NL Central 2011 Preview: Burning Questions

March 28, 2011, 4:40 AM

The Milwaukee Brewers’ Big 3 of Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum are a pretty solid front three, but are they enough to dethrone the Reds in the Central?

The Brewers bet the future is now by sending prospects to Royals for 2009 A.L. Cy Young Award winner Greinke and top prospect Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for Marcum.

The deals instantly made Milwaukee worthy of playoff contender status. I use the past tense because Marcum pulled himself from a March 17 start complaining of shoulder tightness, while Zack Greinke has been placed on the 15-day DL retroactive to Mar. 22 after revealing that he broke a rib playing pickup basketball in the off-season.

It’s not exactly the way general manager Doug Melvin and his assistant Gord Ash envisioned their spring unfolding.

If healthy, yes, the threesome has the potential to win 50+ games between them launching the Brewers to the top of the division. And when you factor in the Brewers’ booming offence built around Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks, it’s not hard to see why expectations are high for this team in 2011.

Poor health can cut down the best of teams, so it’s fingers crossed in the land of cheese and bratwurst.

Can Joey Votto make another Triple Crown run in 2011?

I guess there’s always a chance that someone will capture the Triple Crown, something that hasn’t happened in the National League since 1937 when Joe (Ducky) Medwick turned the trick.

I can’t imagine that Toronto-born Votto – the reigning N.L. MVP – could possibly top his 2010 season in which he hit .324 (2nd in N.L.) with 37 home runs (3rd) and 113 RBI (3rd). Plus, one must factor in that Pujols will be playing for his next contract and Albert might be the more prudent pick to lead all three offensive categories.

Everything seemingly clicked for Votto last season, coming off a troubled 2009 season following the death of his father and subsequent struggle with anxiety.

For Votto to challenge again for the Triple Crown, he’ll need some protection in the Reds lineup from the likes of Jay Bruce, Jonny Gomes and Scott Rolen.

If those three don’t produce, Votto will be pitched around at every opportunity.

If not already, when will Albert Pujols’ expiring contract become a distraction for St. Louis?

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa can put whatever spin he wants on this all spring long, but this will become a bigger distraction as the season rolls along and he faces the local media in each town the Cardinals visit.

Since arriving in the Majors in 2001, Pujols has been the most consistent all-around player in the game, averaging a .331 batting average with 44 doubles, 42 home runs and 128 RBI per season, with an MLB-best 1.050 OPS over the last decade.

Pujols is a three-time NL MVP, a nine-time all-star, a two-time Gold Glove first baseman and he has finished in the top 10 of the N.L. batting race in every season with the Cards.

Quite simply, he’s the best player of his generation and for that, Pujols should be the highest paid player in the game.

But at 31, and having already banked in excess of $105.5 million by the time his current deal expires at the end of 2011, a salary demand of $30 million per season over the next 10 years might be a little too high for any team’s taste.

With the usual big spenders (see Yankees, Red Sox) already set at first base, the Angels might be the only team left to make an offer that high.

Stay tuned on this one.

With the Cardinals losing ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery, can an ageing, injury-prone Chris Carpenter carry the load once again?

To say that this was a serious blow to the perennial playoff contenders is an understatement. With a salary of just $6.5 million this season, there is no better value in the game than Wainwright, who’s 39 wins over the past two seasons is tops in the National League.

He blew out his elbow at the beginning of training camp and will not pitch again until well into 2012.

Carpenter will have to shoulder the load despite turning 36 in late April and coming off a 235-inning season in ’09. LaRussa has leaned heavily on the big right-hander before, but the risk is far higher now. Carpenter has made 63 starts over the past two seasons after missing almost all of 2007-08 (five total appearances) due to elbow reconstruction and shoulder soreness.

With the rest of the St. Louis rotation consisting of Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan, the Cardinals season could easily come undone in a hurry.

What affect a middling Cardinals team would have on the Pujols conundrum remains to be seen.

What can we expect from Pittsburgh and Houston?

These are trying times for a pair of franchises that have seen plenty of playoff baseball over their respective histories.

The Astros participated in the post-season six times over a nine-year stretch from 1997-2005. As for the Pirates, they made three straight playoff appearances to start the ’90s but haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds bolted for the Bay Area following their heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 NLCS.

Since then, the Bucs are exactly 400 games under .500 and there is no end in sight for baseball’s worst team.

New Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle has his hands full trying to right this once-proud franchise.

The Astros had one of the oldest rosters through the past decade before stripping it down prior to last season under manager Brad Mills, who apprenticed as Terry Francona’s bench coach in Boston.

Despite having perennial 100+ RBI man Carlos (El Caballo) Lee in the middle of the lineup, the Astros had trouble plating runs and were outscored 729-611 a year ago.

More of the same is expected this season.

STATSMAN’S NON-BINDING PREDICTION IN THE AL WEST

CINCINNATI

ST. LOUIS

MILWAUKEE

CHICAGO

HOUSTON

PITTSBURGH

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