by Carlos Nazario
Spring is upon us once more, and with that we have the sounds of the crack of a bat, the zip of a thrown ball, and the oomph of that ball hitting a glove. Yes, folks, BASEBALL IS BACK! After a classic playoffs that culminated in one of the best World Series ever played, we start all over again, and every team has a shot, though some will miss that shot shortly after.
There were some BIG changes in the National League Central. Last season, the St. Louis Cardinals made one of the most incredible comebacks just to make it to the playoffs, and did it again in the World Series to capture their 11th title. The Cubs overhauled their front office to try to reverse the 103 years of futility.
It should be a competitive season for the division, if not an overly great one. With that said, let’s take a swing at this preview!
The Reds look to have the most talent in a weak division. They have Gold Glove winners all over their infield with Joey Votto (1), Brandon Philips (3) and Scott Rolen (8). They also have Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs returning to the outfield. Bruce is looking to build on his 30 HR 97 RBI season last year.
Top prospect Devin Mesoraco is looking to split time with incumbent C Ryan Hanigan, but at some point look for Mesoraco to take over full time. Mesoraco was the 15th player chosen in the 2007 draft, and he hit .289 with 15 HR and 89 RBI in AAA last season.
The strength of the Reds is their pitching. They needed a #1 starter so they went out and traded 3 of their top 4 prospects for Mat Latos. He was only 9-14 last year, but that was with a very bad San Diego Padres team. He has a 1.1 WHIP, and averages 3 BB and 9 K per 9 innings. In 2010, he finished in the top 10 in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award.
Latos joins a rotation with Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake to make it one of the most dominant rotations in the NL. Also, there is a certain 104 mph fastballer named Aroldis Chapman waiting in the wings.
Look for the Reds to make a strong run in the division and possibly into the playoffs.
Ok Brewers fans, repeat after me: “Prince Fielder is gone.” Yes, the Prince left his empire in Milwaukee for the riches in…DETROIT! A big part (literally and figuratively) of the team has been torn off, and now there is a huge hole there. The one player this loss effects is Ryan Braun. Fielder provided great protection for him in the lineup. Newcomer 3B Aramis Ramirez will provide some protection, but he is not the offensive juggernaut that was Fielder.
Speaking of Braun, he had an adventurous off-season. He tested positive for PEDs, then appealed and actually won his case. He won the case on a technicality, however. He attacked the process of leaving the urine sample in a locker over a weekend, but said nothing about the high level of synthetic testosterone found.
The question for Braun now is how he will handle the heckling in opponents’ ballparks. When allegations came out about Barry Bonds, it got crazy. There were needles thrown on the field, and he was mercilessly peppered with “Ster-oids” chants everywhere he went. Bonds took it well. We will see if it has an effect on Braun’s performance.
Alex Gonzalez starts at SS after playing with the Atlanta Braves last season. He joins Ramirez and rookie Mat Gamel as 3 new members of the infield. The only returning IF is 2B Rickie Weeks.
In the outfield, the aforementioned Braun joins Nyjer Morgan and Cory Hart. They also have Carlos Gomez and Japanese newcomer Norichika Aoki. There are some good players in that outfield that need playing time. If Gamel has trouble at 1B, look for Hart to move over to that position.
The pitching staff is unchanged from last year for the Brew Crew. Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, and Randy Wolf make for a strong staff, but is it enough to keep in pace with the Reds?
The Brewers will have another good season, but it will be very difficult to repeat last year’s 96-win effort. They will compete for a playoff spot.
St Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals used a remarkable last month to propel them through the playoffs and ultimately to another title. During the offseason, though, they suffered a few blows. Manager Tony LaRussa, one of the best managers in the game, decided to retire. Dave Duncan, his sidekick and long-time pitching coach, is on an extended break, but is not expected to return.
The biggest blow to the team had to be the loss of the face of the franchise, Albert Pujols, who bolted St Louis for Anaheim. The future Hall-of-Famer patrolled the field in St Louis for 11 seasons, winning 3 MVP awards and the hearts of all Cardinals fans. Lance Berkman, who had a great comeback season last year, will move and take over at 1B.
While the rest of the NL Central teams will say good riddance to their tormentor Pujols, the Cardinals will suffer greatly. He was a great leader that was able to get the team to 1- overcome an 8.5 game deficit in the last month, and 2- stave off elimination not once but twice, and win their second title in the Pujols era.
Replacing Berkman in the outfield is Carlos Beltran. He has had some great years in his career, but has suffered through several injuries the last few years. He, Berkman, and Matt Holiday make for a pretty good middle of the line-up, but they will not make up for the production lost.
The pitching staff is a plus for the Cards. They have Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia returning, but they also have Adam Wainwright, who finished 3rd in the NL Cy Young award voting in 2009, and who missed the entire season last year. If he is over his injury, the Cards will have a formidable rotation, one that will keep them in the playoff hunt for a while.
Look for the Cards to drown their sorrows in Budweiser this season. They will be competitive for a while, but they just do not have the leaders in the clubhouse to keep them afloat.
As I said, the Cubs completely overhauled their front office. They went to the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres and now have Theo Epstein, the architect of the Red Sox’ 2 championships, to end their title-less streak. Epstein is now the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations, and he hired Jed Hoyer the General Manager, and Dale Sveum manager. They are now in charge of changing Chicago’s atmosphere of failure.
The first order of business was to fix their salary problem. Out were Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, and Carlos Peña. The last big contracts left on the team are Alfonso Soriano at $19 million and Ryan Dempster at $15 million. In fact, the 2 combined account for 27% of the team’s payroll. They will be looking to trade one or both of them before the trade deadline to add more flexibility.
With the salary flexibility, the Cubs will be able to make moves for big time talent. It will not happen this season however. They did make some moves, adding David De Jesus in the outfield, Ian Stewart at 3B, and Chris Volstad and Travis Wood at P, but those are not moves made to challenge anyone this year. They also added 1B Anthony Rizzo, one of the most highly rated prospects in the minors, but he will not start the season with the major league ballclub.
You can add another number to the streak for the Northsiders, but they are starting to move in the right direction.
The Pirates showed some flashes of being a good team last year. They were in contention in the division until the All Star break, then the wheels fell off and they once again finished with a losing record.
Their big guy, 3B Pedro Alvarez, needs to bounce back from an off-season last year. Neil Walker, the 2B, can develop and build on his good season. CF Andrew McCutchen should continue his development into a superstar. The question will be if the Pirates really are committed to winning and keep their budding stars, or will they trade them away as they have time and time again.
The Pirates did go out this offseason and shored up their rotation. Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, and Charlie Morton all return after decent years last season, and added are AJ Burnett and Erik Bedard. Yes, Burnett was bad in NY, but that was NY and the glare of the spotlight was too much for him. Once he is over the bunting incident that injured his eye, he should do better in Pittsburgh. The bigger field there and the easier lineups in the National League will help. If Bedard can avoid injuries he could be the biggest steal of the season. He has been a good pitcher, but the injury bug keeps getting him.
If the Pirates can groom their young players this looks to be the first time they finish above .500 after 19 tough seasons. Baby steps, Pittsburgh, baby steps.
What can be said about the Houston Astros? They were the worst team in baseball last season and evidence points to a repeat performance. They also had front office moves, with new owner Jim Crane, and General Manager Jeff Luhnow. How bad is it for Houston? Their important piece is C Jason Castro, a top prospect from a few years ago, and missed all of last year due to a knee injury.
The only veteran non-pitcher on the team is Carlos Lee, who is in the last year of a $100 million contract, and look for him to be traded before the trade deadline.
Too many questions and too many young players on the team make the Astros a cellar-dwelling team once again.