2010 proved to be the year that the Cincinnati Reds finally got back to the postseason for the first time since 1995.Â
Cincinnati Reds (91-71)
The Reds had been a trendy pick to emerge as a playoff contender in 2008 and 2009 due to their crop of young talent arriving in the Majors.Â It didnâ€™t quite happen in those years, but the team came of age in 2010 and deservedly took the NL Central crown.
It was the Redsâ€™ misfortune that their first postseason game since 1995 was against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies.Â It was as if Game One was Cincinnatiâ€™s birthday party, long in the planning and eagerly anticipated, to which Halladay turned up and promptly walked off with all the presents. The Philliesâ€™ ace pitched a no-hitter and thoroughly deflated the Reds, leading to a 3-0 sweep and a brutally blunt end to Cincinnatiâ€™s season.Â
The obvious disappointment will be tempered by the knowledge that the Redsâ€™ 2010 success was built on a mix of youth and experience that should hold them in good stead for the next few years.
Joey Votto stood out in the batting lineup, and in the National League MVP award stakes, but the Redsâ€™ offence was potent because he was far from the only threat.Â Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Ramon Hernandez, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs all made significant contributions alongside a bit of thump from Jonny Gomes.Â
In the pitching department, Bronson Arroyo held everything together in typically understated fashion, while Mike Leake and Travis Wood had impressive rookie seasons and Arthur Rhodes rolled back the years in the bullpen.Â And then came Aroldis Chapman.Â The Cuban exile jumped up to the Big Leagues down the stretch and caused a sensation with his 105 MPH fastball and filthy slider.
Dusty Bakerâ€™s men might have been dismissed quickly from the playoffs in 2010, but thereâ€™s a good chance theyâ€™ll be back again in 2011 and maybe it will be them getting the brooms out next time.Â
St. Louis Cardinals (86-78)
The Reds may be seen as the new force in the Central, but letâ€™s not dismiss the 2009 champions too quickly.Â
In fact, the 2010 Cardinals were eerily reminiscent of the previous yearâ€™s team when you look at the numbers.Â The difference between the runs they conceded in 2009 to those conceded in 2010 was one (640 in 2009 to 641 in 2010) and the difference in runs scored was six (730 in 2009, 736 in 2010).Â Ordinarily you would expect a team with those runs scored-allowed totals to finish with a 91-71 record, which is exactly how they ended up in 2009.Â Had they done so in 2010, they would have tied the Reds in the Central and the Braves in the Wild Card race.Â That they didnâ€™t was down to very small margins of error along the 162 game season.
So the Cardinals were still genuine contenders in the Central and thatâ€™s hardly a surprise.Â Albert Pujols was outstanding as usual, Matt Holliday had a strong year one in his seven year/$120m contract, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were as intimidating as ever and Jaime Garcia was a rookie revelation.
However, there are two clouds hanging over the Cardinals.Â The first is that manager Tony LaRussa doesnâ€™t seem to be able to get along with the teamâ€™s young outfielder Colby Rasmus.Â He was their third most significant contributor to the offence in 2010 (behind Pujols and Holliday) and yet LaRussa started benching him for lesser players like Jon Jay as the season went on.Â Maybe there are issues we donâ€™t know about that justify LaRussaâ€™s decision, but it wouldnâ€™t be the first time heâ€™s been in a feud with a player (Scott Rolen being a good relatively recent example) and the Cardinals cannot allow a young talent like Rasmus to go to waste.
The biggest cloud, of course, is Albert Pujolsâ€™ impending free agency at the end of the 2011 season.Â It seems unimaginable for him to wear anything other than a Cardinals uniform, but heâ€™s the best player in the game and therefore any contract extension will need to reflect this.Â Can the Cardinals afford to keep him?Â Their fans will surely say they cannot afford not to.Â If an extension isnâ€™t agreed before or during Spring Training, Pujolsâ€™ future will be the dominant story next season in St. Louis regardless of what happens on the field.
Milwaukee Brewers (77-85)
The Brewers have their own first baseman on the brink of free agency.Â Prince Fielder isnâ€™t in â€˜Princeâ€™ Albertâ€™s regal class, but he still figures to command a sizeable contract at the end of 2011 and itâ€™s unlikely to be the Brewers that are paying the cheques.Â
Milwaukeeâ€™s disappointing 2010 campaign may increase the chances of Fielder being dealt over the offseason in a bid to add some pieces to make the team a contender two or three years down the line.Â That would partly depend on how far away they feel they are from contending now. While the NL Central is far from the deepest division(*), you would think only a series of significant additions would really push this team forward in 2011 and such developments do not appear to be on the horizon.Â
The pitching staff was awful in 2009 and wasnâ€™t greatly improved in 2010, with Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf being the exceptions.Â Ryan Braun had another very productive year and Rickie Weeks finally played a full season and showed why so many baseball fans (not just those with a rooting interest in Milwaukee) had bemoaned his injury misfortune in recent years.Â Other than that, there wasnâ€™t much to shout about, unless you were a Brewers player shouting off the record that you didnâ€™t get on with manager Ken Macha.
You donâ€™t have to be popular to be successful, but you do have to be successful if youâ€™re not popular.Â The Brewers finished eight games below .500, so Macha was sacked and replaced by Ron Roenicke after the season closed.
(* On that note, itâ€™s a curious fact that in 2010 the Reds became the fourth straight NL Central champions to be swept out of the playoffs in the divisional round. Is that purely a random fluke produced by the short, best-of-five series format, or does it say something about the quality of the NL Central compared to the East and West? )