This is the hardest division for me to keep objective about, so I hope my biases don’t shine through too brightly (if at all). It doesn’t have a history of being a great division in recent memory, even though the top two teams were matched up in the NLCS last season. But, this could be a very interesting season for this division. I wouldn’t be shocked if any one of 3 (maybe 4!) teams ended up winning it. Here’s how I ultimately see things playing out:
1. Milwaukee Brewers (91-71)
2. Cincinnati Reds (88-74)
3. St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
4. Chicago Cubs (82-80)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90)
6. Houston Astros (63-99)
I still think the Brewers are the best team in the division (and were last year, too, in spite of the Cardinals catching fire late – a la San Francisco in 2010). They have the fewest question marks both in their lineup and pitching staff. Yes, they lost Fielder, but they added Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez isn’t going to bring the same pop Fielder did, but his .871 OPS and .307 batting average will help mend the loss. Plus, Milwaukee has an excellent 1B prospect in Mat Gamel who had a .912 OPS at AAA last season, and will be taking Fielder’s place on the diamond this year. Their pitching staff is virtually unchanged, and if Greinke can figure out how to pitch on the road, this could be a very dangerous team.
The coin-flip in this division is between the Reds & Cardinals. They both have major question marks in their pitching staff, and both have potentially very dangerous offenses. I’m going to give the slight edge here to the Reds, because I like a lot of the moves they made in the offseason. Well, let me rephrase that – I like how their offseason moves are going to help them this year. I think in 3-4 years, the number of guys they gave up for Mat Latos and Sean Marshall is going to come back to haunt them. That being said, I think Latos and Marshall are excellent pick-ups for the 2012 team. And, Ryan Madson at closer could be fantastic, if he continues to perform as he did last year (his one full season as a closer). Latos is a bit of a question mark, as he’s moving to a more hitter-friendly ballpark. And, the rest of the rotation looks decent, though unproven. Their bullpen actually looks really good with the addition of Marshall, who could even step in and close should Madson struggle. And, let’s not forget about Aroldis Chapman, the hard-throwing lefty. If the offense stays healthy (another question-mark), it’s very good, and will be tough for most pitching staffs to deal with.
The Cardinals, of course, lost the biggest free agent in the game. But, they signed Carlos Beltran to pick up a lot of the slack. But, Beltran’s health has been a big question mark the last few seasons, and if he isn’t there to fill the hole left by Pujols, who will? The other reason I put the Cardinals a couple games behind the Reds is because I think their questions in the starting rotation are even bigger. Should things work out, they could have what it takes to win the division. But, will Wainwright stay healthy? And, even if he does, will he be effective? Will 37-year-old Carpenter be able to continue to defy his age, or will the 3-year trend of a rising ERA and WHIP start to catch up with him? Can Jaime Garcia continue to win in spite of the 1.32 WHIP, and .273 league average against in 2011? And, what will this pitching staff look like without the brilliance of Dave Duncan? For years they’ve had mediocre pitchers come in and perform well because of the tutelage of Duncan. The loss of Duncan and LaRussa could set this team back further than some think. Lots of question marks, but still a very good team.
My main reason for the 11-game turnaround for the Cubs is the pitching staff. Dempster and Garza remain at the top, and Garza might prove to be the ace. But the back end is brand new. Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad and Travis Wood. Maholm was a free agent, Volstad was a part of the Zambrano deal with Miami, and Wood is a young lefty that came over from Cincinnati in the Sean Marshall deal. All three are an upgrade over what they had last season. The bullpen remains solid, and might be improved since some of the guys that had to start games last season because of injuries (i.e. James Russell), will now get to come in in relief. The offense is about the same. David DeJesus takes Fukudome’s place (a lateral move), rookie Bryan LaHair will take over first base for Carlos Pena until Anthony Rizzo is ready to be called up (potentially a step up in offensive production), and Ian Stewart will take over for Aramis Ramirez at 3B (a step back in offensive production). Sveum is definitely an improvement at the helm, over the hapless Mike Quade. But, this team is still a couple years from serious contention.
Pittsburgh is a bit of a wild-card. I was surprised when I realized they actually lost 90 games last year, after the way they started the season. I put them here with the same record because they could go either way. If all goes very well, they could improve, and just maybe sustain that momentum through the whole season, and compete for the division. Or, things could go poorly, and they end up barely ahead of Houston. My biggest concern is the starting rotation. They had to replace Maholm, and I don’t think Erik Bedard was the right choice. He might work out. But, I have serious doubts. This pitching staff is the main reason the team plummeted the second half of the season. So, these guys have to pick it up. The offense is virtually the same, and the bullpen is pretty good with Hanrahan there to close. I don’t expect a banner year, but they could surprise me.
Surely Houston couldn’t play any worse than they did last year, right? Well, in spite of the fact that they traded away two of their best offensive (and defensive) weapons, I’m optimistic that they might not lose 100 games again. Barely. Big losses: Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne. Big additions: Jack Cust and Jed Lowrie – yippee. The Astros have one player that hit more than 6 home runs last season in the starting lineup (Carlos Lee), making it all too easy for pitchers to pitch around the single offensive threat that remains in Houston. Houston’s pitching staff is also one of the worst in baseball. While Wandy Rodriguez is good, he has yet to prove to be the ace everyone thought he would be (11-10 with a 4.39 ERA in 2011). The lone bright spot for the team might be the bullpen. They have a couple guys that look good, and Brandon Lyon (if healthy) could be a legit closer. But, what difference does it make if you’re already losing 5-0 by the time your best players get into the game? This team has fallen fast and hard since it’s World Series appearance in 2005.