Few divisions in baseball seem to be heading into 2012 with as much false hope as the National League Central.
Defending champion St. Louis is hoping that the losses of Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols can be overcome with ease. Chicago is hoping that a new general manager will magically be able to transform this loser organization and get the Cubs their first World Series win since the horse-and-buggy were all the rage. Pittsburgh is hoping that its cup of tea in first place last July is a sign of good things to come and Cincinnati is hoping that it can bounce back and fulfill the promise that its 2010 division title seemed to bring.
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I hate to tell all of them – but none of those things are going to happen this year.
Here is Doc’s Sports 2012 National League Central predictions with outlook and betting odds:
2011 Record: 96-66 (+2100)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 85.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 3-to-1
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 15-to-1
2012 Milwaukee Brewers Odds to win World Series: 30-to-1
The Brew Crew had one of its best seasons ever in 2011, winning 96 games and coming within just two games of the World Series. They lost their leader when Prince Fielder walked this summer and they nearly had a stake driven through their hearts with the whole Ryan Braun fiasco. But, all told, things could be much worse for this team as it tries to defend its division title.
Zach Greinke is flat-out one of the best pitchers in baseball and was the best bet in the game last year at the top of Milwaukee’s rotation. His value will be down because the books are onto him but I expect Greinke to be even better. He’s followed by fellow stud Yovani Gallardo and underrated Shawn Marcum to give the Brewers one of the best 1-2-3 starters in baseball. Crafty lefties Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson fill out the other two spots in the rotation.
Milwaukee’s quality starting pitching really helped ease the burden on what had been a pathetic Brewers bullpen prior to 2011. Now the back end is a strength with John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez holding it down behind several specialists and live arms. If those two stay healthy the Brewers will have the best staff in the division.
Offseason pickup Aramis Ramirez won’t be able to replace Fielder. But he still has plenty of pop in his bat and may be rejuvenated now that he’s back on a winning team. Braun will have a ton of pressure on him this year because of his steroids situation. But he’s one of the best hitters in the game and will provide cover for guys like Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks. I have long been a big Nyger Morgan fan and he is the spark at the top of the order. And new shortstop Alex Gonzalez is a brilliant fielder that should stabilize the Brewers infield.
It has been an eventful offseason for this franchise. But as 2012 begins I think that they are still the best team in the division. Like Cincinnati, depth is a bit of a concern. But their lineup, starters and bullpen are all much better than the Reds and I think we’re going to see another St. Louis-Milwaukee battle for the crown late into the summer.
St. Louis Cardinals
2011 Record: 90-72 (+230)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 85.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 2-to-1
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 11-to-1
2012 St. Louis Cardinals Odds to win World Series: 25-to-1
Outlook: St. Louis enters the season as the champions of the baseball universe. But they will have a distinctly different look this year without the two main reasons – Albert Pujols and Tony LaRussa – why that was possible.
However, there is a lot of reason for optimism in St. Louis. And it starts with the return of Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright, who was lost for all of 2011 after elbow surgery. If Carpenter gets well he and Wainwright will give the Cards a sick one-two punch anchoring the rotation. But if they are both injured it will be up to question marks like Kyle Lohse and Jamie Garcia to find their way.
The Cardinals lost Pujols but they are essentially replacing him with Carlos Beltran. Beltran is really an X-Factor for this team. His skills have seriously eroded over the past few years. But he was one of the best players in the game from 2006-08, and if he is healthy and effective he’ll join Lance Berkman and Matt Holiday to give the Cards a dominating middle of the order. Other pros like Yadir Molina, Rafael Furcal and David Freese are nice pieces around that potential 3-4-5 and the Cards should put plenty of runs on the board.
The bullpen has been an Achilles heel for the past few years. But last fall everything suddenly clicked and it turned into a major weapon in the postseason. Jason Motte is still closing and there are some decent specialists. But I don’t expect that October magic to carry over to this year and the bullpen should again be a concern for St. Louis.
No one thinks that St. Louis can repeat. And I suppose I don’t either. But if Carpenter can get healthy and Beltran can produce then I really like this team. I think they enter the year as one of the more undervalued defending champions in a long time.
2011 Record: 79-83 (-1360)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 87.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 2.5-to-1
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 9-to-1
2012 Cincinnati Reds Odds to win World Series: 20-to-1
Outlook: The Reds wilted under expectations last year after their 2010 Central Division title, finishing a non-competitive third place in 2011. I don’t know that their roster is that much better this year but the general consensus is that they may improve because their main rivals in Milwaukee and St. Louis may have gotten worse.
Cincinnati has a lot of arms and a lot of potential on their roster. But now it is time for guys like Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey to step up or step off. Those three need to show consistency over a full season and that is yet to occur in their young careers. Mat Latos was the big offseason pickup and showed flashes of being a No. 1 in San Diego. But he won’t have the benefit of Petco Park anymore.
The bullpen took a huge blow when another prized offseason acquisition, closer Ryan Madson, was ruled out of the year with an elbow injury. That means that lefties Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman (who was fighting for a starting spot) are likely going to be the key pieces of the stop unit. But that’s a pretty dicey back end on a team that is supposed to be a division front-runner.
Cincinnati’s starting lineup is very solid with all stars Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto leading the way. But they lack depth and this team has seemed to fall apart over the last few seasons when their decrepit third basemen goes down with an injury. He’s only played 198 games the last two years and is a crucial piece to this puzzle. Beyond him this clubhouse still needs a young guy like Chris Heisey or Zack Cozart to step up. That’s no sure thing.
The closer we get to the season the less I like the Reds. I think they are going to be much better than the 79-win debacle we saw last year. But I don’t know that they have the talent, 1-25, on their roster to overtake both St. Louis and Milwaukee, who feature more lineup depth and more consistent pitching. Be careful jumping on this already full bandwagon.
2011 Record: 71-91 (-1420)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 73.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 18-to-2
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 22-to-1
2012 Chicago Cubs Odds to win World Series: 40-to-1
Outlook: It’s rebuilding time again at Wrigley. But I feel like the Cubs will have the patience and positive outlook to see the job through this time now that Theo Epstein is in town. He has already shaken up this roster, getting rid of older players and bloated contracts. But what is left behind may not be pretty to look at.
Ryan Dempster (4.80 ERA) and Matt Garza (3.32) are the two best arms in this rotation. That’s not a good thing. Garza was being shopped this winter and is still a candidate to move during the season. Behind him are streaky and inconsistent arms like Paul Maholm, Randy Wells, Chris Volstad and Jeff Samardzija, who is making the transition to starter.
The bullpen has some nice names in it. But teams are onto erratic closer Carlos Marmol, who is just way too in love with his slider and who throws too many pitches in relief outings. Kerry Wood is still a nice setup option but there isn’t a lot of depth here in a bullpen that finished No. 9 in the league last year.
The lineup is a work in progress. They scuttled former anchor Aramis Ramiriez – who is now with division-rival Milwaukee – and now the Cubs are severely lacking pop. Alfonso Soriano is the only guy on the team with a season of 30 or more home runs. But the last time he achieved that feat was 2007 and the 36-year-old is really just the shell of himself. The rest of the team is mad up of castoffs and retreads around the young core of Starlin Castro (who is awesome) and Darwin Barney (who I’m not at all sold on).
Chicago better hope the wind is blowing out a lot this year because they won’t be able to score runs consistently. And they don’t have good enough pitching to overcome it. This is a transition year. But Chicago is going to be a bad baseball team for some stretches while they start to work things out.
2011 Record: 72-90 (-100)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 72.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 30-to-1
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 40-to-1
2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Odds to win World Series: 100-to-1
Outlook: It is generally considered a down year when a team wins 72 games. But not in Pittsburgh, where the bar is set so low that “only” losing 90 games is cause for celebration and a positive outlook heading into the next year.
The main cause for excitement is uber-talented Andrew McCutchen and the rest of the maturing Pirates lineup. Neil Walker looks like a player and Garrett Jones has a big bat. But Pittsburgh needs a lot more consistency and a couple more high-end bats if they want to compete with the veteran lineups in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
To buy into the Pirates also means that you’re buying into their pitching staff. I, for one, am not. They went out and got A.J. Burnett from New York, only to see him take a ball off the face in Spring Training and likely put himself out until May. Inconsistent (but mostly bad) starters like Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and Chuckles Morton follow him up. If James McDonald ever gets it figured out he could be the best of the bunch. But I’m not holding my breath.
Pittsburgh’s bullpen actually “improved” to No. 20 in the league last year. Again, unless they can get into the top half of the league – and no one outside of Evan Meek really impresses me here – then there is just no way that the Pirates will be able to stay in the top half of the Central.
The Pirates were a huge surprise last year. And on July 19 they were actually in first place in the division. But then they reverted back to the team we have been used to seeing the last 20 years and went just 21-46 the rest of the way. It is anyone’s guess which team is going to show up this season: the scrappy, young team that looked ready to compete or the atomic mess that we saw to close the year. A lot of people are hoping for the former. I am definitely expecting the latter.
2011 Record: 56-106 (-3340)
2012 Wins Over/Under: 63.5
Odds To Win 2012 NL Central: 100-to-1
Odds To Win 2012 NL Pennant: 120-to-1
2012 Houston Astros Odds to win World Series:: 250-to-1
Outlook: I am going to keep this short and sweet: this Astros team lost 106 games last season and they are probably even worse this year. That is not an exaggeration. This team is absolutely pathetic and shows no signs of being remotely competitive this season.
Wandy Rodrguez is the de facto ace of this rotation but he is rumored to be trade bait. Behind him are human piñatas like Bud Norris (4.33 career ERA), J.A. Happ (5.35 ERA last year), and Jordan Lyles (5.36 ERA in 10 career starts). The bullpen is even worse, which is why they moved Brett Myers back to closer. So instead of getting 30 starts and 180 innings out of the guy with the best stuff on the team they are hoping he can come in and close the 20 or so games that Houston is actually leading in the ninth inning.
I don’t even know where to start with the lineup. Carlos Lee is a fat, sloppy mess and has mercifully been moved to first base. After two lackluster years it is easy to wonder if he is well over the hill. And he is surrounded by a bunch of nobodies like J.D. Martinez, Chris Johnson, Jordan Schafer and Jose Altuve. Minus Lee this will be one of the youngest starting lineups in the league. But that’s because about 75 percent of it should still be in Triple-A.
This team is going to be horrendous this year and by mid-May it might be tough to find a favorite laying less than -180 against them. They are the worst team in baseball and it’s not even close.
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