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Another Central title not in the Cards
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I'm not one of them.
The Cardinals are the team to beat — whatever that means — because they are the defending champions. But let's not forget that they finished fourth in 2008.
Any team led by Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright will have a great chance of reaching the postseason. I just think this is the odd year when that's not going to happen.
Instead, I'm casting my vote for a team that hasn't won a division title since the release of "Thriller."
The Brewers scored 785 runs last year, the most of any National League team that didn't reach the postseason. As long as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are batting in the middle of their lineup, they should continue to have plenty of offense.
In fact, Ken Macha's mashers might be even more productive this year, thanks to a healthy Rickie Weeks in the leadoff spot.
But the big change — and the reason why they will win the division — is an improved pitching staff. General manager Doug Melvin signed Randy Wolf, Doug Davis and the perpetually underrated reliever LaTroy Hawkins. And some homegrown pitchers (remember this name: Zach Braddock) will be ready to contribute soon.
There is no way that the Brewers will have the second-worst team ERA in the league, as they did last year. And that's why they will be playing in October.
No Milton, no drama?
Well, not quite. When it comes to the Cubs, there are inevitable oddities and anxieties.
But this should be a refreshing, back-to-baseball sort of season on the North Side, now that their erstwhile right fielder has lugged his baggage westward.
Ted Lilly won't be ready for Opening Day, but the pitching staff should be fine as long as he doesn't miss too much time. If Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Marmol stabilize the rotation and bullpen, respectively, the Cubs will be a postseason-caliber team.
The offense underperformed badly last year. That won't happen again, as long as third baseman Aramis Ramirez plays in his customary 140 games. Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot are due to bounce back from down years.
3. St. Louis
In considering the Cardinals, I keep coming back to a very simple, very unscientific belief: When important veteran players are achy during the last weeks of spring training, it can be the sign of a loooooong season ahead.
And here are the key Cardinals who have missed time with assorted ailments this spring: Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Brendan Ryan.
Pujols had elbow surgery during the off-season, but his back has been the bugaboo this spring. Molina is iffy for the season opener because of a strained oblique — the sort of injury that would be particularly painful for a catcher.
Is David Freese ready to be an everyday third baseman? How good is the rotation going to be after Carpenter and Wainwright? There are more questions surrounding this team than you might think.
Much of the national attention on the Reds has been devoted to Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector with the brilliant left arm. But he left his last start with back spasms, temporarily stalling his momentum toward Cincinnati and Opening Day.
NL Central team previews
It's still conceivable that Chapman will pitch for the Reds in April. But even if he doesn't, this team is worth watching.
Key veterans Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen weren't with the team at this point last year, and young cornerstones Joey Votto and Jay Bruce spent significant time on the disabled list in 2009.
And here's the most shocking thing: Fellow rookies Mike Leake and Travis Wood might win even more games in the big leagues than Chapman this year.
I wish I could assure all Pirates fans that their team's streak — 17 straight losing seasons — is going to end this year.
In fact, the Pirates are coming off their worst season (as determined by "losing" percentage) since 2001. Perhaps that is because Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Adam LaRoche, Nyjer Morgan, John Grabow and Damaso Marte have been traded away over the past two years.
Yet, I think Pittsburgh has a chance this year ... to avoid last place, thanks to a young rotation that includes Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf. But this team isn't close to competing with the top four teams in the division.
Quick, name an Astro other than Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence.
No, Biggio retired.
Stumped? I understand. And here's the kicker: Oswalt (hamstring) and Berkman (knee) have both battled injuries this spring.
This season wasn't going to be easy for Oswalt and Berkman, anyway: They have seen the glory years. This isn't going to be one of them.
Brad Mills has the chance to be a very good manager in the major leagues. But that won't be evident by his record in Year One.
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