(BaseballStL) -- The baseball world was shocked when two NL Central teams made the playoffs this season and then when one of those teams, the St. Louis Cardinals, won the World Series. Should baseball fans expect the unexpected in 2012? Who will be atop the NL Central come September?
1. St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals may have lost Albert Pujols in free agency, but they have made significant steps to replace him during this offseason. I applaud the re-signing of Rafael Furcal based solely on his defense and believe he can still be a valuable hitter. The Cardinals will also get ace pitcher Adam Wainwright back this season. The Cardinals also added Carlos Beltran to patrol the outfield now that Lance Berkman is moving to first base and Allen Craig is out for the beginning of the season.
2. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds and Brewers will likely battle for second for most of the season. The Reds will need their starting pitching to improve for any chance at making the playoffs as a wild card, but the nucleus of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce is still around. You can expect the Reds to be sellers at the trade deadline if the team is far out in July.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are expected to lose free agent first baseman Prince Fielder (Washington Nationals appear to be front-runners) and outfielder Ryan Braun has to serve a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test (sources believe his appeal will be denied). The Brewers have added Aramis Ramirez and retain their starting pitching staff along with Francisco Rodriguez. The major problem that might keep the Brew Crew from contending is their bench.
4. Chicago Cubs
I expect the Cubs to come out of the gates pretty strong under new manager Dave Sveum, but the team does not have enough staying-power to last deep into the season. The only excitement I see from the Cubs this season is from the team’s shortstop Starlin Castro. You can expect at some point that Alfonso Soriano will likely make a few gaffes in the outfield and struggle at the plate. His frustrations will hopefully not become the team’s frustrations if they want to have a chance to stick around the top.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
It was an exciting year for Pirates fans who saw their team still in it during July. It had been a long time that the organization was near the top of the NL Central that late into the season. I really want to see the Pirates relevant in September, but the young team still needs some experience to start succeeding. The Pirates will be entertaining to watch with Andrew McCutchen and Alex Presley, but the team will need a lot more players to take charge.
6. Houston Astros
Not much to say here. It will be an ugly final season in the NL for Astros fans, but the team can only improve...especially with the addition of general manager Jeff Luhnow. The team’s biggest power threat, Carlos Lee, is on the back end of his career and the rest of the lineup is inexperienced. It will be a plus if this team is not in the NL Central or the league’s cellar at the end of the year.
by Scott Bierman, BaseballStL