We wrap up our baseball preview by taking a look at the NL Central & West.
The bad news is that the teams in this division don't have Houston to kick around anymore. Well, at least they still have the Chicago Cubs, but that's another story. After 15 seasons of having 6 teams in the division, it's down to 5, and, in effect, Houston's departure to the AL West completes what amounts to a protracted swap. Y'see, Milwaukee moved to the NL Central in 1998, moving laterally across from the AL Central.
The Brew Crew are in rebuilding mode. They foolishly let Zach Greinke, their big free-agent signing prior to 2012, leave (now with the Dodgers), and aside from Yovanni Gallardo, there ain't much pitching. Shaun Marcum, injuries and all, is in New York (Mets), and reliever Francisco Rodriguez is a free agent. The New York media floated the idea of K-Rod returning to the Mets, but the Amazin's didn't bite. There won't be a playoff run in the beer capital of the world this year, either.
Cincinnati made the smartest move of all by keeping Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen as their closer. After seeing Texas' similar experiment with Neftali Feliz result in a season ending injury last year, it makes sense to have the fireballer work the 9th, with Jonathan Broxton (formerly with the Dodgers & Kansas City) setting up. Dusty Baker is like old man river. He just rolls on. The Cubs, in year 2 of the Dale Sveum/Theo Epstein era, picked up Scott Hairston as a free agent (Mets) to help with the outfield, especially if something should happen to Alfonso Soriano. The Mets will regret letting Hairston go, I assure you, but unlike on Knight Rider 30 years ago, one man will not make a difference with the Cubs..........
Pittsburgh came oh-so-close to making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years last year, only to fade down the stretch. They were blessed by New York in picking up Russell Martin (Yankees) & Lucas May (Mets) to back up Mike McKendry, although May will likely start the season in the minors. Andrew McCutcheon is the most exciting player the Bucco's have had since, well, Barry Bonds, before the steroids. After having a bounce-back year in his first year in Pittsburgh, AJ Burnett is the Pirates' opening day starter. Aside from that? Well.......
In St. Louis, the Cardinals didn't sweat losing Albert Pujols after all. They made the playoffs, and the Angels didn't. 'Nuff said. But can mamagers such as Mike Metheny experience a sophomore jinx? Not in this town. However, third baseman David Freese, a World Series hero in 2011, opens the season on the DL. The Cards can only go so far with Carlos Beltran and a no-name offense to back up Adam Wainwright and the pitching staff. Closer Jason Motte also starts the year on the DL, and that doesn't bode well in the first month.
Projected order of finish:
2. St. Louis.
Don Mattingly may be praying for a miracle as he begins his 3rd season managing the Dodgers. He might be better off asking Tom Lasorda to dust off his Dugout Wizard cap (from his days on The Baseball Bunch in the 80's) and give him enough sage advice to get through. Arizona hurt their chances by getting rid of Justin Upton, because you know who got the better of that deal. And they just cut veteran catcher Rod Barajas, who will likely resurface somewhere else in short order to haunt the D-Backs again. The best thing San Diego has going for it is they have their own ageless wonder in the broadcast booth in Dick Enberg, back for his 3rd year. He doesn't look to have aged too well, unlike Vin Scully in LA. All-Star third baseman Chase Headley opens the year on the DL, and that hurts the offense. San Diego will make a run, but when? Colorado doesn't really scare, if but because their roster is always in flux. They let slugger Jason Giambi leave (Cleveland), leaving them with no experience at first to back up Todd Helton, assuming Helton's still playing. For a while, they were the NL's answer to Minnesota in that you could count on them to make a run late, even if they fell short. Not so much now.
San Francisco welcomed back Andres Torres & Ramon Ramirez after a year in New York, then cut Ramirez, only to re-sign him to a minor league deal. Sergio Romo made everyone forget Brian Wilson, who's looking for a job. Apparently what's stopping him is that no one wants that beard. His Taco Bell ads weren't exactly world beaters, by the way. With Torres & Angel Pagan in the same outfield, the Giants will be better there. Tim Lincecum hasn't figured out the problems that plagued him as a starter last year in this preseason, so he's better off swallowing his pride---especially after cutting his hair----and becoming a reliever. Bank on this. If something happens to Romo, Lincecum, if he gets off to a bad start in the rotation, will close.
Projected order of finish:
1. San Francsico.
2. Los Angeles.
4. San Diego (tie).
Wild Cards: NL: Atlanta, Los Angeles. AL: Baltimore, Toronto.
Of course, I could be wrong.