Of course, I saved the best division for last. Naturally, I am partial to the Central, as it has the Brewers. However, I do believe that the Central has some very good teams in it, and it will be a struggle for power between all of the teams for the title of Division Champion come October.
1. Cardinals – Even though I dislike the Redbirds very much, especially since I live in St. Louis, it would be dumb to not pick the World Series Champions to win their division this season. They still have the best hitter on the planet in Albert Pujols, and he will have another MVP-caliber season. Scott Rolen figures to have another outstanding season, if he can remain healthy. I’d also like to interject here that I absolute do NOT like Jim Edmonds as a center fielder. He is probably the one guy I dislike the most of any in the Majors. The reason he has so many Gold Gloves is that he has to make amazing catches to make up for his awful judgement of flyballs. That, and the fact that he plays so shallow. Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones are camped under the flyballs that Edmonds has to dive for. Just thought I’d share that. One guy in the outfield I do like is Chris Duncan, son of the pitching coach Dave Duncan. The guy has great power, and plays a decent left field. David Eckstein is your prototype leadoff hitter, not much power, but gets on base a ton, and a pesky hitter. It is very hard to strike him out. The Birds won’t have much trouble scoring. It is the pitching that will decide if they repeat as Champs again. Chris Carpenter is still his CY-caliber self, but after him it gets dicey. Jeff Suppan went to Milwaukee (YEAH!!!), and Jason Marquis went to the Cubbies. St. Louis did sign Kip Wells and Ryan Franklin to take their places, but I don’t see either of them in star roles. Adam Wainwright will also join the starting rotation after being the star of last year’s playoff run in the pen. Time will tell if this will be a good idea or not. Jason Isringhausen looks to be healthy and will return to his closer role. Whether or not his outings become iffy is still up in the air. The rest of the pen is very solid, with Tyler Johnson and Braden Looper anchoring those late innings. Oh, did anyone else laugh when they heard about Tony La Russa’s DUI in Florida? I just think it’s funny, being that most of my friends down here are Cards fans and adore him. But, if St. Louis can rely on the rest of the starters for quality games, look for the Birds to be in the running again.
2. Brewers – Ah, my beloved Brewers. The only reason I don’t have them first is because St. Louis won the Series. Of course, I truly believe that the only thing keeping the Crew from being on top is that darned injury bug. If they can stay healthy all year long, the Brewers have an excellent chance of not only being above .500, but winning the division. Like usual, the Brewers are going to rely on Ben Sheets to get them there. If he is healthy, he is CY-caliber. Not only does he have the best K/BB ratio in the Majors, but if he can throw his curveball for strikes, he’s nearly impossible to hit. Following him are Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Claudio Vargas. Capuano was an All-Star last year, and had 18 wins two years ago. If he can go back to his pre-break form of last year, he’ll be good for another 18 wins. Jeff Suppan has always been a Brewer-killer, so Ned Yost did the sensible thing and signed him. He is a workhorse with quality stuff. Look for Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas to both have good seasons this year, Bush is another good K/BB guy like Sheets. The bullpen will be almost unhittable if Francisco Cordero and Derrick Turnbow are at the top of their game. The rest of the pen is decent, with fireballer Jose Capellan and sidearm thrower lefty Brian Shouse. The pitching will be there for the Crew, what they will need is runs. They were near the bottom in most of the major offensive categories last year, but look for the young hitters to get better this time around. Billy Hall emerged as a power threat and will move to CF this season. Time will tell how he does defensively. Rickie Weeks has the capabilities to be a 30/30 guy. Prince Fielder will only improve on his power numbers, and look out for Corey Hart. I drafted him on my fantasy team for a reason. Johnny Estrada was also signed via trade to improve the hitting in the catching position, meaning former Viterbo V-Hawk star Damien Miller will be the backup. All in all, if the Brewers can score some runs, and most of all, stay healthy, they will compete for the division title.
3. Astros – Houston managed to pick up one of the biggest names on the free agent market this winter in Carlos Lee. He will provide a lot of power in the middle of the lineup, providing Lance Berkman with some much needed protection. He’s also helped by the short porch in left in Minute Maid Park. Craig Biggio is an almost lock for the 3000 hit club, and Morgan Ensberg will improve his power numbers greatly. The Astros will definitely hit. However, like St. Louis, other than Roy Oswalt, there really aren’t any great pitchers in the rotation. This is, of course, dependent on what Roger Clemens decides to do. If he comes back to Houston, he is still one of the best. They did sign Woody Williams, but he is average at best. Brad Lidge still remembers that HR he gave up to Pujols two years ago, it still hasn’t landed. Lidge is still a good closer with great stuff. Look for him to improve his numbers. Behind him are good relievers like Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls. The bullpen is a strength for this club. But, they still need the starters to get the game to the pen. That may be the problem for this club.
4. Pirates – The Pirates are just chock-full of young talent. Jason Bay will continue to be an All-Star for years to come, he can crush the ball. Freddy Sanchez won the NL batting title last year, and Adam LaRoche came over from HOTlanta to bring some more power to the lineup. Pitching is much the same, very young, but with stellar talent. Zach Duke is most likely the ace, with guys like Ian Snell and Paul Maholm behind him. They are above-average, but not stars. In the pen, Pittsburgh took a hit when they traded away Mike Gonzalez for LaRoche. Taking his place as closer is probably Salomon Torres. The rest of the pen is above-average as well, with John Grabow and Damaso Marte leading them. Look for the young talent to lead this club places. It is this talent that will improve the club to staying out of the cellar, but not quite to the top…..yet.
5. Cubs – My least favorite team in the Majors. The Cubs. I rejoiced last year when they finished dead last in the division. Since Chicago didn’t feel the same as I did about last year, they went ahead and spent $300 million in the offseason to bring the likes of Alfonso Soriano and Jason Marquis to the Windy City. They also resigned 3B Aramis Ramirez to a 5-year, $75 million deal. We’ll see if all that money will be worth it in October. Once again, Carlos Zambrano will anchor the rotation. He has filthy stuff, CY-caliber. Look for him to be a quality ace. Following him are newly signed Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. Both are average pitchers in their careers, don’t look for anything surprising there. As always, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have injuries. Prior will start his season at Triple-A, and Wood is on the DL. There’s some words you never ever hear, "Kerry Wood on the DL." Lol. The pen is going to be okay, with Ryan Dempster as the closer and guys like Neal Cotts and Scott Eyre in the rotation. The Cubs have some very good hitters, with the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez. Look for Soriano to have a down year from last year. The rest of the lineup is okay, with some promising hitters, but the big three will carry the bulk of the load. Like usual, the Cubs will live and die by their pitching, and this year, it will be the latter.
6. Reds – Cincy was a big surprise for the majority of the season, being in the running for the playoffs until late. Aaron Harang will be great this season, he just keeps getting better and better every season, so look out. Bronson Arroyo showed flashed of brilliance last year, and will remain solid. The rest of the rotation however, will be a downfall. Eric Milton and Kyle Lohse just can’t seem to find themselves. The bullpen is much the same. David Weathers continues to age, and isn’t even a true closer. Mike Stanton will relieve him in some situations as the closer, too. The rest of the pen is up in the air, with a mix of vets and newbies. Adam Dunn continues to anchor the middle of the lineup as the second coming of Rob Deer. Seriously, the guy usually either strikes out or hits the ball 500 feet. Ken Griffey Jr. may have lost a step in the outfield, but his swing is one of pure beauty, look for him to approach 30 homers again, and up his average. Ryan Freel can play anywhere, and that may take its toll on him. The player I would watch for is Brandon Phillips, this kid can hit for power, hit for average, and has base-stealing speed. But, all of this added up still won’t bring the Reds over the hump of the rest of the division.