For the first time since they topped the National League Central in 1995, the Cincinnati Reds enter a season looking to defend their division.Â And their rivals are determined to make it a difficult year.
2010 Standings (Team, win-loss record)
1. Cincinnati Reds (91-71)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
4. Houston Astros (76-86)
5. Chicago Cubs (75-87)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105)
The 2010/11 Offseason
It has been an interesting offseason in the NL Central.
The reigning champion Reds went down a course of consolidation.Â They brought back starter Bronson Arroyo and signed extensions with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto, whilst avoiding the loss of any significant contributors.Â All of which means they remain a very solid team, but they haven’t pushed on with the help of acquiring new players and other teams in the division have taken that as a sign to chance their arm.
Milwaukee’s star slugger Prince Fielder will be a free agent at the end of 2011 and many thought that the Brewers would try to trade him over the offseason rather than watch him walk away with only a couple of 2012 draft picks as compensation.Â Instead they decided to roll the dice by holding onto Fielder and trading for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.Â In doing so, they moved from being a team expected to take a slight step back, to a team making a big step forward.
The Chicago Cubs also went out and added some players when, had they been so minded, they might have tried to trade a few players and look ahead to another season. In came first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent, joined by his former Rays teammate Matt Garza and former Cub Kerry Wood, the latter giving the team a hometown discount to come back to Wrigley.
In the rest of the division, the Cardinals brought former-Astro Lance Berkman back to the NL Central after a brief period with the Yankees last year.Â Houston signed free agent Bill Hall and Australian pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, while the Pirates added some veterans in the form of pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olson and first baseman Lyle Overbay.
The biggest player news in the NL Central came from St. Louis.Â The first was that the Cardinals were unable to agree a contract extension with Albert Pujols, the best player in the Majors currently.Â Heâ€™ll be a free agent at the end of the season and Cardinals fans will be praying that this isnâ€™t his last with the team.Â The second bit of news was even more depressing.Â Star starting pitcher Adam Wainwright had barely settled in to the pre-season Spring Training camp when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.Â That means he will miss the entire 2011 season.Â Chris Carpenter and the rest of the Cardinalsâ€™ pitching staff will somehow need to pick up the slack.
There have been no such dramas with the Reds.Â Tommy John surgery took starter Edinson Volquez from them for the first two-thirds of the 2010 season, but he was back on the mound for the final two months and should be fine for the 2011 season.Â Heâ€™ll be joined in the rotation by veteran Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and two from three young hurlers: Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Mike Leake.Â While Francisco Cordero may be in the flashy bullpen role as closer, the real attention-grabber is Cuban flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman who dazzled in his debut MLB season last year.Â Reigning National League Most Valuable Player Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips form the core of an impressive batting lineup.
The Brewers carry some big bats as well, most notably in the aforementioned Prince Fielder, left-fielder Ryan Braun, right-fielder Corey Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks, who flourished in 2010 when finally able to play an injury-free season.Â Yovani Gallardo will lead the starting rotation at the start of the season while Greinke recovers from a rib injury.Â John Axford looks set to continue as the Brewersâ€™ closer after taking over the role during the 2010 season from legendary closer Trevor Hoffman, who retired in the offseason as the all-time saves leader.
The Cubs need left-fielder Alfonso Soriano and third baseman Aramis Ramirez to live up to their reputations and salaries this year if the team is to challenge for a playoff place.Â They also need volatile starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano to continue his calm and collected ways from the tail-end of 2010.Â Fans of exciting young shortstops should keep an eye on Starlin Castro.Â He impressed as a rookie in 2010 and has star-potential.
Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers fron the Astros’ pitching staff, with left-fielder Carlos Lee, right-fielder Hunter Pence and the speedster centre-fielder Michael Bourne leading the offence.Â Amid all the gloom in Pittsburgh, centre fielder Andrew McCutchen is the shining light. Left-fielder Jose Tabata, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker are other young players that may help the Pirates out of the mire in the next couple of years.
There has been a 50 per cent turnover in the NL Central managerial stakes.Â Mike Quade took over in Chicago on an interim basis for the final 37 games of the 2010 season after Lou Piniellaâ€™s retirement and he is now in charge full-time.Â Ron Roenicke makes his MLB managerial debut with the Brewers, while former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle is the new man at the helm in Pittsburgh.Â Dusty Baker (Reds),Â Tony La Russa (Cardinals) and Brad Mills (Astros) remain at their respective clubs.
Should be: Reds, Brewers, Cardinals
Could be: Cubs
Wonâ€™t be: Astros, Pirates.
The Reds remain strong and are the team to beat.Â The Brewers have made some good additions, but the early loss of Greinke could hurt them in the end.Â The Cardinalsâ€™ fortunes will depend on how they cope without Wainwright, while the Cubs could come into play if key players have strong years.