2012 National League Baseball Preview

NL Division by Division Outlook

By - Jason Fryer

Baseball's regular season is just around the corner and now its time to preview the 2012 National League Central Division. There've been a ton of story lines throughout the 2011-2012 offseason that helped shake up the baseball world and should be interesting to how they play-out in the future. Before the season starts, I wanted to break down each division and examine what I feel will happen with each team in the future.

National League Central

Milwaukee Brewers:

What a crazy offseason for the reigning National League Central Division Champions. After the Brewers were eliminated from the playoffs last season by the division rival Cardinals, soon after the madness began. First, in early parts of the offseason, the Brewers decided to sign former Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez to a 3 year deal and just about signaling the end of Prince Fielder era in Milwaukee. A few days later, a major story broke that 2011 league MVP Ryan Braun had tested positive for a banned substance, leaving the baseball stunned.

The Brewers were shocked and left in a difficult situation as the face of the organization was apart of one of the ugliest cases in baseball history. If that wasn't enough for the Brewers, reliever Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly decided to accept the salary arbitration that the Brewers offered him a few months before. This might become a problem later in the season as K-Rod felt that he, and not current closer John Axford should have been the Brewers closer. Like last year, this is a situation that baseball fans around the league need to monitor as if Rodriguez becomes angered with being the set-up man again, it could lead to a distraction to the team and the Brewer organization.

The final part of the off-season for the Brewers ended on a positive note when Ryan Braun won his appeal and his 50 game suspension was lifted. The Braun situation will be a topic of debate throughout the season and one that everyone in baseball will watch throughout the baseball year. If Ryan Braun and the rest of the Brewers can leave the distractions off the baseball field, they should have a nice season and will be a contender once again for the division title.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Only one team has had a more tumultuous offseason than the Brewers; the St. Louis Cardinals. St.Louis started the offseason by celebrating their 11th World Series Championship and were optimistic about signing Albert Pujols in the future. First, a few days after winning the world series, long time manager Tony La Russa decided to retire as manager of the Cardinals and left the city of St. Louis in shock. About two weeks later, the Cardinals decided to name former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny manager of the team, even though he had no previous managing experience.

Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols
Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan (2) makes a last jump for first base but St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (5) had already tagged the base in the second inning for the out. The Milwaukee Brewers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 4-1 in the first game of a three-game series on Monday September 5, 2011 at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis.

Then, as the winter meetings were about to conclude, on the morning of December 8th, news broke that 3-time National League MVP, and quite possibly the best first baseman of all time Albert Pujols decided to go west and sign with the Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim. The city of St. Louis and the baseball world was stunned and couldn't believe one of the greatest players of all-time decided to leave the organization. Unlike the rest of the league, the Cardinals realized they had to move on and started the post Pujols era by signing All-Star Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal.

As for next year, the Cardinals will have pitcher Adam Wainwright return to the rotation after they lost him to Tommy John Surgery for the entire 2011 season. The Cardinals will feature one of the best rotations in baseball this year with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jamie Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook along with a solid offense with Berkman, Holliday, Beltran, Molina, and Freese. St. Louis still has a competitive team and should be a contender in the NL Central Division.

Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds have decided to go for it all this year and quietly have been one of the busiest teams this offseason. The Reds offseason started by trading pitchers EdinsonVolquez and first baseman Yonder Alonso along with others for Padres Ace Mat Latos. The Reds then decided to bolster their bullpen by trading for former Cubs reliever Sean Marshall along with signing closer Ryan Madson. Cincinnati sould have a solid offense in 2012 as it features 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Jay Bruce, and Drew Stubs along with a rotation lead by Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo, and wild card Aroldis Chapman. With Joey Votto's contract almost up (signed through the 2013 season), the Reds know they have two seasons to "go for it all" before they might lose Votto to free agency.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

At one point in July, the Pirates, (yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates) were in first place in the NL Central before having one of the worst second half records in the league. The Pirates had a quiet off-season (only significant moves were trading for A.J. Burnett and Casey Mcgehee) as the organization decided to build around the young draft picks they accumulated throughout the year. The Pirates core includes: Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata along with having a great deal of prospects in their minor league system in system headlined by pitchers Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Stetson Alllie to go along with outfielder Starling Marte and infielder Josh Bell. The Pirates have a great young core for the future but as for the 2012 season, they will most likely once again finish apart of the bottom half of the NL Central Division.

Chicago Cubs:

The Cubs had a tremendous amount of pressure on their hands this offseason after deciding to part ways with former General Manager Jim Hendry. At the start of the off-season, the Cubs decided to go about their search in a private manor and came away from the search by hiring Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein as the president of baseball operations for the organization and Jed Hoyer as the General Manager. After the signing of Epstein and Hoyer, the Cubs were then able to move froward as they then decided to relieve Mike Quade as manager of the Cubs. After a lengthy managerial process, the Cubs decided to hire Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum as the manager of the organization.

The Cubs then decided to sign outfielder David Dejesus to a two-year contract with the Cubs to play alongside Marlon Byrd and Alfonso Soriano in the outfield. The Cubs then decided to make a few trades as they traded on of the biggest distractions in all of baseball (Carlos Zambrano) to Miami for Chris Volstad and acquired Anthony Rizzo from San Diego for Andrew Cashner. Chicago has a nice minor league core that features Rizzo, Brett Jackson, Trey McNutt along with others. The Cubs might not win the division this year however, I do believe the Cubs will play a better brand of baseball and become a much smarter baseball team.

Houston Astros:

The Astros are entering their last season as members of the National League Central because next season they will move to the American League West Division alongside Oakland, Los Angeles (Angels), Seattle, and Texas. For the Astros, I feel they made the correct decision by trading both All-Star outfielders Michael Borun (Atlanta) and Hunter Pence (Philadelphia) and allowing the rebuilding stages to begin in Houston. The Astros do also have a few nice young pieces with Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson along with veteran Carolos Lee (whose is a free agent after the 2012 season). If Lee has a nice first half of the year, the Astros might look to trade Lee along with pitchers Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, and Brandon Lyon at the trade deadline and acquire even more assets for the future. Houston might not be ready to win this year, but like other teams in the NL Central, the Astros will stockpile good draft picks and eventually become a contender again.

National League East

The National League East features three possible teams that can compete for a division title in 2012, and another team that should become one of the most improved teams in baseball.

Philadelphia Phillies:

Once again, the Phillies surprised the baseball world by quietly signing 4-time All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon of the Boston Red Sox. Since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, Philadelphia's signed at-least one big name free agent each of the past 4 off-season's (Raul Ibanez 2008-2009, Roy Halladay 2009-2010, Cliff Lee 2010-2011, and Jonathan Papelbon). Unfortunately for the Phillies, the last out of their seasons was costly in more ways than one as star first baseman Ryan Howard tore his Achilles while attempting to run to first base and will likely miss part of the 2012 season.

Phillies Raul Ibanez during a Major League Baseball game
Phillies (29) Raul Ibanez during a Major League Baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.

As insurance for Howard, Philadelphia signed former Phillie Jim Thome along with utility infielder Ty Wigginton. If everyone on their roster comes back healthy this year, the Phillies still features a solid lineup (Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, and Pence) to go along with the best four man rotation in baseball. Their rotation features Cy Young Award Winner's Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee along with 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels (in a contract year), and second year starter Vance Worley. This Phillies should be one of the most competitive teams in baseball and once again be a contender for another World Series Title.

Atlanta Braves:

Last year, the Braves suffered through the second greatest September collapse in baseball history (Braves fans can thank the Red Sox for not being known as the organization who suffered through the greatest collapse in baseball history). If this Braves team can recover from last year's collapse and move forward, Atlanta will be a playoff team and once again a contender for a World Series Title. Just as the offseason was getting underway, the Braves traded veteran starter Derek Lowe to the Cleveland Indians and decided to feature one of the youngest but most talented rotations in baseball. Atlanta's pitching staff is led by 3-time All-Star Tim Hudson, 2011 All-Star JairJurrjens, Tommy Hanson, and Brandon Beachy to go along with the best young bullpen in baseball with lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty alongside rookie of the year winner Craig Kimbrel.

As for the fifth spot in the Braves rotation, there will be a great competition between talented young starters Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Julio Teheran to see who joins the other four pitchers at Turner Field. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, to go alongside one of the best young rotations in baseball, the Braves also feature one of the best hitting cores in the league. Led by the best catcher in baseball, Brian McCann, the Braves have Freddie Freeman (runner-up to teammate Craig Kimbrel for the 2011 rookie of the year), Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, and the ageless Chipper Jones. Atlanta features the best young talent on any 25 man roster in baseball and should be at the top of the NL East in 2012 and beyond.

Washington Nationals:

Most people don't realize this, but the Washington Nationals finished the 2011 season one game behind the .500 mark (80-81). The Nationals featured one of the most bizarre June's in the history of baseball as it started on a high note winning 11 of 12 games. As their streak reached double digits, then manager Jim Riggleman (yes the former Cubs manager) decided to resign during the winning streak after not receiving a contract extension and then a few days later deciding to hire former World Series winning manager Davey Johnson. In the off-season, the Nationals were reportedly one of the teams interested in signing former Brewer Prince Fielder to help bolster their lineup but unfortunately for the Nats they were outbid by the Detroit Tigers.

A few weeks later, Washington decided to extend all-star 3rd baseman Ryan Zimmerman for an additional 6 seasons, making him the face of the franchise. The Nationals weren't completely quiet this offseason as they decided to upgrade their starting rotation by signing the well-traveled Edwin Jackson to a one year deal and traded for 2011 All-Star Gio Gonzalez (a few days later Gonzalez agreed to terms on a 4 year extension). Like the Braves, the Nationals feature a lot of great young talent led by pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg along with Gonzalez, Jackson, and John Lannan. As for the Washington lineup, they feature a nice mix of both young and old veterans on their roster led by Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina and veterans Mark DeRosa, Michael Morse, and Jayson Werth. The Nationals organization has two key questions they need to address before the end of spring training as it involves two of the best young prospects in baseball (Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon).

Harper, the number one ranked player in the minor's, is still a teenager (19, and doesn't turn 20 until October) and has people wondering if he's ready to break camp and start the season with the Nationals. As good as Harper will be in the future, I feel it would be in the best interest of Harper and the Nationals organization if he waited until after the trade deadline and started the season at AA or AAA. The other question Washington needs to address is last year's number one pick, third baseman Anthony Rendon. Washington also needs to find a new position for Rendon as Zimmerman (27) is now signed though the 2020 season and includes a no-trade clause. The Nationals have an interesting team as although they aren't quite ready to compete for a playoff spot in 2012, the Nats are a team on the rise that will only improve in the future. In two years, I believe the Nationals will compete for a playoff spot and become one of the most competitive teams in baseball.

New York Mets:

The Mets are now in a transition phase and have finally realized that its time to start over. Throughut the 2011 season, New York decided to start the new Mets era by trading closer Francisco Rodriguez to Milwaukee and All-Star Carlos Beltran to San Francisco for prospects (in that trade the Mets received the best prospect currently in their organization, Zack Wheeler). A few months after the season, New York saw star shortstop Jose Reyes leave for the division rival Miami Marlins. The Mets still have a few long-term contracts on their payroll (Jason Bay and Johan Santana until after the 2013 season) and then will be 100% prepared to start the rebuilding stages of the Mets. The other key issue the Mets need to address this year is to decide what to do with David Wright and his contract. Wright has one more team-option remaining on his current contract (for the 2013 season), however, if the Mets do decide to trade him during the season, his 2013 team option can be voided and Wright has the option to become a free agent.

The Mets need to ask themselves a few questions. First, the Mets need to determine if they want David Wright to become the face their franchise. Second, if New York does decide they want him to become the face of their franchise, they need to see what type of contract he would want to stay in New York. If the two sides can't come to an agreement, the Mets should look at the possible trade options to add more depth to their farm system. After Jose Reyes decided to sign with the Miami Marlins, the rest of their offseason was quiet as they only made a few other minor moves to their roster. For Mets fans, this season, along with the next few will be difficult for the Mets to watch as they continue to revamp their organization.

Miami Marlins:

The most interesting team in baseball this year will most certainly be the Miami Marlins. The busy off-season started a few days before the end of the regular season when the White Sox agreed to trade manager Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins for two minor league prospects. As for the other moves made this offseason, the Marlins decided to start the Winter Meetings off by agreeing to terms with Padres closer Heath Bell on a 3 year deal. A few days later, the Marlins made their most significant free agent signing since Ivan Rodriguez signed with the Marlins prior to the 2003 season when they signed Jose Reyes to a 6 year deal. The Marlins ended the Winter Meetings by signing another former White Sox in starting pitcher Mark Burhrle to a 4 year deal, hoping to improve the front of their rotation. The final major move the Marlins made this offseason was by trading for the talented, but unpredictable Carlos Zambrano.

Unlike other managers, Guillen in the past stated that the former Cubs pitcher would be fine if he managed Zambrano. First, on the field the Marlins are a vastly improved team that features one of the best leadoff hitters in the league (Reyes), the best young power hitter (Stanton), along with All-Star Hanley Ramirez and Logan Morrison. As for the pitching staff, if everyone stays healthy and in-check, the Marlins should have improved rotation led by Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, and Carlos Zambrano. Now for the fun part, the Marlins will be must see TV everyday with the personalities shown within their organization. From the Ozzie being Ozzie, the unpredictable Carlos Zambrano, the opinionated Logan Morrison, goofy Heath Bell along with the Hanley not wanting to play third debate, this will be the must see off the field team in 2012.

National League West

The 2011 NL West title was won by the team who had the 6th lowest payroll ($53,639,833) in the MLB: the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 2011 Diamondbacks featured a lot of young players to go along with veterans that other teams didn't want on their roster. Besides the Dbacks, the rest of the division was far less than spectacular with Arizona being the only team that finished with more than 87 wins. Outside of the Dbacks, the other teams in the division had either multiple health problem on their team or a significant off the field distraction.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

What a magical season last season was by the young and exciting Arizona Diamondbacks. Before the 2011 season started, the Diamondbacks were picked by the prognosticators to finish in last place and receive a high draft-pick in the following year's draft. At the start of the season it looked like the prognosticators would be correct as the Dbacks had a 11-15 April. However, after the month of April, Arizona went 83-53 the rest of the season and in fact finished every other month with a record of better than .500. Manager of the year award winner Kirk Gibson built a staff that featured a great deal of successful former players that included former Cubs manager Don Baylor, former Cub infielder Eric Young, and former Indians Ace Charles Nagy. As for the players, they were led by MVP candidate Justin Upton, and even though the Diamondbacks didn't feature the greatest offense (hitting .250 as a team), they always seemed to get a key hit when they neded it most last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Ryan Roberts
Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Ryan Roberts (14) during the regular season MLB game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA.

As for this year's lineup, Arizona should have shortstop Steven Drew back from his injury to go alongside Upton, Chris Young, Ryan Roberts, Aaron Hill, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero, and former Twins outfielder Jason Kubel. As for the pitching staff, the Diamondbacks finished in the top-half of the league last year with a 3.80 team ERA. Led by Ace Ian Kennedy, (who finished fourth in the Cy-Young voting with a 21-4 record and a 2.88 ERA), Arizona also features other young pitchers Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, and Josh Collmenter to go along with former A's All-Star Trever Cahill. On paper, Arizona should be an even more improved team this year and once again compete for a division title.

San Francisco Giants:

The 2010 World Series Champs had a difficult 2011 season that started off on the wrong foot when star catcher Buster Posey was apart of a collision at the plate and unfortunately needed surgery for torn ligaments in his left ankle and a broken bone in his lower left leg. Once Posey went down for the year, the Giants season started to unravel and the team never recovered. As the season progressed on, it seemed like the entire season the Giants were trying to find the chemistry they had from the year before but never could find it. As for this year, if Posey is healthy, the Giants once again should compete for a division title or at the minimum a playoff spot. San Francisco is fractionate that they have two of the top National League pitchers in their rotation with 2-time Cy-Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and All-Star Matt Cain along with young up-and-comer Madison Bumgarner and 2011 All-Star Ryan Vogelsong.

The Giants also feature one of the best bullpen's in baseball led by Brian "The Beard" Wilson, along with veteran relievers Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez. As for the Giants offense, it showed a few holes that were exposed last year which led to the Giants finishing with the 3rd worst team average in baseball last year. For the Giants to be successful this year, they need Pablo Sandoval to continue his play from last year, Buster Posey to come back fully healthy, newcomers Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan to hit at least .280 this year, and Aubrey Huff to return to his career averages and not last years stats. If the Giants offense returns and the pitching stays healthy, the Giants will be close to the top of the NL West Division the entire year.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Throughout entire 2011 season, the Dodgers were surrounded with a Hollywood Drama as they featured questions about the teams future with Dodgers ownership in such chaos. At the start of the season, the Dodgers and first year manager Don Mattingly looked distracted by the situation as they had a losing recorded in each of the first four months. As August started, the Dodgers finally started playing good baseball and as they finished with a record above the .500 mark (82-79). As tough a season as it was for Los Angeles, outfielder Matt Kemp almost hit for the triple crown (.324 average, 39 Home Runs, and 126 RBI) and pitcher Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young Award last year (21-5 record with a 2.28 ERA).

For the Dodgers to be successful in 2012, they need pitcher Chad Billingsley to take the next step and become a All-Star caliber pitcher, the rest of the rotation to become capable 3-5 starters, and have Andre Ethier return to the player he was in 2010. If this occurs, Los Angeles should become a contender in the NL West. On the other hand, if the Dodgers don't get off to a good start, they should look to trade star outfielder Andre Ethier (his contract is up after this year), and add more depth to their minor league system.

Colorado Rockies:

With Prince Fielder signing with the Detroit Tigers, the Rockies now feature the best 3-4 under 27 years and under combination in baseball with Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The 2011 Rockies were surrounded all season by the question of wither they would trade Ubaldo Jimenez or not. In the end, just a few days before the trade deadline the Rockies decided to trade Jimenez to Cleveland for former first round picks Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. I feel that Ubaldo is a very good pitcher, but White and Pomeranz have the potential to become two of the key fixtures in the Rockies rotation in 2012 and beyond.

As for 2012, the Rockies once again will feature one of the best lineups in baseball highlighted by Tulowitzki and Gonzalez to go along with Dexter Fowler, Todd Helton, former Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer, and veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez. Like many other Rockies teams, this teams ceiling will be determined by their rotation. The rotation features young starters JhoulysChacin, Tyler Chatwood, Guillermo Moscoso, and Drew Pomeranz along with veteran and former Orioles starter, Jeremy Guthrie. If the pitching of the Rockies is holds up and is consistent, the Rockies just might be October baseball once again, however, if the pitching is inconsistent and not reliable, the Rockies season will be over before the trade deadline.

San Diego Padres:

After having a great 2010 season, slugger and San Diego native Adrian Gonzalez was traded to Boston for a package that included prospects Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo (whose name will be brought up in a few sentences). The 2011 Padres never recovered from the loss of Gonzalez and finished the 2011 season 20 games below .500 (71-91). After the season, the Padres decided to trade Ace Mat Latos to Cincinnati for top prospects Yonder Alonso and YasmaniGrandal along with former All-Star pitcher EdinsonVolquez. With the Padres holding onto two of the best first base prospects in baseball, the Padres decided to trade Anthony Rizzo (see, I told you I would address him again) to the Cubs for pitcher Andrew Cashner.

In the offseason, the Padres also added all-star closer Huston Street along with former White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin to improve their offense. The 2012 Padres will feature an interesting lineup which includes: Quentin, Cameron Maybin, Orlando Hudson and Chase Headley to along with pitchers Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard, EdinsonVolquez, and Cory Luebke. As for the 2012 San Diego Padres, I don't see this Padres team becoming a contender this season, at the same time, former GM Jed Hoyer (now the Cubs GM) has left the Padres with a wealth of prospects in their minor league system. The Padres future looks bright, but the 2012 Padres season might be tough on Padres fans.

*(Each team is placed where they finished after the 2011 season)

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