The Lay of the Land

It's a new year, meaning there are approximately six weeks from now until Pitchers and Catchers Report Day. The season isn't exactly just around the corner yet, by any means, but it's creeping closer by the day. With that in mind, I say it's high time we stop looking back at the season now past and get to looking at the year we're heading into. Are you with me?

The thing is, pretty much everyone here is at least borderline obsessive about this baseball team, so there really isn't a whole lot I can tell you about the Cardinals' recent maneuverings you don't already know. Such is the downside of writing for people who already omnivorously devour any and all information regarding the subject at hand.

On the other hand, I'm sure very few of us follow the other teams in major league baseball with the same fervor we devote to our own squad. Even the other teams in the division, while certainly important, don't really move the needle in quite the same way as the home team does. Sure, we all know what the other teams in the division have done this offseason, in that vague sort of way I could tell you about housing market trends. I know which direction things are headed, and I could spout off a useful fact or two, but to be honest, my knowledge is rather superficial, culled from listening to bits of people with vaguely British accents debate the economic recovery on NPR. It's the same thing with the NL Central teams. I know what each team has done, but at the same time it's fragmented and vague.

And so, with that in mind, I'm going to pass on writing about the St. Louis Cardinals today, and instead take a look at the teams we'll be seeing the most of in the opposing dugout. Before you can worry about winning a title, you need to win your division first. So let's take a look at what kind of hill El Birdos will be facing in trying to win said division, shall we?

 Starting with the bastards that beat us last year, here we go.

Cincinnati Reds

2010 Record: 91-71 (1st place)

Pythagorean Record: 92-70

Notable Comings: Dontrelle Willis LHP, Jeremy Hermida OF

Notable Goings: Arthur Rhodes LHP, Orlando Cabrera SS (remains unsigned; could be back)

Outlook: The Reds are a pretty good team. They won the division last season, and they look as if they could very well repeat again this season. They have a solid young core of talent (including the newly extended Jay Bruce), and Walt Jocketty did a nice job filling in the margins of the team last year.

All that being said, the Reds did overachieve in 2010, and I expect them to come back a bit in the coming season. They were right in line with their Pythagorean record, so there doesn't appear to be any wackiness going on with run distribution, but most of their roster hit their highest projections, and I don't expect that to happen again.

Scott Rolen will be another year older, and his career renaissance following his shoulder woes can't last forever. The loss of Arthur Rhodes may hurt more than you think, seeing as Rhodes was one of the most effective relievers in the majors last year.

On the upside, Aroldis Chapman will likely be in the big leagues the whole season, which could be very bad news for the rest of the NL Central. (Or, he could blow out his arm as many of us believe will happen. Time will tell.) Mike Leake will have an entire season under his belt. Joey Votto, whether he's an annual MVP candidate or not, is a beast in the middle of the Cincinnati lineup. Personally, I think Drew Stubbs is going to be a quality player for the Reds for a long time to come.

On top of their quality big-league roster, the Reds still have plenty of quality in their minor league system. The aforementioned Chapman is the jewel of the system, but players like Yonder Alonso and Devin Mesoraco offer future upside as well. Oddly enough, the Reds' seem to have a bunch of big-bat, limited-position guys at the moment in the upper ranges of the minors.

Bottom line, the Reds are a very good team. They'll likely fall back a bit in 2011 thanks to some players not hitting their most positive projections, but Chapman alone could offset a fair amount of that. I think the Cardinals are a little bit better team, but not much. Then again, this is a team which just signed Dontrelle Willis, so, um, whatever.

Milwaukee Brewers

2010 Record: 77-85 (3rd place)

Pythagorean Record: 76-86

Notable Comings: Zack Greinke RHP, Shaun Marcum RHP, Takashi Saito RHP, Yuniesky Betancourt SS

Notable Goings: Alcides Escobar SS, Lorenzo Cain OF, Carlos Villanueva RHP

Outlook: Can I tell you how terrified I am of the Milwaukee Brewers this year? The last few seasons we've seen them score runs in big bunches, but struggle to hold the opposition down. They made a nice run with CC Sabathia a couple years back, but for the most part it's been the same old story for the Brew Crew in recent years. Sure, they're going to knock your pitchers around, but they can't stop you from doing the same.

Now, though, look at that rotation. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf. I don't care who exactly they throw out there as a fifth starter, there's no way in hell I want to see that rotation for eighteen games a season.  In fact, if I'm completely honest with myself, I think that rotation may be better than the four the Cardinals can field. I could be wrong and just playing Chicken Little, but damn. That's intimidating.

Their bullpen may be pretty solid as well. John Axford looked like an emerging force at times last season, and the ageless Takashi Saito should lend a steadying hand setting up. Possibly worst of all, the Cardinals will no longer have the luxury of Carlos Villanueva pissing our players off and sending them into Super Saiyan mode.

The Brewer offense is as intimidating as ever, with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Ryan Braun all offer tremendous production (though Braun did have an off year in terms of power in 2010), and nighttime sunglass/Camaro enthusiast Corey Hart turned in a monster performance last year. I don't expect him to be as good in 2011 as he was in 2010, but I also wouldn't bet against him continuing his Jayson Werth impression.

I'm just going to come out and say it. Get it over with as quickly as possible.

I think the Brewers may be the best team in the division.

Ugh, I know. Jesus, that's nasty. I can taste it in the back of my throat. And it isn't as if I think they're markedly better than the rest. But still, I look at that rotation, and I look at that offense, and I have to admit to being more than a little bit afraid of the boys from the good land. How many games could the Brewers legitimately improve from 2010? I don't know exactly, but when you replace Chris Narveson with Zack Greinke, that's a pretty good upgrade.

Chicago Cubs

2010 Record: 75-87 (5th place)

Pythagorean Record: 73-89

Notable Comings: Kerry Wood RHP, Carlos Pena 1B 

Notable Goings: None

Outlook: Let's face it: the Cubs are kind of a mess. They were a bad team in 2010, and they aren't going to be a whole lot better in 2011. If it were a different team with a different roster, you might think of them as a team in transition, a rebuilding team even. When you look at where the money actually goes for the Cubs, though, they just don't have the look of a transitional team. Case in point: the signing of Carlos Pena. I actually think Pena is a pretty good pickup for the Northsiders, given the one-year length of the deal, but is he a stopgap? Is he auditioning for a future role? It just seems like too many things are in flux for Chicago right now.

There is some hope in the youth here; Tyler Colvin certainly showed some surprising pop in his rookie season. Geovany Soto had a nice bounceback campaign, and Starling Castro came to the big leagues and hit the ground running. He didn't look like the future gold glover he was advertised as, at least not to me, but small sample sizes and all that.

Aramis Ramirez is still the biggest bat here, but he's moving into decline territory. Alfonso Soriano fell off a cliff, and I'm not sure he's coming back. The pitching is weak, with Carlos Zambrano still the ace of this staff. He's still solid, but between the mileage on his arm and the insanity, Big Z is always a risk to do as much harm as good.

The Cubbies have been pushing to try and deal for Matt Garza; a move for someone like that would certainly improve their chances. Even so, I still they would be a bit short. It would, however, make the NL Central overall dynamic verrry interesting, as suddenly you would have some of the most terrifying pitching in all of baseball concentrated in the low-rent district.

The Cubs are probably not going to compete this season. Their bullpen will be very good, with Kerry Wood rejoining Carlos Marmol at the back end. Sean Marshall will be an interesting wildcard; the decision to either keep him in relief or try him once again in the rotation should make for plenty of blog fodder. Overall, though, this is a team with too many declining players and not enough power. The NL Central will be much improved in 2011, methinks; the Cubs, not so much.

Houston Astros

2010 Record: 76-86 (4th place) 

Pythagorean Record: 68-94

Notable Comings: Bill Hall UTI, Clint Barmes SS/2B

Notable Goings: Matt Lindstrom RHP, Hope 

Outlook: Remember just above this, when I said the Cubs were kind of a mess? Well, remove the kind of, and you've got the Houston Astros. Honestly, I find myself continually aghast at just how poorly this franchise has been handled the past several years. Think back to 2004 and that brilliant, all-time great NLCS series. Honestly, I think I enjoyed the 2004 NLCS more than any other postseason series I've ever seen (possible exception: 2001 NLDS vs. Arizona), and that includes the World Series we actually won. Now look at where the Astros are. They outperformed their Pythagorean record by a freakish eight games, and that still didn't get them even close to .500. This is a bad team, and the people running it should be ashamed of themselves for robbing Houston fans of their baseball team.

Honestly, I don't really know where to start with the 'Stros. The combination of J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez is a pretty good place to begin building from, I suppose. The unaccountable brilliance of Brett Myers last season led Houston to sign him to an extension, but I just can't believe a rational, sane universe could possibly allow that douchebag to have another good year. Beyond Myers, names like Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino start cropping up. 'Nuff said.

I will say this: I would have gladly taken Matt Lindstrom off the Astros' hands any time they liked. Brandon Lyon, um, not so much.

Michael Bourn established himself as a better player than a lot of us thought in 2010, though that isn't exactly high praise. Hunter Pence has gone the other way in a big hurry, after looking so promising early in his career. Chris Johnson, the young third baseman, turned in a solid campaign, but he's going to have to prove he can make it with an almost nonexistent walk rate before I buy into him being a big-league player.

Honestly, the most interesting storyline surrounding Houston this year for me will be what kind of performance we see from Brett Wallace. I still believe he can find a way to be successful, probably in a very Daric Barton-ish sort of way.

Astros fans deserve better. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's going to get much better any time soon.

Pittsburgh Pirates

2010 Record: 57-105

Pythagorean Record: 53-109

Notable Comings: Kevin Correia RHP, Scott Olson LHP

Notable Goings: Just Hope (Okay, Zach Duke too) 

Outlook: A little earlier this offseason, my compatriot Dan had what I think was one of the best lines of the offseason. He said (paraphrasing), "The best way to make the Pirates an 85 win team would be to trade Andrew McCutcheon to an 83 win team and rename them the Pirates." I think that really pretty much says it all.

Honestly, I don't have much to say about the Pirates. Each year we look and think there's a glimmer of life in Pittsburgh, and each year they end up losing 95+ games in spite of the occasional flash of life. What would make anyone think this year should be different?

To be fair, the Pirates do have a couple of talented young players who could offer hope for the future. McCutcheon is fantastic, and Pedro Alvarez looks like the real deal. (He does not, however, look like a third baseman.) Neil Walker and Jose Tabata are both intriguing, though we've seen this story before. I'm going to have to see more from both before I get too excited about their futures. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Garrett Jones turned back into a pumpkin, Lastings Milledge is still a better rapper than a ballplayer (and he's an awful, awful rapper), and there isn't a whole lot of immediate help on the horizon.

Pittsburgh is a non-factor. Again. However, I fully expect them to take three of four from the Cardinals in a critical August series and ruin our season.

Again.

If you asked me right now to rate the teams in the NL Central, I believe it would go thusly:

1. St. Louis Cardinals

1A. Milwaukee Brewers

1B. Cincinnati Reds

4. Chicago Cubs

5. Grandview High School

6. Houston Astros

7. Pittsburgh Pirates

I think it's going to be a three-way dogfight this year, folks. It should be interesting. Or maybe just miserable. Tough to say in January. What do you think?

The Baron's Playlist for the 5th of January, 2011: Some Gems from '10

"The Suburbs" - the Arcade Fire

"Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" - the Arcade Fire

"Ten Cent Pistol" - the Black Keys

"Unknown Brother" - the Black Keys

"Little Lion Man" - Mumford and Sons

"White Blank Page" - Mumford and Sons

"Bloodbuzz Ohio" - the National

"Anyone's Ghost" - the National

"Satisfied" - Cee Lo Green

"Fuck You" - Cee Lo Green

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