2010 MLB Preview: NL Central

In order to help get you ready for the MLB season, we’re doing division-by-division rankings with quick overviews on how each club could fair in 2010. Next to each team, you’ll also find a corresponding number written in parenthesis, which indicates where we believe that club falls in a league-wide power ranking. Be sure to check back throughout the next two weeks leading up to the season, as we will be updating our content daily. Enjoy.

All 2010 MLB Preview Content | AL East Preview | AL Central Preview | AL West Preview | NL East | NL Central | NL West

Next up is the NL Central.

1. St. Louis Cardinals (4)
Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday could help the Cardinals win this division sauced out of their minds on a nightly basis. That said, would anyone really be surprised if Carpenter’s arm falls off and the starting pitching (which is among the best in the league) suffers? It’s happened before, so if you answered “yes” to the proposed question then you sir or madam, have not been paying attention. Still, the addition of Brad Penny (who pitched well in the second half last year) will strengthen the club’s starting pitching and Kyle Lohse is a fine middle of the rotation guy. Pujols and Holliday will ignite the offense again, although Colby Rasmus might be the key to whether or not this team makes a serious World Series run. Skip Schumaker is a solid table setter, but how Rasmus fairs hitting in front of Pujols and Holliday could be the difference between the Cards winning the NL Central again and playing for a championship. David Freese better produce too or else the club will regret not acquiring a veteran third baseman in the offseason. All in all, the Cardinals are the best the NL Central has to offer and should make another postseason appearance this season. But how far they go beyond that depends on whether or not Carpenter and Wainwright can continue their magic and if Pujols and Holliday receive help from the rest of the lineup.

2. Chicago Cubs (13)
Some pundits expect the Reds to leapfrog the Cubs in the division this year, but I believe Chicago is more inclined to rebound than sink further into baseball misery (I say misery because no team wants to be outplayed by the Reds…no offense, Pittsburgh – keep your heads up). Keep in mind that this club is only two years removed from winning 97 games and the roster hasn’t seen that much turnover. Last year, the Cubs were hit extremely hard with injuries (Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano), unexpected poor play (Geovany Soto), expected poor play (Kosuke Fukudome) and clubhouse-killing diseases (Milton Bradley). I’m not making excuses for the Cubs because they did play poorly, but they still have enough talent to win the NL Wild Card and maybe even challenge the Cardinals in the division. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Ramirez, Soriano and Derrek Lee give the Cubs plenty of power and the starting pitching (Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster) is solid when healthy. If Carlos Marmol ever figures out how to exploit his talent, the bullpen would be in good shape as well. That said, along with staying healthy, this club needs role players like Fukudome, Mike Fontenot, Ryan Theriot and the newly acquired Marlon Byrd to produce. Chances are, a second place finish is the ceiling for the Cubs. But again, a Wild Card berth isn’t out of the question.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (17)
What happened to this team? It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Brewers had the right mix of players in place to make winning the NL Central a regular thing and then almost out of nowhere, they became non-factors. The biggest issue they had last year was their starting pitching, which was a disaster (5.37 ERA) outside of Yovani Gallardo (3.73). The club added Randy Wolf and Doug Davis over the offseason, which should help but Dave Bush (whose had a solid spring), Jeff Suppan (who could be released) and/or Manny Parra (the poster child for inconsistency) need to step up. The Brewers have the best 3-4 hitters in baseball in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but they sacrificed offense this offseason when they traded J.J. Hardy and Mike Cameron. Much like the starting pitching, role players like Cory Hart, Carlos Gomez and Rickie Weeks need to improve their production for Milwaukee to have a chance this season. It would also be nice if left-hander Mat Gamel could make a contribution this year, but he’s likely to start the season on the DL and after that, Triple-A. The bottom line is that the Brewers certainly have enough talent to be dangerous, but there are just too many question marks surrounding this club. The starting pitching isn’t reliable and Braun and Fielder can’t win every game on their own.

4. Cincinnati Reds (21)
Like the Reds this year, do you? Think they’ll be better than what everyone expects? Think they’ll finally snap that pesky nine-season losing streak? Look, I don’t fault you for thinking that way. Edison Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo comprise a solid rotation (although who knows how long it will be before Volquez recovers from Tommy John surgery). This club also has a good bullpen, is one of the more athletic teams in baseball and headlined by Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, the offense has a nice core as well. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the Reds never win. People like to harp on the Mets failing to live up to expectations or on the Pirates and Royals for being horrid every summer but what about the Reds? They haven’t won in nine years and unless Votto and Phillips turn in MVP-caliber seasons, this club is destined to fall short of 82 victories again. Plus, while he’s beloved and usually gets the most of out of his players, manager Dusty Baker is brutal when it comes to taking care of his pitcher’s arms. I can’t prove it, but I’m almost positive that his life mission is to overuse as many pitchers as he can before he hangs up his wristbands. (Consider this your official warning, Aroldis Chapman.) I want to believe in this club – I really do. But given their history, Volquez’s health and Baker’s incompetence, I just can’t see the Reds finishing higher than third or fourth in the division.

5. Houston Astros (26)
I’d love to sit down with Houston’s front office and pick their brains about the direction of their club. Because it seems to me that the ‘Stros are in some kind of albatross of mediocrity and there’s zero hope on the horizon. The starting lineup is fine at the top, but there’s nothing of substance beyond that. If Michael Bourn, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence can’t produce, then nobody will expect Kazuo Matsui, Pedro Feliz and JR Towles to pick up the slack. It’s the same story in the starting rotation, where Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt are the stars and have nothing resembling a supporting cast behind them. This team is the epitome of blah and will probably fade into the background once the season starts. The frustrating thing (at least for fans) is that the Astros have a good enough core to compete, but the surrounding pieces just won’t allow it. Plus, they have very little in the farm system, so they’re essentially stuck with what they have.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (30)
I could do what most writers do and throw a bunch of one-liners into this preview and just rip the Pirates for being the sack of toilet water they are. (Sack of toilet water?) But really, what’s the point? Everyone knows that the Buc-o’s front office avoids winning at all costs and that the club is destined to lose for the 18th season in a row. There is some hope on the horizon in the form of prospects Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez, but it’s going to be a few years. And by that time, the front office will probably recognize that those players have talent and ship them off before, God forbid, they have to give them a decent contract. Still, it’s hard not to love Andrew McCutchen’s ability and Garrett Jones could be a star in the making if he can build off his solid ’09 season. The Pirates’ strength is also in their starting pitching, as Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf form a solid 1-2-3 punch at the top of the rotation. But other than that, well, insert punch line here.

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