NL Central Preview: Pirates fourth

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

With the 2012 season about to begin, it’s time to evaluate the MLB’s largest division: the National League Central. Last year, the Milwaukee Brewers won the division and the St. Louis Cardinals were the National League wild card, eventually going on to defeat the Texas Rangers in the World Series. With both teams losing their all-star first basemen — Prince Fielder for the Brewers and Albert Pujols for the Cardinals — the division is up for grabs. Let’s look at the NL Central in 2012 with my predictions for how it will finish.

First place, the St. Louis Cardinals

Following their World Series victory, the Cardinals have to cope with the loss of their star slugger, Pujols, and longtime manager, Tony La Russa. However, the Cardinals are getting their superstar starting pitcher Adam Wainwright back — he missed all of last season for Tommy John elbow surgery — and have signed all-star outfielder Carlos Beltran.

The Cardinals are also a veteran team, so adapting to a new manager should not be a challenge. The Cardinals have a strong lineup now, anchored by Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and great front-end starters Chris Carpenter and Wainwright. The question is how well the Cardinals’ bullpen can hold up and how this aging team plays in the field.

Second place, the Cincinnati Reds

While they were a pick to win the division last year, the Reds underperformed with many of their younger players failing to meet expectations. This year, they look to pick up where they left off in 2010 and make a strong playoff push. They did not make any big splashes in free agency, but do have several young prospects — such as catcher Devin Mesoraco — that are expected to make their major league debut sometime in the 2012 season.

Their addition of starting pitcher Mat Latos by trade from the San Diego Padres is a nice move as well. The Reds’ biggest strengths are their pitching rotation, power bats, and honorable manager Dusty Baker. However, their youth and inexperience makes consistency a challenge.

Third place, the Milwaukee Brewers

After winning their division last season, the Brewers had a hard off-season, losing Fielder to free agency and dealing with NL MVP Ryan Braun’s performance-enhancing drug scandal and the threat of losing him for 50 games. Thankfully for the Brewers, Braun won his suspension appeal and does not have to miss any games, but they are still going to struggle to replace Fielder both in the lineup and on the field.

They signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez to improve their defense and to fill the hole in their lineup. They still have a good lineup anchored by Braun and shortstop Corey Hart, as well as great pitching in starter Zack Greinke and closer John Axford, but the back end of the pitching rotation is very weak, and has had trouble staying healthy in the past.

Fourth place, the Pittsburgh Pirates

Although they were in contention at the all-star break last year, the Pirates finished the 2011 season with their 19th straight losing season. They have a lot of young talent and have tried to add some veteran help. But bad luck was bound to find the Pirates, as their newly acquired starting pitcher A.J. Burnett will now miss serious gametime, having broken an orbital bone after taking a bunted ball to his face.

Regardless, their success will ride on the ability of their young talent to reach their full potential. If centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and outfielder Garrett Jones can take a big step and produce at a higher offensive level next season, the sky is the limit for this young team. Their top prospects, catcher Ramon Cabrera and pitcher Jameson Taillon, could be potentially good pieces for the future.

Fifth place, the Chicago Cubs

The Cubs have the most embarrassing streak in the major leagues — no World Series wins in 103 years — and this year looks to be no different. As they add a new manager and general manager, this season is definitely more about rebuilding than winning. Shortstop Starlin Castro is expected to build on the great rookie season he had last year, and hopefully turn into a legitimate star.

The Cubs do not have many strengths, but the team has a few good prospects that may make debuts this year, such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has shown a lot of power in the minors. Regardless, the Cubs are in for a very long season with little promise of success now or in the near future.

Sixth place, Houston Astros

As bad as the Cubs may be, the Astros are worse. They are returning just two starting position players from their opening day roster last year: Carlos Lee, who is moving from left field to first base, and centerfielder Jason Bourgeois. The Astros do not have much in the way of young, promising prospects.

They are moving to the American League West after this upcoming season to balance out the two leagues, so this is the last season the rest of the NL Central can beat up on them. Their biggest strength is their recent sale to new owner Jim Crane. He will hopefully care more about winning than did their last owner and slowly work to turn this team around.