Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on standings and award-winners. Up next is the NL Central.
David Brown: Hey, 'Duk! The people liked our AL East preview so much, Yahoo! Sports wants us to do another. To keep everyone on their toes, I say let's switch over to the senior circuit (the National League) and give the Central Division a look. This division just keeps on giving — it's six teams long, covering all of middle America — and we couldn't be prouder of it.
Let's see ... A year ago at this time, we were wondering how in the heck anyone was going to beat the Chicago Cubs, who were going for a three-peat. The "mighty Cubs"? Who were we kidding? They reverted to mediocrity and the St. Louis Cardinals ruled the roost. This season, Tony La Russa's Redbirds, fungo bats at the ready, will have Matt Holliday(notes) for a whole season. They have two Cy Young candidates. And they have, of course, the game's best robot player, Albert Pujols(notes). A right-handed Ted Williams! The Cincinnati Reds seem to be the chic pick of some, but what chances do you think the Redlegs, Milwaukee Brewers or even the Cubs have of evicting St. Louis from their first-place nest?
'Duk: If the 2009 Cubs didn't teach us a good lesson, the 2009-10 Kansas Jayhawks certainly did. No matter how much of a lock a team seems, there is always a slew of injuries, underachieving seasons from sophomore catchers or a rag-tag team from Northern Iowa lying in the weeds, poised and ready to make us all look like idiots.
Having said that, I think every expert has the Cardinals listed as the easiest chalk pick across the six divisions and I'm not smart enough to disagree. Do I have concerns about Ryan Franklin(notes) in the closer's role, the back of Albert Pujols and a starting rotation that's counting on big things from Brad Penny(notes) and Kyle Lohse(notes)? You bet your arch I do.
But I also think the Cardinals possess the least questions among the half-dozen NL Central squads and I remember that Chris Carpenter(notes)/Adam Wainwright duo was as good as good gets in 2009. All of our feelings about the increasingly-cranky Tony La Russa aside, are you really willing to bet he'll be taken down by a Dusty Baker-led Reds squad? Not happening.
DB: The Cardinals might be the chalk, but it's that short chalk that's broken off and you can't hold it very well and you want to switch to the longer chalk. Nothing against Brendan Ryan(notes), of course. Also, I should say I'm not in deep like with the likes of Cincy's chalk, either. The Redlegs have the starting pitching to keep them in games, even if they don't take Aroldis Chapman(notes) with them immediately and even though Edison Volquez is gone for the season. But who's going to supply enough offense? Jay Bruce(notes) has to hit better than whatever that was last year. What is Drew Stubbs(notes) going to do for real? Can Jonny Gomes'(notes) Mohawk transfer over some Rays mojo? What's up with Chris Dickerson(notes)? I wouldn't be surprised if they contended but I ain't pickin' ‘em for anything other than a solid choice for runner-up.
'Duk: C'mon, the Reds are as solid a second-place pick as the pudding cup I'm planning to eat with my lunch. That doesn't mean they won't compete for one of baseball's biggest booby prizes, but I've learned from my past of foolishly predicting that Dusty will figure a way to manage both the young and old in Queen City. On the bright side, Aaron Harang(notes) will be pitching for a new contract, Joey Votto's(notes) on the cusp on becoming an elite hitter (if he isn't there already) and the rest of that infield — Scott Rolen(notes)-Orlando Cabrera-Brandon Phillips(notes) — has some good experience. I still think the second-place scraps will be a creaky and ugly I-94 battle between the Brewers and the Cubs, though.
DB: What if I told you no, Kevin? What if I told you, no, no, no to the Cubs and Brewers? The Cubs are already struggling with nagging injuries — some of which they signed KNOWING they were hurt (Xavier Nady(notes)).
In fact, I think this season has major implosion written all over it. Lou Piniella won't make it through the season, it will be so bad. He and Matt Sinatro will get lost on the way to the park one day, and they'll just keep driving and no one will ever hear from them again. Alfonso Soriano(notes) has been an all-time bust in left field. Carlos Zambrano(notes) cannot be trusted. Ted Lilly's(notes) arms and legs are falling off, and he's going to need some of them. I've had enough of the ex-LSU double play combination of Ryan Theriot(notes) and Mike Fontenot(notes). Derrek Lee(notes) just had a semi-career season, so it's time for him to shrink to .270 with 20 homers. Let's say that Carlos Marmol(notes) is great as a closer, and there are probably three people on the planet who trust in this. The rest of the bullpen is embarrassingly bad and/or untested. Piniella will be pulling his hair out before April's over and, by July, there will be a new guy in the dugout. Disastrous, I tell you! And the Brewers? Well, I need a nap before I can talk about them.
'Duk: That's certainly some doomsday scenario you've painted for the Northsiders there, Dave, and perhaps we should move if you really think there's a good chance of it happening. Locusts really bring down property values, you know.
But look, I'm not arguing that either of these teams will make the playoffs. I'm arguing that they have a good shot at second place in the NL Central, which could well be achieved with something like an 80-82 record. I know the Brewers have 42 fourth starters on their roster and I know that the Cubs' owners are currently more interested in maintaining communal urinals and erecting gaudy-looking advertisements, but that doesn't change the fact they're playing a schedule loaded with games against the Astros, Pirates and, yes, even the Reds. I know I'm not constructing an airtight argument that will win me a Pulitzer here, but the comforts of playing in the NL Central can sadly be good enough for a mediocre team looking to be better than they are.
DB: There is a good chance most of the division will be the race for most of the season — which is what Bud Selig probably wants to see. He probably won't like the Brewers finishing behind the Pirates, which is what I want to predict. The Bucs will finish below .500 for the 18th straight time — some things cannot be helped — but they will be closer to .500 than the Astros and maybe the Brewers (though the presence of Yovani Gallardo(notes) probably prevents that). If Pittsburgh can get mediocre pitching out of Zach Duke(notes), Ross Ohlendorf(notes) and Paul Maholm(notes), and Lastings Milledge(notes) and Andy LaRoche(notes) reach their mediocre potential, this team can be positively mediocre! No last place! First time since '06! ... However, the longer I stare at their depth chart, the less confident I get. Can we move along before I put them back in the basement?
'Duk: No, let's have you re-read that pitiful justification you just made by using players like Duke and Maholm — they're nice pieces, but they're far from rotation leaders or core building blocks — and then you can put those Buccos in the basement where they belong. Just make sure you handle Andrew McCutchen(notes) with care. He's a keeper.
However, if you want to put the Astros in last place, I won't entirely stop you from venturing out onto that limb. All GM Ed Wade has done is set up a stable of old ex-Phillies to keep company with some of his other old-timers in his stable. I liked the breakout season from Wandy Rodriguez(notes) in 2009 and Hunter Pence(notes) is putting together a nice career, but if you're asking me to place a bet on the wheels falling off a cart in the NL Central, I'm going to lay it down on those 'Stros.
DB: Why can't more than one team have the wheels fall off the cart? That's all I'm saying. I don't care for the monstrosity that Ed Wade put together in Houston, either. Lance Berkman's(notes) already hurt. That's all I need to know about the Astros. Oh, and Roy Oswalt(notes) is already talking about retiring. You tell me who the shortstop is without looking. You can't! So don't bother. Can we wrap this division up? You go, I'm done with them.
'Duk: The Astros shortstop is Tommy Godzilla! Er, Tommy Manzella(notes), if he stays healthy! But I see your point in calling a spade a spade and then moving on. What I think we're destined for here is an August's worth of stories coming out of Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee on how those teams still have a good chance — though not really — of catching the Cardinals.
Unless, of course, we're not destined for that at all. Did Bill Self teach us nothing?
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NL Central predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Cardinals, 2. Brewers, 3. Cubs, 4. Reds, 5. Astros, 6. Pirates
DB: 1. Cardinals 2. Reds 3. Cubs 4. Brewers 5. Pirates 6. Astros
NL Central Cy Young
'Duk: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
DB: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
NL Central ROY
'Duk: Aroldis Chapman, Reds
DB: Aroldis Chapman, Reds