Let us shift our focus to the NL Central now. This one seems to be a no brainer as the Cardinals appear to have a lock on this division. They have made some solid additions to their team and are hoping to build on last year's playoff appearance. Meanwhile, most of the other teams in the NL Central seem to have remained the same, or even taken a step back. Maybe Albert Pujols should just play these teams by himself. Or maybe he and a certain Coach Ditka could take on the NL Central also rans. No, no, no, thats unfair again. Here is how I like the NL Central to take shape this year.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals exited the playoffs in very gutwrenching fashion last fall as a Matt Holliday error let to the demise of their season and Trey's liver. This season, the playoffs seem very much within reach again. With the nucleus of Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, this team will have no problem putting up a good record. Throw in the re-signing of Matt Holliday and you've got a very strong team; and I haven't even mention their best guy. Look for the Cards to dominate the NL Central and win over 90 games on their way to the division title.
KEY ADDITION: BRAD PENNY. Penny will be a solid addition to this rotation as the third or fourth starter. He played very well in the NL last year after signing with San Francisco (that's fun to say, Fran-CIS-co) and will only do better under Dave Duncan (I have this card somewhere), the modern day Leo Mazzone.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Third Base. Who will it be? Julio Lugo? David Freese? Felipe Lopez? Hopefully one of them can step up and fill the hot corner for the Redbirds.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Colby Rasmus. #28 is fire burning in the outfield, and has long been touted as the best prospect in the Cardinals system. Now the outfield (where he is fire burnin') situation is clear and he knows he is the man playing everyday. Look for this to boost his confidence and lead to a numbers surge. He definitely banged the girl in that video too.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Albert Pujols. No shit, right? I like his chances to take home a triple crown this year with the lineup protection he has.
2. Chicago Cubs
If the Cubs lineup can stay healthy, a big if with this man on the squadron, they can certainly produce runs with the best of them. A lineup featuring D. Lee, Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, The Riot, Marlon Byrd, Xavier Nady and Marlon Byrd looks very intimidating. Injuries raise significant concerns though. Their pitching on all fronts is another big question mark too. Can Ryan Dempster produce like he did two years ago? Who will fill in for Rich Harden's robotic arm? Can Ted Lilly live up to his potential and win 15 games? Will Big Z stay healthy and not go loco? Who will step up as the closer? Because of these pitching concerns, and health concerns in general, I look for the Cubs to be a very streaky team but ultimately fall short of the playoffs winning about 85 games tops.
KEY ADDITION: Marlon Byrd. The Cubs are hoping Marlon Byrd will bring them what Kosuke Fukudome didn't: speed, defense and hitting. With hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo coming over from Texas as well, look for Byrd to continue his sweet swinging ways in the Chi.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Alfonso Soriano. Soriano has been a victim of poor managing in Chicago, inexplicably batting leadoff, and nagging injuries. If he can stay healthy he will help this offense immensely. Can he shed the injury prone label? We shall see.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Jeff Samardzija. The former Notre Dame wideout has got sick stuff, and could become a starter or a closer for the Cubs this year.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Micah Hoffpauir. This man could slide in at first base if D(P) Lee gets injured or starts to slow. He is definitely the first baseman of the future for the Cubbies.
3. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are definitely onto something here. Their pitching rotation has some pretty good depth with Aaron Harang Brain, Johnny Cueto, Aroldis Chapman, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo, and Coco Cordero is very solid in the pen. Their hitting is also nothing to laugh at with Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, O Dog Cabrera, Scott Rolen, Jay "All he ever does is hit home runs" Bruce, and Chris Dickerson. This is probably the best Reds team we have seen in a while. Look for them to make some strides in the NL Central and win about 80 games.
KEY ADDITION: Aroldis Chapman. Apparently this Cuban defector is pretty nasty. He will be a good addition to the Reds staff.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Jay Bruce. Can he live up to the hype, or will he disappoint again like he did last year? He probably just didn't want to be on Pat's fantasy team.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Joey Votto. Votto had a good year last year, but he could really step it up another notch this year with some more lineup protection. Look for the RBIs to get up over 100 for Joey "You can do it" Votto. His only drawback? You probably couldn't even tell.
KEEP AN EYE ON: This guy. Enough said. Also, Homer Bailey might finally step up this season.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers lineup is very solid, with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks; that is not their problem. The problem is and always has been their pitching. Who among: Randy Wolf, Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, Yovani Gallardo and Doug Davis do you see winning more than 10 games? The pitching is just not very good. This is why I think so little of the Brew Crew. The Brewers will probably keep pace with the Reds in the battle for third place in the Central this year.
KEY ADDITION: Carlos Gomez. If this guy could raise his OBP, he could be the second coming of Jose Reyes or Juan Pierre. Regardless, he will solidify center field with his great defense and produce some runs for the big bats behind him.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Rickie Weeks. Weeks was having a great season last year before tearing a muscle in his hand and missing the rest of the year. If he can repeat what he did before getting injured, the Brewers pitching woes could be buoyed by great run support.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo could be the guy that wins games for the pitching staff this year, despite my skepticism before, but he has been bitten by the injury bug in the past. If he can stay healthy, he has got the stuff to win 15 games or more.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mat Gamel. This guy has been one of the Brewers top prospects for a few years. Let's see if he can step up big as the starting 3rd baseman. He also spells his name with only one t.
5. Houston Astros
I was considering giving this spot to the Pirates just because the Astros are such a poorly run team. Ed Wade will go down in history as one of the worst GMs of all time. His strategy this off-season was to sign worthless Phillies castaways. I gave them the fifth spot though for a few reasons; they still have Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. Other than that though the Astros are garbage. Look for them to win between 70-75 games and be players at the trade deadline.
KEY ADDITION: Matt Lindstrom. This dude throws straight gas and will be a solid closer in Houston this year. If they can ever get a lead that is.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Michael Bourn. See "Carlos Gomez".
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Wandy Rodriguez. This guy has shown some signs of being a really good pitcher over the past two years. Look for him to step in behind Roy Oswalt to make a decent 1-2 punch in the rotation. Good fuckin' luck on 3-5 though.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Lance Berkman. He could be a solid trade piece towards the middle of the season. A lot of contenders could use a bat like the Big Puma's. Koey just got excited because I said Puma.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have been baseball's doormat since the day Barry Bonds left town. 17 years, and about 200 pounds for Barry Bonds later, it appears that they have a decent nucleus in place on offense. Their pitching is still a long way away from being any good though. The Baby Buccos will probably win about 70 games this year and will show steady improvement throughout the year.
KEY ADDITION: Octavio Dotel. The Buccos took the Nats approach and only made a few additions to improve their bullpen. Not a bad addition though as Dotel will bring stability to the pen headed by Joel Hanrahan.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: Starters. Who the hell is gonna lead this team? Zach Duke and Paul Maholm are the only halfway decent starters they have, but they only totaled for 19 wins last year. Can anybody step up?
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: Garrett Jones. Dude hit 21 homers last year. In 82 games. Now multiply the amount of games by two. You get the point.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Bobby Crosby. This guy was once the AL Rookie of the Year, but soon fell victim to injury and was then benched by the A's. Maybe a low pressure situation like Pittsburgh and the promise of playing everyday will help bring back some of his great promise.
The NL Central is always a bear to predict with six teams. That's how I see it going down though. I've had enough of this chickenshit bullshit.