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The teams, questions and predictions heading into spring training.

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

On one hand, this division has lost a couple big sluggers, but on the other hand has gained some top arm pitchers. It will be a battle at the top for the best two or three teams, with mediocrity feeding at the bottom.


St. Louis Cardinals                      Predicted Finish – 1st

The most amazing World Series run of all-time was sobered during the off-season with the departure of three possible Hall-of-Famers in pitching coach Dave Duncan, manager Tony La Russa and first baseman Albert Pujols. However, the Cardinals did add a key bat, and they’re getting back their ace ‘Adam Wainwright,’ a top tier pitcher they missed all of last season despite their glorious championship.

The Questions:

Is Adam Wainwright 100%?

Wainwright told Baseball Tonight that he’s not even thinking of his arm on a daily basis. He’s more thinking along the lines of ‘what am I going to eat for breakfast?’ That’s a good sign.

Reports have also said that ‘if needed’ during the World Series back in October, Wainwright could have thrown. Catcher Yadier Molina says that he still has that killer 12-6 curve ball and his pitches hit his mitt with the great force of old. In short, he looks to be 100%, possibly better; which isn’t unheard of these days in regards to pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery.

Can they win without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa?

Not many took note of the Carlos Beltran signing, but look at what he did last year and you can see the Cardinals got him at a bargain price. Between playing with two teams, Beltran had a better on base percentage than Pujols last year, and more importantly, managed to stay healthy.

Now obviously I’m not saying that Beltran is going to replace the best player of the past decade. But what I am saying is that with emerging star Allen Craig being able to fill-in as utility man, Jon Jay in center (who hits for a great average), mixed in with all-stars Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, the Cardinals will be able to hit. With Wainwright and Carpenter leading the staff on the mound, I’m not worried about pitching.

The big question mark is new manager, Mike Matheny, who is in his first year at the helm, replacing La Russa.

Rundown: Not even mentioning top MLB prospect Shelby Miller making his debut this summer, and the Cardinals still look like they will have the best pitching in the division. With veteran leadership and one of the finest run front offices in the league, the Cardinals will make the adjustments necessary to win the division and make another playoff run.


Cincinnati Reds                Predicted finish – 2nd

The Reds have been ready to win ‘now’ for the past few seasons. With Joey Votto in his prime and trading for Matt Latos in the off-season, ‘now’ is 2012 more than ever.

The Questions:

Is Zack Cozart the real deal?

He’s been regarded as one of the Red’s best prospects, and they’ve been looking for a secure starting shortstop for years. Management hopes he’s the real deal and they’re going to give him a shot in 2012. He’s at the right age for a breakout, but only full time at-bats will tell.

Did the Reds do enough in the off-season?

Ryan Madson could be the solid closer they need, and they also brought in Latos from San Diego, who has shown flashes of being a top quality ace. While their lineup is set to hit a lot of home runs, I’m a little concerned about their starting rotation. After Latos and Johnny Cueto, it could get ugly real fast.

Rundown: Offense is going to be their strong hold. They will live and die by their pitching, and I still don’t trust Bronson Arroyo (5.07 ERA last year). The Reds will be competitive, but will most likely fall just short of the playoffs once again.


Milwaukee Brewers       Predicted Finish: 3rd

Losing Prince Fielder doesn’t tickle. If they lose MVP Ryan Braun for 50 games…that will be borderline painful. This team’s strength is the three-headed monster at the top of the rotation they’ll be counting on all season.


Is Ryan Braun suspended or not?

Talk about taking their time; that’s exactly what the arbitrator has been doing since December. Braun tested positive for a drug test this past winter and we’ve been waiting for about two months to see if he will serve a 50 game suspension to start the 2012 season. Word is that we should know within the next couple of weeks.

How do they replace Prince Fielder?

The Brewers have a similar situation to the Cardinals in that they have had to face the challenge of replacing a tremendous home run hitter. I feel St. Louis did a better job.

While they did sign Aramis Ramirez to play third base, Ramirez is a streaky player who has a poor career batting average away from Wrigley Field. Mat Gamel will get the start at first base. Gamel, once a top Milwauke prospect, has only hit .222 at the big league level. 2012 will be the 26 year old’s last shot.

Rundown: The trio of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum will determine this team’s success. If they pitch well, then they can contend. If even one falters, and Braun misses 50 games, it could be a long year for Brewers fans.

Pittsburgh Pirates          Predicted finish: 4th

The Pirates are trying to be a winning team for the first time since 1992. Yup, it’s been that long for the Bucs. 20 years later, Pittsburgh fans might finally have something to cheer for into the late summer months.


Will the signing of A.J. Burnett be a major factor?

Burnett claims that there were some factors in New York that distracted him from pitching to his maximum potential. I’m not so sure.

Burnett hasn’t had sub 4.00 ERA since 2007. He’s a strikeout guy, but gives up way too many walks and hits. In other words; he either strikes you out or you’re guaranteed to get on base. It’s one extreme or the other. Not good things.

With six pitchers already on the depth chart, I’ll be surprised if Burnett makes a major impact. It’s likely he’ll be the fifth starter at best. Consider this a ‘nothing to lose’ type move, similar to what Billy Beane did on Monday signing Manny Ramirez to the Oakland Athletics.

Will Pedro Alvarez rebound?

Everyone is craving the answer to this question. Coming out of Vanderbilt a few years ago, Alvarez was one of the top prospects in baseball. He debuted in 2010 and hit 16 bombs in just over a half-season, seemingly living up to his potential right away. In 2011, a year full of injuries and an incredibly high strikeout rate, he hit .191. Major burn.

He’ll get the first crack at the starting third base job on Opening Day, but the Pirates have hired Casey McGehee as a backup just in case he can’t produce.

Rundown: The Pirates have a decent bullpen and their starting rotation isn’t bad at all. Jeff Karstens shocked a lot of people last year and if Erik Bedard can stay off the DL, he is a lock for an ERA under 4.00. Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen are also incredible power/speed threats in the outfield. If this team gets hot, don’t look now, but they could make a playoff push.


Houston Astros                Predicted Finish: 5th

They’ve been in rebuilding mode since the retirement of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, but they’ve done a great job at making the right moves and developing the talent they’ve got in return—that talent seems to be ready to make some impact.


Who’s ready to make the jump?

There is a ton of youth on this team that could provide a great impact in 2012, but watch specifically for J.D. Martinez in left field. Scouts love the 24 year old’s raw talent. He hit .274 in a brief call-up at the end up last year. He could be ready for a breakout year.

Also keep an eye on Jason Bourgeois, who could steal about 800 bases if he gets on base enough. Jimmy Paredes, who hit .286 during his call-up last year, is regarded as a hot topic of discussion at third base as well.

Rundown: They don’t have that ‘ace’ at the top of the rotation, but Bud Norris, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers are no pushovers. Jordan Lyles is also a prospect with lots of promise who could win some games this year. If the younger lineup hits and Carlos Lee has one more good year left in him, Houston could win some games this year. I definitely see an improvement from last year’s 56-win squad.


Chicago Cubs                    Predicted Finish: 6th

Theo Epstein has his hands full. In complete rebuilding mode, the Cubs shed a lot of cash this winter, but also failed to make a big acquisition.


Is Anthony Rizzo the savior?

Possibly in the future, but not in 2012. The kid was about the only addition this winter, and still has a lot of grooming to do. He probably won’t get a full season of at-bats with Bryan LaHair at the top of the depth chart at first base right now. Still, Rizzo is no Prince or Pujols, and that’s what many Cubs fans were hoping to get this winter.

Is the outfield too old?

Alfonso Soriano (36), Marlon Byrd (34), David Dejesus (32) ; they’re not the young pups they used to be.

Good news is they will provide veteran leadership and some consistency. Marlon Byrd, get this, actually shed 40 pounds this off-season as well. Being lean and agile might help a center fielder with his craft.

Bad news is that just about every team in the major leagues has an outfield just as good, and most are younger.

Rundown: Matt Garza and Starlin Castro need to have stellar years to give the Cubs simply a chance of competing. Ryan Dempster had an awful 2011. He needs to rebound to his 2008 self (2.96 ERA). Every other position might need some work.

This team could surprise a lot of people and be competitive if the youth step up and the veterans return to old form. But this is also a team that could show their ‘rebuilding growing pains’ and finish dead last.

More good news: with Epstein in the front office and new manager Dale Sveum, they’re headed in the right direction.