N.L. West doesn’t need Albert or Prince


BY WADE MCMILLIN, Couchsideshow.com editor

With the departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder from the National League Central, fans are probably wondering who will be the team to emerge for the pennant next year.

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t automatic favorites anymore with Pujols not in the picture. And the magic will have probably left Milwaukee — along with Fielder — when the final months of the 2012 season unfold. There’s no doubt the N.L. West will never be the same. But don’t be discouraged. The largest division in baseball should still create some late-season drama. The Cards and the Brew Crew did lose some big bats, but have bright stars in the waiting. And don’t count out the Chicago Cubs or the Cincinnati Reds, either. As usual, those four teams should be in a dead heat toward the end of the season for the division crown. Each club definitely has a shot and the division should be as competitive as ever.

Here’s Couch Side’s early preview of the N.L. Central and the top four clubs could finish out 2012:

Although the St, Louis Cardinals lost slugger Albert Pujols, left, the return of starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, right, could make the Red Birds just as strong. Photo by: cardamom / Flickr

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

• Last season: 90-72 (second in N.L. Central; fourth in National League; won World Series 4-3 against Texas Rangers as N.L. Wildcard team)

• 2012 prediction: 93-69 (First place in N.L. Central)

• Key Losses: Albert Pujols, 1B (free agent signed with L.A. Angels), Octavio Dotel, RHP (free agent signed with Detroit Tigers); Nick Punto, INF (free agent signed with Boston Red Sox); Gerald Laird, C (signed as free agent with Detroit Tigers); Ryan Theriot, INF (still free agent); Edwin Jackson (still free agent); Arthur Rhodes, LHP (still free agent) Tony LaRussa, Coach (retired)

Key Additions: Carlos Beltran, OF (signed as free agent); J.C. Romero, LHP (signed as free agent)

Outlook: It’s hard to bet against the reigning World Series champs. Although the Red Birds lost Pujols and LaRussa, the upside of St. Louis still looks tremendous. Last fall proved that. Youngsters like John Jay, David Freese and Allen Craig emerged as possible MLB superstars. St. Louis also still has a solid bat in Matt Holiday and Carlos Beltran will only make that lineup better. The club’s pitching staff should be another part of the team unaffected by Pujols leaving. Chris Carpenter is healthy again and Adam Wainwright will be fresh off of Tommy John surgery. And if you’re a Cardinals fan, you have to believe the return of Wainwright will make all the difference after the 30-year-old recorded a 20-11 record with a 2.42 ERA in 2010. St. Louis always has a lot of nice pieces. This year is no different, so first-year manager Mike Matheny shouldn’t have too much trouble recording 90 or more wins.

Fans may have thought the Chicago Cubs have had a slow off season, but the acquisition of first baseman Anthony Rizzo will pay off in the long run. Photo by: SD Dirk / Flickr

CHICAGO CUBS

• Last season: 71-91 (Fifth in N.L. Central)

• 2012 prediction: 88-74 (Second place in N.L. Central — NL’s second wildcard birth)

• Key Losses: Carlos Pena, 1B (still free agent); Aramis Ramirez, 3B (free agent signed with Milwaukee Brewers); Mike Quade, manager; Carlos Zambrano, SP (traded to Miami Marlins); Tyler Colvin, OF (trade with Colorado Rockies); Sean Marshall, RP (traded to Cincinnati Reds)

• Key Additions: Anthony Rizzo, 1B (trade with San Diego Padres); David DeJesus, OF (trade with Oakland Athletics); Ian Stewart , 3B (trade with Colorado Rockies); Andy Sonnastine, SP (signed as free agent); Travis Wood, SP (acquired via trade with Cincinnati Reds); Chris Volstad (acquired via trade with Miami Marlins); Paul MaHolm, SP (signed as free agent) David Sveum, manager

• Outlook: Chicago seems like it’s cleaning house this offseason. First, the front office was rightfully overhauled and long-time Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein took over as the club’s President of Baseball Operations. Epstein then hired his former assistant, Jed Hoyer, as Chicago’s new General Manager.  Once behind-the-scene personnel were added, the front office went to work by replacing manager Mike Quade with David Sveum, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers where he served a the squad’s hitting coach for the past six seasons. So the rebuilding began with the foundation. Once in place, deal makers focused on the roster. And although the Cubs lost a handful of talented players, they got younger. The biggest move was trading for Rizzo. It was thought that the Cubs would be the team to land Fielder. They didn’t, but it may pay off big time in the end because Rizzo is basically considered the next Mark Teixera or Ryan Howard. The 22-year-old can flat out hit for power and should make an enormous splash during his first year in the bigs this season. If the Cubs can get that and a little more pop from player like DeJesus, Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto, they could really surprise some people. I believe they will finally sneak into the playoffs, but that’s only if the Cubs hold onto Matt Garza, who is heavily involved in trade talks right now.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

• Last season: 96-66 (N.L. Central champions; lost in National League Championship Series to St. Louis Cardinals)

• 2012 prediction: 75-87 (Third place in N.L. Central)

• Key Losses: Prince Fielder, 1B (still free agent); Casey McGehee, 3B (traded to Pittsburgh Pirates); Craig Counsell (still free agent); Yuniesky Betancourt SS (free agent signed with Kansas City Royals); Jerry Hairston, INF (free agent signed with L.A. Dodgers); LaTroy Hawkins (signed as free agent with L.A. Angels); Mark Kotsay, OF (signed as free agent with San Diego Padres); Takaski Saito, RP (signed as free agent with Arizona Diamondbacks

• Key Additions: Aramis Ramirez, 3B (signed as free agent); Alex Gonzales (signed as free agent) Jose Veras, RP (acquired via trade with Pittsburgh Pirates).

• Outlook: I would throw Milwaukee right in the thick of things. It’s just too bad they lost their top two players. Fielder is 99 percent on his way out of town — likely to Washington D.C. — and reigning N.L. MVP Ryan Braun will more than likely have to sit out for the first half of the season because he allegedly violated baseball’s banned substance rules. Those two losses are so detrimental that I don’t see the Brewers as contendors this season. They may make things interesting in the second half when Braun returns, but they’ll likely be playing catchup in the early goings of 2012. Milwaukee also added some OK players to fill Fielder’s void, though. They went after power by signing Aramis Ramirez although he’s a short-term solution and on the  wrong side of 30.  Ramirez is also a major liability at third base, but he’s arguably an upgrade from McGee. I also like the signing of Gonzales. He should be able to provide some power from the shortstop position and the Brewers will desperately need just that. Milwaukee’s pitching staff looks just as good as they were last year, so with some improvement on the hill, Milwaukee could exceed expectations.

CINCINNATI REDS

• Last season: 79-83 (Third in N.L. Central)

• 2012 prediction: 73-89 (Fourth place in N.L. Central)

• Key Losses: Ramon Hernandez, C; (signed as free agent with Colorado Rockies); Francisco Cordero, RHP (still free agent); Edinson Volquez (traded to San Diego Padres)

• Key Additions: Mat Latos, SP (acquired via trade with San Diego Padres); Sean Marshall (acquired via trade with Chicago Cubs)

• Outlook: About two years ago I learned to never count out a team with Joey Votto on it at first base. The Reds are definitely worth considering as contenders because of Votto’s presence and any team would love to have him. That could be the case next offseason with Votto due up to hit the market as a free agent, but for now, he’ll stay in Cincinnati and prove just how much he’s worth. The Reds proved they are committed to success by striking a deal with the San Diego Pades for Mat Latos. Joey Votto shouldn’t take that move with a grain of salt and neither should people who are thinking about writing the Reds off this season. I’m not saying they are the team to beat, but they do have some reliable weapons and some new toys to return to the same Reds team of two years ago.

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