And now, an abbreviated look at the rest of the National…
we last looked at three teams of the central. Cinci, it should be noted will now be hard-pressed to hit their target 89 wins without high-price, high-profile closer Ryan Madson (out for the season with torn ligaments in his elbow.
Milwaukee: not looking as sure thing as they were last year and Aramis Ramirez, though still a solid hitter, is hardly a replacement for Prince Fielder. That said, the Brew Crew have the best bullpenin the division (co-headed by Canadian John Axford, of 46 saves last season and bar-tending at an East Side Mario’s in Ontario fame and Francisco rodriguez) and one which shouldn’t be too over-taxed with the decent starting rotation they follow. Greinke, Marcum (terrible playoffs notwithstanding), Gallardo and Wolf aren’t exactly the new 90s Atlanta Braves but are as good as any in their division if not better. Ramirez should hit 30 homers and with Ryan Braun dodging a bullet (bet it takes a lot of testosterone to do that!) and avoiding a suspension, Milwaukee should score quite a few runs.
Ace: Ryan Braun. Say what you will about the loophole he used to beat the drugging rap, he is cleared for April play and has averaged 187 hits and 107 RBI over past couple of seasons. No reason to expect that to change in ’12.
Wild Card: Norichika Aoki- Japanese free agent will face tougher pitchers than he did as a Yakult Swallow, where he hit .292 last season. The next Ichiro or the next Nishioka?
Joker: Alex Gonzalez- not terrible actually but at 35 his range in field and prowess with bat are on downslope and with Ramirez to his right and Rickie Weeks to left, middle infield balls might be a bit of an adventure.
2012 Prediction: 89 wins, 2nd place. (Yes I put Cincinnati at 89 also, but now, given Madson’s injury, I’d give the edge to Wisconsin)
Pittsburgh: After 17 straight losing seasons and an average of 98 losses per year over the previous five, last year’s 72-90 season seemed downright lofty and inspirational. Sometimes it pays to place the bar low. Thus expectations are high at Three Rivers this year; if everything falls into place they might hit .500 for the first time since the era of a skinny Barry Bonds. Tough to imagine that everything will fall into place however, as injury-prone Erik Bedard and excuse-laden AJ Burnett head up a rather uninspiring rotation and for all the talk of superstardom, Andrew McCutcheon hit just .259 with a .456 slugging percentage last year and has thus far only swatted 51 home runs in his young career. Perhaps he should be playing in the following team , as my reaction to him is “Show me.” Nonetheless, Neil walker is one of the best young second baseman in the game, veteran Rod Barajas will knock a few balls into the river and diminutive Alex Presley may be the next big thing if McCutcheon fails to live up to his hype. The Pirates are no longer terrible, and for now that might be enough for western Pennsylvanian fans to feel over-the-moon.
Ace: Neil Walker- only his third season but completed more Dps than any other 2Ber in league last season and thus far has a .280 career batting average.
Wild Card: Erik Bedard – everyone knows what the Canuck lefty can do if he’s got his A-game. Or any game for that matter; more than say tom Glavine, Bedard seems to channel Mark Prior. Has managed 212 innings, which would be respectable- if it wasn’t the sum for the past three years!
Joker: Nate McLouth- returning his career home to die , like an elephant. The elephant in the room is that Nate can’t play anymore.
2012 Prediction: 78 wins, 4th place.
St Louis– Big questions on the Mississippi; will the reigning World Champions soar like eagles or waddle like turkeys now that the two iconic redbirds have migrated? Few would argue that the 2011 crew were statistically the best team in baseball yet when it counted, they were. Thus the intangibles can’t be discounted when it comes to this team, however are they enough to overcome the very tangible loss of franchise player Albert Pujols and future Hall of Fame manager tony LaRussa? Lance Berkman isn’t quite a replacement for Pujols, but he was the NL Comeback of the Year and his .301/31 HR/.547 slugging was much closer to his usual norms than his previous enigmatically poor 2010 in Houston…and he’ll be back on comfortable ground, playing first this season. If he can match last year’s average and drive in 100, he’ll actually be doing better than Albert did last year for the cards; meanwhile Carlos Beltran replaces Berkman in the outfield. Beltran is apparently healthy now and played 142 games last year, driving in 84 while hitting an even .300. Out of the black hole that is the Mets, Beltran could still have a couple of all-star campaigns left in him and with Matt Holliday thrown in, the lineup is pretty powerful.
Pitching wise, the good news is that Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery and throwing this spring . The bad news is that co-ace Chris carpenter is out indefinitely with neck problems. However, with Kyle Lohse and jaime Garcia in the middle of the rotation and a very sound bullpen, the pitching should be solid until Carp returns and better than that after.
The Cards aren’t the best team in baseball again, but they are the best in this division. Can history repeat? No one should be betting on the Cards to repeat as World Series winners if they can’t afford to lose their money. Nonetheless, a Wainwright-Carpenter one-two on the mound and a Beltran/Berkman/Holliday combo mid-lineup could surprise people once again if they got red-bird hot in October.
Ace: Chris Carpenter. Sure he’s out for a little at the start of the season, but this is a guy who won threw 237 innings and had an ERA under 3and a half last year in a “bad” season then outdueled his buddy Roy Halladay in a playoff game 7.
Wild Card: Adam Wainwright- if he’s back to 100% health, he can dominate like few others and should be back to his .654 career winning percentage. If he’s back. Many arms take more than a year to regain full former speed and control.
Joker: Rafael Furcal- one time “can’t miss” infielder wore out his welcome in Atlanta and LA, hit all of .232 last year and is erratic with the glove. And now, at a surprisingly old 35, he’s not likely to discover the superstar stuff under the Arch.
2012 Prediction: 90 wins, 1st place.