UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

NL Central preview: Brewers and Cardinals chasing Reds

The Reds usurped the National League Central crown from the Cardinals in 2010, a year earlier than most expected the change. Now Cincinnati must fend off revenge-seeking St. Louis, pitching-enhanced Milwaukee and veteran-loaded Chicago to hold onto the division title, as forward-thinking Houston and Pittsburgh advance their rebuilding plans.

WINTER GRADE: B

The Cubs signed first baseman Carlos Peña and reliever Kerry Wood and traded prospects for starter Matt Garza and outfielder Fernando Perez. They hired interim manager Mike Quade to fill the position fulltime, and they cut starter Carlos Silva.

Chicago filled its three stated needs of a starting pitcher, righthanded reliever and first baseman, but the grade isn't higher because of the cost of prospects, especially Chris Archer, Hak-Ju Lee and Brandon Guyer, all of whom Baseball America rated in the organization's top 10.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Which Carlos Zambrano will show up in 2011?

Through his first four starts last year, Big Z had a 7.45 ERA, which earned him a demotion to the bullpen. Restored to the rotation in August, Zambrano was 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts. His 2011 production will inevitably be somewhere in the middle, but the closer it skews to the latter, the better the Cubs can feel about matching their ace against anyone in the division.

2. Can the slew of 30-something sluggers -- Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Peña, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano -- all have good years?

In a word, no, as it's unlikely they'll all bounce back collectively, but they are in a situation that's conducive to big offensive numbers because they play their home games at Wrigley Field and their hitting instructor is the well-regarded Rudy Jaramillo. Their production is vital to a Chicago offense that has only one position player (catcher Geovany Soto) squarely in his prime.

3. Who will play second base?

The club hoped Blake DeWitt would claim this job in spring training, but instead he struggled offensively and defensively, meaning Jeff Baker and spring surprise Darwin Barney will start the year as a platoon opposite Starlin Castro in the middle infield. But Baker at his best is still only an average offensive player (and slightly above-average defensively), and Barney is mostly an unknown with fewer than 80 big-league at bats to his name.

X-FACTOR:

Starlin Castro, SS

The first ballplayer born in the 1990s to reach the majors, Castro had a nice offensive year at the plate, batting .300 with a .347 on-base percentage but had plenty of inconsistencies to work on -- namely, that he was safe in only 10 of 18 stole-base attempts and committed 27 errors, the second most of any NL player. He'll be an All-Star before his career is over. The Cubs could use that level of play sooner rather than later.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"This is a below-.500 team. It's not a dynamic lineup and it looks really old. The wind at Wrigley Field will negate some of Carlos Peña's power, they'd love to get rid of Alfonso Soriano if they could and Aramis Ramirez's bat speed isn't there. Carlos Zambrano pitched well over the last six weeks but he's still a time bomb."

WINTER GRADE: B

The Reds signed middle infielder Edgar Renteria and outfielder Fred Lewis, but their key move was the reinvestment within, agreeing to multi-year deals with first baseman Joey Votto, rightfielder Jay Bruce, starter Johnny Cueto and catcher Ryan Hanigan.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Was inertia a good offseason strategy?

General manager Walt Jocketty's thinking on the Reds offseason was that his young core players who have been steadily improving the past few years ought to remain on that trajectory. For a team that won the NL Central last season and is the favorite this season, such a patient plan was bold for its lack of aggressive spending to bolster the Reds' advantage.

2. Will Jay Bruce be this year's breakout star?

In Bruce's final 37 games he had a scorching batting line of .377/.459/.798 and homered 15 times -- once every 7.6 at bats. It's that kind of tantalizing production that has scouts drooling, one of whom said this spring, "I love Jay Bruce. I think he can be a force." He needs to be more patient at the plate, but if he develops into the offensive star many think he will be, the Reds will have a great counterpunch to Votto and be even more dangerous at the plate.

3. Can the rotation be a force in October?

It's no secret that pitching wins playoff games, so while the Reds return the NL's best offense (790 runs in 2010), their starting pitching will need to improve upon last year's 4.05 staff ERA, which ranked 10th in the NL. Edinson Volquez and Homer Bailey both have ace stuff but haven't reached that level yet. Bailey and Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, are both battling shoulder issues and, though the prognoses have been mostly good so far, they remain a concern. But the Reds do have great rotation depth, with Mike Leake able to step in for Cueto, and with Bronson Arroyo and Travis Wood also filling out the staff, Cincinnati has six starters and none of them are just back-of-the-rotation filler material.

X-FACTOR:

Aroldis Chapman, RP

He's the most hyped set-up man in recent history, but the Cuban import with the 105-mph fastball could play a big role in the Reds' season despite neither starting nor closing. Chapman will be intimidating on the mound no matter what inning he pitches, if his 19 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings last year are any indication. A starter for most of his baseball life, Chapman could be used as more than just a situational reliever as long as his high walk rate (4.9 per nine in 95 2/3 minor league innings) doesn't get the best of him.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

Last year gave them more confidence. Those young guys are all stepping forward. Their pitching depth and bullpen are a little better. Joey Votto has a nice, quiet swing. He's the center of the core for them, a hell of a hitter. I love Jay Bruce, too. He's improving."

WINTER GRADE: C

The Astros signed second baseman Bill Hall and traded starter Felipe Paulino for shortstop Clint Barmes. Houston needed an offensive boost in the middle infield and probably got it, though how they'll catch the ball remains to be seen. The two-year extension to starter Brett Myers isn't reflected here because it happened back in August -- as is also the case with the July trades of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt -- so it's a gentleman's C for a mostly quiet offseason.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. There's enough offensive uncertainty that it's really a series of questions: 1a. Will Carlos Lee stave off continued depreciation of his offense? 1b. Will Hunter Pence rise to stardom? 1c. Will Brett Wallace hit consistently and rediscover his power stroke? 1d. With Jason Castro hurt, will the Astros find offense at catcher? 1e. Will Chris Johnson reduce his 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio? Will Barmes and Hall hit enough to justify their being handed everyday fielding jobs at positions they barely played last year?

Only time will tell on each answer, but if the majority receive a "yes" then the Astros ought to flirt with .500.

2. Will Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris pick up where they left off?

Last year Myers joined Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver as the only pitchers to throw six or more innings in his first 32 appearances of the season; Myers lasted only 5 2/3 innings in his 33rd and final start of the season. Right around the time Houston traded Roy Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris kicked their games into high gear too and the trio finished the year strong: Myers was 6-2 with a 3.20 ERA, Norris was 7-3 and 3.84 and Rodriguez was 3-1 and 1.90. Those three plus J.A. Happ form a strong first four in the rotation, which should keep the Astros close in games into the late innings.

3. Can Houston avoid another slow start?

The Astros began last year 0-8 and 17-34. In 2009 they were 18-28. In '08 they were 6-12. In '07 they were 21-31. No one seems to know why, but every season lately Houston has trouble achieving liftoff, making their almost annual strong finish a case of too little, too late. For instance, the Astros were 40-33 after the All-Star break last year -- fourth best in the NL -- but still finished 15 games behind the division champion Reds. "Particularly with the balance in our division," GM Ed Wade said, "it's not good to give the pack a headstart."

X-FACTOR:

Ownership sale

The Houston Chronicle reported recently that longtime Astros owner Drayton McLane was "close" to selling the franchise to businessman Jim Crane, who begged out of purchasing the team at the 11th hour in 2008. Crane has also tried buying the Cubs and Rangers in the past few years. But what's unclear is how he'll run the franchise -- whether he'll increase or decrease payroll or demand a change in personnel either on or off the field.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I don't think they overachieved last year; 76-86 was probably right where they belonged. I'm not sure they're going to be as good this season, without having Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt for even part of the year. Carlos Lee is the one individual that is going to determine whether they have a really bad year or just a bad year and I don't think he is by any sense washed up. Losing Jason Castro, the young catcher, was a real blow -- he's a worthy everyday guy. J.A. Happ doesn't have eye-popping stuff, but the delivery at times reminds you of Andy Pettitte."

WINTER GRADE: A-

The Brewers shipped several elite prospects and starting shortstop Alcides Escobar to acquire starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, as well as shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. They signed reliever Takashi Saito and hired former Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke to be their manager. Milwaukee needed pitching and got it in abundance, securing two of their top three rotation spots and improving the back of their bullpen.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Greinke and Marcum make the difference?

Greinke fractured a rib playing pickup basketball this spring and will miss a few starts, but both he and Marcum are under contract for two years and, when combined with incumbent Yovani Gallardo, give Milwaukee three 2010 Opening Day starters in the rotation. Greinke and Marcum should both benefit from the AL-to-NL move -- especially Marcum, who was in the dreaded AL East -- and give the Brewers a rotation that's good enough to keep them in contention all year. Starting pitching held them back last year, with an unsightly staff ERA of 4.65.

2. Can the Brewers overcome the injury bug?

The last thing the Brew Crew wants to do is falter early because of injuries to Greinke, Corey Hart, Jonathan Lucroy, LaTroy Hawkins and Manny Parra -- all of whom may start the year on the disabled list -- because that could lead to mounting pressure to trade free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder during the season in order to get value in return for his expected departure. While that would dampen their 2011 hopes, it could improve their chances in 2012, depending on what player(s) they receive in return.

3. How will Roenicke fare in his first year as manager?

Roenicke is the third disciple of Angels manager Mike Scioscia to be given the chance to lead his own big league team, following the Rays' Joe Maddon and the Angels' Bud Black. Both of those men, as well as Scioscia, have all won league manager of the year awards and the even-keeled, soft-spoken Roenicke is inheriting a promising club, so the odds are in his favor.

X-FACTOR:

Casey McGehee, 3B

Generally speaking, sabermetrics denounces the idea of clutch hitting, that there's rarely an appreciable change in performance in high-leverage situations than at any other time. That would suggest that McGehee -- who excelled as the No. 5 hitter behind Fielder last year, crushing a .324/.372/.571 line in 170 at bats with runners in scoring position -- will return to his mean rates of .288/.342/.470. But Roenicke suggested in spring that Hart could bat sixth, thus protecting the protector McGehee. That could help McGehee keep up his production. Then again, sabermetrics suggests lineup protection is overstated too, so two tenets of advanced baseball theory could be put to the test this spring.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"One to three [Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum], I'd take Milwaukee's starters. One to five, I'd take Cincinnati's depth. Fielder's contract is up, so I expect a good year out of him. I know Braun's home-run production dropped [from at least 32 in each of his first three seasons to 25 last season], but I didn't see that suddenly the ball wasn't being driven like it was. I just think it was one of those years. As a group, their infield defense is a concern. Milwaukee has to stay healthy because I don't see a lot of depth."

WINTER GRADE: C+

The Pirates signed first baseman Lyle Overbay, outfielder Matt Diaz and starters Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. They hired manager Clint Hurdle. The plus on the grade is for resisting the temptation to spend on free agents when the club isn't ready to contend. The grade that matters most to the Pirates is their June grade, and the 2010 draft haul of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie earned them an A.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will the Pirates see sufficient development from their rookies and sophomores?

It's probably a foregone conclusion that 2011 won't be the year the franchise's 18-year streak of losing seasons is snapped, but if Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen all take a big enough collective step forward and if other prospects in Double-A or Triple-A (Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, and Tony Sanchez, among them) start progressing toward residence in Pittsburgh, then maybe 2012 or 2013 isn't an unrealistic projection for a streak-ending season.

2. How will the rotation fare?

New addition Correia is a serviceable starter to go along with the cadre already in place: Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm and Charlie Morton. None are exciting enough to pique ticket sales on his start day, but all should acquit themselves well for what the Pirates need: steady innings-eating. James McDonald, the fifth member of the rotation, however, is more likely in the club's long-term plans. In 11 starts last year after being traded from the Dodgers, McDonald had a 3.52 ERA in 64 innings, with career-best marks in K/9 (8.6) and K/BB (2.54) ratios.

3. Can new coaches turn around the offense?

Hurdle has already brought undying enthusiasm to the Pirates' daily proceedings, but what can he do on the field? The former Rockies manager and Rangers hitting coach has helped harness offensive talent wherever he's gone, and the Pirates are counting on him having the same effect in Pittsburgh. The Pirates observed this spring how seamlessly Hurdle and new hitting coach Gregg Ritchie -- who previously oversaw the development of McCutchen, Tabata, Walker and Alvarez as the franchise's minor league hitting coordinator -- worked together. Now the two are charged with extracting more offense from a lineup that produced an NL-worst 587 runs last year. Helping their cause are the additions of Overbay and Diaz, as well as full seasons from Alvarez, Snyder, Tabata and Walker.

X-FACTOR:

Ryan Doumit, C

Doumit, the catcher who has also played some rightfield and first base, had fallen out of favor in Pittsburgh and was on the trading block because of his $5.1 million contract. But now projected starter Chris Snyder will begin the year on the D.L., pushing Doumit into regular service and giving him a lengthy audition for other major league clubs. He has slumped at the plate the past two seasons -- a .251/.318/.410 batting line -- but hit .318/.357/.501 in 2008, prompting the three-year contract he's now concluding. If Doumit plays well in Snyder's absence, it'll increase his marketability and perhaps bring some value in return.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"It wold be hard not to improve. They have several position players who are young and talented at the same time. I think that Clint Hurdle will be a benefit -- he's John Russell's opposite, more of a type-A, rah-rah type. They were as active a running team in spring training as anyone I saw, and I have every reason to believe that with the absence of power in the lineup that's what we're going to continue to see. One minor league guy who could have upside is Kyle McPherson. He can run it up there to 95, and I love his delivery, love his demeanor. If you didnt know any better, you'd swear he'd be their Opening Day starter, even though they sent him to A-ball weeks ago."

WINTER GRADE: D

The Cardinals signed rightfielder Lance Berkman, infielder Nick Punto and catcher Gerald Laird. They traded reliever Blake Hawksworth for shortstop Ryan Theriot, traded shortstop Brendan Ryan for reliever Maikel Cleto. They failed to extend Albert Pujols before his deadline at the start of spring training.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can the Cardinals re-sign Pujols?

The future of the team's franchise player is more important than the club's performance in any one season, so this is the big question facing GM John Mozeliak and the Cardinals. Pujols has placed a moratorium on extension talk during the season, but that probably doesn't preclude St. Louis from approaching their first baseman with a concrete contract offer that requires only a yes or no answer without the need for negotiation. Anything can happen once Pujols hits the free-agent market, so the Cardinals would be wise to open their coffers and keep Phat Albert around a while longer.

2. Can the rotation withstand the loss of Adam Wainwright?

If Chris Carpenter holds up and Kyle McLellan is at least adequate as a new starter and Jaime Garcia shakes off a wretched spring (7.94 ERA in 17 innings), then the Cardinals rotation will not be a hindrance to their playoff aspirations, but it's no longer the strength it was when Wainwright was in it. He's lost for the season thanks to Tommy John surgery after a two-year stretch in which he was one of baseball's best, going 39-19 with a 2.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and average of 232 innings per season.

3. Can Berkman play a capable rightfield?

Probably not. Berkman hasn't been an everyday outfielder since 2004 or even a part-time outfielder since 2007. He's had surgery on both knees since 2006 and been bothered by elbow problems this spring, a year after being reduced to a platoon player with the Yankees last season because of his struggles as a righthanded hitter. It's not like Berkman will suffer from the gaffes committed by players learning a new position -- he's played 871 career games in the outfield -- but it'll be interesting to see how much range he has and how accurate and strong his throwing arm is. Expect Jon Jay to be a regular late-inning defensive replacement.

X-FACTOR:

Dave Duncan, pitching coach

The Cardinals' pitching coach is a whiz like few others at resurrecting old careers and enhancing new ones, and if anyone can help St. Louis overcome the loss of Wainwright, it's Duncan. One pitcher in particular who could give the Cardinals a boost with a return to form is Kyle Lohse, who has won just 10 games the past two years combined after winning 15 in 2008, his first season working with Duncan in St. Louis.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I was real surprised that with three starters like Carpenter, Wainwright and Garcia they didn't make the playoffs. You can't ever take them out of the playoff equation. There's nothing not to like about Carpenter. He has command, plate movement and a quick breaking ball. Albert Pujols doesn't look as focused as usual but you still have to change your plan of attack every at-bat against him. Colby Rasmus is way too good of a player to trade."

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.