Major League Baseball Ã¢â‚¬â€ NL Central Preview
Part three of our season preview takes a look at MLBÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s largest division, the six team National League Central.
1. St Louis Cardinals
As has been the case for a number of years now, it is difficult to see past the Redbirds for the Central division title.
They return two of the best pitchers in baseball in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. In 2009 they were two of only six starting pitchers finishing the season with an ERA under 2.75.
Carpenter missed a few starts last year with a muscle strain but after returning in May he proceeded to dominate opposition line-ups through the rest of the season. He and Wainwright have looked solid as Spring Training has gone on, and both will be ready to lead the Cardinals charge right out of the gate.
They made one of the biggest deals of the winter when they extended Matt Holliday for $120m over 7 years. HollidayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s performance after a mid-season move from Oakland was very pleasing for the Cards, and they will expect more of the same this year.
And then there is Albert Pujols. Time will tell if he is indeed the greatest player of his generation, but there is nothing to suggest that 2010 wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see him continue to put up the dazzling numbers he has done over the first 9 years of a remarkable career.
2. Chicago Cubs
One day the Cubs will win the World Series again. It is difficult to see that day coming in 2010 though. They simply donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t look strong enough to top the Cardinals, and with tough contenders in the East and West, even the Wild Card will be a tall order.
Last year was very disappointing for the North Sider. After a 2008 defined by hope as they made the playoffs, 2009 was characterised by regression, and injury. Aramis Ramirez was perhaps the biggest blow, a shoulder injury limiting him to just 82 games.
The Cubs finished two games above .500, but that is a long way from competing. Despite their large payroll, it is a lack of depth which is the killer for the Cubs Ã¢â‚¬â€œ if they lose a couple of key players, they will really struggle. After a 2008 Rookie Of the Year season, catcher Geovani SotoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s production collapsed in 2009, not helped by niggling injuries.
They need bounce-back seasons from the likes of Soto and Ramirez if they are to get anywhere near the playoffs this year. Something good from Alfonso Soriano would be nice for them too.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
The boys from Wisconsin can certainly hit. Unfortunately, they canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pitch. There was much discussion of the dichotomy of performance with bat and ball last season, and they havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really done anything to address the problem over the winter.
With pitching as weak as the Brewers have, signing Randy Wolf is not going to make a great deal of difference to them. It is tough to see their pitching numbers getting worse than last year, but it is equally difficult to see them getting a whole lot better.
Fortunately, the Brew Crew can hit. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun terrorised opposing pitchers last year. Fielder would look a cert, at a minimum, to hit another 40 home runs this year, and Braun producing outfield production that most clubs can only dream of.
If it all comes together Ã¢â‚¬â€œ in particular if young shortstop Alcides Escobar has the season many are predicting of him Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the Brewers could have an outside chance of a run at the playoffs. However their lack of pitching makes that a remote possibility.
4. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds surprised everyone when they stumped up in excess of $30m to sign hard-throwing Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman. He wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be enough to lead them to success this year, but theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re certainly moving in the right direction.
Chapman had a more interesting path to the Majors than most. The 22-year-old was pitching for his country at a tournament in Rotterdam when he defected, walking out of the team hotel and eventually fleeing to Barcelona.
The Cuban will likely start the season in the minors, but it shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be long before we see him playing on the banks of the Ohio River, as he joins Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Aaraon Harang, in what is an increasingly impressive starting rotation.
Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips should provide some much needed hitting, but beyond that they are short on hitting, which will ultimately curtail their chances for another year.
5. Houston Astros
The Astros are really feeling the comedown after their big-spending high of the previous decade. Aging stars on big contracts is the order of the day for the them at the moment, and like so many teams who go down that path, the farm system is looking pretty bare too.
Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, like 2004 second round pick Hunter Pence, HoustonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s acquisition and development of young talent has been pretty abysmal. They will be relying once again on the offense of Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a situation not helped by the fact that Berkman will not be for Opening Day.
With the ball, Roy Oswalt was far from his best last year, but the Astros would rather have him on the roster than not. Unfortunately for them, there could be some delay in that, after the right-hander suffered a hamstring strain a few days ago and may not be ready for Opening Day.
That puts yet more pressure on Wandy Rodriguez to follow on from last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s success. Regardless, 2010 is likely to be a long year for the Ã¢â‚¬ËœStros.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
It seems like the only reason many people in the Steel City bother going to watch the Pirates is so they can take in a ballgame at what is arguably the best ballpark in the Majors. The team doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t give them a lot to shout about.
The Buccos have compounded their situation by doing not a great deal with the glut of high draft picks theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve received in return for being so bad. However, maybe – just maybe – there are a few signs of hope beginning to appear on the horizon.
Whilst theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve not made any moves over the winter that are really worth discussing, some young talent is beginning to emerge. Andrew McCutchen is beginning to look like the real deal in centre field, and Pedro Alvarez has progressed quickly since being drafted 18 months ago.
Whilst PNC Park has spent 10 years consistently near the top of Ã¢â‚¬ËœBest BallparkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ polls, the Pirates have spent that time consistently at the bottom of the standings. They have not finished above .500 since 1992, and this season isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going to snap that streak. It could sow the seeds of a revival, though.