Shaun Marcum may make it to the playoffs afterall, even if he did have to go all the way to Milwaukee to do it.
The Brewers are removed from the national media spotlight. There arenít a lot of people picking them to do anything except keep the local sports pages warm for the return of the Packers.
In other words, theyíre in perfect position to sneak up on the Reds and St. Louis.
The Brewers plucked Marcum from the Blue Jays and along with Zack Greinke (acquired by general manager Doug Melvin from Kansas City in what some view as the biggest heist since Angelina stole Brad Pitt from Team Anniston) and Yovani Gallardo, it gives them the prime prerequisite for a contender: Three above-average starters.
Or, at least they will have when Greinkeís broken ribs heal and assuming Marcumís shoulder stiffness this spring doesnít turn complicated.
While the Brewers improved, the Reds took an ďif it isnít broke, donít fix it approachĒ and the Cardinals canít seem to find bandages quick enough.
That should give the Brewers a shot at only their second playoff appearance since 1982.
Marcum returned from Tommy John surgery last year to make 31 starts and throw almost 200 innings.
He had a 3.64 ERA pitching primarily against some of the best lineups in baseball in the AL East.
If Greinke comes anywhere near his expected Cy Young form, and if Marcum is even close to replicating the 12-2 record and 2.74 ERA he had against teams last year outside the AL East, it should be enough for the Brewers to overtake the Reds and Cardinals.
1. Milwaukee Brewers
(Third place in 2010, 77-85)
Potentially the best rotation in the division. Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder provide fireworks (100-plus homers last year). If thereís a fly in the ointment it could be in the bullpen. Trevor Hoffman went bust last year so John Axford has to continue to prove he can do the job. Takashi Saito was brought over from the Braves. Question is, can he stay healthy? Last year everything went right for the Reds; the Brewers need a similarly charmed season.
2. Cincinnati Reds
(First place in 2010, 91-71)
Negotiated long-term deals with Bronson Arroyo and will have a full season of Edinson Volquez (4-3, 4.31 ERA in 12 starts). Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman rounds solid staff but like the Brewers, thereís uncertainty in the bullpen where they lost Arthur Rhodes; a sensational 2.29 ERA in 69 games. He was a lock-down pitcher almost every other game and thatís almost impossible to replace.They had the most prolific offence in the league last year and fortune smiled on them. This spring, Johnny Cueto was shut down with shoulder inflammation. If good pitching beats good hitting they finish second. This is the year of everything Cheeseheads.
3. Chicago Cubs
(Fifth place in 2010, 75-87)
Two years ago the Cubs won 97 games. There was talk this cursed franchise had turned a corner ó only to be horribly crushed by the Redsí team bus. Cincinnati celebrated; the favored Cubs won just 83 games.Reason suggests a pitching staff of Carlos Zambrano (throwing in the 90s this spring), Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza (over from Tampa) gives them a chance to move up, especially if Andrew Cashner can move into the rotation after a promising spring. Kerry Wood (0.69 ERA, 24 games with the Yankees) has returned to the bullpen. The addition of Carlos Penaís left-handed power bat is a plus. So it doesnít look hopeless. And then you remember it often doesnít for the Cubs ... and, then the games start. Zambrano is just a brain cramp from being chased by guys in white coats; Wood has been carved by more surgeons than Joan Rivers and somewhere a witch doctor is sticking a pin into a likeness of Cubness.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
(Second place in 2010, 86-76)
Trouble, trouble, foiled & troubled; couldnít resign Albert Pujols long-term. Adam Wainwright blew out his elbow, Nick Punto busts a gut with a sports hernia. It leaves Chris Carpenter as the only proven go-to starter. That should make him trade bait by July. They did sign free agent Miguel Batista. He has been a starter, long reliever, setup man and closer which makes him either versatile or, depending how you look at these things, not good enough to keep any job long-term. Even for pitching guru Dave Duncan there seem too many pieces here to put back together.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
(Sixth place in 2010, 57-105)
The Pirates are good at one thing: Making money for ownership. The team is always profitable, never competitive. They have suffered 18 losing seasons, lost 105 games last year. This season they should at least be, well, not horrible. New manager Clint Hurdle has done a nice job bringing together some reclamation projects and prospects. Signing Kevin Corriea (13 wins in 2009) and Scott Olsen to deepen the rotation is a gamble but they could be a decent fix. Lyle Overbay could be the free agent bargain of the year if he has a bounce-back season. Actually, the Pirates best players remain in the minors. Still, this could be the start of something good. OK, maybe not good ó but, better. And, in Pittsburgh itís been a long time anyone could say that about its baseball team.
(Fifth place in 2010, 76-86)
There is nothing here to suggest this team isnít destined for a 100-loss season. Brandon Lyon is the closer for a team that has already let all of its best horses out the door. In full rebuilding mode, but the Astros donít have a lot at the top of the minor league system with which to fill the gaps.