NL CENTRAL

The worst division in baseball was further weakened by the loss of two of the game's biggest stars, which has opened the door for the well-rounded, pitching-fortified Reds
March 26, 2012

Nattily attired in dark blue jeans and a navy sweater, his dark brown hair perfectly coiffed, Ryan Braun resembled a CEO at a ribbon-cutting ceremony when he addressed a live national-TV audience at the Brewers' Maryvale, Ariz., training camp on the morning of Feb. 24. But instead of carefree hopes springing eternal, the National League's reigning MVP was in crisis-management mode, trying to convince the public that he's not a drug cheat despite Major League Baseball's insistence otherwise.

"It's sad and disappointing that this has become a p.r. battle," lamented Milwaukee's leftfielder, who enlisted help from Hiltzik Strategies, a New York City public relations firm, before delivering his impassioned defense.

Though an arbitrator overturned, on procedural grounds, Braun's 50-game suspension stemming from a positive test for elevated amounts of synthetic testosterone, the p.r. damage is certain to linger through the season. It was just the most visible and picked-over of hits for a division that, despite producing the World Series champs last season, could use the help of a Hollywood spin doctor to reinvent its image.

Consider the variables that have this division vying to be baseball's worst: The Astros (56--106), Cubs (71--91), Pirates (72--90) and Reds (79--83) combined for 370 losses last season, just 12 fewer than the AL East shared among five teams. And though the Cardinals and the Brewers reached the postseason—with St. Louis going on to win the World Series as a wild card—the free-agent departures of the Cards' Albert Pujols and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder have left the division without a clear-cut front-runner.

"It's wide-open with those two guys leaving," says the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano, who belted 26 homers a year ago and is one of the division's big boppers now that Pujols is with the Angels and Fielder is with the Tigers.

The popular belief, understandably, is that the Cardinals can't defend their championship without Pujols, a three-time MVP (and four-time runner-up) over the past 11 seasons. "His jersey isn't hanging up in a locker, so you're going to be perceived differently," says 28-year-old third baseman David Freese, the new face of the franchise after earning NLCS and World Series MVP honors last season. "There's definitely a different vibe. But the Cardinals won before Albert, and hopefully we'll continue to win without him."

Manager Mike Matheny, who on Opening Day will fill out his first regular-season lineup card at any level, is responsible for making sure that the new vibe remains positive. A former Gold Glove catcher for 13 years in the big leagues, including five in St. Louis (2000 through '04), the 41-year-old Matheny was a roving minor league instructor for the Cardinals during the last two seasons before he was promoted in mid-November to replace Tony La Russa, who led St. Louis to seven division titles, three pennants and two world championships over the past 16 seasons—and retired 36 wins shy of becoming the second-winningest manager in history.

But, with a little help from a weakened division, the Cardinals won't have to endure a rebuilding year despite losing two future Hall of Famers. On Dec. 23, two weeks after Pujols exited the Gateway to the West, G.M. John Mozeliak signed switch-hitting outfielder Carlos Beltran for two years and $26 million. Although he turns 35 in April and has been slowed by balky knees, the six-time All-Star had a .910 OPS last season while playing his home games in two notorious pitchers parks (Citi Field and, after being traded from the Mets to the Giants, AT&T Park). That was the ninth-best figure in the league, but would only have been the third-highest in the Cardinals' lineup, behind Lance Berkman (.959) and Matt Holliday (.912). Those three now compose the heart of St. Louis's order, which, with the expected continued development of Freese, remains fearsome.

"I don't know if our lineup will be quite as explosive, but I don't see any reason why we can't compete for the World Series title again," says the 36-year-old Berkman, who hit .301 with 31 homers and 94 RBIs in his first year with St. Louis. "We've lost Albert, but we've gained one of the best pitchers in the game."

Berkman is referring to Adam Wainwright, who was dominant in 2009 and '10, winning more games (39) and posting a lower ERA (2.53) and throwing more innings (4631/3) than all other NL starters. However, he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery at the start of spring training last year, a loss that, based on his performances over the previous two seasons, cost the Cardinals approximately six wins and forced them to go 18--8 in September just to get into the postseason. Although Wainwright's control was rusty in his first few outings this spring, he declared himself "a normal pitcher again" after his fastball consistently returned to the low 90s.

"How many teams can weather the loss of their ace and still win the World Series?" Berkman says. "Losing Adam last year was probably a bigger loss than losing Albert this year."

Some 380 miles north and east in Milwaukee, where Fielder had been the first baseman since 2006, replacing a slugger hasn't been as easy. Fielder had more homers (38 to 37) and RBIs (120 to 99) than Pujols last season, and was five years younger, a superstar beginning his prime years. He led a lineup that belted a league-high 185 long balls and provided protection for Braun, who was first in the league in OPS (.994) and second in average (.332).

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who hit 26 homers and drove in 93 runs for the Cubs last year, moves into Milwaukee's four hole after signing a three-year, $36 million deal. He'll play alongside sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who also brings some power but is an OBP disaster (three straight seasons of sub-.300 OBPs).

Not even the most experienced p.r. professional could find a way to spin Mat Gamel as an adequate replacement for Fielder. Gamel's work ethic has been questioned since his first big league camp in 2009, when he showed up overweight and wasn't taking his opportunity seriously enough. To teach him a lesson, veterans found a portable locker and moved all his possessions outside the clubhouse.

"I've never been an advocate of the weight room, but I realized how important it really is," says Gamel, who boasted a healthy .304/.376/.498 career line in the minors but will turn 27 in July, a late start for a full-time regular. "Some people want to do things their way until they realize 'That s--- ain't working.' Unfortunately for me, I've been that way my whole life."

A lefty who has hit only five home runs in 194 career big league plate appearances, and none since 2009, Gamel has played just two big league games at first base. He led Triple A Nashville with 28 homers and 96 RBIs last season, but, says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, "it's time for him to be a major league player instead of a great Triple A player."

Any team [in this division] can go to the playoffs," Alfonso Soriano offers hopefully. Now there's a statement with more serious spin than a Wainwright curveball. Let us tick off the reasons why:

• Houston celebrates the franchise's 50th anniversary in 2012 (its last season in the National League before moving to the AL West), but the Astros have the look of an expansion team. Twenty rookies saw action in '11, which contributed to 106 losses (worst in the majors) and a 4.51 ERA (worst in the league) by a pitching staff that remains mostly intact.

• The Cubs weren't lovable losers last season, they were just plain losers who dropped the second-most games in the league and played joyless baseball. New team president Theo Epstein and G.M. Jed Hoyer jettisoned meltdown-prone righthander Carlos Zambrano to Miami, but losing Ramirez to the Brewers and first baseman Carlos Pe√±a (team-high 28 homers) to the Rays—while advisable given their high price tags and the franchise's rebuilding state—leaves a big hole in the lineup. (Shortstop Starlin Castro is the only proven every-day player with upside.) Expect another couple of lean years on the North Side while the new front office implements an overhaul of one of the game's most shallow farm systems.

• Pittsburgh was in first place through 100 games in 2011, yet finished with a losing record for the 19th consecutive season and dropped the third-most games in the league.

Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh did what they could to improve their images in the off-season, if not the likely Opening Day rosters. While appearing on a Houston sports-talk radio show in February, new Astros owner Jim Crane offered to play catch with a caller before a game at Minute Maid Park if he bought season tickets. Chicago splashed first-year, no-nonsense manager Dale Sveum on Windy City billboards with the slogan baseball is better here. "We want to change the culture," Hoyer says. "Emphasizing the manager above individual players is a good way to focus on the whole team as we embark on our first season."

During a Feb. 28 open house at McKechnie Field, the Pirates' spring training home in Bradenton, Fla., the team's director of Florida operations Trevor Gooby helped deliver a baby in a stadium breezeway. It's the kind of p.r. gold that can't be spun—new life at Pirates camp! A week later Pittsburgh sent an even livelier message when it signed All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year contract extension worth $51.5 million.

So who will still be playing ball in October? The Cardinals reloaded as best they could, and the Brewers remain in the playoff hunt thanks to a deep pitching staff that had the league's second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.9 to 1) last season, but the division crown is Cincinnati's for the taking. Yes, the Reds finished with a sub-.500 record last season. And yes, it was their 10th losing campaign in 11 years. But while St. Louis and Milwaukee bid farewell to irreplaceable bats, Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty revamped a pitching staff that was decimated by injuries last season, one year after the Reds had won the division and first baseman Joey Votto beat out Pujols for the MVP award.

In December the Reds acquired 24-year-old righthander Mat Latos (3.37 career ERA) from the Padres, giving Cincy two potential aces now that Johnny Cueto, a 26-year-old righty, has fully recovered from last season's lat, biceps and triceps injuries. Aroldis Chapman, a 24-year-old southpaw who hits triple digits on the radar gun as casually as he chews sunflower seeds, could move into the starting rotation with the additions of lefty reliever Sean Marshall (2.45 ERA, 169 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings for the Cubs over the past two years) and closer Ryan Madson, who converted 32 of 34 save opportunities for the Phillies last season. The bullpen will be one of the league's deepest and best.

The Reds' offense was not an issue in 2011, ranking second in the NL in runs scored (735) and homers (183). Cincinnati also had the best defense in the NL, turning batted balls into outs 71.8% of the time. Assuming the irritation Madson felt in his right elbow during spring training won't be a nagging problem, the Reds will not repeat last season's struggles in close games, when they had 33 one-run losses, most in the majors. "We have no excuses not to get back to the playoffs," second baseman Brandon Phillips says. "We have the ability to bring a championship to the Queen City."

The only place where the organization appears to be thin is in the marketing department, which has yet to launch a campaign to raise Votto's national profile. Along with winning a Gold Glove last season, the 28-year-old hit .309 with 29 home runs and 103 RBIs. His pure, lefthanded swing produced more line drives than any other hitter in the majors, and he also led the league with 40 doubles, 110 walks and a .416 on-base percentage.

Everywhere he travels, Votto takes with him a copy of Ted Williams's 1971 book, The Science of Hitting. He's also read more than a dozen books about the Splendid Splinter. "I strive to be the best player in the game," Votto says. "Pujols is clearly better than everyone else, but I'm like one of those greyhounds chasing that mechanical rabbit."

Cincinnati hasn't won the pennant since 1990 or been a consistent playoff team since the days of the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. But this year in the NL Central, the Reds are the mechanical rabbit.

HOW THEY'LL FINISH

going to be comfortable."

BEST CASE

A.J. Burnett gets his career back on track and takes pressure off a bullpen that threw more innings (526) than any other in 2011. The Bucs snap their record skid of 19 straight losing seasons.

WORST CASE

The losing streak reaches two decades. Pedro Alvarez, the second pick in the 2008 draft, repeats his '11 season, in which he hit .191 with four homers and was demoted to Triple A.

BEST CASE

Starlin Castro, the NL hits leader in 2011, improves at short. First baseman Bryan LaHair, the minor league home run leader last year, has similar success in the bigs. The Cubs build hope for 2013 and beyond.

WORST CASE

First-year manager Dale Sveum doesn't find his groove, and the Cubs finish at least 20 games under .500 for the second year in a row. Matt Garza loses trade value and the Cubs can't move him.

BEST CASE

In the franchise's final season in the National League, Houston plays well enough to keep fans from completely tuning out—and maybe get them dreaming of winning an AL West title by 2018.

WORST CASE

Somehow, some way, the Astros are a middle-of-the-pack team—missing the playoffs and costing themselves the top three draft pick next summer that new G.M. Jeff Luhnow desperately needs.

PHOTOPhotograph by JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES PHOTODON WRIGHT/APBEST FEET FORWARD While Michael McKenry and the Pirates are headed for yet another sub-.500 finish, Brandon Phillips's Reds will win their second Central title in three years.
SIX PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)