Major League Baseball’s largest division, the NL Central, has experienced a huge shake up since last season. With the current World Champion St. Louis Cardinals hoping to stay on top it could be a bitter battle for the division’s top spot.
St. Louis Cardinals
While last year the Milwaukee Brewers won the division, the St. Louis Cardinals surprised the nation when they took their National League wild card status all the way to a World Series victory.
In the offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals lost their All-star first baseman Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels at the same time the franchise’s longtime manager Tony La Russa retired.
Spring training struck yet another blow for the team as their key starting pitcher, Chris Carpenter, suffered a nerve ailment that has left the franchise unsure of when he will be back on the field.
However even with these dramatic changes, the Cardinals are still expected to be front-runners in the division.
The Cardinal’s acquired Puerto Rican Carlos Beltrán in the offseason to fill the hole left by Pujol’s departure.
As mlb.com reported Beltrán’s power hitting abilities, coupled with the return of pitcher Adam Wainwright, will be key for the Cardinal’s continued success.
The Brewers’ franchised experienced one of the most talked about off seasons in MLB.
After losing to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, left fielder Ryan Braun received the NL MVP award. However, Braun received some bad news as well when it was announced in December that he had tested positive for steroids.
Initially, the Brewers were looking to face the upcoming season without Braun, who was given a 50 game suspension. This would have been a critical blow to the team who had also lost their power hitter first baseman Prince Fielder.
Luckily on February 23rd, the MLB dropped the charges against Braun leaving him free to play a full season.
Coupled with the addition of Dominican third baseman Aramis Ramírez, who was acquired from their NL central rival Chicago Cubs, the Brewers have a strong lineup now that Braun is in the clear.
This historic franchise, known for not having won a World Series since 1908, will not likely be breaking the “curse of the billy goat” this year.
After firing manager Mike Quade, this upcoming season will be the first under Dale Sveum, who signed a three-year contract with the Cubs in November.
After trading Ramírez,, who was a pillar of the organization for 8 years, the Cubs are looking to Dominican shortstop Starlin Castro to become a star player for the team.
With few other moves in the offseason, the Cubs are rebuilding this year with their minor league prospects.
Since their 2010 NL Central division title, the Reds have struggled to maintain momentum. In the offseason, general manager Walt Jocketty focused on building a strong pitching staff. (Source)
Like the Cubs, the Reds are also working on developing their young minor league prospects.
Last season, the Pirates continued their long running tradition of finishing with a losing season for the 19th consecutive year.
In the offseason, the team acquired big name pitcher A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees, a deal the Pirates hoped could turn things around.
However, the team had some ill-fated luck when Burnett took a ball to the face during batting practice for a spring training game. The injury required surgery and will leave Burnett out of the line up for 2-3 months.
This is the final year the Astros will be battling in the NL Central. Next season, the team will be moving to the AL West to balance out the two leagues.
Since last season, the Astros have done a complete overhaul of their roster, leaving just two starting position players from opening day of 2011.
Under new owner Jim Crane, the team’s only two veterans, Panamanian Carlos Lee and Jason Bourgeois, are hoping to get a rhythm with their new teammates before moving to the American league.
Even with all these off-season moves, the NL Central is likely to have the same teams finishing on top. But as last season proved, you can never count a team out for good until October.
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