To say that the NL Central has been weak lately is a bit of an understatement. Over the last five years, the six-team division had more 99-loss clubs (two) than 92-win teams (one, the 2008 Cubs, who won 97 games).

But Midwestern fans have reasons for hope in 2011. With the reigning MVP, the best player in the game, and a host of talented pitching staffs, including the league's single biggest off-season splash, the National League Central should prove to be a very exciting division this year.

Here is how PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus' proprietary projection system, expects the Central to shake out in 2011.


St. Louis Cardinals: 87-75 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: When you boast one of the league's top 3-4 combos in your lineup (Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols) and one of the league's top 1-2 combos in your rotation (Adam Wainwight and Chris Carpenter), you're always going to be considered a favorite in your division. Typically strong years from those four stalwarts will have the Cardinals contending late into September.

Why They Might Not Win: Lance Berkman, who hasn't played in the outfield since 2007 and whose body type doesn't exactly scream "spry and agile," will be the everyday starter in right field. There will always be questions about the 36-year-old Carpenter's ability to stay healthy as he ages, despite his 35 starts in 2010.

Player Who Could Surprise: Berkman may not be the right answer defensively, but his bat should be a welcome lineup addition. Despite Berkman's inauspicious tour in pinstripes last year, PECOTA sees good things for him in 2011, projecting a .380 on-base percentage, .456 slugging percentage, and 22 home runs. The only non-Pujols player on the team to project better than Berkman is Matt Holliday.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Jake Westbrook, currently penciled in behind the co-aces of Wainwright and Carpenter, is projected to put up a 4.27 ERA with only 72 strikeouts and 12 home runs allowed (in 126 innings pitched). While not horrible, it may be less than the Busch Stadium faithful are hoping for.


Milwaukee Brewers: 85-77 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin surprised everybody over the winter by not only hanging onto Prince Fielder but also emptying the farm system to trade for two top-of-the-rotation starters in Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. After adding those two to Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Braun and the rest of the Brewers offense, Milwaukee expects to do big things this year.

Why They Might Not Win: In 2010, the Brewers had two glaring weaknesses: pitching and defense. The off-season trades addressed the pitching problem in a big way. The defense, however, got worse, which could prove to be a real problem if things get out of hand.

Player Who Could Surprise: PECOTA gives the 29-year-old Marcum a 47% chance to improve on his excellent 2010 season, after a 2009 missed to Tommy John surgery.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Corey Hart signed a three-year, $26.5 million contract extension last year before ending the 2010 season with 31 home runs, 102 runs batted in, and a .283 batting average. PECOTA projects Hart's 2011 season to be a little more in line with the rest of his career, with 21 home runs, 75 runs batted in, and a .271 average.


Cincinnati Reds: 81-81 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Joey Votto's 2010 Most Valuable Player award was not undeserved. With his continued improvement alongside a lineup that scored the most runs in the National League in 2010, the Reds are in decent shape to defend their division title.

Why They Might Not Win: While a rotation with Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Mike Leake is nothing to be embarrassed about, it can't compare with Cincinnati's chief division rivals. In a big division like the Central, this could prove fatal.

Player Who Could Surprise: In his brief September cameo, Aroldis Chapman flashed a 105-mph fastball. PECOTA foresees more of the same for Chapman in 2011, projecting 129 strikeouts for the flamethrowing Cuban in only 108 innings pitched.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Often, the biggest disappointments come from players who surprised the year before. Mike Leake falls into that category; after his strong rookie campaign, he's projected for a 4.88 ERA with only 92 strikeouts in 140 innings pitched.


Chicago Cubs: 80-82 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: The Cubs have two bright young stars in shortstop Starlin Castro and catcher Geovany Soto. After a textbook sophomore slump in 2009, Soto bounced back in 2010. The 21-year-old Castro will look to avoid a slump of his own after a strong rookie season. With bounceback years from Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, and the newly arrived Matt Garza, the Cubs certainly have the pieces to challenge.

Why They Might Not Win: Aramis Ramirez will be 33 in 2011 and looked absolutely terrible last year before hitting the disabled list. Though he was eventually able to pull his numbers above the Mendoza line, his age and recent injury history are cause for concern.

Player Who Could Surprise: Playing first base for Tampa Bay last year, Carlos Pena finished the season with a .196 batting average, but slugged 28 home runs and knocked in 84 runs. His projections for 2011 are much more optimistic, with PECOTA projecting a .230 batting average and .355 on-base percentage with 31 home runs.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Matt Garza comes to Chicago from the Rays at the expense of two of the Cubs' top prospects. If PECOTA's projections for Garza turn out to be true—a 4.15 ERA with 154 strikeouts and 23 home runs allowed—Cubs fans won't be too happy with the price they paid.


Pittsburgh Pirates: 71-91 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Neil Walker are all young talents to be excited about. And with Walker the eldest of the three at only 25 years old, the trio should just keep getting better.

Why They Might Not Win:The 2010 Pirates lost 105 games. Even if McCutchen et al. improve to All-Star caliber in 2011, the team still has weaknesses on the mound, in the bullpen, and around the diamond.

Player Who Could Surprise: Traded from the Dodgers to the Pirates last July, James MacDonald put together a solid two months in Pittsburgh, with a 3.52 ERA in 11 starts. PECOTA projects MacDonald to be Pittsburgh's best pitcher, with a 4.34 ERA and 108 strikeouts in only 20 games.

Player Who Could Disappoint: PECOTA does not like Neil Walker's high batting average (.340) on balls in play in 2010. Walker's luck is projected to come back down to earth, leaving his stats a more middle-infielderish .255/.306/.415.


Houston Astros: 68-94 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Wandy Rodriguez is an underrated starting pitcher, having posted excellent ERAs three years running. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are good young outfielders who any team would be happy to have.

Why They Might Not Win: Neither of the Astros' two new infield acquisitions, Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, would be starters on a typical playoff team. Carlos Lee put up one of the worst seasons in baseball in 2010, and with his age, size, and skills, there's little reason to expect a big rebound.

Player Who Could Surprise: For the Mariners last year, Ryan Rowland-Smith posted an underwhelming 1-10 record and 6.75 ERA. PECOTA sees the change in scenery as positive for Rowland-Smith, projecting a 6-7 record and a 4.78 ERA if the Aussie can crack the rotation.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Hall's one-year contract is cheap enough that it won't ruin Houston's payroll if he doesn't live up to expectations. Which is good, because PECOTA projects a mediocre .223/.290/.391 season from Hall as Houston's starting second baseman.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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Wouldn't it be more appropriate for the Astros' entry on the "Why They Might Win" column to read something like "The planes carrying the other five teams' major-league squads might crash, forcing them to play callups from AAA"? Really, that looks like the best shot this team has this year.
They also could have had some good luck at the Zoltar machine on the Jersey shore this winter. You never know...
Southern Texas could be reconquisted by Mexico, and this team has a decent in the Mexican leagues?
"...including the league's single biggest offseason splash..." I'm assuming this is in reference to the Zack Greinke trade, but I'd argue that the Cliff Lee signing by the Phillies was bigger.
Lee had to sign with someone, and you knew it would be a contender. Greinke was not definitely going to be moved during the offseason, and no one particularly expected Milwaukee to get him.
I hope PECOTA is wrong about the Reds, because a slide back to .500 baseball could be devastating to a fanbase that is just beginning to hope again. I think any regression of Mike Leake can be made up for by more innings from the good Homer Bailey. I feel so sorry for Astro's fans. What a mess.
Don't feel sorry for Astros fans. They went 44-37 the second half without Berkman or Oswalt, and should surprise a lot of folks.
For me, the most striking projection is Drew Stubbs. At age 26 and seemingly ready to come into his own, he is projected to see his OPS nosedive from .773 to .696. It's certainly possible, but I think a jump to .800-plus is far more likely. I also see the Reds winning between 88-92 games.
No kidding. PECOTA sees pretty substantial steps backwards for every single young Red. Regression to the mean is one thing, but ouch! Jay Bruce is the one who looks most underrated to me. PECOTA just doesn't seem to like the guys who are quite young -- Evan Longoria had a similar issue.
I'll go with PECOTA on the Reds. They had a remarkably healthy season last year, did they not? And just about the whole team had a good year, some W-E-L-L! above anything they'd ever done before or at all recently (Votto, Stubbs, Gomes, Rolen, Hernandez, Rhodes, Hanigan; can add in Arroyo, Cueto and Bruce there, too). Reds are Plexiglassing back under .500.
For what it's worth, I wouldn't project Leake into the Cincy rotation to start the year. Likely to be Cueto/Volquez/Arroyo and then Wood and Bailey. Both Wood and Bailey have had their innings built up steadily, Wood had really nice success last year, and Bailey peripherals were nice and masked by his ERA. Plus, Bailey is out of options. I would guess Leake to AAA to build up his innings.
To me, this all looks right in broad outline. Three-way traffic jam at the top, with St. Louis still a nose ahead of the others (I think the Reds will see more reversion to the mean than PECOTA does, but it's arguable); Cubs in limbo; Pirates improving but still bad; Houston, well, screwed. I do think, however, that the summed division W-L percentage may be a bit better than these rankings imply. The gains to the division (Greinke, Marcum, etc.) count for more there than the losses do.