Two Questions: NL Central

EJSIC’s baseball preview travels to the Midwest where the largest division in Major League Baseball resides. It is the National League Central.

Chicago Cubs

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1. Can they bounce back? The Cubs were the preseason favorites to win their third straight Central division title last year, but they were horrible. They did not even challenge the rival Cardinals down the stretch. But manager Lou Piniella is looking for resurgences from Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto, and ace Carlos Zambrano. All three will need a strong 2010 campaign to keep the Cubs in the race.

2. Does the departure of Milton Bradley help? Bradley is a talented player, but he never fit in Chicago. The fans booed him, he struggled hitting in the National League, etc. He’s gone to Seattle now which brings up the question of team chemistry. Will the Cubs be better without him?

Cincinnati Reds

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1. Will the Reds offense come through? General Manager Walt Jockety made a few moves in the off-season, mainly focusing on position players. Orlando Cabrera will be the everyday Short Stop and the disappointing Willy Taveras is gone. The Reds will be relying on Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Phillips to provide the power in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

2. Will Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman pitch in the majors this season? The Reds outbid the big market teams for the lefty phenom. There is still a possibility that Chapman may make the starting rotation out of Spring Training, but it seems more certain that he’ll start in the minors. His outings during the spring have been solid though. If he does make his debut before June, I’ve got August 15th as the day his arm falls off due to manager Dusty Baker overusing him.

Houston Astros

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1. What does Roy Oswalt have left? Oswalt has been the Astros ace for the past few seasons, but 2009 was a career worst for him. Some questioned if the heavy workload was finally hurting him. Oswalt can regain his status as a dominant pitcher with a good season in 2010.

2. Do the Astros have enough offense to compete in the division? Miguel Tejada has returned to Baltimore and Lance Berkman is entering the last guaranteed season of his contract. Berkman is also coming off the worst season of his career. The Astros will be counting on Berkman’s bat to return as well as a bounce back from LF Carlos Lee. Hunter Pence’s continued development into a power hitter is also something to watch.

Milwaukee Brewers

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1. Is Randy Wolf enough to improve the rotation? The Brewers have a future ace in Yovani Gallardo, but the rest of the rotation was horrible last season. Wolf was brought in to be a veteran presence. The Brewers also traded for Doug Davis from Arizona to strengthen the rotation.

2. Does Corey Hart return to form? Right fielder Hart was an all-star a few seasons ago, but he struggled in 2009. He’s not a dominating player, but he’s very solid. He fields his position well, he can hit for power or percentage, etc. The Brewers are a better team when he’s on his game. He provides protection for Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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1. How good can Andrew McCutchen be? The Pirates center fielder was dynamic last season as a rookie in 108 games. Now that he’s got some experience and a full season ahead, the guy will delight fans in the Steel City. He’s a five tool player who will soon be a perennial all-star.

2. Can the Pirates finish above .500? They haven’t accomplished that feat in an American professional sports record in 17 years. That’s right, no American professional team has endured as many consecutive losing seasons as the Pirates. They have a good enough lineup to accomplish the goal, but pitching will determine their outcome.

St. Louis Cardinals

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1. Can the Cardinals reach the World Series? St. Louis is the only NL Central team with championship aspirations at this point in the season and rightfully so. They have Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball, Matt Holliday inked a 7 year deal in the off-season to stay, the Cards boast two aces in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and, finally, they have one of the best managers ever. The Cardinals know the season is long, but they’re on the short list of pennant contenders.

2. Will McGwire fanfare distract the team? Former slugger Mark McGwire was hired to be the Cardinal’s hitting coach in the off-season. In accepting the job, McGwire also had to come clean about his steroid use. So far, the McGwire fanfare has been quiet. But will that continue throughout the season? He’s sure to face questions outside of St. Louis (most notably in New York). Will it be a distraction?

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