For the past several seasons, most people felt the National League Central was the St. Louis Cardinals and "everyone else." However, since the 2005 season, every team in the division has appeared in the playoffs with the exception of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cincinnati Reds finally broke through in 2010 to win the division after being a dark-horse pick for many years by fans and critics alike. The Reds now become the hunted, quite a big change from being the hunters in previous seasons.
The Milwaukee Brewers finished a distant third behind the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals in 2010. GM Doug Melvin spent the winter improving one of the worst rotations in baseball by adding Shaun Marcum and 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner, Zack Greinke.
Just as important, Melvin didn't trade Prince Fielder, which keeps the Brewers offense strong heading into 2011.
The Reds were quiet to begin the off-season but have recently made noise with the signings of World Series MVP, Edgar Renteria and reserve outfielder Fred Lewis.
Were the moves made by Milwaukee enough to compete with the Reds in 2011, or are the Reds still the class of the division?
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the two teams with Spring Training just over a month away:
Statistically, the Reds far outperformed the Brewers last year but Greinke and Marcum make a huge difference going forward.
The Reds rotation features six almost interchangeable parts. Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood and Mike Leake provide the Reds with great depth and potential greatness. While I think as a whole they are deeper than Milwaukee's group of Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson, I think the Brewers' top three surpass any top three the Reds could put together.
That's not discounting the talent of the Reds' hurlers, but Greinke has won a Cy Young and Marcum put up good numbers in the ultra-competitive AL East, while Gallardo has posted back-to-back 200-plus strikeout seasons.
For 2011 I'd pick the Brewers' rotation, but I think a year or two out that the Reds will prove to have the better group.
Dusty Baker does have the luxury of calling on Aroldis Chapman in case of injury, something that the Brewers can't do. Manager Ron Roenicke would likely look toward prospect Mark Rogers should anyone go down for any significant amount of time.
Slight advantage to the Brewers.
Speaking of the hard-throwing Cuban, Chapman will indeed start the season in the bullpen for Cincy. He'll serve as the primary set-up man for closer Francisco Cordero.
Cordero finished the year with 40 saves and a 3.84 ERA in 75 games. Bill Bray, Nick Masset and Logan Ondrusek all performed well for the Reds last year and will be vital to the team's success this year.
John Axford came out of nowhere for the Brewers last year to save 24 of 27 games after Trevor Hoffman faltered. Takashi Saito was signed recently to serve as the eighth inning man, but he won't be able to pitch in back-to-back games due to age and previous injuries.
LaTroy Hawkins will also serve as a set-up man if he can rebound from injuries and a poor 2010. Zach Braddock, Kameron Loe and Mike McClendon had nice seasons, but will they be able to repeat their successes this year?
The Brewers are hoping a lot of things go right for their bullpen while the Reds have an established pen that will keep most of the leads they enter the eighth inning with.
Large advantage to the Reds.
Defense and Bench
With the trades the Brewers made, they traded away some great prospects and young players that were key to the future of the team. Alcides Escobar started the entire season at shortstop, while Lorenzo Cain had a very good September in center field. Many felt Cain would be the starter going forward for the team.
Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez will now serve as the starters at short and center. Chris Dickerson will split time with Gomez in center and Craig Counsell will (again) serve as a super-utility player off the bench. At some point, age will catch up with Counsell but hopefully it won't be this year.
Defensively, only Gomez would be considered an above-average fielder.
Signing Edgar Renteria and Fred Lewis give the Reds a very good, deep bench. Renteria, along with Miguel Cairo, give the Reds great versatility and two veteran bats. Lewis can play any outfield spot. Chris Heisey and top prospect Yonder Alonso will also see time off the bench in 2011.
The Reds had 39 fewer errors than the Brewers in 2010 and were better than Milwaukee in almost any defensive category used.
Large advantage to the Reds.
Again, at least statistically, the Reds were better than the Brewers in 2010. They scored 40 more runs and their team batting average was 10 points higher than Milwaukee.
However, all that happened with Prince Fielder having the worst year of his career. Don't count on him repeating that in 2011.
Joey Votto has a better career batting average than Fielder (also an MVP trophy on his mantle), but I think they are a push offensively. With Fielder in his final year before free agency, most feel he'll put up MVP-like numbers, which will significantly enhance Milwaukee's offense.
Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks are very similar players as well. They both hit for power and have above average speed. Weeks finally played an entire season and showed he can play at an All-Star level when healthy.
Betancourt put up career-high power numbers last year in Kansas City but no one should be counting on that type of production for the Brewers. He and Paul Janish are similar players. Each will hit around .260 with single-digit home run totals.
Scott Rolen had a nice season offensively for the Reds and is still a Gold Glove-level defender. Casey McGehee turned into a very good hitter for the Brewers, coming through time after time when teams pitched around Fielder. Rolen will turn 36 early in the season. Can he continue to put up good numbers at the plate? If he can, the Reds offense will continue to roll. If he begins to show his age, the offense may sputter.
Even with the gap defensively, I'd still take McGehee for the 2011 season; his bat is that good.
Jonny Gomes had a career year for the Reds, finally getting a chance to be a full-time starter. Ryan Braun's numbers have steadily decreased since he won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007, but he's still an All-Star level player. He's averaged 32 home runs and 105 RBI his first four years in the league. With respect to Gomes, he's not nearly the player Braun is.
Drew Stubbs had a very nice first year as a starter. Although he hit just .255, he stole 30 bases and hit 22 home runs. The Brewers can only dream of getting that type of production from the Gomez/Dickerson duo. Gomez is still young enough (25) to turn his career around but until he learns some plate discipline, he'll serve as a black hole for the Brewers' batting order.
Right field is a great battle between the two teams.
Jay Bruce has hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first three seasons. Corey Hart has accomplished that feat three times as well in his career, along with two seasons of 20-plus stolen bases. Hart has also been an All-Star twice, including last season. Each player has signed a long-term deal with their respective teams within the past six months.
Jonathan Lucroy was thrown into the fire behind the plate for the Brewers last year after Gregg Zaun was lost for the season. He hit only .253 with four home runs. Entering the year as the entrenched starter should serve his confidence well and his numbers should improve this year.
The combination of Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan put up very good numbers for the Reds. The duo is effective not only at the plate but handling the pitching staff as well. Behind Yadier Molina of the Cardinals, the Reds probably has the best catching unit in the division.
Small advantage to the Brewers...based mainly on the projected Prince Fielder turnaround.
Whether you like him or not, Dusty Baker is one of the best managers in the game. He has the reputation for ruining young arms, and if he does that this year in Cincinnati, they could be doomed. However, I think he has a strong enough bullpen that he won't rely so heavily on his starters. He's never managed a team to back-to-back first place finishes, but this group definitely has the talent to get the job done.
Ron Roenicke is entering his first season as a big league manager. He's coming to the Brewers from Mike Scioscia's staff in Los Angeles. He has a big task in front of him to try and turn the Brewers back into playoff contenders. He has stated he'll have his team be more aggressive at the plate and on the bases, something many people criticized former manager Ken Macha of not doing.
Large advantage to the Reds.
While the Brewers may have the household names like Braun, Fielder and Greinke, the Reds have the defending MVP (Votto), a great, young pitching staff and most importantly they are the defending division champs.
The Brewers have done a great job closing the gap on the Reds, but I still see the Reds as the favorites entering the season. The Brewers still need to improve their bench and bullpen (both can be easily done throughout the season) before they can seriously view themselves as a threat to the Reds.
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