By Eric Mack
January 24, 2012

If the losses of Albert Pujols (to the AL West's Angels) and perhaps Prince Fielder (TBD) weren't enough, the NL Central will likely have to do without Ryan Braun for 50 games for a substance-abuse policy suspension.

Yeah, it was a tough winter in the mid-west and we're not talking about the thermometer.

It is still a division with a lot of fantasy talent, most of it a bit overlooked because it doesn't perform on the coasts or in one of the major media markets.

Unless you play fantasy in the mid-west, or against fans of the team in the NL Central, you are likely to mine this division for some of the best sleepers and breakouts in the game. With the losses of Pujols and likely Fielder and Braun (perhaps for a one-third of the season), there stand some opportunities for some new blood.

Adam Wainwright will be back and hopefully full years out of postseason heroes David Freese and Jason Motte await. We also get to see the Reds with a burgeoning ace in Mat Latos and a team still with plenty of potential to fulfill. And while you can downgrade the Brewers, Pirates, Cubs and Astros in real baseball terms, there are opportunities galore for young players we have yet to see, numbers that make us jump at drafting them in fantasy.

We continue our winter look at the baseball season to come with the NL Central, breaking down their projected lineups, rotations, bullpens, key questions, sleepers, busts and breakouts.

The skipper said it this winter:

"Jason [Motte] has certainly positioned himself as we head into spring as the closer," Mike Matheny said.

Key question:Is Wainwright going to be full-go after Tommy John surgery?

After speaking with Wainwright at Spring Training before he took off as a starter, it was clear he had no reservations about ramping up over 200 innings quickly. Verducci Effect? Meh, he wasn't having it. It should be noted he hasn't had many fully healthy seasons since and is coming off reconstructive elbow surgery now. But Wainwright's go-get-'em personality should help fantasy owners believe he can get up to 190 innings, if not 200 this season. The Cardinals are going to be a contender, too, so they will need 30-plus starts out of this ace. Carpenter is a sure thing, but Wainwright can be a top-10 fantasy starter this season.

Sleeper: Jason Motte, RHP

The converted catcher didn't really take off as closer until the postseason, but he enters Spring Training as the go-to guy and he won't have to deal with Tony La Russa's fickle behavior with relievers any more. Motte could be a 30-plus save stopper for fantasy owners.

Bust: Lance Berkman, 1B

He is coming off a renaissance season but Berkman has been a bit of a fantasy enigma in his latter years. You can never be sure which one will show up. He is probably somewhere between his 2011 and '10 versions, but he is going to be drafted off last season's numbers. Replacing Albert Pujols could be a psychological challenge and Berkman is an injury risk with his chronic knee issues. He held up well in the outfield and first base should be less wear on him, but you never know when the body, particularly the legs, will give out.

Breakout: David Freese, 3B

Freese showed the kind of hitter he can be in the postseason. It is dangerous drafting off postseason hype, but Freese should have had this breakthrough in seasons prior. He can put it all together and be a .280-25-100-90 fantasy horse on the hot corner.

The skipper said it this winter:

"It's a matter of [Aroldis Chapman] finding the strike zone and throwing strikes, and us finding the spot that's going to be best for him, best for us," Dusty Baker said. "As you can tell, we have a bunch of questions that I can't answer, a bunch of hopeful situations that we hope come out."

Key question:Is Chapman a starter or reliever?

Chapman is a starter long term, but the Reds have positioned themselves to bring him and his shoulder that was sore at the end of last season along slowly. Baker has an awful history with pushing young pitchers, so being able to afford patience is a good thing. Chapman is a late-round pick and likely someone that will be a waste of a roster spot in most leagues out of the gate.

Sleeper: Mike Leake, RHP

Leake gets little credit for what he has been able to do in his first two professional seasons. It is rare a young arm can go straight to the major leagues and pitch like a winner right away. Leake deserves a spot in the Reds' rotation for the full season and is a sleeper to win 15 games. If he falls into the late rounds -- behind that potentially potent offense -- he can be a real gem of a Low Investment Mound ace.

Bust: Brandon Phillips, 2B

Most of the Reds have yet to reach their projected ceiling. Phillips is one of the few veterans -- well, one that still has strong fantasy value vs. Scott Rolen. We don't expect Phillips to slip much from his 2011 numbers, but we had to pick someone that might go bust and Phillips is entering his 30s, which is the twilight years for second basemen.

Breakout: Jay Bruce, OF

Bruce arrived with loads of hype and he finally starting turning potential into production last year. This could be a really huge year for him -- especially in that hitter-friend park. Bruce has the look of a .280-40-110-100 outfield monster and because his numbers have been a bit disappointing for the hype, his fantasy value might be a little less than it should be.

The skipper said it this winter:

"When you're talking third, fourth hitters, there's not really many elite three and four hitters," Ron Roenicke said. "We happen to have two on the same team. That's a rarity to be able to have two guys with the caliber that we have. Usually you'll have one there, and then the other guy you fill in with, and when I say fill in, that doesn't mean that guy is not a good hitter. He's not in Prince's category.

"So, Rickie [Weeks] is not Prince, but Rickie is a very good hitter. Rickie can hit for average, get on base. He can drive the ball. And we think he's going to drive in runs. But he's never done it, so it's hard to say, oh, yeah, Rickie can do it. It's hard to say that, but I think he would be able to."

Key question:Can they survive without Prince Fielder and Braun (for 50 games)?

The Brewers might not miss Fielder as much, because Ramirez and Gamel are potentially solid options on the corners and the rookie Green is a talented option as well. But the substance-abuse suspension of Braun might be a dagger in the Brewers' first half. The offense still has enough to make that pitching staff, mostly the top three, plenty productive for fantasy owners out of the gate, regardless.

Sleeper: Mat Gamel, 1B

Gamel has already shown pop in his bat, but the question was his defense at third base. That should be less of a worry at first in place of Fielder. He is capable of performing well enough in spurts to be useful in mixed leagues and can be a solid mid- to late-round value in NL-only formats. He could be a .260-25-90 hitter.

Bust: John Axford, RHP

We tried this last year, suggesting Axford was a potential bust. It didn't work out. Instead, Axford was a breakout elite closer. His meteoric rise to the elite from being a relative unknown should be a caution sign, though. K-Rod is still around to stalk the job if Axford falters, too. Just don't draft the Brewers closer tops at the position, because you stand to be disappointed.

Breakout: None.

Save for Gamel, the Brewers have a lot of players who have already reached their ceiling. It doesn't bode well for them on improving from last year, particularly when you consider Fielder won't be around.

The skipper said it this winter:

"I think Andrew [McCutchen] has got opportunities for growth in a number of different places," Clint Hurdle said. "You know, there's usable power there. I think that there's good news and bad news with the batting average. The bad news is he hit what he hit, and the good news is I don't think he'll ever hit that again. And I think he realized that risk and reward, how it plays out in the swing and characteristics of a swing, you can spike some numbers and there might be some penalty with some other numbers.

"He demands a lot out of himself. I think he got caught up in last year just trying to find a lot of different ways to help us score more runs, maybe got outside his own personal best suited skill set from time to time."

Key question:Will the young talent turn into stars?

The Pirates have cycled through prospects for a couple of decades but none of them really were able to turn potential into consistent results. McCutchen is the fantasy game-changer of the bunch, but can Alvarez, Tabata and Walker prove to be more than mere big-league regulars? We won't know until months into the season, if not the whole year.

Sleeper: Pedro Alvarez, 3B

It is possible, if not likely, Alvarez needs more seasoning in the minors. The Pirates do have a functional stopgap in McGehee, so they can send Alvarez to Triple-A and allow him to prove worthy of being a big-leaguer again. Alvarez was one of the best hitting prospects of his class, but his aggressive approach has gotten him into trouble with extended slumps. If Alvarez finds his niche this season, he can be a real gem of a late-round pick at third base.

Bust: Joel Hanrahan, RHP

You have to be valuable to be a bust candidate, because otherwise no one cares that the player didn't come through. McCutchen still hasn't reached his ceiling, but the next most valuable commodity on this team is the closer. Hanrahan is not a long-term option for a team that is perpetually rebuilding, so he could be dealt to set up for a contender, which would ruin the fantasy value he has going in.

Breakout: Andrew McCutchen, OF

He took a significant step forward last season, but there is still plenty more fantasy goodness to come. With a better supporting cast around him, McCutchen would be one of the most-hyped outfielders in fantasy. As it is, he can still be good for a monster .290-30-100-100-30 campaign.

The skipper said it this winter:

"Obviously [Starlin Castro]'s a great hitter, so he's going to be in the top five somewhere," Dale Sveum said. "He's probably not going to be fourth. But wherever that slot lands, I don't know if it's going to matter with him. Just talking to him and understanding the kind of guy he is, I think he could hit lead off, he could hit 5th, 3rd, 4th, and he's still going to be the same guy.

Key question:Who do the Cubs build around?

Castro is an obvious choice, but how long will it take the likes of Brett Jackson, Rizzo and Stewart to fulfill their potential? These could be fantasy monsters in the long term and if they all come together quickly, the Cubs could be a great fantasy source of sleepers and breakouts.

Sleeper: Bryan LaHair, 1B

He will have to hold off Rizzo this spring, but LaHair was the Pacific Coast League MVP last season by hitting .331 (. 405-. 664) with 38 home runs. "Bryan LaHair is our first baseman," Theo Epstein said. "I don't believe in the concept of 4A players. The guy can hit." He is going to be a nice NL-only sleeper and might even have hot streaks that make him worthy of starting in mixed leagues.

Bust: Ryan Dempster, RHP

The Cubs don't have many highly sought fantasy options, so if any of their mediocre picks don't pan out, it really is hard to consider them a bust. Dempster is one that tends to get a bit more credit than he probably deserves in fantasy circles. He went bust a year ago, but if anyone is picking him in a standard mixed league, they are probably wasting a pick on a pitcher they are going to rotate back to the waiver wire periodically.

Breakout: Ian Stewart, 3B

Stewart never hit his stride last season, but he is now 27 and ready to break through as a big-leaguer. There is still .280-25-90-90 potential here and a strong spring can make him a great late-round pick in mixed formats.

The skipper said it this winter:

"[Brett Wallace]'s going to be in the mix," Brad Mills said. "He's going to get plenty of playing time in spring training, as well as Carlos [Lee]. And we're going to kind of go from there.

"Carlos did a real good job at first base for us. There's absolutely no doubt about that. To say, when he comes into spring training, that he's going to be moved to leftfield, I don't know if that's fair for him or the whole ballclub. We're kind of looking at him for first base.

"What does that do for Brett Wallace? Well, let's see how spring training plays out and see how he plays. He had a great spring last year. And we'll kind of make those decisions as we move forward. But to say anything right now, that would be real difficult."

Key question:How long will Rodriguez and Myers stay around?

The Astros have a young rotation that is capable but a starting lineup that looks more like the Cleveland Indians from the movie Major League. That dichotomy makes it likely the pitching gets dealt. It is a rotation full of arms capable of helping fantasy owners, but not much if they don't find some reliable young bats in a hurry.

Sleeper: Jed Lowrie, SS

Lowrie wasn't a starting shortstop on a contender, but with the Astros he is going to get plenty of rope defensively. At the plate, he has shown flashes of brilliance and he just might develop into a .280-18-80-80 fantasy shortstop. He can be a very valuable late-round stopgap at that thin position.

Bust: Carlos Lee, 1B/OF

Lee's numbers have been in decline for a few years and now he is stuck in a bad situation in Houston, where there just isn't much around him. Lee has the look of a fantasy pick that can go bust to the point of no longer being a viable member of a fantasy roster, particularly at the famously deep positions he is eligible at. At 35 with declining numbers and supporting cast, Lee is a player best avoided now.

Breakout: Bud Norris, RHP

Norris is turning 27 this spring and is ready to reach 200 innings for the first time in the major leagues. Those are two very good times to expect a breakthrough for a pitcher. Norris is on a bad ballclub that won't win games, but that will merely make him affordable on draft day. He is capable of winning 15 games even with this short deck, posting a low-3.00 ERA and striking out over 200 batters. That is a top 25 fantasy starter that will be on the board until very late in most drafts.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there and takes them very personally.

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