Looking (Far) Ahead: The 2011 NL Central Part I

I’ve been holding on to this idea since I signed up for this gig, and I can’t wait any longer. I have an overwhelming urge to start stacking up the division. Now I know that all of this is looking far into the future, but this may be more of a therapeutic exercise for me than any thing else.

Whatever the case, here is my very early edition of the NL Central’s standings. Please note that this based highly on conjecture and/or opinion, and I’m sure it will be highly contentious. Opinions and discussion are highly encouraged.

So without further ado, here is how I see the bottom 3 in the NL Central this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Yes, Pittsburgh still has a baseball team. People may not notice them after August, what with the successful teams in other sports starting up around that time of the year, but years of following disappointing sports teams has allowed me to keep sharp focus on forgotten teams like this. I’d love to say this team is poised for turn around, but I’d also love to win the lottery. Some things just aren’t going to happen.

What’s Right: There are a few bright spots in the roster in The Pitt. Andrew McCutchen,Lastings Milledge, and Ronny Cedeno come to mind immediately. These three have played very well both on the field and at the plate, and if they can all up their numbers, The Pirates may climb out of the cellar.

What’s Wrong: Pretty much everything. They fell in the bottom five of pretty much every statistical category. The glaring stat has to be the  team ERA of 5.00. It’s astonishing to look at, and I imagine it must be gut-wrenching to experience. (Don’t Laugh Brewers fans, they only edged out Pittsburgh by .42)

Final Standing: 6th.

Take a pitching staff that gets beat on worse than Glass Jaw in Punchout, an offense that exists mainly because you have to bat in order for the game to continue, and you don’t have a very good foundation. They have made moves in the free agent market, but Lyle Overbay hardly counts as a splash. Whether it’s a lack of funds or lack of spirit that’s getting Pittsburgh down, they need to get something – anything – on the right track if they’re going to slide in any higher than last year.

Houston Astros

The ‘Stros are a pretty young team, and as youngsters go, they seem at times to be prone to mistakes, flighty and uncomfortable. Sure you can see the potential there, but for every shining moment there is also a moment of frustration. This team is dying for direction and consistency, but these things take time.

What’s Right: Hunter Pence, Keppinger and Carlos Lee keep the offense moving – or at the very least attempt to. Houston also managed to make a few moves to bolster their bullpen in the offseason by picking up a few relievers. In a more intangible sense, there is great sense of teamwork, enthusiasm, and energy on this team. Does that win games? Not necessarily, but it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling when you have to sit on 86 losses for a whole winter.

What’s Wrong: Right now, it’s the looming arbitration situation. Five players, and possibly over 25% of the payroll hang in Houston. That’s a lot of money for anyone, but especially a team that struggles to attract and keep star power in their dugout.  Beyond that, the fact that they failed to pick up any of the bigger starting pitchers on the market this winter is a decision which may haunt them sooner than they think.

Final Standing: 5th.

This team is far from the Astros teams earlier in the decade that vied for the division title consistently. That’s not to say that can’t shake things up this year, they just need to make a few fixes. They need consistent pitching, and that young talent needs to step up big. If they can make a move or two in free agency, we may be talking about them like the 2010 Reds later down the road.

Cincinnati Reds

True, they took the division last year. What’s also true is they caught a lot of people off guard. Part of me thinks that Votto can repeat his performance, and there are a few good performances left in Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera. It just seems unlikely, however, that all of the stars will align for this team one more time.

What’s Right: A lot. This team has a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership. Last year they were an offensive juggernaut, and their pitching backed them up. The pitching staff caught a huge break when they avoided arbitration with Johnny Cueto, agreeing to a four year deal. Whether you like it or not, Dusty Baker knows his way around these kinds of teams, and knows how to get them to perform.

What’s Wrong: Many of the things that made this team so great last year were a slew of breakout performances. Unfortunately, over the course of multiple MLB seasons, this kind of lightning is hard to keep in the bottle. Take Cueto for instance. He pulled out more than a few excellent performances, but his career ERA is still over four. Consistency is going to be the key factor.

Final Standing: 4th

What happened last year was baseball magic. It was fun, shocking, and kept people interested in the NL Central all year. Last season in Cincy was like a real-life version of  Major League. The problem with the movies, of course, is that the credits have to roll sometime. I’m not saying they can’t make a splash two years in a row, I’m simply saying that I don’t think their performance this year can match up with all the improvements in our top 3.

Part II is forthcoming and will cover the top three teams in the NL Central. Did I get this right? Did I get it totally wrong? We’d love to hear about where you think everyone will stack up in the division. Leave a comment!

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