>By Nick Gallaudet

It’s ironic that the division with the most teams in baseball also seems to be the least competitive. The NL Central has some of Major League Baseball’s most storied franchises, but we’re talking about 2011, so none of that matters, now let’s get down to business.

2011 is going to be Mike Quade’s first full season as the Cubs’ manager, having stepped in mid-season for retiring Lou Pinella. While Quade was on duty last year, the Cubbies posted a very good 24-13 record, but will that trend continue this season? Their offense was mediocre last year, and they did little to upgrade it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t improve. This is a team that boasts Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Pena, and Geovany Soto, so there is definitely potential. Soto aside, all of these players are coming off horrendous 2010 campaigns, and even Soto’s wasn’t that impressive, but there is no reason we shouldn’t see these guys rebound. On top of that, Pena’s move to the NL should help his numbers jump at least a little bit. If those four players can turn it around and Starlin Castro and Marlon Byrd can pick up where they left off last season, this offense definitely has potential.
The Cubs also return a similar pitching staff from last season, a staff that was second in the MLB in quality starts. On top of that, the addition of Matt Garza via trade with the Rays should only help this rotation. The report from camp is that Carlos Zambrano has bounced back from his demotion last year, has picked his velocity back up, and is looking very good this spring. Despite the Cubs high number of quality starts last year, they still ranked toward the bottom of the league in most other major statistics, and a lot of that was due to their middle relief. Closer Carlos Marmol had a good year last year, but even with the addition of a rejuvenated Kerry Wood, this bullpen is going to cost them some games. I like the Cubs to fare better than last year, but I don’t see their title drought ending anytime soon.
The Reds are the defending NL Central champs, and one of the two teams I think has a shot at winning this division. Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto is obviously the focal point of the NL’s most potent offense last year and still has plenty of help around him. I was stunned that the Reds led the NL in scoring last year, and I still don’t know how they did it. Their lineup is by no means a murderer’s row, but every spot has a guy that knows how to handle the bat and can get his job done. I don’t see a reason why their production should slow. Scott Rolen seems reinvigorated, Jay Bruce is a superstar in the making, Johnny Gomes is quietly productive, and Drew Stubbs is still growing. Mix in another year of experience for the young guys and I think they could easily come out on top again, offensively.
The Reds rotation looks a lot like their lineup. Edinson Volquez seems to be the Joey Votto of the rotation, and he’s followed up by Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey. None of the last three guys are superstars, but they are all pretty good and more than capable of getting you a win. Add wild card Aroldis Chapman, and this rotation could be very good, but Chapman could easily find himself in the bullpen as well. Honestly, Chapman is a future All-Star whether he starts or comes in out of the ‘pen. Speaking of the bullpen, the Reds’ relievers did a good job last year even though closer Francisco Cordero had an up and down year, blowing eight saves and posting an ERA over 6 in September. All in all, this team looks good and will definitely be in the conversation come September.
Last year, the Astros were paced offensively by Hunter Pence and Jeff Keppinger…not exactly what you want from a contender. The Astros scored the second fewest runs in the league last year, and didn’t get much better. Carlos Lee is still capable of decent numbers, but he can’t carry an offense any more, and neither can Pence or Keppinger. Yougsters, Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson are definitely the future for this offense, but they aren’t ready to propel this team into the playoffs quite yet.
The Astros pitching staff is definitely their strength, but that’s not saying much compared to their anemic offense. Losing Roy Oswalt still leaves a void at the top of that rotation, but Brett Myers seemed to fill the void well enough last year. Myers is followed by Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ, making for a formidable 1-2-3. The pieces seem to be in place for this team to grow for the future, especially after unloading Oswalt and Lance Berkman last year, but they still have a ways to come before they sniff the top of this division.
It seemed like the door had shut on the Brewers a couple of years ago, and the fact that the Brewers’ pitching staff posted the third worst ERA last year appeared to be proof, but not so fast. The Milwaukee front office had one goal in mind this offseason and that was upgrade the staff, which they most definitely did. The addition of Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum shored up a porous rotation. Greinke and Marcum join Yovanni Gallardo and Randy Wolf to make this a pretty good rotation. I’m a bigger fan of Shaun Marcum than most, but this is a sneaky-good 1-2-3 for the National League and I think they could really blossom with the run support they should be getting.
This is a Brewers team that is going to score runs this year, but it’s a tricky situation. The Brewers have two choices with Prince Fielder, who is in the last year of his contract; they can win now, or deal him before the deadline. Obviously, this decision is going to depend on how the first half of the season goes, but if this division goes the way I expect it to, the Brewers are going to be one of the two teams jockeying for division supremacy. I’m going to go ahead and say they’ll keep Prince, and he’ll be a big part of a lineup that includes Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, and Corey Hart. I’m higher than most on the Brewers, but I recognize that the loss of closer Trevor Hoffman is not going to be easy to replace. I don’t know if the Brewers have enough to overtake the Reds, but I certainly like them to give Cincy a run for their money.
I don’t know where to begin. The Pirates owe a thank you to the Mariners, because if it wasn’t for the pathetic Seattle offense, the Pirates would have been last in pretty much every major category in both pitching and hitting. Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen were the only hitters on the Pirates last year that did anything even remotely productive. They added Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay this offseason, but honestly, that doesn’t really help. The pitching staff is just as bad as it was last year, with Paul Maholm, James McDonald, Ross Ohlendorf, Scott Olsen and newcomer, Kevin Correia. I just feel bad for Pittsburgh fans; there is no way this team will come close to snapping its streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons. I just can’t find anything good to say about this team, at least with the Royals, I could tout their farm system…
It took a while for me to convince myself that the Cardinals are not the class of the NL Central anymore, but it seems to be the case. I don’t really want to revisit the Albert Pujols contract drama, that warranted an article all to itself, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for the Cardinals mentality. I don’t think Pujols is going to let it affect his play, but I think as a teammate, the fact that Pujols may not want to be there might create some doubt. What I’m trying to say is that I have a weird feeling about this team. The talent is definitely there, and they still have their offensive superstars in Holliday and Pujols, but after them, there is a significant drop off. Yadier Molina is solid, but Lance Berkman looked lost with the Yankees last year, and I’m just not sold on Colby Rasmus, Skip Schumaker, and Ryan Theriot as major contributors yet.

The pitching staff also worries me. With the loss of Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals staff basically became Chris Carpenter and four scrubs. Jaime Garcia was third in Rookie of the Year voting last year, but he is still an unproven talent, and everyone else on that staff, including Carpenter, has a history of injuries. I like the Cardinals, and I personally want them to do well, but this team just has the look of a team that is ripe for a mid-season meltdown following a catastrophic injury, I just can’t sign off on this team in 2011.
Projected 2011 NL Central Standings
TEAM                    W-L
Cincinnati Reds      93-69
Milwaukee Brewers 89-73
Chicago Cubs         82-80
St. Louis Cardinals 78-84
Houston Astros      77-85
Pittsburgh Pirates   3-159

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