Carlos Pe√±a spied a familiar face in baggage claim. He had just landed at the Santo Domingo airport on an off-season trip five years ago, and there, unmistakably, stood Albert Pujols. At the time, Pe√±a, who had never met his fellow Dominican Republic native, was a journeyman still trying to realize the potential that made him a first-round pick in 1998. Pujols had already won the first of three National League MVP awards, yet Pe√±a found him friendly and humble in their short conversation. "He wouldn't call any attention to himself," Pe√±a says, "and he's Albert Pujols, arguably the best hitter who's ever lived. He's sitting there waiting for his bags, and that to me was kind of impressive. You'd think he would have an entourage."
The incomparable Pujols impresses his peers without trying on the field too; if Pe√±a liked what he saw at the airport, he's in for a treat this season. In December the former Rays first baseman signed a one-year, $10 million free-agent contract with the Cubs, which means he'll get an up-close look at Phat Albert 15 times. Not that Pujols is the only NL Central first baseman worthy of Pe√±a's admiration. With Pujols, Pe√±a, the Reds' Joey Votto and the Brewers' Prince Fielder, the Central features four of the most feared sluggers in the game, the greatest collection of offensive talent at any position in any division. "There was a time when first base was a signature position," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says. "We could be revisiting that now."
There are elite first baseman all over the game—Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau and Mark Teixeira, to name five—but the NL Central enjoys the rarity of three in-their-prime superstars: Fielder, Pujols and Votto. And the division's other three starters are no slouches. Pe√±a is a former All-Star and a Gold Glove winner who has averaged 36 homers over the last four seasons. Lyle Overbay, who signed with the Pirates, has had an OPS above league average in six of his seven full seasons. Brett Wallace of the Astros is a 24-year-old former first-round draft pick beginning his first full major league season. "If you look at it," says Pujols, "maybe the 1990s were the shortstop era, maybe the 1980s were the outfield era, and now it's the first basemen's era."
Of course, when evaluating an entire body of work, Pujols, 31, stands alone: in addition to those three MVPs, he has nine All-Star selections and two Gold Gloves and last year led the NL in home runs (42), runs (115), RBIs (118) and intentional walks (38). Last season, however, Votto ended Pujols's two-year stranglehold on the NL MVP award when he hit 37 homers and led the NL in on-base percentage (.424) and slugging (.600). And Fielder has averaged more than 40 home runs and 111 RBIs over the past four seasons and led the league with 114 walks in 2010. He, Pujols and Votto were the only three NL players with an on-base percentage above .400.
April 3, 2011
The first basemen in the Central are lineup focal points, but each is also a convenient prism through which to gauge the state of his team. The 27-year-old Votto is the centerpiece of a young and talented team that won the division last year but may just now be reaching its prime. The 32-year-old Pe√±a, like many of his fellow Cubs, is a well-compensated veteran coming off a down year. His average slipped below .200 and he struck out once every three at bats for Tampa Bay in 2010; his new team finished fifth in the Central and was below league average in runs and home runs. Overbay is a veteran placeholder until the perpetually rebuilding Pirates—18 straight losing seasons and counting—find a suitable first base prospect. The Astros, who finished fourth in '10, are a few years ahead of Pittsburgh on the rebuilding curve. The power-hitting Wallace, who was drafted by the Cardinals with the 13th pick in 2008, has the highest ceiling of the many young players (five of eight Opening Day position starters are 28 or younger) that Houston is counting on.
Pujols and Fielder, meanwhile, are fan favorites who have one foot out the door of the only franchises for which they have played—which, in turn, has created an urgency for St. Louis and Milwaukee to win now. Pujols's eight-year, $111 million contract expires after this season; a Feb. 16 deadline for the Cardinals to sign him to an extension came and went without a deal (the Cardinals reportedly offered a multiyear contract worth $200 million, plus an ownership interest in the team) and Pujols vowed to test the free-agent market next winter. St. Louis fans, spoiled by stars such as Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, who spent their entire Hall of Fame careers in their town, have taken to calling Pujols's potential departure Albertageddon.
Pujols's rejection may have felt apocalyptic, but he, at least, will suit up this season. Adam Wainwright will not—and that could spell doom for the Cardinals' postseason hopes. The 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up tore a ligament in his pitching elbow, underwent Tommy John surgery on Feb. 28 and will be out until 2012. "There are always distractions if you allow them," says manager Tony La Russa, "and part of being good enough is not to be distracted, so this is a spectacular test."
The Cardinals still have righthander Chris Carpenter (the 2009 NL Cy Young runner-up, who had a 3.22 ERA over 235 innings in '10) and leftfielder Matt Holliday, who had the league's fifth-best OPS (.922) last year. But the club did little to improve the roster; its most headline-worthy, if curious, move was the addition of former Astro and Yankee Lance Berkman to bat fifth and play rightfield. The 35-year-old, who is a year removed from surgery on his left knee, is far from the offensive force he once was—his OPS has dipped more than 200 points in the last two years. The one-year, $8 million deal he received is the kind of stopgap move that, even before Albertageddon, gave 2011 a last-ditch feel for the Cardinals.
Brewers rightfielder Corey Hart is a baseball news junkie who started every morning of the off-season with a visit to MLBTradeRumors.com. His teammates call him Peter Gammons. But on a Sunday in mid-December, third baseman Casey McGehee called Hart and broke one of the biggest stories of the winter to him: Milwaukee had acquired 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from the Royals in exchange for prospects. "I got scooped," Hart says.
Two weeks earlier the Brewers had traded another prospect to the Blue Jays for righthander Shaun Marcum, who had a 3.64 ERA and the AL's third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.84) last season. The remarkable thing wasn't just that G.M. Doug Melvin added two frontline starters to a rotation that already included emerging star Yovani Gallardo. It was that he did so without having to trade a certain slugging first baseman headed into his walk year. "We all thought Prince was going to leave to get pitching," Hart says, "but we got two really quality guys, and everybody else is still here."
Even though Milwaukee won only 77 games last year, its Big Three and an offense that scored the fourth-most runs in the NL (4.6 per game) has the Brewers dreaming of a division title. (The euphoria was dampened somewhat in early March, when Greinke suffered a cracked rib while playing pickup basketball. He's expected to be back in the rotation by late April.) As for keeping Fielder beyond this season, well, let's just say Prince's time is now in Milwaukee. He will make $15.5 million this season and is likely to seek upwards of $200 million in free agency, a sum that's almost certainly too rich for the Brewers. But, says McGehee, "the biggest thing we can do if we want to keep him here is win."
Overtaking the well-constructed Reds will be difficult. Votto is surrounded by twentysomething talents: centerfielder Drew Stubbs (26), rightfielder Jay Bruce (23), and starters Edinson Volquez (27), Johnny Cueto (25), Homer Bailey (24), Travis Wood (24) and Mike Leake (23). "There's a lot of optimism on this team," Votto says.
Powered by Votto's breakout year, the rising Reds led the NL in runs per game (4.9), homers (188) and slugging (.436) and won the Central for the first time in 15 years. G.M. Walt Jocketty could have tried to improve his young team by diving into the free-agent market, but instead, aside from looking around for a leadoff hitter (signing only reserve outfielder Fred Lewis to help with that role), he invested within. Votto signed a three-year, $38 million deal that will take him through his arbitration years. The arbitration-eligible Bruce (six years, $51 million) and Cueto (three years, $27 million) also received multiyear deals, ensuring that the core of the team will be in place for several more seasons. "We felt like our young guys would all continue to mature and get even better than they were," Jocketty says.
The opposite trend is at work in Chicago, where Pe√±a, whose average and home run totals have tumbled from career highs of .282 and 46 in 2007 to .196 and 28 last season, has plenty of company. He flew to Texas for a week in January to work with Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who was Pe√±a's hitting coach when he made his big league debut with the Rangers in 2001. "We're starting new," says Jaramillo.
That's a theme for the Cubs. In the last two years they've gotten new owners (the Ricketts family), a new manager (Mike Quade), a new hitting coach (Jaramillo) and a new pitching coach (Mark Riggins). Unfortunately they still have a boatload of declining players with eight-figure salaries: starters Ryan Dempster, 33, Carlos Silva, 31, and Carlos Zambrano, 29; outfielders Kosuke Fukodome, 33, and Alfonso Soriano, 35; third baseman Aramis Ramirez, 32, and Pe√±a, 32. That's the core of a roster that carries the NL's third-highest payroll ($133.8 million) and won just 75 games last year, the Cubs' worst performance since 2006. "We've got some expensive guys who have to perform up to it," says G.M. Jim Hendry.
The Pirates and the Astros are at the other end of the financial spectrum, and far at bottom of the standings. Pittsburgh will have the game's third-lowest payroll ($51.4 million) and, in all likelihood, one of its worst records, though 24-year-old centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (33 steals, 16 homers and an .814 OPS in 2010, his second big league season) is a blossoming star. The Pirates signed Overbay—at 34 he'll be their oldest player—to be a veteran totem for McCutchen and raw talents such as leftfielder Jose Tabata (22), third baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) and second baseman Neil Walker (25).
The division's other major youth movement is in Houston, where the Astros are banking on unproven talents such as Wallace. After being traded three times in one year—he went from St. Louis to Oakland to Toronto before landing in Houston last July—Wallace has been handed the first base job despite hitting .222 with only two homers in 51 big league games last year. He was a slugger in the minors (career OPS in 287 games: .863), and with Wallace and 26-year-old third baseman Chris Johnson (11 homers in 94 games last year) the Astros hope to have infield cornerstones they can build upon.
In his first big league camp, with the Cardinals in '09, Wallace shadowed Pujols, hoping to pick up pointers from—and be noticed by—the star. Pujols, who shares an agent (Dan Lozano) with Wallace and Votto, noticed and started advising the prospect on everything from hitting to dress code. "I get that a lot from young kids," says Pujols. "They don't take advantage of talking. They're so shy about it."
Seven months from now, when he's eligible for free agency, Pujols will have no shortage of suitors. He may be first among his peers, but in 2011 Votto's Reds and Fielder's Brewers are the better bets to be first in the division.
HOW THEY WILL FINISH
MVP: JOEY VOTTO, REDS
Who is going to produce more than Albert Pujols in a contract year? Expect a big performance from Prince Albert as he tries to maximize his free-agent value. But Votto, last year's NL MVP and leader in OBP and slugging, will be right there with him—and his production will come in a pennant race.
CY YOUNG: YOVANI GALLARDO, BREWERS
All the attention is on his celebrated new rotation mate, Zack Greinke, but Gallardo is due for another leap after going 14--7 with a 3.84 ERA in 2010, when he cut his walks from 4.6 per nine innings to 3.6 while maintaining a strikeout rate of nearly 10 per nine.
MR. IRREPLACEABLE: CHRIS CARPENTER, CARDINALS
St. Louis might contend without one of its aces, the injured Adam Wainwright. But it can't survive without a workhorse performance from Carpenter. In 2010 the former Cy Young winner went 16--9 with a 3.22 ERA in 235 innings, the first time in four years he passed the 200 mark.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: AROLDIS CHAPMAN, REDS
He won't be a starter until 2012 (at the earliest), and he won't be a closer unless Francisco Cordero falters. But the flamethrower, who takes Arthur Rhodes's setup spot, will make the seventh and eighth innings must-see TV. Last year he struck out 19 in 131/3 innings in a big league cameo.
STAR ON THE RISE: ANDREW MCCUTCHEN, PIRATES
As a leadoff hitter in his first two big league seasons, McCutchen had the same average (.286), OBP (.365), HR rate (one every 36 ABs) and stolen base rate (one every five games)—but last year he cut his strikeout rate (by 3.5%). This year he'll benefit from a move to the number 3 spot.
STAR IN DECLINE: LANCE BERKMAN, CARDINALS
The switch-hitter, 35, batted just .171 against lefthanders last year, forcing him into a platoon role after Houston traded him to the Yankees. Now St. Louis is asking him to play the outfield, which he hasn't done regularly since 2004. He barely played there this spring due to elbow and calf injuries.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
The New Red Machine rolls. Jay Bruce becomes a star—he and Joey Votto form the NL's best one-two punch. With hot pitching in October, the Reds get to their first Series since 1990.
Injuries and subpar starting pitching derail them, but there's still hope for next year. Every key player on the roster is under control through 2012.
Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo battle each other for the Cy Young; the offense continues to slug away (750 or more runs for four straight years); the Brewers are an October threat.
With Greinke's rib injury lingering and their suspect infield defense faltering, they fall into a hole by May—and the distraction of Prince Fielder trade talk becomes pervasive.
Carlos Zambrano is an ace again, and Aramis Ramirez produces like the number 4 hitter he's expected to be. The Cubs grab the wild card in the fall—and sign Pujols over the winter.
Age kicks in—five starting position players and two starters will be at least 32 by the end of April. Tempers flare too, making the Ramirez-Carlos Silva spring spat look tame.
Albert Pujols decides to talk contract in-season and signs an extension. Barring that, Lance Berkman regains his righty swing and is adequate in right, helping a wild-card push.
Chris Carpenter makes yet another trip to the DL and Jamie Garcia's spring struggles carry into the season. The farther back the Cards fall, the more Pujols wants to leave.
G.M. Neal Huntington has spent a majors-best $30.7 million on the last three drafts. Forget the big league record: Seeing those prospects develop will make the brass happy.
What could be worse than last year's 105 losses? Injuries to Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen. Slowed development of the two young building blocks would be devastating.
Hunter Pence becomes a star, Brett Wallace finds his power stroke, the staff thrives under pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and the Astros play meaningful games in August.
A historically slow-starting team limps out of the gate, and because of ownership uncertainty—the club is for sale—the front office doesn't trade veterans for more prospects.