We're on to the National League Central Division this week...let's dig in!
2012 Bro Council NL Central Preview
The Cubs made more front-office changes this offseason than any other team, raiding the Red Sox and the Padres for a brand new top to the organization. They fired manager Mike Quade after one year, bringing in Dale Sveum, formerly of the Brewers and Pirates coaching staffs. The new head honchos made a big effort to fix what was wrong, starting with their Starting Pitchers. This season will see only 2 remaining starters from last years team as 6 guys will compete for the 5 spots. Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are locks, as is former Pirate Paul Maholm.
The other two spots will go to Chris Volstad (acquired from the Marlins), Travis Wood (acquired from the Reds), or Randy Wells who started 23 games for the Cubs last year. On offense, very little has changed. Only two starters are gone this year as 3B Aramis Ramirez signed with the Brewers and 1B Carlos Pena re-signed with the Rays. Geovanny Soto is back again behind the plate, Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro are up the middle at 2B and SS respectively, while in the outfield, Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano keep their spots. David DeJesus takes over in CF after with the team following a time in Oakland. The Cubs have no shot at winning their first World Series in over 100 years this year, but hopefully the new management can put them on the right path to one day break one of the many "curses" plaguing the franchise.
Prospects to watch: 1B Bryan LaHair and 1B Anthony Rizzo. LaHair had a monster season in AAA last year, winning the PCL MVP, although the numbers are usually bloated in that league. Rizzo is the top prospect in the organization, having batted .331 and driven in over 100 runs in only 93 games last year at AAA.
This team is scary good, so don't let the 79-83 record from a year ago persuade you otherwise. The 2010 Central Division champs are bursting with talent, its just a question as to who gets to play. At catcher they have incumbent Ryan Hanigan, but top prospect Devin Mesoraco is very close. Look for the two to split games this year, with Mesoraco taking over as the full time starter at some point. The infield is filled with All-Stars, including former MVP Joey Votto, 8 time Gold Glover Scott Rolen and three time Gold Glover Brandon Phillips. Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs return to the outfield with Bruce looking to build on 32 homers and 97 RBI. The strength of this team though is the pitching. With the knowledge that a change was needed, the Reds dealt 3 of their top 4 prospects for a top of the rotation ace in 24 year old Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres.
Combining Latos with Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake makes for a dominating rotation. Throw in the fact that they have Aroldis Champman and his 104 MPH fastball waiting in the wings and they are primed to make a run on a weak division.
Prospect to watch: C Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco was the 15th player chosen in the 2007 MLB draft out of Punxsutawney High School. He batted .289 with 15 homers and 71 RBI in AAA last year.
What can I say? The Astros stink, plain and simple. They were the worst team in baseball last year, they'll probably be the worst this year. They are going to rely on OF Carlos Lee (.275 BA and 18 homers) and C Chris Snyder (.271 BA with the Pirates) and a whole bunch of young, unproven players. They got SS Jed Lowrie from the Red Sox, and got CF Jordan Schafer from the Braves at the trading deadline. The most interesting thing that happened this offseason was the new owner announcing to fans that he wanted to change the team's name, and then back tracking.
The Astros will be joining the American League next year as a part of the radical realignment that MLB voted in this past season, at which time they will probably lose even MORE games! They do have a decent pitching staff, but really only Wandy Rodriguez had a good year last year.
Prospect to watch: ummmm...its pretty brutal. No one really stands out. Safe bet is to say the guy they take #1 overall this year will be their best prospect.
Prince is gone. Brewers fans will need to live with that realization as they will see a team that will be missing 38 homers and 120 RBI from his spot in the lineup. Aramis Ramirez takes over at 3B and former top prospect Mat Gamel will be given a chance to win the 1B spot. Gamel put up awesome numbers at AAA last year, but this is nothing new, he just hasn't performed well at the major league level yet. Rickie Weeks is back at 2nd, and SS Alex Gonzalez joins the team from the Braves. There's a logjam of sorts in the outfield for the Brew Crew as LF Ryan Braun, RF Corey Hart, CF Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez and Japanese import Norichika Aoki all need to get playing time. Gomez could be the first guy off the bench, and if Gamel struggles you could see Hart move to first base, but he's never played there.
The rotation is good, with all 5 starters coming back: Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, and Randy Wolf. Greinke and Gallardo give them a great 1-2 punch to compete with the Reds, but it will be tough for the Brewers to repeat their 96 win season from a year ago.
Prospect to watch: SP Wily Peralta. Peralta put up a 3.17 ERA in AA and AAA last year, and should be the first guy to come up if one of the starters gets injured.
Let me be the first to say: The Pirates WILL win the World Series this year. Alright, now that your morning laugh is out of the way, we'll jump into the Bucs. I am one of the Pirates' biggest fans, and I'm totally on board with what GM Neal Huntington is doing. That being said, this is a make or break year for the team. They showed brief flashes of what they could accomplish last year, but those first place, winning record dreams came crashing down following their 19 inning loss to the Braves. The Pirates COULD be good this year, but they need a lot of things to go right. 3B Pedro Alvarez needs to bounce back in a big way and show the potential that made him the #2 overall pick. 2B Neil Walker needs to build on his solid season. CF Andrew McCutchen needs to continue developing into a superstar, and he's well on his way. The potential platoon at 1B of Casey McGehee (acquired from the Brewers) and Garrett Jones needs to be more productive than last year's Lyle Overbay experiment. The team added a couple solid veteran free agents in C Rod Barajas and SS Clint Barmes, but made the biggest splash in improving their rotation.
Returning this year are Jeff Karstens (3.38 ERA), James McDonald (4.21 ERA) and Charlie Morton (3.83 ERA), and joining them will be A.J. Burnett (recently acquired from the Yankees), and free agent SP Erik Bedard. Burnett should do much better in Pittsburgh, with PNC's bigger outfield and easier lineups in the National League, and if Bedard can stay healthy he could be one of the better pitchers the Pirates have had the past few years. The Pirates have a chance to break .500 finally this year, but they wont compete in the playoffs yet. Hopefully that day is coming soon!
Prospects to watch: OF Robbie Grossman and SP Gerrit Cole. Grossman put up the rare 100 runs/100 walks season last year, something that hasn't been done in the minors since 2004. Cole was the top pick in the 2011 draft and has the potential to be a dominant ace for years for the Pirates. Both should make their debuts later this season.
St. Louis Cardinals
The champs will have a tough time repeating after one of the more memorable title runs in 2011. They made up an 8.5 game deficit in less than a month just to get into the playoffs and then staved off elimination in Game 6 of the World Series in one of the more memorable games you will ever see. The big difference this year is no Albert Pujols. The rest of the National League will enjoy this, and the Cards will not be able to fill that kind of production in the lineup. There's really not much in the infield for the Cards this year other than Rafael Furcal. World Series hero David Freese is there, but he's very inexperienced. In the outfield Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holiday will fill the #'s 3, 4, and 5 spots in the lineup.
One thing they do have going for them is adding a Cy Young candidate in Adam Wainwright, who missed all of last season due to injury. With Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, and Jaime Garcia the team has a pretty good rotation, which should buy them some wins. I don't see a repeat for the champs this year, but no one saw them winning on September 1st last year either.
Prospect to watch: SP Shelby Miller. Miller was the Cards top pick in the 2010 draft and is moving quickly through the organization. He'll break into the bigs this year and should stick with the team for a while.
Be sure to check out the NL West preview next week. You can see the NL East preview here.