The National League Central may wind up being the weakest division in baseball, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be competitive.  As many as four teams appear likely to compete for the division race in 2011.

TWHS brings you its NL Central preview, set wilth statistics, analysis, breakdowns, Fantasy Baseball breakout candidates and more:

KP’s 2011 National League Central Preview

Chicago Cubs

Offense: The Cubs’ offense is headlined by a handful of aging veterans that have had declining numbers over recent seasons.  The list includes Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Pena.  Ramirez is, however, in his contract year, and Chicago could see a boost in numbers from him.  Pena could also thrive in the NL and at Wrigley Field.

Defense: Statistically, the Cubs were bad on defense last season – and sharing the basement (in fielding percentage) with both the Marlins and Nationals.

Pitching: Matt Garza (acquired from Tampa Bay in the offseason) is a great addition to the rotation.  The biggest key to the pitching staff will be Carlos Zambrano, and whether he can manage to keep his head on straight.  Logging a full, tantrum-free season will be key to Chicago’s success.  Carlos Marmol will need to avoid wildness as the team’s closer.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: Starlin Castro – In 125 games last season, Castro batted .300 as a 20-year old – a very rare feat in baseball.  At the age of 21, it’s a safe bet that he can improve his game, and therefore, taking a flier on him in your fantasy draft would be a good idea.

KP’s Take: There is enough talent in place that the Cubs could surprise some people and make a run at the division crown.  But that’s a big “if”, considering the inconsistency with pitchers like Carlos Zambrano, and hitters such as Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez.  With the way this roster is laid out, Chicago could finish in first, or in last – but middle of the pack seems the most likely scenario.

Cincinnati Reds

Offense: Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are the stars, while Jonny Gomes and Jay Bruce add some pop to the lineup.  Drew Stubbs is solid offensively, and the key may be Scott Rolen, who hasn’t played in 140+ games since 2006.  He’s talented, but always has the potential for an injury that can result in him missing at least a quarter of the season.

Defense: The Reds had one of the best fielding percentages in all of baseball, which obviously assisted the pitching staff at getting players out.  Expect more of the same in 2011.

Pitching: The rotation had some success in 2010, and will continue to rely on its young arms in 2011.  Edinson Volquez has struggled at times since returning from Tommy John surgery, and will need to become a rock in the rotation.  24-year old Travis Wood was great during his 17 starts last season, and will need to be solid again.  Aroldis Chapman continues to be a part of the bullpen, and it will be interesting to see what Cincy’s plans are for him.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: Drew Stubbs – He’s not entirely a breakout candidate, but most casual fantasy owners do not know his name.  Consider how good Stubbs was in 2010: 22 HR, 77 RBI, 91 runs and 30 SB – now that’s a fantasy statline.  Don’t overlook him.

KP’s Take: The Reds were last year’s surprise, not fading down the stretch, and earning a spot in the playoffs.  Cincinnati returns a lot of its players, but made few improvements during the offseason.  The Reds will rely on its young and homegrown talent.  Votto, Phillips and the offense will have them heavily involved in a tight division chase – one that should go down to the wire.

Houston Astros

Offense: The Astros struggled offensively in 2010, where only the Mariners had a lower batting average.  The offseason acquisitions of Clint Barmes and Bill Hall won’t help improve that department.  Houston will need a boost from its young players, most notably 1B Brett Wallace.

Defense: In 2010, the Astros were a middle of the road defensive team statistically.  Houston hopes its new middle infield will increase the double play totals and lessen the error totals.

Pitching: Wandy Rodriguez (3.60 ERA and 178 K’s in 2010) is an underrated starting pitcher.  But other than Brett Myers, there aren’t many others to get excited about on this pitching staff.  The question isn’t who will step up, but more whether Wandy will be dealt by the trade deadline.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: Brett Wallace – It seems like forever ago that Wallace was considered a “can’t miss” prospect.  Now he’s borderline becoming a journeyman after a few recent deals.  He’s only 24, and the Astros will give him a chance at first base, where the kid could find his stroke and mash some home runs.  Keep an eye on him.

KP’s Take: The Astros are looking to rebuild its farm system.  On paper, while there a few players that could break out and a few talented arms, it doesn’t appear that the Astros will be able to compete with the rest of what is shaping up to be a very mediocre division.  In fact, Houston may even finish below the Pirates this year.

Milwaukee Brewers

Offense: The Brewers stood pat on offense, and rightfully so.  The lineup is potent, with superstars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, plus streaky 2B Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee and Corey Hart.

Defense: Only the Pirates had a lower defensive efficiency ratio than the Brewers in 2010.  Milwaukee should expect its pitching additions will help wash that out some.prince-fielder-milwaukee-brewers

Pitching: The Brewers added two key pieces to the starting rotation with its trades for Shaun Marcum (from Toronto) and Zack Greinke (from Kansas City).  Clearly, the Brewers are being aggressive and pushing for another playoff run.  With these two arms in place, plus with a healthy Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee has one of the better rotations in the National League.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: Shaun Marcum – Returning from Tommy John surgery last year, Marcum went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA… while pitching in the AL East. Now he heads to the National Legaue and the weak Central division, where he could really flourish.

KP’s Take: The additions of Marcum and Greinke make for a very strong rotation.  Greinke will be out for a week or two due to a rib injury, but afterward, each should excel in the National League.  The offense is potent and powerful.  Defense has been a weakness, but with the consistency of the bats and arms – coupled with how weak the division could be – the Brewers have what it takes to win the division outright, and make the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Offense: The Pirates aren’t a team to make free agent splashes.  Therefore, pieces need to be added via trade or through its farm system. Finally, some of Pittsburgh’s players are paying off before getting too pricey.  Pedro Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen are examples.

Defense: Pittsburgh had the lowest defensive efficiency ratio in all of baseball last season.  With numerous young players in camp, it’s safe to say the coaches are preaching defense.

Pitching: Pittsburgh’s pitching was abysmal in 2010.  The Pirates were the only team with an ERA at 5 or above (they were exactly 5.00).  Little help has arrived, and it’s highly likely that this staff will struggle again in 2011.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: Pedro Alvarez – At 24, Alvarez played 95 games and had 347 at-bats with the Pirates in 2010, hitting 16 HR with 64 RBI.  Imagine those numbers over a full season.  He just needs to work on his plate discipline (119 K’s).

KP’s Take: Pittsburgh’s young offense will keep the Bucs in games, but it’s the pitching staff that will likely have troubles again in 2011.  In a division with bats like Pujols and Votto, there will be days where the Pirates can’t keep up.  But there is talent in place, and it’s quite possible that Pittsburgh could find itself out of the cellar for a change.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

albert-pujols-st-louis-cardinals

Will the Pujols contract situation distract the Cardinals during the regular season?

Offense: St. Louis was unable to sign Albert Pujols to an extension before the season, and now the weight of wondering if he’ll be gone will loom.  The Cards will say it’s not a distraction, but losing the game’s best player has to be.  The offense also features potent bats in Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus and the newly acquired Lance Berkman.

Defense: The Cardinals were a solid defensive team last season, allowing less than 100 errors, while also turning 170+ double plays.

Pitching: Chris Carpenter was dealing with a hamstring injury, but it appears to no longer be bothering him, and he’ll be ready to pitch Opening Day.  Other team ace Adam Wainwright seems likely headed for Tommy John surgery, which is a brutal loss for the Cardinals.

Fantasy Breakout Candidate: David Freese – Freese batted .296 in 240 at-bats, but had limited power.  If he doesn’t improve much on power, he could still be a solid backup that could accumulate a lot of points in other ways while playing for a good offensive team.

KP’s Take: The loss of Wainwright hurts badly, and I believe that the Pujols contract situation will loom over this team throughout the 2011 season, whether they admit it or not.  St. Louis will have to hope that Carpenter doesn’t have any more hamstring issues, and the offense can make up for the loss in the rotation.  In a competitive division, the losses may prove to be too costly, leaving the Cardinals out of the postseason.

 

THE FINAL WORD

The NL Central should be the tightest race during the 2011 season, with potentially four teams battling for the division.  The Cardinals get done in by injuries and distractions, while the Cubs simply find a way – again.  In the end, the Brewers and Reds head to the final stretch neck and neck, and Milwaukee – with its new rotation featuring Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum – edges out Cincinnati, and wins the division.

KP’s Division Winner: Milwaukee Brewers

KP’s Overall 2011 MLB Season and Playoff Predictions will be posted in the next few days…

Who Will Win The National League Central Division in 2011?

  • Cincinnati Reds (36%, 10 Votes)
  • Milwaukee Brewers (29%, 8 Votes)
  • St. Louis Cardinals (29%, 8 Votes)
  • Chicago Cubs (7%, 2 Votes)
  • Houston Astros (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 28

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