This time last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were picked by just about everyone to win the NL Central with little trouble. They had just signed Matt Holliday to the richest contract in franchise history, Brad Penny was added to round out the rotation, and they were the defending division champs. No other teams made huge moves before 2010 to try to catch the Cards. Some picked the Cincinnati Reds as a dark horse candidate, but that was about the extent of the legitimate threats. The NL Central was the Cardinals’ to win or lose.
And we all know how that turned out.
Fast-forward one year. The Cards made a lot of moves early to shore up the 2011 club in anticipation of spending this part of the offseason trying to re-sign Albert Pujols. It was a smart move, because that’s exactly what is happening: this week the team announced they have re-opened talks with the legend’s agent, and things are moving in a positive direction. That’s great news for Cardinal Nation. But after that piece of business is taken care of, the question remains: will it be enough?
The division champion Cincinnati Reds had little to do this offseason. A piece here and a piece there was really all the tweaking needed…most of their 2010 club is returning and healthy. So they could be counted on as, at the very least, co-favorites for the 2011 crown with the Cards before the Hot Stove proceedings really got underway. When the Cards re-signed Jake Westbrook, the team appeared to have the best rotation—on paper, of course—in the division. Add offensive upgrades in Ryan Theriot and Lance Berkman, and the Cards were poised to take the Central back from the Reds in 2011.
But the Theriot and Berkman additions are not all they seem. Theriot was added at the expense of Brendan Ryan’s incomparable defense, effectively weakening the Cards’ middle infield (and possibly their entire pitch-to-contact staff). Berkman will be asked to play a full season in the outfield for the first time since 2004, and he has recent injury issues to go with his advancing age. Perhaps it was these perceived weaknesses and a belief the Reds could be prone to a regression that led some of the other teams in the Central to ask, “Hey…why can’t we compete with these guys?”
First, the Milwaukee Brewers got busy revamping their god-awful rotation and acquired Shawn Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays. Then they surprised everyone by trading for former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, sending some of their best young talent to the Kansas City Royals in return. These bold moves instantly thrust the Brewers into the conversation about who would win the division this year. The Brewers have always been able to hit, and now apparently they can pitch, too.
Not to be outdone, the Chicago Cubs went out and got the lefty power bat they’ve craved for so long in Carlos Pena. They also added a rejuvenated Kerry Wood to their bullpen. But the Cubs have lots of problems too, and were believed to be rebuilding while they wait out the terrible contracts of Alphonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Carlos Zambrano. Still, the rumors persisted, and finally Chicago decided to make some noise in the NL Central projections Friday by trading half their farm system to the Tampa Bay Rays for RHP Matt Garza. Suddenly they have a deep rotation to go with a deep bullpen. If their head cases can keep their cool, the Cubs will not be a pushover in 2011.
The Brewers and the Cubs obviously see an opportunity this season; why else would they trade away so many young, cheap players for veterans? These teams are not without their flaws, to be sure, but they look a heck of a lot better than they did last season. The Reds look to be just about as good as they did last year. Even the Astros cannot be completely dismissed; they have a young lineup, but their rotation of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, JA Happ, and Bud Norris is decent at worst. No, this is not the new AL East. But it certainly does not look like the same old NL Central, either.
After taking all that in, how much better do the Cardinals look this year than last? Can they compete in a four team dogfight for the NL Central crown? Maybe John Mozeliak better speed up the Pujols negotiations a little…he might have some more work to do for 2011.