The NL Central is hardly ever a juggernaut of a division. Many will not hesitate to call it the weakest division in baseball, and I’d definitely be among them. Despite the general lack of winning in this division, it has been home to some star power in the last three years, especially at first base. Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto are three of the best first basemen in the game, now just one of them remains in the division. As it tends to be, this division is wide open, with each team facing at least one essential question going into 2012.
For the defending division champion Brewers, their question revolves around a subtraction, of course. Can the offense weather the “storm” (I’m being liberal here) of losing Prince Fielder? We know Ryan Braun will hit, but that certainty doesn’t exist for many other players in Milwaukee. 2011′s World Series champs aren’t without questions. The Cardinals lost the best hitter on the planet to the Angels. Their offense should be fine with Matt Holliday leading the way, but we have to wonder if Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran can repeat their performances from 2011. The Reds made big splashes, trading for Mat Latos and signing Ryan Madson. They underachieved in 2011, four wins short of their pythag record. Can they put it all together and take the division? I think so. The Pirates took a big step forward and actually led the division for a time, but ended up under .500. The Cubs and the Astros, well…
The aforementioned Aramis Ramirez is definitely the one to watch for the Brew Crew. After a very down year in 2010 (.321 wOBA, 92 wRC+, his works marks since a .288/71 split in 2002), Ramirez bounced back to post a .373/133 split in 2011. More importantly, he played in 149 games after playing in just 82 in 2009 and 124 in 2010. His health and production will be key for the Brewers in helping to replace Prince Fielder’s offense. Others to watch: Mat Gamel, Zack Greinke.
David Freese burst into the national baseball consciousness by having a dynamite World Series (.348/.464/.696) and will now look to improve on a solid 2011. His 2011 strikeout rate (20.7) was a bit high considering his walk rate (6.6%) and power output (.144 Iso), but he managed his way to a .348 wOBA in 97 games and 363 PAs. Simply adding more plate appearances should make him more valuable going forward, but I’m interested to see if he can crawl closer to his .224 MiL Iso and 9.7 MiL BB%. Others to watch: Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman.
Moving teams is never an easy feat. That difficulty is played up even more when the player moves from one extreme to the other. Mat Latos is moving from spacious and a half Petco Park in San Diego to the bandboxy Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Latos is definitely not a groundball pitcher (career 42.8% GB rate), but his propensity for strikeouts (8.65 career K/9) and good control (2.83 BB/9) will help him make the transition from Petco to GABP. There will certainly be some effect on Latos, but how much? Others to watch: Aroldis Chapman, Drew Sutton.
Pedro Alvarez‘s second go ’round in the Majors was ugly to say the least. Despite a solid 9.2% walk rate, Alvarez was down right Chris Davisian with a 30.8% strikeout rate. Throw in a .098 Iso and you’ve got a .191/.272/.289, .256 wOBA, 57 wRC+ season on your hands. Alvarez was rated the #8 prospect in baseball coming in to 2010 and has yet to live up to any of that hype. Others to watch: A.J. Burnett, Andrew McCutchen.
As if this wasn’t already a huge part of the team’s culture, 2012 will be the first year of another waiting period. With Theo Epstein and his gang all assembled on the North Side of Chicago, change is coming for the Cubs…but when? While they wait for it, there isn’t going to be much to watch. Starlin Castro is about the only bright spot, though he is pretty bright. His ability to take a walk is most definitely still in question, but he can hit and he can run. He’ll need to cut down on the CS to add some value on the bases, but he can certainly put the bat on the ball and it’s fun to watch. Others to watch: Anthony Rizzo, Geovany Soto.
So…the Astros. Look, I’d be lying if I said I knew a lot about the Astros and their players. There’s not going to be a lot of baseball-based excitement out of Houston in its last year in the NL. J.D. Martinez has a nice minor league line and held his own in 226 PA. Jed Lowrie has flashed success in Boston, so maybe that translates to Houston? Jimmy Paredes is a former Yankee farmhand, so that’s kind of cool. While we may not agree with the decision to move Brett Myers to the closer’s spot, he’ll be worth watching there. Aside from that….I’m not sure. It’s going to be a long, long season in Houston.
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