Will the Pirates suffer an 18th straight losing season?
Will the presence of Mark McGwire help or hurt St. Louis' chances of repeating as division champions?
How will the Cubs respond to the absence of clubhouse terror Milton Bradley?
Here are my picks for the National League Central.
I say it's the Cubs that are the team to beat in the division:
Let's not forget, this Cubs team is just a year removed from back-to-back division titles. They collapsed after August last year, and the entire blame can't fall on Milton Bradley's presence...but he certainly didn't help matters. Now he's gone, and the team should be healthier, which is a key factor in a successful 2010. I don't think the Cubs break their 102-year World Series championship drought...but I do think they break their one-year playoff drought.
I don't think the Cardinals will fall way off the pace, I just think the Cubs will be better this year. Their lineup, even though they re-signed Matt Holliday, still isn't too much more than Albert Pujols, and their pitching is heavily dependent on a healthy Chris Carpenter, which is a definite crapshoot. He does make them a lot better...but I'll believe he'll stay healthy for a second straight full season when I see it.
I've been big on the Reds the past few years, and perhaps I have them too high once again (was it last year I picked them to win the division? Nope, last year I said they'd win the division this year.). They're definitely on the upswing, though, and a .500 record should be enough to get the Reds to third place or so in the Central. I wouldn't be shocked to see them pull off a division championship or at least make a run at it...but my instincts tell me that's still a year or so away.
The Brewers are on a downswing - though some pitchers could fix that really quickly. They're in pretty bad shape pitching-wise, and Randy Wolf isn't going to fix their problems. It's unfortunate for them, because they have some excellent run-producers offensively, they just can't hold leads.
The Astros are on an even bigger downswing than the Brewers. They should be better offensively than they are, but struggle to manufacture runs in Minute Maid Park, a hitter's park. They have a couple of good pitchers, but they can't support good outings (see the Roy Oswalt stat below). They could be a last place team here.
You want to root for the Pirates, don't you? I want to pick them to finish better than last place, but I just don't see how it can happen. They took another step backwards last year, and you would think they could be close to turning things around (meaning getting back towards .500), but it's almost like you can't believe it will happen until it actually does.
NL CENTRAL NOTES
-Cincinnati has a chance to send a message about their ability to contend early on this year - they open at home with three against the Cardinals and then three versus the Cubs. That could keep the Reds believing they have a shot all season, or bury them right off the bat.
-You want to talk about hard luck? Roy Oswalt had a 4.12 ERA last year, which isn't bad. He went just 8-6. In 30 starts. That means he had 16 no decisions! There are guys with worse ERAs that get 10 wins. That right there kind of sums up what you're dealing with in Houston right now.
Next Week: AL East