It’s the biggest division in baseball – the only one with six teams – and also one that is loaded with change. Two of the biggest sluggers in the game left over the winter, the defending MVP became embroiled in a steroid controversy, and one of the teams (Houston) is playing its last season before shifting divisions and leagues.
Let’s continue the 500 Level Fan Divisional previews with a look at the NL Central.
Past Five Champions
2011 – Milwaukee
2010 – Cincinnati
2009 – St. Louis
2008 – Chicago
2007 – Chicago
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92
Joey Votto, Reds
This might seem shocking at first glance: how can the best player in the division NOT be the man who won the NL MVP award in 2011? The answer is simply when that player has a cloud of suspicion and doubt hanging around him. Yes Ryan Braun had an outstanding season, but so did Votto – and Votto is definitely clean. He lead the league in doubles, walks, and OBP, had a .947 OPS along with 29 HR and 103 RBI. His 6.5 bWAR was third best in the NL, and he also won a Gold Glove award. With the Reds much improved heading into this season, Votto might be even better.
Honourable Mention: Ryan Braun, Brewers; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Zack Greinke, Brewers
On the surface it didn’t appear that Greinke had a great season in 2011. After all, his 3.83 ERA was 34th best in the NL (and worse than the league average) and he only managed 171.2 IP due to an injury at the start of the year. However, he was a much better pitcher than those numbers showed. His 1.200 WHIP ranked 14th, and he lead the league in K/9 with 10.5. He even impressed old school stat lovers with a 16-6 record. With a full season in the NL already in the books and with full health, Greinke could dominate in 2012.
Honourable Mention: Yovani Gallardo, Brewers; Matt Garza, Cubs
Three Storylines For 2012
1. Ryan Braun
He won the 2011 NL MVP. He lead the league in SLG and OPS, and he lead his team to the playoffs. But an offseason steroid scandal has cast doubt over Braun. Yes he was able to win his appeal and overturn the mandatory 50-game suspension, but he didn’t really clear his name in the eyes of the fans. For the first time in his career he is likely to be heavily booed wherever he goes. Plus, his partner in crime Prince Fielder bolted for Detroit. How will Braun handle what will surely be a tumultuous 2012?
2. An Era of Change in St. Louis
Does anybody remember that the Cardinals are the defending World Series Champs? With all the change that engulfed this team in the offseason you’d be forgiven for forgetting that fact. For the first time since 2000 St. Louis will open a baseball season without Albert Pujols on the roster. For the first time since 1995 St. Louis will open a baseball season without Tony La Russa as manager and Dave Duncan as pitching coach. Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery, but Chris Carpenter is struggling this spring. Can Mike Matheny do the unthinkable and lead a Pujols-less team to the playoffs?
3. How Bad Will Houston Be?
Carlos Lee will play first base. Other than that, can you name a member of the Astros? According to their depth chart, the likely starting outfield consists of J.D. Martinez, Jordan Schafer, and Brian Bogusevic. Their third starter, J.A. Happ, went 6-15 with a 5.35 ERA last season. There are a couple of bright spots (Jose Altuve is supposed to be good at 2B), but the main goal for the Astros will be to not lose over 110 games.
A lot is made of the Cubs 100+ year World Series drought, but did you know that the rest of the NL Central is brutal as well? Take out the Cardinals, who have a lot of success, and what are you left with? A lot of empty years. The Cubs last won in 1908. The Reds last won in 1990. Pittsburgh was way back in 1979. Milwaukee last won in 1957 when they were the Milwaukee Braves. And the poor Houston Astros have never won the World Series. I don’t think that is going to change this year…
Who Should Win
Will they? Find out in my season prediction column