Well, here's the big money day, the NL Central. The Cubs look like the team to beat, but the Cards should benefit from being the team with the least roster upheaval in the division. Here's my predictions:
1. Cubs. I hate picking them to win, but the fact is that they are still far and away the most talented team in the division. I think they'll miss Wood and DeRosa quite a bit, and I'm far from sold on Milton Bradley being their offensive savior, but they should still have plenty to win the division and likely have the best record in the league to boot. It all starts with the rotation, which should be the strongest 1-5 in the NL if not all of MLB. Harden's health is always a concern, but with a new owner taking control likely in May, they may be one of the few teams around with the cash to make a move mid-season (Ahem, Jake Peavy, ahem). Their bullpen could also be an issue and overall, I don't think they are as good as last year, and baring that late season move, I don't see them thriving in the playoffs.
2. Cardinals*. I'm picking the Cards to win the wild-card and make the playoffs in a tight race with the D-Backs and Phillies. I believe this will happen for two reasons: 1. I don't think the Central is very good, outside of the Cards and Cubs 2. If the offense is as good as last year (and I don't see why it won't be, if not actually being slightly better), the pitching, especially the bullpen, has to be better. We won 86 games last year, and blew how many saves? (31) Wainwright and Carpenter started how many games combined? (23) I think the first number will go way down, while the second number will be at least double if not (fingers crossed) triple this year. Certainly, the stellar defense from last year will likely take a dip with the retooled infield, but overall I think 92-94 wins for this team.
3. Brewers. Has any team lost more from it's pitching staff from last year? Top two starters gone, closer retired. They have a great young line-up, but is it really better than the Cubs and Cards? If you look at the stats, no. Maybe several of their guys are a lot better this year at the plate. They had better be, because the pitching could be a disaster. The Astros at least have a number #1 starter and closer, but these guys have almost nothing they can count on. Still, I think their young talent is good enough to keep them close to .500.
4. Reds. This is the team of the future is this division. They have the young arms and a couple of guys that look like future stars in the field as well (Bruce, Votto). Unfortunately, they play in one of the worst parks to develop young pitching in and their only "reliable" veterans are Aaron Harang and their closer Cordero. In other words, it's going to be an up and down year for them this year, but the future is bright assuming Bailey, Cueto, et al's confidence isn't shattered pitching in that park.
5. Astros. This could be a really tough season for a team that is normally a contender. If not for Hurricane Ike, they may very well have overtaken the fading Brewers last year, but I expect no similar miracles this year. They looked terrible most of spring training. They have basically no one reliable for their third, fourth or fifth starters. Their centerfielder can't hit above the mendoza line. Tejada is getting exponentially older it seems. Berkman may have to play the season with a hurt shoulder. The list goes on. They do have about 5 all-star level players still though, so if they can fill in the cracks (big cracks though they may be), they may surprise me again.
6. Pirates. I've just got to get this off my chest: why is this team in the central and not the AL East? It makes sense how? They'd be bad no matter where they are, but at least they could beat the Nationals in the east. In some ways, I'd rather be a Pirates fan than an Astros one though right now. They've stocked-up on young talent through trades and the draft and they have only one bad contract (LaRoche), so there is some potential for growth if they can gets the fans interested. Why no one goes to see games at that beautiful stadium I don't know. It's up there with SBC Park in San Fran as my favorite in baseball. I know the team stinks, but the tickets are cheap, and it's really, really nice. If you are ever in Pitt, I highly recommend it.
Tomorrow is the NL West. I'll be out of town this weekend (well, actually, moving to a new town), so I may jump the gun and add my postseason predictions as well.