After this season, the National League and baseball as a whole will never be
the same. After this season, the NL Central will revert to a five-team division and the Houston Astros will move to the AL West, giving each division five teams and making the traditional one month of Interleague Play a thing of the past. But first, the 2012 season must play out. Here’s how things will go down in the National League Central:
In case you’re coming out from under your rock for the first time since 2010, here’s what you missed in the midwest: the Astros led baseball with 106 losses. The Pirates competed until a blown call killed their momentum. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce stood out while the rest of the Reds, well, didn’t. NL MVP Ryan Braun led the Brewers to a division title and then (almost) got suspended 50 games and, of course, the St. Louis Cardinals, who captured the Wild Card berth on the season’s last day, won one of the most thrilling World Series of all time.
The Astros will once again finish dead last in the Central. The team made very little noise this offseason, and honestly, if you ask even the most avid baseball fans, they will struggle naming more than three current Astros starters not named Carlos Lee. Because of trades and free agent departures, 2012′s Astros squad looks nothing like it did just two seasons ago.
Although new President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein would not like to admit it, the Cubs are rebuilding. Starlin Castro, the team’s lone All-Star representative from last season, is the only bright spot in a lineup that includes an aged Alfonso Soriano and hopeful youngster Bryan LaHair. Ryan Dempster will be the team’s Opening Day starter — yikes.
The Pirates looked like they were ready to contend last season — they were in first place as late as July 25. However, the next day, July 26, the team fell from grace. In a 19-inning thriller against the Braves, the Pirates lost on what seemed to be an obvious blown call on a play at the plate — the umpire later admitted his mistake and the game should have gone on. At this point in the season, they were one game behind the division lead. The Pirates would go on to lose 42 of their final 61 games. This year, though, the team will finish better, and may even make a run at their first above-.500 season since 1992. Bright young stars Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones as well as veterans Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas will be fighting to put this team into contention, but in reality, this team will be lucky to contend for third place.
The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols this offseason. The loss felt on and off the field in St. Louis will be indescribable — he was a huge contributor to the community as well as a perennial top-five MVP finisher. But, the team must move on. The signing of Carlos Beltran and a resurgent Lance Berkman will certainly help the Cards’ offense, but Beltran is no Pujols — no one is. This team still has enough talent to compete, with pitcher Adam Wainwright coming back from Tommy John surgery and a still-above-average lineup, however the Cardinals will have trouble keeping pace with the Brewers and Reds.
The Brew Crew survived quite a scare this spring when MLB announced that the team’s MVP, Ryan Braun, won his appeal on a 50-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. However, they could not avoid another crushing blow — the loss of Prince Fielder. Fielder is a shoo-in for 30 or more homers and 100 or more RBI every season and his power is hard to replace — much like Pujols’. The Brewers have just one starting infielder from last season returning to the team, Rickie Weeks. Weeks will now be joined by former Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramírez, shortstop journeyman Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel, Fielder’s replacement who will play his first full season. Gamel has just five career homers to his name. On the bright side, their rotation is well above average from top to bottom, with their “Big Three” of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, facing the Brewers in a three-game series could leave the opponent on the losing end of a sweep.
The Reds will return to the top of the NL Central this season after most recently winning the division in 2010. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips are all 30 homer threats for this potent offensive team that is constantly atop the NL in home runs, runs scored and batting average. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman may have to close games out in Cincinnati due to Ryan Madson’s recent UCL injury. Chapman, the 24-year-old fireballer, is the owner of the record for fastest pitch ever thrown and can hover around the 100-105mph range for an inning or two. Mat Latos came over from the Padres to bolster a rotation that already included established pitchers Jonny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake.
The Reds will win the Central because its competition will lag behind from voids left in their lineups by departing free agents. However, the Cardinals and Brewers did well in signing big bats this offseason and those moves will keep them in the hunt for the two Wild Card berths which will make this division exciting to watch in 2012.