If there is one thing that prognosticators seem to be more or less in agreement on, it is that the St. Louis Cardinals will win the NL Central. After having a pretty easy time doing it last year and now having Matt Holliday for a full season, that seems perfectly logical, but while they are still the best team on paper, expecting an easy win would be foolish. Chicago remains loaded with talent and was among the unluckiest teams in the league last year. Milwaukee also finally has a couple players who can catch the ball, changing the dynamic of their roster completely. With Houston and Pittsburgh a bit of a mess and Cincinnati still not quite ready to compete the bottom of the NL Central may get a bit ugly.
1. St. Louis Cardinals 88-74
There are a lot of positives surrounding this team. They still have the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols and probably the best lineup surrounding him since 2004 when St. Louis featured three of the top five MVP vote-getters. They also have the second and third place finishers in last year's Cy Young voting. However, I think a regression from both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is likely, plus the staff as a whole is painfully thin behind them. I would not trust Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny and Jaime Garcia, or closer Ryan Franklin. Even so, they should really hit the ball and pitch enough to win the division.
2. Chicago Cubs 86-76
Follow me into the (hot tub) time machine back before the start of the 2009 season, to a time when the Cubs were locks to win the NL Central, remember that? Then a funny thing happened, they got sub-.400 slugging percentages from their catcher, second baseman and shortstop. Their star third baseman only played half the year and their star left-fielder had a robust 84 OPS+. To say the Cubs offense collapsed last year would be a gross understatement. Their pitching staff remained strong and while it is a little weaker this year, it should still be a strength. If even half of those batters have bounce-back seasons the Cubs could very well sneak up on St. Louis and win the Central.
3. Milwaukee Brewers 79-83
They have two of the best hitters (Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder) in the game and added potential gold glovers at short and center to help their pitching staff but I still do not think it will matter. Signing Randy Wolf was a decent move but the pitching staff is woefully thin, and the offense is not actually that great. If (or should I say when) Rickie Weeks goes down, Milwaukee will potentially have six below average hitters in their lineup to go with a shaky rotation and pen. Even their supposed ace, Yovani Gallardo struggled in the second half last year, and they are going to be leaning heavily on him this season.
4. Cincinnati Reds 77-85
This may seem like a harsh rating for a team with some sleeper potential but, to put it simply, I do not believe they are ready yet. The Brandon Phillips – Joey Votto – Jay Bruce – Scott Rolen middle of the order is solid but nothing special. The same can be said about the rotation that features two players that appear ready to implode, (Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo) two players that don't seem like they'll ever fully develop, (Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey) and two players likely to be counted on before they are ready (Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman). The Reds right now have a lot of nice pieces, but unless Votto and Bruce become superstars (possible but unlikely this soon) I just do not see the Reds competing in this division.
5. Houston Astros 68-94
The Astros' struggles this season will be mostly tied to their lack of depth across the board. If Lance Berkman is going to suffer through another injury-plagued season (a situation that seems to be growing more likely) things could get ugly. Behind Berkman they have three solid hitters in Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, but then there is nothing but a series of black holes. The same can be said about a pitching staff that has two excellent members in Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez but beyond them nothing more than a bunch of castoffs and overrated prospects. Houston refused to spend money on player development or the draft for many years and it has started to hit the organization hard.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates 66-96
The Pirates will be one of the youngest teams in baseball, unfortunately until Pedro Alvarez arrives the only person on their roster with serious upside is Andrew McCutchen. With a lineup and rotation full of merely serviceable players it is difficult to see this year resulting in anything but a disaster for Pittsburgh. They had the right idea in recent seasons, trying to trade aging veterans for young players, but kept taking back quantity over quality. When Cleveland traded Casey Blake to Los Angeles they got back Carlos Santana who may end up being more valuable than all the players Pittsburgh got back for Jason Bay, Nate McClouth and Xavier Nady (three pretty good outfielders) combined. Until they start developing some impact players they are doomed to be a sub-.500 team.