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2012 MLB Preview: NL Central

The Major League Baseball season kinda-sorta begins in Japan tomorrow morning at 6:10 am Eastern “featuring” the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. I don’t think anyone has been able to figure out why the A’s of all teams were chosen for this marketing excursion, but much like Dick Stockton’s hair, sometimes things are better off remaining a mystery. The real season begins on April 4. Why there are no games between the series in Japan and next Wednesday is far beyond me. The guess is Bird Selig and his team of devoted cronies thrive on dishing out blue balls.

To get things started, we respectfully begin with the NL Central and the flukey World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals

2011 Record — 90-72, 2nd place, wildcard winner

Notable Additions Carlos Beltran, Adam Wainwright (missed all of last season), and J.C. Romero. As for Romero, after being traded to Colorado last season, the journeyman lefty pitched 8.1 innings, allowing 12 hits and a run. He’ll be 36 in June. Calling him a “key addition” is beyond a stretch at this point. Now having said that, any time I’ve discounted the Cardinals bullpen it has come back to bite me like a starved piranha. So I fully expect Romero to have an outstanding season in the St. Louis bullpen. That’s just how it works.

Tragic Losses Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa’s winning hair and courteous demeanor. Plus, Dave Duncan and his top secret pitching rejuvenation machine are on a leave of absence. These are all major losses. Pujols departing needs no explanation. It’s going to be strange seeing him in a different uniform. The absence of La Russa, at least from a comedic standpoint, will be sorely missed. As for Duncan, he’s dealing with his wife’s illness right now, so I imagine baseball is extremely far from his list of priorities right now. Let’s hope for some positive news on that front.

Good News — They won the World Series last year and they have reasonable fans who won’t be expecting anything close to a repeat. In short, this was a great year for Albert to leave. The thirst has been quenched, at least for the time being. Two titles in five years will often do that. A last place finish is perfectly acceptable in this instance.

Bad News — Albert’s gone. It’s the end of a fabulous era. Replacing the legend is Carlos Beltran and his hamstrings that are never quite 100%. Worse than that, he offers daily updates on the percentages of said hamstrings. Gonna be a long season in St. Louis.

Outlook — An even Steven 81 wins and a 3rd place finish.

Probable 2012 Anthem — Farewell to Tony and especially Albert means the Cards will be signing Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” all season long.

Milwaukee Brewers

2011 Record — 96-66, 1st place

Notable Additions — Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez and Norichika Aoki. Not exactly making you forget Prince Fielder. They also signed Corey Patterson to a minor league deal. Hilarious.

Tragic Losses — Another heartbreaking story of a beloved portly slugger leaving for a greener bank account. Yes, Prince Fielder is now a Detroit Tiger. His bat will be missed like a heaping Bratwurst, though the absence of his edible glove is certainly a bonus. Also gone is … Craig Counsell? Wow. Probably time to hang it up, dude.

Good News — K-Rod’s back! That was kind of a shocker given how perturbed he was with his role last season, but I’m not so sure if this should be listed under “good news” or “bad news.” Bullpen depth is always a plus, so for now his presence will reside in a positive light. However, I don’t expect him to be in Milwaukee the entire season.

Bad News — A slow start by Ryan Braun will feed the media monster and a mountain of questions will follow him around like a centipede. He needs to get off to a decent start for his own sanity. Thankfully, he plays in a market that won’t rake him over the coals the second they have the opportunity to do so.

Outlook — A healthy step back. 85 wins and 2nd place.

Probable 2012 Anthem — For this resilient bunch? Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

Cincinnati Reds

2011 Record — 79-83, 3rd place

Notable Additions — Ryan Ludwick, Ryan Madson, Sean Marshall, and Mat Latos. Losing Francisco Cordero and gaining Madson was more or less a wash when you look at their numbers. That is, if Madson weren’t done for the year. (Oops.) Adding Latos is a nice plus, as he threw a career high 194.1 innings last year. He’s still just 23 years old.

Tragic Losses — Edison Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Hermida, and Francisco Cordero. Not exactly weeping over these departures. The Reds should feel pretty good about where they are considering the other big players in the division will be coping with a couple rather large ditches in their respective lineups.

Good News — Mat Latos is the name we’ll be hearing instead of Edison Volquez? Yes, please.

Bad News — If the worst distraction they have to deal with is the reminder that Brandon Phillips becomes a free agent after the season, I would say they’re in pretty good shape. Only time will tell to see how Dusty Baker can screw it all up. Speaking of Dusty, I’m really hoping he upgraded to hipster glasses similar to what Amare Stoudemire sports on the court.

Outlook — 89 wins should get them the division crown.

Probable 2012 Anthem — Last year was a disappointing step back, so we’ll go with “Kickstart My Heart.”

Pittsburgh “Contract The” Pirates

2011 Record — 72-90, 4th place

Notable Additions — AJ Burnett, Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes.

Tragic Losses — The Pirates have lost 483 games over the last five seasons. Enough said.

Good News — Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and James McDonald to go along with Bedard and Burnett really isn’t all that bad. I thought Burnett would have a pretty decent year without all the pressure and accompanying media horde, but he’s already out two to three months with a facial fracture. Perhaps good news doesn’t exist for this franchise.

Bad News — They’re the Pirates. Even a pretty great start last year still saw the club finish 18 games under .500. They absolutely fell off a cliff and just laid there. This season I expect more falling and laying. Until the Pirates prove me wrong, the Pirates are still the Pirates and will remain the Pirates until the Pirates do something respectable, like not be the Pirates. Winning more than 80 games would be a nice start.

Outlook — AJ Burnett fouled a ball off his face seconds after becoming a Pirate. Difficult to avoid the usual pessimism. 75 wins, 4th place.

Probably 2012 Anthem — “The End” by the Doors, obviously.

Chicago Cubs

2011 Record — 71-91, 5th place

Notable Additions — Theo Epstein. Young Theo gets the lucky task of cleaning up the mess that is the Chicago Cubs. After Theo and his band of Docker-wearing chums, the “notable” additions are Ian Stewart, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Paul Maholm, and David DeJesus. Woah. That’s ugly, but I have full confidence this new regime will have the Cubs back in order, it’s just difficult to say how quickly that will happen. Probably wise to avoid thinking short term. The best thing for Cubs fans to know is that it will happen under Theo’s watch. Considering how bleak it’s looked over the past couple of seasons, that should serve as music to their ears.

Tragic Losses — Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Pena, Koyie Hill, Sean Marshall, and Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano should have been gone years ago. His welcomed absence is symbolic to the start of a new era, and a sane one. It’s like they finally deleted the number of a late night booty call that offered nothing but headaches and regret the following morning. Good for them.

Good News — See above. It’s a cleansing process. The filthy Cubs have finally taken a shower, now they just need to fill the closet with some respectable new clothes. Even better, Wrigleyville remains a wonderful experience regardless of how crappy the Cubs are.

Bad News — Alfonso Soriano will make $18 million this season, next season and in 2014. That hurts. Unless they plan on eating 80% of that contract, he’s not going anywhere.

Outlook — Wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar finish to last season. 72 wins. 5th place it is.

Probable 2012 Anthem — “High Enough” by the Damn Yankees. This one’s for you, Theo.

Houston Astros

2011 Record — 56-106, 1st place (let’s see if you’re paying attention)

Notable Additions — A new owner in Jim Crane! The dude has even stated that the team will unveil new uniforms for their move to the AL next year. This is great news. The question is, will they go back to the glorious unis from the 1980s or come up with something completely new? I love the idea of returning to the 80s look because it’s a reminder of a time when the team was relevant and routinely competitive. I also like the idea of the team introducing new uniforms because it gives us something else to discuss and debate other than the actual team they’re currently putting on the field. It’s a pointless topic right now. They got rid of Hunter Pence last year along with Michael Bourn. The team is clearly in “please look away, we’re rebuilding” mode, so I’m happy to oblige and turn my head. My only question is, when do Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers get shipped out of town to contenders?

Tragic Losses — Pride, tradition, self-respect.

Good News — Drayton McLane is no longer around to drive the franchise further into the abyss.

Bad News — It’s going to be a few years before order is restored. Even worse, Jack Cust was the team’s “free agent splash.” Oh boy.

Outlook — Uh, can they top last season’s tally of 56 wins? Can they avoid 100 losses? Whatever happens, it’ll be last place for sure.

Probable 2012 Anthem — “Suicide is Painless,” otherwise known as the theme song to MASH.

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