1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. St Louis Cardinals
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Cubs will have the easiest road to a division title of any division winner. No one in the Central has enough to play better than .500 ball, let alone challenge the Cubs. The Cubs have one of the NL’s best defenses, a solid pitching staff with upside (if Rich Harden stays healthy, he’s the best pitcher in baseball) and a top productive lineup. Everyone else in the Central has their liabilities, but the Cubs don’t have any.
Milwaukee had managed a slow climb to competitive respectability the last few years, but they will take a step backward this season. They should still finish at or above .500, but they cannot hang with the Cubs. The defense has talent (like JJ Hardy at SS) but also liabilities (like Ryan Braun in LF and Prince Fielder at 1B) and comes out about average overall. The pitching staff took a huge drop with the departure of CC Sabathia, and the developing Yovani Gallardo fronts a ho-hum group. The offense can definitely score runs with power bats Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun leading a loaded, powerful lineup, but they don’t pack enough of a punch in run prevention to do anything other than run in place.
They will be fortunate to post a winning record, but the Cincinnati Reds should take a big step forward this year: 75-80 wins is a likely possibility. Gone are defensive liabilities Ken Griffey Jr and Adam Dunn, and their replacements, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, give the Reds at least as much production while playing better defense. The Reds should now have a decent defense in front of an average, consistent pitching staff. The young hitters should continue their progress, though they’ll continue to struggle with consistency.
The Cards see their undoing in a mediocre defense, thanks to weird position shifts to try and get the bats of Skip Schumacher and Rick Ankiel in the lineup, which leads to holes in the defense. Even then, the lineup isn’t much to crow about outside of superstar Albert Pujols and powerful Ryan Ludwick. This lineup is average overall. Dave Duncan’s patchwork pitching staff will do a decent job but there’s only so much they can do to prevent runs with a so-so defense. Below average run prevention with an average offense indicates 75 wins are on the horizon.
The Astros still don’t have much of an offense, as they’re playing speedy but punchless KazMatsui and Michael Bourn everyday. Hunter Pence has emerged as a leader but only brings so much to the table alongside Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. Miguel Tejada is fading and the arrival of Pudge Rodriguez immediately makes him one of their better power bats. That’s not good. The defense is solid, but the pitching is a mess. The reconstructed Mike Hampton, who has pitched a handful of innings over the last few years, immediately became their #3 starter. That’s all you need to know about the rotation: the bullpen has some solid front men but they can only undo so much damage. Still, they can do an okay job at preventing runs and can win 70-75 games, but that’s about it.
The Pirates have probably the worst offense in MLB, with no serious impact bat to speak of in the lineup (Adam LaRoche and Nate McLouth is as close as they get). Their pitching staff continues to develop in the rotation (watch Russ Ohlendorf) though they’re still some ways away, and the bullpen has glaring holes towards the back end. The Pirates will probably lose 100+ and have the top pick in the 2010 draft.