Earlier this off-season, I previewed the three MLB teams favored to win the 2011 World Series (the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies). With pitchers and catchers getting set to report to Spring Training, it’s time to kick-off a four-part preview of what I believe is the most competitive division in baseball, the National League Central.
The NL Central has four teams that have a shot at winning the division or contending for the wild card. The St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs all have either high-end pitching or pitching depth and enough offense or defense to win the 90 games or so it will take to win the division.
The difference between the top and bottom of the ladder will come down to razor-thin advantages that develop during the season, such as team health, superstar health, breakout performances, collapse performances, and plain old good and bad luck. Today, we start with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Off-Season Moves: The Cardinals did well in bringing back Jake Westbrook on a two-year deal and took a potential, high-upside risk on Lance Berkman on a one-year deal. They also hoped to improve their offensive production from shortstop by trading away defensive wizard Brendan Ryan and trading for Ryan Theriot.
Strengths: The Cardinals have a strong rotation 1-4, and the division’s best 1-2 punch in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter (although Milwaukee may disagree–more on them later this week). Their pitchers keep the ball on the ground and in the ballpark with a heavy diet of sinkers, cutters and two-seamers (thanks to pitching coach Dave Duncan).
Offensively, this team may have four, plus-plus offensive players (.900 OPS-types) led by the incomparable Albert Pujols. He will be surrounded and protected by Matt Holliday, Berkman and Colby Rasmus. The Cardinals are hoping Berkman, now 35, will be healthy and closer to his career numbers (.296/.409/.545) than his 2010 numbers (.248/.368/.410).
The guy I am expecting big things from is Colby Rasmus (pictured), who got into some trouble last season when he voiced his frustration for not getting to play enough. The 24-year-old center fielder has breakout super star written all over him. He has power and patience and he showed last season he could handle left-handed pitching (.270/.349/.461). Play this man!
Weaknesses: Their bullpen is mediocre, anchored by the mediocre Ryan Franklin, who fits into the Bob Wickman mold of closers — throwing sinkers but not strikeouts. They should be playable, however, because Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa have a way of managing pitching staffs that overachieve.
Beyond Pujols, the Cards will get no power out of their infield. Theriot, Skip Schumaker, David Freese and Yadier Molina combined for 17 home runs last season. I sure hope they can field.
Summary: With all of their groundball pitching, defensive execution in the infield will be critical to their staff as their outfield defense will be poor, between Holliday and Berkman. However, the high-end talent on this team stands out above the rest with Pujols, Wainwright, Carpenter and Holliday, with Rasmus and Berkman as potential, major contributors. I predict 90 wins, making them a slight favorite over the other three teams.Google+