The NL Central was pretty much a two-horse race last season, with the Cubs pulling away from the Brewers in the end. However, this off-season helped separate the gap a bit. It wasn’t as much what Chicago did improve, rather what the Brewers lost.
ORDER OF FINISH
– The Cubbies are nearly a unanimous choice across the websites and blogs across the Internet. I am not prepared to against the grain. Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster are rock solid atop the rotation and if Rich Harden can stay healthy, it will be lights out. The line-up is still solid from top to bottom, but the team will need last year’s import sensation Kosuke Fukudome and this year’s free-agent addition Milton Bradley to fulfill their roles if they are to succeed. While I am picking the Cubs to win the division, I would not be surprised to see them win 8-10 games less in ‘09.
– The Cards finished 10 games over .500 last season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but I think they overachieved. They still have the best player in the division (and maybe all of baseball) in Albert Pujols. Still, Ryan Ludwick is going to be hard-pressed to match 2008’s numbers and forgive me if Khalil Greene doesn’t excite me at shortstop. The staff is the key though. Adam Wainright and Kyle Lohse must match last year’s efforts and former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter needs to get to 100% if they are going to compete. Keep your eyes on rookie outfielder Colby Rasmus, who could make a huge rookie impact.
– For the first time in decades, the Reds boast some of the game’s most promising young arms in Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. However, how staff ace Aaron Harang is able to bounce back from a career-worst season is likely going to be the biggest factor in determining the success of the rotation. The challenge for Dusty Baker this year is getting his team to manufacturer enough run production to compete. With Ken Griffey and Adam Dunn gone, Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce will need to step up in the 3-4-5 spot in the batting order.
– Offense is not a problem for Houston as they boast one of the division’s most potent line-ups. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are top-tier run-producers and I like the late-signing of Ivan Rodriguez, who will prove to be valuable. They are going to need to score a ton of runs though as the rotation is weak. Roy Oswalt, who is on the decline, is one of the few dependable options on the mound.
– After losing both C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets, the Brewers are looking for answers in the rotation. The team’s quick fix at closer with the signing of veteran Trevor Hoffman was derailed also when he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder injury. The offense is still lights out with Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart paving the way.
– As much as the Cubs are the consensus #1 pick in the division, the Bucs have earned that recognition as the division’s last place team. They do have some young and intriguing players, led by Nate McClouth, but are missing way too many pieces to be taken seriously. It looks like yet another losing season ahead in the Iron City.
MVP – Alfonso Soriano (CHC)
Cy Young Candidate – Carlos Zambrano (CHC)
Biggest Bust – Khalil Greene (STL)
Biggest Breakout – Joey Votto (CIN)
Comeback Player – Chris Carpenter (STL)
Rookie of Year – Colby Rasmus (STL)