2012 NL Central Preview and Projections

2012 NL Central Preview

Who will win the NL Central in 2012?Chicago CubsSt. Louis CardinalsCincinnati RedsPittsburgh PiratesMilwaukee BrewersHouston AstrosVoteView ResultsCrowdsignal.com

*This is the second in a series of 7 posts revealing my predictions in 2012 for each division as well as award winners and the postseason.

In 2011, St. Louis shocked the baseball world and won the last game of the season. Can they repeat? The 2012 NL central should be interesting as there are 2 legitimate threats (St. Louis and Cincinnati) as well as a dark horse in Milwaukee. Each of those teams will face the Pirates, Astros, and Cubs 18 times a year, which will help boost each of their records. A big question in this division is how will the loss of Pujols and Fielder affect their former clubs? Also, will the reds acquisitions be enough to push them over the top? Here is my preview of the NL Central.

1. Cincinnati Reds (projected record: 89-73)

In 2010, the Reds won the NL Central. In 2011, the Reds managed to win just 79 games. Will 2012 be more like 2010 or 2011? The Reds appear to be a better team than they were in 2011. They were able to add 3 key players in Ryan Madson, Sean Marshall, and Mat Latos. Cueto and Latos form a very good 1-2 with bailey, a potential 2012 breakout player at no. 3. Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo fill out the rotation. This is a young(sans arroyo) and potential-laden rotation that could be among the best in the majors. The bullpen is also really good. Marshall and Madson form what could arguably be one of the best relief duos in 2012. Other relievers such as Nick Masset or Jose Arredondo, provide solid depth to a good ‘pen. The Reds’ offense also has the potential to be among the league’s best. We’ll start with catcher where Ryan Hanigan will likely begin the year at catcher. Top prospect Devin Mesoraco should be up mid-season and could be a potential ROY candidate. At first base they have a mvp candidate in Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen fill out 2nd and 3rd base respectively. The Reds also should get a full season out of Zack Cozart at short. He has the potential to display solid defense with average speed and power. Heisy covers left, while Stubbs will cover center in what could be a breakout year.  Jay Bruce, who has flashed enormous potential since coming up in 2008, will man right and could be poised for an MVP type season.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals and Reds are neck and neck, but I think 2012 will be the year the Reds take the central.

2. St. Louis Cardinals (projected record: 88-74)

The Cardinals and Reds are so close that I think the Reds will win the division by just one game in 2012. The Cardinals come into 2012 without their legend and face of the franchise, Albert Pujols. To potentially offset the loss of Pujols, the cards signed free agent Carlos Beltran who should produce roughly half of the WAR Pujols (3.0 vs. 6.0) would put up. Adam Wainwright will also be rejoining an already solid rotation. I expect nice seasons from Wainwright and Garcia as well as Holliday, Freese and Beltran on offense. The team does have its questions though. How will Wainwright fair after 14 months of recovery from Tommy John surgery? Will Carpenter, Beltran, and Berkman be able to fight through their ages and post solid seasons? New manager, Mike Matheny, will also face many questions as he has had no prior managerial experience. All in all I think the Cards are set up for a good 2012 and will contend with the Reds for the top spot in the division.

Bottom Line: If you wanted to pick the Cardinals over the Reds in 2012, I would have no problem with that. That is how close these team are. I think the Cards will fall just short of the division crown, but a Wild Card berth is a strong possibility

3. Milwaukee Brewers (projected record: 84-78)

The division winner in 2011, the Brewers will be without one of their best players (Fielder) from last year and could lose Braun for 50 games as well. This dampens their postseason chances for 2012. They still have a decent offense but there are glaring holes at first base and shortstop. Their pitching staff is pretty good with K-Rod and Axford leading the ‘pen and Grienke, Gallardo, Marcum, and Wolf anchoring the rotation. I would think they would win an extra 2-3 games if Braun does not get suspended.

Bottom Line: The Brewers are still a contender, but the loss of their 2 best players and some glaring holes should hinder their chance at the division. The wild card is not out of the question though.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (projected record: 77-85)

Before falling off in August, the Pirates were actually somewhat of a contender in 2011. I expect the Pirates to be slightly better in 2012, but still not a contender. With the addition of AJ Burnett, the rotation is actually fairly deep. Although nobody stands out, they have 6 guys worthy of a starting spot in Burnett, McDonald, Bedard, Karstens, Morton, and Correia. Their bullpen, led by Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan, is solid. On offense, aside from McCutchen, they lack a stable force. Pedro Alvarez is a major question mark. He could be a 25+ hr bat or he could be the -1.4 WAR bat he was last season. If Alvarez breaks through, I’d feel comfortable adding another win or two here.

Bottom Line: The Pirates aren’t good enough to truly contend, but I expect them to avoid the cellar in 2012.

5. Chicago Cubs (projected record: 72-90)

The Cubs have not been to the postseason since 2008, and that likely wont change in 2012. There is some hope for the future though, with Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and company occupying the front office. First year manager, Dale Sveum, will lead a team in transition. The Cubs are a team with pricy veterans (Soriano, Dempster, Garza) and young talent (Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, etc.). The rotation is led by Dempster, Garza and Randy Wells. A solid trio but nothing to write home about. Maholm and Volstad make up the final two spots. The offense is made up of mostly average to slightly above average regulars. With Starlin Castro being the exception. Something to watch on the cubs this year is how guys like Josh Vitters, Anthony Rizzo, and Brett Jackson develop as the year goes on.

Bottom Line: Don’t expect much out of the Cubs in 2012, but the future is bright in Chicago

6. Houston Astros (projected record: 61-101)

Oh boy, its gonna be another rough season in Houston. On offense, an aging Carlos Lee will be anchoring a lineup made up of mostly youngsters. Most of these guys are not a part of Houston’s long-term plan, but there are a few to watch out for. Brett Wallace, Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie, and JD Martinez each at least have a chance to be first division regulars. The pitching is a little bit better. Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers anchor the rotation, but both are on the wrong side of thirty and could be traded at any moment. The Astros 3rd starter, Bud Norris, does have potential. He has already shown he can be a productive big league starter, but I think he can be even better. JA Happ and Jordan Lyles fill out the rest of the rotation. Happ is at best a 4th starter and had a very disappointing year last season. Lyles on the other hand, has the potential to be in the Astros’ long term plan. Lyles was rushed to the big leagues in 2011, but he is just 21 and is only a year removed from being named the no. 42 prospect in baseball by Baseball America.

Bottom Line: I expect another 100 loss season out of the Astros in 2012, but there is hope for the future with the arrival of Jeff Luhnow and company.

– Justin (@justinmillar1)

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