This is another wide open division. Three teams could win it, two will battle for fourth, and one has less of a prayer than the American Atheists Society. In order of last year’s finish--
Good: Losing Prince Fielder will hurt, but with Braun, Hart, and Weeks the Brew Crew can still mash the ball. Aramis Ramirez was a good pick up and will solidify a scary middle lineup. Gallardo, Greinke, and Wolf are a good 1-3—beyond them, though, the pitching thins out.
Bad: Losing the guy who has led the team in homers and RBIs can’t help. George Kottaras as the everyday catcher? I don’t think so. Losing Yuniesky Betancourt may be worse than losing Fielder.
On the Hot Seat: Asking Mat Gamels—he of the .115 average after he was called up—to take Fielder’s position is asking a lot. Shaun Marcum needs to be consistent, which he’s never been. Can Axford save 40+ again? Number one on the list, though, is Ryan Braun. Most people think he beat a banned substance suspension on a technicality. If he slumps, he’s going to get an earful everywhere he goes.
Prognosis: The Brewers will be decent, but I don’t see them repeating as NL Central champs.
St. Louis Cardinals:
Good: It’s always nice to start the season by collecting your World Series ring. Most teams would happily trade their 1-5 staff for Garcia, Wainwright, Lohse, Westbrook, and the magnificent Chris Carpenter. They’d also love to have players with the heart of David Freese and Yadir Molina.
Bad: Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball and he’s now an Angel. That’s as bad as it can get. Wainwright may not be fully recovered from arm trouble.
On the Hot Seat: Matt Holliday and newly acquired Carlos Beltrán have to replace King Albert’s production, and Lance Berkman has to take his position. Can Berkman duplicate his back-from-the-dead 2011? Is Allen Craig more than a pinch hitter? Does Furcal have anything left?
Prognosis: Repeating is hard and it’s not in the Cards.
Good: Votto, Phillips, Bruce, and Rolen (when healthy) can flat out murder the ball. Adding Ryan Ludwick makes them even more dangerous. Trading for Mat Latos and signing Ryan Madson were superb moves.
Bad: The pitching staff is maddeningly inconsistent, especially Bronson Arroyo.
On the Hot Seat: The Reds were the best team on paper in 2011 and finished third in a weak division. Dusty Baker is on a short leash and could easily get an early axe if the Reds falter. The entire pitching staff except Matos will be trade bait if it underperforms. Chapman has a fabulous arm, but they’ve said the same thing about lots of guys who never figured it out. Homer Bailey? He’ll either be a number three this year or he’ll be out of baseball.
Prognosis: It’s now or never for the Reds. I think this may be their year.
Good: Neil Walker, Clint Barnes, Nate McLouth, Jeff Karstens… if by “good” you mean “decent.” I expect pitcher Daniel McCutchen, lifted from the Yankees, to add his name to the list. Not allowing Garrett Jones to go to the Yankees was also good.
Bad: The Pirates are, simply, mediocre at best. Barajas as the starting catcher? Ugh!
On the Hot Seat: Even though the Yankees are paying most of A.J. Burnett’s salary, he needs to show he’s more than a jerk. Bedard and Morton need to prove they’re not broken beyond repair. The entire outfield—Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutcheon, McLouth—has worn the “hot prospect” label beyond its sell-by date.
Prognosis: It’s been 19 years since the Pirates had a winning record. Call it an even 20.
Good: Addition by subtraction—dumping head case Carlos Zambrano. With Garza, Dempster, and Samarzija the pitching won’t stink. When healthy, Kerry Wood will prevent Carlos Marmol from having the close games and that’s a very good thing.
Bad: Everything else not named Geovany Soto will stink. Opposing pitchers will beg to face this lineup on short rest. Losing Aramis Ramirez makes it even worse.
On the Hot Seat: Alfonse Soriano has his mail forwarded to the hot seat. I’d be shocked if he’s not traded for salary relief and Cracker Jacks before the All-Star break. Sonnastine and Maholm need to prove they can pitch at a level higher than AAA. Reed Johnson must be more than a spare part and Anthony Rizzo needs to mature fast.
Prognosis: Good enough to stay out of the basement, but Theo Epstein needs an act of God to make this team competitive.
Good: Not much. Quintero looks like he’ll be a good catcher. The ‘Stros unloaded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne; they were about all that qualified as good on this team.
Bad: Let’s not mince words—the Astros are horrible. Wandy Rodriquez is their ace, a guy no contending team would extend to acquire last year because he’s a number 3 starter at best. Red Sox castoff Kyle Weiland will probably make the staff. Jed Lowrie will be the shortstop. Jack Cust is on the roster. Oh dear!
On the Hot Seat: The Astros tried dearly to offload Carlos Lee and failed. He will (unfairly) be the target of fan frustration. J.A. Happ wanted to be a starter and was 6-12. Ouch! But the guy who will really be in the maelstrom is General Manager Jeff Luhnow. This team will be horrible in the NL Central. Just imagine how bad they’ll be when they shift to the AL West in 2013.
Prognosis: The Astros lost 106 games last year. Consider each game less than that to be a blessing.