Continuing in Dugout Central’s annual pre-season ritual, I am going to present my predictions for the National League Heartland – er – Central Division in 2012. Last year saw an early-season surge by the generally hapless Pittsburgh Pirates, only to see them fall right back in the race where they’ve been for the better part of 20 seasons. July 17 saw Milwaukee Brewers pick-up Zack Greinke out-duel then-Cub Carlos Zambrano 2-0 to put the Brewers up half a game on the St. Louis Cardinals and 1.5 on Pittsburgh. The Brewers didn’t look back, going 41-17 from that game to win their first division title in 29 years. However, the last laugh was had by the Cardinals, who snuck into the wild card spot and defeated the Brewers in the NLCS en route to their NL-best 11th World Championship.
There were some major shake-ups both in the front office and on the field, ensuring that 2012 would be an exciting new year for the division.
2011: 71-91, 5th Place, 25 GB, Scored 4.04 R/G (8th in NL), Allowed 4.67 R/G (14th in NL)
Key Losses: Aramis Ramirez (3B), Carlos Pena (1B), Carlos Zambrano (SP)
Key Additions: David Dejesus (OF), Ian Stewart (3B), Paul Maholm (SP)
Why they could win it all: The bright spot on the Chicago Cubs last year was the left side of the infield. While Aramis Ramirez packed his bags and moved up north, the Cubs feature one of the bright young stars in the game in Starlin Castro. Just 21 years old, Castro led the National League in hits last year with 207. A little more patience on both sides of the ball (he had almost as many errors as walks) will result in him being one of the players that the Cubs can build around moving forward.
Why they could fail: The Cubs completely revamped their front office by bringing in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, both of whom have been successful executives at the big league level. However, the damage from the Hendry regime has been done. Alfonso Soriano is eating a tremendous amount of payroll to play poorly (just 2.0 WAR total since 2009), as is Carlos Zambrano (to play for Miami). A 1-year turn-around just won’t be possible with the mess left-over. However, a big payroll and smart people to manage it may mean good things for the Cubs in the future as it did for the Red Sox.
What to watch: Alfonso Soriano needs to go, as he is deadweight in most aspects of his game. His .289 OBP and lackluster outfield defense have made his 136 million dollar contract one of the worst in history. Look for the Cubs to exploit a possible fast start by Soriano and turn it into a trade to an AL team, where he could potentially serve as a platoon DH. The key won’t be the player acquired, but rather the amount of salary his new team will be willing to eat.
2012 Prediction: 66-96, 5th place
2011: 79-83, 3rd Place, Scored 4.54 R/G (2nd in NL), Allowed 4.44 R/G (12th in NL)
Key Losses: Francisco Cordero (RP)Edgar Renteria (SS), Edinson Volquez (SP), Travis Wood (SP), Yonder Alonso (1B/OF)
Key Additions: Mat Latos (SP), Sean Marshall (RP), Ryan Madson (RP)
Why they could win it all: Remember that the Reds did win the division in 2010, posting over 90 wins before falling to Roy Halladay and the Phillies in the NLDS. The Reds did out-score their opponents on the year, and made a couple of nice pick-ups in Ryan Madson and Mat Latos. The offense is as potent as ever, with Joey Votto leading the charge as the best 1B in the division with Fielder and Pujols gone (though some may argue he had already reached that plateau).
Why they could fail: The Reds continue to employ Dusty Baker as their manager, so it’s hard to be shocked when they underperform their expected win-loss (not that a manager is necessarily responsible for that, but he can be). The rotation is a mess; Bronson Arroyo’s over the hill, and yet, he was the only Reds starter to make 30 starts last season, besides Mat Latos, recently acquired from the Padres. Latos has had good numbers in his first couple seasons, but he’s going from pitching half his games at the most pitcher-friendly park in the game to starting those games at one of the most hitter-friendly.
What to watch: Drew Stubbs was the leadoff hitter for most of the year. His league-worst 205 strikeouts wouldn’t be so alarming if he followed them up with actual on-base ability…which he does not (just a .321 OBP last year). Here’s a guy with some good tools, but he’s depriving Votto and Bruce of RBI opportunities by reaching so sparingly. Not saying he should be replaced on the team – his center field defense alone makes him worthwhile – but he shouldn’t lead-off.
2012 Prediction: 86-76, 3rd place
2011: 56-106, 6th place, 40 GB, Scored 3.80 R/G (13th in NL), Allowed 4.91 R/G (16th in NL)
Key Losses: Jeff Keppinger (IF) Michael Bourn (OF), Hunter Pence (OF) [all mid-season last year]
Key Additions: Like, 100 prospects (including Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart).
Why they could win it all: Wandy Rodriguez was solid yet again last year; over the past three years, he has a very nice 118 ERA+ and 1.279 WHIP. Unfortunately, he’s no Old Hoss Radbourn, and as such, can’t start every game for the Astros next year. Also, he has about as much chance of being an Astro come the trading deadline as I do.
Why they could fail: They were 56-106, added nothing at the big league level, and will now be without Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn for the entire 2012 season, as opposed to just half of it. The team that once owned this division like nobody’s business in the Killer-B years is now poised to leave it for the American League West, where, on a brighter note, they will have the luxury of facing the Mariners 18 or so times a year. I’ll be nice and give them 55 wins…and I’m thinking that’s probably optimistic.
What to watch: Carlos Lee is in the final year of a 6-year, 100 million dollar deal that I still don’t understand. Let’s see if he plays well enough to eek out another deal before hanging up his spikes or if El Caballo is happy being a rich guy with 350 career home runs.
2012 Prediction: 55-107, Last Place.
2011: 96-66, 1st Place, Scored 4.45 R/G (5th in NL), Allowed 3.94 R/G (6th in NL)
Key Losses: Prince Fielder (1B), Casey McGehee (3B), Yuniesky Betancourt (SS), Takashi Saito (RP), LaTroy Hawkins (RP)
Key Additions: Aramis Ramirez (3B), Alex Gonzalez (SS), Jose Veras (RP), Norichika Aoki (OF)
Why they could win: The Brewers won the NL Central last season, and while they lost their superstar first baseman Prince Fielder, they patched up their two biggest holes – the left side of the infield. Despite winning 96 games last year, the Brewers featured the absolute worst third baseman and shortstop in the game. Aramis Ramirez has been a fixture in the division for the last decade with both the Pirates and Cubs, making two all-star teams. He won his first silver slugger last season, after hitting .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI for the hapless Cubs in 2011. Meanwhile Alex Gonzalez will take over at shortstop; he has roughly the same plate presence as Yuni Betancourt (horrific), but is a well-regarded fielder at the position and will certainly represent an upgrade. Finally, the Brewers have just received a major shot in the arm as their team leader and reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun has been cleared of all charges regarding a failed drug test last October.
Why they could fail: Losing Prince changes the landscape of this offense – Aramis Ramirez just isn’t going to be able to spell the same level of protection for Braun. Furthermore, there are just too many question marks. Will Mat Gamel be the hitter he was always projected to be, or will he be the hitter he has been in parts of 4 big league seasons? Will Randy Wolf continue to defy his peripherals? Will Greinke ever perform even close to the level he did in 2009? And what’s with this Aoki guy? He’s won 3 batting titles in Japan, but can we expect that to even remotely resemble what he does in the Majors? Lastly – does anyone think the Brewers will go 30-18 in 1-run games next season?
What to watch: Corey Hart is obviously going to be playing every day. That leaves two positions – either CF and RF or 1B and CF up for grabs. I say that because Hart can play 1st and it isn’t clear that Mat Gamel can perform at the big league level. The Brewers have a solid center field platoon lined up with Nyjer Morgan (who hit over .300 last year) and Carlos Gomez (one of the best defenders in the game). But what about the Japanese batting champion, Aoki? Will Morgan show he can replicate his 2011 performance? All we know for sure is that Hart is playing every day and Gomez is only starting against southpaws and finding his ways into other games as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement. All told, this makes for an incredible log-jam – and that’s before you start including all of Morgan’s alter-ego’s.
2012 Prediction: 87-75, 2nd place
2011: 72-90, 4th place, 24 GB, Scored 3.77 R/G (14th in NL), Allowed 4.40 R/G (11th in NL)
Key Losses: Paul Maholm (SP), Ryan Ludwick (OF), Derrek Lee (1B), Jose Veras (RP)
Key Gains: AJ Burnett (SP), Erik Bedard (SP), Casey McGehee (3B), Rod Barajas (C), Clint Barmes (SS)
Why they could win: Gotta hand it to the Pirates – they made quite the turn-around last year. After winning just 57 games in 2010 (while placing last in both runs scored and runs allowed), the Pirates jumped out as contenders early-on and were in first place as late as July 25th. They went just 19-43 from that point on, however, all while tacking on a pair of has-been veterans in an effort to put them over the top. There exists a fine young group of talented players on this team, however, led by Andrew McCutchen – who had a break-out first half and is one of the best players in the National League.
Why they might fail: Their first half made for a great story but it can be chalked up to flukiness. A lot of players came back down to Earth in a hurry, most of which were to be expected. All-star Kevin Correia struggled mightily in the 2nd half, failing to qualify for the ERA title, not that his 4.79 mark would have gotten the job done. No Pittsburgh starter made it to 175 innings, and it’s highly unlikely that AJ Burnett will turn that around. No regular hit over .275 or OPS’d over .830 and only McCutchen was a measurable force of any kind. They’ve got a major talent on their hands in center field, but given the Pirates’ history, he’ll be fulfilling that potential in some place besides Pittsburgh.
Things to watch: Joel Hanrahan emerged out of nowhere last season to be one of the National League’s premier relievers. However, like most closers, he was criminally mis-managed, as Clint Hurdle saved him only for save situations – including an 18-inning affair against the Braves that ended on a blown call. Has Hurdle learned his lesson? The fans at PNC better hope so.
2012 Prediction: 73-89, 4th Place
St. Louis Cardinals
2011: World Series Champs, 90-72, 2nd place, 6 GB, Scored 4.70 R/G (1st in NL), Allowed 4.27 R/G (9th in NL)
Key Losses: Albert Pujols (1B), Edwin Jackson (SP), Octavio Dotel (RP)
Key Gains: Carlos Beltran (OF), Adam Wainwright (SP)
Why they could win: The departure of one of the greatest players to ever play the game certainly could spell doom, but GM John Mozeliak did a fantastic job of overcoming that loss by signing future hall-of-famer Carlos Beltran to an affordable 2-year deal, locking up Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter for 2 years before the season even ended, and bringing back spark-plug Rafael Furcal. They would be better off for 2012 with Albert Pujols, but 10 years at 24 million per season was just too much – and I think Mozeliak made the right call by thinking beyond 2012 (apparently, he doesn’t take Mayans too seriously). Holliday-Berkman-Beltran spell the best heart of the order in this division and the return of Adam Wainwright to the rotation means that the Cardinals have the pitching necessary to take them back to the post-season. They are my pick to win the division.
Why they could fail: They did undergo some changes, that’s for sure. Mike Matheny will take over for Tony LaRussa and the great pitching coach Dave Duncan will not be around for 2012, as he is helping his wife, Jeanine during her bout with cancer. And of course, Albert Pujols is no longer a Cardinal. This could have far-reaching effects beyond the .328/.420/.617, 42 HR, 126 RBI line he averaged in eleven years as a Cardinal. Losing Pujols means everyone gets pitched to differently, it means teams can approach situations differently, and it means that lesser players have to take up the slack. That’s not to hate on Berkman, Holliday, Beltran, or NLCS & World Series MVP David Freese – but there’s excellent ballplayers, and then there are transcendent ballplayers. Pujols was the latter.
What to watch: All eyes will be on Adam Wainwright, who returns this season after losing 2011 to Tommy John surgery. Wainwright placed top-3 in the last two Cy Young ballots, posting 11.9 WAR in that time span. He pitched over 230 innings in both years but is unlikely to reach 200 this season in his recovery. We’ll see how his new arm ligaments hold up.
2011 Prediction: 92-70, 1st Place