NL Central

As I’m writing this, Andre Iguodala is singlehandedly outscoring the Nets, so I can take a break and down a six-pack of smooth NL Central goodness (2010 records in parenthesis):

Milwaukee Brewers (77-85) — As this is a full season preview and prognostication, I can’t overreact to one game, bad as closer John Axford’s Opening Day implosion was.  There is just too much ability on this team to sit behind the Reds and Cardinals in the standings. While former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke recovers from a broken rib, their less-heralded winter addition, Shaun Marcum, is coming off the best season of his young career in Toronto, and now gets the luxury of moving away from the deadly lineups of the AL East.  MVP caliber left fielder Ryan Braun is primed to rebound from what was a down year for him, hitting .304 with 25 home runs, 103 RBI, and 14 steals, and sits in the heart of the order with two fellow 100-RBI men, third baseman Casey McGehee and first baseman Prince Fielder.  Fielder, still only 26 years old, has kept his strikeouts steady while increasing his walks, and playing for a contract this season, don’t be surprised to see his slugging percentage trend back towards .550 and his home runs jump back into the 40+ range.  There are a lot of “ifs” with the Brewers, but with Takashi Saito sitting behind Axford with closing experience, and Rickie Weeks having finally put together a full season of health and production, the pieces seem to be in place for Milwaukee to take the division. However, if they stumble out of the gates and fall behind in the standings by mid-summer, don’t be surprised to see them entertain trade offers for Prince.  Projected wins: 88

Cincinnati Reds (91-71) — The 2010 Reds got swept up in the perfect storm of impact young bats, timely veteran resurgences, and a groundball-heavy staff pitching in a home run-friendly ballpark.  Unfortunately for Cincinnati, they’ve lost their bullpen anchor (Arthur Rhodes, who posted 1.6 WAR as a 40-year old reliever), and open the season with two young fireballing starters, 2010’s best pitcher, Johnny Cueto, and former top prospect Homer Bailey, on the disabled list with shoulder problems — a way-too-frequent occurrence in Dusty Baker’s managerial repertoire.  The hitting should stay at or near league-leading levels, with expected improvement from outfielders Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce balancing out the decline of 35-year-old third baseman Scott Rolen, whose mini-resurgence last season belies the fact that he has not put together consecutive seasons of more than 130 games since 2003 and 2004.  Projected wins: 87

St. Louis Cardinals (86-76) — With a healthy Adam Wainwright, the Cards were primed to reclaim the top of the division; now they’re left without a key cog in their top-heavy organizational structure.  Chris Carpenter remains a dependable, All-Star quality starter, questions abound as to whether the team can score enough to help out the other four starters, and a shaky bullpen.  Jaime Garcia, last season’s pleasant surprise, saw his innings jump more than double the innings increase considered risky for a young pitcher’s arm, and cannot even be treated with caution this season in the wake of Wainwright’s Tommy John surgery.  Manager Tony La Russa assembled a slick-fielding, poor-hitting lineup around linchpins Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and star-in-the-making center fielder Colby Rasmus.  With a heaping dose of good fortune, St. Louis could still be in decent shape, but this roster lacks enough depth to overcome the vagaries and inherent randomness of a 162-game season.  Projected wins: 80

Chicago Cubs (75-87) — The Cubs of the last few years have bared a strikingly similar resemblance to the New York Mets, and that is in no way a compliment.  They’ve made their bed, and chosen to lie in it with overpaid, under-performing veterans, chasing name assets rather than talent to build a competing ball club.  Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome is entering his fourth season on the North Side as a 33-year-old hitting .259 for his career with minimal power or speed to justify his $48 million contract.  A 40/40 player before signing a $136 million contract with the Cubbies, left fielder Alfonso Soriano has seen his home runs drop consistently, and leg injuries have robbed the 35-year-old of the ability to swipe double-digit bases.  Bounceback seasons from third baseman Aramis Ramirez and free agent first baseman Carlos Pena seem likely, at least to some degree, and Starlin Castro should provide some batting average stability at the top of the order. Newcomer Matt Garza will look even more dominant outside of Tampa Bay, and Ryan Dempster has turned himself into a successful veteran pitcher, but the key to the rotation’s fortunes lies between Carlos Zambrano’s ears, and no one knows how that will turn out. Projected wins: 73

Houston Astros (76-86) — After trading Astro lifers Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last summer, Houston finally embarked on the rebuilding project that owner Drayton McLane had been putting off for too long.  The team is not entirely devoid of talent, but they still need to implode further to hasten the transition.  First baseman Brett Wallace was a first round pick in 2008, but has many questions to answer about his big-league potential after being traded three times in his first 25 months as a pro.  Native Texan Hunter Pence has settled in nicely as a .280-hitting corner outfielder with 25 home run power, but is comically miscast as Houston’s star player.  The rotation, led by ironman Brett Myers and strikeout artist Wandy Rodriguez, is solid, but held back by abysmal defense everywhere except center, where Michael Bourn is stuck trying to cover an entire continent by himself. With their AA and AAA teams barren of any true hitting prospects, the ‘Stros will continue to slide backwards until 2013, when they are finally rid of Carlos Lee and the incredibly shortsighted $100 million they gave him back in the winter of 2006.  Projected wins: 68

Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105) — Eighteen straight seasons of futility (the Curse of Barry Bonds?) may finally be paying off.  While not even ready to flirt with mediocrity just yet, these Pirates field a lineup capable of giving teams trouble on any given night.  Andrew McCutchen may already be the best all-around center fielder in the game, although that probably speaks more about the dearth of studs at that position than the 24-year-old’s admittedly star potential.  Eight years after trading Aramis Ramirez to Chicago for Jose Hernandez, Pittsburgh seems to have found his clone in Pedro Alvarez at the hot corner. Showing the same kind of raw power at age 24, but a little less of the contact tool, look for Alvarez to settle into low-30s home run power with around a .275 average.  Speedy left fielder Jose Tabata and second baseman Neil Walker both flirted with .300 in their rookie seasons, adding to the Pirates’ framework for a nice lineup to carry them in the future. Wake me up when their top two starters don’t sport 2010 ERAs over 5, and when their #3 didn’t go 1-11 last season.  Projected wins: 63

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