Okay time for part two of my MLB division previews and predictions. This one brings us to the NL Central.
1. Chicago Cubs The Cubs really should win this division running away. They were the best team in the division last year and and adding Milton Bradley is a plus--if he can stay healthy, but more on that later. Mr. Bradley adds to an already solid hitting core of Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Geovany Soto. They dd lose Kerry Wood to the Indians but the addition of Kevin Gregg is a good one and he will anchor the bullpen, along with the impressive Carlos Marmol.
Player to Watch: Milton Bradley. Bradley was the best hitter the Rangers had last year (his home/away splits weren't awful either), but was hurt...again. I like the signing of Bradley for 3/30 but his health is an obvious question. He's only played 100+ games three times in his career so he could leave some Chicago residents disappointed. However, if he's healthy, look for Bradley to mash. He's got great talent and is moving from one good hitter's park to another.
2. St. Louis Cardinals I've got the Cards finishing second to the Cubs, but by a large margin. The offense is pretty much there with Pujols (best player in baseball. Period.) and Glaus, but it has some questions, IMO. Is Ryan Ludwick for real? Can Rick Ankiel get some plate discipline/stay healthy? As for their pitching...meh. Adam Wainwright is solid but he only pitched 20 games. If Wellemeyer and Lohse can repeat what they did last year, they might be able to make it closer with the Cubs.
Player(s) to Watch: Albert Pujols is one. He's one of those guys that I'm gonna be harping on when I'm 87, telling my grandkids that no one could hit the ball like King Albert. In non obvious land, Ryan Ludwick will be another to watch. Ludwick raked last year but is it a case of late blooming or just a fluke?
3. Cincinnati Reds I like the Reds to finish third, but they could challenge the Cardinals for the second spot with solid pitching. Edinson Volquez is a stud, Johnny Cueto has a year of ML pitching under his belt and is incredibly talented, it's doubtful that Aaron Harang is as bad as he was in 2008, and Bronson Arroyo should be better than he was in '08 as well. Their offense is pretty crappy, though. Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion provide good offense on the corner infield spots, but after that...not so much. Ramon Hernandez is decent behind the plate but nothing too special, and the middle infield probably won't produce much, either. Jay Bruce will be the best offensive player on a team that will miss my boy Adam Dunn's bat, no matter how much Dusty Baker hates walks.
Player to Watch: Jay Bruce. I told some fellow fans at the June 20th game who had not heard of Jay Bruce that he could be one of the best players in baseball in five years. This year is the first step towards that. Bruce has 30 homer power and 2009 will probably be the first of his many trips to the All-Star game.
4. Milwaukee Brewers The Brewers have no starting pitching and not much offense after Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. The off-season hurt the Brew Crew the most, as they lost both CC Sabathia (woo!) and Ben Sheets, their two best pitchers. Yovani Gallardo is great, but he's not Sabathia or Sheets and I don't think he can hold down the rotation by himself.
Player to Watch: Yovani Gallardo. This young guy is a stud and should, despite being on what projects to be a bad team, get some awards consideration. Coming off an injury and a shaky playoff performance, look for Gallardo to bounce back and become a dominant starter.
5. Houston Astros At the plate, they've got (the incredibly underrated) Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. On the hill, they've got Roy Oswalt. Things are not too bright in Houston.
Player to Watch: Lance Berkman. Berkman has a career line of .302/.413/.560 and has finished in the top 5 of MVP voting in 4 different seasons, yet he is rarely mentioned as one of the top players in the game. He is definitely the second best second baseman in baseball, right behind Pujols and right ahead of Mark Teixeira.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates I'm not gonna lie--I do not know much about this team, but there really is not much to say about them. The only thing they can do is hope for lightning in a bottle and pull a D-Rays. Ryan Doumit and Mike Francesa's favorite, Nate McLouth are probably the lone bright spots in Pittsburgh, who will once again finish in the cellar.
Player to Watch: Andy LaRoche. Once considered a top prospect, LaRoche has essentially fallen off the face of the earth. It'll be interesting to see if he can start to develop into the player everyone once thought he would be.