As soon as the Cardinals resigned Matt Holliday most people thought the NL Central was wrapped up that day, and although the Cards are the odds on favorites to win the division they will face stiff competition from two of their biggest rivals.
The Cubs have the deep pockets to always produce a competitive team and should be the stiffest competition for St. Louis. While the Brewers, who also feature two of the best hitters in the NL, bolstered their staff this off-season in order to compete for the division crown.
The Reds will likely be better than last season and BaseballProspectus.com actually predicted them to finish second in the division.
The Astros have a nice offense but injuries have taken a toll on Roy Oswalt and their rotation lacks depth.
And those Pirates have been in rebuilding mode for nearly 20 years, and this season should be about developing Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez (There are kids in college that have never seen a winning Pirates team).
St. Louis Cardinals (Last season 91-71, 1st place NL Central)
The Cardinals return much of the same team that won 91 games and the NL Central in 2009 and their biggest move this off-season was re-signing slugger Matt Holliday (.313/24/109). While they lost Mark DeRosa, Rick Ankiel, Troy Glaus, and Khalil Greene, St. Louis managed to develop players who should step in nicely this season.
There is no doubt St. Louis will miss DeRosa at 3B but he only played 68 games for them last season and players like Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, and Colby Rasmus will fill in for the players the Cards lost to free agency.
There is a gaping hole left at 3B left by DeRosa and Glaus, but Glaus was injured for most of last season and journeyman rookie 3B David Freese might be an upgrade. There is no doubt the Cardinals want to make another move to help their 3B situation and Felipe Lopez might be coming back.
The Cardinals are hoping to re-sign John Smoltz to help a staff anchored by two Cy Young award winners, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and they also signed Brad Penny. Kyle Lohse will look to bounce back after a mediocre 2009 but the Cards lack starting depth, hence their recent signing of Rich Hill. The Cards will likely look to add more starting pitching as Spring Training nears.
Ryan Franklin was an All Star closer last season and Tony LaRussa can manage a bullpen as good as anyone in MLB. Although St. Louis does not blow you away with great names in the pen, LaRussa will work with what he has and get the most out of each reliever.
Jason Motte is likely the set-up man while Dennys Reyes and Trevor Miller will handle the left-handed duties. If Dusty Baker were handling it, the St. Louis bullpen would be a disaster but the Cardinals bullpen should not be their weakness.
St. Louis has 21 out of 25 spots wrapped up and there is still much work to be done this off-season, but look for the Cardinals near the top of the NL Central throughout the 2010 season.
Julio Lugo IF
Jason LaRue C
Chicago Cubs (83-78, 2nd place in 2009 NL Central)
The Cubs offense was disappointing and dreadful last season as they ranked 10th in the NL in runs and OBP and 12th in average. Chicago suffered from miserable seasons from Aramis Ramirez (only played 82 games due to injury), Alfonso Soriano (.241/20/55), and 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto (.218/11/47 in only 102 games) and look for all three to bounce back this season.
Soriano will be nowhere near what he was a few years ago but last year was the worst year of his career and look for him to comeback around .270/25/90. A full season from Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto and a bounce back season from Soriano will solve most of the Cubs 2009 offensive struggles.
The Cubs have not had a pitching problem since Larry Rothschild took over in 2002 and last year pitching was not the north siders’ problem. The team ranked 5th in the NL in ERA, 2nd in QS and Ks, and 3rd in BAA in 2009. Like I said, not the problem.
This season the Cubs will head into May without 2009 ace Ted Lilly (12-9, 3.10 ERA), who is out with a shoulder injury until late April. Carlos Zambrano (9-7, 3.77) is another Cub in line for a bounce back season after he threw his lowest amount of innings since becoming a full time starter in 2002.
Ryan Dempster (11-9, 3.65 ERA) should be solid once again this season and the Cubs are hoping for another great season from Randy Wells (12-10, 3.05). The fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs as Sean Marshall, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Samardzija and Carlos Silva will battle for early starts while Lilly is disabled.
While the starting rotation is never the problem in Wrigleyville the bullpen struggled mightily last season. Kevin Gregg’s (5-6, seven blown saves, 4.72 ERA) subtraction is an addition to the team, but the Cubs will be relying on young arms Carlos Marmol (.170 BAA but a 1.46 WHIP) and oft-injured Angel Guzman.
John Grabow will handle the LHP duties and it will remain an open competition past that but whoever does not make the fifth spot in the rotation will be in the bullpen, which will help the depth.
The Cubs are still in talks with Kiko Calero and Chan Ho Park to help solidify their bullpen but if they want to be serious NL Central contenders they will need to add more relievers.
Ryan Theriot SS
Kosuke Fukudome RF
Derrek Lee 1B
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Marlon Byrd CF
Alfonso Soriano LF
Geo Soto C
Jeff Baker 2B
Mike Fontenot IF
Chad Tracy U
Koyie Hill C
Andres Blanco IF
Xavier Nady OF/1B
Tom Gorzelanny/Sean Marshall/Jeff Samardzija
Milwaukee Brewers (80-82, third in the 2009 NL Central)
The Brewers might have the best 1-2 punch in the NL Central and that is saying a lot when you have Pujols and Holliday in St. Louis. Prince Fielder (.299/46/141) and Ryan Braun (.320/32/114) are two of the best hitters in the MLB and are the focal points of every team when they play Milwaukee.
This off-season the Brew Crew made a bevy of moves in order to create more runs for an offense that scored the third most runs in the NL last season. Pitching was also a priority this season and GM Doug Melvin acquired one of the best starters, Randy Wolf (11-7. 3.23 ERA), and one of the best relievers, LaTroy Hawkins (2.13 ERA).
The arrival of 23-year-old SS Alcides Escobar made J.J. Hardy expendable and they shipped him to Minnesota in exchange for CF Carlos Gomez. Gomez, once traded for Johan Santana, is a highlight waiting to happen but must make more contact to be an everyday player.
Ricky Weeks was having a productive first half for the Brewers last season until he went down with a season ending wrist injury and the Milwaukee offense will never be the problem as long as the two boppers are still on the Brewers.
Milwaukee had an average bullpen last year but with the addition of LaTroy Hawkins, the emergence of Todd Coffey (2.90 ERA), and Trevor Hoffman closing games, Milwaukee’s pen should not be a problem.
The Brewers starters struggled mightily last season as they recorded the worst ERA and WHIP in the NL, only had one CG, nary a SHO, and they ranked 13th in Ks and 15th in BAA. You get the point, right? The Brewers could make the case that they had the worst starting pitching in the NL.
The starting pitching will improve this season, but not by much. Yovani Gallardo (13-12, 3.73 ERA, 204 K) is an absolute stud and will likely get better this season. The Brewers signed veteran LHP Randy Wolf to help solidify their starting staff and he will definitely help improve the staff’s numbers but the Brewers lack depth after the top two.
Doug Davis has not had a sub 1.5 WHIP in four years and Jeff Suppan gave up 16 runs in his last three starts of the season and was miserable all year long. Dave Bush and Manny Parra had a combined 6.37 ERA last season and the back of the rotation is awful. If the Brewers cannot fix this problem they will not contend for the division title even with Fielder and Braun.
Jim Edmonds OF
Mat Gamel IF
Jody Gerut OF
Matt Treanor C
Craig Counsell IF
Dave Bush/Manny Parra
Cincinnati Reds (78-84, fourth in 2009 NL Central)
The Reds made one of the biggest splashes this off-season signing Cuban defector and soon to be 22-year-old, LHP Aroldis Chapman. Chapman will likely start the season in the minors but could be primed for a call-up as the summer approaches.
The Reds have not been relevant since early last decade and still have some major holes that need filling. Cincinnati is building around a young pitching staff featuring 23 year olds Johnny Cueto (11-11, 4.41 ERA) and Homer Bailey (8-5, 4.53 ERA), while future staff ace Edinson Volquez gets healthy recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Volquez will likely be out until August and the Reds are hoping former aces Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) and Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) can keep the team afloat as the offense tries to produce.
The Reds offense was bad last season ranking 11th in the NL in runs, 13th in SLG, and 15th in hits, OPB, and average but the team did not make any moves to upgrade their offense this season.
The team will rely on the soon to be 23 year old Jay Bruce and Joey Votto (.322/25/84) in the future and will probably look to trade the boneheaded Brandon Phillips this season. There is no doubting Brandon Phillips’ talent but it might be time to find a new home for the enigmatic Gold Glover who has never made an All Star team.
Even with Dusty Baker managing the bullpen last season, the staff managed to hold the third best bullpen ERA. Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.19 ERA) is one of the best closers in the MLB, and Nick Masset (2.37) and Arthur Rhodes (2.53) had great seasons last year.
If the Reds can figure out how to score runs with players like Drew Stubbs, Chris Dickerson, and Paul Janish starting then they can contend for the division title. But the likelihood of that happening is very slim, much like the Reds chances of winning the 2010 NL Central.
Adam Rosales IF
Willy Taveras OF
Laynce Nix OF
Juan Francisco IF
Ryan Hanigan C
Aroldis Chapman/Edinson Volquez
Houston Astros (74-88, fourth place in 2009 NL Central)
The Astros have a few nice pieces (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence) but lack organizational depth with their offense, pitching, and farm system to be legitimate contenders in 2010.
Take a look at the Astros roster and you will only find Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Wandy Rodriguez as the only regulars who were drafted and developed by the Astros organization, which is a major cause for concern.
The Astros are a team that typically builds from trades and free agents, hence their astronomical payroll for a mediocre team. They are overpaying for Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman and look for Houston to try to move any expensive player, as they should not come close to competing for the NL Central crown.
Sure a team with Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez might have a chance to be around .500, but then you see Houston only won 74 games with a better team last season (they lost Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde).
The Astros have a very good OF, featuring slugger Carlos Lee, speedster and Gold Glover Michael Bourn, and the emerging Hunter Pence. But the Astors IF is lackluster with the exception of Berkman.
Pedro Feliz is a journeyman IF, Jeff Keppinger is not a full time starter, Kaz Matsui has been overrated since he hit a HR in his first big league AB, and J.R. Towles has 234 ABs in three years. Ouch, and now you can see why they will not compete past June this season.
The pitching staff starts out strong with Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez (14-12, 3.02), but Oswalt battled injuries all last year and had a career low 8 wins in 2009. Rodriguez might be the ace of this staff as the season goes on and Oswalt is another player worth trading if you are Houston.
The rest of the starters are hard to look at without getting nauseous.
Brett Myers started only ten games last season and is clearly on the decline, Brian Moehler is 39 years old and should have retired after his 6.57 ERA in 2006, and 25 year old Bud Norris and his 10 career starts bring up the rear. I think I’m getting sick.
The bullpen took a hit when they lost Jose Valverde to free agency, but they picked up Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon to help solidify the back end of the pen. It looks like Lindstrom will start as the closer but he better fix his 5.89 ERA if he wants to maintain his role.
The bullpen was not bad last season and will not be bad at all this season if the back end can hold the lead in the late innings. Wesley Wright, Tim Byrdak, Sam Gervacio, Chris Sampson, and Jeff Fulchino all had good years last season, but a good bullpen on a mediocre team is a band-aid at best.
It looks like Houston will be sellers at the trade deadline and with an inflated payroll and not many wins behind that payroll, it is almost guaranteed.
Jason Michaels OF
Geoff Blum IF
Humberto Quintero C
Pittsburgh Pirates (62-99, fifth place in 2009 NL Central)
For nearly 20 years the Pittsburgh Pirates have been the joke of the National League and it will continue in 2010 (sigh). Although the win/loss column will not drastically change you might see a slight change in direction with the 2010 Bucs because they will start to build around their youth, instead of trading it.
Andrew McCutchen burst onto the scene last season, finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year award with a .286/12/54/22 line. McCutchen should be playing CF the next time the Pirates make the playoffs, but who knows if that will ever happen.
3B Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates’ best prospect in years, perhaps since the early 80s when it was you know who. Alvarez is a huge 3B power prospect who might be moved to 1B in the future. He took a lot of heat because of his delayed contract negotiations but the Bucs signed him up in time to hit 27 HRs last season while splitting time between High A and AA.
Alvarez will not be up when the season starts but if the Bucs are committed to staying out of the dumpster this decade they will make room for Alvarez like the Rays did for Evan Longoria.
After McCutchen and Alvarez there is not much else in the entire organization.
Pittsburgh got a random career year out of 28-year-old rookie RF Garrett Jones (.293/21/44/10 in only 314 ABs), who will likely start in RF again after the monstrous ’09. Lastings Milledge rounds out the OF as the toolsy 25 year old gets another chance to prove himself on the field.
Without Alvarez in the IF, Pittsburgh might have the worst IF in the MLB.
3B Andy LaRoche (.258/12/64) had a similar year to McCutchen in 50 more games, SS Ronny Cedeno (.208/10/38) will not be handed the position this season as the Bucs added veteran Bobby Crosby. Crosby has always struggled with injuries but will provide insurance all over the IF.
The Bucs added Akinori Iwamura (.281 career avg) and Jeff Clement (former #1 Seattle prospect) to help bolster their right side of the IF, which is respectable but will not lead to many victories, but a healthy C in Ryan Doumit might.
In 2008 Doumit hit .318 with 15 HR and 69 RBI in only 116 games and was poised to break out even more in 2009 until an injury derailed his plans. The break out had to wait another season but Doumit will be one of the few impact bats in the Pirates lineup.
The Pirates pitching staff was horrible last season ranking 15th in the NL in ERA and it will not get any better this season. Very little positive changes were made to the bullpen and starting staff, as the washed up Octavio Dotel is Pittsburgh’s new closer. Ouch.
Zach Duke (11-16, 4.06 ERA) will lead the Pirates staff this season but he will not have much help behind him. Paul Maholm (8-9, 4.44 ERA) had a decent 2009 and should be a candidate to emerge as one of the better Pittsburgh pitchers this season. Ross Ohlendorf (11-10, 3.92 ERA) also had a good 2009 season and will be another pitcher looking to ascend towards the top of the Pittsburgh starting rotation.
Little used Daniel McCutchen (six career starts), Kevin Hart (4-9, 5.44), and Charlie Morton (5-9, 4.55) round up the starting rotation, which lacks the depth and talent necessary to win over 81 games.
The Pirates bullpen was awful last season, ranking 15th in ERA, and might be worse in 2010. They lost closer Matt Capps to the Nationals and replaced him with Octavio Dotel who has not recorded over 12 saves since 2004. Eek!
I read a joke a few weeks ago about the Bucs bullpen and it went like this:
The Pirates ‘Pen, where unwanted relievers go to find jobs.
Ouch, but funny and truthful. Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, D.J. Carrasco, and Joel Hanrahan all found jobs either this off-season or late last season and were not wanted by their former teams or any other MLB team.
The Bucs will likely end up in last place this season and will be in line to add another young stud in the mid summer’s draft. The Pirates organization needs to start drafting better because nary a free agent wants to go to Pittsburgh and they are simply being used as leverage.
Once Pittsburgh starts drafting better their record will improve, which means more fans, more money, and more free agents will be attracted, but it looks like another long summer in Pittsburgh.
Bobby Crosby IF
Neil Walker IF
Delwyn Young IF
Steve Pearce IF/OF
Ryan Church OF
Brandon Moss OF
Kevin Hart/Daniel McCutchen