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The National League Central has gone through a massive facelift that will continue next year with the removal of the Houston Astros. It began last season with the perennial doormats in Pittsburgh showing signs of life on Mars and carried over into the winter with the beautiful bat of Albert Pujols and the massive power and girth of Prince Fielder leaving for the American League. So, after the fallout, where do the teams fall?

The Houston Astros are simply the worst team in baseball. As much as I want to bash my Minnesota Twins and their god-awful management, the Astros are even worse.

Their idiot manager has moved Brett Myers (their second best starter) to the closer role which leaves me and a lot of people smarter than I am shaking our heads. This isn’t only a curious move for the team, but it destroys Myers’ trade value. Brandon Lyon is a former closer who now will be a setup man with Wilton Lopez.

The rest of the pen is filled with righties David Carpenter, Lucas Harrell and Henry Sosa, who failed in the rotation last year, and lefty Wesley Wright. They aren’t exactly going to strike fear into the hearts of batters. Juan Abreu struck out two batters per inning last year but that came in a very small sample size. He’s another bullpen option, but at age 26, he’s starting to lose any “prospect” to his status. And Rule 5 pick Rhiner Cruz will see innings in the pen, yet another arm who does not inspire a lot of hope.

Livan Hernandez, who greeted Columbus when he first came to America, is going to battle with Jordan Lyles and eventually Paul Clemens for spots in the rotation.

Wandy Rodriguez has been rumored to be headed anywhere but Houston in trades for at least two seasons, but he’s defied the odds and stuck around. Frankly he’s a number three starter on a good team and a four on a great team, so having him as the defacto ace of the Astros kind of shows the levels to which this team has sunk. Bud Norris has a lot of potential and is easily the Astros’ best pitcher. Crazily, I’ve heard his name mentioned in some places as a trade possibility now because he “probably” has more trade value than Rodriguez does. However, trying to put Bud Norris in a Mat Latos style trade makes me think of Chris Farley‘s  “fat man in a little suit” bit from Tommy Boy. J.A. Happ was the top prospect Houston received in trading Roy Oswalt to the Phillies. He will be the third starter.

Houston is terrible, but at least the roster has youth going for it. The lineup, according to www.mlbdepthcarts.com, has Jordan Schafer leading off and playing center field. Second baseman Jose Altuve, who is 22, bats second followed by leftfielder JD Martinez, who is 24.

Payroll leader Carlos Lee plays first base and bats cleanup. Brian Bogusevic plays right and bats fifth while newly-acquired Jed Lowrie will play shortstop and bat sixth.

The order is rounded out by Jimmy Paredes, who is only 23 and has been given the third base gig, and by Chris Snyder, who was signed away from the Pirates to start at catcher.

One interesting offseason acquisition I would consider bringing up for a look is former Mets prospect Fernando Martinez. I’d also do everything in my power to trade Carlos Lee’s huge contract and get top prospect Jonathan Singleton in the lineup even, if he isn’t ready just yet. If the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers weren’t down from last year I’d predict the Astros would win 45 games this year. But they will get to beat up on the Chicago Cubs and should be able to take a few games here and there when teams are playing their backups. Houston goes 54-108.

The Chicago Cubs made a lot of headlines for getting baseball’s greatest executive guru Theo Epstein this offseason, but outfielder David DeJesus and pitcher Paul Maholm were the two biggest acquisitions on the field.

That is not inspiring. So, before I even get to breaking down this terrible team, I say they win 58 games, and remind your grandparents why being a Cubs fan is a lot like cancer of the soul.

Where do I start with this train wreck? Geovany Soto is a very good catcher with good power as proven by his 68 homers as an every day catcher over the last four years. But two of the last three years he couldn’t hit his weight (okay, he hit .228 and only weighs in at 220 pounds, but still!). Welington Castillo is a prospect and if Epstein can move Soto, Castillo will benefit, but will the Cubs?

Bryan LaHair has shown massive power in the minors. He had 38 doubles and 38 homers last year. He has been battling Anthony Rizzo, another potential power hitter (24 homers at AAA last season) the Cubs acquired via trade, for the first base job.

Darwin Barney is the second baseman. In researching Barney, my favorite comment came from ESPN: “Don’t overrate Barney looking strictly at full-season 2011 statistics. He has the skill set of a major league reserve infielder, his .238/.286/.328 triple-slash rates after the All-Star break…” That tells me everything to me that I needed to know. He has no power and, at his best, could be a younger Nick Punto. More likely for you long-time Cubs fans think of Ivan DeJesus playing second instead of shortstop. Starlin Castro is adequate at shortstop and Ian Stewart could have a breakout season at third base, as he has at least the first half of the season all to himself before prospect Josh Vitters enters the picture.

David DeJesus will be the rightfielder, Marlon Byrd the centerfielder — and the most overpaid player in baseball Alfonso Soriano will be butchering fly balls again in left field until Epstein can either give him away or just buy him out to save baseball fans all over the country from watching his abilities erode faster than a Japanese Bullet-train while maintaining his unwillingness to learn how to properly play the game. Matthew Szczur will hopefully be replacing him and giving Cubs fans some reason for hope.

Matt Garza is a B-level Ace, or very good number two or three pitcher who is stuck leading a rotation into battle. Luckily the Cubs were able to give away Carlos Zambrano, so that means the pitching staff will most likely be battling the opponents and not themselves, each other, the coaches, and possibly the fans. Ryan Dempster is undervalued as a starter. Paul Maholm is going to be good for 175-plus innings as a lefty and he offers a nice contrast as a pitch-to-contact guy, compared to Garza and Dempster, who will give up homers-by-contact. Randy Wells and Chris Volstad finish the starting five.

Carlos Marmol is another very talented head-case and is likely to be traded as soon as possible. Kerry Wood should be chasing his fourth Cy Young award and closing in on 2800 strikeouts and 200 wins right now while pushing for the Hall of Fame, but life isn’t fair. He’s been Mr. Everything to the Cubs from prospect to savior, and from ace to closer. He was also a whipping boy for a while as well, and now he’s towards the end of a solid, but not spectacular career. I’ll never know what it’s like to have that kind of potential and not be able to live up to it, but hopefully the millions he’s been able to make as a reliever have been a good source of solace for him.

Scott Maine and James Russell are the lefties in the bullpen. Jeff Samardzija, Marcos Mateo and Lendy Castillo make up the other locks. Andy Sonnanstine also could get a look.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team on the rise, but the improvement is going to come at a slower ark than what last year’s first half glimpse showed. The lineup is still pretty young and I’d have liked to see them bring in a solid veteran besides Clint Barmes for the lineup. Jose Tabata in right field is one of the hidden gems in baseball. A former top Yankees prospect, Tabata has turned into a very good outfielder and a good hitter — now if he can only stay healthy.

Andrew McCutchen is a STUD. Last year he battled some injuries and his first taste of any sort of real pressure when the Pirates were a factor in the Central Division, and he showed a flair for dealing with them well. He’s going to be 25 this year and a 30 homer, 30 steal year is not out of the question. What might be more interesting is I could see him with 30 doubles, 10 triples, 30 homers, 100 RBI, 35 steals and 75 walks while batting at least .290 without stretching his numbers or overestimating his capabilities. I don’t think he’s quite at the same level as Matt Kemp of the Dodgers yet, but McCutchen is the most complete ball player in the Central Division. I know they are the Pirates, but he alone is worth the price of admission.

Garrett Jones is pretty much what he is now – a 20 homer guy who plays mediocre defense and produces a low batting average. Casey McGehee was brought in to back up Jones and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who has not produced offensively like they thought he would. Neil Walker could be on the verge of becoming a stud second baseman. His glove is good, his hands are fast he has good pop that should get better as he matures into his body. Had Tabata not been hurt so much of last year, Walker and McCutchen could both have driven in 100 RBI. The last time the Pirates had two players do that was when Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds were helping produce division championships.

Another player the Pirates hope they will have for a full season is Alex Presley, who showed some signs both offensively and defensively of being a player. I don’t want to bring back sad memories from the days of Andy VanSlyke, Bonilla and Bonds, but this is easily the best outfield they’ve had since that trio roamed Three Rivers Stadium.

Rod Barajas is a healthy replacement for Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder. He has good pop in his bat for an old man, but he’s cheating on pitches to do it which is destroying his batting average. But 15 bombs and a solid game called by your catcher is something a lot of teams wouldn’t complain about.

I’d love to see the Pirates break the .500 mark for the first time this century, but the rotation just isn’t quite there yet. AJ Burnett (once he comes back from a fractured eye socket) and Erik Bedard are reclamation projects. Charlie Morton is coming back from a hip injury, Jeff Karstens is a pitch-to-contact guy who had an excellent year in 2011, but this is the kind of pitcher who could go from 3.38 to 5.00 in the blink of an eye because hitters don’t always get themselves out. At 29, he pretty much is what he is going to be … a fifth starter.

James McDonald showed massive potential when the Pirates picked him up from the Dodgers in 2010, but the innings seemed to wear him down last year. Depending on the shape he’s in this year it could be a make or break season. At 27 he’s either going to explode, or implode. If he stays the same it just makes him a bottom of the rotation guy hanging on.

Joel Hanrahan is a solid closer, Jason Grilli went from flame-thrower to flame-out to very good setup pitcher. Evan Meek and Chris Resop are a nice contrast. Daniel McCutchen and Daniel Moskos round out a better than average bullpen. I see 78-84 for the Pirates this year.

The Milwaukee Brewers pull off some of the gutsiest pitching moves of any team in baseball and it always makes this team interesting. Home grown ace Yovani Gallardo couples with former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke to make a very nice top two. Randy Wolf is a very capable lefty; Shaun Marcum has excellent stuff and just needs to put it all together and Chris Narveson has above average stuff.

It might be the best rotation in the division. Might isn’t enough to win the division, though the Brewers do have some depth and ammo waiting in the wings. Wily Peralta, Cody Scarpetta and Michael Fiers could give the Brewers the prospects they would need to acquire a bat – something they’ll probably need to make a run this season.

John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez make a nice one-two punch at the back of the bullpen. Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, Manny Parra, Brandon Kintzler, Marco Estrada and Santo Manzanillo are all going to compete for bullpen roles. Manzanillo especially could be a sleeper for the team’s 2012 hopes.

On offense, the Brewers are fairly well rounded. Nyjer Morgan is insane, but he’s come into his own as a leadoff hitter, and base stealer. Rickie Weeks should be back toward the top of the lineup. He has developed into more of a power hitter and less of a base stealer as his career has progressed. He cheats a bit too much to hit the homers. They don’t come as naturally to him as one would think and his lack of run production – 20 homers and 49 RBI last year – is just bizarre, even in the National League. He should be good for 25 homers, 25 to 30 doubles and 65 RBI if he’s leading off or 75-plus RBI if they move him down to the five hole, where he may belong since he strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough.

Ryan Braun, who has been through many story lines this offseason, follows Weeks. Aramis Ramirez brings his glove and his 30 homer capabilities to third base and the Brewers hope that he and Matt Gamel can replace the production of Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee. My guess is they don’t.

Corey Hart will wear his sunglasses in right field. Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez and Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate make up the rest of the lineup. Norichika Aoki, who was signed from Japan, and speed demon Carlos Gomez give Milwaukee a deep defensive outfield. It would not surprise me if this team took a huge step back, but I have a gut feeling they stay in the race at about 83-79.

The St. Louis Cardinals get former Cy Young award winner Adam Wainwright back to partner with veteran ace Chris Carpenter at the top of the rotation. Wainwright is coming back from Tommy John surgery, and Carpenter is recovering from a minor spring training injury. He may miss the first week or two of the season, but Jaime Garcia should be able to step in nicely for the short term. Kyle Lohse has been a good anchor in the fourth spot. Jake Westbrook is scheduled to be the fifth starter.

Roy Oswalt talk has been going on all offseason. Talk could become reality if the Cardinals open the checkbook. But St. Louis also has a lot of top prospects striving to get to the majors and, if the Cardinals fall behind early in the season, a Wainwright trade would make some sense.

Jason Motte was a savior for the Cards all year, not just as a closer in the post season. He’s likely to man that role this year. Hot prospect Eduardo Sanchez will be his setup man alongside “the Alphabet” Marc Rzepczynski. Fernando Salas and fellow righty Kyle McClellan will do the bulk of the seventh inning work. Lefty JC Romero and Mitchell Boggs are more situational guys who can strike batters out. Scott Linebrink is a solid veteran fighting for a spot, and could be the long reliever. Victor Marte is trying to make the team as well, but he’s a long shot. Lance Lynn could find his way onto the roster, either in the rotation or the pen, before the season ends. He is a huge, hard-throwing 24-year-old who made the Cardinals’ postseason roster last year as a reliever, but he has been a starter throughout his minor league career.

The lineup without Albert Pujols is still solid, but Mount Olympus without Zeus seems wrong. In true media spin I’ve read some say that the Cards won’t miss Pujols’ bat “much” but that’s a hard sell. Rafael Furcal came in and played good defense and became a huge upgrade last season offensively. He’s back to maintain the shortstop position. Lance Berkman will move back to first base where he’s better suited, despite his having had an amazing 2011 season. David Freese was the MVP of the World Series. If he can capitalize on that and take his game up another level consistently, it would help greatly reduce the Pujols crater.

Matt Holliday should be healthy and raring to go and newcomer Carlos Beltran provides some power, some speed and an upgrade defensively in right field. As the number two hitter in the lineup, he won’t drive in a ton of runs, but this lineup is designed to turn over often. For the price (2-years, $26 million) Beltran had better produce, but I’m not sure he will. Jon Jay in center field, however, could have a monster season. All he needs to do is improve his discipline at the plate and he could go from a .290 hitter to a .320 hitter with a .350-plus on-base percentage. He could be their leadoff hitter of the future while playing excellent defense in center.

The word catcher should be written in gold. Yadier Molina is simply outstanding. He’s a good clutch hitter and one of the best defensive signal callers in all of baseball. Second baseman Daniel Descalso is replacing Nick Punto. Provided he stays alive all season he will be a huge upgrade offensively and he’s very solid defensively. I don’t see him being drafted in many if any fantasy drafts, but he’s a solid player.

Re-signing Skip Schumaker was an excellent move because he can fill in at all three outfield spots and will battle for the second base job. If the team is healthy and if the Cardinals can get past losing future Hall of Famers in Pujols, who also was super in the community, and manager Tony LaRussa, my prediction is 86-76.

The Cincinnati Reds are my pick to win the division with an 88-74 record.

One of the key players I keep coming back to is shortstop Zack Cozart, who showed flashes of brilliance in the minors and was finally being given the starting gig last year when he ended up out for the season with an injury to his non-throwing elbow. His Tommy John Surgery was successful and he will be back to compete in spring training. I think he not only gets the gig, but he is my odds on favorite for 2012 rookie of the year.

Paul Janish one of last year’s middle infielders is also fighting for the spot, but he hasn’t shown much in his four years. Cozart’s middle-infield partner, Brandon Phillips, is an offensive force at second base. He’s a complete package with power, speed, glove, and he can get on base. He’s a lot less likely to steal at this point in time in his career, but he’s an excellent double play partner for the young shortstop.

Joey Votto has been the subject of trade rumors all offseason. But the Reds traded Yonder Alonso in the offseason and prospect Neftali Soto is not close to ready for the big leagues yet, so I think it would be a mistake. Votto is a force at first base. While veteran Scott Rolen has lost two or three steps at third base, he is still capable of winning a gold glove, even as he approaches the end of his career. He will also hit for power and drive in runs.

Ryan Hanigan behind the plate will be fighting with prospect Devin Mesoraco. Jay Bruce is an excellent left-handed bat in right field. Chris Heisey was penciled in lightly in left field, but he has little room for error as the Reds brought in veteran leftfielder Ryan Ludwick to compete with him. Drew Stubbs will be in center field. Stubbs needs to let go of his inner Adam Dunn, 205 strikeouts for a guy with 15 to 20 homer power is ridiculous. That has to be cut in half. His speed is excellent, however. Stubbs had 40 steals last year and has been successful on 80 of 100 attempts over nearly three years in the league.

His 5.2 Wins Above Replacement rating offensively and 2.0 defensively were excellent in 2010. Last year likely was an aberration and he should rebound, but even if he doesn’t his numbers at the bottom of the lineup are dangerous and his defense is spectacular.

On the mound for the Reds, it’s a tossup as to who is the better young pitching talent: Johnny Cueto or Mat Latos. Luckily in Cincy they don’t have to worry because they will be the best duo in the division for a long time. Latos is more polished, but Cueto has amazing stuff, and when he figures it all out he could be the best pitcher the Reds have had since a healthy Jose Rijo.

Latos isn’t going to be Tom Seaver, but he’s a bonafide ace, and he just turned 24. Bronson Arroyo of the straight leg kick and weird hair is the third starter. Mike Leake is a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. Homer Bailey is scheduled to be the fifth starter. Aroldis Chapman is the question mark, as he is making the transition to the rotation, and Jeff Francis also was brought in to compete for a spot at the bottom of the rotation.

Ryan Madson was brought in from Philadelphia to be the closer, but he tore a ligament in his elbow and will miss the season. Lefty Sean Marshall was an excellent pickup from the Cubs. He had been slated to be the setup man, but could now be pressed into the closer role. Chapman is also a possibility as Madson’s replacement, according to ESPN.

Nick Masset is also going to be an 8th inning guy. Bill Bray is a solid reliever dealing with some injuries, but is a lock if he’s not put on the disabled list. Jose Arredondo, Logan Ondrusek and Sam LeCure will likely make up the rest of the pen.

Other division previews:
National League West
National League East
American League West
American League Central
American League East

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4 Responses to BBP Says: National League Central Preview

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  • Brad says:

    The Reds situation has dramatically changed. Madsen is out for the year, Chapman is going back to the pen with Marshall closing. Arrandondo should benefit most from this if Chapman is used in a setup role. I think that would be a mistake as he has a rubber cannon and I would like to see 100+ innings out of him.

  • Mike Stermel says:

    Heh. I would blame Ed Wade for the Astros debacle. He helped build the Phillies in the early ’00s, and after he got to Houston, he’s tried his damdest to help the Phillies some more.

    Myers was the closer here for one season, in ’07…the bridge between Wagner and Lidge (more ex-Astros) He did ok as a closer but was half-decent starter if he concentrated. Honestly, a closer on a crappy team is a needless luxury,,,maybe they think they are actually raising his value if he’s does well again as a closer.

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