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2010 NL Central Preview

Continuing our MLB not-so-preseason-anymore journey from coast to coast, this divisional preview finds us digging deep into America’s heartland. The St. Louis Cardinals lay claim to the NL Central’s throne in 2009; will someone sneak in and steal their crown?

We’re about to find out. Along the way I will give you a few fantasy nuggets as well, so grab your notepad and pay attention.

Time to “fllllllllly awaaaaaaaaaaaay!!!” as Dave Niehaus would say.

(Shoot me now. That reminds me, while spending the morning watching Opening Day with Britton Dennis, one of his roommates and said roommate’s dad, the topic of baseball broadcasters came up. Britton and I are waxing poetic about Vin Scully, when the roommate’s dad says this: “I really don’t like Scully. He puts me to sleep with his stories.” With our mouths agape, we were totally stunned. Dodger fan or not; who doesn’t appreciate the vocal sweetness of the greatest play-by-play guy of all-time? Disgusting, is what that was.)

6.) Pittsburgh Pirates

Are they moving in the right direction? Ehhh.

Prospects? Yes. Convincing us they won’t just sell off those young stars in the making once a little talent begins to be realized? Not so much.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen is one of those future stars. Power Wheels has the highest ceiling of any Pirate since Jason Bay, and he might end up being even better.

One of McCutchen’s outfield mates, Garrett Jones, may not be a potential star, but he easily could hit 30-35 home runs in 2010.

Unfortunately, the buck stops there. There isn’t another player on the big league roster who will help drag Pitt out of last place. Sure, closer Octavio Dotel has fantasy value, due to a very good K/9 ratio, but it’s not as if he’s proven that he can handle the ninth inning pressure. And when your closer is your third best player you have bigger problems than whether or not he can manage his stress.

Pirates fans, clearly not looking forward to October, instead have thoughts focused on July. As in, the ETA for franchise phenom Pedro Alvarez.

Pedro Alvarez needs to be the real deal and then some for the Pirates to contend anytime soon.

5.) Houston Astros

Lance Berkman starting the season on the DL won’t help the cause, as the ‘Stros should really struggle to score runs in 2010. Hunter Pence hopes to avoid sliding glass doors for another season (every 162 games without shattering glass is considered a win) while taking a leap in production and center fielder Michael Bourn just wants to remain fantasy relevant. Left fielder Carlos Lee had a nice season last year, hitting 26 long ones and .300, while knocking in 102 RBI. That about sums up the offense.

At this point trusting Roy Oswalt just doesn’t seem like an intelligent idea. Wandy Rodriguez is easily the man in Houston. Even if Rodriguez duplicates his 2009 stats and Oswalt can start finding the strike-zone on a more consistent basis, the Astros are unlikely to contend.

4.) Chicago Cubs

The big news out of Chicago this spring was Lou Pinella finally putting an end to the Alfonso Soriano lead-off hitter saga. It’s over. Much like Sori’s career as a feared hitter, he has looked atrocious lately.

Last year, Derrek Lee had the quietest .306-AVG, 35-HR, 111-RBI, .972-OPS season I think I’ve ever seen. Why isn’t he getting much fantasy love?

/feverishly typing trade offers to the Lee owners in all of my leagues.

Third baseban Aramis Ramirez could be a sneaky good sleeper for fantasy owners. He had an injury plagued ’09, but still hit well, with plenty of pop. The Cubbies need him in the lineup for more than 82 games though.

If everything goes swimmingly in Chicago’s rotation this summer, than perhaps they have a shot to over-achieve. Former ace Carlos Zambrano isn’t even the biggest problem, though he might be their heaviest problem. The major issue is the back-end, which consists of Tom Gorzelanny and Carlos Silva.

Scratch that. Carlos Silva is their heaviest problem. And their biggest. Why in the world is he still pitching for a Major League club, let alone in a rotation? You got me.

So the Cubs field an offense with holes and a rotation which can’t stop eating donut holes. I don’t like their chances.

3.) Cincinnati Reds

You can’t help but feel like the Reds are another year or two away. As with all pretenders, seemingly, it’s the rotation that is holding the Reds back. Edison Volquez was awful last season, but he still has skill and potential. Losing him for the year due to TommyJohn surgery really hurts, because as they found, multi-millionaire rookie Aroldis Chapman isn’t quite ready for the bright lights. He hurt his back, forcing Cinci’s hand, but was likely headed to the minors anyway.

Raise your hand if you know what kind of pitcher Johnny Cueto is. I sure don’t. Is he a budding star? Is he a long reliever? Is he a solid number two or three starter? I don’t have a clue. He was lights out for two months last year and then just kinda died. I need to see more.

First baseman Joey Votto is a flat-out star. Not in the making. A star. He is one of the fifteen or twenty most productive offensive players in baseball right now. Don’t agree with me? Well you obviously weren’t paying attention last year. Watch Votto play this year and you’ll get it.

After Votto, Cinci has a lot of good players (Brandon Phillips/Scott Rolen/Orlando Cabrera) or youngsters with potential (Jay Bruce/Drew Stubbs), but no one else totally dependable.

Would it surprise me if this club overachieves much like the ’08 Rays? Not at all. I can picture them winning the Central, but my instincts tell me they aren’t quite there yet.

2.) Milwaukee Brewers

Two names people: Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Is there anything else you need to know?

Prince Fielder stikes fear into pitching staffs everywhere. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated.)

Well, yes actually.

If it seems like we have been waiting on second baseman Rickey Weeks to tear it up for years, it’s because we have. The kid hasn’t been able to stay healthy. But a kid no longer is Weeks, he’s a 27-year-old man and it’s time to stay on the field and start producing.

Being honest, I can’t see Corey Hart becoming a star in this league. In 2007 Hart seemed ready to burst from the seam, but instead he has fizzled. He is what he is at this point.

At the risk of blowing my fantasy season, by disclosing one of my favorite sleepers not yet on any of my rosters, call me a believer of shortstop Alcides Escobar. Of course, keep in mind that I said the same thing last year about Texas speedster, Elvis Andrus. That one didn’t turn out so well. Maybe I was a year early.

(Crossing my fingers and searching for four-leaf-clovers.)

Does Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf (totally underrated by the way), Dave Bush and Doug Davis have what it takes to help the Brewers contend for the Central title? Yeah, I think they do.

But ultimately, the NL Central should belong to one familiar team…

1.) St. Louis Cardinals

Albert Pujols is so good, he doesn’t really need additional help in the lineup, but he got it anyway. Matt Holliday – as expected – opted to stick around long term. The duo has the opportunity to form this generation’s version of Larry Walker and Dante Bichette. Only Pujols dwarfs Walker, even at his very best.

Colby Rasmus has a strangle-hold on center field and Ryan Ludwick the same in right. The only problem? Forgetting about 2008, Ludwick seemed to regress back to a production level in 2009 more akin to what had previously been expected of him. As in, that of an average to slightly below average starting outfielder.

Chris Carpenter had his first predominately healthy season last year since 2006. He was rewarded by nearly winning the Cy Young. Can he do it again?

With Adam Wainwright, Kyle Loche and Brad Penny backing him up, the Cards do have some wiggle room.

I’m not saying it’s going to be pretty) in fact I completely expect a full-on battle royal to take place between the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds), but St. Louis just seems to figure out a way to get it done. And this teams is better offensively than they were in April of ’09.

It will be another October full of Pujols. Well, at least a week of him anyway.

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