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LBS 2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

The cream of the NL Central division could prove to be the team best suited to win the playoffs this year.  There’s a problem though: like the 2010 Giants, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers are better built to win in short series with frontline pitching rather than win over an entire season with strong defense and hitting.  The runs will be there, but the defense could keep the Brewers from the NL Central title, and it’s unlikely that the perpetually weak NL Central can send two teams to the playoffs.

1) Milwaukee Brewers (projected finish: 90-72)

In a year where the Brewers absolutely have what it takes to win it all, there is also considerable opportunity for disappointment.  Despite pitchers Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf, the Brewers still figure to give up a lot of runs to opposing hitters.  They are weak defensively right up the middle, from catcher all the way into the outfield, and neither Ryan Braun or Corey Hart is going to cover enough ground in the outfield to make up for the flyball tendencies of that pitching staff.  That means a lot of extra base hits, and don’t even get me started about Yuni Betancourt at SS.

Fortunately for the Brewers, this appears to be a down year in a down division.  The offseason favorite Cardinals lost their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, for the season, and Albert Pujols may be in a bit of decline, if only because no one ever had the run Pujols did between 2003-09.  For the most improved team in the division, the time is now to strike whilst the iron is hot.  The Brewers must be aware of baseball’s recent history: three years ago the Detroit Tigers traded most of their upper farm system to the Florida Marlins for 1B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis, and were the trendy pick to win it all in the offseason.  They lost their first eight games of the season, and didn’t reach the .500 mark until July.

Zack Greinke is out maybe until May Day with a fractured rib, a non-baseball related injury.  The Brewers will need the big sticks of Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Hart, and Braun to get them through a tough first month, and hope to not take on any more injuries.  As easily as the lack of depth on the Brewers could derail the team’s playoff hopes before they get started, their frontline ability offers plenty of potential playoff heroes.  If and when the Brewers get into the playoffs, the Phillies could meet their match at Miller Park in October.

2) St. Louis Cardinals (projected finish: 83-79)

Between the inability to reach a contract extension with Albert Pujols, and the loss of Wainright, it’s easy to say that no team had as rough a spring as did the St. Louis Cardinals, at least in terms of outcomes.  This projection would tie the fourth worst finish by the Cards since Tony LaRussa became their manager before the 1996 season.  The more the team loses, inevitably the more likely it becomes that Pujols and the Cardinals cannot agree on a deal and they part ways after the season.  Potentially, 2011 could be the end of the Cardinals as we recognize them.

Before we all collectively plan their funeral, if/when the Brewers stumble out of the gate, no team in the Central is better positioned to take the title than the Cardinals are.  Even with all the Pujols silliness that is bound to occur in the near-term future, the Cardinals have the strongest organizational infrastructure in the NL Central.  Though they don’t have the youth of the Reds, quantity of stars of the Brewers, or the financial resources of the Cubs, they always post one of the league’s best pitching staffs.  That’s something that should happen again this season, even without their best pitcher.

The Cardinals should be able to make up for the weakened rotation by getting quality innings out of their bullpen.  The rotation, however, should once again feature five pitchers at or below the 4.00 ERA line.  Led by the injury-prone Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals should win more than they lose in 2010 thanks to the middle of the order power of Pujols and Matt Holliday, and an increased reliance on the young bat of Colby Rasmus.  This team isn’t young, won’t be particularly healthy, and is over-reliant on Pujols, but all those things are relatively minor flaws by the standards of a major league baseball club.  At least in the short term, they should be fine.  After the season though, we’ll see if the Cardinals can stave off disaster with the odds stacked against them.

3) Cincinnati Reds (projected finish: 81-81)

Manager Dusty Baker was handed a team full of young prospects and odd pickups such as Scott Rolen and was tasked with the need to lead the Reds to the postseason in 2010, which is exactly what they did.  With all that young talent, Baker’s job could lie in his ability to lead the young team to take the next step.  My projection shows that another 162 games is a long time to try to hold off the savvy Cardinals, and this could be a down year for Baker and the Reds with the Brewers primed to make their move.

1B Joey Votto and RF Jay Bruce have become true middle of the order threats behind 2B Brandon Phillips in the Cincinnati lineup.  The Reds will look to challenge the Brewers to lead the NL Central in runs scored this year, a race that likely needs to be won in order to win the division this season.

The question, as it always is with Baker-led teams, is with the pitching staff.  Johnny Cueto is already being rationed with shoulder inflamation and Edison Volquez delivers the ball particularly violently at risk for serious arm injury.  Homer Bailey may not be the pitcher the Reds thought he was.  The big question from camp is what will come of left-handed flamethrower and Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman.  The Reds invested a ton of money in Chapman, and for the second straight year, he will come out of the bullpen.  The 2011 Reds may not be tied to him, but money spent on Chapman is money the Reds can’t use on Bruce or Votto, so this window of opportunity could be a two or three year deal.

4) Chicago Cubs (projected finish: 78-84)

The Cubs just endured a second straight disaster year under jettisoned manager Lou Pinella, replaced by Mike Quade.  The 2009 season came mostly as a surprise, but the Cubs 2010 season was derailed as much as anything by Pinella running out of ideas for his team really, really early in May.  The improvement under Quade was mostly — but not entirely a mirage — the Cubs are a bit better than they played in 2010.

Still, this won’t be a contending team because its one with one too many bad contracts.  Alphonso Soriano is still a productive hitter for now, but that’s a disaster contract with Kosuke Fukudome and his $12 million in the same outfield.  No one really knows what to expect from Aramis Ramirez at third base, except that he buys top prospect Josh Vitters another year to mature as a baseball player and professional.  The Cubs just dumped another bad contract, releasing P Carlos Silva who himself was acquired from Seattle in exchange for a bad contract belonging to OF/DH Milton Bradley.  And $10 million is a lot of money for Carlos Pena for a year, especially if the former Ray falls short of 30 HRs playing home games at hitter friendly Wrigley Field.  A Derrek Lee extension during a down season might have been a wiser investment.

It’s hard to see great upside in the 2011 Cubs, but they look a lot better on paper than their reputation as underachievers might suggest.  2012 will be a crucial year in the franchise calendar for the Cubs, but a 2nd place finish in 2011 would be a great finish under Quade in his first full season on the job.

5) Houston Astros (projected finish: 68-94)

The Astros somehow find themselves in worse position as a franchise every single year dating back to their World Series appearance in 2005, but have never lost more than 89 games in a season.  They’ll avoid 100 losses again this year because of spare talent on the major league roster, but they won’t avoid 90 losses this time.

Catcher Jason Castro could miss the season with a knee that required surgery.  Carlos Lee now enjoys an albatross contract, although his .246/.291/.417 line probably doesn’t spell the end for El Caballo, because Lee’s HRs/BBs/Ks were at normal rates last season.  Lee hit .300 5 out of 6 years prior to 2010 for four different organizations, so his batting average is bound to rise again, though perhaps not back to quite that level, and that will drag his on base percentage and slugging percentages with it.  He’s a good bet for another .800 OPS season this year.

If the Astros surprise (again) it will be on the pitching end of things where Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez are coming off of strong years, and young Bud Norris is posting excellent rate stats between trips to the disabled list.  That front three can take the Astros a lot of places if the offense can score for them.  Unfortunately, it’s unclear where the runs will come from.  If Lee remains the team’s biggest offensive threat, the Astros are in trouble in 2011.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates (projected finish: 60-102)

It’s hard to say if the Pirates are improving any as an organization because it’s taken so long for them to shed dead weight.  They do have a premier second baseman in Neil Walker, and a trio of potentially great prospects at third base in Pedro Alvarez (.256/.326/.461 in 2010) and in left field with Jose Tabata (.299/.346/.400 in 2010) and in center field with Andrew McCutchen (.286/.365/.449 in 2010).

The pitching staff is still very much under-staffed, which reminds us that the Pirates are still very far away from contention.  The Pirates butcher the ball on defense, which doesn’t make the jobs of the pitchers any easier.  Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald are the best of the bunch right now, and neither is about to gather more victories than losses in their starts this year.

The Pirates are conceivably two years away, making all the right moves, with the lineup leading the way for the pitching staff, having a strong farm system, and some fortunate player acquisition opportunities.  It’s closer than the Pirates have been in a while, but likely not enough to avoid 100 losses in 2011.

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