NL Central’s Three Horse Race

The 2012 National League Central will be a tiered division next season, possessing two separate classes of teams. The trio of the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds will all be playing for a division crown. These three teams have each made the playoffs within the past 2 seasons and each of these teams possesses players with elite talent. Their division mates not so much. The Pirates, Cubs, and Astros are all trending downward, and will be fighting for fourth place. Let’s take an early look at handicapping the race:

St. Louis
We begin with the defending World Series champs, who will begin without some key members from a season ago, both on the field and in the dugout. Taking over for the departed Albert Pujols will be Lance Berkman, who had an elite .959 OPS a year ago, and will be playing first, which is better suited for his defensive abilities. Taking his spot in the lineup is the oft-injured Carlos Beltran, who had a similarly elite .920 OPS splitting time between the Giants and Mets last year. Most importantly for Beltran was the fact that he played 142 games and finished 2 at bats shy of 600, the first time he had gotten above 500 since 2008. If Beltran stays healthy and Allen Craig recovers from his knee by May, the Cardinals could produce close to the same number of runs as 2011, which led the National League. It should also be interesting over the course of the season to see how the Cardinal offense produces without Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup. The pitching staff however, should be improved.

The Cardinal pitching staff ranked in the middle of the NL a year ago and didn’t even get to throw Adam Wainwright for even 1 inning. Ideally Wainwright will throw about 200 in 2012, and if his prior performance holds, those will be Cy Young caliber innings replacing the 180 innings split between Edwin Jackson, now in Washington, and Kyle McClellan. Wainwright who has an ERA+ of at least 155 the last two seasons he was healthy will replace what McClellan and Jackson combined to make into a league average pitcher who went 11-8 with their opponent’s OPS sitting in the mid .700’s. Wainwright combined with a full year of the revamped bullpen should make the Cardinals solid contenders going into 2012. The only drawback is that the Cardinals are relying on aging veterans, some of which are injury prone (Carpenter and Beltran) and it could be a risky proposition.

Milwaukee
The Brewers were the NL Central champs in 2011, finishing 6 games ahead of St. Louis. The Brewers had a powerful offense led by Prince Fielder, who is now in Detroit, and Ryan Braun, who is suspended for the first 50 games. Aramis Ramirez, who won a Silver Slugger a year ago,  has joined the Brew Crew, but he will not be able to offset the loss of 200+ games of elite production. The Brewers, who scored 721 runs a season ago, could see that number dip down to around 650, which is about as many as they allowed in 2011. That would leave them playing about.500 ball, which is where the defensive upgrades come in. The Brewers have also added Alex Gonzalez, who’s bat is about equal to the man he is replacing in Yuniesky Betancourt, but who‘s glove should provide more value.. The Brewers should see a large upgrade on the defensive, improving at 3rd and 1st  as well. This could help their pitching staff, which is fronted by two Cy Young candidates.

The 2012 season for the Milwaukee Brewers will come down to the pitching staff and in particular Zach Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. Greinke had a slow start in 2011, after missing the first month due to a broken rib, but he finished strong posting the highest k/9 rate in baseball at 10.5. During the second half of last season Greinke found his rhythm and posted a 2.59 era over 97 innings. He looked like the pitcher who dominated the American League in 2009 and won the Cy Young. His teammate Yovi Gallardo had his first top 10 finish in the Cy Young last season posting an impressive 17-10 record with a 3.52 era and an elite k/9 rate of 9.0, placing him 6th in the National League. Gallardo’s makeup has always impressed scouts and at 25 he should be entering the prime of his career. Gallardo and Greinke should be able to win quite a few games especially with the Brewers bullpen, featuring a strong back end duo as well, in Axford and K-Rod. If the pitching improves and the offense produces runs at even a league average level (about 675) the Brewers can make some noise in the Central.

Cincinnati
Finally the 2010 NL Central Champions, who have made some big moves this off season in an attempt to revamp their pitching staff. The Cincinnati Reds ranked 2nd in the National League in runs scored, producing an solid 735 runs. The offense, led by 2010 MVP Joey Votto and rising star Jay Bruce, was not an issue finishing 2nd in the league in homers, 4th in hits, and 5th in OPS. Votto is the only big slugger left at 1st in the division and the Reds now have the divisions best hitter. No changes at the big league level have really been made and the Red should have no problem scoring runs again. Pitching may be a different story.

Cincinnati’s 2011 staff allowed the 5th most in the National League. Johnny Cueto had an excellent season, finishing just a few innings shy of qualifying for and winning the NL ERA crown at 2.34. Cueto produced 4.2 WAR last season in just over 150 innings, which is an elite especially for a 25 year old. Coming over from San Diego is Mat Latos to form what could prove to be an imposing top of the rotation. Latos dropped off some in 2011 from his stellar 2010 campaign but he’s only 24 and possesses a mid-90s fastball, a power slider, a solid changeup, and an average, seldom used curveball. If he could develop his curve a little further, Latos would probably be a Cy Young contender for years to come. As he currently stands he is a pitcher with All-Star potential and a top 10 Cy Young finish on his resume. If Aroldis Chapman is pushed to the rotation as he should be the Reds will have 3 under 25 power arms and the makings of a dominant rotation.

It’s easy to imagine each of these NL Central contenders winning the division crown and making noise in the playoffs. The Cardinals and Brewers have seen their offenses decline to varying degrees this off season and Cincinnati has improved its weak point, giving this division 3 teams that rank in the top half of baseball going into 2012.

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