One of the biggest surprises last year was the production of the Cincinnati Reds. They stormed through the division and with each win their confidence grew. The question is who will challenge the Reds this season?
The Cincinnati Reds
The Reds were quiet in the off-season using their money to extend contracts for their young talent. Ace Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo are settled in long-term contracts. Edison Volquez will anchor the three slot. Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Mike Leake will vie for the fourth and fifth starter roles. This rotation should improve their win count this season.
In the bullpen, the Reds will be hard-pressed to replace Arthur Rhodes who appeared in 49 games and had 2.29 ERA last year. Francisco Cordero will be the closer and 100 mph dart thrower Aroldis Chapman will be the setup man. Whether this is the best use of Chapman’s arm remains a question.
The Reds picked up Orlando Cabrera to play shortstop and the rest of the infield is unchanged. MVP Joey Votto is at first with Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Ramon Hernandez all getting playing time around the horn. The defense is solid.
In the outfield, Jay Bruce got a new contract. Drew Stubbs and Johnny Gomes fill the outfield positions. Stubbs is one of two players in the league to hit 20 homers, steal 30 bases and score 90 runs.
The Reds may not like to, but they are now the team to beat in the NL Central.
The St. Louis Cardinals
For a tightly run franchise, the Cards have been in the news and are likely to stay there most of the year. Albert Pujols is unsigned after this season and is probably headed for free agency, which Cardinal fans do not like. In the midst of this chatter, Adam Wainwright, a top starter, is sidelined with Tommy John surgery. Needless to say, the Cards are not starting the season completely focused.
Without Wainwright, Chris Carpenter will continue to lead the staff. Dependable Jake Westbrook will fill Wainwright’s two slot, with Jaime Garcia moving up to number three. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is grooming talent but the four and five slots, which will be a source of anxiety most of the season.
In the bullpen, Ryan Franklin will close. He has plenty of arm support with Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte and Trevor Miller all back. The Reds picked up versatile Miguel Batista for the bullpen but he may well end up as a starter.
Albert Pujols and three-time gold glover, Yadier Molina, anchor a solid infield. Ryan Theriot will be at short, Third base will be the responsibility of David Freese. Skip Schumaker has had a great spring and will see plenty of playing time.
Matt Holiday will be joined by Lance Berkman in right and either Jon Jay or Colby Rasmus in center. This is solid group of run producers.
The starting pitching is a definite problem on a staff that just doesn’t have a lot of depth or talent in the farm system. This could be a tough season for the Cards.
The Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are shooting for the top spot in the NL Central. Their active post-season moves have added some missing pieces to the Brewers puzzle.
The addition of former AL Cy Young Winner Zach Greinke may be the biggest news to hit Milwaukee in quite a while. Greinke will be joined by Shaun Marcum (Blue Jays) to form a tough one-two combo. Experienced Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo give the Brewers a solid 1-4 rotation. The fifth slot is still unsettled but these four starters should pitch 800 innings.
John Axford will be the closer but Takshi Saito was acquired from Atlanta for backup. Saito has been dependable and Axford averaged more than eleven strikeouts every nine innings.
Yuniesky Betancourt came from the Royals with Greinke and will anchor the shortstop position. The key ingredient offensively is Cecil Fielder who becomes a free agent at the end of the season. Fielder’s number were off last season and the Brewers need more than 30 home runs from their 1st basemen. Rickie Weeks and Casey McGhee are consistent with Weeks also headed toward free agency.
When Fielder slumped outfielder Ryan Braun’s number also slipped. For the Brewers, Braun is as important as Fielder. Carlos Gomez will take over in center with power hitter but another strikeout target Corey Hart completing the outfield.
The Brewers have the ingredients for a playoff run this year. Fielder’s free agency may help.
The Chicago Cubs
The biggest move the Cubs made was trading with Tampa Bay for starter Matt Garza. Garza has good stuff and should win at least 15 games. He also is used to being the number two guy. Garza will follow Ryan Dempster in the Cub rotation. Carlos Zambrano will pitch if he is so inclined. Randy Wells and Carlos Sllva round out a stable rotation.
Carlos Marmel will close and looking to cut down on his control issues. The leash will be short. Kerry Wood was released by the Yankees and the Cubs brought the big guy home. Wood showed good stuff in his setup role last year.
The Cubs picked up Carlos Pena from the Rays to replace Derrick Lee. Pena was weak last year on both sides of the plate. Aramis Ramirez, Blake Dewitt, Geovany Soto and Starlin Castro fill all the infield needs.
Alfonso Soriano will be back in left with Marion Byrd and Tykler Colvin will start the season. Kosuke Fukudome will be relegated to 4th outfielder but is a good man to have around.
The Cubs have improved but Pena at 1st and Garza have to come through for the formula to work.
The Houston Astros
There’s trouble in River City and no quick fix is in sight. WIth the loss of marquis players Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, there is little of the old guard left. Houston did not jump into the free agency market, choosing to work with what they have. It isn’t much.
The starting rotation will be headed by Wandy Rodriquez. Brett Myers had a solid year last year. JS Happ, Bud Norris and Nelson Figueroa will round out the rotation. Expect plenty of changes in this rotation.
The pickings are slim in the weakest bullpen in the league. Brandon Lyon is the only experienced reliever. He will do the closing and will most likely be well rested by mid season.
The infield has new faces and the outfield could change on a weekly basis. There really is not much hope in Houston who will most likely sink below Pittsburgh into the cellar of the NL.