite offense.

Lineup

1. Cardinals

2. Brewers

3. Pirates

4. Reds

5. Cubs

With the addition of Jhonny Peralta, STL has five reigning or former All-Stars in their everyday lineup, and the Cardinals can score runs at any point in their attack. Not far behind them are the diverse and timely Pirates, who have an attack similar to the Cardinal clubs of a generation ago: speed in bunches, based around a hammer in Pedro Alvarez. However, the Brewers could be back at their 2011-12 levels of elite run production if their rising stars from last year continue to trend up, and Braun and Aramis Ramirez can stay on the field.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Cardinals

2. Brewers

3. Reds

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

While they have no high level power hitter, the middle of the Cardinal lineup in Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina are all relentless, and timely, line drive hitters. The trio combined to hit .405 with runners in scoring position, with Craig leading the way at .454. The Reds have a potent duo in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, which could reach even higher levels with returns to form of Ryan Ludwick or Todd Frazier.

Table Setters

1. Reds

2. Cardinals

3. Brewers

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

The Reds could have a duo that approach 100 runs scored each in Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips, who will return back to the second slot in the order. Matt Carpenter led the NL in hits with 199 last year, while Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura both topped 30 steals a year ago in Milwaukee. Starling Marte is bordering on All-Star level in Pittsburgh, stealing 41 bases and working in 10 triples as well.

Depth

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Cubs

4. Reds

5. Brewers

With Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Matt Adams, Mark Ellis and Matt Adams all rotating in-between roles in the Cardinal lineup, the team’s biggest improvement is its depth. Each could play a regular role at will, and the team will employ all of its working parts regularly. Clint Barmes and Travis Snider are all solid former regulars in Pittsburgh, while the Cubs actually have a really versatile roster, brought on by having a lot of players at the same level, but some solid versatility in Ryan Roberts, Emilio Bonafacio, Justin Ruggiano, Luis Valbuena and former Gold Glover Darwin Barney.

The Reds gave Bailey $100 million headed into the spring as a reward for his steadily improving performance, which included career-bests in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched a year ago.

The Reds gave Bailey $100 million headed into the spring as a reward for his steadily improving performance, which included career-bests in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched a year ago.

Rotation

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Brewers

4. Reds

5. Cubs

Adam Wainwright is an automatic matchup advantage in nearly every instance, but he is backed by a high talent, and regularly maturing rotation that performs far beyond its 24-year-old average age. The Pirates have a strong mixture of veteran experience and emerging youth, while the Brewers bolstered their rotation in an impressively patient fashion yet again, by adding Matt Garza to Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and the emergent Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Cincinnati has a chance to have a very, very good rotation as well IF Mat Latos and Johnny Cuerto can both stay healthy.

1-2 Punch

1. Cardinals

2. Reds

3. Brewers

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

Wainwright and Wacha stand to be the new Carpenter and Wainwright, with Wacha having the talent to push Waino’s hold as the Cardinals top arm the same way a young Wainwright did to the incumbent regular Cy Young competitor in town when he joined the Cardinal staff full time a half decade ago. Homer Bailey is one of the game’s regularly bettering arms, while Yovani Gallardo has four 200 strikeout years under his belt as well.

Bullpen

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Reds

4. Cubs

5. Brewers

Trevor Rosenthal became a force of nature last October, proving move than ready to move into the ninth inning for a full season this year. When coupled with a nearly equally impressive Carlos Martinez and the looming return of Jason Motte as well, and the Cardinals could have final call in the 6th inning. Not far behind however is a Pirates pen featuring two All-Stars in Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, and that is setup by Tony Watson and Justin Walker. The uncertainty around the availability of Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall clouds the potential of the Reds pen, while the Cubs have put together a grouping Jose Veras, Wesley Wright and James Russell, albeit if none is a clear cut closer option.

 

McCutchen's all-around effort is what led him to the the NL MVP a year ago. The one-time Gold Glove winner is as much the glue in the field as he is at the plate,

McCutchen’s all-around effort is what led him to the the NL MVP a year ago. The one-time Gold Glove winner is as much the glue in the field as he is at the plate,

Defense

1. Reds

2. Pirates

3. Cardinals

4. Brewers

5. Cubs

The Reds can get to anything that’s hit even remotely close to their way, with plus defenders in Phillips, Bruce and Votto, as well as underrated performers in Frazier and Zack Cozart. All of that team speed does well in Pittsburgh, with Andrew McCutchen, Barmes and Marte all being fantastic defenders, and Russell Martin being one of the best field generals in the game. Speaking of which, Molina makes the biggest singular defensive difference in the game—as his six straight Gold Gloves attest to.

Manager

1. Pirates

2. Cardinals

3. Brewers

4. Reds

5. Cubs

Clint Hurdle went from nearly taking the fall for the Pirates 2012 slide to being rightfully honored as the NL Manager of the Year for the outstanding work he did in keeping the Pirates on track to end their 20+ year losing season curse. Nick Price and Rick Renteria will take over a clubhouse for the first time in Cincinnati and Chicago, while Mike Matheny looks to reach the NLCS for the third time in his third season.

Finances

1. Cubs

2. Cardinals

3. Reds

4. Brewers

5. Pirates

The Cubs are sleeping giants in the Central as they have unparalleled buying power in the division, and whenever they are ready, could pull themselves back into the race quicker than any other team. Outside of them, every other club is either at or close to their spending potential already.

Impact Additions

1. Jhonny Peralta (Cardinals via free agency)

2. Matt Garza (Brewers via free agency)

3. Peter Bourjos (Cardinals via trade)

4. Jose Veras (Cubs via free agency)

5. Mark Ellis (Cardinals via free agency)

Plenty of waves were made by the contract the Cardinals handed to Peralta coming off of his PED suspension, but his offensive capabilities could make him the quintessential “final piece” move. The Brewers made another patient free agent add to strengthen their empty rotation in their surprising grab of Garza late in the winter as well.

Leap Forward

1. Michael Wacha—Cardinals

2. Garrit Cole—Pirates

3. Trevor Rosenthal—Cardinals

4. Khris Davis—Brewers

5. Junior Lake—Cubs

There is an abundance of young potential that is driving each club in the division, and on the mound is where it is most prevalent. Wacha’s star took off like a rocket with his regular flirtation with no-hitters (resulting in a 1.76 September/October ERA) late in the year. He was MVP of the NLCS after yielding only seven hits and no runs over his two starts. No far behind him is Cole, who pitched much better than his 10-7 record would lead to believe in his 19 starts last year. He should become the Pirates unquestioned ace by the end of the summer.

Cubs top prospect Baez took camp by storm this year, hitting five home runs and impressing to the point that star shortstop Starlin Castro said he would move positions to make room for him if needed.

Cubs top prospect Baez took camp by storm this year, hitting five home runs and impressing to the point that star shortstop Starlin Castro said he would move positions to make room for him if needed.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Billy Hamilton—Reds

2. Oscar Taveras—Cardinals

3. Kolten Wong—Cardinals

4. Javier Baez—Cubs

5. Kris Bryant—Cubs

Hamilton has a chance to be the sensation of the summer and make a real push for seeing 70 stolen bases and 100 runs, with relative ease. The questions about his ability to hit every day seems more hopeful than realistic, as he hit .368 in his brief stint up last year and followed with a .294 clip in over 50 spring at-bats. The Rookie of the Year should be here in the central. Bryant and Baez could both push for that honor as well, as the Chicago youth movement takes some serious steps throughout the summer.

PREDICTIONS

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

3. Miwaukee Brewers

4. Cincinnati Reds

5. Chicago Cubs

Consistency is tough to imagine here, because it is a tough division. In all reality, any of the top four clubs could compete in any division and have a legit chance at still pushing for the playoffs. However, there are only six playoff spots and at the most, only three can come from these four clubs. And while postseason talent is here, there will be a lot of beating up on each other that will work in the favor of clubs in the East and West wild card hopes. Because like last summer, this one will come down to the end of September in the Central as well, but unlike last time, it will be a fatal four-way, not just a triple threat.

The Cubs will be holding up the wall once again; forced to be content to continue their process of rebuilding well outside of the hope of any surprise progress in the wins column. Of the competitors, the Reds are the most volatile. While they have a strong lineup, their pitching staff is in disarray, and it could take well into the season to see their entire club together, which is a tough shake for their rookie manager. Milwaukee has a potent offense that should be among the league’s most productive and an impressive starting rotation, but they have a thin bullpen and will need the most to work in their favor to max out their potential. The Pirates stand to continue to mature and grow from their experience last year, a run for a division win would not be in the least bit surprising.

However, there is something special about this Cardinal team it seems. It has the perfect marriage of mid-prime veterans, high-talent and maturity youth and depth in both pitching and offense. Most importantly, it has experience and the hunger for more based off two straight near misses in October. They have something to prove, and the talent to prove it with. That’s why the Cardinals will win another Central, but be joined by (at least) the Pirates in the postseason again—a rematch that may not be in their best interest to find.

 

Come back soon for the complete predictions, including a World Series look-ahead that is sure to be wrong (because its March) next week. And for real-time commentary, follow me now on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Yadier-Molina

Yet again the National League Central was home to one of the most diverse pennant races in the game a year ago. The Pittsburgh Pirates came out the gate with their best (and longest) runs in nearly 20 years, as they sat in first place at the All-Star Break, in front of the Cincinnati Reds and defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Yet, that grasp on the division didn’t last in the second half, a part of the year where the Milwaukee Brewers put together an assault on pushing into the postseason picture. But in the end, the Reds made the regular season their own down the stretch, winning the Central by nine games, the largest division title margin in either league. Yet, in the end, it was the St. Louis Cardinals who pushed their season the furthest from the Wild Card spot again, finishing one game away from a second consecutive World Series.

2012 Finish

1.                   Reds (97-65)
2.                   Cardinals (88-74)**
3.                   Brewers (83-79)
4.                   Pirates (79-83)
5.                   Cubs (61-101)
6.                   Astros (55-107)

This season, it’s a new division in where in the fact it’s a smaller division. Gone are the Houston Astros, who joined the Chicago Cubs as one of two 100 loss teams in the Central. That subtraction will make the fight for the division rougher in and of itself. The Reds are bringing in perhaps their most complete team of any season. The Cardinals loom constant in the division, as the most clutch team in baseball in the last two pennant chases. The Brewers and Pirates are both just outside the hump of the Cards/Reds, but both have shown plenty of fight and have made the changes needed to cut the division down. Meanwhile, the Cubs rebuilding continues, and they could be in position to spring a rise as well. So who’s the best in the revamped middle of the NL?

All Division Team

Catcher: Yadier Molina-Cardinals

First Base: Joey Votto-Reds

Second Base: Brandon Phillips-Reds

Third Base: Aramis Ramirez-Brewers

Shortstop: Starlin Castro-Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun-Brewers

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen-Pirates

Right Field: Jay Bruce-Reds

McCutchen took a huge step forward in 2012: his 194 hits led the NL and he gathered his first Gold Glove.

McCutchen took a huge step forward in 2012: his 194 hits led the NL and he gathered his first Gold Glove.

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright-Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Johnny Cuerto-Reds

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo-Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Mat Latos-Reds

Righty Relief: Mitchell Boggs-Cardinals

Lefty Relief: Sean Marshall-Reds

Closer: Aroldis Chapman-Reds

Top 10

  1. Ryan Braun, Brewers
  2. Joey Votto, Reds
  3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
  4. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
  5. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
  6. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
  7. Brandon Phillips, Reds
  8. Jay Bruce, Reds
  9. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  10. Starlin Castro, Cubs

Lineup

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

The Cardinals led the NL in hits a year ago, and finished in the top 5 in average, runs scored and total bases. With Jon Jay atop the lineup for a full season, those numbers could each increase. Meanwhile, sparked by Braun and a resurgent Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers seven of the eight everyday players reached double digits in home runs.

Cincinnati's All-Star tandem of Bruce and Votto combined for 79 doubles and 48 homers in 2012

Cincinnati’s All-Star tandem of Bruce and Votto combined for 79 doubles and 48 homers in 2012

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Reds (Votto/Ludwick/Bruce)
  2. Cardinals (Holliday/Craig/Freese)
  3. Brewers (Braun/Ramirez/Hart)
  4. Cubs (Rizzo/Soriano/Castro)
  5. Pirates (McCutchen/Jones/Alvarez)

The re-emergence of Ludwick (26 home runs, 80 RBI) gave the middle of the Reds line up some much needed right handed power. Votto had another now-standard type of season for him (.337 average, 40 doubles), despite missing over 50 games. Alfonso Soriano had a career-high 108 RBI and topped 30 homers for the first time in 5 years.

Table Setters

  1. Reds (Choo/Phillips)
  2. Cardinals (Jay/Beltran)
  3. Pirates (Marte/Walker)
  4. Brewers (Aoki/Weeks)
  5. Cubs (DeJesus/Schierholtz)

There’s a diverse group of lineup lead offs in Cincy. Choo and Phillips are both 20 homer/20 steal candidates, while Carlos Beltran is an early indicator of the big bats up and down the Cardinals lineup (32 homers, 97 RBI). Norichika Aoki had made a big debut, stealing 30 bags and adding 50 extra base hits as well.

Bench

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

Pittsburgh is taking to the strength in numbers approach. With Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez all rotation in and out of the starting linup, there’s always going to be at least two impact bats in reserves. Add in John McDonald, and that’s a deep offering. The Cardinals depth is lead by the presence of a couple of Matt’s (Adams and Carpenter) that will offer various impacts for both resting and alternating lineup approaches.

Rotation

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

The Reds had a coming of age in their rotation a year ago. Four of their five starters reached double digits in wins to go along with ERA’s under 4.00; a result strong enough for the team to resist putting Aroldis Chapman in the rotation. The Cubs have boosted their rotation with Edwin Jackson, but the health of Matt Garza and return of Scott Baker are key to if this team can actually surprise the rest of the pack in the Central, which they have the potential to do.

Wainwright won 14 games and struck out 184 in nearly 200 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery.

Wainwright won 14 games and struck out 184 in nearly 200 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery.

1-2 Punch

  1. Reds (Cuerto/Latos)
  2. Cardinals (Wainwright/Lynn)
  3. Brewers (Gallardo/Lohse)
  4. Pirates (Burnett/Rodriguez)
  5. Cubs (Garza/Samardzija)

Johnny Cueto won 19 games with a 2.78 ERA last season, and continued his accent up the ranks of most underappreciated hurlers in baseball. Lance Lynn won 18 games in an up and down first season as a starter, and Adam Wainwright had a gradual yet impressive, 14-win return, from Tommy John surgery as well. A return completely from him gives the division a legitimate Cy Young front runner candidate.

Bullpen

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

The back end of the Reds bullpen is a nightmare. Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton are among the best left-right setup combos in baseball, and Chapman waits in the wings as arguably the best power pitcher in baseball (a record 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings). The Cardinals bullpen took a hit when Jason Motte was shutdown indefinitely with an elbow injury. He tied for the NL lead in saves with 42 a year ago.

Defense

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

There’s a trio of Gold Glove worthy centerfielders in the Central, with McCutchen, Jon Jay and Carlos Gomez. But there’s only one award to go out, and The Cutch took it home a year ago. Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto are among the elite defensive infielders in the game, while Yadier Molina (five consecutive GG’s) is among the greatest defensive catchers ever.

While the power in Milwaukee gets the headlines, the trio of Braun, Gomez and Aoki combined for 97 steals as well.

While the power in Milwaukee gets the headlines, the trio of Braun, Gomez and Aoki combined for 97 steals as well.

Speed

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

With the exception of Milwaukee, it is not a very fast division. The Brewers outfield of Braun, Gomez and Aoki each topped 30 steals, with a total of 97. Pittsburgh has an aggressive, quick team with Sterling Marte, Josh Harrison and McCutchen topping five triples.

Manager

  1. Dusty Baker, Reds
  2. Ron Roenicke, Brewers
  3. Mike Matheny, Cardinals
  4. Clint Hurdle, Pirates
  5. Dale Sveum, Cubs

Baker has pulled the Reds to two consecutive division championships, while the Cardinals as a team have reached the previous two National League Championship Series, which Matheny did as a rookie manager last year. Hurdle has the Pirates on the verge of snapping their record losing season streak, and received a two-year contract extension to do so.

Finances

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

The Cubs are in the midst of an intentional rebuilding run, but if they wanted to go all in immediately to fight into the picture, the funds are there. Team president Theo Epstein is just biding his time by building within, before inevitably releasing the okay to make the type of additions that no other team in the Central has the resources to match. The Cardinals shored up their final questionable contract situation for the foreseeable future by reaching a $97.5 million extension in March.

Impact Additions

  1. Shin-Soo Choo (Reds from Indians)
  2. Kyle Lohse (Brewers from Cardinals)
  3. Edwin Jackson (Cubs from Nationals)
  4. Randy Choate (Cardinals from Dodgers)
  5. Kyuji Fujikawa (Cubs via Japan)

Acquiring Choo, who is pending free agency, was a win-now move for the Reds who are looking to find a way to carry their regular season runs into October. After what felt like the longest, coldest winter ever, Kyle Lohse found a 3 year home in Milwaukee, in a move that could tilt the balance in the Central some.

In less than a year, the powerful Rizzo has become one of the biggest rebuilding pieces on the North Side.

In less than a year, the powerful Rizzo has become one of the biggest rebuilding pieces on the North Side.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
  2. Todd Frazier, Reds
  3. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
  4. Michael Fiers, Brewers
  5. Jeff Sarmardija, Cubs

Rizzo has raw power to spare, and as soon as he touched Chicago a year ago, he became the guy they built their lineup around. He hit 15 homers in his Cub debut, and shows the type of profile to become an All-Star as soon as this year. Frazier stepped when Votto went down last year and hit 19 homers as third and first baseman, as well as some outfield.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Oscar Tavares (Cardinals, Outfielder – AAA)
  2. Shelby Miller (Cardinals, Pitcher –MLB)
  3. Starling Marte (Pirates, Outfielder—MLB)
  4. Billy Hamilton (Reds, Center Field—AAA)
  5. Garret Cole (Pirates, Pitcher—AAA)

The Cardinals top two prospects are ready to burst into the MLB scene, but only one has a clear path. Tavares hit like he belonged in the spring, but Miller will get his day in the sun first, as he made the club as fifth starter. Hamilton has stolen 258 bases the last two years in the Reds system, and as soon as he finds a position, he’ll be among the elite speedsters in the MLB too.

2013 PREDICTIONS

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

While 2012’s Central was the scene of the biggest gap between the best and worst in baseball, which is a thing of the past. There are four legitimate contenders for the postseason bunched together, and if everything plays out as it forecasts, it will be the toughest division to get out of in baseball. While it has produced three of the last six Wild Card winners, winning this division will never have been more important, because the chance to rack up wins, without a title, is going to be difficult.

One thing is certain, is that every team can hit in the division, so the margins of who can keep their red flags flying the lowest is of the utmost importance. The two-time runners up in St. Louis have the talent to win the division, but have the challenge of staying healthy in front of them, as well as a lot of “ifs” regarding their pitching staff. The Brewers can hit, and worked on their pitching some, but the staff as whole is still a cut below St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Winning it one way will be tough. As for the Cubs, they are quietly improving, but it’s going to be closer to two years off before they have everything in place to factor back into the race.

That leaves the Reds in a similar position. They have the bats, pitching and ballpark to shape the division in their favor. The decision to leave Chapman in the bullpen gives them the most dominant unit of any team in the division via their pitching staff. They can play defense behind them, and get the runs to support their effort consistently. If Joey Votto’s knee is healthy, Shin-Soo Choo can be steady enough in the field at his new position in center and health continues to be their ally (only two non-rotation starts in all of 2012), they will hold off the pack, and take their third consecutive Central title. But what happens from there…is still uncertain.

For more on the season to come, and everything Opening to closing Day related, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

In the final entry in the CHEAP SEATS best units in baseball series, I’m turning to the biggest highlight of every day of the week; the best everyday lineups in baseball. With the DH in the mix (begrudingly), this would be an area that would most likely cater towards the American League, but there’s a lot of National League squads that have bulked up in the last few years, as well as creatively balanced squads that can win in a variety of ways. But when it comes down to it, it’s about putting up runs, and being able to do so up and down the order to reach this level of the game.

Fielder & Cabrera

Below there are teams that have shown and proved, as well as those that have potential to bust out. However, like all other things, it’s all on potential at this point in the year. And nobody has more of a chance to capitalize on it than these groups. But no more build up, get into it: the best lineups in 2013 baseball, starting with a squad that made the World Series last year….at less than full strength…

  1. Detroit Tigers: Let’s put in context how daunting of a 3-4 punch that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were last year: 74 homers, 247 RBI, 569 hits and a combined .322 average. What’s most frightening Is that 2012 was neither their best effort either, regardless of what honors and accomplishments they hit. Add in Austin Jackson’s leap forward, the addition of Torii Hunter, the underrated effort of Andy Dirks, a likely bounce back effort from Alex Avila and the return of Victor Martinez at DH, and you’ve got the biggest everyday issue for pitchers in business.
  2. Los Angeles Angels: Folks were ready to toss Mike Scicosia’s boys up here last year, but that was a bit premature. And it was also before Mike Trout made a legit claim to best in the world status and Josh Hamilton came over as well. Anytime Albert Pujols is just a piece of the puzzle, things are looking good. But outside of the big names, Howie Kendrick, Mike Trumbo and Erick Aybar are very solid table setters, and this should prove to be an unrelenting lineup.
  3. Washington Nationals: There are no breaks in this lineup, and it should actually improve this year. Adam LaRoche returns to be the power anchor, while Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond are among the most balanced bats in the NL. Adding Denard Span as a long-sought after legit lead off presence helps, but the continued growth of the prodigious Bryce Harper is the most exciting thing about the team, and the reason why it’s as good as the NL will see.
  4. St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals were a ridiculously balanced attack last year, with Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, David Freese and Jon Jay all hitting over .290, and Carlos Beltran adding in 32 homers on top of it all. Overall, five of their nine starters topped 20 homers as well, with rookie Matt Carpenter returning after a .294 average, 22 double rookie campaign as potentially an everyday presence as well.
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers: This is the year where we see if the all of the blockbuster bats can swing together. Having Matt Kemp is a damn good start to any lineup, but the last year as seen Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford be added on make the push. This isn’t a team that’s built play D; it’s about the O. And if health stays on their side, there could be no limits to the numbers it puts up.
  6. Cincinnati Reds: Being way too left-handed has been the knock on them.  Joey Votto may be the best left-handed hitter in the game, and Jay Bruce quietly one of his best power hitters. Adding Shin-Choo Soo makes them better, but doesn’t solve that issue. I mean, Brandon Phillips can’t do it all by himself on the other side of the dish. Good thing is that a full-season of Todd Frazier (19 homers, 67 RBI) and another strong effort from Ryan Ludwick (25 homers, 80 RBI), he won’t have too.
There's a lot more to the Brewers than waiting for Braun to attack; they led the NL in extra base hits last summer.

There’s a lot more to the Brewers than waiting for Braun to attack; they led the NL in extra base hits last summer.

  1. Milwaukee Brewers: Another very complete lineup, that is home to a lot of understated contributors. Norichika Aoki (37 doubles, 30 steals) and Jonathan Lucroy (.320 avg) were quietly very productive. The mid-season move of Corey Hart to first base once again gives the club one of the better offensive infields in the NL, with Aramis Ramirez and Rickie Weeks. And then on top of it all, there’s Ryan Braun, who’s been the most productive player in the NL over the last two years (.326/37 homers/112 RBI/189 hits/32 steals average for 2011-12).
  2. Texas Rangers: True, they lost Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, but there’s strength in numbers, and they have it. Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are dynamic at the top of the order, while Adrian Beltre has become one of the best bats in the game. If Nelson Cruz and Lance Berkman can stay healthy, there’s a chance that this team doesn’t regress at all.
  3. Colorado Rockies: It’s not shocking that the Rockies were the most productive home offense in the game last year, but what’s real is they could get even better everywhere this year. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Todd Helton are a solid base, while Dexter Fowler (.300 avg), Josh Rutledge (33 extra base hits in 73 games) and Wilin Rosario (28 homers as rookie) rounded out a strong lineup. All of this was done with Troy Tulowikzki only playing 47 games, yet returning at full health finally for ’13.
  4. New York Yankees: A-Rod is out indefinitely, Derek Jeter’s health is in question, and Nick Swisher and Russell Martin were lost to free agency. Despite all of that, the Yankees lineup is still potent. Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeria and Curtis Granderson are power plant in the middle of the lineup, while Ichiro and Brett Gardner could be terror on the base paths in front of them. Add in the potential return of Jeter and a bounce back effort from Kevin Youkilis, and this is still the best offense in the AL East.

Just Missed: Blue Jays, Giants, Red Sox

For more on this, and the stroll up to Spring Training, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

The NL Central was baseball’s strangest division in 2010. In the first half, it was home to a crazy, four-way run at the top of the division, even including the long suffering Pittsburgh Pirates outdoing it’s champion by five games the year before in the Cincinnati Reds. In the second half, the Milwaukee Brewers pulled away and locked up the division rather easily…all while the St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of beginning the most indomitable run the game has ever seen. And that was just the beginning.

2011 Standings

  1. Milwaukee Brewers (96-66)
  2. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
  3. Cincinnati Reds (79-83)
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)
  5. Chicago Cubs (71-91)
  6. Houston Astros (56-106)

In the end, the Cardinals took out a Brewers team that had owned them for much of the season in the National League Championship Series, before capping their incredible run by winning the most thrilling World Series title in a generation. However, the highlights didn’t end there as in the winter, no division was more impacted by subtractions. Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa left St. Louis, Prince Fielder left Milwaukee, Carlos Zambrano left Chicago. Well, the last one wasn’t bad at all, but you get what I’m saying. In between it all, league MVP Ryan Braun battled and avoided a steroid suspension, Theo Epstein came to Chicago to start baseball’s longest rebuilding project and the Astros were sent to the American League after this year. To just call it a busy winter in the Heartland is the understatement of the year.

The Cardinals turned rocky start into a historic finish last year, but much has changed since last October under the Arch.

So what does 2012 hold? Will the Cardinals’ new era carry the success over from the one that just end so high, and so suddenly? Can the division’s last two champions in Cincinnati and Milwaukee ground on the out of the blue champions from their division, or will one of the less heralded clubs make another unexpected run and finish it up this year? One thing for certain is it will be a neck to neck….to neck fight all the way through.

All-Division Team

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals

First Baseman: Joey Votto, Reds

Second Baseman: Brandon Phillips, Reds

Third Baseman: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers

Shortstop: Starlin Castro, Cubs

Left Field: Ryan Braun, Brewers

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

Right Field: Jay Bruce, Reds

Greinke had a strong National League debut, including an 11-0 mark at home.

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers

Starting Pitcher: Matt Garza, Cubs

Relief Righty: Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers

Relief Lefty: Bill Bray, Reds

Closer: John Axford, Brewers

Top 10 Players

  1. Ryan Braun, Brewers
  2. Joey Votto, Reds
  3. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
  4. Brandon Phillips, Reds
  5. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
  6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
  7. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  8. Zack Grienke, Brewers
  9. Lance Berkman, Cardinals
  10. Starlin Castro, Cubs

Castro will be the talent the Cubs rebuild around, as he became the youngest hits king in NL history last year at 21.

Lineup

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

The Reds lineup features two of the best young batters in the game in Votto and Bruce, with the versatile Phillips capable of being both a prolific leadoff hitter and cleanup guy as well. The Cardinals bring back a new type of lineup, but still is the most versatile group in the division, with Carlos Beltran making the lineup more versatile, if not better, than it was a year ago.

Votto is now hands down the class of NL first baseman, and brings a .313 career average into '12.

Rotation

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

The Brewers staff remained intact and has the potential to boast two Cy Young candidates in Greinke and Gallardo, along with strong backing in Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. The Cardinals staff as a whole could eclipse them if Chris Carpenter makes a quick return. Veterans AJ Burnett and Eric Bedard bring needed experience along with suspect injury records, to Pittsburgh.

1-2 Punch

  1. Brewers (Grienke & Gallardo)
  2. Cardinals (Wainwright & Garcia)
  3. Reds (Cuerto & Latos)
  4. Astros (Rodriguez & Norris)
  5. Cubs (Garza & Dempster)
  6. Pirates (Bedard & Karstens)

A full healthy Wainwright and Carpenter combo puts the Cardinals at the top of this list, but until that’s a reality, the Brewers’ duo reigns supreme. Bud Norris is an ace in waiting in Houston, whether Wandy Rodriguez is finally dealt or not. If Latos can regain his All-Star consistency of 2010, the Reds will finally have a front line starter to lean on.

Wainwright's return gives the Cardinals annual Cy Young contender, and the largest impact addition of any NL club.

Bullpen

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

The Reds bullpen was primed to be one of the best in the division after gaining Sean Marshall and Ryan Madson this winter, but Madson is lost for the year due to Tommy John surgery and it throws their pen into disarray. The Brewers feature the division’s best 8-9 combo in K-Rod and Axford, who led the NL in saves a year ago with 46. The Cardinals bullpen came into its own down the stretch a year ago, and it is most prepared top to bottom to be strength this season.

Tablesetters

  1. Cardinals (Furcal & Beltran)
  2. Reds (Phillips & Cozart)
  3. Brewers (Weeks & Morgan)
  4. Pirates (Tabata & Presley)
  5. Cubs (DeJesus & Barney)
  6. Astros (Schafer & Lowrie)

There are no true burners in any of the leadoff positions in the Central, but they still will be highly productive in other ways. Weeks could lead the Majors in leadoff homers, while if Furcal & DeJesus have rebound seasons at the plate, could provide long needed sparks to the top of St. Louis & Chicago’s lineup. Jose Tabata is an underrated leadoff talent in Pittsburgh.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Reds (Votto/Rolen/Bruce)
  2. Cardinals (Holliday/Berkman/Freese)
  3. Brewers (Braun/Ramirez/Hart)
  4. Pirates (McCutchen/Walker/Jones)
  5. Cubs (Castro/LeHair/Soriano)
  6. Astros (Martinez/Lee/Bogusevic)

A good year from Scott Rolen was a big difference between last year’s 79 win club, and the 91 win one the year before. He’s the balance the team is built on. Same goes for Berkman in St. Louis, who held together a team that had a rollercoaster summer & fall. The Pirates lack a true power hitter, but have a lot of promise in their lineup. Castro led the NL in hits a year ago, and now will be counted to be the primary run creator for the rebuilding Cubs.

Braun won his first MVP last season, beat a PED suspension in the winter, and now returns to lead the Crew without Fielder for the first time.

Bench

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

Ryan Ludwick, Miguel Cairo and hot prospect Devin Morasco lead a versatile Reds bench, which will bleed into the everyday lineup to diversify the Cincy attack. Allen Craig and Skip Schumaker are starters on a lot of clubs, and once healthy will be counted on heavily in St. Louis. Carlos Gomez is a Gold Glove caliber centerfielder that also puts plus speed on Milwaukee’s bench.

Defense

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

In a subpar defensive division, the Reds still standout as the best defensive team in the NL. Rolen is arguably the best to ever do it at third base, and still hasn’t lost many steps. Phillips & Votto are both Gold Glovers from a year ago, while Bruce both covers ground and has the best outfield arm in the NL. Furcal shored up the St. Louis infield defense tremendously, and Berkman moving to first and Beltran taking over right will improve the overall St. Louis guard. Molina may be the best defender at any position in the game.

Speed

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

Another area the division is not great in; it actually gives the Pirates a source of clear strength. McCutchen has 20/20 capability, while Tabata, Presley and Barmes all are good base runners as well. Jordan Schafer could be solid threat out of the Houston leadoff position, and Drew Stubbs is a threat for 30 steals for the Reds.

McCutchen was handed a six-year extension to continue to blaze the Pittsburgh outfields for the foreseeable future.

Manager

  1. Dusty Baker, Reds
  2. Ron Roenicke, Brewers
  3. Clint Hurdle, Pirates
  4. Dale Sveum, Cubs
  5. Mike Matheny, Cardinals
  6. Brad Mills, Astros

With Tony LaRussa gone, Baker has the biggest gap in both experience and ability from his divisional contemporaries of any manager in the game. The ability to steal a few games and win them from the dugout is crucial, and Baker has that ability. No manager has had to shoulder a more immediate burden than Matheny will, how he reacts will be major on how the Cardinals push through the summer.

Finances

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

The Cubs always have a good amount of resources on hand, and are constantly being freed of the glut of terrible contracts that have been an anchor for the last few years. New team president Theo Epstein and new GM Jed Hoyer won’t spend recklessly, but they are in position to make some big additions if needed. The Astros could look to make a few moves soon to prepare for their AL debut next year.

Impact Additions

  1. Mat Latos (Reds from Padres)
  2. Carlos Beltran (Cardinals from Giants)
  3. Aramis Ramirez (Brewers from Cubs)
  4. Sean Marshall (Reds from Cubs)
  5. David DeJesus (Cubs from A’s)

This category could just as easily be dedicated to everything that was lost from the division this winter, but life goes on. The Reds traded a world of talent to land Latos, so they are truly all in on his ability to stabilize a pitching staff that was among the league’s worse last year. Beltran was the Cards’ big signing in the wake of losing Pujols, just as Ramirez was for the Brewers after Prince Fielder booked. Both will have to play vital roles if both teams are to continue to compete at their level from a year ago.

Breakthrough Candidates

  1. Jason Motte, Cardinals
  2. Mat Gamel, Brewers
  3. Bryan LeHair, Cubs
  4. Bud Norris, Astros
  5. Tyler Greene, Cardinals

The Cardinals blew 24 saves a year ago, second worse in baseball, before Motte finally provided an answer late. If he can continue his shutdown ways into this year, he could be the breakout late innings man in the league. Bryan LeHair tore Triple A apart last year, and now will be counted on to keep it going at the top level.

Norris is a great up and coming talent in Houston, he's just not surrounded by much that lets it turn into many wins.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Zack Cozart (Shortstop, Reds)
  2. Devin Morasco (Catcher, Reds)
  3. Anthony Rizzo (First Baseman, Cubs)
  4. Brett Jackson (Center Field, Cubs)
  5. Shelby Miller (Pitcher, Cardinals)

Cozart made a big impact in short amount of time last year, hitting .324 in 11 games before Tommy John surgery ended his year. He’s got the talent to be a front runner for the Rookie of the Year this season. Rizzo has been traded twice in two years, but mostly because of the major talent he holds. If he gets a chance to make it to Chicago this year, it could be the chance he gets to show it.

2011 PREDICTION

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

It’s as close a divide between the top three teams in the Central as any division in the game. There are guarantees from each squad; the Brewers will pitch well, the Reds will hit and the Cardinals will do a bit of both well to balance it out. However, there are more guarantees from the guys in St. Louis than the other two. The Cardinals will enter the season not at full strength, due to three key injuries tailing in from Spring Training. However, they will regain Carpenter, Schumaker and Craig into the season, as well as Wainwright out the gate, who finished in the top 3 of the Cy Young races in ’09 and ’10.

The Reds have just as much balance as the Cardinals do, as well as nearly as many elite players as well. They have a great deal of depth, and will have no problem scoring runs. But the rotation is far from proven and has talent, yet no definite stopper. Also, the bullpen has the unenviable task of figuring itself out midseason after losing it’s newly signed closer for the entire year. Roenicke also has his share of issues to sort out in the runs producing department outside of Braun, in addition to finding new depth for a bullpen that lost multiple key contributors.

The Pirates have the talent, and can put together a run, but their pitching is already banged up and there’s little time to waste getting back in the race. The Cubs are still in contract unloading mode, and have stated a desire to rebuild from within, which takes time and makes for rough years. The Astros are baseball’s youngest team and play like it. Another finish at the bottom of baseball could be the landing spot.

While some parts won’t return, the vast majority of the hottest team baseball history will in St. Louis, and they’ll only get better as the year goes. In the end, shared experience, assured stability, a momentum carry over and a few big additions will pull the Cardinals to the top of the Central for the first time since 2009 and in position to have a chance to repeat as champs.

That’s it for the division-by-division previews this year in the CHEAP SEATS, but tomorrow I’m bringing it all together and take a look at all the in-between the lines predictions and finish up with some World Series picks just in time for the first game of the year. Til then, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

In a major move for what my main passion is in the sports writing game, I was accepted recently to the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. This means my articles will be featured with many of the most prominent baseball writers on the internet in a network of many, many sites around the country (Clap For ME!!!). A pretty decent move for a guy that started a blog as a way to drift away from a job I loathed, and have watched it grow into a network of sites that I write out my thoughts for now. The mission to end up with that Hall of Fame vote before I get out of here continues.

As for now, it’s about getting the info across, and recapping what we’ve seen from the all-inclusive baseball season. It’s time for awards season, and this year, with my inclusion in the BBA, my awards articles will serve as my ballots towards the whole Alliance’s year end awards.

Up first, is the best war general of the year from both sides of the game, which is honored with the Connie Mack Manager of the Year. We’ll start with the National League, where the best of the year all are guys just getting their cleats wet in new surroundings this year, but pulled off some impressive statements all around, with a couple of them building for the future at the same time.

Connie Mack won 3,731 times...lets just say we aren't requiring quite that much to win the award in his honor here.

In the end however, a guy that is very familiar with memorable and dramatic moments, adds yet another impressive hurdle to his record.

 

2011 National League Manager of the Year: Kirk Gibson – Arizona Diamondbacks

A year ago, the only thing the Diamondbacks led baseball in was swings and misses, and they whiffed their way into last place in a division that eventually produced the World Series champions in the San Francisco Giants. What a difference a year can make. While new General Manager Kevin Towers got much of the winter press for what he shipped out and brought back in, it took Kirk Gibson to push this club from the outhouse to the penthouse in the NL West, and bring the first division title to Arizona since 2007 in first year as a big league head honcho.

Gibson tightened his belt in the desert and brought a 29-game improvement & a division title as well.

The young D’Backs made their first major impact in May, winning 18 of 22 games from May 14 to June 4th, and sat only 3 games back of the Giants at the All-Star Break. Then they really shifted into gear on all cylinders. Justin Upton smacked 30 home runs in route to becoming a legit MVP candidate. Ian Kennedy led the NL in wins and the club eventually distanced itself out to 8 game margin of victory in the West. They did this displaying the toughness and fire that their manager played a full career with. Nobody was checking for the D’Backs in April (least of all here in CSP’s preview for the West). But they won out a division with the defending World Series champions in San Francisco, a Dodgers team with a Triple Crown candidate at the plate, and a Triple Crown winner on the mound, as well as scrappy and tough Rockies & Padres teams.

For rising up one of the biggest afterthoughts and rebuilding projects in the game from last to first in just one season, Gibson deserves to be the class of managers in the NL this year.

Left on Deck

For the rest of the contenders, Ron Roenicke also took to the bench for his first MLB year as a manager, and pushed an aggressive Brewers club to their first division title in 29 years, behind dual MVP candidates in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and one of the best overall rotations in the game. They were nearly invincible at home, with their 57-24 record being the best in the game. Not only did they separate from a close race throughout most of the first half, they ran away and hid and have a legit shot at the team’s first championship still.

In D.C., Davey Johnson took an injured Nationals squad that was missing it’s best hitter (Ryan Zimmerman), best pitcher (Steven Strasberg) and a big name signing that was largely M.I.A. (Jayson Werth), and pulled it to its best finish since its first year moving to the states. This was a team that was supposed to be terrible even at full strength, and somehow ended up being better than it had been in sometime. That’s coaching at it’s finest.

For balloting purposes: 1) Gibson, 2) Roenicke, 3) Johnson

 

Up next on the Award Tour: American League Connie Mack Award Winner…

 

Follow me on Twitter for more on everything around one of the most exciting finishes to baseball in recent memory at @CheapSeatFan.

THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS are headed into one of the biggest series of the season this week, as they host the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers with a three game difference between them. What’s going on with the team and are they in position to make power move in Busch this week? Both teams will bring four game winning streaks into tonight’s game, and something has to give. Here’s what the Cardinals are bringing to the fray

LEADING OFF – Fish Fry: The club did something it hadn’t done since 2004: sweep a four game road trip. For a team that is chasing the hottest team in baseball, this was needed just to keep their head above water. However, the style in which it went down is a lot to get excited about. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday played like they were swing their actual Silver Slugger Award bats from a year ago while leading an all out assault that ended the week long road trip in a promising fashion.

Holliday and Pujols did the majority of the weekend's work on just a few swings.

The Cards name brand duo was road warriors that Hawk and Animal would’ve been proud of while they pounded their way around South Beach. They hit a combined…

Read up on the rest of Holliday and Pujols attack in the Cards milestone weekend, as well as I look ahead at preparations for another showdown with the Milwaukee Brewers…with first place within grasp once again for the Birds. All today at St. Louis Sports 360: http://stlouissports360.com/cardinals-week-in-preview-vol-4/

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.