NL Central: Where mediocrity flourishes

Slugger Carlos Beltran has joined the St. Louis Cardinals -- but he's no Albert Pujols. (GETTY...

Slugger Carlos Beltran has joined the St. Louis Cardinals -- but he's no Albert Pujols. (GETTY IMAGES)

Ken Fidlin, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:14 PM ET

DUNEDIN - In the hierarchy of Major League Baseball’s six divisions, it’s hard not to place the National League Central right at the bottom. Yes, we know the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and that the Milwaukee Brewers made it to the NLCS.

But the rest of baseball’s only six-team division? Not so much. The remaining four teams finished 92 games under .500 in 2011. In games played outside their division, NL Central teams won 226 and lost 270.

Now, after an off-season in which three of the division’s premier figures — Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Tony LaRussa — have moved on, there is no reason to believe that the NL Central will be better.

Both the Brewers and Cardinals have big gaps in their offences to fill. Between them, Pujols and Fielder hit 75 home runs, scored 200 runs, drove in 219 runs and had OBPs of .366 and .415, respectively.

The Cards hired free agent Carlos Beltran, but he’s no Albert Pujols. The Brewers installed Mat Gamels at first base in Fielder’s stead, not an even trade.

The departures leave a division in which two players stand out, Ryan Braun and Joey Votto. The Brewers still have reigning NL MVP Braun, fresh from an off-season scandal in which he avoided a 50-game suspension for an alleged breach of baseball’s performance-enhancing drug laws and even though he got off on a technicality, he’s going to have to get used to hearing about it in every park he plays this year, perhaps even at Miller Park.

Votto has become one of the most consistent offensive producers in the game. He and the Reds should be in a position of strength heading into the 2012 season, poised to take advantage of the losses sustained by their chief rivals, the Brewers and Cards.

Votto won’t be a free agent for two full seasons and he’s tiring of the constant speculation about where he will land on that faraway date.

“I’ve been a Red for 10 years now,” he said this week. “I don’t daydream about playing for another team. I don’t.”

The Toronto native wants to stay very much in the here and now.

“That’s the frustrating thing about contract talks: You have to look so far into the future,” Votto said. “I try not to do that. I try to stay in the present and enjoy myself.”

The here and now for Votto and the Reds could include a second NL Central title in the last three years.

FEARLESS FORECAST

Milwaukee Brewers

2011 Finish: First, 96-66

Prince Fielder is gone, and that is a big hole in the lineup, but the Brewers still have some firepower.

They signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez, a consistent offensive threat, away from the Cubs. They have Ryan Braun, Cory Hart, Rickie Weeks and newly signed catcher Jonathan Lucroy to keep opposing pitchers honest.

They also have a solid rotation, with Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. Port Dover’s John Axford anchors a strong bullpen.

2011 Prediction: First, 91-71

Cincinnati Reds

2011 Finish: Third, 79-83

The Reds were dealt a severe blow this week when their biggest free-agent acquisition, Ryan Madsen, blew out his elbow and is lost for the season. Even with that setback, the Reds seem poised to bounce back from a down season in 2011 and regain the division title they won in 2010.

They improved their starting rotation with the addition of Matt Latos, who joins Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake in a solid rotation.

Sean Marshall, acquired from the Cubs as a set-up man, will be moved into the closer role, at least for now.

Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce complement Joey Votto in an offence that should do plenty of damage in this weak division.

2012 Prediction: Second, 89-73.

St. Louis Cardinals

2011 Finish: Second, 90-72

The fairy-tale finish to the Cardinals’ 2011 season defied all odds. In late August, they were 10.5 games out of the wild-card race, but went 23-9 in their final 32 games to nip the Braves on the final day. They then beat the Phils, the Brewers and, ultimately, the Rangers in seven games to win the World Series.

Now they embark on a defence of that title without Pujols, without LaRussa and with serious questions regarding the health of their starting rotation. Pujols has been the best hitter in baseball over the last 10 years and is, in any honest evaluation, irreplaceable. The best they can hope for is to make do without him.

2012 Prediction: Third, 86-76

Pittsburgh Pirates

2011 Finish, Fourth 72-90

There are signs of life in the Pirates organization, largely due to the $47.6 million the Pirates have spent on the last four draft classes.

Unfortunately, pitchers such as Gerritt Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, plus outfielders Josh Bell and Starling Marte, are nowhere near ready yet.

So there is every reason to believe 2011 will be yet another losing season, which would tally up to 20 sub-.500 seasons in succession. One of the lone bright spots on offence is Andrew McCutcheon, who just signed a six-year, $51.5 extension.

2012 Prediction: Fourth, 75-87

Chicago Cubs

2011 Finish: Fifth, 71-91

If the Cubs match their 2011 record at 20 games under .500 in Theo Epstein’s first year as team president, he will be ecstatic. More than likely, they will struggle hugely for a couple of seasons before Epstein’s draft strategy starts to produce talent.

This is a total rebuild, constructed around young talent such as shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Bryan LaHair.

One day, Epstein may stand as the greatest executive in history by ending the droughts in both Boston (86 years) and the north side of Chicago (currently 103 years). Suffice to say, it won’t be this year.

2011 Prediction: Fifth, 69-93

Houston Astros

2011 Finish: Sixth, 56-106

This will be Houston’s last season in the National League and they will be fortunate to escape without the albatross of a second consecutive 100-loss season around their necks.

They will join the American League next season. New owner Jim Crane paid $680 million to take the Astros off the hands of Drayton McLean, but got a $65-million payout from MLB to agree to move to the AL, creating two 15-team leagues starting next season.

The only names anyone would recognize on this roster are Brett Myers and Carlos Lee and GM Jeff Luhnow would be thrilled if he could unload either or both of them.

2012 Prediction: Sixth, 60-102

 

 

 


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