Amazingly no one hazarded a guess on which team I’m picking to win the NL Central. Could it be that I am too obvious with my team loyalty? Or is one team a prohibitive favorite to win the division?
Perhaps a little of both. Luckily for this blog, the primary rooting interest and the prohibitive favorite are the same team.
1. St Louis. Any team with Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup is one that should contend every year. This team will benefit from a full year of Matt Holliday in the middle of the order as well. Colby Rasmus is a year wiser, and David Freese can’t help but be an upgrade over last year’s anemic production by Cardinal third basemen. Felipe Lopez is an upgrade over Mark DeRosa, at least the Mark DeRosa who struggled with injury during his stint with the club.
The rotation remains solid as a rock with Carpenter and Wainwright. Jamie Garcia was mighty impressive during the spring and won the #5 starter spot. How well this team plays, and how deep they get in the post-season will ride on the right arms of Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny. Penny is not an upgrade over Joel Pineiro-2009. Lohse needs to reprise his 2008 form.
The bullpen has been shaky this spring, especially Ryan Franklin. Kyle McClellan pitched well enough to be in the rotation, but perhaps the looming bullpen woes at the back of games convinced LaRussa/Duncan he was better utilized there than as the #5 starter.
Overall the 2010 Cardinals look like the NL Central winner, and one of the favorites to win the NL. Should they falter, however, there are a couple of teams eager to overtake them.
2. Chicago. This team is kind of the Cardinals exact opposite, in that their strength lies in their rotation. Carlos ‘completely crazy’ Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Harden make up what could be the best overall rotation in the division. Even so they have question marks. Randy Wells was a big surprise in 2009 – will the sophomore slump catch up with him? Can Carlos Silva pitch like the guy he was during the World Baseball Classic last year, or will he revert to the batting practice machine he was with the Mariners?
Their best bat remains Aramis Ramirez. Derrek Lee had a career year, but he also has a balky back, which he aggravated while sitting down to eat breakfast. Freak accident there. Speaking of freak accidents, anyone else remember Danny Cox breaking his ankle jumping off a 3-foot sea wall? Geovany Soto will try to become the hitter he was winning the NL ROY, instead of the virtually automatic out he was in 2009. I don’t believe Marlon Byrd will be much of an upgrade over what Milton Bradley gave them last season.
Still, the Cubs have a pretty good collection of talent, so they should push the Cardinals throughout the season.
3. Cincinnati. Yes, the Reds are kind of the ‘Seattle Mariners’ of the NL. Not because they’ve embraced defensive metrics and built a team to fit their ballpark, but because a lot of people think they will be a contender this season. However, they will be good only should a lot of ‘IF’s line up in their favor. To wit:
If Aaron Harang can return to form after a tough 2009, IF Johnny Cueto can pitch a full season like he did the first half of 2009, IF their bullpen can hold a lead, IF Scott Rolen can become a productive middle of the order hitter again, IF Joey Votto and Jay Bruce continue to develop, IF IF IF… they could be very good. Most of that won’t happen, though, so they’ll end up fighting to finish in the top half of the division.
4. Milwaukee. Arguably the best lineup in the division. Too bad their starting rotation will hold them back. Yovani Gallardo is a top of the rotation guy and a future ace. Randy Wolf will battle and eat innings. Doug Davis was 5 games under .500, and had an ERA of 4.12, but his ERA+ was 111 while he pitched for the Diamondbacks in 2009. Dave Bush and Manny Parra don’t strike any fear in opposing lineups; those two are downright awful. Last year Parra and Busch had a combined ERA of 6.37 (Parra was better with a 6.36), and an ERA+ of 63. Milwaukee won’t seriously contend for the division this season.
5. Pittsburgh. If only because I like how they’ve blown up and started over. Andrew McCutchen is the real deal in CF. They have an interesting mix of veterans (LaRoche, Iwamura) and newbies (Clement, Lastings Milledge). Duke, Oldendorf, and Maholm are actually decent. I think the Pirates are moving in the right direction.
Of course, I picked them to finish third in the division last season, and they finished in the basement. So what do I know.
6. Houston. What can I say? I don’t like Houston. Oswalt is still a stud, Wandy had a career year in 2009, and they have some capable position players (Berkman, El Cubbayo, Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence). Berkman’s 34 and Carlos Lee will be 34 this season, and I believe they are starting to slow down. This Houston club was 74-88 a year ago. I don’t believe they improved themselves during the off-season (although they did make some splashy bullpen signings), so they’ll probably be around 74-88 again this season.
Tomorrow: The NL West.