Three teams to contend in the NL Central
The first pitch won’t be thrown for another three hours. The grounds crew is still prepping the field. Players haven’t yet begun to make their way out of the clubhouse for batting practice. Yet the parking lots at Miller Park are filling up with cars. Fans have waited in line for two hours to get their favorite parking spot. It’s Opening Day in Milwaukee. The experience is like no other in baseball. Fans turn acres of asphalt into their own personal grilling stations. They’ve waited for this day since last October. Tailgating has become as much an annual tradition as the game itself. Drivers on the freeways surrounding Miller Park can see the haze from the collection of grills and know that a Brewer game is on tap for that afternoon.
As fans gather around grills before the first game, they also predict how teams will finish. Each team begins the season with a clean slate. The 2011 season is a thing of the past. With two of the game’s premier sluggers leaving for the American League, the National League Central is as wide open as any in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals should all contend for the title well into September. Their order of finish has yet to be determined, but with the addition of a second Wild Card team, it’s possible that all three could wind up in the playoffs.
The Cardinals are the defending World Series Champions and have most of the pieces necessary to again make the post season. The team lost the cornerstone of its franchise when Albert Pujols signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels. However, the Cardinals do return much of their starting lineup from last season. Lance Berkman will take over for Pujols at first base and Carlos Beltran was signed to play right field. Last year’s trade deadline acquisition, Rafael Furcal gives the Cardinals an excellent defensive shortstop while left fielder Matt Holliday looks to rebound from a 2011 season that saw him miss 38 games with injury.
Adam Wainwright returns to the Cardinals rotation after missing all of last season with Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He will pair with Chris Carpenter to give the Cardinals a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Carpenter, who compiled a 4-0 record in the 2011 playoffs, will begin the 2012 season on the Disabled List. When healthy, Carpenter is a perennial Cy Young candidate. The Cardinal bullpen remains largely unchanged from the unit that helped to propel the Cardinals to a World Series win in 2011. Closer Jason Motte, who dominated against the Phillies and Brewers in the playoffs, will be given the opportunity fulfill that role for the entire season.
Like the Cardinals, the Central Division Champion Milwaukee Brewers must also replace an All Star first baseman. The departure of Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers leaves a large hole in the team’s lineup. Mat Gamel, the heir apparent to Fielder, has had a productive Spring Training. The 26 year old lead the team in both home runs and RBI while playing a solid defensive first base. The Brewers acquired Aramis Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez to shore up a left side of the infield that had previously featured two players with very limited range. Ramirez will also occupy the fourth spot in a batting order will look very similar to the one used by manager Ron Roenicke in 2011. Left fielder Ryan Braun will look to duplicate a 2011 season that earned him the National League MVP. The Brewers essentially chose Braun over Prince Fielder when the team signed Braun to a contract extension during the 2011 season. Braun should reward the team with another MVP caliber season.
The Brewers bring back all five members of their starting rotation. Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson will look to continue the successes of the 2011 campaign. The group had a combined record of 70 wins and 41 losses. Gallardo lead the team with 17 victories while Greinke was second with 16. Marcum, who struggled in the playoffs, must return to the pitcher who posted an 11-3 record through the first four months of last season. If Marcum and the rest of the Brewer starters can reach the seventh inning, opponents must then face Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth inning and John Axford in the ninth. Axford recorded a club record 46 saves in 2011.
The Cincinnati Reds were a disappointment in 2011. Picked by some to win the division, the Reds finished the season two games below .500 at 79-83. As the Reds look to rebound in 2012, they will undoubtedly lean heavily on a trio of All Star position players. Joey Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, recently signed a 10-year, 225 million dollar contract extension. Votto will be counted on to reproduce the kind of numbers that have made him one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League. Brandon Phillips, who is widely regarded as one of baseball’s top second baseman, provides home run power from the leadoff spot. Rightfielder Jay Bruce has increased his home runs totals in each of his four major league seasons. The Reds will also hope to get production out of 37 year old third baseman, Scott Rolen. Rolen was hampered by shoulder problems in 2011 and only appeared in 65 games.
The Reds acquired Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres in an attempt to add another quality starting pitcher to their rotation. Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and Homer Bailey make up the rest of the Red’s starting staff. Each was solid, yet unspectacular in 2011. Cueto proved to be the most effective Reds starter. Despite starting the season on the Disabled List, Cueto was able to post 9 wins with 3 complete games and 1 shutout. He had a WHIP of 1.09 and an ERA of 2.31. The Reds bullpen was dealt a blow in Spring Training when newly acquired Ryan Madson tore a ligament in his right elbow. The former Phillie, who was slated to be the Reds closer, is lost for the season. His replacement is former Cub, Sean Marshall, has 7 career saves. The wildcard in the Reds bullpen is Aroldis Chapman. The highly touted Chapman regularly surpasses 100 mph on his fast ball yet often struggles with his control.
The National League Central will be a three team race. The remaining teams in the division, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have neither the talent nor the depth to compete for the title. The 2012 season for the Houston Astros, which is the team’s last in the National League, could go down as one of the worst in baseball history. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team on the rise, but will not be able to compete with the top teams in the division. Chicago’s “Lovable Losers” will be a solid team. However, a lack of consistent offense will prevent the Cubs moving past the Reds, Cardinals or Brewers.
Here’s myprojected finish for the National League Central:
It’s Opening Day 2012. The marathon that is the baseball season begins in early April and does not end until October. Fans across the country begin the season with high hopes for their team’s success. When the final pitch of the World Series is thrown, only one team will end the year with a victory. But for now, every team is a contender. So set those grills ready and don’t forget your game tickets. Baseball is back and soon we will all hear those two magical words: Play Ball.
By: Scott Kasten