The Cardinals will find out very early just what the National Central is going to be like in 2012. Following tonight’s Opening Night game in Miami against the Marlins, the next 27 games are all against the Central division.
Yes, from April 6 to May 6 the Cardinals will be facing the Brewers, Reds, Cubs, Pirates and Astros — and only those teams.
What’s the outlook for those teams this year? Here are three things to know about the other NL Central teams, courtesy of my fellow Aerys writers.
Let the games begin!
Terri Schlather, Tales From the Juice Box
1 . The Breakout Star(s): General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, has said it and I will too: with a team comprised of so many young and sophomore/rookie players, someone is going to have a breakout year and it’s going to be oh-so-fun to watch. I’d go so far as to say two players will. My money? Brian Bogusevic and JD Martinez.
2. Bud Norris: Once the youngun’ in the rotation, Studly Cuddly Budly is now one of the veterans on the mound for the Astros. He had a strong spring start and has set the goal of going at least 200 innings this season. He’s in excellent shape and could become the Astros next ace.
3. The Rising Phoenix: There’s no doubt that the Astros finished last season in the ashes, but with new ownership, a new team president/CEO, a new general manager and a crop of players begging for the chance to prove their ability, this team will begin its rise from the ashes this year. It won’t always be pretty and there will still be plenty of losses, but the difference between 2011 and 2012 is palpable, off the field … and on.
1. How will the recent steroid “scandal” affect Ryan Braun’s performance and will it have any impact on the team as a whole?
2. With the loss of Prince Fielder, will the team be able to compete for the division again?
3. With this being Zack Greinke’s contract year, will he be the pitcher he was from 2009 or will he continue to struggle? Will he sign an extension with the Brewers or hit free agency?
Julie DiCaro, A League of Her Own
1. Will this team lose 100 games?
2. Will Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo be left to rot in the minors all season? Or will they be called up to the big club sooner rather than later?
3. How long will Matt Garza and Geo Soto be on this team? Are they part of the rebuilding process? Or merely chips to be traded to bring in more prospects?
1. Pitching: The Pirates’ rotation excelled in the first half of 2011, then cratered in the second half. Will they even out this year? Can AJ Burnett lend a helping hand, once he recovers from breaking his face?
2. Andrew McCutchen: The center fielder finally got a well-deserved All-Star nod last season, and became the eighth Pirate to join the 20-20 club. There’s no reason to believe McCutchen, only 25, can’t repeat his elite performance.
3. The record: Pittsburgh has had 19 straight under-.500 seasons. Last year, they led the division as late as 100 games in before slipping to fourth place. A shiny new starting roster with free agent additions like Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard could finally push them into the black.
Tara Franey, C-ing Red
1. “The Win Sometime ” approach. This offseason, GM Walt Jocketty made a lot of proactive, arguably aggressive, moves aimed at making real improvements. While the Madson injury and extensions for Joey Votto and Sean Marshall temper the previous “win now” message of this club, it seems clear that Jocketty’s not keen on waiting around when problems present themselves. This could lead to a quick trigger on personnel issues this summer, but the long-term Votto deal probably means no fire sale even if the team struggles in the first half.
2. “Pitching wins championships.” The addition of Mat Latos was costly, but adding a No. 2 starter without a $10 million salary is always good, and for this team it’s essential. The Reds scored plenty of runs last season, and gave up a bunch too. Maybe we need better luck, or more clutch-hitting, but we’re going to answer a lot of our prayers simply by improving the pitching. A little regression to the mean by Bronson Arroyo, a tiny amount of improvement by 26-year-old Homer Bailey and adding Latos could totally change the look of this rotation. Remember, with guys like Votto and Bruce in the lineup, we don’t the creme de la creme of rotations, but we do have to be at least mediocre.
3. “Revolving Chapmania.” A few years ago, we signed Aroldis Chapman as a flame-throwing lefty starter, which we held to for about three months before deciding we’d like him in our bullpen. This spring, Chapman was given a chance to start, and was pretty good at it, but was still placed in the bullpen to fill in some injury gaps. But it’s still not clear whether this is a short-term or a mid-term stint. If Bill Bray (left-handed reliever) returns to form, will Chapman return to the rotation? Will he go to AAA to get stretched out again? If he starts this season at the MLB level, it’ll be something to watch.
Interested in reading more about the rest of the divisions besides the NL Central? Check out any of the other writers from the MLB dropdown menu above — every site will be running division previews today.