MLB primer: National League Central preview and odds

Mar 30, 2012 |
MLB primer: National League Central preview and odds
The Cardinals still have veteran leadership despite losing Albert Pujols.
The Cardinals still have veteran leadership despite losing Albert Pujols.
No division lost more name power than the National League Central, which is why experts aren’t predicting much for this group.

But the fact remains that this division is used to proving people wrong. After all, who thought this bunch would produce two playoff teams last year - St. Louis and Milwaukee - and have one of them win the World Series?

Let’s examine all six teams and their strengths and weaknesses as we wait for the 2012 season to begin:

Milwaukee Brewers

Last year's record: 96-66
This year's season win total: 85
Odds to win the NL Central: +228

Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Jose Veras
WHO'S OUT: Prince Fielder, Craig Counsell, Casey McGehee, Yuniesky Betancourt, LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito

Power. Even with Prince Fielder gone, this is a light-pitching division and there are bats abound in this lineup. Give credit to Milwaukee for adding Gonzalez (15 homers last season with Atlanta) and Ramirez (26 with the Cubs), as they form a neat bond with Ryan Braun (161 career homers). The Prince is gone, but the power isn’t.

TEAM WEAKNESS: Bullpen. It’s more of an unknown than a weakness. The numbers look good but closers are such a delicate bunch and Year 3 with John Axford might be a telling one. You can’t argue with his 71 saves and Francisco Rodriguez is there to back him up. But hitters in this league are tough to fool over the long haul, especially when you’re pitching one inning per appearance. With a solid staff in front of him, there should be plenty of opportunities for Axford. Only time will tell if he’s worth of star status.

St. Louis Cardinals

Last year's record: 90-72
This year's season win total: 84.5
Odds to win the NL Central: +238

WHO'S IN: Carlos Beltran, J.C. Romero, Alex Cora
WHO'S OUT: Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Gerald Laird, Octavio Dotel

Experience. No one is going to discount the loss of Pujols. But there are still many pieces on this roster that led St. Louis to a title last season. Hard to believe that kind of seasoning won’t help in a weak division. Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are just a few of the names and now they have Beltran in the mix. Things aren't so bad in St. Louis, Pujols or not.

TEAM WEAKNESS: Health. Though he appears ready to go, there might be too much being placed at the feet of Adam Wainwright. A No. 1 or No. 2 starter might be too large a role for a pitcher who missed the entire 2011 season following Tommy John surgery. Of course, the weak division will help. But there has to be a question mark surrounding Wainwright.

Cincinnati Reds

Last year's record: 79-83.
This year's season win total: 87.5
Odds to win the NL Central: +153

WHO'S IN: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Sean Marshall, Jeff Francis, Ryan Ludwick, Wilson Valdez
WHO'S OUT: Ramon Hernandez, Francisco Cordero, Travis Wood, Edinson Volquez, Dontrelle Willis, Edgar Renteria

Offensive balance. Lot of experts like the Reds in this division because they lost the least in the offseason. And when you throw the likes of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen in the lineup everyday - health permitting - you're going to score some runs. Outfielder Drew Stubbs, who stole 40 bases last season, may complete the picture but needs to improve on last year's .243 BA.

Bullpen. It all seemed so perfect with Madson, who had 32 saves for Philadelphia last year, in the fold. But he’s injured now and manager Dusty Baker told reporters this week that he’d like to use a closer-by-committee approach. A lot of critics point to the theory that if you have two or more closers, you don’t have any closers. It could cost Cincinnati some close games.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year's record: 72-90
This year's season win total: 73
Odds to win the NL Central: +3164

WHO'S IN: Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett, Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Nate McLouth, Casey McGehee
WHO'S OUT: Derrek Lee, Ryan Ludwick, Paul Maholm, Ronny Cedeno, Ryan Doumit, Jose Veras

Runs. Perhaps one of the more underrated lineups, this team can drive them in and added some punch in the offseason to supplement that. Neil Walker drove in 83 runs last season and Andrew McCutchen knocked in 89 more. And lost in the mix appears to be McGehee, who drove in 104 runs for Milwaukee in 2010. If they make the most of their at-bats, the Pirates will do some damage in this division.

Starting pitching. Barajas will be a veteran presence to lean on behind the plate and Bedard could be special. But the loss of Burnett to an eye injury might be tough to overcome. Jeff Karstens had a 3.58 ERA last year and was a great story along the way. But it's doubtful he'll be able to keep that pace up and if Bedard stumbles in his first stint in the National League, there might be some trouble on the mound.

Chicago Cubs

Last year's record: 71-91
This year's season win total: 74.5
Odds to win the NL Central: +1923

WHO'S IN: Paul Maholm, Chris Volstad, Ian Stewart, David DeJesus, Andy Sonnanstine
WHO'S OUT: Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, Sean Marshall

General management. While this year’s going to be a tough one, new GM Theo Epstein will slowly implement his styles, his strategies, and piece this franchise back together. He will have the money to do so, and he’s got the experience to make it count. For now, when Stewart - a career .236 hitter - is your most experienced infielder, you’re in trouble.

First base. A lot will be expected of Bryan LaHair, who takes over for Pena and could be there for a long time. He has the tools and he hit .262 BA last year with five homers in limited action. But first base for the Cubs is a marquee, pressure-packed position. We'll see if he can hold up over 162 games.

Houston Astros

Last year's record: 56-106
This year's season win total: 63
Odds to win the NL Central: +13314

Jed Lowrie, Chris Snyder, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke
WHO'S OUT: Mark Melancon, Clint Barmes, Jason Michaels

TEAM STRENGTH: First base. Carlos Lee has carved out quite a career for himself, and though not many people have noticed him through the years, he’s still going on a bad team. He hit .275 BA last season with 18 home runs and 94 RBIs, as the Astros sunk to the bottom of the league. There’s no more Hunter Pence to pair him with and there’s not much to be optimistic about in Houston overall. But Lee is a bright spot, for sure.

Bullpen. Brett Myers, who saved 21 games with the Phillies in 2007, will give the closer role a crack, though he hasn't posted a save in four years. The good news for Myers is that he will likely not have all that many opportunities to fail on a team this bad.

Odds courtesy of

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