Time to preview the NL Central for the upcoming season:
1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Best Player: Ryan Braun
Best Pitcher: Chris Carpenter
The Cubs are the clear favorite in the NL Central as they return a powerful lineup and an experienced, dominant pitching staff. Led by Alfonso Soriano and Derek Lee, the Cubs lineup has the potential to put up a crooked number any inning. In the rotation, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden lead a staff that is front-loaded, with the 4 and 5 pitchers (Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall) a cause for concern. However, a strong bullpen with Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol should keep the Cubs in any ballgame. Overall, the team has a tremendous amount of talent and will likely be a contender for the NL pennant.
The Brewers lost C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets from their starting staff and that will seriously hurt their playoff chances, but their lineup is still stacked, giving them the ability to overcome mediocre pitching. With Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, runs will not be hard to come by, especially considering J.J. Hardy and Richie Weeks bat in front of those two sluggers. Jeff Suppan is the number one starter for Milwaukee and that is a sign for concern in itself as Suppan is not quite an ace. Follow him up with Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Braden Looper, and Dave Busch, and the rotation is shaky at best. Recently-acquired Trevor Hoffman leads the bullpen, but even if he is terrific, Milwaukee is still going to need a lot of run-production to stay in the NL Central race.
St. Louis has a consistent team that should win tough games and challenege for the division, but may not have quite enough talent to win it. Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick lead the offense, which though lacking in big-name stars, has lesser-known players like Skip Schumakerand Chris Duncan that will consistently get on base for their slugger. The rotation is deep as well with Chris Carpenter leading the way and Joel Pineiro bringingup the rear. The biggest question mark entering the season for the Cards is their closer role, which is still up in the air and could prove to be a big problem if no one steps up. Though strong from top to bottom, St. Louis doesn’t have quite enough talent to compete with Chicago and Milwaukee.
The lineup is one of the weakest in the division, but a strong rotation should lead the Reds to a positive, though not entirely successful year. Brandon Phillips and Jay Burce will carry the bulk of the load for a young Reds’ offense that is still developing and will struggle at points during the year. Edison Volqeuzleads the rotation with young prospect Micah Owings filling in the number five hole. In between those two are Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Johnny Cueto, each of which is solid, but will not shut-out opponents out very often. A young team, the Reds certainly have talent, but they are not ready to make the leap to a contender.
Houston has a solid lineup with Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman, but a poor rotation will lead to a lot of problems for Houston. The Astroswill certainly score their fair share of runs, with Kaz Matsui leading off and Hunter Pence and Miguel Tejada batting in the 5th and 6thholes respectively. However, with the exception of Roy Oswalt, the pitching staff is old and over-the-hill. Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, and Russ Ortiz all used to be solid pitchers, but none of them is going to hold up well for an entire season against NL Central hitters. The Astros are going to be looking up at the wrong end of many large deficits and even their strong offense won’t be able to bring them back. The offense is there, but until Houston rebuilds their pitching staff, this team won’t be contending for anything.
Pittsburgh has very little talent and are looking at a long season in this tough division. The lineup has very little pop with Nate Mclouth the only bat that opponents will fear. The rotation likewise is weak, with Paul Maholm as the “ace” and even less behind him. Matt Capps currently owns the closer role for the team, but who knows how long he’ll have it. The Pirates are in need of a major rebuild and are one of the worst teams in baseball this year.